Inge Franken

The Story of Regina St.

Memories of the Jewish children’s home

Text:Regina St. née Anders. Written in summer 2003

My name is Regina St. née Anders. I and my twin sister Ruth were born on 24 October 1930 in Berlin. We have two older brothers, Benno and Theo. Our brother Benno, who lives in Israel with us, survived Auschwitz, was liberated in Bergen-Belsen and emigrated to Palestine in 1945. Before his deportation in 1943 he was at the Hachschara training camp in Schniebinchen. From there he was taken to Auschwitz with his comrades, including Carla and Sylvia Wagenberg. My brother Theo was also in Schniebinchen and was fortunately able to reach England on a Kindertransport, the Refugee Children’s Movement to enable Jewish children to escape from Germany. From there he intended to go on to Palestine, but was not able to because the Second World War broke out.

My father came from Cracow in Poland and was not a German citizen. His brothers and sisters, who lived in America, arranged a visa for him, so he was lucky enough to be able to leave Germany in 1938. The parting was traumatic for all of us, and he too suffered from it for the rest of his life. We were devoted to each other. When he left, we were eight and stayed behind with Benno and our mother, who was already very ill. She died two years later of tuberculosis on 7 January 1940.

We had made efforts to obtain entry documents for the USA, to join our father. But then, unfortunately, war broke out. My brother Theo left Berlin after the famous “Kristallnacht”. I can still remember very clearly how the synagogues burnt. My brothers ran there to rescue the Thora Rolls, but people who lived opposite the synagogue had already done that. So they brought singed prayer books back home, which were piled up in our flat to be buried later. The windows of all the Jewish shops were broken and the glass splinters were scattered everywhere in the streets. A horde of people plundered everything they could get their hands on. A wild, inhuman sight, which I can still see before my eyes today. I have told the story of my family briefly, to give an insight into how they were torn apart and scattered all over the world.

When Hitler took power, the persecution of the Jews began in all areas of daily life. Even in kindergarten and later at school I felt the hatred, the rejection and the gradually increasing anti-semitic propaganda which led to acts of violence in the streets and reached a climax in the “Kristallnacht”. Even as a small child, I was aware of the brutal events and was afraid. Father was a Polish Jew, a so-called “Eastern Jew”. He could not obtain a work permit and had to report regularly to the police headquarters at Alexanderplatz in the centre of Berlin. Mother and we children were always worried until he came home at last. So there was no lack of excitement and tension. I recall these moments because it was the same for many Jewish families. Sadly, only the few survivors can tell their story; the others have been silenced for ever.

Our father and mother enrolled us in the first grade of the Jewish girls’ school in Auguststrasse in 1936. I remember my first day at school. It was a celebration for us, with our big bags of presents and with both our parents, despite the difficult times. We attended this wonderful school until it was closed down. Afterwards we attended the Jewish boys’ school in Kaiserstrasse. Lessons there took place either in the morning or in the afternoon, because there were too many children. That continued until 1942 when the Jewish schools were closed down. We attended school from the ages of 6 to 12.

After the war we were able to rebuild our lives here in Israel with the treasures that our teachers had taught us. All that we gained in those hard years has remained deep in our souls. It gave me the strength to survive in isolation and to be liberated in 1945. I acquired the strength to keep my innermost thoughts private and not to show anything on the outside.

Hard reality was daily present at school too, for girls came to school sad and weeping because their fathers or older brothers had been picked up in the night. No one knew their fate and no one knew whether they would ever come home again. The fortunate ones who were released told of physical maltreatment and terrible interrogations. They had to leave Germany within 24 hours. That was often impossible, because exit and entry papers could not be obtained in so short a time. Many of those arrested were taken to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Many disappeared and no one knew where.

Our fate bound us together, teachers and pupils. We comforted each other and tried to ease our suffering. The teachers did their best to calm the girls down and to encourage them. In this terrible time, the school was an island in Berlin, in which one tried to create a normal child’s world for us children. Our teachers communicated values to us which were bound up with the soul and with human kindness. I can clearly remember my dear class teacher who set us poems to learn. I learnt poems like the folksong “Die Gedanken sind Frei” (“Thoughts are free”), Schiller’s “Die Glocke” (The Bell”) and “Die Bürgschaft” (“The Pledge”) and many others. We learnt them by heart verse by verse and I have never forgotten them; they have stayed with me in the darkest times of the Nazi persecution and until today. The poems were intended to encourage us and raise our morale, to help us not to lose our belief in goodness. We also heard the message that we Jewish people were equal to others and the significance of the Jewish contribution to mankind. We also learnt many other subjects such as maths, German, English, Hebrew, history, sport, music and art. We were attacked in the streets and learnt the poem:

Don’t be ashamed of being Jewish!
Don’t grieve about being Jewish!
Your pride and honour,
Be a fighter for Judaism!

Our school in Auguststrasse and our kindergarten, the Jewish Community and the large synagogue in Oranienburger Strasse were all parts of a complex which was bound together.

Carers holding Ernst and Herbert Czerniak on the balcony of the children’s home.
Photo: Sylvia Wagenberg

After our mother’s tragic death, we were taken to the Jewish children’s home in Fehrbelliner Strasse 92. We were only nine and had watched mother suffering for years from an incurable disease. The tragic loss of our mother and the painful parting from our dear father and our older brothers had a traumatic effect on us children. Our older brothers were very dear to us. We were the pampered little ones and they looked after us. Suddenly we were all alone, and in this state we arrived at the children’s home. Fraulein Bamberger took us in and gave us a room on the first floor. After checking that we were not suffering from any contagious illness, we moved to the third floor, where the children’s home was located, the children’s dormitories and the dining hall, which was also used for cultural events. There was also a room we called the “folding bed room”. During the daytime, the beds were folded up and hidden behind a curtain. There were books on the upper shelves. That was our library. There were chairs beside each bed and we children could sit there and read in peace. There was a table in the middle of the room where we could do our homework. My sister and I loved reading, because then we were in another world, our dream world.

There was a wide selection of children’s books in the Library, such as the “Nesthäkchen” series by Else Ury - I read all of them. Some time ago I received a Berlin City brochure. Part of it dealt with the life of the writer Else Ury, who was murdered in Auschwitz. How sad and cruel! Her books are popular again now with a wide readership in Germany. Some other books I remember are “The Story of Dr. Dolittle”, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, all the Tarzan books and many more.

Our carer Fräulein Bamberger, the head of the children’s home, Fräulein Guttmann and Fräulein Gerda Levin, were highly educated and they knew their job. This was visible in many ways in our daily lives. They took us into the home with great love and understanding and did their best to give us children a warm, caring home. This made our first days and the rest of our time at the children’s home much easier, until it was closed down in 1942.

The people who ran the children’s home ensured that we received a traditional Jewish upbringing. We celebrated the Jewish festivals such as Pessach, Rosh Hashana, Purim, Simchat Thora, Succoth and Hanukkah. I particularly remember the Hanukkah festival in 1941. All the children were busy for weeks beforehand making presents for the carers and the staff, to be given on the first evening of Hanukkah. After lighting the Hanukkah candles we sang the Hebrew songs and every child received a present from our dear carers. I clearly remember that I received a tin with coloured pieces of soap and a pipe with which I could blow the prettiest soap bubbles. Of course I was really pleased. Children and carers enjoyed the festival atmosphere of the evening. I have never forgotten that evening. I feel sad every Hanukkah evening. The songs bring tears to my eyes and I remember the dear people who were all murdered.

Friday evenings were special events for us. A different girl lit the Sabbath candles each time and blessed the bread and the wine with the Kiddush prayer. We had a festive, delicious meal and at the end we sang grace, the Shir-Hamaalot. Then we cleared the table and prepared the room for games. Fräulein Guttmann read aloud to a group of children in one corner. I really enjoyed listening to the stories and could hardly wait for the next Friday to find out what happened next. Fräulein Levin occupied another group with educational games. We children could choose which group we joined. The warm atmosphere of these evenings was a great pleasure and joy for us children and gave us the feeling of living in a fairy tale land. I still admire how our carers managed to give us this feeling of security. For even then, the ground was burning beneath the feet of the Jewish population.

Now I would like to write something about my best friends, who were in the children’s home with me from 1940 to 1942, and how they came to be in the children’s home. What these children all had in common was that the police had first arrested and taken away their fathers and their older brothers. The mothers had to do forced labour and could no longer look after their children. I always say: “First Hitler turned the children into orphans. They had to go to orphanages. In the end he sent them to Auschwitz to their deaths. That was the fate of the children in our children’s home and of 1 ½ million other Jewish children during the Nazi era in the Second World War.!”

Two of my best friends of my own age were sisters, Erica and Meta Haitner. They told me about their father who was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen. He was set free on condition that he leave Berlin with his family within 24 hours. Father and mother received an entry permit for Palestine from the Palestine office in Meineckestrasse. The authorities promised that the children would follow later on another ship. The parents would never have left their girls alone if they had not been forced to leave Berlin at once. They would have been in danger of immediate re-arrest and perhaps a death sentence. Many people suffered this fate. Because the war then broke out, the two girls could not leave Berlin. They too were murdered in Auschwitz.

Ruth and Thea Fuss

Ruth and Thea Fuss were two other friends. Thea was in our class at the school in Auguststrasse. Their father had been arrested by the Nazis and their mother obtained an entry permit for Sweden and hoped that her daughters would be able to join her. This did not work out. One day a group of us were on the way to school with Thea. We met a group of workers who were digging a ditch. As we got closer, Thea recognized her father among the workers. She ran towards the ditch, calling “Papa, papa!” loudly. Her father looked at her in shock and put his finger to his mouth to tell her to be quiet. All those workers were Jewish prisoners. The chance meeting with Thea’s father was such a shocking, tragic and sad event that I cannot forget it. Several other friends witnessed it too. We all tried to comfort Thea, who faced such a dreadful trial at the age of only ten. Ruth and Thea died in Auschwitz too.

I’ve never forgotten the cute twins Ernst and Herbert Czerniak. They were five years old. Unfortunately I can not say why the brothers were in the children’s home: I only know that we all loved them and spoilt them. They died in Auschwitz too. I still have a photo of little Ernst as well as one of Fräulein Ganz with the two of them when they were very small. I got the picture from Sylvia Wagenberg. She is the only girl from the children’s home we are still friends with today. She survived Auschwitz and went to Israel straight after her liberation from Bergen-Belsen.

Bitter fate brought us children into the children’s home. We were all saddened, depressed and fearful because of the violent separation from our families. Thanks to our affectionate carers the children also had many happy hours. They did all they could to make the stay in the home, away from their families, pleasant and to give them the feeling of security that all the children desperately needed.

I would like to recount one tragic case which shocked us all and which is not forgotten. One day a girl came to the home with a man. I can’t say whether it was her adoptive father or someone from the Gestapo. She had been adopted. No one in the family knew that she had a Jewish background. She was brought up as a Christian and knew nothing about being Jewish. Suddenly she was Jewish and had to leave her home, because her father was a Nazi. The poor girl came to us crying bitterly and shocked. She did not understand what had happened. All of a sudden she was Jewish and an orphan. A traumatic change which the girl could not understand. We hugged and comforted the poor thing, who had to face such an unexpected twist of fate in her life and who was hard to console. We tried to explain to her that we were good, caring people who would help her to get over her pain. The man left, she stayed with us and was probably murdered later with all the other children. I can clearly envisage this scene even today. What a terrible, cruel fate!

I would like to talk about two accidents I had while living in the children’s home. During a party which took place in the lower floor where the kindergarten and the after-school group met, Fräulein Guttmann asked me to carry a tray of sweets, or rather sugar bowls, downstairs. I tripped on the stairs and fell, injuring myself on the forehead above my left eye; it bled copiously. Everyone including myself got a real shock. I still have the scar today. The second time I collided with a girl during a race in a sport lesson. She got a black eye, very exciting, and I got concussion. My sister took me back to the children’s home and the doctor prescribed complete rest and light food. No one was allowed to speak to me. Fräulein Guttmann announced that at the mealtime. I was very well looked after and so I soon recovered. I always think about how well the children were looked after during this time. It must have been so hard for the carers! After all, these things happen to all children at that age.

Fräulein Bamberger was head of the children’s home and responsible for the whole house. Fräulein Guttmann and Fräulein Levin were the carers in the children’s home. Unfortunately I have no further information about these good people; I only know that Fräulein Levin came from Paderborn. I can clearly remember the evening before we had to start wearing the Star of David. Fräulein Guttmann and Fräulein Levin called us together in the dining hall where this sad event was discussed. They instructed us according to the Nazi regulation exactly where and how the star had to be sewn to our clothing. We were all frightened, of course, because now everyone could see at once that we were Jewish in the streets on the way to school and back. Fräulein Guttmann advised us to go in groups and to protect each other. Now the Hitler Youth could recognize us from a distance. They threw stones at us or snowballs in winter with stones in them and we were spitefully insulted. Our carers explained to us that we had no reason to be ashamed and the right to be proud of being Jewish. They referred to the significant contribution of the Jewish people to humankind.

The Jewish schools were closed in 1942 and we were no longer able to go to school after this point. On Saturdays and at festivals the children from the home all went to the large synagogue in Oranienburger Strasse. That was a particularly comforting experience for me. I sang solo in the choir, accompanied by the wonderful organ. I loved the chanting of the cantor, who had a good voice. Other exceptional singers often came, such as famous Richard Tucker. Our organist was blind. He was accompanied by his wife and I had a good relationship with them. The hours I spent in the synagogue were happy ones. They released me for a short time from the merciless reality.

We attended the girls’ school in Auguststrasse until 1941. The Nazis then confiscated the building and turned it into a military hospital, as far as I remember. So we all had to go to the boys’ elementary school in Kaiserstrasse. Lessons took place there in two shifts, morning and afternoon. The teachers were former university or grammar school teachers who had lost their jobs because they were Jewish. We have them to thank for the high standard of our education. It was fantastic! We learnt English, Hebrew and German from the first class onwards. They taught us the foreign languages because they were necessary for the English-speaking countries which took immigrants and for Palestine. In the school choir, I sang solo under the direction of a very special teacher. He was an excellent musician and we learnt about music, the notes, the instruments and singing. He also directed the choirs in all the schools in Berlin. He saved my friend Sylvia Wagenberg’s life and the lives of many other young people, because Sylvia played the flute in the girls’ orchestra in Auschwitz. His name was Loewy and we called him “Pencil” because he was so small. Through him we learnt to love music. We heard about Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and other composers. We sang songs for choirs and folksongs, e.g. “Brüder reicht die Hand zum Bund” (Brothers join hands), “Die Gedanken sind frei” (Thoughts are free), the final chorus from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and many other songs. Our teachers’ pedagogic knowledge and their excellent education conveyed rich knowledge and love of the subjects taught. The carers at the home were in close contact with the teachers. This enabled them to help us with our homework.

Of course there were many other children at the school who still lived at home with their parents. We heard daily about arrests and banishment. Children came to school in tears after the Gestapo had arrested members of their family during the night. Other children suddenly stopped coming to school; their fate remained unknown. The general atmosphere was very heavy after the frightening events and the personal tragedies of so many children. At home, at school and then in the children’s home, our lives were filled with fear and uncertainty. It became particularly hard for us once we were forced to wear the yellow star. One day the school was instructed to collect clothes for the “Winterhilfe”. All the children collected clothes from Jewish families, who had the star on their doors. Our teachers explained to us that we Jewish children had to collect more clothes than the Christian children or the Nazis could accuse us of sabotage. That caused much tension!

Additional anti-Semitic decrees forbade Jews to use trams and other means of public transport. Sitting on benches in parks and streets was also forbidden. Many shops closed their doors too: “Not for Jews” was written there. All these restrictions created fear and concern about the future. I remember the “Kristallnacht” which caused great panic and unrest in the Jewish population. Insecurity was everywhere; nowhere was one safe. The SA marched through the streets, cursing and slandering Judaism with loud, threatening voices. Rumours about more and more anti-Semitic laws spread like wildfire and increased the sense of insecurity. I experienced all this as a child. There was talk of shutting down the entire Jewish school system. A further rumour mentioned forced labour from the age of twelve.

In the summer of 1942, the children’s home received the order to vacate the house by a certain date. All inmates of the house, adults and children, were to move into the large Auerbach’s orphanage, where hundreds of children were already living. I was really shocked at this order and had absolutely no desire to go into such a large orphanage, where all the children wore the same clothes, or so I imagined. Without telling my sister or our carers, I went to the Jewish Community after school to our guardian, Dr. Silbermann. She was a delightful old lady with white hair, who was very friendly to me. I cried bitterly and said to her: “My mummy wouldn’t have wanted her “dolls” to go into an orphanage where all the children have to wear the same clothes.” Dr. Silbermann stood up and came round from behind her desk, put her arm round my shoulder and so I stopped crying. Then she said, “My child, I can not promise anything but I will try to find foster parents for you.” She phoned the children’s home to tell Fräulein Guttmann that I was with her. They had been very worried about me because not even my sister knew where I was. I hadn’t wanted anyone to stop me going to Dr. Silbermann, so I had not told anyone. This dear woman was murdered in the end, too.

Dr. Silbermann found Jewish foster parents for us. We were able to stay with Frau and Herr Schier for a whole year from 1942 to 1943. The other children from the home, the carers and the staff were taken to concentration camps and killed. My sister and I have never been able to get over this pain and loss. They were such dear, lovely people!! It was and remains incredible! Of all the children who still lived in Fehrbelliner Strasse 92 in 1942, only three girls survived: my sister Ruth and I and Sylvia Wagenberg who survived Auschwitz.

From 1942 onwards we three had to do forced labour in the Jewish Community, because we were already twelve years old. Sylvia delivered the letters to people who were destined for the transports, Ruth and I cleaned the toilets and offices in the Community, until Berlin was “Free of Jews”, that is until 1943. The Jewish Community property was confiscated by the Gestapo. Sylvia was deported to Auschwitz. Ruth and I survived the war in Berlin until the liberation by the Russians. Those were the most terrible years of our lives.

When I was asked later whether I was not afraid during the nights air raids in Berlin, which were so terrible, I always said, “Not as afraid as I was of the Gestapo, the secret police.” We were interrogated twice by them and trembled inwardly as we told our lies. The first interrogation took place in the deportation camp in Grosse Hamburger Strasse and the second in Burgstrasse, the Gestapo headquarters.

Only someone who has experienced persecution can understand our fear. Our misery went on for years. These are incredible tests for normal sensible people. Thanks to the air raids, there were no more interrogations in Burgstrasse, but we went on living in fear until the liberation.

Translation Bridget Schäfer