On Saturday Jacek and I went out to find my mother-in-law’s (Martha) birth house. She lived in this house from her birth until she was forced to leave Germany at the age of 15. We took the train to Steglitz (30-40 min outside of Berlin) and we were able to find the neighborhood quite easily. At one time this was a stately suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of Berlin. Today it is a mixed bag. In general it is not kept up that well. There are tall weeds choking the sidewalk medians and the yards and houses not kept up very well. However, at the same time, some of the homes were cared for and looked much like they did in the 70s when I first saw the neighborhood. Siegfried Hirschberg (my wife’s grandfather) was a clever man and knew it was only a matter of time before they would have to leave. He had set up the path of escape in advance by bribing ship’s captains and sending as much money, furniture, silver and gold that he could to friends of his in New York. Martha and her brother, Walter, could no longer study in German schools because of the Nuremberg laws. They were being educated in a nearby convent. One night, under the cover of darkness, the Mother Superior came to the house and told the family that it was now time to leave. She had received word that the Nazis would raid the school the very next day to round up the Jewish children. At that very moment Siegfried loaded up his family and headed for Bremerhaven. I don’t know how they got there but once they arrived they blackened their faces, hands and arms and hid in the cargo hold of a ship bound for England. They dug themselves down into the coal the ship was carrying. Siegfried had “bought” his way into England. There in England, being undocumented aliens, they were not allowed to work, so 15 year-old Martha worked as a cleaning girl for rich families in London. She went from having three maids herself to being one. She never complained nor did she seem to resent this responsibility.
The emotional feelings I had seeing the house were strange. I was disappointed and somewhat angry that the house had not been better cared for all these years. There was also the feeling of confronting a personal tragic history and the sense that all the struggles of the past are swallowed by the sands of time.
We were walking back to the “Bahnhof” and at the neighbor’s house were five Stolpersteine. That family either did not believe it would happen or had not planned as well as Siegfried. The hard reality was that Siefgried and his family survived and this family did not. This seems so arbitrary. Many who tried to plan did not survive as well. They were lucky. Had the Mother Superior not warned them, there may have been Stolpersteine in front of their house as well.
Later that day we went to lunch at Ampelmann’s. There is no relief from the unrelenting heat here in Berlin. The amount of water that I drunk on Saturday is unprecedented. We then took a walking tour through the Prussian heart of Berlin. Very interesting from an historical perspective but oh sooooo hot. The day closed with a visit to the Holocaust Museum. The monument on top is an interesting visual of the many people who perished. The blocks resembled gravestones from afar but up close seemed to more represent the sheer numbers of people. The museum used documents similar to the approach of Centropa by telling the story of families and the history that they were forced to confront. In a very surreal twist of fate, this museum is directly across the street from the bunker in which Hitler spent his last days. It is now a parking lot with a block apartment building on top with nothing really marking it except for a small placard indicating that here is the spot of the “Fuhrersbunker”. Returned back to the hotel. A lot of things to process and think about.
I am excited to be collaborating with a Jewish school in Budapest with my 11th grade ethics class. The two teachers in then collaboration are Tomas and Zsolt. This will be a great endeavor.