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Around the Jewish World Returning to Berlin, Survivor Finds Closure in a Changed City

August 25, 2004
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Ilona Blech remembers little from her childhood in Berlin: a teacher, an Orthodox synagogue, her parents’ clothing store. And she remembers Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when Nazis destroyed synagogues and Jewish property across Germany.

Mostly, though, her impressions of the period are amorphous.

So recently, Blech, 76, who lives with her 78-year-old husband, Samuel, in Silver Spring, Md., returned to Berlin for the first time, in search of clues about the past.

Blech was one of about 50 Jewish ex-Berliners invited as part of a 35-year-old program here. Hosted by Mayor Klaus Wowereit, the guests — many came with a spouse or other family member — encountered modern Germany, met Jewish political and religious leaders, visited memorials and walked throughout their former home city.

What Blech found in Berlin was more a feeling than anything tangible. But the experience was, nevertheless, comforting. “It was some kind ! of closure,” Blech said, sitting with her granddaughter, Ronit Slyper, 21, at Bleiberg’s, a new kosher dairy café, on their last evening in Berlin.

Blech had by this point seen her former school. But the buildings in which the family had lived and worked, were destroyed in wartime bombings. “I saw that it is not any more as it was,” Blech said.

Her story is similar to those of many other Jews invited here over the years. According to Ruediger Nemitz, who coordinates and leads the trips, there are two official visits by Jewish ex-Berliners each year. Guests come from around the world, primarily from the United States and Israel.

Some, like Blech, escaped Germany because their parents were able to send them abroad in time. Others survived concentration camps.

Berlin is not the only city to run such a program. In fact, Munich and Frankfurt were the first to do so, Nemitz said.

More than a decade ago, Nemitz’s colleagues wondered if the program would continu! e much longer. They thought they had reached all the ex-Berliners. But each year, more applications come in. This year alone, Nemitz heard from 45 more people who had not yet accepted the city’s invitation. In 2005, visits are planned for May and August.

Twice a year, Nemitz sends a newsletter to some 11,000 former Berliners around the world, from the United States, England and Israel to Namibia and Katmandu. The number has dropped from a former 25,000, but Nemitz expects to keep on rediscovering ex-Berliners for a few more years.

When the program began in 1969, memories were fresh and old Nazis were still rather plentiful in the German population. Today, it is the youngest survivors who return. And the Germans they meet are children or grandchildren of perpetrators.

Blech and her twin brother, Kurt, who did not make the trip, were among the 9,374 children whisked out of Central and Eastern Europe on the Kindertransport to England between December 1938 and August 1939.

Of those children, 7,500 were Jewish, according to historia! n Claudia Curio, of Berlin’s Center for Research on Anti-Semitism, who met Blech while doing research at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington last year. Blech has given her correspondence to the Holocaust museum in Washington.

Another 3,000 Jewish children were sent to England from Austria, said Curio, 32, who co-edited an upcoming edition of Purdue University’s Jewish academic journal Shofar focusing on the Kindertransport.

In March, 1939, Blech and Kurt were sent to England thanks to the intervention of their Aunt Rosie Kiegel, who had secured a position there as a domestic.

Blech does not recall much about their hurried departure, though she does have an autograph book with farewell notes from all her friends.

In London, when the family that was supposed to meet her failed to show up, she stayed briefly in a hostel for girls. “I remember telling the youth hostel director, ‘I am not supposed to be here.’ “

Kurt landed in an Orthodox boys’ ho! stel in Aldridge.

As for Blech, she said that “by April I was with a Jewish family the Bernsteins,” with whom she stayed for five years. “They had a daughter who was two years younger. I guess I was to be her playmate.” They remain good friends today.

But as nice as the Bernsteins were, they were no substitute for family.

“For a while we did not hear from our parents,” Blech recalls. But eventually she learned that, while other family members never came back, her own parents had made it to the United States in 1940 or 1941, after “keeping one step ahead of Hitler.”

The children joined their parents in 1943.

Blech’s granddaughter, who is studying mathematics and computers at the University of Michigan, joined her grandmother on the trip to Germany because her grandfather was not well enough to travel.

“I was curious,” Slyper said. “I did not expect anti-Semitism. And I didn’t see anything bad here. It is a beautiful country and it is hard to feel that it is evil.”

Still, during a visit to a city Holocaust memorial, ! the group of ex-Berliners discovered anti-Semitic graffiti. A police spokesperson told reporters that police had tried to remove the graffiti prior to the visitors’ arrival, but the group’s guide said they saw a swastika in black paint on the memorial.

Blech and Slyper attended Sabbath services at the Orthodox Joachimstallerstrasse Synagogue, and ate almost all their meals at Bleiberg’s. Blech, who had not spoken German in decades — even with her Vienna-born husband discovered that the language came back quite easily.

“I didn’t like to use it before,” she said. In fact, she said, using a Yiddish expression, “I would break my teeth” if I spoke it.

“But here I needed it,” she said.

Blech even met with Iris Weiss, a Jewish Berliner who gives walking tours of the city. “She walked me around for an hour on Kaiser Wilhelmstrasse, and I did not recognize anything,” Blech said.

Curio, the anti-Semitism researcher, who is not Jewish, said she feels deeply moved w! hen she has the chance to meet former Kindertransportees.

“I feel responsible for making sure the history is not forgotten, and it is good to contribute to that atmosphere in this country, to prevent such things from happening again.”

At the end of their last evening in Berlin, Blech and her granddaughter bade farewell to the proprietors of Bleiberg’s and to Curio. In the last light, they made their way slowly back to the Kempinski hotel.

“I wanted to see where I lived,” Blech said. “I came to see that it is not any more.”

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