Introduction: Why I did this project
I have known the house at 92 Fehrbelliner Strasse, in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin, since 1998.
When I arrived at the house one day I was greeted by some of the women working there, who told me excitedly: A few days ago, an old man came to the house, looked at everything and said that he had lived in this house as a Jewish child. That is how I discovered that the house had been a Jewish children's home. This thought haunted me and I became driven by a desire to find out what had happened to the inhabitants.
It was a commission for me, arising out of the work of the One by One discussion group. What do we know of our families' history, and how do we come to terms with it? This is the topic which we often meet to discuss.
I asked myself: what is the history of this house? What else can I find out about it? What is its message for the future? I first went to the local history museum in Prenzlauer Berg. I was given access to various files about the building construction and its history, which confirmed that it had been a Jewish children's home. There was no information about the children. What had happened to them? The visitor who had come to the home, but not left a contact address, gave me the hope that the children had escaped the holocaust. The house was not mentioned in publications about Jewish life in Prenzlauer Berg. I found only one picture, but no details were given. For a long time, I did not know how to proceed. I had never done historical research before; where should I look?
In the summer of 1999, I received a visit from a woman from America. She had been able to leave Berlin as a child on a Kindertransport (also known as the Refugee Children's Movement) to England in 1939. She talked a great deal about the rescue mission and agreed to put an advertisement in the newspaper produced by the organization Kinderlink (child link). Very soon, I received a letter from a Tosca - also from America - who had lived in the children's home. I was thrilled; now I had a trace to follow up, and my hope that at least some of the children had survived was fulfilled. However, when my contact discovered that I was German and not Jewish, she became very reserved and we stopped writing. This discouraged me from continuing the search. I could well understand the pain she must have felt and I did not want to open old wounds. I respected her silence.
But I could not forget the children of the home. I talked about it a great deal, wanting to understand why I wanted to continue with the search. „What are your motives, why do you want to know what happened to them?“ I was often asked. It was certainly connected with the fact that I come from a family of „believing“ Nazis. In the post-war period, Nazi crimes were never discussed; on the contrary, they disappeared under a veil of silence and indifference. When as a young girl I heard about the crimes, I was shocked and horrified, especially when I realized that my family had believed in the Nazi ideology. There had never been any sign of pity for the victims. Only in 1990 did I have my first contact with Jews whose parents had not survived the Nazi crimes and who themselves had lived in hiding. That opened my eyes. I gained more information. The Nazi victims now received faces, and I felt an increasing sense of responsibility. I was shocked by the endless number of the forgotten dead. What could I do? I could start with this house and try to bring the former inhabitants back into our present memory; for children, too, experienced the horrors that were part of National Socialism: humiliation, contempt, exclusion from society and later murder.
I let the matter rest for a long time, finally taking up research again in the summer of 2001. I rang the archive of the Jewish Community in Berlin and explained what I was looking for. When I entered the room, the woman working there brought me a fat bundle of small sheets of paper, with names, dates of birth, information about schooling and dates of deportation, notices such as „missing“, „evacuated“, „fate unknown“. I spent two days copying the notes, trying to imagine what the children and their carers looked like. Suddenly I was forced to face up to the fact that most of those who had lived in the children's home had been murdered in the terrible camps which I had so far mostly just read or heard about. I could no longer take refuge in the hope that they had been saved. Now I had evidence that at least 49 of them had been killed.
When I walk into the former children's home today, I feel I am surrounded by them.
Some of the notes, however, had remarks like „survived“ or „emigrated“. Here was a place to start afresh. I wanted to find someone who could remember the spirit of the home and what life was like there. I put an advertisement in the newspaper Jüdisches Berlin (Jewish Berlin). One Saturday morning, a short time later, I received a phone call from Jacob Herfeld, who was willing to tell me about his life in the children's home. A friend Alexa D. and I visited him in the old people's home. We recorded his story, in order to write it down. We heard about a life which I could never have imagined. How can someone bear so many terrible things? I asked myself this question again and again. Herfeld described his time in the children's home so positively. There must have been a spirit there which was not found in many places at the beginning of the 20th century, certainly not in my family. The children were respected, protected, given inner strength. Each child was seen as an individual and treated as such. There must have been a spirit of educational reform in the home. Other life stories I heard later confirm this.
By now I had become much bolder and had spoken about my project in many places and on many occasions. Suddenly I started to receive information from all sides. The Centre for Research into Anti-Semitism (Zentrum für Antisemitismus-Forschung der Technischen Universität Berlin) was very supportive. Claudia Curio drew my attention to Gideon B.'s book (see chapter 5), in which he gives a very detailed account of his youth in Prenzlauer Berg and his rescue by the Kindertransport in 1939. Beate Kosmala gave me copies of documents from Yad Vashem, which shed an entirely new light on the last months of Ruth and Gittel Süssmann (see chapter 8). I am grateful to both women for their information. Michael Kreutzer gave me additional information with his account of the Manheimer'sches Altersheim where some of the children were brought after the home was closed down. He also wrote down the story of Carla Wagenberg, who played the flute in the girls' orchestra in Auschwitz and who survived. Salomea Genin introduced me to Eva Nickel, who told me the story of her two sisters and set up the contact with Regina Scheer, who has written down the story of this very old family, so long resident in Germany, whose members are now scattered all over the world.
The daughter of Abraham Pisarek gave me photos of children in the home taken by her father. These photos show how the children in the home celebrated, read, learnt, did sport. Looking into the faces of some of the children, I can see in their eyes that they were aware of the horrors of the time, of the threat they were under.
This children's home was integrated in an ordinary residential street in Berlin, in a working class district. There were normal neighbours living in blocks of flats, churches, shops and a large open space in front of the house, where there is a big playground today and which was certainly used in the same way 60 years ago. Someone told me that the Jewish children were not allowed to play there any more after 1935. What did the neighbours think about that? Were they in favour of this? Did they just look the other way, as my mother always claimed to have done? I haven't found anyone in the area around the children's home who is willing or able to talk about the Jewish children.
Many of them came from poor backgrounds. Many of their parents had come to Berlin from Poland. Were these some of the families who were sent back to Poland in 1938? Many of the children had only one parent or were orphans; for them, the children's home was the only home they had. And they were especially vulnerable, because they had no family to organize their emigration. The rescue mission Kindertransport to England from December 1938 onwards helped some of the children from the home to survive.
The longer I researched into the history of the children's home, the more I discovered about individual destinies, the more I recalled my own childhood in the Nazi era (I was born in 1940). All children were equally at risk of losing their loved ones and were afraid of bombs and air raids. However, my childhood and that of the Jewish children were very different. The Jewish children were increasingly excluded from society and finally, like the adults, almost all of them were sent to their deaths. During their last months or years, they found in the children's home a place of safety, somewhere to belong, as the society around them increasingly shut them out. That gave each of them strength, but saved hardly a single life.
I have finished my research for the moment, and the results are presented here. I now have a number of supporters, including the present users of the house in Fehrbelliner Strasse which has become a community center. It has a permanent exhibition of photos of the children from the Pisarek archive and includes the stories of four of the survivors. At the entrance to the building there is now a memorial plaque and in the corridor one can read the names of the murdered children.
Not many traces of the murdered children and their carers remain. I have collected the little that is known in short biographies and you can now read the life stories of eight survivors.
Today it is very important for the present users of the former Jewish children's home to maintain contact to the children now adults- who had lived there. On 7th September 2007 we held a big meeting to which we invited four of them. They came especially from Israel and USA. Our guests enriched the meeting with their memories of the home, and they told how their lives went on after their emigration. We had very moving encounters with them.
Berlin, October 2007