The story of Ruth Malin
MY MEMORIES OF THE CHILDREN’S HOME AT FEHRBELLINER STRASSE 92
Text: Ruth Malin, née Anders, Summer 2003
It was already dark when we entered the Jewish children’s home at Fehrbelliner Strasse 92, holding our uncle’s hands, walked up the stairs and knocked on an office door. A lady received us; she spoke to my uncle, whose hand I was holding. It all seemed so dark and gloomy. Then my uncle said goodbye and promised to visit us. He left hastily; it must have been painful for him too. It was February 1940. The war was already under way. My twin sister and I were nine years old.
My father, who came from Cracow in Poland, had succeeded in emigrating to America. He was in danger of being taken to the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen. He had a brother in America; we were supposed to follow him. My mother went daily to the American consulate and was sent away again and again. I cannot forget those sad hours. The desperation!! My mother was not the only one!
We had already known for years that my father would have to leave us sometime, for many Jews who came from Poland were the first to be sent to the camp at Sachsenhausen and rarely came back. Every day we had to comfort the children who shared this terrible fate.
There were many mixed marriages. My father came from Cracow, my mother from Berlin. According to the new laws my father was not allowed to work and he had to report regularly to the police headquarters at Alexanderplatz (in the city centre) to extend his residence permit. At home we were always frightened. What was going to happen? We were deeply attached to our father, because my mother had to work so hard to support the family. Then father’s visa arrived and he had to leave. So we were left alone.
My mother became seriously ill. Gradually she had to sell all our things to pay the expenses. There were four of us children. My oldest brother Theo succeeded in getting sent to England with the “Kindertransport”. We three younger ones stayed with my seriously ill mother. We were seven or eight and our brother Benno was eleven. She suffered for two years, no one helped her, no hospital took her in, no doctor came, no nurse gave her an infusion, she was given no oxygen. It was just her and us – so she suffocated before our eyes on 7 January 1940 of tuberculosis of the larynx. All the years since then have not been able to drive away this sight!
Then my brother Benno went to the agricultural school at Schniebinchen to prepare for going to Israel. Here he met Carla Wagenberg. We were taken to the children’s home in the Fehrbelliner Strasse 92, where we met Sylvia Wagenberg. Of course we no longer knew what a well-ordered life was when we first arrived at the children’s home. Order and discipline dominated there. It was very hard to start with. School and homework were taken very seriously. However we received a lot of help, because we had very good teachers at the school in Auguststrasse. Most of them were no longer allowed to teach at the university because they were Jewish and so the Jewish Community gave them jobs in their schools. So the teaching standard was very high. I’m amazed sometimes at the amount they taught us in all areas. They enriched us with German and Jewish culture.
We had a music teacher, Alfred Loewy, whom everyone called “Pencil” because he was so small and thin. He was a genius! He gave us the best present of all – the love of music. In the worst times we sang Beethoven’s ninth symphony in his choir. As if the hatred raging outside had nothing to do with us, we all sang loudly, “All people become brothers” (Alle Menschen werden Brüder). When I hear it today it fills me with the same feeling of comfort I felt back then. We also sang “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen“, Papageno`s aria from “The Magic Flute“. We learnt poems like Goethe’s “Erlkönig” and “Der Sänger” (“The Minstrel”), Schiller’s “Die Glocke” (“The Bell”) and Heine’s poems “Belsazar” and “Lorelei” and the folksong “Die Gedanken sind frei” (“Thoughts are Free”) and “John Maynard” by Fontane.
Sylvia and Carla Wagenberg saved their lives by music, by playing in the Girl’s Orchestra at Auschwitz. After the war I met survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen in Israel, who told me that they were taught the song „Thoughts are Free” by other fellow prisoners – to give them a bit of comfort. “Pencil” died, as did my schoolmates and most of the children from the children’s home. Our teachers and those who cared for us were murdered, all those who had a pure heart, a profound soul and who thought positively. WE have lost them all. By “We”, I mean Germany as well, because they were the bearers of the German and the Jewish culture. A memorial tablet for “Pencil” has been put up at the Jewish High School Grosse Hamburger Strasse. One of the rooms bears his name. I would love to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, before this tablet.
I would like to go back to the children’s home and talk about the children! There was a crèche for the very small children. Fräulein Ganz was responsible for them. We bigger children were allowed to help her sometimes. The babies were really sweet, it was such a joy. There was an after-school group too; these children went back home in the evenings. Most of them were like us, though; they lived in the children’s home too. They were children whose fathers had been taken to Sachsenhausen and had not returned. The mothers had to do forced labour and could hardly look after the children. New pieces of bad news reached us every day. The laws against Jews were continually being tightened. There were daily demands to report to the Gestapo, the secret police. We felt this even in the children’s home. Mothers came to collect their children and take them on the 'transports', the transfers of Jews to the ghettos or concentration camps. Many were sent back to Poland, from where their grandparents had emigrated to Germany years before. They had to go to the ghetto in Lodcz. My husband comes from Lodcz and was in the ghetto for a few years; he can remember them. Many of them were sent straight on to Auschwitz. The hunger, the cold, the hardship, not knowing the language: that killed them at once. People died like flies.
One of my best friends was sent on one of the transports. She came and gave me her doll, which she adored. “Yes,” she said, “She’ll be safe with you.” I kept the doll for a long time, to give back to her one day. I knew what the doll meant to her and couldn’t believe it.We were eleven years old at the time. I cried a lot when my friend had gone and the doll was my most precious possession. Even today I cannot say goodbye; I’d rather run away. The moments of fear are still with me today. They are engraved in my soul.
Yes, I was woken in the night more than once by other children’s sobs in the children’s home. More than once I sat by someone’s bed to comfort them, hug them and give warmth. The longing to see our parents, brothers and sisters, grandparents and relations overwhelmed us children. We couldn’t sleep for the fear, the hopelessness and helplessness.
I often think of the tormented end of many of the children, and I often accompany them on their way to the crematorium. They are not just numbers to us; they are engraved on our memories. They were children who never harmed anyone, who had a right to live. They live on in our hearts and our souls. I was fortunate that I had my sister and she had me. We often cried and suffered terrible longing and terrible fear. Even survival has not freed us of that.
Then the moment came when we were told we must wear the Star of David. Of course we wondered what it would look like. How big would it be? Where would we have to wear it? Then we got them. They had to be sewn on securely; not to do so was a crime. It could cost you your life. Fear oppressed us completely; you cannot get rid of that feeling of fear. Yes, then there they were! We no longer walked to school, we ran. Children ran after us, cursed us, threw stones at us or grabbed one of us and beat him up. All the way down Choriner Strasse. In winter the children made snowballs with stones in them. No policemen intervened, nor any of the passers by. They just watched; not all of them looked away, most of them watched. We were helpless victims. In the children’s home they were glad when we got back safely. At school we went on learning in all seriousness. We learnt the folksong “Die Gedanken sind Frei” (“Thoughts are Free”) to take away our fear and to release us from the feelings of humiliation. I don’t know where it came from, but all of a sudden we had a saying: “Don’t be ashamed of being Jewish! Don’t grieve about being Jewish! Your pride and honour, be a fighter for Judaism!” This gave us a little courage and we said it with great pathos.
In the children’s home they tried to insulate us from the outside world, for which we three, Regina, Ruth and Sylvia, will be eternally grateful. The Fridays evenings were wonderful. The table was ceremoniously laid. The candles were lit and after the meal, we sang the song “Shier Hamalot”. It is a song of thankfulness to be sung after the meal. Afterwards each child could choose what he or she wanted to do. There was a book corner, where Fraulein Guttmann read from the best children’s literature. The book which influenced me most was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. I could understand the characters and their fate especially well. Then we had a dolls’ corner, where we could imagine and build our dream house. There was also a corner for educational board games. That was wonderful!
Last time I was in Berlin I brought back the board games Ludo and “Hüpf mein Hütchen”. My grandchildren love these games especially, because I loved playing them as a child.
Some kittens were born in the back yard. When we wanted to play with them, that meant that we were allowed to go to bed an hour later, but in return we had to mend ten pieces of clothing – by hand, of course – or darn socks. I was really enthusiastic about this. I spent a lot of time with the kittens. Those were our happy moments. We children forgot everything.
We wore our best clothes for the festivals. We played with the little tops called trendel at Hanukkah. At Purim, we dressed up and acted in Purim plays. We sang and danced together. Both at school and in the children’s home, the adults tried not to let us see their troubles. Lessons went on as normal. I have often asked myself, “How did the adults manage to hide their fear from us and to create a children’s world for us we could live in?”
Then the air raid alarms and the blackout started. The windows were blacked out with black paper. But funny pictures in bright colours appeared on the black background. Each child had a cot in the cellar. I remember that as soon as the alarm sounded, gentle hands came and took us downstairs to our cots, sometimes while we were still asleep. I remember that sometimes I just went on sleeping. After the alarm, we went back upstairs again. It got worse and worse. But I don’t remember that we ever went hungry.
Clothes! The Jewish Community had charity clothing stores, a type of winter assistance. One of them was in Choriner Strasse. Jewish people who were emigrating, and those who had to go on a transport and could only take a limited amount of things with them, brought them to the clothing store. One of the carers from the children’s home always went there with her own children. I remember getting my clothes there, hunting among the other things for shoes and everything else I needed. After breakfast in the morning we went to school. Some of the girls went to the girls’ school in Auguststrasse and the boys to the boys’ school in Rykestrasse or Grosse Hamburger Strasse or Kaiserstrasse. It was a very long way because we were no longer allowed to take the buses or trams. There was no spoiling in the children’s home; we always had cold showers, summer and winter alike. I think they did it to toughen us for life. Yet we were given a lot of help too.
Yes, there were a lot of goodbyes. When the mothers received a Gestapo order to report for one of the transports, of course they came and fetched their children, to take them with them. No one suspected where the journey would really end. As a child I thought that they went to a place where only Jews lived. We had no idea of ghettos, still less of death camps. We gave the children the warmest things we had. The coats were slit open and small valuable objects and money were sown into the lining. We realized that these things had to be hidden. I don’t know how we knew. We lived in that atmosphere, we breathed that air. Today we know how little all this hiding of things in coats helped the victims. Nothing escaped the devilish cunning of the murderers and criminals.
I must tell another sad story. One day a new girl arrived; she was about eight years old. Two men, apparently from the Gestapo, brought her. She sat there crying her heart out. Fräulein Guttmann and Fräulein Levin took the older children to one side. They asked us to take care of her and told us her story. She was adopted; her parents were Nazis. An investigation of adopted children revealed that she was of Jewish descent. The child was taken by the Gestapo and brought to us. The parents were forbidden to visit the child. We hugged and comforted her: she needn’t be frightened; we were fond of her; nothing bad would happen. Frau Guttmann and the other carers also took special care of her.
I felt extremely sorry for her because she had been torn away from her normal life so suddenly. She had no idea what Jewish people were. Of course she had to wear the Star of David too. The child calmed down and got used to our life. But when the children’s home was closed in 1942, she went the same way as all the other children, into the death camps. The thought of this is deeply painful. I have very often thought of her mother. It is one thing to be a Nazi but another to lose a child.
The times got worse and worse and more and more laws were passed which made our lives hell. There were cards for everything but you couldn’t get most things on the Jewish cards. One day, three of our carers – Fräulein Levin, Fräulein Ganz and Fräulein Guttmann – had very bad colds and needed lemons. I said I would try to find a lemon. I went from one greengrocer’s to another. They all said they had no lemons for me, because they saw the star. I was in despair and disappointed, but nevertheless I went into one more greengrocer’s. Luckily for me there was no one in the shop, only the shop assistant. When I asked for a lemon, she said, “Give me your bag,” and she quickly got the lemons from under the counter and threw them into my bag. She didn’t want any money for them and said, “Take care, child and walk quickly.” I cannot describe my gratitude.
When I got back to the children’s home, I felt as though I had saved our carers’ lives with the lemons. The joy they felt still gives me pleasure today. Yes, then there was the other time. I was supposed to be fetching some kind of syrup from the chemists, but I didn’t pay any attention to the sign saying, 'No entry for Jews!!' I went into the chemists when a man jumped out from behind the counter, grabbed me violently, opened the door and threw me out into the street. I rolled a few meters and lay still. His voice echoed after me: “You damned Jewish swine! Can’t you see that there’s a notice saying, 'No entry for Jews'!” Where did this inhumanity and aggression come from? There may have been many reasons, but they don’t excuse this behaviour. A great deal of educational effort is still necessary to get rid of such reasons. I have given these two examples to show that there was a friendly way and an inhuman way. Yes, and then there are those who didn’t do anything, of whom Albert Einstein wrote:
“The world is too dangerous to live in, not because of the people who do evil, but because of the people who stand by and let them.” I would like to add another side of life in the children’s home. We went to the synagogue at festivals and on Saturdays. We belonged to the big synagogue in Oranienburger Strasse. It was the biggest synagogue in Europe, built in the Moorish style. There were three choirs in this synagogue: a men’s choir, a women’s choir and a children’s choir. A lot of the children from the children’s home sang in this choir. My sister and I and Sylvia Wagenburg sang too. My sister sang “Hear O Israel” as a solo. Her voice sounded enormous in the huge room, which also seemed to have very good acoustics. We knew all the prayers and chants in Hebrew by heart. We could read Hebrew very well because we had learnt it at school. Of course we didn’t understand very much. For us it was the holy language we used when we prayed. We sang fervently and the people prayed fervently. After the prayers, the singers mingled and talked to each other. They shared their troubles and exchanged the latest news. It broke our hearts to see the worried faces. People told each other that someone or other had been taken away, or someone who should have returned had not come back or someone could not obtain an emigration visa and was desperate. What could one do? Everyone rejoiced when the Cohen family succeeded in obtaining visas for Peking. My sister and I stood on one side and listened. We were only small children but we understood the distress, the fear, the despair! We are still standing there, for we knew the people who were standing there and the people they were talking about. Their children were our schoolfellows. We all belonged to one community, the community in Oranienburger Strasse.
When the news came that the children’s home was to be closed and everyone was to go to the Auerbach’s orphanage, my sister decided to go to our guardian in the Jewish Community and ask if she could find us a foster family. My sister was determined to avoid the orphanage at all costs. At first I knew nothing about this. But when she didn’t come home from school one day and everyone was getting worried, a phone call came from the Jewish Community that Regina was there. Our guardian, a Dr…….. – I have forgotten her name – said to Regina, “I don’t know if it will be possible, my child, but I will try.” Next day the answer came that she had found something. So we were taken in by Jewish foster parents.
I still don’t know how our guardian managed it. She may have been urged on by the thought that she could perhaps save us. As an adult, she could easily imagine the reason behind the gathering of all the children from the orphanages and children’s homes and then taking them away. That is what happened! None of them returned. It was 1942.
We were taken in by foster parents in Dragonerstrasse. 1942 to 1943 was a terrible year. When air raids came, we stayed in the flat on the top floor. Herr Schier, as the man was called, said, “We will stay here, because Jews aren’t allowed in the cellar; we’re only allowed to stand on the stairs during air raids. They are going to kill us anyway, so it’s better to be killed here by a bomb.” We went hungry with the family. The atmosphere was full of fear. Nothing was kept from the children here. Everything was discussed in front of us. No one talked about anything other than what was happening. One piece of bad news after another. The danger of being taken away was ever present. Uncertainty and fear squeezed our throats and made our hearts beat faster. My sister and I cannot escape this feeling of fear. It keeps rising up from the subconscious, as though it had all happened yesterday.
Then came the day - it was already evening - when we heard the Gestapo’s boots on the stairs, hands hammered on the door and they shouted that we should bring only the most necessary things and come downstairs at once. All the Jews were already gathered downstairs. The Jewish neighbours all come out of their flats, children, adults and old people. We marched off, the SS with their guns on both sides. It was a long column marching through the streets. People stood on the roadsides watching. Some were quite silent but many cursed for joy and hatred. We marched to Grosse Hamburger Strasse, to the former Jewish old people’s home which had now been transformed into a prison and collecting point. We arrived and were thrown in groups into completely empty rooms. People settled down on the floor as well as they could. The door was locked, no one could get out. The windows were barred. Other children were with their father or mother; we were alone. Sometime the door opened and some prisoners were taken out or new ones arrived. Among the new arrivals was a girl called Inge Levy with her parents. We knew her; she was a little older than we were and attended a higher class at the same school. When the school was closed and all the children had to do forced labour, she worked with us. In the evening I stood by the window looking out and thinking, “Now we are prisoners. I will never see the woods or lakes, the trees or flowers again.” The next day the door opened, Inge and her parents were called and told that they were to be released temporarily. They sometimes did this when they needed someone urgently for a certain job. I gave Inge a piece of paper with my aunt’s address and said, “You must go to my aunt; she doesn’t know we’re here”. We were twelve, Inge was nearly fourteen. She went to my aunt and simply said, “You must do something, you must get them out, or they will be sent away.”
My mother came from a Christian family and had lived in an area where a lot of Jewish families lived, with whom she then became friends and whose family life with the Friday evenings she admired. When she was eighteen she fell in love with a Jewish boy, married him and converted to Judaism. She had two children, our two brothers. Her first husband was twenty-six when he died of a serious illness. Our father, a friend of his, promised him that he would support and help my mother. That is what he did. Gradually they fell in love and we were born. They did not marry, so it would be easier for my father to emigrate to America. We had her maiden name. That was now our salvation.
Now we can go back to the Gestapo in Grosse Hamburger Strasse. One or two days passed; then we were called from the room we were in to an office. This was one storey lower down. We were registered there and a cardboard label was hung around our necks with a transport number and the name Theresienstadt. Whenever the authorities had gathered enough people together for a transport, a truck came. The prisoners were loaded onto the truck and taken to the station. My brother was taken to Auschwitz from there with all the young people, with Carla Wagenberg and Sylvia Wagenberg.
Another day passed, the door opened and my sister and I were called out and taken to the office. Our uncle, our mother’s youngest brother, was standing there. We were so happy, we held him tightly. Our uncle told the Gestapo man in the office that our mother was dead and that he didn’t know who our father was. There had been a mistake. The children were not Jewish. His name was Anders and the girls were called Anders too, our mother’s maiden name, his sister. And that was our good fortune. The man in the office said, ”I’ll release the children temporarily, until we have investigated. But I’ll give you an appointment. You must report in one month to the Gestapo in Burgstrasse with the children. They can take off the Star of David for now.”
A miracle happened; we could hardly believe it; we were out. Now we sisters were separated. One went to our grandmother and one to our aunt, my mother’s sister. Now a bad time began. My aunt was 29 at the time and had two small children. Only now can I really imagine the fear she endured. A month later we had to go to Burgstrasse. As we approached the house, some SS men pulled three or four men wearing Stars of David out of the house to the vehicles waiting in the road. The prisoners could not walk, they staggered. They had been thoroughly beaten up. Blood was flowing from their faces and heads. I have never forgotten the sight of them. At that time I didn’t know what I know now, from the book “Stella”, that there were terrible torture chambers in the Gestapo cellars. My aunt showed the paper with our appointment and we were admitted. Doors were unlocked and locked again behind us, until we reached the third floor. We were taken into a room with an ante-room. My aunt went in first by herself. We waited outside. She had impressed upon us that if anyone asked, we should say we had never seen our father, we did not know him and we had never been to a Jewish school. An SS man came out with my aunt, looked at us and asked us some questions; I don’t know what, my heart was beating so hard and I tried to pull myself together and look unconcerned. It was the same for my sister. He said, “Take the children back home for the time being until we have investigated further.” Our faces showed nothing. My aunt was given a note with his signature which enabled us to take the lift downstairs and to leave the house. Everything was closely guarded. We breathed again when we got outside. We didn’t know at that time that we had just escaped from the lion’s jaws. Our aunt was a nervous wreck!
From 1943 to 1945 we were in fear of our lives. Our aunt was very irritable and nervous. The investigations could have betrayed us. We still don’t know how it happened that they forgot us. Every time someone knocked at the door we got a shock. Every official letter was opened with fear and trembling. Was it because of the air raids? The bombs? The Russian advance on Stalingrad? Who knows? We were afraid to go out into the street. “Stella” is an example of how people were caught. We knew about her existence too. The Jewish Community had warned us about her earlier. Very few of those in hiding survived. It was terrible. We knew that we were also endangering our relations. However, we did not know that our aunt brought food to other Jews in their hiding place. But those people who survived told the new Jewish Community about it after the war. The Community wanted to give her a monthly pension but she said, “NO. I did not do it for money!!” Yes, so we survived the danger, we were still alive and then went to Israel to our brother. He was one reason and the other was that I knew that this country Israel would always have an open door for all Jewish people in need.
Yes, then one asks oneself how we survived? How did history affect the rest of our lives? The word Holocaust still makes me shudder. If someone near me says the word “selection”, I correct it silently to “choice”. I don’t like it at all when the usher in the cinema tells people to go to the left or right. Whenever my sister and I take part in a service, wherever it may be, the people FROM THERE are standing next to us – our schoolmates, parents, grandparents, their relations, the members of our community; we are shaken by deep sobs; we mourn the fate of those murdered. They were innocent; they wanted to live. We try to hide our tears, because those around us do not understand.
My brother was in Auschwitz, was tattooed with a number, had to undress completely and his whole body was shaved, so that he did not recognize himself. He was fourteen or fifteen. He thought, now I am no longer a person, only an animal, and he was treated like one. He survived and he quoted a song to me, which he called “Comfort in hard times in the camp” by Körner.
„One thing I know, and it makes me strong and sure. No night was so dark that the light did not endure. No winter’s ice so hard that it did not melt in spring. No prison walls so lasting that they weren’t worn down by time.” [author’s translation]
This song gave him courage. He survived all the forced labour, the torments, humiliations, fears and the death march and straight after his liberation he went to Israel. He has children, grandchildren and recently even a great-grandchild. When I look at her, I think, “Where are the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who were murdered?” They were all murdered too. They did not even have the right to be born. The murder was three- and fourfold; it was an absolute murder.
The second and third generation alive today only now realize what was done to them as well, because they have to cope with their parents’ pain. It is difficult for them to identify themselves with their parents and at the same time to maintain a positive world view. For a long time they did not understand where all their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were. We survivors mostly kept quiet; we wanted our children to grow up normally, to have the happy childhood we did not have. We have only partly succeeded, sometimes not at all. My daughter made a film about my and my sister’s life. She went to Berlin too, but came back very broken.
It was 60 years before I could write about my experiences, but now I wanted to recall the children and carers in the children’s home at Fehrbelliner Strasse 92. It was 60 years ago but it is like yesterday. God preserve their memories. Amen. Ruth Malin.