Jul 2005 Journal

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Berlin Jewish orphanage for boys: second reunion

The building of the Jewish orphanage in Pankow, Berlin survived the war and the postwar period though it is no longer used as an orphanage. It was totally renovated in the late 1990s thanks to the Walter and Margarete Cajewitz Stiftung, a trust whose primary function is to provide comfortable accommodation for elderly people and chose to turn the orphanage building into a community centre for Pankow. This now comprises a public library on three floors and a centre for the rehabilitation of drug addicts on another. On the second floor is the Betsaal - the former synagogue, the ornate ceiling of which has been lovingly restored to something of its former glory. This large room is now used by the local community and by the committee 'of the association of supporters and friends of the former Jewish orphanage' for public concerts, talks and discussions. (I had my Barmitzvah in it two months before my departure from Berlin in the first of the Kindertransports.)

The Jewish Museum

The programme was an attractive mix of the enjoyable, nostalgic and poignant. Among the latter was a visit to the Jewish Museum, which I had previously seen when it was still empty. It continues to be a hugely impressive and moving building, the welter of historical exhibits, artefacts, memorabilia, videos, and interactive computer terminals detracting only slightly from its symbolic significance. The Garden of Exile, with its leaning columns, tilting gangways and foliage now forming a canopy, is as disorienting and discomforting as ever, and the largest of the 'voids', the Holocaust Tower (the only void one can enter), still utterly daunting and alienating. Three hours seemed inadequate to do justice to the exhibition (which now includes a section on some non-religious Jews such as Karl Marx), which seemed overcrowded but nonetheless gave a fascinating account of the history of German and European Jews over the last 2,000 years.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The visit to the recently opened Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was very poignant. Its 2,700 slabs of slate-coloured stone, arranged in straight intersecting rows, cover an area the size of two football pitches, right in the heart of Berlin, close to the Brandenburger Tor and the Reichstag. The narrow walkways between the stones, which vary considerably in height, often undulate and tilt disturbingly. The memorial had a long and stormy gestation and it has been much criticised because of its size, the absence of any plaques, its vulnerability to abuse, and the exclusion of other minorities who suffered. The fact that among the hundreds of visitors that Sunday afternoon there were some who sat on the low stones near the circumference eating ice cream did not disturb me at all. The atmosphere was contemplative and respectful and there were no graffiti.

Holocaust Information Centre

The extensive Underground Holocaust Information Centre was brilliantly devised and the exhibits movingly displayed, with stark historical facts and photographs followed by family histories from a variety of countries, eye witness accounts by survivors and non-survivors and interactive exhibits such as the computer terminals to the archives kept at Yad Vashem, permitting visitors to look up biographical details of relatives who died in the Holocaust.

Art in Auschwitz exhibition

An exhibition of Art in Auschwitz opened on the last day of our reunion in the Centrum Judaicum and we were given the opportunity to view it. This was the first major exhibition based on Auschwitz, organised in collaboration with the Museum authorities there. On the face of it, the idea that art could flourish in the camp seems incredible and bizarre, but the high quality of many of the deeply moving paintings and drawings of life in the camp, the numerous portraits of inmates as well as of some SS officers and their families (and even dogs) and some escapist and romantic landscapes was a reminder of the wealth of talent that was destroyed there.

Get-togethers and concerts

On the lighter side, we had several get-togethers, always with wonderful food, allowing us to reminisce, listen to readings from the autobiography of one man who described the harsh life in the orphanage early in the twentieth century, and watch a video of a film made at the first reunion which focused on the lives of five former orphanage pupils, including myself. We also listened to a delightfully light-hearted choral concert, with soloist singers and instrumentalists, given by a choir from the Rosa-Luxemburg Gymnasium. The concert was, appropriately, performed in the Betsaal of the orphanage building and well attended by local people. Some of the older boys and girls had volunteered to help with some of the catering and did so with great charm.

Another agreeable concert of ancient Italian music took place in Pankow Town Hall, an ornate red-brick building that had survived the war, and a very pleasant evening was spent on a pleasure boat cruising through central Berlin on the River Spree, giving us a good idea of the adventurous design of many of the new buildings.

A vibrant city

Berlin has done a good deal to confront and acknowledge its murky past - there are numerous memorials and plaques commemorating different aspects of the Holocaust in all parts of the city, and the kind of event hosted on this occasion is a clear indication of the continuing wish to make amends and not to forget. I came away from Berlin, a city from which my family were sent to their deaths, without bitterness for the first time and I could see it for what it is now - a vibrant, diverse and interesting city.

The renovation was orchestrated and supervised with the utmost care by Professor P.-A. Albrecht, Trustee of the Stiftung, and it is partly thanks to his continuing interest and generosity that this kind of reunion has become possible. The committee, led by Dr H. Simon of the Centrum Judaicum, Dr Inge Lammel, writer and local historian of the orphanage and the local Jewish community, Eva Bentzien, welfare officer of the Stiftung, and Karin Manns, teacher at the nearby Rosa-Luxemburg Gymnasium, worked indefatigably to make the four-day reunion a resounding success.

The 2001 reunion saw 15 men who had been Zöglinge (pupils) at one time or another before - and, in a few cases, even after - the outbreak of the Second World War. This time we were reduced to seven, though some of us were accompanied by our wives. Represented were the UK (3), the USA (1), Argentina (1) and Berlin (2). This smaller reunion, no doubt determined by the fact that we were becoming older and more decrepit, lent itself to a more informal programme and to greater intimacy, though absent friends were greatly missed.
Leslie Baruch Brent

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