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Saturday, June 6, 2020

Happy Birthday from Berlin

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At precisely 8 a.m. one day last year, I was awakened by a phone call. When I picked up the receiver, I heard a man’s voice say “Happy Birthday from Berlin.”

Since I
knew no one there who could possibly know my birthday, I took it to be a practical joke. But it wasn’t. The caller was Ruediger Nemitz, an official of the Senate of the Federal State of Berlin calling to invite me to come “home” as a guest of my native city.

Along with some other German cities, Berlin, since 1969, has had a program to invite “former Berlin citizens who were persecuted or forced to emigrate during the National Socialist period.” By the time I received my call, more than 33,000 former Berliners had been invited, and now, finally, it was my turn. I left Berlin in 1933, when I was just 3 years old, and I have visited the city a number of times as an adult on business, but I had no memories of my life there. I accepted the invitation and considered it a wonderful birthday present.

When my wife and I reached the London airport en route to our Berlin flight last spring, we noticed a small cluster of people with luggage tags similar to ours.

“Those must be our people,” I said to my wife, and went over to introduce myself. They were, indeed, part of our group, and we quickly played “Jewish geography.” As it happened, one of the couples lived within a block of my first London home after leaving Germany, and another, now thoroughly British, knew Los Angeles well, having worked there on several movies, most notably the James Bond series.

We were all roughly the same age, and at least one member of each couple was a Berlin native. Our group of 84 came from nine countries, with the “U.S. delegation” numbering just eight. The largest group came from Israel, followed by Chile, Argentina, England, South Africa, Australia, Canada and Belgium.

Our common origin notwithstanding, we all had become totally assimilated into the countries in which we live, and we stuck together with those who spoke our language. Moreover, I found it remarkable that we all got along well, and that there was not a single “kvetch” among us.

Yet we all came to Germany with our own “baggage.” Some knew the country from previous visits or military duty and felt no animosity toward the present generation of Germans. Others, a number of whom had lost family members or experienced Nazi atrocities themselves, were still bitter and unforgiving. Still others had lived a life of denial in their new homelands and didn’t want to admit their origins, even to themselves.

Our program included several receptions with speeches by senior government officials — all women. They expressed their gratitude that we returned to a city from which, as Mayor Karin Schubert put it, “you were driven away … exposed to profound hostility … humiliated, excluded and persecuted.”

One speaker characterized the Berlin Jewish community as “a piece of the mosaic that makes up our history” and emphasized the importance to the city of today’s Jewish community, which numbers approximately 30,000. Schubert also said that the city goes to great lengths to promote integration among various groups, including the Muslim community.

“We made mistakes in the past,” she said, “believing that different cultures can live peacefully in parallel. We have learned that integration is essential!”

Nevertheless, I found it quite remarkable that today’s Berlin contains so many reminders of the Nazi regime. Among them a billboard in front of a railway station listing the names of concentration camps to which Berlin’s Jews were deported, and so-called “Stolpersteine” (copper memorials in the shape of cobblestones) embedded in the sidewalk in front of the former homes of many Nazi victims. Our tours included these and many other important landmarks of “Jewish Berlin.”

My most indelible memories, however, are focused on three extraordinary experiences.

Visit With a German Family

We spent one afternoon with a German family, Cato and Annette Dill, two young lawyers who live in a delightful home in a Berlin suburb with their two children — their daughter, Benita, 18, and son, Dario, 14. All speak English well and have traveled widely.

Cato, 49, is treasurer of the Liebermann Society, which operates the country mansion of the German Jewish expressionist painter, Max Liebermann. Together we visited this spectacular home, filled with the artist’s paintings and located on the shores of Lake Wannsee — not far from where the site of the infamous conference where the “The Final Solution of the Jewish Problem” was planned.

The mansion and its gardens have been beautifully restored and only recently opened to the public. Our time together ended at the Dill home, where we got an insight, if ever so brief, into a sophisticated young German family whose interests and values were similar to ours and far removed from the Germany of the Third Reich.

Shabbat Dinner

By sheer coincidence, the daughter-in-law of my oldest friend was in Berlin on business during our stay. Leah Salter is an observant woman who lives with her family in Alon Shvut, an Orthodox community in Israel. We arranged to meet her for Shabbat dinner at the glatt kosher restaurant Gabriel, located in the Jewish Community Center on Fasanenstrasse. The center occupies the lot on which Berlin’s largest synagogue stood prior to its destruction on Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938. Of that synagogue only a portion of the entrance arch remains and now frames the entrance to the center.

Leah and my wife, Barbara, began the evening by lighting and blessing the Sabbath candles, and we continued with my celebrating Kiddush. The restaurant has only about a dozen tables, and each was set in Sabbath finery, with starched white table linen. As the evening progressed, other family groups arrived, and the head of each household celebrated Kiddush at his table. Judging by the melodies they chanted, they were most likely from Eastern Europe.

The menu was traditional Eastern European: chicken soup, chopped liver, chicken and so on. But that was the least important element of the evening. I was deeply touched by the spirit of Shabbat, which was palpable, and the realization that here we were, all survivors, celebrating “Shabbos” on the very spot the Nazis had chosen to eliminate us. What a demonstration of “Am Yisrael Chai!” (the people of Israel live.)

Jewish Resistance Fighters

The final day of our tour began with a visit to Weissensee Cemetery. Since I believed I had no family members buried there, I remained near the entrance and admired some of the monuments to holocaust victims and Berlin’s Jewish aristocracy.

My lonesome vigil was soon interrupted by one of our guides, Caroline Naumann, a young woman active in Berlin’s nascent Jewish community, who approached me saying “Come, I want to show you something.” She led me a short distance to a memorial honoring about two-dozen young German Jewish men and women in their 20s who rose up against the Nazis during the war. They were members of a movement similar to the “White Rose” student uprising and, tragically, all were shot.

Among this small group, were three who bore my family name of Rothholz. Although I have no idea whether they were relatives or not, they made me feel very proud.

Some Final Thoughts

At our farewell reception in the ballroom of the Jewish Community Center, Dr. Otto Lampe, director of the “homecoming” program, promised to do everything in his power “to keep alive the memory of the Nazi terror and to pass it on to future generations.”

Dr. Gideon Jaffe, chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany suggested that “we Jews are a warning system, because we are often the first victims of crimes, but usually not the only ones.” He concluded by saying “I hope you have convinced yourselves that Germany has changed a lot, and changed for the better.”

I, for one, left Berlin convinced.

Peter Rothholz, who headed his own Manhattan-based public relations agency, now lives in Santa Monica and East Hampton, NY and is a frequent contributor to Jewish publications.

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