• Germany's news in English

Persecuted by the Nazis, former Berliners visit their hometown

3 Jun 2010, 12:13

Published: 03 Jun 2010 12:13 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

The last time Margot Labi was in Berlin, the Nazis were rounding up Jews, defacing their shops and burning synagogues.

Labi was three years old on November 9th, 1938, a date now remembered as the Kristallnacht pogrom, when her family fled to the Dominican Republic. After narrowly avoiding the Holocaust, she was left with little interest to return to the city of her birth.

“I never wanted to come to Germany, never,” the 75-year-old Labi recently told The Local.

But after much deliberation and encouragement from her three sons in Florida, Labi and her husband Vittorio – a concentration camp survivor with his own reservations about visiting Germany – decided to take part in a programme offering former Berliners persecuted by the Nazis a chance to become reacquainted with the German capital.

The publicly funded initiative gives participants a one-week, expenses-paid tour of their old hometown. The majority of the ex-Berliners are Jewish, but the offer extends to anyone terrorised during the Third Reich.

After 41 years and more than 30,000 visitors (some 15,000 former Berliners and another 15,000 family members), the programme is drawing to a close as the final generation of Holocaust survivors slowly passes away.

During its penultimate tour in May, Labi explored her old hometown for the first time in over seven decades. She strolled along Jablonskistrasse, where her childhood apartment once stood and visited the Rykestrasse synagogue, where her family had worshipped.

“For me, I thought I'd come to Germany and it would be like going to Italy or Spain, you know, it wouldn’t have any impact,” said Labi, who speaks English with a distinct Spanish accent. “But it wasn’t like this. It had a lot of impact, I guess in my heart.”

Her husband, who was born in Libya and deported to Germany at the age of 10, enthusiastically added: “It was a surprise for me because I hated Germany, I hated Berlin….But this week here, changed my mind, I’m not kidding you. Really changed my mind. Beautiful country.”

Not making amends

Tucked away in the depths of Berlin’s city hall, stands an ageing stack of binders, each spine baring the handwritten label “Emigrierte Mitbürger,” or emigrated citizens.

Rüdiger Nemitz, a wiry Berliner in his early sixties, has been guardian of the binders since city parliament created “The Invitation Programme for Former Persecuted Citizens of Berlin” in 1969.

“It’s not trying to make amends, you can’t make it good again,” Nemitz told The Local. “It’s just to take their hand, and to show the Berlin, Germany of today is totally different from that what they have in their mind, when they emigrated.”

Although Berlin has evolved drastically since Reunification, the programme’s itinerary has remained consistent over the last 21 years: the seven-day journey includes a sightseeing tour via bus, a welcome reception by the mayor, a visit to the Jewish cemetery in the Weissensee district, a tour of the Reichstag, a cultural event such as “Carmen” this year and free time for the participants explore the city on their own.

Initially, the city government advertised the programme in Aufbau, a German-language newspaper, which was printed in New York for the Jewish diaspora.

“In the past we had thousands and thousands of applications and were not able to manage it,” said Nemitz, who began working with the programme as a student volunteer in 1969 and was promoted to its director in 1990.

Eventually knowledge of the sponsored visits spread by word of mouth and applications poured in from the United States, Israel, South Africa and Australia.

“We had waiting lists from the very first day,” said Nemitz.

At the height of the programme, the city allocated DM3.5 million annually (€1.7 million) to accommodate upwards of 240 participants and support an eleven-member staff.

This year, Nemitz has a budget of €560,000 for less than 120 visitors and his staff has dwindled to one part-time employee.

After the last group arrives in June 2010, “the waiting list will be history,” Nemitz remarked.

An emotional hurdle

On the final day of the tour in May, Rolf Schütte, a former career diplomat in the German Foreign Service and current Chief of Protocol for the state of Berlin, joined the group of 57 participants for a farewell soirée.

Schütte, who wrote the report, “German-Jewish Relations, Today and Tomorrow,” published by the American-Jewish Committee in 2005, said in a speech, “We know it’s not an easy step because this is of course the country of your ancestors, but it’s also the country that tried to kill your ancestors, and this emotional hurdle, this burden, is very large and that’s why we very much appreciate you accepting this invitation.”

Amidst the emotional trials of returning to Germany, many participants were also forced to re-examine their cultural and national identities.

"I feel now, I can recognise that in some ways I am German,” Karin Arlin told The Local.

Arlin’s father, who worked as chief engineer for Lufthansa, moved the family to the Netherlands in 1934 and ultimately to America in 1941.

“I certainly come from German Jews, and it enrages me when they put us into a separate category that we’re not really part of the Volk,” said Arlin, who continued to speak German with her parents after the family settled in the United States.

As with Arlin and Labi, most of the participants these days were children during the Nazi era and as a result, have little recollection of their lives in Berlin.

Story continues below…

Ruth Cyzner was eight years old, when she left Berlin in 1939 on the Kindertransport refugee effort that brought Jewish children to Britain. Although Cyzner can recognise several words in German and street names in Berlin, she has but a few memories of her father, who died in Auschwitz, along with her mother.

Cyzner spent the week in pursuit of records, facts, anecdotes – any information – about her father.

After tangling with German bureaucracy, Cyzner was able to obtain original, handwritten documents concerning her father’s finances and service in the Austrian Army.

“That was very moving to see his writing on that piece of paper,” said Cyzner. “Then I was furious. The fact that they keep all these records and they kill the people, but they’ve still got the records and the records will always be there. So there was a whole mix of feelings about that.”

The next generation

Cyzner’s daughter Eve Wolfsohn accompanied her on the trip to the German capital and Nemitz said he has received thousands of requests from the children of former Berliners wanting to participate in the programme.

“It’s incredibly emotional because I feel like it’s the closest I’ll ever be to my grandparents,” said Wolfsohn, who would like to see the programme extended to children of survivors.

But Nemitz said due to Berlin’s serious budgetary woes, an extension of the program to future generations is unlikely.

“It’s really a monetary problem,” he said. “It’s not a problem of willingness.”

Related links:

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

16:26 June 4, 2010 by dr.makni49
The exercise is fine that would be looked upon from two angles. One that you are opening old wounds and not allowing time to heal them. Second, the visits would have positive cathartic effect to flush away the bitter feelings and the posterity could look forward.

Not only here, I would recommend those displaced from former east German terrotories, some in Poland now coud join their surviving folks from Germany once a while. I wonder how would it click but you would have soothed them that they were remembered even now.
Today's headlines
Couple accused of torturing, murdering women go on trial
The so-called 'house of horrors' in Höxter where the couple allegedly tortured and killed women. Photo: DPA.

A couple accused of luring women to their village home with personal ads started trial on Wednesday over charges that they tortured and killed at least two of their victims.

After July attacks, govt drafts new video surveillance law
Photo: DPA

The Interior Ministry is drafting a law which will enable public spaces to be filmed for surveillance purposes as a reaction to deadly attacks in July, according to a newspaper report.

Eurowings union threatens cabin crew strike for Thursday
Photo: DPA.

A union representing cabin crews on Lufthansa's budget airline Eurowings has announced that strikes will start as of Thursday if ongoing contract negotiations continue to falter.

Merkel: murky internet giants distort perception of reality
Angela Merkel. Photo: DPA.

Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Tuesday for internet giants to make public their closely-guarded algorithms, claiming that they are not giving people diverse enough information.

Pegida leader 'paid court costs with group's money'
Pegida leader Lutz Bachmann. Photo: DPA.

The leader of the anti-Islam movement reportedly used money from Pegida's coffers to pay for two personal court cases, German media reported this week.

Anger as Berlin scraps Turkey concert on Armenia genocide
The Dresden Symphony Orchestra. Photo: DPA

Germany's foreign ministry Tuesday scrapped a planned symphony performance on the Armenian "genocide" in its Istanbul consulate, sparking accusations that it was caving in to Turkish pressure.

Obama to visit Berlin in last presidential trip to Germany
President Barack Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel during a Berlin trip in 2013. Photo: DPA.

The White House announced on Tuesday that US President Barack Obama will be paying one last unexpected visit to the German capital - his last before he leaves office.

Hostility towards minorities 'widespread in Bavaria'
A village in southern Bavaria. Photo: DPA.

Hate and hostility towards groups deemed to be different are not just sentiments felt by fringe extremists, a new report on Bavaria shows.

Hated RB Leipzig emerge as shock challengers to Bayern
RB Leipzig. Photo: DPA

RB Leipzig's remarkable unbeaten start to the Bundesliga season has seen them suddenly emerge at the head of the pack chasing reigning champions and league leaders Bayern Munich.

Munich taxi driver in hospital after attack by British tourists
Photo: DPA

A taxi driver had to be hospitalized in Munich on Monday evening after three British tourists refused to pay their fare and then attacked him.

Germany's 10 most weird and wonderful landmarks
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
10 things you never knew about socialist East Germany
How Germans fell in love with America's favourite squash
How I ditched London for Berlin and became a published author
12 clever German idioms that'll make you sound like a pro
23 fascinating facts you never knew about Berlin
9 unmissable events to check out in Germany this October
10 things you never knew about German reunification
10 things you're sure to notice after an Oktoberfest visit
Germany's 10 most Instagram-able places
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
10 German films you have to watch before you die
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd