BERLIN, June 1 (JTA) — Edna Sovin has a hard time telling her children about the past. Now she has a story to tell them that might help open the door. Recently, Sovin came here from London for the dedication of a plaque to her grandparents, Bertha and Hermann Falkenberg, activists in the prewar Jewish community of Berlin. Hermann Falkenberg, the founder of a liberal synagogue in Berlin, died in 1936. Bertha Falkenberg, the longtime president of the Jewish Women’s League in Berlin and a champion of the right of women to vote as full synagogue members, was deported to Theresienstadt. She survived but, weakened by the ordeal, died in 1946. Today, anyone walking past Lottumstrasse 22 in eastern Berlin — the Falkenbergs’ last address here — can look up and learn about the Falkenbergs from the plaque affixed to the building. It is a history that building co-owner Uwe Lehmann tries to convey to his own children. “This history was taboo” in East Germany, he said. “I knew there were many Jews living in this part of town, there were many Jewish neighbors. But that these people lived in my house, that completely surprised me,” he said. “I tell my children, there could have been Jewish families in any window here,” he said. But for Sovin’s children the past is “too heavy,” said Sovin, whose parents left Germany for England in 1939. She married attorney Stanley Sovin, and they have three adult children. “My kids are respectful, but they want to keep it remote because they are aware of the pain,” she said. The dedication of the plaque also marked the start of Berlin’s third Bet Debora conference for European Jewish women. Some 150 women attended the May 23-25 conference, which focused on such issues as effective leadership, biblical role models, balancing personal and communal needs, and succeeding in male-dominated domains. Two years ago, the organizers dedicated a plaque to Regina Jonas, the first woman ordained as a rabbi. Jonas was killed in Auschwitz in 1942. Bertha Falkenberg, too, was a pioneer for the rights of Jewish women in the prewar years, said conference organizers Lara Daemmig and Elisa Klapheck. And Hermann Falkenberg was “the man who made Bertha’s work possible,” Klapheck said. Sovin never knew her grandfather, who died two years before she was born. But she recalled her grandmother as “a little shrunken thing, with fire in her eyes.” Sovin recently found letters she and her grandmother had exchanged in 1945. “I was 7. My mother must have made me write as an exercise,” Sovin said. “This was terribly emotional for me to see her letters, to realize that to her I was extremely important.” Now, on a brilliant spring morning 58 years later, Sovin stood outside the graffiti-covered, five-story building for a dedication ceremony. Several police officers stood across the cobblestone street, and a young man peered down from his third story window at the uncommon sight of a crowd, TV cameras and microphones below. “What Bertha Falkenberg did for the Jewish community, especially for Jewish women, is seen as normal today,” Hermann Simon, director of the Centrum Judaicum Foundation in Berlin, said. “In the same way, maybe in a few years no one will be so amazed any more about female rabbis and cantors. Have patience,” he said. After the ceremony, as the crowd drifted away, Lehmann, co-owner of the building, took Sovin by the arm. He had arranged to show her the apartment that was likely the one where her grandparents had lived. They disappeared inside the building, together with her aunt Lotte Falkenberg, and came out again several minutes later. “My children have no feeling of connection to their grandparents and to the past and to Berlin,” Sovin said. “I hope I will have the strength to repair that breach.” For Lehmann, the plaque on his building is more important than a Holocaust memorial at an “unauthentic location.” This is a place where Jewish people lived, he said. “And their non-Jewish neighbors could have looked down and seen the deportation, just like people were looking out today.”
Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teen-agers.