“You are Jews? Not possible!” That was the typical reaction of Russian soldiers during the capitulation of Berlin in April 5705/1945 when they came across about 800 Jews still sheltering within the walls of Berlin’s Jewish hospital as the Third Reich neared its end. Somehow, the Nazis had failed to obliterate them. Somehow the Nazis had failed to obliterate the inscription on the hospital’s administrative building that remains there till this day: “Krankenaus der Judischen Gemeinde,” Hospital of the Jewish Community.
As if in mockery of the Nazi goal of ridding Europe of the Jews, thousands of Jews had survived in Berlin, the nexus of Nazi terror, even though their numbers had shrunk drastically as was testified by the text of a banner carried by Jewish protesters after the war:
“Judische Gemeinde zu Berlin (Jewish Community of Berlin), 1933 – 186,000, 1945 – 5,100.”
It cannot be denied that many of these Jewish survivors were Jewish only by virtue of Nazi definition, nor can it be denied that the majority of them were half-Jews, or assimilated and intermarried Jews whom the Nazis had been less enthusiastic to exterminate due to their direct relationship to hundreds of thousands of Germans.
After all, not every German relished seeing a cousin or brother-in-law carted off to a concentration camp. Towards them, Nazi policy remained ambivalent despite the insistence of hard-liners that no exceptions should be allowed.
However, at least 162 of the Berlin survivors, most of them sheltering in the Jewish hospital, were one hundred percent, unassimilated Jews.
There were Dr. Helmuth Cohen, his wife Meta, and their daughter Eva, and there were the administrator Ehrich Zwilsky, his wife, and their son Klaus, whose bar mitzvah was the first to be celebrated in Berlin after the war. Klaus remembered how his mother baked matzos in the hospital during those years in defiance of Nazi regulations.
“One of my vivid memories is of her baking matzah at Passover,” he reminisced. “She would roll out the dough and used the top of a salt shaker to make holes… My job was to stand guard outside the apartment to let her know whether anyone was coming, especially anyone looking like Gestapo. To this day I marvel at her courage…”
Another survivor, Bruno Blau, had similar memories of Jewish mesirus nefesh: “From time to time on holidays, on special Sabbaths, and after the fortunate conclusion of a heavy bombing raid, in complete secrecy minyanim gathered in the hospital, in director Neuman’s apartment, to which ten occupants of the hospital were invited through special trustworthy people. I, too, had the opportunity to participate in them. We had to go there as inconspicuously as possible, and after the conclusion of the minyan return to our rooms separately, in part using the cellar corridors.”
The hospital had a number of departments, each one with its own category of survivor. There was the bona fide hospital. There was the Extrastation (special ward) where perfectly healthy privileged Jews were allowed to live in peace, there was the Polizeistation where a handful of sick Jewish prisoners were allowed to convalesce for reasons unclear to anyone except their captors, and there was the deadly Samellager where Jews were imprisoned before being exiled to the east.
A survivor of the latter department, Dr. Ernst Eichengrun was the genius working at Germany’s Bayer chemistry works who had invented aspirin. After his expulsion to Thierezenstadt, Bayer set up a laboratory for him in order to enable him to continue his research for their benefit.
Other Jews in the hospital were kept on ice in order to be exchanged for German nationals interned by the British in Palestine. And completing the roster of survivors were sixty orphans who somehow made it to the end of the war.
In charge of the hospital was the brilliant but notorious Dr. Walter Lustig, an assimilated Jew who headed the place not out of choice, but because it was his ticket to survival after the Nuremberg Laws stripped his right to serve at non- Jewish hospitals and every other Jewish hospital closed down. Among his myriad duties was deciding, on behalf of the Nazi overlords, who among his staff and patients would live and who would die. “Everyone lived in absolute dread of him…., he was very clever, a very clever man,” hospital secretary Eva Beleski recalled. “But he wasn’t terribly liked because of the temper. We had to type out these lists of the people who were going to be taken away. And one mistake and he was in a rage.”
SAVED BY THE GESTAPO
At the beginning of 5703/1943, the Nazis deported the majority of Berlin’s Jews in the Fabrikaktion, the deportation of the Jewish factory workers whom Industry Minister Albert Speer had spared until then. This deportation is famous for the famous Frauenprotest, the public protest of wives and Aryan relatives of half-Jews who protested for days against the deportation of their close relatives, one of the few occasions when the German public publicly objected to mass murder.
Josef Goebbels, who besides his job as Minister of Propaganda also served as Gauleiter (governor) of Berlin, eventually caved in and halted the deportation of a few thousand mischlings:
“Shacht gave me a long lecture about the current situation in Berlin after the last air raid,” he recorded in his diary. “It is extremely serious. The damage done to the capital is very great and we judge that it will take six to eight months before things are half way restored. Just at that moment, the SD (security service) thought it was the right time to continue the evacuation of the Jews.
“Some rather unpleasant scenes took place before the [former] Jewish old age home where the population had assembled in large numbers and even sided with the Jews. I shall give an order to the SD not to continue the evacuation of the Jews at such a critical time. We should wait a few more weeks and then carry out the operation more thoroughly.”
During air raids like that mentioned by Goebbels, the hospital was left to its own resources since the Berlin fire department did not regard itself responsible for protecting Jewish property. Protecting the hospital was left to the hospital’s Nachtwache whose chief job was to extinguish incendiary bombs before they burnt the place to the ground. In between raids, hospital workers repaired bomb damage with materials scrounged from nearby bombed-out buildings, as no one was interested in supplying building materials to Jews.
Around the time of the Fabrikaktion, the hospital was almost closed down for good when ten Gestapo and police officials marched into Director Lustig’s office and a large contingent of Gestapo trucks drew up outside the Jewish hospital in order to cart away the staff and patients. At this critical moment, Lustig executed a brilliant maneuver. The Gestapo officials in his office had been sent by the Berlin Gestapo headquarters, while the hospital was actually under the jurisdiction of the Jewish affairs department of the RSHA (Reich Security Head Office, a subordinate organization of the SS), headed by Adolf Eichman.
Phoning up Eichman’s office, Lustig explained to Eichman’s people what was going on and then handed the phone to the officials crowding his room. Although the hospital survived, fifty percent of its personnel were later deported with their families. All in all, less than twenty nurses served at the hospital from beginning to end and about twelve doctors. Most of the others were deported over the years, together with thousands of the hospital’s inmates.
Survivors were traumatized forever.
“Can you understand how it was here?” Meta Cohen wrote in December 5705/1945. “Every time a piece of our hearts left with them, and the fear that the next time it would be one of us. As for our plans… we are certain of only one thing: to leave this ghastly country.”
THANKSGIVING About a month after the hospital’s liberation, a group of Jews gathered in the hospital offices to thank Hashem for their salvation.
On May 6th, Bruno Blau remembers, “the chief rabbi of the Polish army, Kahane, who had arrived in Berlin with the Red Army, gathered around him a group of Jews in the rooms of the Reichsvereinigung (Jewish community organization). Although the event was completely improvised, the room was not big enough to hold the deeply moved multitude; part of those who had come had to remain in the adjoining rooms and hallways.
“First the rabbi said Mincha… In remembrance of the victims, the chazzan, who also belonged to the Polish army, sang Kel Molei Rachamim, which was interrupted by the sobs of the stirred listeners.”
How did the Nazis allow the hospital to persist in their midst? Daniel B. Silver, author of Refuge in Hell, lists a number of theories and rejects them. He rejects the notion that the Nazis used it as a showpiece of humanitarianism, or that they preserved it in order to avail themselves of its medical personnel. He also rejects theories that its purpose was to prevent epidemics or to provide easy, safe jobs for German officers.
One strange theory that he regards more reasonable is that the Gestapo allowed the hospital to survive in order to keep their grip on its buildings. During 5702/1942 the Jewish community had been compelled to transfer ownership of its buildings to Akademie, a non-influential unit of Germany’s medical establishment. In order, to prevent anyone else from taking over the place, the Gestapo and RSHA (that were in charge of the hospital) maintained the hospital’s Jewish presence until the bitter end.
The truth is that there is no clear answer except the unanimous opinion of most of the survivors: “It was a miracle!”
(Source: Silver, Daniel B. Refuge in Hell. How Berlin’s Jewish Hospital Outlasted the Nazis. New York: Houghton Miffl in Company, 2003.)