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Visit to Germany Reunites Staff and Former Residents of Post-wwii Haven

October 27, 2006
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The footsteps on the stairs are soft, but Dora Love has good ears. She opens her door a crack. “Are you lost? Can I help you?” she asks in elegant German.

A petite woman of 83, clad in demure pajamas, she steps into the hall of the Elsa-Braendstroem-Haus in Blankenese, Germany, and right into her role of 60 years ago.

“Take a glass of tea and some cake up with you,” says Love, nee Rabinowitz, who in 1946 worked at a home for young Holocaust survivors, in this very house, as an administrator for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

She has not been here since then. A survivor herself, Love married and made a new life as a linguist in Colchester, England. Most of the nearly 400 children, primarily orphans, who stayed here moved on to modern Israel.

Love and 46 former residents revisited the home Oct. 4-11.

“It was the first place for a ‘normal life,’ ” said Bracha Ghilai, who was liberated from Bergen-Belsen and had lost her family.

“I had no education, no clothes,” said Mordecai Popper, who came here in 1947 when he was 12, while his widowed mother waited at a Displaced Persons camp for permission to emigrate to Israel. “Here we had enough to eat because of the Joint and the UNRRA,” the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.

“It was the first place where I had a childhood,” said Yossi Erez, who today works for the JDC in Warsaw, assisting in “the revival of the Jewish community of Poland.”

He and his mother were the only survivors from an extended family of 102 people from Lodz, Poland.

In Blankenese, “for the first time I have somebody feeling warm towards me,” Erez said. “I’m not hungry, I feel safe, I don’t have to worry what will happen tomorrow and I feel that I have some future. It was the beginning of my childhood, at the age of 9.”

The reunion was organized by Martin Schmidt, a retired classics scholar who three years ago co-founded an association to research the history of Jews in Blankenese.

“My parents raised us so that we knew that Hitler was a criminal,” said Schmidt, who is not Jewish, “and when the Americans came to our village on April 24, 1945, we knew that we were freed — not conquered.”

But in Blankenese, there appeared to be little awareness of history, even decades later.

“There was a general opinion that nothing had happened, and that there were only two or three Jews,” said Schmidt, 72, a former member of the Hamburg Parliament’s Green Party. “We discovered that there were many Jews. We found 150 names, and of those more than 20 were killed. Now people know about this in Blankenese.”

In 2004 the association prepared an exhibition on the Nazi period. They came across the story of the children’s home and decided to try to find former residents and invite them to visit.

The Elsa-Braendstroem-Haus on the former Warburg estate agreed to host the guests, and private citizens covered the costs of travel, food and lodging — about $60,000 in all.

The association also received assistance from the Remembrance and Future Fund, established by the German government and industry in 2000.

The first gathering, held last year, was attended by 37 former residents and about 15 family members. This time 47 former Blankenese children, with 12 family members, came back to visit.

The recent reunion included trips to local public schools, where some visitors spoke with teens. For many, the visit was a chance to reconnect with the first new friends they made after the war.

The Nazis used the Warburg estate during the war as a military hospital. After the British Army returned the property to the family, Max Warburg’s son, Eric, “told the Joint he would like to have the house used for child survivors,” said Sara Kadosh, who heads the organization’s archive in Israel.

The home was opened in early 1946. Staff included soldiers from the Jewish Brigades and appointees of the JDC, which also provided food, medication and books.

The children began to learn Hebrew and other subjects and to play outdoors.

“It took some time, but they caught up,” Love recalled.

The Jewish Agency for Israel — and the few surviving parents — wanted the children to come to Israel, but the British distributed only a few hundred immigration certificates per month. In Germany’s British zone, authorities “agreed to get certificates for children,” Kadosh said — part of the attraction of the Blankenese home.

The first group of children arrived in Blankenese from the DP camp at Bergen Belsen. After four months, they received certificates to go to Palestine.

A second group followed in a similar pattern. The third group “was smuggled into the British zone” and left Blankenese in 1948, shortly before the Jewish state was declared.

After the last group left, the Joint continued to use the Warburg property as a home for children until 1949.

“There were not enough children any more,” Kadosh said.

Love had lost her mother, sister and brother in the camps. A half-year after she was liberated from Stutthof, she learned that her father was looking for her “all over the world.” They were reunited in Italy in 1946.

Love soon returned to Germany, where she worked for the UNRRA. One day a knock came on her door.

“We are looking for Miss Love.”

“You are speaking to her.”

“We need you in the Joint.”

What were they talking about?

“You speak all these weird languages,” they said. Yiddish, Russian, Hebrew and German — all were needed at the home in Blankenese.

In the concentration camps, “German officers would piss on you and then say that Jews stink,” Love said. Then, in Blankenese, “There were gardens. And houses. The children were allowed to play, to run around.”

Love signed on for three months. In the end she stayed for three years, until the home was closed.

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