Remembrance: Berlin, 9 November 1938: the night it all came home

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The Independent Online
An invitation to return to Berlin for the first time since being forced out 59 years ago was not easy to accept. But John Izbicki joined other `lucky exiles' and their families on a haunting walk down memory lane.

Going back can be hard, even harrowing. Especially when it is to a city which you and your parents had once served and loved but which had turned dreams and ambitions into living nightmares, destroyed homes and places of worship, robbed you of your possessions and your dignity and sent you out into exile if you were lucky, or into gas chambers and crematoria if you were not. So it was not easy to accept an invitation from Eberhard Diepgen, governing Mayor of Berlin, to spend a week in Germany's restored capital.

But the invitation was gracious. The city was determined not so much to make amends, but to acknowledge its heavy debt to history. For most of the 87 who accepted and came accompanied by husbands or wives, sons or daughters, it was the first time they had set foot on Berlin soil since their forced departure some 60 years ago. And so they returned - from New Zealand and Australia; Uruguay, Chile and Argentina, Brazil and Mexico; America and South Africa; Israel, France and the Netherlands; Sweden and Denmark; from Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

And the memories came flooding back. I went to look at my father's shop in the Invalidstrasse (in former East Berlin). Its windows were now bricked up. They had already once been smashed on 9 November 1938 - the infamous Kristallnacht, when all Jewish shops were vandalised and synagogues razed. At the house where we had lived, just two doors away, was a wide space. It had been bombed. Yet memory's ghosts remained.

We were wined and dined, taken to the opera and invited to a cruise on the Wannsee, Berlin's extensive, peaceful lake. Among the fine villas on its banks, two are particularly outstanding. One, occupied by a Berlin diving club, was once the home of the distinguished Jewish painter Max Liebermann who, on discussing Nazi atrocities in the early Thirties, said: "I want to throw up more than I am capable of eating." He died in 1935 before the real horrors were let loose.

The other magnificent villa had staged the Wannsee Conference on 20 January 1942. Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler's security chief, chaired a meeting of 14 senior Nazis, including Adolf Eichmann, to discuss how best to implement "The Final Solution".

Today, the villa has been transformed into a moving educational centre, a memorial to the holocaust. Here, for the first time, I was able to inspect two heavy tomes listing the names of hundreds of thousands of Berliners, their places of birth, their addresses - and the dates of their deaths of their deportation, the destinations and, where known, the dates of their deaths. My grandmother's name was there - transported to Theresienstadt; and the names of my uncles, aunts, cousins, families for whom there had been no "lucky exile" - all to Auschwitz.

I was by no means alone in having had a "narrow escape", even though it was perhaps narrower than most (my parents and I managed to squeeze into England on 3 September 1939, just six hours before Neville Chamberlain went on air to declare war with Germany). Everyone who returned had reminiscences.

Not all returnees were Jews although most had been born Jewish. There was, for instance, Susanne Woodin, from Kent who was born Susanne Schlome in the Berlin of 1930. In July 1939, she was among the fortunate to be put on one of the Kindertransport consignments to Britain. Now here she was with her husband, Charles, who, by coincidence, was also born in Germany.

And there was Renale Melinsky, from Norwich, who was born in 1927 as Renate Ruheman. She, too, was accompanied by her husband, Canon Hugh Melinsky, an Anglican priest, whose grandfather was the son of a rabbi and came to England from Kiev to escape the Russian pogroms at the turn of the century.

The oldest ex-Berliner to return journey was the photographer and film director Walter Gustav Reuter, now 92, who was blacklisted in the early Nazi days for championing striking trade unionists and Berlin's left. He now lives in Mexico City.

From an Israeli kibbutz came Hetty and Hannah Beer, whose father, Max Beer, the distinguished socialist journalist and commentator, had his books burnt by the Nazis in front of the State Opera, and today has a Berlin street named after him.

Today's Berlin is like a plant growing afresh. Long-forgotten names have been resuscitated. The old, majestic Hotel Adlon is back on the (ex-East Berlin) Unter den Linden, less majestic perhaps than it was in the Thirties and a little more new-tech gimmicky. Wertheim, a once-Jewish department store is again in full swing. But the real miracle is the rebirth, not so much of Berlin, as its Jewish community. Before the advent of Hitler there were 173,000 Jews living and loving in Berlin. The "Final Solution" all but wiped them out. By 1950, the total was 3,000. Today there are 10,000 and five synagogues , plus two schools, a primary and a secondary.

"Berlin's Jewish community with its own schools and cultural centres is once again the biggest in Germany and we welcome it wholeheartedly," said our host, Mayor Eberhard Diepgen. And he added: "I realise to return to a place where so many crimes were committed against you cannot have been easy. So I thank you with all my heart for agreeing to come and see for yourselves."

Before our departure, I took a trip to Schoneberg, once a busy, fairly affluent Jewish area. Many streets today provided echoes of that Hitlerian nightmare. Hanging from lampposts were plaques with reminders: "Jews not permitted to practise as dentists

Forget? Is it possible? The ghosts of Berlin will go on haunting. Perhaps forever.

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