Story of Gideon Behrendt
While I felt warmly cradled in my mother’s womb, the world “outside” was going topsy-turvy. Germany experienced the world’s worst monetary inflation of all time. A loaf of bread cost millions of Reichsmarks, salaries were paid out to workers daily, so that people could take their money - which they had to carry around in a suitcase, it was so bulky - and run to buy food. And still prices went up. Then, just after the inflation had reached its peak and some stability had set in, I had to leave my comfortable haven and was thrust into this cold and hateful world.
Of course, these worldly events can be read about in books or commentaries; nowhere, however, is there a mention of my entering this rather questionable Eden of humanity. Therefore I feel it as my duty to make the effort and fill this gap in history.
To be precise, it was during the late hours of the 6th December in the year 1924, that I came into a wintry and gray Berlin. I announced my arrival in a strong voice and in no uncertain manner. I was a healthy specimen and wanted all and everyone to know - and hear - about my presence. I presume my mother was also glad to have me lying more or less peacefully next to her, instead of kicking inside her. The midwife must have been happy, too, to have finished her job so she could go home and have her beer.
So, here I was: Guenter B., the second son to the proud parents, Bernhard and Ella B., nee Birnbaum, both of Mosaic denomination. I was big–mouthed when it came to eating and yelling; otherwise, when sleeping, quite sweet, or so they told me. On my 8th day there was a small celebration in my honor: my Brith-Mila, my circumcision. Some of the clan were present to witness the ceremony. I don’t remember anything, of course, not the pain nor the enjoyment of the guests or the good food that always accompanies these Simches (Joyful occasions). Members and friends of the family were there to bear witness to this ancient ritual, when one more strong-voiced male entered the covenant of Abraham, Isaak and Jacob, our forefathers. I may have been “The star of the day” but I probably slept through most of the show anyway.
I don’t remember much of my early childhood and I’m wondering whether this is fortunate or unfortunate. Maybe some of both. Fortunate, for example, because I was told much later, how much my mother had loved me as a baby and subconsciously I must have missed her love throughout my whole life. From the first moment on, my existence seemed to have brought her great happiness, rays of sunshine in her otherwise gray and all-too-short life. However, before my birth, or maybe soon after, my mother contracted tuberculosis, the disease that was wide-spread in Berlin at that time. So the fact that my early childhood, together with my mother’s death has slipped into oblivion or unconsciousness may also be considered fortunate and a blessing for me.
Although my brother Heinz and I were born - according to our birth certificates - in the Schoenhauser Allee, I can think back to and remember only the time we lived in the Kastanien Allee, in a working class district of Berlin. The street was lined with big chestnut trees on both sides and this allowed it to be called an “Allee”, an avenue. The house fronts of the avenue were four and five floors high, clean with large windows and gave the tenants living there more respectability. Doors and staircases led straight from the street to the front-row flats.
But behind every one of those house fronts there were two, sometimes even three “Hinterhaeuser” (houses behind), each built around a square yard paved with cobble-stones. A broad entrance, a thoroughfare, through which a horse-drawn cart or truck could easily pass, led from the street to the first, second or third back yard or Hinterhof, as it was called. The ground level floors of the “houses behind” were usually occupied by bakeries, small factories or workshops and sometimes even by a cow-shed, where one could buy the milk fresh from the original producer.
I hardly remember my mother, only from photos; but I do remember my father coming home from work on his bicycle every afternoon. I must have been about two years old at the time my mother was taken to hospital. Heinz was sent to a Jewish orphanage in far-away Emden while I was given to foster parents in Berlin. I don’t remember anything about them nor the time I spent with my foster parents except that their family name was Redlich. I may remember this name because it was mentioned frequently after I returned home.
When I came home after 3 years, there was no special homecoming party or reception. My mother was still in hospital. Omama, my Granny, lived with us now and looked after us and the house, although she was close to eighty years of age at the time. My brother Heinz also returned from Emden. He had liked it very much at the orphanage in Emden. He had just turned twelve and told me how sorry he was to have come home, because in less than a year he would have been Bar-Mitzva and all the boys at the orphanage received many lovely presents for their Bar-Mitzva from members of the Jewish community there and now he wouldn’t get anything at all. He was right, of course. He never even had a Bar-Mitzva. Heinz had a hard time studying because of changing schools and leaving his friends behind.
Fortunately our school was situated in the Kastanien Allee, just opposite our home. Also I was luckier than my brother Heinz because learning came easy to me. I remember my first school teacher very well because I somehow felt I was her favorite pupil, that she liked me better than the other boys in class. During my second school year - I must have been going on for seven - my mother died in hospital. I had never been taken to see her in hospital and now I found myself at the funeral at the Weissensee cemetery. There were only members of the family crowded around the grave; some had tears in their eyes. I heard voices saying: “Oh, those poor boys”. Heinz was standing next to me. It was so confusing and strange. Someone held me by the hand but otherwise nobody took much interest in us. The Rabbi was praying for what seemed to me a long time. Kaddish was said.
It didn’t take long until Heinz and I found ourselves accepted into the municipal orphanage in Rummelsburg, a south-east part of Berlin. Because of our differences in age we were separated, each of us was put with boys his respective age, but we were still in the same large building and able to see each other every day. The attendants or house-mothers must have been pleasant and friendly because I don’t recall any unpleasant incidents; but discipline prevailed throughout the day and in all matters.
The food probably was adequate, although there were no “feasts”. However, when the big boys, those over 14 returned from work, we, the smaller kids fell all over them, hopefully asking for any slices of bread they might have brought back with them from work. At times I was also lucky to get 2 slices of bread, which I toasted, like the other kids, by the kitchen hearth. The smell of freshly toasted bread was delicious and made me forget that “once upon a time” there must also have been some smoked sausage in between this sandwich. Children will never have too much to eat. Those who do have too much, usually lack a healthy appetite or are too “choosy” and spoiled. We were not.
It was the year 1932. On our rare visits to our Granny we experienced a turbulent Berlin. Walking through the streets of East Berlin, we saw all kinds of flags flowing from apartment windows, turning the otherwise gray streets into a colorful spectacle. We recognized all the different political flags and emblems. East-Berlin was well known to be “Red”. We passed through streets where the red banners with Hammer-and-sickle flowed like red ocean waves over us. but there were also others like the Black-Red-Gold or Black-White-Red flags . At that time only very few showed the Swastika in a white and red field in East-Berlin. However, we already met columns of men in brown shirts, black leather belts and jack-boots marching through the streets, led by pipe and drummer bands, followed by giant swastika flags. They were mostly singing the “Horst-Wessel-Lied” which was something like the Nazi party anthem. Sometimes they also sang songs which cursed and threatened death to Jews and Communists. And woe to anyone standing along the roadside who did not raise their right arm in salute to the swastika, because on each side of the flag carriers, big, tough troopers marched, intimidating bystanders, ready to knock down any person who did not acknowledge their flag with the Nazi-salute.
We found these parades and street processions with their military music and colors exciting, fascinating and frightening at the same time. As Jews, the outspoken enmity and hatred as well as physical threats against our people made us feel like outcasts. I was too young to consciously grasp the full meaning of danger, but a primitive instinct warned ‘to be careful’. Whenever we saw a brown column approaching, we went inside some doorway or house entrance so we wouldn’t have to raise our arm in salute, just as if we were taking cover from a heavy rainfall.
At the orphanage the older boys already talked and argued about politics and political parties, very much like today’s teenagers get involved with some favorite football team or other. The leading, most debated parties were the KPD (the communist party), the SPD (the social-democrats), but the NSDAP (the Nazis) were coming more and more into the lead.
One afternoon, before we entered the huge communal shower-room for our weekly shower, Heinz took me aside and said to me in a low voice: “When you go into the shower, try and stand facing the wall, so that nobody will see you are Jewish!” Years later I still remembered my brother’s advice. I still smile at the thought: What a way to learn about one’s Jewishness!
On each of our visits to Granny we saw the multitude of flags fluttering from the windows; however, there were more and more swastikas hanging from the windows. By the beginning of the year 1933 nearly all other colors and flags had disappeared. The boys at the orphanage competed in their heated enthusiasm for the new favorite party, the NSDAP (short for: National Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter Partei) and for Adolf Hitler, their “Fuehrer”.
I don’t really know why, but after about one year we were taken out of the orphanage.
After father had taken us out of the orphanage, “Home” was always a one-room flat with the toilet and water tap shared with other tenants, somewhere on the stairs between the floors. And “Home” changed from one place to the next in rapid succession. For a cooked meal I went to Granny or to one of my many Aunts or I was sent to buy a pot of pea soup at the nearby Kaufhaus, the department store. I learned to take a big pot along and gave the lady dishing out the food a big compassion arousing smile. She usually got the message and filled the pot to the rim and added some extra pieces of sausage, all for the minimum price of a plate of pea soup. Luckily I was, in spite of all, a good pupil in school. Some teachers showed their hostile anti-semitism towards us three Jewish pupils in class while others did not let their personal political feelings interfere with their job. There were also two of my teachers who showed a lot of sympathy, compassion and understanding with the Jewish pupils in class because of the unjust laws and regulations burdening the Jewish population. Jews were not allowed to participate in some specific lessons, such as aeronautics and citizenship, for example. My class teacher, Herr Held, took me aside one day and said he thought that I would also like to build model gliders and such. He offered me instructions during intervals or after lessons and wanted to give me the necessary materials to build a model at home. At the time I thought this to be a very kind gesture of him (I still think so) but I had to decline his very human and well-meant offer since I didn’t have an empty spot at “home” to practice anything but sleep anyway. All teachers were compelled to be members of the Teachers Union and the Union belonged to the NSDAP. Of course some teachers lived for the Nazi party with their body and soul, while others were members because they had to be, if they wanted to keep their job.
I remember that once, during a short school-break, one of my classmates started an argument with me and when I answered, he just called me “ein feiges Judenschwein” (a yellow Jewpig); I didn’t let him finish the sentence but hit him square in the face; I continued to hit him with all my might, not feeling the punches I received as well. I was in a rage, feeling no pain, not hearing the cheering and shouts, just letting my rage run free. Then, suddenly, the classroom around us fell silent and over us towered Herr Held, our class teacher. He called us in front of the class and asked: “Who started this fight”? My opponent pointed his finger at me and Herr Held asked me, why I had started the fight. I answered that this boy had insulted me by calling me “a Judenschwein”. Herr Held then told the boy to “bend over” and gave him the beating of his life with the ever present cane. At the same time the teacher told the class, that, while there were Government Regulations and Policies that had to be obeyed, no-one, no private person was allowed to take the Law into his own hands. That kind of insult was simply not lawful and could not be tolerated. The year was 1936.
School friends or good comrades were a thing I never had. How could I? Moving from one school to another at such short intervals; and besides, Jews were outcasts. I hardly talked in class with the other two Jewish boys more than with the others. However, I frequented the children’s library adjoining the Synagogue in the Oranienburgerstrasse and later even went to a Jewish Kinderhort (a day home for children in the afternoon where I did my home work and played a little).
In the meantime Heinz had found new friends. He joined the Maccabi sport club and practiced Greek-Roman wrestling as well as weightlifting. The Maccabi club had a good name in the sporting world. Even in 1935 or 1936 the Maccabi wrestling team competed against the German police team. So Heinz was mighty proud to belong to this association. After he had established himself as a full member, he took me along to be accepted, too, and trained in the field of wrestling. I can honestly say there was never any danger of my becoming a champion or an Olympic celebrity but the physical training gave me confidence, which I so dearly needed. I had the good fortune to train under Erwin Becker, a skilled and kind sportsman. In a short while I picked up sufficient know-how so that I stood a much better chance when facing my classmates in school, whenever the occasion arose. In time my potential opponents even thought twice before starting a fight with me or picking on me.
When she was in a good talking mood, my Granny, told me that the whole family had grown up in the same working class neighborhood around the Alexanderplatz after coming to Berlin in the 1890’s. The “Behrendt brothers”, as they were called, consisted of five strong young men; they were respected and most youngsters were scared enough of them to show disrespect to any one of them, neither in the street nor in any of the “Kneipen”, the corner house pubs. For a little extra pocket money or just for fun the “Behrendts” performed as wrestlers and weight-lifters in the “Schweizer Garten”, the amusement park adjoining the Friedrichshain (like the Prater in Vienna or the Tivoli in Kopenhagen but smaller).
Granny came from a religious family, also Opa Julius was a religious man; but so were all Jewish families in Germany one hundred years ago. However, at the same time they were patriots and good citizens. Granny never had pork meat in the house. On Friday evenings she always lit her candles. On some of the High Holidays she took me to the synagogue, a thing that my father never did.
At one time she also told me that we Behrendts were “Cohanim”, direct descendent of the Jewish High Priests of biblical times, the equivalent to aristocracy. At the time I didn’t really know what to make of all that.
And then came the 13th of June, 1938. Of course I’ll never forget that day. At 06:00 I was up already when the doorbell rang. I opened the door. Two tall men in civilian cloths stood there, asking for Herr Behrendt. I explained that father was just getting ready for work but they insisted, however politely. They asserted , after they had identified themselves as policemen, Gestapo, that it was only a matter of formalities; just some questions to answer, that’s all. Herr Behrendt should come with them to the local police station. “It won’t take long, you’ll be back home shortly”, they assured him. What was there to do but to go with them, even on an empty stomach? To my surprise, I saw after returning from school, that father had not yet come back from his “routine questioning”. I went to our local police station and asked the officer on duty about my father, why he hadn’t returned home yet. The officer asked “is your father a Jew?” and when I answered “yes” he said: ”They have taken all the Jews away already” and turned his back on me. I told Aunt Ottilie what I had learned but otherwise continued “as usual”. Next morning in school I found out that the boy sitting next to me had gone through the same experience, his father had also been taken by the Gestapo. We waited day after day for some sort of information, some sign of life from father. It was terrible not knowing where he was or what had become of him. I went to visit Granny straight from school but didn’t tell her about father’s disappearance because I didn’t want to worry her until we had some concrete information to give. And then, about 6 weeks later a preprinted post-card arrived, saying: “ I am well, please send me some money and/or food-stuff”. It was signed: BERNHARD. Address: BUCHENWALD, KONZENTRATIONSLAGER.
I went to Granny while Aunt Ottilie must have contacted the Jewish Communal Council because a few days later I was accepted to the Kinderheim in Fehrbellinerstrasse, the same place I used to go to after school in the afternoons. But then there were only very few children who stayed there overnight, permanently. Now this number had increased to more than 30 boys and a few girls.
When I visited Granny with father’s post-card from Buchenwald in my hand, I told her what had happened. Of course everyone had heard about those Concentration Camps, including Granny. She didn’t cry out loud or go into hysterics; she just shook her head without saying anything for a while, then she spoke in an even voice: “Where does all this lead to? There is no hope nor relief for us Jews in Germany”. A silent interval and then she continued, quite prophetically: “Our deliverance can only come from outside the country; only a war can redeem us from these Nazi devils”. Granny was 86 years old then, but still very “practical”. And how right she was!
Although all my companions were quasi orphans, the place was not called an orphanage but a Kinderheim, a children’s home. And the difference was not “in name” only. I think I was competent even then to appreciate the difference. This hostel functioned and was managed as humanly, warmly and homely as possible, like a family home. We were given besides food and decent rooms also a feeling of respect and love. In a way everyone of us, our hostel staff as well as us, the orphans, sensed we were in “the same boat”, so we quite naturally behaved as brothers and sisters to each other.
I still went to the school in Rykestrasse. Heinz still came to take me to Maccabi and on weekends I sometimes went to Granny. However, the hatred of most Germans, even “the man in the street” towards their Jewish neighbor became more and more pointed, honed like a sharp edge. We took to walking in the streets in pairs; the girls accompanied by one or two of the bigger boys. My visits to Maccabi training became more than a sporting pastime for me, I felt it might really come in “useful” one day to be able to defend myself. I am sure most of the young sportsmen there felt the same way. I even stayed on after my wrestling training and went into the next gymnasium where the boxers trained, trying to pick up a trick or two. However, I still remained shy, bashful and reserved. My best companion for several years already was my little mouth-organ on which I used to play, but mostly to myself only.
Time passed quickly and before long, events happened even faster. The 10th of November started out cold and misty. I went to school as usual. Radios were not found in every house then; and who wanted to hear news in the morning, when one was busy getting ready for work or school. So I went on my way not knowing that nearly all synagogues throughout Germany had been set on fire, that I had slept through the “Kristallnacht”. A peculiar smell emanated from the synagogue which formed one side of our school-yard. A policeman stood in the entrance. Had there been a fire? Something terrible must have happened, so each one of us felt. We pupils talked in whispers to each other as we entered our respective classrooms. Little did we know about the drastic changes that had begun with this night. All the restrictions, controls and disadvantages we had suffered until now were only a taste of what lay in store for us Jews in Germany.
In retrospect one could say that the burning of synagogues, the clinking and tinkling of smashed glass windows throughout Germany (thus the name - The Kristallnacht) equalled a German declaration of all-out war against its Jewish citizens. How this declaration affected Jewish families outside our Kinderheim I cannot really say personally, but it has been described in many other books and documents. In our small world it meant that we had to close ranks and rely even more on ourselves than before. We hardly left our hostel except for going to school. My brother Heinz and I were even prouder to belong to Maccabi and Heinz’s friendship with his Maccabi comrades became ever closer, they spent more time together, not only during their training hours. Zionism and the interest for anything connected with youth movements, Palestine, pioneering and emigration became more prominent among Jewish teenagers. On Saturday afternoons many Jewish youth assembled and met at - of all places - the Lustgarten, the large square in front of the cathedral. Most of the youngsters came from the nearby Jewish working and middleclass district around the Alexander-Platz. I even then admired their fashionable dresses and suits and wondered how they managed to dress so smartly in these relatively bad times. I came to the conclusion, that every boy and girl had someone in the family who was or knew a professional tailor. Anyway, just meeting and being there together was always a pleasant event.
Soon after I was told that I was among the 4 or 5 boys from our hostel who would be leaving for England with a “Childrens Transport”. We had less than a week to prepare for the departure. We were allowed to take our personal belongings in one small suitcase or bag as well as 10.- Deutsche Mark in cash. The ladies looking after us had no problem outfitting the candidates; we all got a pair of good shoes, 3 shirts, a sweater, a jacket and trousers. My little suitcase didn’t weigh much and yet, I had never been so well dressed.
I made my rounds of Farewells to all my aunts and uncles as though I were going away on a summer vacation and not departing for a long time - perhaps for ever. Can I remember my inner feelings when I kissed my relatives and said “Leb wohl, auf wiedersehen” (Fare-well, until we meet again)? Was I excited? Or sad? I can’t really say; maybe I was too much in a hurry to go on to my next aunt. But I do remember that every aunt pressed a 1-Mark-coin into my hand, some even had a modest tear in their eyes.
The “Good-bye” visit to Granny went over easier than I would have expected beforehand. I was sad to leave her, and so was she , but she showed it less. She seemed relieved that I - at least - could escape the ever-closing tentacles of the regime. She must certainly have known she wouldn’t see me again in her life but, as usual, she acted “practical”. Bless her soul. I never saw her again, she died a year later.
And then, all of a sudden, it was time to be at the Alexander-Platz railway station. Only one person was allowed to accompany each child to the platform. My brother Heinz came to the hostel to take me to the station; he came early so we could have a meal together in a restaurant near the “Alex”. We had a good plate of goulash. I do remember this because it had been the first time I ever had a meal in a restaurant. Heinz was sad, yet glad to see me leave the country. He knew there was no future for anyone of us and he may have felt - like most Jews - what lay ahead. We never mentioned the word Wiedersehen (reunion) but promised to write to each other.
At the appointed time (December 1st 1938) we stood on the station platform. The Kindertransport children and their accompanying person, father or mother or other close relative, could easily be recognized by their gloomy and serious expression; there was not much crying there were no heart-rendering outbursts. The tears burned inside each heart.
One more kiss, a last hand-shake. I boarded the train for Hoek van Holland. There was a whistle and the train started moving slowly. From the window I saw my dear brother growing smaller and smaller, while the train gathered speed and left the station. I was alone. And so were all the other boys and girls on the journey to freedom and into the unknown.
Gideon Behrendt kämpfte in der englischen Armee, kam als englischer Soldat 1945 nach Deutschland und traf dann seinen Bruder wieder, der Auschwitz überlebt hatte. Gideon emigrierte nach Israel, wo er heute noch lebt. Mehrmals war er in Berlin und hat auch am Zeitzeugentreffen im September 2007 in der Fehrbelliner Str. 92 in Berlin Prenzlauer Berg teilgenommen.