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There were tears that come with such a parting, a 12-year-old boy leaving his parents to live with strangers far away, but they dried in a current of excitement as the train rumbled out of Berlin's Zoo Station. In his small suitcase were clothes with name tags sewn in by friends of his mother the night before. There was a lunch of chicken soup that would spill long before it could be eaten.

John Berrys leaned through the open window as the train slowly rolled west, past the bustling Kurfürstendamm where he lived and the villa-lined streets he bicycled to a private Jewish school in the leafy Grunewald district. He said goodbye.

He had been born Hans Berlinsky on the kitchen table of his family's modest apartment on April 25, 1926, and had a "very ordinary" childhood. Before private school, he had attended a public school down the street, and spent summers in the country with his cousins. Two years earlier, he and his father had attended the Olympic Games held in Berlin.

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But restrictions under Adolf Hitler's National Socialists made life increasingly difficult for Jews, who were eventually barred from cafés, shops, schools and even the swimming pool the young cousins had enjoyed on their holidays.

The anti-Semitism escalated mightily with the vicious pogroms that erupted across the country 70 years ago tomorrow, leaving synagogues destroyed, Jewish businesses and homes ransacked and Jewish men under arrest. There was so much shattered glass in the streets that Nov. 9, 1938, is forever damned as Kristallnacht.

Just three weeks later, young Hans was bound for England on the first of the "Kindertransports," which for the next 10 months carried 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to safety in England. Adults remained, trapped by their misguided belief that things couldn't get much worse. Only one child in 10 would ever see his or her parents again. Else and James Berlinsky eventually boarded a train headed in the opposite direction: east to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.

Even so, Mr. Berrys recalls that he and other children were optimistic that "the whole thing would blow over," and they would soon be reunited with their parents. But not in Berlin. "I never thought I would go back to Germany. I was quite sure at the time."

And yet now, at 82, here he is. A citizen of Canada, the retired businessman, car buff and father of three from Thornhill, Ont., is taking part in a program that welcomes home Berlin residents, most of them Jewish, who were forced to flee the city from 1933 to 1945. He and his wife, Sherrill, 63, are in a group also drawn from the United States, Australia and Israel. Their hair is thinning, some are in wheelchairs or use walkers, but they have all come for one reason: to see, and make peace with, the new Berlin.

The week-long itinerary under the starkly titled "invitation program for former persecuted citizens of Berlin" (more commonly called the "Emigranten program") includes a reception with the mayor, a night at the opera, tours of historic and Jewish sites and visits to their old neighbourhoods.

The city picks up the tab for each returning émigré plus a guest, and has done so for almost 40 years. The program started with a resolution of the Berlin Parliament in 1969, reflecting a growing awareness of the Holocaust in the 1960s and a desire among the postwar generation to address atrocities that their parents had not even acknowledged, let alone apologized for.

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One of the young Germans, Rüdiger Nemitz, came to work for the program in 1969 as a student, and never left. He had been born in the ruins of Berlin in 1946, to a father who had been in the Hitler Youth, fought in Eastern Europe and, like many Germans, said he didn't know what had been done to the Jews.

"They did not want to believe it," says the son, now 62.

Decades later, as Germans accepted the truth, cities across the country, plus Vienna, began to bring back those who had left. Berlin's program prompted "baskets of letters" from around the world, Mr. Nemitz recalls. At the peak, there was a staff of a dozen, and thousands of people waited a decade or more to come.

In all, 35,000 people have made the journey.

'SICK WITH JEWS'

In his autobiographical 1935 novel Goodbye to Berlin (the inspiration for the musical Cabaret), British author Christopher Isherwood describes a Jewish family chased out of town by Nazi cruelty. "This town is sick with Jews!" one Berliner complains.

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And the capital of the Reich truly was the centre of German Jewry. In 1933, its well-assimilated Jewish community numbered 170,000, one-third of the national total. By the end of the war, almost two-thirds had fled and 56,000 had been killed, leaving only 1,500 who had stayed in hiding and a few who survived the camps.

A city that once boasted 80 synagogues now has six. Berlin today has 12,500 registered Jews, although many more may be understandably reluctant to declare themselves, says Aubrey Pomerance, a Jewish historian from Calgary who is head of the archives at the Jewish Museum Berlin.

The museum, which opened in 2001 with an edgy modern design by Daniel Libeskind, portrays the history and culture of Germany's Jews. The Emigranten are guided to its Garden of Exile, where 49 forbidding concrete slabs set on a slope evoke the instability felt by Jews driven out. Later, at supper, Mr. Pomerance encourages the expatriates to donate papers, photos and artifacts of their life in Berlin. So much has been lost and "time is running out," he says, adding that, in many ways, the visitation program is a trade: Berlin learns about its Jewish past, while visitors get to see how the city has changed.

"It shows people a different face of Germany," Mr. Pomerance says, "and a certain degree of atonement as well." That is what most of the group's 65 members are looking for - in fact, some have already been back on their own and not found it. The Berryses brought their three daughters in 1985, but the Berlin Wall had yet to fall and it was not clear Germany had come to terms with its past.

At 89, New Jersey resident Max Brack is the group's oldest member, and he recognizes little in the city he left at 18. But for Mr. Berrys, much is familiar in his old neighbourhood. Compact and sprightly, he walks the streets at a brisk pace, never consulting a map as he points out his cousins' apartments and the park where they played.

A merchant next door tells him that Sybelstrasse 57, the white stucco building where he grew up, is now a condo and the family's old apartment is for sale. Seventy years ago, it was a haven. As life under Hitler grew grim, his father, a scrap-metal broker who had been wounded fighting for Germany in the First World War, made no attempt to leave. He was "one of those people who literally said, 'I'd like to leave on the very last train - and I wouldn't be terribly upset if I missed that, too,'" Mr. Berrys explains.

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Today, the street is quiet and lined with stores as well as apartments. At No. 10, one called Schalom (German for shalom) sells kosher foods, wine and Judaica, but owner Susanne Kalisch says business is poor because there just are not enough Jews.

The towering red-brick public school Mr. Berrys attended is now named for Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, a politician who opposed the Nazis and was killed after the 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler. According to a plaque on the building, it's a "school without racism, school with courage."

In 1936, Jews were barred from senior schools, so his parents, with the Jewish community's assistance, sent him to the private academy in the Grunewald, where he finds a street has recently been renamed in honour of Toni Lessler, the woman who ran it.

It's far from the only memorial the Emigranten come across. In a part of town once known as "Jewish Switzerland" for its prominent residents, such as Albert Einstein and filmmaker Billy Wilder, they find enamel signs high on lampposts, each with an image - a soccer ball or a guitar case - and on the back, a corresponding Nazi decree: "Jews are to be expelled from sports and gymnastics clubs (April 25, 1933)" and "Jews cannot be musicians (March 21, 1935)."

Put up in 1993, the signs were mistaken at first for anti-Semitic propaganda, but they are in fact installation art, one of the myriad ways in which Berlin now recalls the atrocities committed against its Jews and other groups.

The smallest and most affecting are Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks): brass plaques set in the sidewalk to commemorate those killed by Nazis, each bearing a name, date of birth plus date of deportation and death. The largest is near the Brandenburg Gate: the recently completed Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, or Holocaust Memorial, a vast, undulating field of concrete slabs over a museum.

Aubrey Pomerance of the Jewish Museum says many of the memorials are the result of private initiatives that began in the late 1970s with the broadcast of the TV mini-series Holocaust. "Germany is facing up to its genocidal past," he says. "It's not only testimony, it's the preservation of memory … a movement against forgetting."

ORGY OF VIOLENCE

As he cycled to school the morning after "the night of broken glass," young Hans Berlinsky noticed that the plate-glass window of the Jewish-owned millinery store next door had been shattered. When he arrived, "everyone had a different story to tell" about the destruction.

The students were sent home; Mr. Berrys rode to the Friedenstempel, a synagogue he had attended with his father, to find it burning. "The firemen were on the street," he says, "but there was no attempt being made to do anything except to protect the adjacent apartment houses."

The orgy of violence persuaded his parents it was time for him to go. On Dec. 1, he left on the Kindertransport, which had been arranged by Jewish and Quaker groups in England. After reaching the Netherlands and enduring a heaving six-hour voyage across the English Channel, he was met by his uncle, who had moved to England two years earlier.

He lived with a Jewish family in London, went to school, learned English and in May, 1939, had his bar mitzvah. His parents called during a simple luncheon to mark the occasion. "That was probably the highlight; phoning in those days was a big deal." A year later, he finished school and moved to Birmingham to become an auto mechanic, losing track of his parents in the confusion of the war.

At 17, he joined the British army, feeling "a sense of obligation toward the country that had given me refuge when others wouldn't." Because he was "a friendly alien," his name had to sound less German, so Berlinsky became Berrys and Hans became John.

Many of the Emigranten also have new names, and they continually discover ways in which Berlin has become, as its openly gay mayor, Klaus Wowereit, tells them, "a city of change." It now portrays itself as diverse, tolerant, international in outlook and culturally vibrant - after London and Paris, the most visited place in Europe. But there are challenges: Reunification left a staggering debt and more than 17-per-cent unemployment. The city had 4.5 million residents before the war but just 3.4 million today, one in every three a newcomer, Mr. Wowereit adds. "We still need some time to mend."

The annual budget for the Emigranten Program, once €1.5-million ($2.2-million) has been cut by two-thirds (only Berlin and Hamburg still operate), and the applicants have dwindled to 500. The staff is down to a part-time secretary and Mr. Nemitz, who estimates that demand will dry up in three years and he will retire.

GAUNT BUT ALIVE When the war ended in the spring of 1945, Mr. Berrys was serving in the Middle East and got word from his uncle that his parents were in a camp for the displaced in southern Germany. After being sent to Theresienstadt in early 1943, they not only stayed alive, they stayed together. His mother (who had been assigned to keep women from using a washroom to commit suicide) had lost 50 pounds.

Their son could not persuade British authorities to let them into England. But after four years in the camp, they emigrated to New York and he moved to Canada. They were reunited in Montreal in 1951. Soon afterward, his father died, but his mother lived to 94. She returned to Berlin in 1974 as an Emigrant, but her son didn't think of doing the same until someone suggested it last year.

As well as new friends and a deeper understanding of Berlin, his week in the city brings an invitation from the Jewish Museum to return next year to speak about his boyhood experiences.

He also attends Saturday services at the venerable Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue, where he worshipped with his father 70 years ago, and visits the former freight depot next to the Grunewald train station, from which most Berlin Jews were sent to the camps. A memorial, called Track 17, commemorates the 35,000 people dispatched from 1941 to 1945.

Each deportation is recorded on steel plates that run alongside the railway track. Destinations include Auschwitz, Minsk, Riga, Lodz and, of course, Theresienstadt. Jan. 12, 1943, the recorded date of his parents' deportation, has two entries: "100 Juden/Berlin - Theresienstadt" and "1190 Juden/Berlin - Auschwitz."

Mr. Berrys listens as Molly Johnson, a history professor from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, talks to students on a tour of the "Third Reich and its Legacy." Then he tells them his story. His parents felt that sending him away saved all three, he says, because they never would have survived together.

He looks across at the train station through which his mother once brought him to play in the shade of the Grunewald and then down at a plaque marking the horror that was to come.

"Germany," he says, "is terribly, terribly anxious to come to terms with what happened."

Mary Gooderham is an author and journalist living in Ottawa.

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