Thomas Wolfe once wrote, “You can’t go home again,” and he’s mostly right. I did, however, and it was a remarkable, powerful journey
The trip was inspired, a little, by a dancework created by my dear friend Alice around a bit of my early history.
|Bela (Ginger), Judith, Renée, Gertrude, Senta, Ruth, Alfons|
Seventy-one years after not wanting to have anything to do with Germany, I decided to return to Berlin, where I was born, and to the village of Worin, where I lived in hiding for close to two years with my brother and five older sisters. Partly the trip was to honor the memory of my brother Alfons, who died last year (2016)-our conversations of taking a trip like this never materialized. As the eldest of us, it was Alfons who held the 7 of us together and shepherded us around Germany through several DP camps until we finally got to Chicago; partly it was to see if I could jog my memory a tiny bit-perhaps even remember a little German-by seeing where I lived and played, and partly it was to meet and thank those in the village who shielded us during the darkest days of the Holocaust, people without whose kindness we would not have survived.
Equally important, I wanted my family to share this experience with me, never having heard me talk much about my early life or even thinking of myself as a Holocaust survivor. Yes, my mother was killed in Auschwitz; yes, there were deprivations; and yes, we wore the Jewish star and lived in hiding. We watched the Russian army march into Berlin and had to go down into bunkers during the bombing siege the last 2 weeks of the war. We were held in the detention center of the Jewish Hospital for a month, but none of us children had been in a camp. The 7 of us were all together, including my father, until we came to America.
|Marlis and Herbert Schüler|
We had a most remarkable time with Marlis and Herbert Schüler, the local historian of Worin, Germany, whom my brother had visited in 2010 and again in 2012. I wanted to meet them and thank them face to face for their hospitality, grace, and friendship to him.
|Arthur Schmidt (grandson)|
Most surprising of all was meeting the grandson of Arthur Schmidt, on whose property we lived outside the village. This young man, also named Arthur, made the 5 hour drive over from Hamburg to meet us, and had only learned last year of his grandfather’s and his grandfather’s wife Paula’s great risk in hiding us at their fruit orchard.
In 2008 Alfons and I began the effort to have the Schmidts designated as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem for help to Jewish persons during the Holocaust at the risk of their own lives. In seeking out the Schmidts’ nearest relative for a ceremony to present a medal and certificate by the Israeli diplomatic mission, the Schülers were finally able to locate young Arthur, an eminent artist who, co-incidentally, had lived in Chicago for about 10 years. I hope to attend that ceremony. Talk about 6 degrees of separation!
|Paula and Arthur Schmidt – Our Saviors|
We also visited Auschwitz-Birkenau near Krakow, Poland, and Warsaw.
Now I will run through a timeline of our little odyssey, replete with too many pictures, I’m afraid, for those who are interested. Unfortunately, our son Russel contracted Valley Fever and could not go, but the four of us (Fred, my former husband; Beth, Jennifer, and I) began our journey back in time, to another world, to an existence I had chosen to forget. We started in Berlin on July 14 of this year.
|Hotel am Steinplatz|
The Hotel am Steinplatz, in Charlottenburg at the north end of the city, nestled among quaint old European apartment buildings, was our charming, intimate home for 3 nights, with good food, great wheelchair access, and an easy bus or train ride into “mitte” (center) Berlin. I discovered that Berlin, though only having 10 accessible taxis, is an eminently wheelchair accessible city by bus, trolley or train. And all street corners have curb-cuts. Yay!
Jewish Museum Berlin
After we settled in and wandered a couple of picturesque streets to a local lunch/pastry shop, we taxied to the Jewish Museum Berlin where we spent several hours touring first the new building, by renowned architect David Libeskind, with its Garden of Exile and Holocaust Tower.
After this somewhat churning experience it was time for a rest.
Saturday morning we were picked up by driver and guide for a full tour of Berlin including, among many others, the famous symbol of Berlin-the Brandenburg Gate-,
the Reichstag, the Holocaust Memorial, the Berlin Wall dividing east and west Berlin,
the Adlon Hotel, and learned much important history. But we also went to more unique, and very challenging, sites. Our first stop was to one of the 3 major deportation sites and railroad sidings that shipped Berlin’s Jews to the east.
Gleis 17 Memorial
The Grunewald-Berlin railroad station is located in Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf Berlin.- ironically, a lovely, residential area!
Gleis (track) 17 is the name given the memorial, where most of the deportation trains departed to the east. Starting in 1942 the trains went directly to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt concentration camps. It is mindboggling to know that 50,000 Jews were deported from this station alone!
Spaced one next to the other on both sides of the track platform and extending for more than 100 yards, even into the trees, are cast bronze plaques stating the date, number of deportees loaded, and final destination of each particular train: a chilling example of Nazi efficiency and record keeping, to say nothing of their barbarity.
I found this memorial was striking in its simplicity and power. It is one thing to mourn the loss of amorphous millions; it is altogether different and very personal to imagine that my mother, Lina Banda Weber, might have been deported from this track. I have been told that we 7 children were scheduled to follow on the next transport, after having been held in the Gestapo House that was set up in the Jewish Hospital on Iranische Strasse for a month. p.s. on June 16, 1943 the city of Berlin was declared “Judenrein” (clean of Jews). The SS didn’t know there were 7 Jewish children living in Berlin right under their noses! More likely, however, she was arrested and probably taken closer to where we lived, to the former old peoples’ home of the Jewish Community at 26 Grosse Hamburger Strasse, which the Gestapo used as a collection camp for deportation.
|Cemetery in Weissensee|
The cemetery in Weissensee, with 115,000 graves, is the 2nd largest Jewish cemetery in Europe and is in the Weissensee neighborhood in (what had been East) Berlin, not far from mitte Berlin. Dedicated in 1880 by the Jüdische Gemeinde zu Berlin (Jewish Community of Berlin) it is massive in scope, covering about 100 acres. You know you are in an unusual place as you enter the cemetery at the end of residential Herbert Baum Strasse and see the distinctive yellow brick main building, memorial, and surrounding walls.
The cemetery was built in the Italian Neorenaissance style. There are 120 different sections, each with its own geometric shape. It is overwhelming. The periphery of the cemetery is predominantly reserved for the monied classes, while the center is occupied by the less well off, in areas which are harder to reach, most are overgrown with grass and ferns. Walking down the paths was like walking in a dense, dark forest of trees with shafts of sunlight bursting through, and hundreds of graves amongst them. This was very different from the cemeteries of wide open, manicured lawns we have here, and also very different from the tiny cemetery I saw in Prague that dated back to the 1700’s, where gravestones were piled one on top of the other, jutting up askew.
While the cemetery is well maintained, there is no way any grass among the headstones could be cut. There are huge, ornately decorated mausoleums, most in art nouveau style, the most lavish of which occupy the diagonal corners of the different sections. It was as though the wealthy Jews of Berlin were trying to keep up with the Joneses—in an attempt to fit in with their non-Jewish German brethren. To be real ‘Berliners’.
It was quite remarkable, yet I was filled with a quiet reverence strolling through this peaceful site. I loved it. The war put the cemetery at risk, as the Nazis destroyed many Jewish cemeteries, but luckily this one was not touched.
|Our old building 1946|
Scheunenviertel (my neighborhood)
We ended our personal guided tour on Saturday in the neighborhood where I was born, the very poor district of Scheunenviertel (barn quarter-originally outside the city walls; home to barns storing the hay and straw needed to supply the nearby livestock market on Alexanderplatz), infamous for its criminal element, which used to be peppered with prostitutes, pickpockets, bums and other low-life right in the heart of central Berlin, much like old Maxwell Street in Chicago or New York’s lower east side. The neighborhood had been home to produce market stalls, a blacksmith shop next door to us, a shed for shoeing horses.
Today it is home to the city’s creative artists, tourists, chic boutiques and food lovers. Moved by the idea of where I was rather than any real memory, I was nevertheless fascinated by the inner courtyards, alleys, and closeness of the streets. One or two streets over and you found shop after shop, school, cafes, anything a bustling city district has. Business and residential all together. Most of the old buildings are torn down, including where we lived, replaced by ordinary, very pedestrian low apartment buildings. My old address, 48 Dragoner Strasse (renamed Max Beer Strasse) is now a senior citizens building.
Today, much like the rest of Berlin, the “Alex” is a bustling, thriving neighborhood of shops, outdoor markets, restaurants, art galleries, cafes, and courtyard apartments, with no signs of the terrible terror-filled days of the Holocaust. After a bit of shopping and dinner, a streetcar ride to the train at the Alex and a train ride took us back to Charlottenburg. Berlin is a very modern, cosmopolitan city, filled with museums and parks but also many memorials attesting to the dark days of its past and to memory. They are a poignant reminder. Berliners want to forget, but also to make things right.
Sunday morning we made the hour and a half drive to Worin, having first stopped to buy flowers for our hosts. Worin is about 60km east of Berlin, and it was interesting to see regular residential houses and apartment buildings on one side of the road and farmland on the other side-a mix of city and country together. As we got farther out more forest, then fields, then woods appeared until we got to the Grunewald (the green forest).
|Herbert Schüler welcomes me|
I don’t know exactly what my expectations were at meeting total strangers, but they were completely outdone by the welcome we received on our arrival. Herbert and Marlis Schüler, Arthur Schmidt, and a friend of the Schülers were out front with broad smiles and open arms. Fred, Beth, and Jen were engaging as always, but I admit to being overcome with emotion as I attempted to introduce myself. At first I couldn’t speak. Herbert and Marlis were as well I think. Later I learned that Herbert had his own painful war experiences and was deeply affected by our meeting. Maybe that was why we made such an immediate, strong connection with each other. It was almost like finding another brother. Soon, however, we composed ourselves and made our way through the lovely garden into their backyard. As I couldn’t get up the steps onto the porch, they brought the large picnic table down into the yard and we dined al fresco among the flowers and lilypond.
|Jennifer, Ginger, Beth, Fred, Marlis, Herbert, Arthur|
So perfect on a beautiful sunny day! We had a good German Rosé Trocken (sp?)and sparkling Rubin Halbtrocken, both “Rotkappchen” (sp?) for numerous toasts, and delicious food, and shared photos, documents, picture taking, and stories. How we communicated I’m not sure, as we don’t speak any German and they really don’t speak English. I was so taken with the moment and the bucolic setting that the few German words I do remember completely flew out of my head. Nevertheless, we somehow managed to convey our feelings and thoughts to each other pretty well. And Arthur’s more manageable English was very helpful. After a while we were joined by a journalist from the local paper. He wrote a lovely story about us, which you can read at the end of this blog.
|On the road again|
We then walked up the road to the Grüner Wald, a traveler’s inn, behind which the Schmidts had their fruit farm and outbuildings. The big shed or laundry we slept in was gone but a big stone wall, seemingly leading nowhere, was still there. And then to the side was a very large open farm field where I remember digging for potatoes. After all, we were always hungry! It was a surreal experience, strange yet distantly, vaguely comfortable, but not quite familiar. It is hard to describe. After coffee and scrumptious desserts back at the house I spent some time taking in the beautiful gardens the Schülers tend and enjoy, noticing the tiny flowers growing among the cracks, the windchimes, the small handpainted sayings, each corner offering a different view.
I came away with a great appreciation of the goodness, the warmth, and the joy of this loving family. The Schülers are openhearted, generous people. The drive back to Berlin allowed us all time to reflect on our lives and good fortune. I felt a nostalgic melancholy wash over me, a haziness imagining myself in this pastoral setting.
Monday evening we flew to the historic city of Krakow for the next leg of our journey and checked in at the very modern Sheraton Grand, directly across from the Wawel Castle, a world heritage site, situated above the Vistula River. This medieval city, which dates back to the early 1200’s, has a central main market square surrounded by historic townhouses and churches. The towers and spires of the city are beautiful. The large, lively square today is the scene of upscale shops, restaurants bell towers, and outdoor cafes, and of course, tourists!
On the long ride the next day to Auschwitz-Birkenau I had very mixed feelings, but felt I needed to go, and my children needed to experience this to understand this is a part of their history, their legacy. I had never wanted to go, as my mother was murdered there. She was arrested in April, 1943, and died 7 months later, on 1 December. The shattering poignancy of her death, along with the millions of others incarcerated and murdered with her is incomprehensible to me. I wanted to honor her memory, as well as the 2-4 million murdered there. I’ve never asked “Where was God?” I only asked, and continue to ask, “Where was mankind?”
Going through the infamous gate with “Arbeit macht frei” made by prisoners we came upon rows of brick barracks (28), housing sometimes 800 people in a building originally built to stable 52 horses. The guard towers, the double rows of barbed wire fences, the dirt area in front of one barrack where public hangings occurred, the cement courtyard of another barrack where firing squads lined prisoners against the wall and carried out another form of murder, the buildings where medical experiments were done, the first gas chamber—they were all there. It cries out in despair.
Conceived of and built with precision by men with evil intent and diabolical schemes, the Nazis’ goal was the total dehumanization, subjugation and destruction of “undesirables”-Jews, Poles, Roma, Disabled, Gay, the Mentally Ill, in order that they, the “pure Aryans” would rule first Germany, then the world.
And how does one endure the unendurable?
Somewhere I wondered, “what are the girls thinking? Are they taking all this in? Are they ok?” I didn’t need to ask; I know my girls. I know how they felt.
I could not enter any of the buildings as they all had steps, but staying outside while the others went in was just as powerful and allowed me to be with my own thoughts. I refused to go into the building that housed the first gas chamber and oven. Too much!
I take no pictures. I am not shocked. I know the facts, have read the history; yet the solemn site is beyond description. I am overwhelmed, angry, hatred rising inside me, no-a feeling of despair; I am numb. It is 80 out but I am cold. I conjure up the pain, horror, fear my mother must have endured, and remember once again that Auschwitz is symbolic of structuralized hatred and brutality. I am changed.
|Birkenau Extermination Camp|
The evil geniuses who planned this precision-like layout first cleared the many acres of the village of Brzezinka and its inhabitants. At the end of our trek to the back was a memorial to the victims and to the side, the ruins of one of the 4 crematoria the Nazis destroyed to cover their hate-filled murderous tracks. Here we laid flowers for my mother, thoughtfully brought by Fred, and said kaddish for her – and 6 million more. Again, the drive back to our hotel left us spent and reflective. I had an overwhelming feeling of sadness—for my mother, my family, for humankind. I am changed once again.
Our sojourn ended in Warsaw, where we were greeted by Margaret Pietrzykowska, my helper and good friend for 29 years. Warsaw also is a city with wheelchair accessible busses and easy curbcuts. Yay for accessibility! I point this out because I have travelled to many developing countries, where accessibility is poor and some disabled are still hidden away. Even when I was in London 20 years ago I had to be bumped up and down every street corner by willing strangers, and no accessible busses. Much has changed there and on the continent since then. Margaret treated us to a tour of the wonderful Wilanow Palace and Park known as the Polish Versailles at the edge of the city (as I was the first visitor using a power wheelchair there, the staff took several pictures of the chair to help them design better access), the excellent Polin Museum, with its permanent exhibit of the 1000 year history of Polish Jews, the memorial site of the Warsaw Ghetto, and of course a walk through colorful Old Town. And we did it all in one day, without rushing, and saw everything!
Packing and leaving for the airport at 4 a.m. was no fun, and after the requisite nightmare of airline hassles about my wheelchair, which for 1 ½ hours they refused to allow on the plane, Luftansa finally came up with the documents that said my chair and I did not have to live permanently in Poland and we left for home. My maternal instincts took over as I gazed lovingly at my daughter Jen sleeping peacefully for 8 hours, while I quietly fumed at the injustice of not being able to sleep even 10 minutes. More airline wheelchair hassles on arrival ended a profoundly moving trip.
Reflecting back, while the entire trip was memorable, what I found most personal and moving was the Gleis Track 17 memorial in Berlin of the deportation center and railroad siding, the Weissensee Jewish cemetery, our very special visit to Worin and the Schülers, the excruciating site at Birkenau, and an outdoor temporary poster exhibit at the Polin Jewish Museum in Warsaw of the 2012 “March of Life”, commemorating both victims and survivors of the Holocaust, with photographs and their own words.
I come away with a deep sense of gratitude for a good life, and to Beth, Jennifer Fred, and Rusty, who encouraged, supported, and enabled me to make this trip; to the memory of my adoptive parents Rosalynde and Joshua Speigel, whose deep understanding allowed me to grow into the person I am; to my sisters Senta, Ruth, Gertrude, Renée, and Judith, who always stand by my side; and to the memory of my mother Lina and my father Alexander. I dedicate this journal to the memory of my cherished brother Alfons.