Inge Franken

MY ENCOUNTER WITH RUTH AND GITTEL SÜSSMANN’S STORY

Text: Inge Franken

One morning in January 2002, my friend Salomea rang me up. She knew that I was trying to discover the history of the children’s home in Fehrbelliner Strasse 92, and she had told Eva Nickel, who works in the Jewish Community of Berlin, about my efforts. This is how I found out that Eva Nickel's two sisters, Ruth and Gittel, had also been in the children’s home. I rang Frau Nickel at once and arranged a meeting.

Frau Nickel told me straight away, on the telephone, that her two sisters had been deported on one of the last “transports”, the transfers to Auschwitz, and that she herself, not born until after the war, had always felt that it was her life's task to take the place of her two murdered sisters.

At our meeting a few days later, in Christinenstrasse, only five minutes away from the former children’s home, Frau Nickel received me with great openness. I was very pleased about this, because she also told me that talking to me, the daughter of a Nazi, especially in her own flat, would not have been possible a few years previously. We sat in the same room in which two little girls had lived with their mother, 60 years ago. They attended the kindergarten in Fehrbelliner Strasse daily for a year. Even when the home moved into the Manheimer’s old people’s home in the summer of 1942, the children still went there every day. The only playground for the children at that time was the old Jewish cemetery in Schönhauser Allee. They had nowhere else to play. After the “fabrik-aktion” in February 1943, the factory raid when Jews were picked up from their workplaces, the mother went into hiding with her daughters. The children were discovered in their hiding place in Weimar in 1944 and then murdered in Auschwitz, while their mother survived.

The life stories of Eva Nickel’s mother and sisters make it easy for me to understand her reservations about me, as I am not Jewish. We talked a great deal about ourselves, about living with the family history and the heritage which we each feel, in very different ways. We looked at photos together and were aware of the spirit of the past, but also of our present, which bound us together. When I asked Eva Nickel, who was born some years after the end of the war, whether she had written down the story of her mother and sisters, she simply said, “No, I don’t feel able to do that, but Regina Scheer has done it.” This is how I heard of the book “Leben mit der Erinnerung. Jüdisches Leben in Prenzlauer Berg” [Living with Memories. Jewish Life in Prenzlauer Berg: author’s translation], where I read the text “Eva’s House.”

In subsequent years, many new documents have been discovered about the children and their life with their so-called “saviour” in Weimar. Beate Kosmala of the Centre for Research on Antisemitism (ZfA) in Berlin has researched some stories in detail, including that of Ruth and Gittel, within the framework of the project “Rettung der Juden im nationalsozialistischen Deutschland” [Saving Jews in Germany under National Socialism], and she discovered further documents in Yad Vashem. In addition, new documents were discovered in the archive of the Jewish Community in Berlin, so Frau Kosmala was able to rewrite the story of the short lives of the two girls. But we are increasingly aware that what really happened becomes less clear, the more we try to find out about the events. Ruth and Gittel are the only kindergarten children whose fate I can trace to its terrible end.

Eva Nickel’s house was returned to her ownership on 2 February 2000, after a legal battle lasting several years. Today she lives in the house which has belonged to her family for over a century.

Translation Bridget Schäfer