Wir waren Nachbarn – We were Neighbours

I’ve just spent eight days in Berlin. Before I left everyone told me I would love Berlin. Such an exciting city they said, so buzzy, such great clubs and restaurants. And I am finally going to spend some time in the city where my father grew up, went to school, kissed some girls and left in 1939 for the other side of the world with his Reichspasse and a big red J stamped upon it.

On the first day we went to the apartment house where my grandparents lived prior to their deportation, 5 Willmanndam Schoenberg Berlin. Look at it on Google maps, could anywhere be more peaceful? More ordinary? Standing on the footpath I began to sob – a woman leaving the apartment was told by our lovely guide that my grandparents had once lived here. She promptly began to cry as well, embracing me in a shared moment of grief. After we calmed down she showed us through the apartment still bearing traces of its former décor of elaborately painted ceilings and walls in the baroque style.

Then we returned to the street and literally stumbled on Stolperstein after Stolperstein, small brass plaques set in the footpath, memorialising the former Jewish residents of this quiet leafy street. I think that I would like to return to Berlin and lay Stolperstein for my grandparents who have no grave. At the same time I feel tormented by the thought of people walking over the small brass squares which will hold their names, the date of their deportation and the place in which they were murdered, Riga.

In the Rathaus (City Hall) Schoeneberg where Kennedy famously exclaimed from the steps “eich bin ein Berliner”, there is an exhibition entitled “We Were Neighbours”. Biographical albums on over 150 reading tables document the lives of former residents, some very famous like Albert Einstein or Billy Wilder, and many, like my family, unknown. On the walls simple white reference cards list the former residents of this municipality, and their time and place of their murder. This list includes my grandparents.

Another large outdoor memorial in the Bavarian Quarter of Schoenberg is entitled Places of Remembrance. 80 double sided signs are placed on lampposts depicting images on one side – on the other side are abbreviated versions of the Regulations applied to Jews between 1933 and 1945. The daily deprivation of liberty and the humiliations imposed on Jews were the precursors to the deportations and finally to mass murder.  Where Einstein once walked, hate was substituted for reason and prejudice for morality.

I thought it would be good to read something set in Berlin while travelling and chose the novel “A Guide to Berlin” by Gail Jones, which links six foreigners with the city’s dark past. Perhaps I had too much of that dark past to come to terms with myself – I did not make good headway with the book.

We spent a week trying to understand what is not understandable and which despite ourselves was barely comprehensible. We visited the Jewish Museum with its startling architecture, the Holocaust memorials, and exhibitions such as The Topography of Terror. At Grunevald Station, on the very rail line and platform where Berlins Jews left for the last time in order to make the capital of the Reich “Juden rein” (free of Jews), there is a listing on the edge of the platform of each deportation date, the number of Jews on each transport, and their final destination.

How cold it was on that station in April 2016; how much colder it must have been on 25 January 1942 when Transport 10 left Berlin for the Riga Ghetto. Of the 1044 Jews deported only 13 on that transport survived. My grandparents were not among the 13 survivors. The Yad Vashem website describes the scene on January 25. “All deportees were taken from the assembly camp to Grunewald station. Those unable to walk were taken there by truck while the others were made to walk about seven kilometres across the city. At the station covered box cars ordered by the Gestapo and supplied by the Reichsbahn awaited them and the deportees were ordered to board the train. This transport departed the same day. It was the tenth out of over 60 transports to the East (Osttransporte) which together took more than 35,000 Jews from Berlin to ghettos and extermination sites in Eastern Europe.”

In Riga the Germans created a new ghetto to house arrivals from the Reich, which came to be known as the “German ghetto.” Between December 1941 and the spring of 1942, sixteen thousand Jews from the Reich were brought to the “German ghetto”; most were killed in subsequent “Aktionen.”

When searching the web for information on what happened in Riga, Trip Advisor advises that Bikernieki Forest and its Memorial, is rated 54 out of 190 things to do in Riga. Here in the forest are 55 mass graves holding the bodies of over 20,000 people. The centre of the Memorial is a black granite cube with an inscription from the Book of Job:” Earth, don’t cover my blood. Let my cry have no place to rest.”

Every night I returned to the hotel worn out, emotionally drained. We could barely make it to the local restaurants a few hundred metres from the hotel, let alone try to live it up in Berlin. Try to feel the pulse of the city; try to be an ordinary tourist – it was all beyond me. I could feel only the darkness and the shadows. Next time perhaps it will feel different but we will never be neighbours again.

Article by Author/s
Susan Hearst
Susan Hearst a retired business woman currently exploring her family history and hoping to write a memoir about this. Formerly a Joint Managing Director of Tempo Holidays and before that a social worker. I have three adult children and six grandchildren.

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