The Story of MAX ELIAHA STERNGAST
Extracts from Bernd Roder’s interview with Max Eliaha Sterngast in 1994.
I have deliberately retained the spoken style for the most part. I learnt so many new details of the children’s home and life as a Jewish child in a hostile world from the account that I am pleased to be able to include the text in this book. [Notes in square brackets: author’s additions]
I was born on 30 August 1919 in the Jewish hospital in Elsässer Strasse. I have no memories of that, of course. My parents lived in Markgrafenstrasse first, not in Prenzlauer Berg. My earliest memories are of Göhrener Strasse 4 in Prenzlauer Berg.
My younger brother Kurt was born on 11 January 1921; later he committed suicide here (in Israel). I’ve got an older brother too: he lives here, quite near me.
On my mother’s side they were German Jews. My father was an immigrant from Poland. He came from Cracow [It is not known when he emigrated to Berlin]. He was a tailor and had a workshop there. Later he had an eye disease but he still opened a tailor’s workshop in Göhrener Strasse 4 on the first floor. However, his eyes got worse and he had to give up the work. Afterwards he had a clothes shop upstairs in the house, but it wasn’t very successful. In the end, my mother sold all the clothes at the market. My father’s health got worse and worse. But my mother died first. My father killed himself six months later. They were both about 50 years old at the time.
I started school at the evangelical school in Senefelder Strasse 62 [288th boys' school]. We had some bad experiences at this school. I mean, it didn’t bother me so much, but my parents. I must have told them what went on at school. The children always peed crossed over. If you did this, it meant you were a Jew. Someone peed on me, once, too. Then there was the matter of Religious Education. I was always sent outside and told to wait. All this led to me changing to the school in Danziger Strasse in 1925 [162nd boys' school, Danziger Strasse 23]. Anyway, there was a free non-religious school. They were schools organized by socialists and communists, and they were supported by the state. They were special state schools where no religion was taught. We weren’t sent there because they [his parents] were communists, but because of the anti-Semitism at the Christian school. I had a much better time there too. They explained that there is no God, there is only nature. And there was no religious teaching there. We liked that.
We never went to a kindergarten. We hadn’t enough money for that. My father was unemployed for years and we had to scrimp and save. I didn’t even know what a kindergarten was. I didn’t know any children who went to kindergarten. It wasn’t the usual thing back then, at least not in our area. I can remember lots more [about the secular school]. I was always one of the best in the class. There was one teacher, a Fraulein Alban, who was really nice to me and I was just as fond of her. I wrote poems, not to her but for her. I always liked the teacher. Later we had another teacher, a Herr Schuring. He always treated me and the other pupils well. I can remember one thing. Yes. This teacher was really supposed to be a socialist too. One day he decided that the class needed a prefect who was supposed to make sure there wasn’t too much row at break and that the boys didn’t get too out of hand. So it was decided to hold a democratic election. Then there was an election and I was one of those nominated. Three boys were nominated. I got a huge majority. And then Herr Schuring, who had never seemed to be an anti-Semite before this, said, “No, I don’t want him, we need a different prefect.” I could not get this experience out of my head. No one was surprised and then they chose another pupil. They simply voted again and chose someone else.
Otherwise the school was very good, and everyone was decent. I can’t complain about the school. I never heard an anti-Semitic word there. They were a different type of people. Only after Hitler had taken power, yes, I went to school one day and some of the teachers had suddenly disappeared. One of them was Herr Schuhbrink, for example, my class teacher was called Schuring and then there was a Herr Schuhbrink. He was an elected member at first and lived in Dunckerstrasse. That was a real communist area.
There’s more I could tell about this communist area. Schuhbrink disappeared in the concentration camp at Oranienburg. And various others suddenly weren’t there any more. Herr Michaeli, our headmaster, he disappeared too. I can’t remember how I found out. Suddenly we had a new headmaster. He told me I didn’t need to come to school any more next day. He just said, “You don’t belong at this school any more”. Afterwards as I was going home by myself, a boy called Kugler joined me. We weren’t exactly friends but we knew each other. He said to me, “What the Nazis are doing is a real cheek. Don’t take it to heart. I’m really sorry about it”. This schoolmate then went all the way home with me. I still can’t understand that even now.
At home the little kids played a game… how did it go: “The Jew has killed a pig, what do you want for it?” No one plays it any more. It didn’t really bother me when someone said the word Jew. But there were two Catholic boys among us, Paul and Franz. One day they told me that I was a Jew and that the Jews had killed Jesus. I felt really guilty at first, because no one contradicted them. I didn’t say anything at first. I didn’t know exactly who Jesus was. But I thought maybe my grandfathers or great-grandfathers had killed him. When the other children had gone, Erwin Schröder, who lived in Göhrenerstrasse 8, came up to me. He told me that it was all lies and I shouldn’t believe it. His father had explained to him that it was a lie and that it was thousands of years ago. So the Jews couldn’t have killed him, in fact it was the Romans. And he tried to comfort me. He was a little boy from the street. He can’t have been more than about seven or eight years old. I remember things like that.
Then I can tell another story while we’re on the subject. I always used to follow the street sprinkler. There was always a street sprinkler in those days, I’m sure they still exist. I really used to enjoy following it. Once, another boy suddenly joined me. So I had competition and we followed the sprinkler truck together until the other boy said to me, “It’s my street sprinkler so you go away.” But the way boys are, I just went on and he went on. Then he said again that I should go away and he started fighting me. The boy was stronger than I and he knocked me down. It was a long fight and soon I had no more strength. He was on top of me the whole time. By now a crowd of people had gathered. I thought that maybe someone would realize what was happening and one of the adults would tell the other boy to stop. With desperate strength I managed to get away from him and then I lay on top of him to hold him down. I wanted to stop him hitting me. Suddenly I heard, “What’s that Jewish boy doing with our children?” Yes, suddenly someone remembered. Then I stopped, it was over. Of course memories like that don’t go out of my mind.
I went to the religious school in Rykestrasse. We learnt the Thora there. But we couldn’t go through Rykestrasse, because the boys there shouted after us, “Jew Itzig, Jewish pig” or, even worse, “Jew Itzig cod liver oil, riding on the horse drawn tram.” It was really horrible for us. To avoid them we stuck our books up our shirts and went along Weissenburger Strasse and came to the school round the back – there was a water tower. There was a railway bridge there [in Dunckerstrasse] and to the left there were always lots of red flags hanging from the houses. One day after the turnaround, after Hitler took power, all the red flags there turned suddenly into swastika flags, within a day, just like that. Although it was a communist area, I couldn’t go along Dunckerstrasse. I never went to the left of Danziger Strasse. The children there shouted “Jew” at you, even though it was a communist area. There were various areas where I couldn’t go.
There was another Jewish boy [in his class] who had had polio and had a crippled foot. There were 30 of us children in the class and I got on very well with them all. They didn’t become anti-Semitic straight after the turnaround. The next day I was still there. A week later, they decided that I shouldn’t stay on at the school. But the children didn’t change. They weren’t a bit interested.
In 1932 I moved to Fehrbelliner Strasse [with my younger brother]. There was a Jewish children’s home there in a square, Teutoburger Platz.
I went to Rykestrasse as long as my parents were alive. After they died I just played truant and didn’t go any more. I just didn’t want to any more. By then I was living in the children’s home in Fehrbelliner Strasse. It wasn’t an orphanage, more a place to stay. My little brother Kurt and I lived there. Those were the happiest days of my life, I can tell you. I had friends there [in the children's home], not before then at home; there was a big library in the house. I could borrow lots of books there. I was really happy. I was twelve, probably between twelve and fourteen. The sisters and the kindergarten teachers there were really nice. They were kind. I was fond of them. I kept in touch with one of them by letter for a long time, during the war too. Then she emigrated to Dallas in Texas. She went on writing for a long time. Her name was Fräulein Kroner. Then there was Fräulein Laqueur, the head. I often met Fräulein Kroner. I once found her sitting at a table with her hands before her eyes. She was crying so much that I wanted to fetch the doctor. It turned out that she suffered from depression and that everyone knew. Otherwise she was very nice.
I lived in one room with my brother and other children. About ten children live in the home. About fifty or sixty other children came to the home in the daytime. Only about ten slept in the home. There was a boys’ room and a girls’ room. The girls’ room window was a bit too high for me to see into. So when I went past, I used to jump up so I could see the girls. I can still remember that (laughs).
There was a refectory. We often had semolina with raspberry juice. I always liked that especially. We had semolina once a week. I almost lived off it the whole week. The cooks knew I liked it so much. And they used to save some for me. And I more or less lived off it the whole week. They were all really nice there. I don’t think people are like that any more. They were so dedicated, you don’t find that nowadays. These days, people are like machines – that’s my impression. You just noticed that they liked you. You see, it was like this. We had a big house we could walk around in. I climbed up onto the roof once with one boy; that was an adventure. We walked around on the roof. It was protected, a flat, protected roof. Afterwards there was a big fuss because one of us peed there. Next day someone found the traces; how could that happen? There was a children’s playground there in the daytime.
Apart from that there were orphanages, for example the Reichenheims Orphanage and an orphanage in Schönhauser Allee. Other Jewish children lived there. Someone must have been looking after us. I don’t know why we went to live there [in Fehrbelliner Strasse]. Anyway, there we were and it was really wonderful. Those two years were really the best time of my life, not only the best time but basically the only good time.
I was one of the oldest there – I left when I was thirteen. I was sent out to the West a lot[western part of Berlin] at that time and saw the grand houses there. I fetched toys from people who donated them to us. I was amazed at the beautiful houses. It wasn’t part of my world, somehow. We received donations, just the old toys they wanted to get rid of. Their children had grown out of them and then they were handed down to us.
I went there by bus and picked up the things there. Of course I really enjoyed doing it apart from once when I had jaundice and no one had noticed. They went on sending me. I didn’t know myself that I was ill and why I felt so funny, until a kindergarten teacher realized that I had jaundice.
In the two years I was in the children’s home I was sent to the Jewish School in Kaiserstrasse. But I didn’t really learn anything there; that was finished. I wasn’t interested in lessons any more. The teachers weren’t interested in teaching either. You just went there and then went home again. My name was even put forward for a scholarship at Karl Marx School in Danziger Strasse. Well, Hitler shut it down. I don’t know if I would have learnt anything anyway. All my learning had been for my parents. Now they were dead, I wasn’t so interested in school any more…
We lived very enclosed lives in the children’s home. We only played indoors. I didn’t often go to Teutoburger Platz. I hardly knew the whole area at all.
When I was fourteen I started an apprenticeship in an iron foundry. It was the oldest foundry in Berlin. At that point I was taken to an apprentices’ hostel in Pankow, a Jewish apprentices’ hostel. That’s were we lived, and the Jewish Community paid for us. The lower floor was for apprentices and the upper floor for difficult children. The two floors had nothing to do with each other. Sometimes we saw how the children upstairs were beaten, yes, they were really beaten up. There was a real Chinese there, a Jewish Chinese, a certain Herr Gebhard. He must have been a Chinese Jew or a German Jew, I can’t remember. Anyway, he used to beat the children. We older ones were scared of him too, though nothing ever happened to us. I finished my apprenticeship. In spite of Hitler and everything they kept me on. But once I’d finished my apprenticeship, I was told I’d have to go. They said they couldn’t keep me, unfortunately, because I was Jewish. The factory had been bought previously by a certain Henkel von Hammersfeld, a Graf, who owned some coal mines in Schlesien. The firm was “Arianized”.
My older brother already had his own flat in Winsstrasse, a furnished room. He worked in Mendelstrasse in the chemical factory Preuss & Temler.
After my apprenticeship I tried to find a job. There was a real need for founders, iron founders and molders, which is what I was. But the moment they heard that I’m Jewish, they said, “I’m afraid we can’t take you on.” In one factory I went so far as to say on the phone that I was Jewish. “Well, so what?” In the end I really went there. When I arrived, two men met me. One of them said that he hadn’t agreed to the invitation and he dismissed me with the words, “I’m very sorry we got you to come here. It was a mistake.” The other man gave me a bit more than the money for the fare and said that unfortunately they couldn’t take me on because I was Jewish. After that I gave up the job hunt.
At that time I was still living in the apprentices’ hostel. I stayed there until my emigration. There were a lot of cases like mine then. I was supported until I could emigrate. They tried to send us all out of the country, and yet a lot stayed. The situation in the apprentices’ hostel was depressing the whole time. For example, someone threatened to burn down the hostel. So we sat watching night after night at the windows with the director to make sure no one came to burn it down.
Have you heard of the Polenaktion [on 27th/28th October 1938: forced deportation of Jewish Polish nationals from Nazi Germany to Poland]? They came to fetch me, me and my little brother. They woke us up at 5 am, in the apprentices’ hostel. Four or five policemen with carbines were standing in the dormitory and they called everyone who had a Polish father. Then we had to march to the police headquarters in Pankow. The policemen didn’t look as though they felt guilty. They didn’t feel funny. We were still children, and some of them knew us more or less. Well, anyway, they took us there. They calmed us down a bit and gave us something to drink. They said we shouldn’t be frightened and that nothing in particular was going on. But we sensed that in fact something was going on. Afterwards the police came, the Gestapo or whatever they were called. My elder brother had already left Berlin by this time.
They took us to Prinz Albrecht Strasse with a lot of shouting and wrangling. We drove in open trucks down Schönhauser Allee. I’m afraid to say that the people there didn’t take any notice. Well, to be honest, I wouldn’t have taken any notice either if I had been one of them. Anyway, no one took any notice. We drove down there and got to Prinz Albrecht Strasse. There someone took us into a large hall. Then they said to us, “All Jews in here.” We just saw that an officer was standing there with a riding whip. He whipped anyone who didn’t go quickly enough. Up to then I’d believed that people were just telling horror stories about the Germans. I didn’t really believe it of them. There I saw how they really, how they… er, not really, I got an impression of how they could be. They whipped old Jews who had such bad rheumatism that they could hardly walk, to make them walk faster. Then we had to stand in a row and they said they were going to search us. Anyone who had money on them would be shot. Well, of course everyone gave up their money. They still found ten pence on someone. Apparently he’d forgotten them. They arrested him before our eyes and said, “You’ll be shot.” Then they dragged him off. I don’t know if they shot him or not. We never heard or saw anything more of him.
They brought trucks and wanted to take us away. They said they were taking us to the station. My brother hurried to get on to one of the trucks. But I said to him, “We’ve got plenty of time. What can happen? Let’s stay here as long as we can.” So we hung back deliberately while most of the others jumped to get on to the trucks so they didn’t get left behind. They were jostling to get on and I had no desire to do that. When we were finally brought to the station, there was no more room on the train. They wanted to send us to Poland. But the train was already full by then and so they took us back to the police headquarters. We were put into a room about as big as my living room. A hundred people were put in there. Ten of us could lie down in the night. I had to stand. The police brought us bread; they gave us dry white bread to eat. We didn’t starve, but there were only one or two pots where we could go to the toilet. It wasn’t exactly the Hilton hotel. But we were comparatively lucky, because the police there were decent, though not decent in their behaviour. There were no decent German civil servants. They all shouted at people in those days, not just at Jews, at Germans too. But you could see that they didn’t think it was right. You noticed that. After ten days they let us go again and I went back home with a beard.
We were saved because we didn’t let ourselves be squeezed in like the others. The fact that we waited till the end saved us. The others all died. They were taken to the Polish border in no man’s land. No one wanted them, in Germany or in Poland. They were shot at from both sides, and in the end Poland took them in. But as it turned out, that wasn’t a good thing either.
Then the Zionists got me out of Germany. The Hechaluz, as they were called, brought me to England. They got a permit for me and then I went to England with 5,000 children. That was my salvation. Before that I went to Meineckestrasse. There was a Zionist house there [the Palestine office]. I could put my name on a list there to get out. After a while I got the letter with the permit. In spite of the permit, things still weren’t easy, because the head of my hostel didn’t want to organize my departure. He just didn’t get on with it. I went to my guardian. I had a Jewish guardian, and he was called Dr Wolf, I believe. He got it organized.
I went to England shortly before the war started, in the spring of 1939. I already had the feeling back then that it wouldn’t last much longer and that it couldn’t go on like that much longer. Up until the Munich Agreement [12th-13th March, 1938, annexation of Austria] I still believed that it would somehow pass by. But after that I was certain it would end badly.
I went by train from Berlin to Hamburg and took the boat from there to London. That was one of my most interesting journeys that time.
Once in England, Max Eliaha Sterngast first lived with a Jewish family, then on a training farm. After the war started, he went to work for a private farmer and wanted to work in an iron foundry again.
I thought that I could be more help that way. Then I really was given a job in a foundry which worked for the Navy. I mostly made propellers there. Then I wanted to join the army; after all, I was already working for them. However they didn’t let me go. After hearing about Dachau and all that, I wanted to fight as a Jew. I wanted to go, but they didn’t let me. I was in England for eight years altogether.
Later, Max Eliaha Sterngast had contact again to a Zionist organization which suggested that he work in the illegal Aliyah. He enjoyed living in England, but was living alone among strangers. The Zionist organization was a substitute for his father and mother, so he agreed. In 1947 he went first to France and then to Palestine. He met his older brother again there. His younger brother was already dead by then. Sterngast spent some time in a kibbutz and then joined the Israeli army.
I was there during the whole of the War of Independence. Then I was released from active service but was in the reserves for at least twenty years. Then I worked in a foundry again. After my daughter got asthma, we had to move here to Gedera. But there was no foundry here and I worked in a large hospital for the chronically ill. I had to work as an unskilled worker.
The Red Cross informed me about what had happened to my family. They wrote that they were picked up and taken away to an unknown destination on such and such a day, probably to the east. The Jews who were still left in Berlin were all taken away in the same night, unless they managed to go underground first. Some of them were hidden too.