first person

Yesterday I heard a Holocaust survivor speak in-person for the first time in my life. A few weeks ago, after finishing Refuge in Hell, with its many survivor interviews, I realized that I hadn’t ever heard a survivor speak about his/her experience firsthand, save the film that runs at the end of the permanent exhibit “The Holocaust” at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I went to the museum for the first time in the spring of 1995, right after it opened, and I haven’t been back since (except for a quick visit to the gift shop — for classroom supplies with my mom — last July). But I’ve been thinking about the site a lot recently since Stephen Johns was murdered one year ago today.

On June 10, 2009, a man dressed in a confederate coat walked up to the museum’s entrance. Johns, a security guard at the museum, saw him and moved to open the door for the 88-year-old man, who then opened fire on the museum with the rifle hidden in his coat. Johns died at GWU Hospital, where my friend Rabbi Tamara Miller, as the Director of Spiritual Care, was called to minister to the Johns family — a job which later played a role in the hospital’s firing her in July. I’ve been working for Rabbi Miller for the past six months, helping her to build her new private practice in the wake of her dismissal.

This is how I found myself, a little before 1:00 p.m., making my way to the museum to hear Inge Katzenstein (née Berg) as part of its “First Person” series.

I was already thinking about senseless loss of life as I walked up to the building. And my sadness only increased as I navigated to the Rubenstein auditorium. The architecture of the museum is purposefully inescapable. Imposing. You can’t pretend that you’re anywhere except a memorial to the genocide of 6 million people, even if you just want to hear a nice Jewish lady tell about her family’s escape from Germany to Kenya, and then to the United States.

After a brief introduction by (the rather unfortunately named) Bill Benson — an introduction which included several pictures of the Berg family, including the one above of Inge, her sister, and her cousin — Inge sat down with Bill for an informal interview.

A member of an observant Jewish family, Inge lived in a small village outside of Cologne. Kristallnacht was the breaking point for her parents, who had been trying to leave Germany since 1933, but had been denied entry to the United States. (Inge recalled that they had a quota number, but it was so high, she quipped, “I doubt it would have even come up by today.”) Her father illegally left Germany for Holland right after Kristallnacht, and through a cousin who was a lawyer in the then British colony, 17 of her family members obtained visas for entry into Kenya.

Inge’s mother was left alone to manage the clean-up of the family’s house — which had been ransacked, and all items within damaged or destroyed, during Kristallnacht — as well as the orchestration of the family’s move to Africa. In May 1939, Inge, her mother, and her sister left Cologne for good; they made their way first to Switzerland and later to Genoa, Italy, where they caught a German boat to Mombasa. (At that point, the Germans were apparently happy to help Jews leave Europe.) And the boat even provided kosher meals!

Inge, her mother, and her sister lived in Nairobi while her father, his parents, and an uncle and a cousin ran the farm in the highlands. Eventually though, the political climate in Kenya became uncomfortable for the Bergs, who were considered to be Germans by the British and by the Kenyans, and in 1947, they immigrated to the United States.

I especially loved hearing all of the little details in Inge’s story. Her observant family managed to keep kosher even after such customs were outlawed in Germany through a cousin who had been a kosher butcher; after the Nuremburg Laws were passed, his business continued to slaughter animals but fired a shot afterwards, so that anyone listening wouldn’t suspect a ritual killing.

Inge recalled being driven with her grandparents out of her village to the relative safety of the countryside after the day after Kristallnacht. Her grandmother’s leg was in a cast, and Inga related how her grandmother used the cast to keep her on the floor of the car, so she and her sister couldn’t see what had happened to the village.

My favorite story was one that illustrated Inge’s self-described “rebellious” nature. A boy called her “a dirty Jew,” and Inge, tired of such insults, gave him a bloody nose. “And then I ran,” she grinned.

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