Refuge in Hell: How Berlin's Jewish Hospital Outlasted the Nazisby Daniel B. Silver
In 1945, when the Red Army liberated Berlin, they found in the Nazi capital a functioning Jewish hospital. In Refuge in Hell, Daniel B. Silver explores the many quirks of fortune and history that made the hospital's survival possible. His engrossing account of this little-known slice of history "reads like a novel imbued with the richness of a strong narrative and
In 1945, when the Red Army liberated Berlin, they found in the Nazi capital a functioning Jewish hospital. In Refuge in Hell, Daniel B. Silver explores the many quirks of fortune and history that made the hospital's survival possible. His engrossing account of this little-known slice of history "reads like a novel imbued with the richness of a strong narrative and the depth of compelling characters" (Forward).
Not since Schindler's List has there been such a wrenching story of personal sacrifice and triumph. Silver's narrative centers on the intricate machinations of the hospital's director, Dr. Lustig, a German-born Jew who managed to keep the Gestapo at bay throughout the war, in part because of his power over his staff and patients and his finely honed relationship with the infamous Adolf Eichmann.
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The Story Behind the Story
In August 1945, Ernie Mayerfeld, a nineteen-year-old GI stationed in Berlin,
received a letter from his father in New York asking him to undertake a
mission for a family friend.
Until 1938 the elder Mayerfeld had been a prosperous leather
distributor in Frankfurt. Even as the Nazi persecution mounted in Germany, it
had seemed inconceivable to Herr Mayerfeld that the family's comfortable life
would be disrupted permanently. After all, the family's roots in Germany and
Austria went back hundreds of years. (The residence of one ancestor, the
Baron Eskeles, whose wife was a patroness of Mozart, today serves as the
home of Vienna's Jewish Museum.) And after the Nazis took power in 1933,
he still could not foresee the worst. Had he not received a medal for his
service at the front in World War I, accompanied by a letter of thanks signed
by Der Führer himself ? Not even the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, in which
Herr Mayerfeld narrowly escaped arrest, had convinced him to emigrate. Only
in the ensuing months when his suppliers would no longer sell him the
merchandise needed for his business was he finally persuaded to flee.
And so, virtually at the last possible moment and aided by a large
dose of good luck, the Mayerfelds escaped and eventually made their way to
New York, where fourteen-year-old Ernst turned himself into Ernie, an
American teenager. Five years later, after fighting in the Battle of the Bulge,
he returned to the country of his birth as one of the occupying U.S. troops.
His father's request was one of many that Ernie had received
asking him tolook for surviving relatives of German Jewish émigrés in the
United States. Frequently, the searches were unavailing. But in this case,
Herr Mayerfeld's friend was certain that his sister, Johanna Frank, had
survived the war as a nurse in the Berlin Jewish Hospital. He sent a package
of foodstuffs to be delivered to her.
And so one day Ernie made his way through the rubble and
devastation of occupied Berlin to 2 Iranischestrasse in the Wedding district.
There he found a spacious compound of seven buildings set in a large
garden. Carved in stone over the main entrance on Iranischestrasse, in the
pediment of the administration building, was the name Krankenhaus der
Jüdischen Gemeinde, or Hospital of the Jewish Community. Johanna Frank
was indeed there, attending to her nursing duties.
'The buildings were all still standing,' Ernie
remembered, 'although some of them had taken hits in the bombing. Inside,
though, it was unbelievable. Doctors in white coats and nurses in clean,
starched uniforms bustled through spotless corridors and rooms, attending to
It was as if the twelve years of Nazi horror had never happened.
Astounded by what he found, Ernie asked Schwester Johanna and her
coworkers how it was possible that this hospital, full of Jews, had made it
through the Nazi period. All agreed that it was a miracle, but no one had a
coherent explanation to offer.
More than half a century passed, filled with marriage, family, and
a successful career as a CIA officer and later as a lawyer in the CIA's Office
of General Counsel. From time to time Ernie thought about his
experience at the Berlin Jewish Hospital and wondered about the story that
lay behind it, but he had no time to make inquiries.
At a dinner party in the late 1970s or early 1980s, about the same
time that Ernie and I became legal colleagues at the CIA and grew to be
close friends, I met Klaus Zwilsky, a charming and ebullient man, then in his
fifties, who spoke with a slight German accent. Over the years we continued
to see each other. One night over dinner, the talk turned to how it must feel
to live under the constant threat of bombing. I don't remember how the topic
arose; probably we were talking about Beirut or one of the world's other
perennial hot spots.
Klaus listened for a while and then volunteered a comment,
describing his own emotions as a child in Berlin in 1944 and 1945, cowering
fearfully in the cellar while Allied bombers attacked the city.
'But, Klaus,' someone said. 'I don't understand. You're Jewish;
your parents were both 100 percent Jewish. How could you have been living
in Berlin during the last years of the war?'
'My father worked at the Jewish hospital,' Klaus explained, 'and
we all lived there.' He said a few more words about his experience of the
Allied air raids, and the conversation moved on to other things.
In this way I too learned that a Jewish hospital in Berlin had
remained open throughout the entire Nazi era and that Jewish doctors,
nurses, administrators, and patients had survived there. The fact astonished
me. I thought I knew a good deal about the Nazi persecution of German
Jews. I had read widely on the subject of the Holocaust. I was aware that a
had survived in Germany, some in hiding, some 'protected'
by marriage to non-Jews. But I also knew — or thought I knew — that the
Nazis had ruthlessly extirpated every trace of Jewish life in Germany. They
had destroyed the synagogues, desecrated the cemeteries, dissolved the
Jewish organizations, prohibited Jewish worship, driven two-thirds of
Germany's Jews into exile, and then deported all but a handful of those who
remained — the 'lucky' ones to the ghetto established in Theresienstadt in
what had once been Czechoslovakia, and the rest to the death camps of
Eastern Europe. How, then, was it possible that a Jewish hospital operating
openly under the name Krankenhaus der Jüdischen Gemeinde had continued
to exist in Berlin throughout the war? How was it that Klaus and his parents,
full Jews with no apparent form of 'protection,' could have survived the war
living in that hospital?
The question kept recurring through the next two decades of a life
that, like Ernie's, was too busy to permit further investigation. Klaus, who had
been only a child during the war years, was reticent about his experiences
and volunteered no further explanation. I could find nothing written on the
subject in English-language sources. Years went by, years during which from
time to time I would say to myself, 'Someday I need to find out about the
Jewish hospital,' and then move on to whatever preoccupation was more
Finally, the day came when circumstances made it possible for
me to begin serious research on the Berlin Jewish Hospital during the
wartime years. My immediate thought was to a Mayerfeld if he would
be interested in joining me.
'Did you know that there was a Jewish hospital in Berlin that
operated all the way through World War II?' I asked.
His response took me by surprise. Everyone else to whom I
mentioned this fact reacted with astonishment. Ernie looked sheepish.
'Not only do I know that,' he said haltingly. 'I was there.' He
proceeded to tell me the story of his 1945 visit.
We agreed that we would set out together to find out how and why
this hospital, alone among all of Germany's Jewish institutions, had survived
when everything else associated with German Jewry was being destroyed.
Our initial objective was to satisfy our own curiosity. As we found out more,
however, we agreed that we should write something that would bring this
astonishing story to the public's attention. Our determination to do so was
strengthened when we discovered that the only Internet reference we could
find was on a scurrilous neo-Nazi, Holocaust-denial Web site where the fact
that the Berlin Jewish Hospital operated throughout the war was adduced
as 'proof' that the Nazi atrocities had never occurred.
Our research quickly revealed that the essential facts relating to
the Berlin Jewish Hospital were not unknown in the small circle of scholars
who have devoted themselves to the study of the German Jewish experience
during the Nazi era. Indeed, many facts pertaining to the hospital's survival
from 1938 through 1945 have been recorded in two German-language
publications — in a small monograph devoted to the 1938–45 period and in
portions of a larger history of the hospital products of
extensive archival research and of interviews with war survivors. The findings
of the monograph were summarized in English in an article in a scholarly
journal, the Leo Baeck Institute Year Book. Passing references to the
hospital also could be found in other scholarly books on German Jewry
during the Nazi era. Thus we found that the task of preserving the record for
the scholarly community had largely been completed.
Nor had the existence of the hospital in the war period completely
escaped the attention even of authors who wrote for a more popular audience.
Fleeting references to it gave evidence that they knew it was there. For
example, in a fascinating book, The Last Jews in Berlin, Leonard Gross tells
the stories of several Jews who survived the final years of the Nazi period in
hiding in Berlin. A passing reference makes clear that he knew that the
hospital was in operation throughout this period, but nothing more is said
about the institution and the large number of Jews who were living there
None of the scholarly or passing accounts, we felt, satisfactorily
addressed two important questions. Again and again we asked
ourselves, 'How could this have happened?' So, too, has almost everyone
who has encountered the simple fact of the hospital's survival. Another
question that the barest outline of the facts about the hospital urgently raises
is: 'What was it like to live and work in such circumstances?' And so we set
out to do two things. First, we wanted to supplement the existing historical
record as much as possible, knowing that the number of living witnesses
already had be greatly diminished by the passage of so many years.
Second, we decided to write this book, and in so doing, to attempt to answer
our two questions.
In pursuit of the first objective we turned to something new, the Internet, and
something traditional, a newspaper. We posted an appeal for information on
the Internet Web site of the German Special Interest Group of the Jewish
Genealogy Net, and we published an advertisement in the newspaper Aufbau,
the German- language periodical of the German Jewish émigré community. It
was Ernie who remembered that his parents had read Aufbau avidly in his
youth. It was a surprise to us both to find that it still was being published. It
was an even greater surprise, in the weeks and months that ensued, to
receive e-mail messages, letters, and telephone calls in response both to the
Internet posting and to the Aufbau advertisement, although primarily the
latter. The communications came from all over — mostly from the United
States, but also from Germany, Israel, Brazil, Australia, Canada, and France.
In some instances, we were contacted directly by people who had been in
the hospital, either as patients or as members of the staff. In other cases,
friends and relatives gave us information on how we might be able to find
former hospital patients or employees whom they knew. The total number of
people still alive who once had worked or lived at the hospital was not huge —
fewer than twenty — but, in light of the passage of more than half a century
since the end of the war, it was more than we had dared hope for.
We called and wrote to t people who seemed most likely to
have useful information and began to conduct interviews. One of these never
took place; the subject died before the date of our appointment. Another was
canceled when the subject, a former hospital prison patient from 1944 to the
end of the war who initially had been enthusiastic about telling his story,
called in a state of agitation and said that he was afraid that our visit would
awaken unpleasant memories. We desisted, but Ernie gently managed to
gather the essential information over the telephone.
Not long after we returned from a trip to New Jersey and New York
to speak with the first three wartime survivors, my beloved friend Ernie
Mayerfeld died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving an enormous void in many
lives, including mine. He also left me with the determination to complete the
research and write this book as a tribute to him. I continued interviewing as
many surviving individuals as I could find.
All of the survivors I was able to locate and interview were women.
Every interview followed the same pattern. I tried to schedule my visit for a
time when no one would feel obligated to provide a meal. Nonetheless,
regardless of the time of day, on arrival I would find the table set and a
bountiful display of food laid out. The first order of business always was to
eat. Only then, with the imperatives of German Jewish hospitality fulfilled,
were my hostesses ready to talk about their experiences. Without exception,
the people I met were delightful, charming, vivacious, and intelligent. One
could easily discern, more than half a century later, the qualities of strength
and spirit that had kept them alive and sane through years of persecution,
loss, and terror.
In researching and writing this book, I have relied heavily on the
work of scholars who have investigated the history of the Berlin Jewish
Hospital during the 1938–45 period. Rivka Elkin, the Israeli historian,
deserves great credit for having written the definitive monograph on the
hospital during that period, Das Jüdische Krankenhaus in Berlin zwischen
1938 und 1945, the contents of which were ably summarized in her article in
English in the Leo Baeck Institute Year Book. Equal recognition is due to
Dagmar Hartung-von Doetinchem and Rolf Winau, editors of Zerstörte
Fortschritte, a 1989 history of the hospital from 1756 to modern times that
includes a lengthy and excellent chapter by Ms. Hartung-von Doetinchem on
the wartime period, and to Daniel Nadav and Manfred Stürzbecher, the
authors of that book's chapter on the hospital's director, Dr. Walter Lustig.
(Full references to all of these books and to Ms. Elkin's article can be found
in the Bibliography.)
I have gone back to original sources whenever it seemed
appropriate. Some of the most important were personal histories of people
who were at the hospital during the relevant period. Of particular interest are
the written memoirs in German of Hilde Kahan, Dr. Lustig's secretary, and a
videotaped interview of Ms. Kahan in English, both found in the archives of
Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Similar memoirs exist (in some cases published
in whole or in part in German or English, or both) that were written by others
who lived or worked hospital. I have paid particular attention to all of
these personal histories because I wanted to describe the texture of daily life
in the hospital and to reconstruct the drama of living under an intense and
continual pressure that differed from what other European Jews experienced
in the ghettos, labor camps, and death camps.
I have also had recourse to a variety of other archival materials —
in particular, to war crimes trial transcripts and to the records of the wartime
central organization of German Jews, the Reichsvereinigung. With the
assistance of historical research consultants, I searched the captured
German government records housed in the National Archives in College Park,
Maryland. This search failed to turn up any new material relevant to the
hospital. Finally, I examined and used certain materials that were not used
by earlier researchers, largely personal papers of people who were at the
hospital. It has been particularly gratifying that two holders of important
personal papers asked me to help them find a suitable repository where
these materials would be preserved and made available to researchers. (One
collection ultimately was entrusted to the Leo Baeck Institute Archives
located in the new Jewish Museum in Berlin. The ultimate home of the other
is still under consideration.)
Relying on Memories
The body of archival material relating to the hospital — records of the hospital
and of the Reichsvereinigung and the Jewish community, war crimes trial
pleadings and judgments, a few records of the Gestapo and of Adolf
Eichmann's department in the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA), or Reich
Security Main Office, which had formal jurisdiction over the hospital — reveal
amazingly little, at least in any transparent way, about what is really
interesting. One cannot determine from official, bureaucratic documents how
and why the hospital managed to stay open when, by all the logic of the Nazi
racial policy, it should have been eliminated. Nor does the formal record
preserve the infighting, conniving, ambitions, deals, backbiting, double-
dealing, skullduggery, and luck that must have contributed to that outcome.
So, too, it is surprising how little information the archival record
truly provides about day-to-day conditions in the hospital, particularly in the
chaotic circumstances that prevailed during the final months of the war. The
principal source of information on daily life is witnesses' recollections —
those of the former inhabitants of the hospital who were interviewed by Elkin
or Hartung-von Doetinchem or more recently in the course of conducting
research for this book, witnesses who testified at war crimes trials, and
hospital survivors who wrote memoirs or letters describing their experiences.
These accounts provide invaluable documentation of the hospital's story, but,
to the same degree, they are subject to the inherent uncertainties and
limitations of human memory. Several points should be kept in mind.
First, although some of the firsthand accounts were written or
collected shortly after the end of the war, many of the memories reflected in
this book were already old at the time they were recorded. That is especially
the case, obviously, of those that were collected specifically for this book in
interviews held during the past several years. It would be oversimplifying to
assume that time has caused these recollections to dim. For many of the
people who lived or worked in the hospital, the last years of the war were the
most unforgettable of their lives. Yet, time and postwar life have a way of
transforming even the most vivid of memories and blurring the details. Even
Hilde Kahan, who as secretary to the hospital's director had an intimate view
of what transpired, gives slightly different accounts of the same events in her
written memoir and in her videotaped interview, which occurred years after the
memoir was written.
Second, for every person in the hospital, the horrifying things that
were witnessed and experienced must have had a powerful psychological
effect. Everyone in the hospital underwent years of constantly intensifying
Nazi persecution. For each, it was a time of loss, as relatives and friends
disappeared in the deportations, and a time of fear. The haven the hospital
provided was at best fragile and ephemeral. Again and again, those who
survived saw others around them seized and taken away. No one ever knew
who would be next. Not a single person at the hospital could have felt truly
safe. Thus, for many, life at the hospital was perceived, and has been
remembered, through a filter of strong emotion. In some cases a survivor's
account is so divergent from other reports that it is clear that powerful
emotions essentially reshaped the way events were remembered.
An interesting example of how easily memories can be distorted
is given by Holocaust scholar Beate Meyer in a November 2000 paper
describing her research on the Reichsvereinigung, the central organization of
Jews in Germany that functioned from 1939 until 1943 and then, in a 'rump'
form, to the end of the war headquartered in the hospital. She recounts the
experience of interviewing a Jewish woman, a survivor from Hamburg, about
Max Plaut, who directed the Reichsvereinigung district office in northwest
Germany. The interviewee spoke with great certainty about two Plauts, the
father, Raphael, whom she described as a man of integrity, and the son,
Max, whom she described as dishonest.
In reality, this woman had never known Max Plaut's father. Her
memory of Max Plaut in his earlier years as an upright community leader
was inconsistent with her recollections of him from 1938 on, when she
perceived that he exercised his official role in a corrupt manner. Faced with
this cognitive dissonance, her memory had played a trick on her and divided
the single individual into a 'good' father and a 'bad' son.
A prime example of the same kind of phenomenon is the journalist
Cordelia Edvardson's account of her brief stay as a teenager in the
orphanage section of the hospital, where, for some reason, the Gestapo
placed her before later deporting her to Auschwitz. In her memoir, Burned
Child Seeks the Fire, she depicts the hospital as a lawless hellhole where
promiscuous sex abounded and a black market flourished in drugs and
cigarettes. In the context of a memoir that is written in a poetic and highly
impressionistic style, it makes sense for the hospital environment to serve as
a metaphor for the hor confusion that beset a traumatized adolescent.
Yet, although others' accounts confirm that sexual liaisons occurred in the
hospital, no one else substantiates Edvardson's orgiastic description to the
same degree, and virtually all other sources gainsay what she says about
drugs and cigarettes.
Hartung-von Doetinchem records a similar discrepancy. One of
the survivors she interviewed provided a vivid description of how, when the war
with Poland broke out, the Nazis began to loot the hospital every few weeks,
taking away its medical supplies and equipment and leaving it almost
completely devoid of what it needed to continue functioning. The informant
goes so far as to say that the Gestapo even emptied the kitchens and loaded
their contents onto trucks. Yet numerous other witnesses describe the
hospital in 1939 as well organized and functioning normally. Hartung-von
Doetinchem notes that the story of looting cannot be reconciled with the
information provided by other informants. Nor can it be squared with the
accounts I collected. Except for the one woman interviewed by Hartung-von
Doetinchem, everyone described the hospital, right through to the end of the
war, as a functional medical institution, short of some items as the war
neared its end — as no doubt every hospital in Germany was — but by no
means stripped of medical equipment or supplies.
It is hardly surprising that someone whose life suddenly
descended into hell should remember the hospital in terms as hellish as the
death camp to which she was sent. It is equally comprehensible that another
woman who may well have gone through her post-Holocaust life burning with
anger at the Gestapo for the uncounted acts of looting it committed
elsewhere should 'remember' one that, however plausible, did not occur. No
overarching point needs to be made with respect to these discrepant
memories. Where they arise, I have chosen to accept as most probable the
story that emerges from the greatest number of accounts, while noting that
divergent recollections exist. With respect to the entire account of life in the
hospital that is based in survivors' memories, it is sufficient to note that,
although perceptions undoubtedly were colored, and in some details perhaps
even distorted, by emotions and personal reactions, what the survivors have
to tell us is largely accurate and is as close to reality as we ever will get.
Jews and Aryans: A Note on Terminology
Anyone who writes about the Nazi period faces at least two issues of
terminology: who is encompassed in the term Jew, and what word should be
used to describe non-Jewish Germans? In both cases, with reluctance and
with apologies to anyone who may find this usage offensive, I have adopted
the terms the Nazis used — clearly not out of any sympathy with that usage
but because, in writing about the perverted world of Nazi racial ideology,
those terms most accurately and succinctly express the relevant ideas.
For the Nazis, a 'Jew' was anyone they decided was Jewish,
based on a notion of racial Judaism that had nothing to do with either
anthropology or the Jewish religion. An elaborate calculus was developed,
under the Nuremberg Laws in particular, for the 'racial' classification of the
population. It categorized as Jews thousands of people who did not consider
themselves to be Jewish and would not have been considered Jewish under
These included converts to Christianity and the children of
converts, as well as children born to mixed marriages in which the mother
was not Jewish and had not converted to Judaism. The same categorization
excluded people whom Jews would consider Jewish, such as children born to
a mixed marriage in which the mother was Jewish and had not converted to
Christianity but whose names had been left off the register of an official
Jewish community (Gemeinde) because of parental decision or mistake or
In this book I use the term Jew to refer to those who were so
categorized by the Nazis and suffered accordingly, without distinguishing
between those who were legally Jews under Jewish law and those who were
not. I do so because I am writing about a population that was subjected to
persecution and threatened with annihilation because they were Jews in Nazi
eyes, and about the way in which hundreds of people among that population
found an improbable refuge in the hospital. In this context it seems irrelevant
to worry about how their religious affiliation might have been judged in other
In referring to Germans who were not Jewish in Nazi eyes, I have
decided similarly to remain within the frame of reference provided by Nazi
doctrine, without thereby intending, in any way, to give credence to a totally
abhorrent ideology. The fact is that there is no good way to describe non-
Jewish Germans during the Nazi era. The sur whom I interviewed
generally used the term Christian, but that strikes me as unsatisfactory and
First, it glosses over the fact that the Nazis made a distinction
based on the fiction that Jews were racially different from the rest of the
population. Although in practice the Nazis found themselves compelled, for
want of an alternative, to refer to the religious registration of an individual's
grandparents in categorizing people of mixed ancestry, in theory they never
deviated from their racial ideology. To use a religious term to refer to the
Nazis' imagined racial construct thus seems inappropriate.
Second, to use the term Christian in this context seems an insult
to Christianity. Although there is no doubt that fifteen hundred years of anti-
Semitic teachings by the Christian churches set the stage for the Holocaust
and that both the Catholic and Protestant churches in Germany by and large
betrayed the central moral principles of their faith in the face of Nazism, it
goes too far to equate Christian, a term properly applied to a believer in the
Christian religion, with the Nazis' odious concept of a master race, especially
in light of the Nazis' own hostility to the Christian religion.
The term non-Jew, in addition to being awkward, is imprecise. Not
everyone in Germany who was non-Jewish shared in the privileged status
accorded to what the Nazis called the German 'racial people.' Gypsies and
Eastern Europeans of non-German stock were also deemed inferior, and the
Gypsies were subjected to persecution similar to that visited on the Jews. To
apply the term Germans to the so-called racial peo also distasteful,
since it implicitly accepts the Nazi assumption that no Jew could ever be
truly German, no matter how fully that Jew participated in or contributed to
German culture. The same issue is alive in Germany today with regard to the
status of Turks and other immigrants, as well as Jews. I cannot bring myself
to join modern-day German racists in using the term German to denote what
the Nazis would have called 'Aryan.'
In Nazi ideology and the earliest anti-Jewish legislation, Aryan
applied to those deemed to belong to the master race. In later Nazi
legislation, the term Jewish blood was also used, but to refer to non-Jews
as 'those not of Jewish blood' is not only awkward but, in my eyes, no less
offensively redolent of the Nazi racial ideology than the term Aryan. So, in the
end, I have chosen to use the term Aryan to mean what the Nazis intended it
to mean, just as I have used the term Jew in the same sense the Nazis gave
Copyright © 2003 by Daniel B. Silver. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Meet the Author
Dan Silver has a law degree and a PhD in cultural anthropology from Harvard, and has been General Counsel of the National Security Agency and from 1979 - 1981 General Counsel of the CIA. He is an active member in Washington DC's largest conservative Jewish congregation and lives in Chevy Chase, MD.
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Daniel Silver¿s book is meticulously researched, well written and in many ways awe-inspiring. He has preserved for all time, through personal interviews and an exhaustive review of historical documents housed all over the world, the unbelievable story of the only Jewish institution in Berlin to have made it through the Nazi regime relatively unscathed. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the Holocaust and/or Germany!