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.
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.”