Return to My Mother’s Life

Berlin After 1933

MOSAIC #12

On January 30, 1933, the infamous thing happened: Hitler took power in Germany. It was my last year in high school.

Soon the curriculum changed drastically and we were told absolutely laughable lies. For instance, the Jews (and the Arabs) had contributed nothing to civilization. Albert Einstein was not a Jew. Jesus was not a Jew. Every school subject suddenly was connected to “Rassenkunde” – “race science.”

We had the distinct impression that our teachers (who were the same persons as before the Nazis took over) did not believe one iota of what they suddenly told us. We guessed (correctly) that they were under a lot of pressure and fear of losing their jobs.

Suddenly people were supposed not to greet each other in the customary way by saying “good morning, good afternoon, good evening, good night.” Instead everybody was expected to shout “Heil Hitler” and extend the right arm as a greeting. Most of our teachers were unhappy with that. They came into the classroom and instead of saying “Heil Hitler” they mumbled something that nobody could understand. And instead of stretching out the right arm they fumbled in their hair. We understood and laughed it off.

The school I was attending was a girls’ college prep high school called “Hohenzollern Oberlyzeum.” My best friend was Irene Minsker, the only child of a secular Jewish family who had fled from Russia when the Bolshevik revolution broke out. Irene’s father was a banker who also played the violin in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

I was often invited to my girlfriend’s home, a fine apartment at the Olivaer Platz in West Berlin. A maid took our coats when we arrived and then brought refreshments to Irene’s room. Irene always had beautiful fresh flowers in her room, a fact that stuck to my mind because I never had flowers in the room I shared with my sister.

Did we talk, as American teenagers nowadays do, about boys, clothes, cars, make-up, movies? None of the above and neither one of us (nor the other girls in our class) dated boys. It just was not done: we were considered too young. Instead, we recited poems, learned them by heart. Hölderlin was my favorite. And we read Shakespeare (in English) together, took roles and read aloud to each other.

One afternoon we heard loud, boisterous singing coming from the street. We went to the balcony and looked down: There was a group of several hundred Nazis in brown shirts marching and singing what by now we knew was the Horst Wessel Lied. We had heard the melody often on the radio since the Nazis had taken over but we did not yet know the line: “Wenn das Judenblut am Messer spritzt” (“When the Jews’ blood squirts from the knife.”) Irene said, and I agreed with her:

“They are too ridiculous, the German people will never accept them.”

This was in 1933 — before a lot of German people accepted the Nazis. A year later Irene and her parents fled to London.

MOSAIC #13

My last year in high school started in 1933, just when the Nazis had taken power in Germany. There were six Jewish students and six non-Jewish students in my class (there were four parallel classes).

Ilse Israelski was the only outspoken Zionist of the Jewish girls. She spoke of leaving Germany after graduation because, as a Jew, she was not permitted to go on to a university although she had excellent grades.

Irene Minsker , my best friend, also an outstanding student, had the same plans and, with her parents (who had fled from Russia when the Bolshevist revolution broke out) went to London where she eventually became a professor of German Literature.

Another Jewish girl, Nina Steinberg, taught me – just for the fun of it – during recess and often after school – the Hebrew alphabet and some basics of the Hebrew language.

Erika Schey, the daughter of a Kosher butcher, was a math wizard. For a few weeks a teacher with a major in biology helped out teaching math, a subject in which she was not firmly grounded. When the teacher got stuck with a problem in logarithms, she called on Erika Schey to explain it to the class. Erika did it like a pro. She also explained Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to the class. By the way, in another course we had been told that Einstein was not a Jew… We knew better.

Of the non-Jewish students I remember Gisela von Witzleben who also was a very good student. I could never find out whether it was her father or a relative of the same last name who, ten years later in 1944, was involved in the attempted assassination of Hitler.

And there was Gisela Lammers who was very good at knitting pullovers but not very strong academically. When her father, a debarred (“verkracht”) attorney, suddenly became Secretary of State in Hitler’s chancellery (Reichskanzlei), she was driven to school in a big limousine. At that time, students and teachers walked to school or took public transportation. This gesture of flaunting her higher social status did not endear her to the students. She did not do well on her final written and oral exams and none of us girls in this class expected her to pass and earn the “Abitur.” There were rumors that her father had a little talk with the principal about that possibility. The principal, Dr. Zorn, happened to be shortly before his retirement. Miss Lammers passed and graduated. I have no idea how her life went on.

MOSAIC #14

In 1936 Berlin hosted the Summer Olympic Games. Adolf Hitler attempted to show off his superior “Aryan” society. This was severely blunted by the superlative performances of Jesse Owens who won four gold medals.

I had listened to the events on radio. Just when Jesse Owens had received his medals, a friend called me on the phone. She said: “Das geschieht ihnen recht – weisst du, was ich meine?” “That serves them right, if you know what I mean.” Yes, I knew what she meant: That serves the Nazis right. Our phones were bugged, we could not say outright what we felt: It was a day of victory for all anti-racist people. It was a defeat for Nazi ideology and practice.

That day we phoned all our friends and said “That serves them right” – and they all knew what we were talking about.

MOSAIC #15

In Berlin, my father worked as a design engineer at the Rohrbach A.G., a company owned by a Jewish family. The company produced small civilian airplanes. (Germany was forbidden to produce military airplanes by terms of the Versailles Treaty after World War I.)

In 1934 the Rohrbach company was expropriated (stolen) by the Nazis. The Rohrbach family was allowed to leave the country. My father was fired for the crime of working for a Jewish company. My father resented it bitterly and made no bones about how he hated the Nazis.

This was the first time in his life that my father was unemployed. Eventually, he found another job as editor of the company organ of the BVG, the Berlin Traffic Company, but it was a step down and my father deeply disliked his new job.

A year later, a drunk driver who ran through a red light at the corner of Kurfürstendamm and Bleibtreu-Street hit my father while he was crossing the street with the green light. He was killed instantly. He was buried in the cemetery of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church), Pastor Gerhard Jacobi officiating.

Soon after my father’s death a woman official from the NSDAP, the Nazi Party, came to our door and asked my mother to become a member of the Nazi party. My mother slammed the door in her face. This is the only time I remember that my dear, kind mother ever slammed a door.

MOSAIC #16

Before my father’s sudden death at the age of 49 when I was 19, he suffered from a very painful illness: trigeminal neuralgia. Doctors told me that this is one of the most painful illnesses a human being can have. The trigeminus is a three-pronged nerve emanating from the brain and ending in a person’s jaw.

I think that my father’s illness started in his early 40s and got worse over the years. My father could eat only by moving eating utensils in fast staccato way into his mouth, after which he needed deep breaths while his face was contorted in terrible pain. He took the pain killer Pyramidon. He got hardly any relief.

Doctors told him that they could attempt to surgically open his skull and disconnect the nerve from the base. However, the chances for surviving this operation were 50/50 at best. My father decided not to risk it because his wife and two children totally depended on him.

Before my father became sick, he was a warm, loving, witty man. It was a pleasure to be around him for his wife and his two daughters. After the onset of his ailment his personality gradually began to change. He felt humiliated and degraded that his wife, his children, his friends would have to see him in such unavoidable miserable harsh pain that contorted his face and made him hold his head with both hands in an unconscious move to hold and crush his terrible pain.

He went from doctor to doctor and asked one specialist after another for help and relief from his terribly painful disease. Nobody and no medication could help him. He started to smoke cigarettes heavily but they, too, brought no relief. He became extremely irritable at the slightest incident and no incident at all. Mother suffered this with endless patience and understanding but I, although I felt deeply sorry for my father’s I undeserved misery, I was often put in a melancholy mood and asked myself the naive question: Why does God do this to this innocent man? Naturally, there was no answer.

One early evening on a bright summer day my father was on his way to friends living just a few blocks away. At the crossing of Kurfürstendamm and Bleibtreu Street, my father was crossing the street with a green traffic light when a drunken driver went through his red light and hit my father full force. His head was smashed. He was dead on the spot. He was not quite 50 years old.

Besides the emotional blow of my father’s death, the family had to make changes in our life style because we had to make ends meet without my father’s income. There was no pension, just a tiny rent income for my mother. We had to sublet some rooms in our big apartment.

My father’s study (Herrenzimmer) plus an adjoining bedroom (formerly shared by my sister and myself) were rented to Pastor Asmussen (whose homebase was, I think, in Schleswig-Holstein). Asmussen was on the national board of the anti-Nazi Protestant Church that called itself “Bekennende Kirche.” He had to travel often to Berlin for meetings. Often, before coming to our domicile, he would send a telegram to my mother asking her to heat his rooms so they would be warm when he came home (he suffered from asthma). There was no central heat in most buildings. My father’s study was equipped with a huge tile oven that emanated heat only after of hours of heating the beast.

My sister who had chosen to go to middle school graduated at the age of 16 and, after learning shorthand and typing, worked as an office secretary. She helped financially with the living expenses at home. Although I worked only part-time (being also a student at the university), I, too, contributed and with the rent income from subletting some rooms, we somehow got through hard times. But it was hardest on Mother who spent her entire adult life devoted to husband and children. Now she started to get more and more depressed and lonely since she had no social life of her own.

MOSAIC #17

While I was a student at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, I got acquainted with a med student known by his two first name initials, P.C. I also met him Sundays in the small Annenkirche (church) in Berlin-Dahlem where Pastor Niemöller preached his sermons.

Niemöller had been a submarine captain in WW I and then turned to theology. He made very strong anti-Nazi statements in his sermons and was imprisoned for years in the Dachau concentration camp

I got to know P.C.’s family who lived in Dahlem. P.C.’s father was Jewish but did not practice his religion. He never went to a synagogue and really was an atheist. His mother was a non-practicing Christian. She never went to church and really also was an atheist.

One day when I visited the family, P.C. told me that he had received a coded phone call from a friend who had made him understand that the Gestapo was in the process of hunting Jews and loading them into a big truck. P.C.’s father had immediately left the house and took refuge in a Christian’s house. P.C. was relieved. And then the Gestapo came.

They searched the house and when they did not find P.C.’s father, they took the son, P.C., instead. P.C’s mother who was sick in bed had asked me to make some sandwiches for us all. When P.C. was hauled into the truck I managed to wrap one of the sandwiches and threw it up into the truck when it just started moving.

After a few days P.C. was released from prison because he was only half-Jewish. His father stayed in hiding until the Nazi madness was over.

When P.C. was at the point in his studies where he had done all the research for his M.D. dissertation, he got very sick after accidentally cutting himself working on a corpse in anatomy. It was extremely important to him to get his medical degree before the Nazis decided not to let people with even half-Jewish background practice medicine. P.C. recovered after several weeks and wrote his dissertation on “The Brain Metastasis of Melanomata.” He got his M.D. However, he could not practice medicine and spent the rest of the Nazi years tucked away working in the back room of a pharmacy.

P.C. married a German Christian girl (of Jewish background). After the war they emigrated to the United States.

MOSAIC #18

Ralph Neumann, a Jewish boy, about 15 years old, had experienced the disappearance of his father and mother while he was hiding in a friend’s house when one day he was accidentally discovered and taken to a police station in Berlin. At a moment when he was not watched, he jumped out of a window onto the street below. He had broken a leg and was unable to move. A taxi driver found him, understood Ralph’s story and offered to take him wherever he wanted to go. They went to the home of Pastor Wendlandt whose daughter, Ruth, was a friend of the Neumann family.

Pastor Wendlandt was at the Gethsemane Church. Under normal circumstances Ralph should and would have been taken to a hospital. However, this was not possible because Ralph’s identity would have become known and he would have been in grave danger of his life because some Nazi doctor or nurse would have contacted the GESTAPO and he would have been taken away.

Instead, the Wendlandts contacted a trusted physician who was not a Nazi. He came to the house and treated Ralph and later came back several times to check on his progress. He also brought free medication and food and refused payment for his services.

While usually a pastor’s house is a busy place with parishioners coming and going, the Wendlandt’s house was much more quiet because the aging pastor was almost blind and his wife was ill with cancer. These circumstances were in Ralph’s favor because he did not have to hide every second of the day.

From the first day of the war, food and other articles (clothing, soap, shoes) were rationed and people were issued ration cards. Although the supply of these things was often limited or non-existent for a long time, one could just get by with it. Ralph, however, and others in his position, were non-existent people and could not get ration cards. It was therefore, a matter of life and death to collect food and other necessities for such unfortunate people. That was part of the work I was involved in when I was a member of an underground church organization.

We also got books for Ralph because he could not dare to go to school.

Ralph survived the war and the Nazis at Wendlandt’s house. His mother and father and lots of other of his relatives became victims of the Nazi holocaust.

At the first chance he got, Ralph emigrated to the United States. He soon graduated from high school, went on to college and married his girl friend whom he met in Germany. They I have two sons and used to live in California.

When a few years later I came to New York with my then 11 years old son Martin, it was Ralph Neumann who helped us find our first domicile in the United States. Upon his testimony that I had helped him to survive and that I was not a Nazi, we got an apartment in Seagate, a guarded enclave of only Jewish home owners. We were the only goys in Seagate, a part of Brooklyn.

MOSAIC #19

My parents had a woman friend, Minchen Kriegbaum, who was a teacher in Offenbach am Main. I believe it was during summer vacation in 1934 when she came to visit us in Berlin. She talked a lot with my parents, was very upset and cried a lot. She said that she absolutely could not continue to be bombarded with this unscientific nonsense of “Rassenkunde” (race “science”) which she was supposed to teach the children in school. I am sure she asked my parents for advice on how to deal with her problem. I have no idea what my parents told her. A few days after Minchen had returned to Offenbach, my parents were notified that she had committed suicide by jumping out of a window of her apartment.

MOSAIC #20

While I was a student at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, I also worked part-time (on an irregular basis) at Pastor Jacobi’s office at Achenbachstrasse 19 in Berlin. During that time I met a lot of active people who were I members of the anti-Nazi “Bekennende Kirche” church.

One of them was Sofie Apuleit who worked for the Judenmission (Jews for Jesus). She herself was a Jew who converted to Christianity. When she realized that her life was in danger because of the Nazis, she approached me and we had long talks about how to get out of Germany and where to go. I told her that I had connections in Basel, Switzerland, since I had spent the winter semester 37/38 at the university there. She asked me whether I would be willing to take her family silverware and some jewelry out of Germany and leave it at a certain person’s place for her in order to give her a financial start in Switzerland.

On a weekend in the summer of 1938 I dressed in tourist fashion, put a heavy backpack on my shoulders, got into a train to Basel (I still had a valid passport) and, looking “Aryan” with blond hair and blue eyes, got no trouble from train personnel or people who wore NSDAP membership buttons on the lapel of their suits. In Switzerland I deposited Sofie’s treasures at the place of destination and took the next train back to Germany. A short time later, Sofie made it into Switzerland. As agreed upon in advance, she sent me a tourist post card to let me know that she “enjoyed her vacation”.

MOSAIC #21

Achenbach-Strasse Number 18 was a very important address in Berlin-Wilmersdorf during the Nazi time. This is where Pastor Gerhard Jacobi lived with his family on the second floor of this apartment building. In his apartment there were ample living quarters for him, his wife and a boy and a girl. There also was a waiting room for visitors, a room for his “Pfarrgehilfin”, his assistant, Miss Baltzer, and a large room as office for Jacobi.

In the course of the struggle against the Nazis, Jacobi was eventually elected by his peers as “Praeses der Bekennenden Kirche von Berlin-Brandenburg,” i.e., President of the anti-Nazi (Protestant) church of the area of Berlin and the surrounding province (Land) of Brandenburg. He joked about having attained this elevated position because he happened to have central heating in his apartment.

His office was extremely busy: many, many meetings were held there. Theologians from the entire area came to the meetings, lay people who held responsible positions in the church, theologians from foreign countries came, and — yes, of course — the Gestapo came, too. I was present at several sessions when two Gestapo men came, unannounced, of course.

Jacobi had a superior way of dealing with these guys. He graciously invited them to take a seat, asked them how they were and how they liked the weather (while offering them cigarettes which they eagerly took — Jacobi being an avid smoker himself) and then asked them why they dared to take his precious time.

Of course, the Gestapo guys wanted to know names and addresses of those “they knew” Jacobi assisted, names and addresses of the enemies of the Fuehrer, enemies of the German people, etc. Jacobi smiled and asked them to put themselves in his position and asked: “Now, gentlemen, don’t you think that your demands are unreasonable – knowing perfectly well that I don’t do anything illegal?

It did not take long and Jacobi had complimented the two guys out of his office. By the way, the Gestapo never arrested Jacobi in all the Nazi years.

At the Sunday services at the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche he addressed the parish in such a way: Liebe Gemeinde — dear parishioners, and yes, let’s not forget to address the Gestapo that’s here, especially the Gestapo: especially you have to listen to what I have to say” … The Gestapo was always at his services, scribbling notes about the sermon.

The large church was always packed with people when Jacobi was on the pulpit firing away at the Nazis, their racism, their criminal laws and deeds.

One of the visitors to Jacobi’s office was a theologian who became “infamous,” then famous in connection with the Ju1y 20, 1944 attempted assassination of Hitler. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was assassinated by the Nazis, together with other resistance fighters, on April 9, 1945, in the concentration camp Flossenburg in Bavaria.

Other theologians in Berlin quietly helped to keep alive Jewish people. One of them was Pastor Edo Osterloh who at that time had already four children. I remember one night he and I took a Jewish man from his home where he was at risk and took him via subway into another part of Berlin to the home of a Christian family were he was kept until the end of the Nazi area.

Try to remember that people who did this rescue work risked their lives, because they were considered traitors of the German people. I was just a single person at that time but Edo Osterloh was the father of four small children and, of course, husband of his wife.

I don’t think one will ever know how many people tried to help Jewish people in Berlin – surely, they were never enough to prevent the holocaust – but it also was not just a handful of people.

MOSAIC #22

In the early summer of 1937 I had a spaghetti dinner with a girlfriend, like myself a student at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin. Sitting at the dining table at my mother’s apartment at 83 Pfalzburger Strasse in Berlin, the doorbell rang three times when we were about halfway through dinner. This was not an ordinary one-push short door bell ring. This was ALARM!

We stopped eating, put down our forks and knives, looked at each other in silence and then both of us said at the same time: “THE GESTAPO” (Secret State Police).

The GESTAPO it was. I already knew one of the two men from previous questioning at their headquarters. “Uncle” was an older man, plump and seemingly jovial at times. The other one introduced himself as Herr Chantré who prided himself for coming from a group of earlier prosecuted people, the Huguenots.

When my girl friend got up from the table — there was no way we could continue eating — they noticed that she walked with a cane. “Uncle” said: “Das Krüppelmädchen kann gehen. Wir sind keine Unmenschen.” (“The cripple girl can leave. We are no monsters). My girl friend said that she wanted to stay with me while they were in the house. Herr Chantré screamed at her: “You would like that, wouldn’t you. Being a witness! If you don’t leave right now, I can’t tell you what is going to happen!” My friend left.

I asked the two GESTAPO men what they wanted. They said they would look and find information about the organization they “knew” I was connected with. “You know what we mean: helping Jews and other traitors.” I told them that they would not find any such information. They said: “We will, you can I bet on that.”

They proceeded to take the apartment apart. All the books were thrown from the shelves. At one point they came upon a volume of Karl Marx, Das Kapital, and Chantré said: “Aha, we knew it, you are a Communist. Do you know what we do with Communists?” I told him that I had purchased Das Kapital during my last year in High School because studying that particular book was part of the curriculum. I had to write an essay on the “Mehrwert Theorie” (surplus theory). And this was in the spring of 1933, just after Hitler had taken power.

Chantré said: “This just shows how rotten the Weimar system was.”

The GESTAPO not only looked under the beds, but they ripped off the bed sheets, pillow cases, pulled out every drawer in every room, roamed with their hands in every nook and corner of the apartment until it looked as if mad thieves had paid a visit. They found nothing. This made them really mad.

Chantré said: “Let’s just take her in and we’ll make her talk at headquarters.” I was told to take a toothbrush and pajamas along. I also got permission to leave a note to my mother by the phone. I wrote: “GESTAPO got me. Call Pastor Jacobi.”

MOSAIC #23

When Chantré, “Uncle” and I appeared on the street where the “Grüne Minna” (Green Minna, slang for the police paddy wagon) was parked, a small crowd had gathered. Most of the people just stared at me but a few screamed: “Communist! Judenliebchen!” (Jew-lover – the equivalent of “niggerlover” in the USA).

I was surprised that I was not taken directly to the GESTAPO headquarters at the Alexanderplatz but the paddy wagon rolled along Sächsische Strasse, my way to school, going by the apartment building in which the author Erich Maria Remarque did his morning exercises on his veranda. Close by that particular building they stopped at the quarters of the regular area police which, officially, had nothing to do with the GESTAPO.

I was turned over to the uniformed police officers and heard the GESTAPO men say that they should lock me up until they would come back late at night after having rounded up some other people. The police officers said “Jawoll” which I like to translate as “Yesss Sir!”

As soon as the GESTAPO guys were gone, the three police officers at the station breathed a big sigh of relief and incredible things happened. They did not lock me up but two of them asked me politely to come with them to the back room (one did duty at the front desk). I was told to sit down in one of the standard wooden chairs by a hefty table. One of them asked: “What did you get busted for?” I told them what had happened at home.

“The goddamn bastards, the GESTAPO, they think they are above the law, they think they can do whatever they please.”

The older one of the two cops said: “They will make nothing but a big Schlamassel (mess) out of Germany.”

One of the police officers brought a pad for me to sit on the hard wooden chair. Then they asked: “Are you hungry?” I told them that I had not finished dinner because the GESTAPO had come. A few minutes later a couple of chocolate bars were put in front of me. “For you, eat it. You never I know how long the bastards will keep you.” I offered some chocolate to’ the police officers. They politely declined. I ate it all.

The two cops in the back room had nothing to do. The younger one started to read the VOLKISCHE BEOBACHTER, the official NAZI paper that was furnished to all police departments. The older cop said to him: “You should be ashamed of yourself to read that Scheiss (shit) paper.” The younger cop threw the official Nazi paper in the waste basket.

After a short while the older cop said: “It’s too bad that our buddy isn’t here today, we could play Skat. (Skat is a card game that takes three people to play) I said: “I can play Skat.” Before I could think anything else a deck of cards was on the table and I played Skat with two cops for hours until screeching brakes outside interrupted the intensive players’ silence.

It was obvious the cops knew exactly who was coming. In an instant, the cards disappeared in a drawer, they shoved me into a holding cell, locked it, and, just before the GESTAPO got in, the older cop said to me: “Visit us after you get out, we want to know what’s going on.”

“Yeah”, said the younger one, “by all means – oh God, this GESTAPO shit!”

 

MOSAIC #24

Leaving the police station on Sächsische Strasse, I was pushed into the police wagon, the “Green Minna,” but this time I was not the only one in there. Half a dozen women, no men, had been rounded up by the Gestapo. Some of the women looked like ladies of the night. We looked at each other with curiosity and suspicion. Nobody spoke.

We were unloaded at the big, old prison at the Alexanderplatz. After we were shoved into a huge booking room full of people, the slow process of the orderly prison bureaucracy started.

I happened to stand in line next to a young man whom I had never seen before. From time to time a young Gestapo man walked by the line and looked at the prisoners with fiendish eyes. Then something happened. While staring at the young man next to me, the Gestapo man suddenly screamed:

“Du Judenschwein!” (You Jew Pig!) and gave him a fierce kick in his shin which threw the young man against the metal bars of a huge holding cage behind him.

This made me instantly mad and I loudly asked the Gestapo man,

“What did you do that for? He has not done anything to you!”

The Gestapo man took a deep breath and with glee in his eyes he screamed at me:

“What do we have here? Ein Judenliebchen!” (A Jew Lover)!

With a fierce kick from his boots, I too, landed at the metal cage.

After a long wait I finally was pushed into a prison cell. I was not alone: five other women shared it. I was the youngest, 22 at the time. I later found out that this cell (and many others like it) originally was designed for three prisoners. As the Nazis weeded out more and more undesirables, the prisons got crowded. Two more cots were put between the other three. Now there was no room left for another cot. I was told to sleep on the bare floor and was given a prison-quality blanket.

I soon got to know the other inmates. Our common dilemma created a heartwarming solidarity against the Nazis: we were all political prisoners.

There was a woman who had mistakenly considered a neighbor to be a friend and told her that she thought Hitler was a madman. Her “friend” had gone to the Gestapo and reported it.

Another woman who had listened on the radio to the BBC station, the British Broadcasting Corporation. Her neighbor had overheard the well-known BBC station signal, the first five notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony which practically every German knew. The neighbor reported her to the Gestapo. This woman was scared to death of what might happen to her because she was 4 months pregnant. Yes, there was the death penalty for listening to BBC or any other enemy radio station.

And another inmate was a Catholic nun who had transferred some money from her order to a chapter of the order in another (enemy) country.

I do not remember for what other “crimes” the other women were held in prison.

The first night in prison I slept like a log from physical and emotional exhaustion. The next morning I was called out before breakfast, made to wait for several hours in a room with a gun-carrying guard until two interrogating Gestapo men started their job.

I was given a wooden chair. While glaring lights shone upon me, a Gestapo man sat behind a desk facing me and played with a pistol, mostly directed at me. A guard with a gun guarded him.

The questioning started: Who were the organizations they “knew” I was associated with “helping Jews and other traitors?”

“What are the names of the people in charge and anybody else involved?”

The people in the (underground) church organization in which I indeed was involved helping Jews had a solemn understanding and commitment that we would divulge absolutely nothing and nobody’s name to the Gestapo. The only answer we would ever give to any question would be: “Ich verweigere die Aussage.” (I refuse to answer.) And this is what I said again and again and again.

When they found out that they were not getting anywhere with me, they tried to bribe me by offering me a job with them I where I would “make at least twice as much” as I made then I working as a part-time secretary while also being a student at the university. I shook my head.

On another day, one of my interrogators, while walking with me in a hallway (before turning me over to a guard) smiled viciously at me and said: “You know, you blond witch, maybe we can get together for a nice dinner and so on and then you’ll feel more like talking.” I felt like throwing up but my stomach was empty.

After what went as “supper” had been served to the inmates of my cell, I was brought back from interrogation. I had received no food or drink all day. I was utterly exhausted. One of the cell mates let me rest on her cot for a while. And they had saved from their meager meals a piece of bread, part of a potato and water. They were my sisters.

At night bed bugs by the thousands plagued us. This old prison, “the Alex,” was infested with the nasty bugs that made you itch until they could drive you crazy. I was told that from time to time the prison officials would drench the cots with some chemicals and there was peace for a night. Then the “Wanzen” (bugs) were back. I had bedbug bites all over my body, including my face.

The interrogation continued in the same manner for a few more days. I got weaker and weaker until one day I fell from my chair. They doused cold water over my head until I could sit again. Nobody could come to visit me (or any other prisoner), nobody was allowed. Nobody could make a phone call. No lawyer could come near us. No family member was allowed to visit us.

They got nothing out of me. One morning at dawn the prison cell was opened, my name was called and I was ordered out. I was told that I would be released. After signing some papers, I was put into a “Green Minna” and told that they would take me home. Ha, ha!

Instead, they put me in another prison in another part of Berlin, in Charlottenburg – indeed, much closer to my home. I was put into a cell with a young woman with flaming red hair who immediately started to talk, talk, talk in order to convert me to Jehova’s Witnesses.

The prison was a country club compared to the “Alex”. Everything was clean, I got enough to eat. I slept on a cot and there were no bedbugs. After one night I was released without interrogations. I had been away from home for only four nights. When I rang the doorbell at home and my mother opened the door, she stared at me in disbelief: “Is that you, Margot?”

MOSAIC #25

After my imprisonment in 1937 I needed to recuperate and regain some weight and take a little vacation. Since I had very little money, I decided to hitchhike in the country and see where it would take me. I hoped to get to a part of Germany where I had never been before.

Soon I was lucky and got some rides going into a northeasterly direction. Then a group of men in a big, black limousine took me in. I first had seen only the driver, a man in an impeccable chauffeur’s uniform. Inside were two military officers. I had no idea about their rank but the red stripes on their pants gave I them away as officers. And there was another man, a well dressed civilian. The “gentlemen” immediately asked me questions which indicated that they expected to be entertained by me. I was in no mood for that and was tight-lipped.

Signs outside indicated we were in Pommerania. It dawned on me that this was the time of the usual fall military exercises. Suddenly, there was a barrier across the road and a soldier signaled for the car to step. The chauffeur and the civilian man got out. The civilian showed some papers to the soldier and also pulled out from the belt around his waist a piece of metal that I had seen many times before. It was the standard ID of the Gestapo.

On the spot I decided to get out of the car although it looked like I was in the middle of nowhere. Where could I go from here? I looked around. There was a sign over a big iron portal. It said: “FRIEDHOF”: Cemetery.

I continued hitchhiking and made it to Danzig, now called Gdansk. There was a beautiful harbor and huge shipyards. Of course, there was no way of even fantasizing that some day this biggest German shipyard here would be called Lenin Shipyard and that a Polish man by the name of Lech Walesa would found a Polish workers’ union, Solidarity.

Eventually, I made it to what was then East Prussia. In the main city, Königsberg, I remembered Emanuel Kant, the philosophy professor who was so punctual on his way to his lectures that people would set their clocks by his comings and goings.

It was market day when I was in Königsberg. Very colorful. Mostly fat women sat behind their stands and chatted incessantly with customers and each other. They spoke, of course, German. Their accent was incredibly heavy and weird to me. I did not understand a single word.

I made it home, uneventfully.

 

MOSAIC #26

My parents were very unhappy that their younger daughter, my sister Annelies, started to date young men at the age of 17, which they considered much too early and inappropriate.

Shortly before my father died, she was seen with a young man on a motorcycle. My father talked my sister into revealing the guy’s name and address. As a result of my father’s talk with the motorcyclist, there were no more dates with this man.

Soon after my father died, my sister met a new man and fell in love with him. He was 15 years older than my sister and a member of the NSDAP, the Nazi party, a card-carrying very early member. He was just a little taller than my sister who was 5’3″.

When one day my sister took him home to meet my mother and me, he told us that he once fell from a horse and that inhibited his growth. Years later, when I met his mother and father in Magdeburg, they told me that his short height was caused by a birth defect and that he was very conscious of this shortcoming. They believed that he joined the Nazis because they told everybody that “when you are a Nazi, you are a man, a big man …” His parents told me that they had disowned him because he was a Nazi.

Mother and I were utterly opposed to this relationship. But, of course, this was just another case of blind love and she would not listen to our arguments.

My Mother and I were utterly opposed to my sister’s relationship with this Nazi but, of course, our arguments fell on deaf ears. My mother insisted on a church wedding because she had the vague idea that somehow this formality would get a shine that would enhance the quality of this marriage. My sister did not mind a short church ceremony and Helmi could not care one way or other. He was not a Christian but believed that God was in nature. However, this was not a formal wedding on April 20, 1936: there were no bridesmaids, nobody “gave away” the bride, and. neither my mother nor I attended the ceremony. Mother stayed home and I waited for the couple outside of the church at the Hohenzollernplatz in Berlin. The ceremony was conducted by one of those Nazi-allied pastors. When my sister and Helmi came out of the church they carried — gifts of the Pastor — a Bible and Hitler’s book “Mein Kampf.” The day of the wedding, April 20, was Hitler’s birthday.

 

MOSAIC #27

In 1936 my sister had married this card-carrying Nazi, Wilhelm (“Helmi”) Meissner. They lived, as my mother and I did, in an apartment in Berlin. The next year I was arrested and imprisoned by the GESTAPO.

My mother who suffered deeply because one of her daughters had married a Nazi and also suffered from the subsequent rift between her daughters, felt that I should talk to my sister and tell her what had happened to me and perhaps that would make an impression on her and, hopefully, turn her away from the Nazis.

I told Mother that I thought it was entirely too late to change my sister’s mind and that I did not want to make a connection again with her. But Mother insisted that I should not give up hope and she, not I, would phone my sister and make an appointment to come over to her apartment on an afternoon when her husband would be working in his office. My sister reluctantly agreed to let me come to her house.

I went at the agreed time and rang the doorbell. The door opened and there was my sister’s husband and my sister standing behind him. When “Helmi” saw me, he threw these words with a thunderous voice at me: “Für Staatsfeinde ist in meinem Hause kein Platz!” “There is no room in my house for enemies of the State!” My sister said nothing and the door slammed shut with a bang.

 

MOSAIC #28

During high school days, one of my classmates was Eva Bildt, the daughter of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, a well-known actor.

A few years later, I learned that she was engaged to a highly respected anti-Nazi theologian who was drafted into the army and who spent years in Siberian prison camps. When he finally came back, he searched for his fiancée. He found out that she and her Jewish mother had been hiding and somehow survived the war in Berlin. If the Nazis would come to their door to take out her mother or herself, they both would take poison and not open the door. The Nazis never came.

But now the Russians were in Berlin and everybody knew soon enough that lots of Russians raped women wherever they could get a hold of them.

One day Eva and her mother heard women’s loud screams coming from the apartment below. Eva and her mother panicked, took poison and died. The Russians never came upstairs.

P.S. It is estimated that during the last days of the war and the fight around Berlin at least 6000 people committed suicide. In the world-famous Berlin hospital “Charité” of the more than 5000 employees more than 350 committed suicide, most of them women doctors and nurses who feared the revenge of the Russians. During the New Year’ s night 1945/46 more than 3000 people committed suicide in Berlin.

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