Survivor: Peter Daniels


From the time he was 4, Peter Daniels — then Peter Berlowitz — spent his days mostly staring out the window of a two-room flat in Berlin. It was 1940, and Jews were forbidden from hiring domestic help under the Nuremberg Laws. Peter’s mother, Hilde Berlowitz, was forced to leave him alone with some homework and his toys while she worked at a job sewing uniforms for German soldiers. “I was very lonely,” he remembered; he had no friends and could not go outdoors. Then one day, in May 1943, Peter answered a knock on the door and saw two Gestapo officers standing there. “Is your mother home?” one officer asked. Peter told them she was at work. “We’ll wait,” the officer answered. 

Peter was born on July 8, 1936, to Hilde Berlowitz and Erich Daniels. Hilde’s mother, who was born Christian but converted to Judaism before marriage, had died in childbirth with Hilde in 1912. Her father remarried when she was 10, and she was badly mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters. 

Erich Daniels, the son of a Jewish lawyer, never married Peter’s mother and may not have even known of Peter’s birth. In 1938, Erich fled to Shanghai with his own parents and siblings. Peter has never had any contact with any relatives on his father’s side.

Peter and his mother were exempt from deportation for many years as Hilde was a mischling, a person of mixed Jewish ancestry, who carried her mother’s original Christian birth certificate as proof. But by 1943, mischling status no longer offered protection. And as Peter waited in the flat on that day in May 1943, he was more afraid of his mother’s reaction than of the two Gestapo officers. Hilde had warned him to never open the door for anyone, and she frequently showed her displeasure by beating him.

Peter and his mother were arrested and taken to a detention center. After several weeks, they and the other Jews there were loaded into cattle cars. 

After two days and almost two nights, the train stopped. The exhausted prisoners were forced to drag themselves two miles to Theresienstadt, which was both a holding camp for prisoners, who would be transferred to Auschwitz and other extermination camps, and a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. They spent their first night in the attic of two-story military barracks.

The next morning, Peter was sent to the boys’ barracks, a crowded room with triple bunk beds, where he spent most of his days. He made friends with some of the German-speaking boys, but, he said, “The friendships didn’t last long because the kids didn’t last long.”

Occasionally, Peter was given light work, such as pulling weeds from fallow vegetable fields or hauling slabs of mica to be shipped out. For Peter, work was an opportunity to receive extra food. 

Peter’s mother worked repairing uniforms of German soldiers. About once a month Peter was able to visit with her. “It was nothing emotional. I was not that interested in seeing her,” he said. 

In early May 1945, the International Red Cross took control of Theresienstadt, with the Germans departing several days later. Peter received new clothes to replace the rags he had worn for two years and new shoes to replace his old ones, whose front sections he had sliced off to accommodate his growing feet. “I put them on and did not take them off for three days,” he recalled. 

A week later, Peter stood with hundreds of newly liberated prisoners inside the barbed-wire fence waving and hugging each other as the Soviet army, with its tanks and troop carriers, drove past. It was May 8, 1945 — Peter was almost 9.

The camp was immediately put under quarantine to contain a large typhus outbreak. A month later, Peter and his mother traveled to Berlin, where they rented a flat. A few weeks later, Peter’s mother left to find Max Kurlander, a man she had met in Theresienstadt, and who was now, she had heard, in Deggendorf, a displaced persons camp in southern Germany. 

As Peter wandered around Berlin looking for food, he met several German boys. They spent their days following American soldiers, picking up their discarded cigarette butts and dividing the tobacco, which functioned as currency. 

Hilde married Max Kurlander in Deggendorf. She returned to Berlin, and she and Peter moved to Deggendorf in August 1945. Max, whom Peter described as “a truly bitter man,” worked as a translator for the U.S. Army.

In Deggendorf, Peter attended a public school where anti-Semitic German boys “beat him to a pulp” every day after class. His mother pulled him out after a few weeks. Peter’s sister, Evelyn, was born in September 1946. 

On Aug. 3, 1947, Peter and his family arrived in New York, where Peter attended school. But by the time he was 13, the beatings from his mother became so bad — she used a wooden clothes hanger, or whatever was handy, and hit him until he was black and blue — that Peter started running away from home, staying all night at the Greyhound Bus station or at friends’ houses. 

At 14, Peter escaped to upstate New York, working on a farm in exchange for room and board. A year later, he took a train to Texas and worked for a rancher in Brownsville. He continued moving around the United States, traveling in boxcars or hitchhiking, working as a farm hand, a dishwasher, a truck driver or doing other odd jobs. 

In 1958, at 22, Peter enlisted in the Navy. He was discharged in May 1962. 

Peter then began a new life, earning his GED, attending San Diego City College and graduating from San Diego State University. He then earned an MBA from Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz.

After graduating, Peter worked for American Can Co. in New York City. He had married, and his son Erik was born in 1970. A few months later, he was transferred to Hamburg, Germany, returning to the United States in 1973 and settling in California, where he and his wife divorced.

Peter later worked for Security Pacific Bank (which became Bank of America). He retired in 2000. 

During this time, Peter met Joan Tamir, and they married on Nov. 30, 1981. She has three children: Ilana, born 1964; Dahn, born 1966; and Rahm, born 1971. Peter and Joan now have seven grandchildren.

After retiring, Peter began volunteering at the Museum of Tolerance as a docent. He did that until in 2007, when he was hired as a consultant for Northern Trust Bank but returned to the museum two years later as a speaker. “I was feeling better about myself and wanted to do something meaningful,” he said. He now also gives talks at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, as well as at schools and synagogues.

Peter’s mother died in 2007. As an adult, Peter re-established contact with her, but their relationship was strained.

Peter believes that his mother inadvertently prepared him for the Holocaust. “I didn’t miss the emotional support that a lot of kids had, because I never had that.”

Survivor: Sol Berger


“Where are the dollars?” two plainclothes Gestapo officers demanded as they appeared without warning on both sides of Sol Berger. Sol denied any knowledge, even though the daughter of a local currency dealer was hovering nearby at the train station in Tarnow, Poland, holding the dollars he desperately needed to immigrate to Palestine. The officers led him to Gestapo headquarters where, in a small second-floor room, they interrogated him, repeatedly beating him with a rubber stick and boxing both ears simultaneously. Finally, after two hours, one said, “He’s had enough for today,” and they left the room. Bruised and barely able to move, Sol spied a small, iron-barred window in the corner. He managed to squeeze his thin body through an opening and slide down a gutter. He reached the ground and ran. It was spring 1940, and Sol was 20 years old.

Solomon Berger was born on Oct. 28, 1919, to Jacob and Rose Fabian Berger in Krosno, Poland. He was the eighth of nine children. His father’s tailor shop occupied one room in the house, the same room where the observant family celebrated Shabbat dinner on Friday nights.

On Sept. 1, 1939, Sol was awakened at 5 a.m. as the German air force dropped bombs on Krosno’s airport and factories, causing the entire city to erupt in flames. Sol and his younger brother, Michael, were drafted into the Polish army, returning home 10 days later.

In early 1940, the Gestapo required all Jews to wear white armbands with blue stars and all young men to perform slave labor. It was during this time that Sol, who had participated in Zionist activities, hoped to flee to Palestine.

After his escape in Tarnow, Sol hid with a Jewish family there for three weeks, disguising himself by wearing a wig and women’s clothes.

Back in Krosno, he was recaptured by the Gestapo and jailed with 10 political prisoners, including a Roman Catholic priest who said Mass daily and tutored Sol on Christianity, later enabling him to pass as a non-Jewish Pole. After six months, he was released.

During this time, Sol’s father worked as a tailor for the Germans, and the family was allowed to remain in their house. This ended on Aug. 9, 1942, when all Jews were ordered to report the next day to register for new permits.

That morning, before 9 a.m., Sol, his parents, three brothers, and one married sister and her family huddled together in the old marketplace. Trucks surrounded the area, along with Gestapo, SS and police. A selection began. Sol’s father was ordered to board one of the trucks, but first he put his arms around his four sons and said, “Boys, try to survive any way you can.” The trucks pulled away, accompanied by vehicles with machine guns mounted atop.

Two hours later, the trucks returned empty. (It wasn’t until 1978 that Sol discovered that the 500 elderly Jews had been executed in a nearby forest.) This time, the Nazis selected 600 young people, including Sol and his three brothers, for slave labor. They were taken to the ghetto and crammed 20 to a room. “We had to sleep sitting up,” Sol said.

Meanwhile, after standing all day in the hot sun with no food or water, the 1,400 Jews remaining in the marketplace — including Sol’s mother, sister, sister’s husband and their two children — were loaded into cattle cars and, Sol later learned, transported to Belzec, where they were all murdered.

The next morning, Sol and his brothers were assigned to work in the tailor shop. Two weeks later, his brothers Moses and Michael were sent to work as tailors at a Ukrainian SS training camp.

On Dec. 3, 1942, marching back to the ghetto after work, Sol and his brother Joshua saw Gestapo surrounding the area. They decided to split up, escape and meet in Czortkow, where Tadeusz Duchowski, the husband of a Polish family friend, supervised a construction crew.

That night, Sol slipped out through a secret passageway. He made his way to the house of Maria Duchowski, Tadeusz’s wife, who hid him for three days. Then, traveling as Jan Jerzowski, he took the train to Czortkow. Joshua never arrived.

In Czortkow, Tadeusz registered Sol as a Polish worker and put him to work building a bridge over the River Dniester. After three months, the project was completed.

Sol and about 100 Polish workers then escaped to the forest, joining the partisans and blowing up railroad tracks and highways. The group kept moving, sleeping in caves at night. “That was the hardest time of my life, surviving for 14 months,” Sol said. He had to bathe in private to avoid being recognized as a Jew, listen to partisans’ anti-Semitic insults and drink a lot of “stinking vodka.”

In March 1944, after the Russians moved into Poland, the partisans were inducted into the Soviet army. Sol, who became Ivan Marianowicz Jerzowski, secured a job as a translator in the interrogation department, avoiding fighting in the front lines.

In April 1945, Sol took a leave from the Soviet army. In Krakow, he met Gusta Friedman, who had survived disguised as a Christian, and together they decided to escape from Poland.

Sol and Gusta traveled to Cluj, Romania, where they were married on May 18, 1945. They then went to Santa Maria di Bagni (later referred to as Santa Maria al Bagno), a DP camp in Southern Italy, where Sol contacted his three surviving sisters, who were living in the United States. He also learned his brother Michael had survived Auschwitz.

But Sol and Gusta remained another three years in the DP camp, where Sol worked as an ORT instructor and where their son Jack was born on Aug. 24, 1946. They then lived in London for two years.

The family finally arrived in Los Angeles in early July 1950, and their daughter, Marlene, was born on July 21, 1951. Sol worked as a machine operator in a clothing factory, as a liquor store co-owner with his brother Michael and as a Realtor in Beverly Hills, retiring in 1992.

Sol has been married to Gusta — now Gertrude — for 67 years. They have four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Sol began telling his story publicly in 1992, after promising his brother to do so when Michael was dying of lung cancer. For the last 20 years, Sol has been speaking three times a week at The Museum of Tolerance and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust as well as to student, military and police groups.

“I realized I must tell my story, as much as it hurts,” Sol said.

The Coed Who Defied Hitler


Many brave soldiers on all sides fought in World War II, but among the most courageous warriors were the unarmed civilians who defied the Nazis by stirring up resistance, hiding Jews and speaking up for freedom.

If such defiance took great moral courage in occupied countries, it was an almost certain death sentence for resistors inside Germany, who were seen by their countrymen as backstabbing traitors in a patriotic war.

Among the few Germans on this honor roll were a handful of university students in Munich, the cradle of Nazism, who banded together in the resistance group known as the White Rose.

The only woman among them was Sophie Scholl, a 21-year-old Protestant psychology student. Her character and fate are dramatized in “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” Germany’s Oscar entry for best foreign-language film.

With her brother, Hans, and a few comrades, mostly former German soldiers, Sophie produced leaflets denouncing the Nazi euthanasia of the “unfit” and the killing of the Jews. The leaflets, printed in early 1943, shortly after the Wehrmacht defeat at Stalingrad, warned that Germany was heading for disaster by following a mad dictator.

As the film opens, Sophie and Hans Scholl are clandestinely planting the leaflets at the University of Munich. They are discovered by a janitor, interrogated by the Gestapo, quickly “judged” by a “People’s Court” and immediately executed.

Director Marc Rothmund has drawn on the recently discovered transcripts of the Gestapo interrogation and the “trial” to convey the eerie sense of “you are there” to viewers.

Actress Julia Jentsch gives a shattering performance as Sophie, whose steady nerves and quick mind actually fool the veteran interrogator, until the cumulative evidence dooms her and her brother (Fabian Hinrichs).

At that point, the Scholl siblings assume all the responsibility, desperately trying to shield their comrades, and hurl the charges against them into the faces of the accusers.

“Sophie Scholl” screens at the American Film Institute Fest on Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. and Nov. 5 at 3:15 p.m. at the Arclight Theatre, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. For information call (866) 234-3378 or www.afi.com/afifest.

 

Journalist ReturnsGestapo’s Booty


It took close to 70 years, but the books that the Gestapo confiscated from Dr. Caesar Hirsch have been restored to his descendants and donated to the UCLA library, thanks largely to the persistence of a German journalist.

Hirsch was a prominent otolaryngologist, a specialist in ear, nose and throat disorders, in the city of Stuttgart, who had served as a medical officer in the German army in World War I. He had amassed a 1,400-volume library, including a large number of books and journal titles in his medical specialty, in five languages, among them valuable historical works.

As soon as Hitler assumed full dictatorial power in March 1933, friends warned Hirsch that he was on a Nazi blacklist and that his life was in danger. The next day, he put his three children on a train to Switzerland, staying behind for a few hours to perform an operation on a seriously ill charity patient.

The family left behind all their belongings, which were confiscated within a few weeks by the Gestapo and the library later was sold to the University of Tübingen for a token payment.

There the books rested unmolested until 1999, when Dr. Hans-Joachim Lang, a historian and editor of a Tübingen daily newspaper, stumbled across the Hirsch books while digging for a story on a completely different collection.

Lang set about trying to locate the Hirsch family, which had immigrated to the United States. He learned that Hirsch, nearly penniless and deeply depressed, had committed suicide in 1940.

However, through an Internet phone directory, Lang was able to track down Hirsch’s son, Peter, living in Oxnard, even though his name had changed from Hirsch to Hearst.

After many months of correspondence, the University of Tübingen agreed to turn over the collection to Hearst. Hearst — whose three sons are all graduates of UC campuses, two of whom received medical degrees from UCLA and UCSF — and his sister, Susa Kessler of Baltimore, decided in turn to donate the books to the Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library at UCLA.

Earlier this month the end of "The Incredible Journey of the Medical Library of Dr. Caesar Hirsch," as the invitation read, was celebrated at the Biomedical Library with the donation of 191 book titles and 37 journal titles, the latter filling 773 bound volumes.

After Hearst spoke, it was Lang’s turn. The historian expressed his satisfaction that he had been able to restore to its owners a tiny part of the estimated 9 million books looted by the Nazis, first from German Jews and then from libraries and archives in the occupied countries of Europe.

Florys Story


In the living room of her Newport Beach home, Flory Van Beek reaches up to a shelf and takes down a plain-white book the size of an encyclopedia and engraved with a Star of David. “This was published by the Dutch government,” she says. “It has the names of the almost 140,000 Dutch Jews who died during the war.” Flory flips through the book, searching for her mother’s name.

Flory is one of the 5,000 Dutch Jews whose stories didn’t come to an end with this book. Her incredible tale of hiding from the Gestapo is told in intimate detail in the recently published “Flory: Survival in the Valley of Death” (Seven Locks Press, 1998).

Little has been written about the Jews in hiding in rural Holland during the Holocaust. Because so few of them survived, and because of what Flory calls “the serious, private nature of the Dutch,” many stories went untold. But Flory filled a suitcase with her meticulous documentation of the war: newspaper clippings from the early 1940s, family documents, and her deportation summons from the Germans.

“I had received a summons,” she says. “I tried to ignore it. I went out to do some shopping for my mother, and while I was walking back, I stood before the canals, thinking how I could kill myself. A man saw me with my star on my clothes, standing there, and he jumped off his bicycle and asked me in very colorful language, ‘What the hell are you doing here with that damned star on your blouse? Take that damned thing off and follow me.’ I ripped the star from my clothes. I had never seen this man before in my life. For some reason, I felt safe in his company; I instinctively knew I was in good hands.”

The man was Piet Brandsen, the head of the Dutch resistance in Amersfoort.

Soon after, Flory decided that she and her friend Felix would marry and go into hiding in the Brandsen home. They lived in a small room for a year and a half and did administrative work for the resistance to pass the time and make themselves useful. It was during some of these “office hours” when the Gestapo came into the house to arrest Brandsen.

Flory recounts the scene in her book: “Gripped with panic and disbelief, we crawled into the [hiding] place. There had been no time to hide the numerous papers on the table. The screaming downstairs was earsplitting…. Suddenly, we heard footsteps coming up the staircase. We knew exactly how many steps there were. As the person arrived at the top stair and reached for the doorknob, a voice yelled out in German: ‘What are you doing there? There is nothing upstairs.’ Holding onto each other, Felix began whispering the ‘Kaddish’…finally there was silence.”

Brandsen had been taken away to a concentration camp. Flory and Felix, familiar with the habits of the Gestapo returning soon after a visit, slid down a gutter and fled into the winter night. Five miles later, they arrived at the home of the Hornsveld family.

“It was so incredible, I remember,” Flory says. “We showed up at the house, and there was this young teen-age boy and his mother. His mother asked her youngest son, Bertus, who was the man of the house while his father was away, if they could take us in. I will never forget his answer: ‘Yes, we can.’ This became the phrase that got me through it all — ‘Yes, we can.'”

After the war, Flory and Felix came to America, where Felix entered the home furnishings business. The couple sponsored Bertus Hornsveld and his brother Hannie for immigration to America, where the brothers became building contractors. They built the home in Newport Beach where Flory and Felix, married 56 years, now live. “We all should recognize the role that we must continue,” says Flory, “to fulfill the dreams and goals of those whose voices are stilled forever.”