How the story went on
After much preparation, a memorial plaque was unveiled on 14 March 2003 at the house where the former children’s home had been located. Gideon B., from Israel, took part in the ceremony to represent the survivors. Children from the nearby primary school recalled the murdered children; friends of mine and some of those who currently work in the house read the names of the adults who had not survived the Shoa. It was a moving event, attended by many people. I thought that it marked the end of my work. However, events took a different course.
One week before 14 March 2003, a very excited caller phoned me from Israel. Frau Gross, the daughter of the photographer Abraham Pisarek, had sent the brochure with the material I had collected to friends of hers in Israel, who she knew had also lived in the children’s home. She also knew, however, how traumatic their memories of their time in Berlin were and she had hesitated for a long time before telling them about my research project. But now, to my great pleasure, the first contact was made. I immediately heard a great feeling of relief. Regina St. and Ruth M. would have loved to catch the first plane to be present at the unveiling of the plaque. That was not possible, but they wrote me a long letter which I read out. I know now that it was a great relief and joy to them that we in Berlin have not forgotten the teachers, carers and friends who were so important to them and that those who were murdered have not disappeared into anonymity.
At the same time, I also heard that Sylvia Wagenberg, who was listed in the files as “missing”, and by whose name I had the note: “did not survive the camp” in the exhibition, was also living in Tel Aviv in Israel. I am very glad to be able to correct my information on this point, but on the other hand I heard of four children from the home whom I had not known of. These children were all killed. I had to correct the information here too.
During the summer, the three women in Israel wrote down their memories of the children’s home and their lives in the nineteen-thirties and forties. Sylvia Wagenberg/Shulamit Khalef was already very ill and talked about her memories with her friend Regina Anders/St., who wrote them down for her. So I was able to include these new biographies in my documentation. Frau Khalef died soon after completing her memoirs.
These three women were all in the children’s home at Fehrbelliner Strasse from 1940 to 1942. Like most of the children in the home, they had been made orphans by the Nazi persecution. Some parents had emigrated and had to leave their children behind in Berlin. I found it almost unbearable to imagine that the parents could go into exile but that this was forbidden for their children. All of them certainly tried to enable their children to follow them, but after a certain point it was no longer possible to leave.
The longer the Nazi persecution lasted, the more life in and the spirit of the children’s home changed. In the early years around 1920, Jacob Herfeld describes the home as not religious and very liberal. Life in the home did not follow Jewish rituals closely. The new memoirs sounded a different note. Jewish religion, tradition and culture became increasingly important, for they bound the people who were persecuted because of them even more closely together. People who had previously lived normal lives, integrated into the German culture, now wanted and tried to find out more about their Jewish background which had hitherto been unimportant to them. I found it very moving to read of the eagerness and commitment of the teachers and pupils at school and how the carers in the home maintained the daily rituals, thus preserving for as long as possible a sense of normality for the children, at a time when nothing was really normal any more for Jewish people. There was so much human kindness in these reports!
The information about what the children had experienced after the children’s home was closed was quite new to me. Ruth and Regina Anders and Sylvia Wagenberg did not want to go to the large Auerbach’s orphanage and found other accommodation, which they did on their own initiative. Sylvia Wagenberg must have called her guardian herself too. How mature these children were, how independent they had to be to save their own lives. All three had to do forced labour at the ages of 12 or 14. They went through the nights of air raids, hunger, and violence in the streets. Sylvia Wagenberg and her older sister were eventually deported to Auschwitz on one of the Transports, while the Anders twins were actually released from the collecting point in the Grosse Hamburger Strasse, with the help of non-Jewish relations, and had to conceal their Jewish connections for the last months of the war.
All three emigrated to Israel soon after the end of the war and started a new life under very difficult conditions; they have married and have children and grandchildren. Many conversations with Frau St. that autumn showed me how the old wounds still ache. Visits to the children’s home, accompanied by Gideon B. and Regina St., have taught me to see the house quite differently. Now when I sit in the library on the third floor I can imagine the children on their folding beds, or taking books from the shelves and sitting at the tables to do their homework. Frau St. described it for us so vividly on her visits in October 2003 and September 2004. There are no books at all nowadays in the room which is known as the library, but somehow the name has survived. Regina St. brought some more photos from her collection and could give names to the children and adults pictured. This is how I acquired the photo of Tolja Grajonza, who was one of those killed.
It is so important that we who live in Berlin and Germany today do not forget the people who were murdered by the Nazi regime. Our memories create a bridge and I hope that the survivors’ memories are a little less painful.