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.

refuge in hell

Yesterday I finished Refuge in Hell, recommended to me by one of my Melton instructors (and University of Maryland Hillel executive director) Rabbi Ari Israel. Ari brought up the book during the Melton lesson about Yom HaShoah; we were discussing the post-war debate by Israel’s Knesset about whether to designate a day as “Holocaust Remembrance Day.”

Hard as it is to imagine in the early 21st century, when the Holocaust is generally considered *the* defining Jewish experience of the 20th century (rivaled only perhaps by the non-unrelated event of the founding of the state of Israel), there were members of the Knesset who spoke out against establishing such a day. For some, the issue was choosing a day to be symbolic of the extermination, as many Holocaust survivors rightly considered every day of the war to be “Holocaust Day.” Others argued that the victims of Nazi genocide should be remembered on the traditional Jewish day of mourning, Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

Ultimately, the Knesset decided to designate the 14th of Nisan, the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising (April 19, 1943), but this was problematic because the 14th of Nisan is the day immediately before Pesach. The date was finally moved to the 27th of Nisan.

During our class, the discussion wound its way to the commemoration of Holocaust, when Ari brought up the fact of Berlin’s WWII-era Jewish hospital — which had potential to become a symbol of Jewish survival but never did. In fact, most people don’t even know its story.

Daniel B. Silver’s book would seem to be the definitive history of the institution (in English at least). Silver is an attorney, not a historian, who just happened upon his knowledge of and interest in the hospital, which inspired him to write the book — but his account is obviously exhaustively researched and documented (including interviews with former hospital employees). The story begins a little slowly, and is slightly repetitive at the outset, but overall Silver presents a detailed view of Jewish life in Berlin from 1938 to 1945, during which time the hospital survived as the one, improbable outpost of Jewish life in the headquarters of the Third Reich.

One of the most interesting details that Silver uncovers is the role that intermarriage played in the hospital’s survival. Pre-war, German Jews were among the most assimilated in all of Europe, leading to a much higher rate of Jews’ marrying Aryans than in neighboring countries. Although Nazi racist ideology would, all other factors’ being equal, have not considered these Jews to be any different than less assimilated Jews, German ideals about the sanctity of marriage trumped (for a while) the Nazis’ ability to dissolve these family ties through deportation and arrest. Thus, Jews in what were deemed “mixed marriages” (although in many cases the participants themselves might not have considered them so) were afforded more privileges than other Jews. And many members of these mixed marriages worked, or came to work, at Berlin’s Jewish Hospital. So while intermarriage in descried in the United States in the 21st century as a threat to Jewish life, in Nazi Germany it might have contributed to its survival.

And herein lies the main reason that Silver posits for the obscurity in which the hospital has languished, in historical terms: It is admittedly difficult to seize upon, as a symbol of Jewish survival, an institution that may well owe its existence to intermarriage and assimilation.

Silver concludes the book with an afterword, in which he notes the current locations and occupations of the hospital employees. I was struck by how . . . ordinary their post-war lives war. Almost all emigrated from Germany and then found fairly pedestrian employment in their adopted countries. Perhaps the routine and quotidian was by then a siren call, after years of living on the brink of hell. But I think the post-war stories also serve to underline the fact that it was ordinary people, pressed into extraordinary circumstances, who contributed to the survival of a Jewish institution — and therefore many Jews — in the heart of the Nazi regime.