One by one the children

at a school in Hitler's Berlin `disappeared'. More than fifty years later, the survivors were brought together. Louise Jury meets the director who captured an historic reunion.

Erna Trocola's father was a gentle man, a watchmaker whose shop can still be found in the old Jewish quarter of Berlin. He was taken from the family by the Gestapo.

"I remember having a dream that the police came to the door, and I woke up and the doorbell was ringing. I jumped up and there was police at the door, one policeman ... asking for my father."

Her mother pleaded with them to take her instead, as the family all stood crying. "The policeman had tears in his eyes, patted us on the head and said, `I can't' ... That was the last time I saw my father."

As she recalls this most painful of moments, Erna pauses and says simply: "I'd like to mention his name: Mendel Schenkein."

Erna grew up in Berlin and attended what became the last Jewish school in the city, the Grosse Hamburgerstrasse. Of the thousands who passed through the school under the Nazi regime - a number that grew and grew as Jewish children were expelled from "German" schools - only a small number survived.

Last year, around 50 travelled from as far afield as Chile, South Africa and Australia for a school reunion unlike any other. Scattered to all corners of the world, many of the former pupils had spent the past half- century not knowing whether their friends had lived or died. Returning to Berlin was strange, emotional, a terrible reminder of a grim period in their lives. But it was also something they wanted to do. A list of those no longer alive was read out. A large number of the names bore the accompanying explanation "murdered in Auschwitz".

Elizabeth McIntyre, a television director, was there to record them. Working in Berlin three years ago, she had discovered the old Jewish quarter gradually being resettled by Jews and was intrigued. Extraordinarily, as the quarter had been in east Berlin, there were still signs in Hebrew and other evidence of the past - even now, only a short time later, obliterated by the belated modernisation the city is undergoing.

Back in Britain, she started to trace people who once lived there. Put in touch with a man in Bradford called Rudi Leavor, whose family had escaped from Berlin in 1937, he told her of the school reunion. A mission to document the gathering began.

Early on, Elizabeth convinced the organiser, Professor Hans Rosenthal, to allow her access. Finding the cash for the project was more difficult. One-off documentaries are notoriously difficult to find backing for. But her producer, Adrian Milne, had connections with the production company of the American actress Sally Field. Through them, contact was made with Steven Spielberg, who in the wake of the success of his film Schindler's List, set up the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, to video thousands of Holocaust survivors telling their life stories. "It is essential that we see their faces and understand that the horrors of the Holocaust happened to people just like us," he has said.

With only three weeks to go before the reunion was due to take place, Spielberg agreed to back the documentary, with June Beallor and James Moll, the founding directors of his foundation, as executive producers. Spielberg's friend, the actor Anthony Hopkins, agreed to be the narrator. Elizabeth packed her bags and headed for Berlin.

The former pupils arrived. All now in their seventies, most were greying, lined, their eyes betraying their suffering. "Everyone was bewildered and shocked. It all looked so similar to how they remembered, it was terrifying for them," Elizabeth says.

"One woman said she nearly threw up when the coach went over a bunker of Hitler's and another woman thought, irrationally, she was going to be arrested. She knew that wasn't the case, but ..."

There were many scenes Elizabeth did not film. "There were people saying, `You were my best friend at school,' and turning to each other and weeping. It sent a shiver down your spine."

What the resulting film does is tell the history of the Nazi era through the eyes and words of those who witnessed it, interspersed with archive film and Nazi propaganda broadcasts. With the school as the focal point, the documentary describes what happened to the 50,000 Jews who lived in Berlin before the Nazis came to power and how the Holocaust in effect destroyed more than 1,000 years of Jewish life in the city.

There is footage of the Hitler Youth and demonstrations demanding "Jews out". In 1935 came the Nuremberg laws, which enforced the further isolation of Jews in Germany. In 1938 was Kristallnacht, where the former Grosse Hamburgerstrasse pupils can remember Jewish shops and businesses being smashed and looted. The broad sweep of policy is laid bare by the reality of day-to-day life.

The school began to expand as Jewish children were forbidden from learning with their non-Jewish neighbours. Then, way before the Final Solution was enacted, teachers began to disappear for short periods to labour camps.

Mendel Sheridan, who travelled from Ilford, Essex, to take part, recalled how the experience changed them. "When the teachers returned from the concentration camp, they went to their original classes, in their original subjects, and they carried on as if nothing happened. We kept our mouths shut and they, of course, were quieter than we were ... They were, in a way, kinder to us. They were not as strict ..."

The wounds remain with the survivors. Erna Trocola recalls how German children in the neighbourhood were once her friends. "A particular German girl - she really liked me - but she couldn't have me come to her house. She came over personally to tell me that she really liked me but her father wouldn't allow her to have me come to the house any more. I think she was hurt too."

Eventually, the overcrowded school began to shrink as more and more Jews either attempted to escape or were taken away. Hans Radziewski hid in a cemetery. "It was best to go into a grave that was prepared for burial," he says. "I could have blankets hidden in there, with some food wrapped in the blankets."

By 1942, the school had only 30 pupils, with the boys and girls taught in a single class. This was the only luck the Nazis ever brought them, Hans Rosenthal recalls: the teenage boys secured the delight of illicit kisses with the girls, as they played music up in the school attic.

Then the school was closed, and reopened only recently as part of the rejuvenation. Even the piano once played by the music teacher had remained untouched.

"It's the most profound thing I've ever done, it had such an effect on me personally," Elizabeth says of her 50-minute work. "I think it's crucial because when I was at school I thought that the Holocaust was something a long time ago that happened to grown-ups. This is the story being told as seen through the eyes of children."

Rudi Leavor, 71, says he was proud to take part. "For those people who don't know about the Holocaust - I suppose there are still some - it will bring home the horrors of the time," he says.

Three months ago, Mendel Sheridan and Hans Radziewski died. But their memories, and those of their former school mates - Israel Loewenstein, Erna Trocola, Henry Gunby and Gunter Meyer - live on.

Elizabeth says: "I know it sounds corny, but it is their documentary. I had the privilege to shape it, the privilege of touching a little bit of history and ensuring that the word is spread about the Holocaust. I feel terribly humbled by them."

`The Lost Children of Berlin' is on BBC2 on Monday 29 December.

Comments