by Irene Beyer
How did I get to know Avraham?
His daughter Rachel and a grandaughter came to Berlin in the summer of 2009 and visited the former children’s home during their stay.
It was a fortunate coincidence that on that particular Sunday, we were holding an Action Day on the local history of the neighbourhood and the history of the house, so I was able to welcome the two women and show them round the house. It was a very moving meeting. I spoke to Avraham for the first time that same afternoon on his daughter’s mobile phone. After further phone calls, I have visited him twice in Israel. I am very pleased to have met him and grateful that he has shared so much of his story with me. Toda raba, Avraham.
Avraham Amitai was born in 1924. His name was originally Arthur Rwetelnicki; his surname means “he who does not lie”, in both the Polish and the Hebrew versions. Everyone called him Arthur, although the name Avraham was entered on his birth certificate; as a child, he was not aware of that. His sister Herta was four years older; the name on her birth certificate was Hadassi.
His parents both came from very pious Polish families, but were not particularly religious themselves; in fact his mother was definitely “anti-pious”. She left her close family and moved to Berlin, one reason being to avoid an arranged marriage. His parents were married but did not live together for very long.
At first the family lived in Swinemünder Strasse, where they had a small shop. After his parents separated, Avraham lived with his mother and sister in Weinbergsweg. His mother glued raincoats and they could not afford a flat on the pittance she earned, so they rented rooms as subtenants.
Avraham’s sister also attended the children’s home but earlier than he did; they were not there together. He himself attended the children’s home between 1930 and 1936, sometimes just going there in the daytime and going back home to his mother in the evening. He was very happy with his mother. However, sometimes he still lived in the children’s home during the week. At that time, there were no more than 15 children sleeping in the home; however he was the only one who always went home to his mother at weekends. At the home, the children slept on the raised ground floor above the kitchen, in rooms off the corridor. The showers and the office were on the same floor. The youngest children slept on the floor above. They ate in the basement.
Avraham was twice able to go on summer holidays with the children’s home, which had a holiday home in Heringsdorf 1) on the Baltic.
Avraham was a football fan; he supported the German club Schalke and also played in the Makkabi football club. He went by the local train to Grunewald in western Berlin, where his club and several other Jewish football clubs had their training grounds. He remembers Habonim, a rather religious club, an anti-zionist club and one called something like „the Strong” 2). He also played football in the courtyard at the children’s home.
Avraham went to school in Zehdenicker Straße 3), but “life at school was not good; half the class was in the Hiler Youth organisation”. The discrimination got worse and many of the boys bullied him. For example, he often had his face rubbed with snow in winter. He recalls that the worst pupils were the ones who had recently moved to Berlin. His last teacher at this school wore the Iron Cross on his jacket, with a swastika pinned on below. However, he was not a particularly keen Nazi; generally the teachers treated him better than his fellow pupils did. He went to the Jewish school in Kaiserstrasse for his last school year, because the school in Zehdenicker Strasse became unbearable.
In the spring of 1938, Avraham's Bar-Mitzvah took place in the synagogue in Brunnenstrasse. His Bar-Mitzvah present was to visit his grandparents in Poland. The only two photos that Avraham has of his childhood date from this visit.
After he got back from Poland, it was his sister’s turn to visit their grandparents. However, she was not able to come back home, because the „Polish Action 4)“ took place and as a Polish Jew, she was no longer allowed to enter Germany. She decided to try to escape eastwards, alone and against her uncle’s advice; she travelled via Vilnius, Moscow and other stages, finally reaching Palestine.
After the Polish Action, his mother was afraid of being sent back to Poland, which she definitely did not want. The best chance of escaping Germany seemed to her to be to flee illegally to Belgium. In late 1938, soon after the pogrom night of 8 November, she and her son fled to Belgium. Their aim was to make their way to Israel together.
To get to Belgium, they travelled to Cologne to meet someone who was supposed to take them across the border. However, the person never turned up. So Avraham and his mother went to Aachen and from there they crossed the border on foot. Thay went with another Jewish woman, whose husband was already in Antwerp. Once in Belgium, the two women gave a man some gold to buy them train tickets to Brussels. However, Avraham and his mother did not manage to settle there, so on Avraham’s suggestion, they went to Antwerp. On the way, they received help from Jewish man who spoke Polish and traded in textiles. Hoping to find work with him, Avraham’s mother claimed to come from Lodz (where there was a lot of textile manufacture and trade at that time). In the shop where he took her, she recognised a woman working there who had worked for her father in Poland in the past. She helped them.
In 1940 she succeeded in obtaining a British certificate for Avraham to emigrate to Palestine. He thinks an uncle who lived in London helped her. However, his mother did not manage to get the hoped-for certificate herself, so Avraham set off alone, at the age of 16, for Marseilles, where he would get the ship to Palestine. This was two or three months before the German invasion of Belgium. All the passengers on the ship were Germans, but none of them came directly from Germany. They had all made their way from various parts of Europe to which they had fled.
Avraham’s mother did not survive. She was taken from Belgium to the Netherlands and died or was killed there.
Avraham knows nothing definite about his father’s fate apart from the fact that he died in Berlin. Perhaps he was killed, but he may also have died of an illness. Avraham’s daughter found his grave in the Jewish cemetery in Weissensee on her visit to Berlin.
While in Antwerp, Avraham went to school for about about a year and a half, so he could speak Flemish well. He had always been good at maths in Berlin, and this was also the case in Antwerp and in Israel, where he attended a kibbutz school from the ages of 16 to 18, with other children and young people from Germany. They learnt Ivrit as well as the harvesting of crops and other agricultural skills.
In 1942 Avraham joined the British army. He wanted to do something „because Hitler had done enough to us” and the Germans were in Egypt at that time; in other words, dangerously close once more. He spent two years in Egypt fighting against Rommel’s army. His unit was entirely made up of Jews.
After the end of the war he worked in a refinery in Haifa for two years, still under British rule. On one occasion, Arabs working there murdered 44 Jews. Why? He recalls that “there was some shooting outside and then they killed some Jews in the factory”. He was late to work that day, so he survived. “You have to be lucky.”
He served as a soldier again from 1948 to 1950, this time in the Israeli army. In 1950 he got married and left the army. He lived with his wife near Tel Aviv; they were happy together until she died of cancer at the age of 62.
Avraham has two daughters and a son.
Throughout his working life, he was dealing with diggers and other heavy construction machines.
Currently Avraham is living in a home for the elderly in Kfar Saba.
Avraham visited Berlin again for the first and only time in 1993. He came with his wife on the invitation of the Lord Mayor.