BERLIN, Oct. 24 (JTA) Dr. Elly Freund took a deep breath.
“I have never told my children, nor my grandchildren, what happened,” she said.
Then, in front of hundreds of students at Humboldt University in eastern Berlin, Dr. Freund, 92, spoke of her school years in Nazi Germany.
“In Breslau, we were allowed to study but not allowed to sit on the bench next to an ‘Aryan,’ ” she said. And when she registered in Berlin, Freund said, she “had to bring proof that I was Jewish, because otherwise I had to take an exam in ‘racial studies.’ ”
Dr. Freund, who immigrated to pre-state Palestine in 1938, was one of 22 former students who returned to Berlin Oct. 15-20 at the invitation of their alma mater. They were found through the detective work of historian Peter Nolte, who is writing about the expulsion of students during the Nazi period and who organized the Classmates of 1933 program.
In 1933, when Hitler came to power, there were about 8,000 students at the school then known as the Friedrich-Wilhelms University including 2,000 Jews.
By May, 2,200 students, almost all of them Jewish, had been thrown out for political or “racial” reasons. Robbed of their degrees, the majority of them ultimately fled the country, though some later returned.
More than half a century later, 22 of those students, many now in their 90s, spent five days with current students as their guides revisiting the halls they walked in their youth. Many had been back to Berlin since the war, but never for such a reunion.
Some in wheelchairs or with canes, some with family members at their sides, they saw again the classrooms from which they had been expelled and where Nazis, then Communists, and now students in a democratic Germany have studied.
“We showed the students what happened here,” said Dr. Rudolf Selo, 93, who lives today in Sun City, Ariz.
In 1933, “a friend of my father, a doctor, was taken from his house, brought to a concentration camp and killed,” Selo said. “I said, ‘I better get out of here.’ ”
Selo’s entire family eventually made it to America.
“We were here in 1989, but there were too many guys my age and I did not trust anyone my age if they were not Jewish,” said Dr. John Meyer, who now lives in Beverly Shores, Ind. “Now I am surprised with how much openness people talk about what happened.”
One student said he wished there was more discussion in German society of the Nazi period.
“It’s hard to get our grandparents to speak to us,” said Daniel, an art history student.
For Paul Rosenfeld, 89, one highlight was the lecture he gave at the agricultural institute about dairy production, which he learned after emigrating to Palestine.
Another was “our first dinner together. It was the first time we saw all these people people who are 90 years old and they made a dinner for us,” said Rosenfeld, who began medical studies in Berlin, emigrated to Palestine in 1934 and earned a doctorate in biochemistry in 1991 at the age of 79. He lives in Israel.
“I have heard of reunions after 25 years or 50 years. But 70 years?” he asked. “Who does that?”
The program was the brainchild of Nolte, whose research is supported by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation. Using university archives, the Internet and the U.S. Social Security death index, Nolte, a fellow of the university’s Institute for Historical Research, searched for former students whose academic degrees had been withdrawn by the Nazis.
Nolte suggested to university administrators that the former students be invited back. Of the 50 who were invited, 22 attended the program.
The visit included a tour of the “new” Berlin, dinner with Humboldt University President Jurgen Mlynek, a private tour of Berlin’s new Jewish Museum, a roundtable discussion with Parliament President Wolfgang Thierse and a panel discussion.
At the end of the panel discussion, Mlynek gave diploma-like certificates to the guests and shook their hands.
“It was a very, very nice honor that the university has done for these people but late,” said Tamara Rosenfeld Berger, 27, who came from Israel with her grandfather Paul, an expelled student, and his wife Dora.
Nolte agrees but only partially.
“History is only alive when it is related to individuals,” he said. “It is very late, but not completely too late.”
Nolte continues to seek students thrown out by the university in 1933. He urges anyone with information to contact him at email@example.com.
GERMAN EXILES RECOUNT THEIR EXPERIENCES
The auditorium at the Humboldt University in eastern Berlin was packed as several students who had been expelled by the Nazis nearly 70 years ago took the podium for a panel discussion on their experiences.
“I was supposed to be arrested, but they took my father in my place,” recalled writer Stefan Heym, 88. “My mother told me to get out of the country as fast as possible.”
Heym fled over the mountains on foot and ended up in New York, where he became editor of an anti-fascist German weekly newspaper.
He served in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1945, but eventually returned to East Germany, where he enjoyed an illustrious career as a writer and politician.
Twenty-two of the 2,200 students expelled in 1933 paid a five-day visit to the university as part of a reconciliation program called Classmates of 1933.
The panel discussion was one of the highlights. Although some of the visitors in their 80s and 90s are physically frail, their memories are still clear.
“I came to Berlin for two reasons,” said Rabbi Leo Trepp, who was born in 1913 in Mainz. “I wanted to study in the rabbinical seminary here, and also the university had the best reputation.”
Trepp fled in 1938 after a brief internment in the concentration camp in Sachsenhausen, near Berlin. He lives today in San Rafael, Calif., and teaches every summer at the University of Mainz.
“I left because I had to go,” he said.
If the former students were generally ready to tell their stories, the current students were thirsty for answers.
After a theology student named Christoph pressed him, Volkmar Zuehlsdorff, 88, told of a book burning he witnessed.
“We came out after dinner, it was about 9 p.m., and we saw how the bonfire had been prepared. There was a huge pile of wood and a big stage with loudspeakers. At about 10 p.m. it started to rain heavily, and they were supposed to make a fire,” he said.
“But they had a lot of gasoline. And then the German Girls Union came, looking very pretty. And the Hitler Youth came after them.”
Books were delivered in two large furniture trucks, he said.
Zuehlsdorff said he watched and listened as the young Nazis handed books down the line and threw them into the towering bonfire, saying, “I hereby deliver to the flames the collected works of Karl Marx” or “I am throwing into the flames the works of Sigmund Freud.”
The site of the burning, across the street from the main university building, is now marked with a memorial.
“It was so indescribably idiotic. Some of us secretly laughed. Then Goebbels came and gave a speech about the ‘insidious Jewish character,’ ” Zuehlsdorff said. “It was a horrible experience. It is hard to grasp.”
Zuehlsdorff left Germany shortly thereafter.