August 17, 2019

The Lost Children

In April 1942, the Gestapo closed down the Grosse Hamburgerstrasse Schule, the last Jewish school in Berlin.

Of the school’s pupils. many perished in the Holocaust, some found refuge abroad, and a few managed to hide in Berlin throughout the war.

A year ago, the Shoah Visual History Foundation and its founder, Steven Spielberg, brought together 50 of the former students at the recently reopened school, just as, earlier, he had arranged a reunion for the surviving “Schindlerjuden” of “Schindler’s List” fame.

The stories and recollections of the former pupils, told 54 years later, have been preserved in a 50-minute film, which the A&E television network will premiere on Saturday, May 31, at 10 p.m.

The film, “The Lost Children of Berlin,” is narrated by British actor Anthony Hopkins and will be broadcast without commercials.

The ex-students were mostly in their middle-teens when they left Germany, and in their remembrances, the normal alternates with the abnormal.

Some recall their overriding passion for sports, the first adolescent kiss, and the school as a refuge from the outside.

Others speak about the sudden arrests of teachers, the constant farewells to close friends leaving for Palestine or America, and a Nazi edict that forced all Jews to turn in their pets.

The film implicitly contains the answer to a question that I, who left Berlin as a schoolboy in 1939, am frequently asked by puzzled Americans.

Why, with the Holocaust on the horizon, did so many German Jews wait until the last moment, or beyond the last moment, to flee the Nazis? And how could I claim to have had a fairly happy childhood in the face of the looming disaster?

The answer derived from “Lost Children” is that one can not recreate the state of mind of the 1930s, when viewed decades later through the prism of the Holocaust.

Another part of the answer, conveyed by the film, is that the ultimate tragedy was reached by way of small stepping stones. Given the marvels of human adaptability and the mind’s capacity to block what it cannot accept, many of us shared our parents’ belief that we could wait out the temporary German insanity and