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70 Years Later, Expelled Jews Return to Visit Berlin University

October 25, 2001
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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.

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.”

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