Story of Jacob Herfeld
I am a Jewish person and above all I am a human being
The contact to Jacob Herfeld came about through an advertisement in the magazine “Jüdisches Berlin” (Jewish Berlin) Volume 4, No. 37/10 – 2001. The report is based on an interview on 10 September 2001 with Alexa Dvorson and Inge Franken.
Jacob Herfeld was born on 6 December 1912 in Prenzlauer Berg, a district of Berlin. His family lived in Christinenstrasse, where his parents ran a kitchen furniture shop. His brother Rudi was five years older than he was, his sister two years younger. His mother was from an Orthodox Jewish family from Poland and spoke Yiddish. When the First World War broke out, his father enlisted as a soldier and was killed early in the war. Now his mother was alone with the three children and the shop, which she continued to run. She had little time for the children. So Jacob started kindergarten in Fehrbelliner Strasse at the age of 4 and it became his second home until he left school in 1926. He always went back home to his mother and elder brother Rudi at 6 o’clock in the evening. His little sister attended the children’s home with him. “Those were the best years of my life.” The atmosphere in the home was very liberal and personal, under the leadership of the principal, Fräulein Schlesinger and her two assistants, Fräulein Luise Tietz, (whose married name was Frau Heilmann) and Paula Kroner. Later, Eva Landsmann joined the staff. The ultimate aim was that: “we children should be happy”. They didn’t live strictly according to Jewish law: “Less Jewishness”.
A large “pleasant” group of children, divided into three groups, was accommodated in the house. There was a crèche for the babies, the kindergarten and an after-school group for the school-age children. Some of the children, who were orphans or only had one parent, stayed overnight in the home, too. Jacob Herfeld was in the kindergarten at first. Later, when he went to the 153rd Boy’s School in Zehdenicker Strasse (the school is now the John Lennon Gymnasium), he went straight to the after-school group once lessons were over. There were two groups, for the bigger and the smaller children. The children did their homework, supervised by Paula Kroner and Luise Tietz. They could use the library and afterwards they had cake at teatime. Then they could all play in the garden. There was plenty of gymnastic apparatus, such as rings and bars. They also played volkerball, a game similar to dodgeball.
Before the children went home, there was often a group time in the big hall. They all sang an evening song and learnt new songs and dances. In the summer, the children often went on trips to Werbellin Lake. Jacob Herfeld spent five holidays in Eichwalde. “That was the best time, far away from Berlin, no troubles or cares!” After his Bar Mitzvah when he was 13, Jacob Herfeld left the after-school group, but he kept dropping in for years, visiting the assistants and the children. When life started to become more difficult for Jews, around 1927, the bigger children put on plays for the younger ones. One play was called “The Way into Life”. “We wanted to prepare the children for the reality of life as an adult”. Jacob Herfeld acted the main part. After leaving school, he trained as a typesetter and joined the Maccabi boxing club when he was 14. He worked as a copy editor at a printer’s until 1937, when he and his brother Rudi had their work permits taken away. With his brother, who was also a musician, he now had to do heavy labour in building construction in Lichtenberg, a district of Berlin. Jacob Herfeld became engaged to a German Jewish woman in 1936. They learnt English together, because they wanted to emigrate to Australia. However, that never happened. His anti-fascist opinions were known in the block of flats where his family lived along with two other Jewish families and some Nazi families. His brother’s boss warned them. On 28 October 1938, his mother and his fiancée came to their workplace and told them, “You must not on any account come back home any more. You must leave Berlin at once!” The brothers said goodbye in the fiancée’s flat and fled to Poland.
“This is the beginning of the story of a person who lost his whole life, who is only the shadow of his former self. It is a miracle that I survived. I saw life without frills: life in the raw.”
The Jewish community gave the brothers accommodation in a home in Warsaw. Jacob taught English and German, while Rudi worked as a musician. Thus they earned their own living and were soon able to rent a small flat. The owners had already fled, for fear of the Germans. In June 1939, their mother was able to come to Warsaw too, because her sons were living there. She had the red stamp in her passport. “I loved my mother so much and was so happy to have her with us.”
[From 5 October 1938, Jews passports had to carry an identifying mark. A red “J” was stamped on the first page of their passports.]
When the Second World War broke out, times got worse again. There was very little food, and Rudi Herfeld was not able to leave the house, because he was too Jewish in appearance. So Jacob Herfeld boldly went to the German barracks and demanded food for his family, in his broad Berlin street dialect. This worked a few times, but then it became too dangerous. It was very hard to reach the decision to leave Poland as well. But on 11 November 1939, the brothers fled via Cracow across the border into the Ukraine. A Ukrainian driver offered to take them there. However, he was a people smuggler for the German border police. So they were caught in a trap. Everything they had was taken off them and they were thrown into a partly flooded cellar. After one night, all the refugees were chased into the river which formed the border. Both brothers reached the Polish border, because Jacob Herfeld was a strong swimmer. They made their way to relations in Cracow, who took them in. But Jacob Herfeld could not bear life there, for “the bread of strangers doesn’t taste sweet”; besides, he knew that they had left their mother alone in Warsaw, old and ill. He wanted to fetch her. Along with his brother, for whom he felt responsible, he went to Lemberg. There was a Commission, at which one could apply for permission to travel to Warsaw. However, that was unsuccessful. So he attempted the journey illegally and was caught by the NKWD, the Soviet secret service at that time. “I was in jail for a month with 60 others – thieves, murderers – in the cell.” Then the long journey began, on foot and by ship to the far north, to the Carelian border with the Soviet Union. Jacob Herfeld ended up in the Gulag Jerzewa. He was tried there and sentenced to three years in prison for crossing the border illegally. He refused to give more information or to sign any confessions. The fact that he was a Jew fleeing the Nazis made no difference. “I just wanted to save my life! The living conditions were terrible. We lived in primitive wooden barracks and were forced to fell trees in the forest. I was the only German; all the others were Poles, Russians and Lithuanians. I needed all my energy and my former sportsman’s training to survive the dreadful exertions, tortures and insults.” The three year sentence was finally over in 1943. Jacob Herfeld was not released, however, because he had no personal identity documents. It was decided that he must remain in the camp until the war was over. In 1945 he asked once more to be released, but instead he was taken to another camp, a death camp. “I was held in solitary confinement for nine months, undergoing interrogations and physical and mental torture.” He was sentenced by a military court to six more years’ imprisonment for spying against the Soviet Union. He was taken to a different camp, near Kargopol. “We were 'like dead men' in the camps, cut off from all information; we didn’t even hear at once that the war was over. I didn’t know what was going on in the world. No-one was allowed to talk to us.” Jacob Herfeld spent a total of ten years in different camps, before he was finally released. However, he still had to stay in the USSR, but he arranged to be released from the cold into the warmth of Central Asia. He travelled via Tashkent to Mary in Turkmenistan. He was now 38 years old and owned a rucksack, a kilo of sugar and one fish.
When he arrived in Mary, he met a man from Bessarabia in the street. He spoke Yiddish and helped Jacob to find his first job, as a boxing trainer. He did not enjoy this, so he trained as a mechanic in a MTS company, repairing agricultural machinery. “I met my wife Nadia, a Volga German, in 1951. She took me on with no papers, with nothing, a former convict with a shaven head and no documents.” They lived together for ten years without getting married, but had no children, because sadly their situation seemed unsuitable for a child. “How could I have looked after a child properly? I was a nobody; do I have the right to start a family?” By the time Jacob finally received his Soviet passport, they were both too old to have the children they had hoped for.
Nadia soon became seriously ill. Jacob Herfeld looked after her for twenty years, as she had looked after him when he came out of the camps. “I loved her so much, more than my life. I gave her the biggest part of my life out of gratitude.”
The friend from Bessarabia had relations in Israel. Jacob Herfeld knew that his sister had emigrated to Israel in 1938, with one of his boxing friends. Because he could remember the name of the kibbutz, Quahamakabi, his friend’s relations were able to find his sister, so brother and sister could contact each other at last, from 1956 onwards. A lawyer, a friend of his sister’s, ensured that Jacob Herfeld was recognised in Berlin as a victim of Nazi persecution and that he also received a victim’s pension in the Soviet Union, via Moscow. This was a great help, enabling them to go to a health spa every year for Nadia’s asthma. This resulted in an marked improvement in her health. After 13 years in Central Asia, they moved to Balachov on the Volga and married there, because Nadia was afraid that her husband would perhaps leave the country without her one day.
Nadia died on 19 April 1998 of a thyroid infection. Jacob Herfeld was in hospital at the time with a broken hip joint. So he was not able to see his wife again or to arrange her funeral himself. “Strangers buried her.”
Jacob Herfeld’s sister in Israel had told him what had happened to his brother and his mother. Neither had survived. His brother was shot by the 'Nightingale Brigade' (Brigade Nachtigall) in a wood 20 km beyond Krakau. His mother was killed in a gas van. “My loved ones have no graves. I went to Poland in 1968 but found no traces of them, only mass graves. I went to the Polish embassy as well, but they could not help.”
When Michael Gorbachev became President of the USSR, Jews finally had the chance to emigrate to Israel. Herfeld’s three previous applications had been refused. He arrived in Israel in October 1988 and met his sister again after 50 years. He met her three children and twelve grandchildren. He did not want to live on the kibbutz, so he bought a flat in Tel Aviv. However, he did not like the life in Israel. He did not live according to Jewish laws and so felt that he was not accepted and still a stranger. “I’m not Hassidic!” Besides, the climate did not suit him. He felt drawn back to Berlin, his home town. “In November 1989 I came back home.”
Jacob Herfeld received a German passport immediately. He had already found a flat, when he was in Berlin for a visit. “At last I came back to the country where I had spent the best years of my life, my childhood in Fehrbelliner Strasse and my youth. I was singing inside. I was happy, I was contented. Here in Berlin people speak my mother tongue. I never stopped being the German I had once been. I understand the people here. Now I have returned, I have found once again the Germans I agree with, the democratic Germans, not the fascist Germans.”
Sadly, Jacob Herfeld did not find any of his old friends from his younger days in Berlin. They had all died, or been murdered, or had emigrated.
[Author’s note: Jacob Herfeld did not want to give more information. Telling his story stirred him up so much that he could not sleep for many nights.]