Era of trips back to Germany for persecuted Jews draws to a close

Yochanan Asriel is surrounded by family prior to the installation of a memorial stone for his father outside the family's former shop in Berlin.  (Toby Axelrod)

Yochanan Asriel is surrounded by family prior to the installation of a memorial stone for his father outside the family’s former shop in Berlin. (Toby Axelrod)

BERLIN (JTA) — Yochanan Asriel stood at the corner of Friedrichstrasse and Franzoesicherstrasse in Berlin last week next to a small, brass plaque newly set into the sidewalk. On it was the name of his father: Davicso Asriel, born 1882, deported Jan. 26, 1942, murdered in Riga.

“I am here today,” said Asriel, 85, “to leave a bit of my family behind.”

Now living in Haifa, Asriel was part of the last official group of former Berlin Jews to be hosted formally by the city as part of a program to sponsor their visits back to their native city. With the number of survivors dwindling, the 41-year-old Invitation Program for Former Persecuted Citizens of Berlin came to an end with last week’s trip.

Most visitor programs, begun during the 1960s in German towns and cities, already have shut down. Only Hamburg’s remains active.

The end of these programs marks a milestone for the survivor generation.

Some 15,000 former Berliners — plus an equal number of family members — have been invited back at German taxpayer expense over the years. Most are Jewish, and mostly from the United States, Israel, Canada, England and South America. The approximately 120 visitors who have come this year have met with politicians and Jewish leaders, visited synagogues and family graves, and sometimes found their former homes.

Last week, cousins Gerd and Fred Friedeberg, born in Berlin in 1936, walked with their American-born wives into the lobby of 16 Raumerstrasse, the last address of Gerd’s family before it fled to Shangai in 1939. Neighbors looked on curiously.

To come here now from California “took a lot of soul searching for me,” Gerd Friedeberg said. His children had complained that he didn’t talk enough about the past. He felt he knew too little.

Rabbi Shlomo Jakobovits, 78, came from Toronto with his wife, Wilma. They visited the synagogue where his father, Julius, had served as rabbi before the family fled to England.

“One day our school principal walked into our classroom and said, ‘Herr Jakobovits, Jude raus’ — Jew, out!” Jakobovits recalled. “I was 6 and didn’t know what was happening. I just went home.”

Ruediger Nemitz, the coordinator of Berlin’s visitor program, began accompanying the Jewish visitors in 1969, when the program began and he was a student.

“When I see the visitors in front of me, I feel a real sadness,” Nemitz said. “It is different to read a book about what happened. But when you see someone who was persecuted as a baby, you can’t understand.”

In the small town of Weiden, the visit of former Jewish citizens in 1988 was “quite an emotional event” all around, said Michael Brenner, a professor of Jewish history and culture at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich.

“Everyone knew each other, and then they met again,” said Brenner, 45, who co-organized the visit. “It was ‘the’ event in the town. There were newspaper headlines, and of course there were former neighbors and people who did not want to meet them, and old Nazis were alive, too, then.”

One visitor “wanted to thank the neighbors who helped him prepare for emigration. But he also wanted to look for another neighbor” who had roughly opened his suitcase.

“In the end he decided not to,” recalled Brenner, who is Jewish. “But he was also thinking, ‘I want to show that person I am back and remind him of what he did.’ ”

Emotions can run high, and just putting a hand on someone’s arm “shows we feel with them, it shows that they are not alone in their sadness,” said Carola Meinhardt, who coordinates the program in Hamburg. She expects the program will shift toward a greater emphasis on the younger generation.

In Berlin, Mayor Klaus Wowereit said a decision must be made soon about how to transition the program now that the survivors themselves are no longer coming.

“If you have the chance to talk to these people, it is so emotional and so important,” he said.

“As long as there are survivors who want to come, the program should continue,” Lala Suesskind, president of Berlin’s Jewish community, told JTA.

In fact, Nemitz said, those who wish to revisit for the first time will be invited back, just no longer as part of a group.

For Asriel, the painful past has resurfaced in his dreams.

“At my age now, at 85, every night when I go to sleep, I think of the family," he said. "Not my family now — I think of my parents and grandparents who I left behind.”

When Asriel was 14, his parents took him to Berlin’s Anhalter Bahnhof train station, where he saw them for the last time. His father was murdered in Riga, his mother in Auschwitz.

Asriel fled to Denmark and ended up in Palestine, where he joined the British army and served for four years. After the war he married Agnes Bash, a Hungarian Jew who survived Auschwitz, and they had three children.

Like many survivors, Asriel hardly talked about the Holocaust for decades. But now, he said, “our generation is making sure that things are not forgotten.”

The “stumbling block” memorial to his father that Asriel had installed in Berlin is one way; a memorial to his mother in the Weissensee Cemetery is another. He is talking as well about his memories of Nazi Germany to his grandchildren, two of whom came along on this trip. Two daughters also came.

“He could not help but feel a bitter memory,” his granddaughter, Dana Cohen, 26, of Haifa, said of her grandfather during the trip to Berlin. “But he was also admiring all the modern things. And I think this is what we will always feel: Germany is nice and modern. But it will always have that bittersweet taste.”

Asriel’s other grandchild on the trip, Eitan Sondak, 13, of Chicago, said that “I will keep telling the story, to my children and my children’s children.”

NEXT STORY