In February 1943, four thousand Jews went underground in Berlin. By the end of the war, all but a few hundred of them had died in bombing raids or, more commonly, in death camps. This is the real-life story of some of the few of them - a young mother, a scholar and his countess lover, a black-market jeweler, a fashion designer, a Zionist, an opera-loving merchant, a teen-age orphan - who resourcefully, boldly, defiantly, luckily survived. In hiding or in masquerade, by their wits and sometimes with the aid of conscience-stricken German gentiles, they survived. They survived the constant threat of discovery by the Nazi authorities or by the sinister handful of turncoat Jewish "catchers" who would send them to the gas chambers. They survived to tell this tale, which reads like a thriller and triumphs like a miracle. "The author's skillful selection of detail and his narrative drive have created the type of footnote [to history] that illuminates an entire subject." - New York Times Book Review "A tour de force . . . A consummately suspenseful narrative . . . remindful, in [its] exquisite detail, of Capote's In Cold Blood" - Los Angeles Times "An historian's book, a storyteller's book, and - most of all - a reader's book . . . All the real-life stuff of a John le Carré novel" - Los Angeles Herald Examiner
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The Last Jews in Berlin
By Leonard Gross
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Leonard Gross
All rights reserved.
He was handsome: his face was full and smooth and stamped with self-acceptance. But when he was angry it could be a tough face, the mouth set, the jaw pronounced, the eyes hinting at the intractable presence waiting behind his composure. Fritz Croner had publicly cursed the Nazis when they'd first appeared in Deutsch-Krone, the small, picture-postcard German town where he'd grown up. But after the Nazis had come to power he continued his life as though they didn't exist. He was the richest young man in town, with a Fiat limousine and a BMW motorcycle, the biggest one made in Germany, and he loved nothing more than to gun the motorcycle over the rutted roads of the tiny villages, trying to get from Deutsch-Krone to Berlin, 150 miles to the southwest, in under three hours. When he traveled he paid no attention to the signs that said Jews were forbidden entry to restaurants and hotels. He ate and stayed where he pleased.
Even in 1939, when life for Germany's Jews had become all but impossible, Fritz and his wife, Marlitt, went regularly to tea dances at the fashionable Eden Hotel. Fritz had met Marlitt Gelber one day in April 1936 in Sipnow when he and some friends were touring the countryside on their motorcycles to see how other Jewish families were getting along. Marlitt happened to be leaning out of her window, a stunning young woman with blond hair and blue eyes, the typically German looks that had always attracted Fritz. She was three months Fritz's junior, and—all the more ideal—she had been reared in an Orthodox Jewish home. He had coffee in the Gelber home but did not spend time with Marlitt that day because she was in mourning for her mother. When the period of mourning ended he returned to Sipnow regularly. He found Marlitt to be a quiet and private person, which was very much to his liking. Within a few months they knew that they would eventually marry—and they did in March of 1939. The ceremony was performed by an Orthodox rabbi, with all their relatives in attendance. Fritz and Marlitt said goodbye to the wedding party at 9:00 P.M. and went to the Eden for a drink at the bar. Thereafter, no matter how difficult their circumstances, they went regularly to the theater and cinema. They were young and determined to live.
They looked German, which helped their masquerade. Marlitt, especially, had exactly the structure and coloring the Nazis extolled in their propaganda in behalf of the "master race." Fritz's appearance was not so singular; you would never suspect him of being Jewish, but once you learned that he was, you wouldn't be surprised. It was his attitude that transformed him: although he was a devout Jew who even observed the dietary laws, he felt German to his marrow. To family and friends, who were aghast at the chances he took, he would say, "Look, I'm part of this country. No one has the right to push me out. I don't allow anyone to tell me what I can't do. I'm German."
To Fritz, German identity was his not simply by right of birth but by virtue of historical fact. Deutsch-Krone, his birthplace, was in the northeast corner of Germany, not far from the Polish border. No one knew exactly how long the Croner family had lived in this flat, lush lake country, with its harsh winters and miraculous summers, but there were indications that it had been centuries. Five hundred years before, "Krone" had been spelled with a C, and the Croners believed that their ancestors had adopted the name of the town. Fritz's great-grandfather, born in 1804, was buried in Deutsch-Krone's Jewish cemetery, proof to the Croners that their roots descended at least to the eighteenth century. However deep they were, they supported a substantial presence. Fritz's father, Willy Croner, was Deutsch-Krone's leading merchant, as proud of the Iron Cross he had won for service in World War I as he was of his officer's post in the synagogue. A leg wound had crippled him so badly that he had to use a cane, but his limp was, if anything, further proof of his devotion to the fatherland. Fritz's maternal grandfather had also been wounded in service to his country during the Franco-Prussian War. He subsequently became the president of a disabled veterans' group as well as a city official, and when he died, several hundred townspeople, half of them Gentile, came to the Jewish cemetery, where his comrades fired a volley over his grave.
That was Fritz's real birthright: a sense that he belonged. What forces had conspired to give the Jews of Deutsch-Krone such a vivid feeling of permanence Fritz never knew. It was a fact of life he accepted, and until the coming of the Nazis it had never been challenged. As a child he had played in the homes of his Gentile friends, and they in his. He had never had troubles with his classmates, nor had he ever heard an anti-Semitic remark.
There were 300 Jews in and around Deutsch-Krone, out of a population of 12,000. Except for the time and manner of their worship, nothing set them apart from the rest of the community. They were totally comfortable, accepted without question in all aspects of community life. Anti-Semitic episodes flared from time to time among a fringe element of the population, but these activities were disavowed by the majority and had no impact on the lives of the Croners or on any other Jewish residents.
By the standards of Deutsch-Krone, the Croners were rich. Their clothing-and-textiles store was the most prosperous in the community. Willy Croner was extremely active in Deutsch-Krone's Jewish life, but he mixed as easily with non-Jews as with Jews. He was not much interested in politics, and neither was his son. They were partial to the Social Democrats but, until the coming of the National Socialists, not in the least bit active. That changed on March 31, 1931, the first day that the Nazis of Deutsch-Krone went public. Wearing their brown shirts and swastikas, they marched to the memorial to the sons of Deutsch-Krone who had fallen in World War I. While members of the other political parties hooted, the Nazis laid wreaths with swastikas attached to them at the foot of the memorial. "Death to the Jews!" they chanted.
"Death to Hitler!" someone shouted from the crowd. It was Fritz, eyes glowering and compressed to tiny apertures.
Several hours later he was picked up by the police, charged with disturbing the peace, and warned that such outbursts would not be tolerated in the future. Later that day he was released.
By the end of 1932 it had become obvious that more and more members of the community were beginning to support the Nazis. The population of Deutsch-Krone was largely Protestant, and the Protestants had a greater tendency to affiliate with the Nazis than the Catholics.
By this time Fritz had become, if not a political activist, an aggressive anti-Nazi. At night he would help the Social Democrats affix their campaign signs to walls and posts around the town and tear down the signs of the Nazis. Inevitably there were clashes with the Nazis, and Fritz did his share of the fighting, a fact that disturbed his father, who thought the Nazis should be scorned rather than fought.
Fritz and his father were in agreement on one matter as 1933 arrived. They both felt that the only way to get rid of Hitler was to let him come to power, so that he could demonstrate his incompetence. The trouble in the streets, especially for Jews, had reached serious proportions; better, they said, to have an end with terror than terror without end.
But what had gone before was as nothing compared to the persecutions that began the moment Hitler became Chancellor on January 30. What surprised Fritz so much was the resentment that underlay the acts. They were motivated not by policy but by jealousy of Willy Croner's wealth and his son's popularity with the prettiest Gentile girls. Still, these people baring their hostility were not from the society in which the Croners had moved; they were the little people now suddenly able to hit back at those in the town whose success had festered in their minds.
A favorite target of the Nazis' persecutions was a thirty-year-old Jew named Salinger, who stood six feet six inches tall; it seemed to give them special satisfaction to humble a man so big. Early in February, Salinger was sent to a concentration camp at Hammerstein, about twenty miles from Deutsch-Krone, along with a number of other Jews and several Communists. A few days later word came back that Salinger had died in the camp. His body was returned to his family; it was Willy Croner's duty, as an officer of the temple's burial society, to prepare Salinger for interment. It took only one look at the marks covering Salinger's body to know he had been beaten to death.
Even then Willy Croner would not listen to any talk of emigration. Salinger's death had shaken him badly, but he saw it as a single case and the work of hotheads just come to power. It was imperative now more than ever to see these Nazis for what they were—opportunists outside the German mainstream, hornets who would plant their stingers and die.
A national boycott of Jewish shops decreed by the Nazis on April 1 reinforced Willy Croner's conviction. It passed uneventfully in Deutsch-Krone. Party members assigned to stand in front of the stores and warn shoppers away felt awkward and embarrassed. The Jewish shop owners solved everyone's discomfort by closing their stores at noon.
For a year and a half now Fritz had been learning the textile business. But it seemed increasingly evident to him—if not to his father—that his chances of one day taking over the store were slim. He decided to learn another profession. Gold-smithing had always interested him. He began to make the simplest kind of jewelry and to learn the business end of the trade. He quickly realized that he was a better businessman than craftsman. By the end of 1933 he was making more and more trips to Berlin to trade in jewels. Within another year his time was almost equally divided between Deutsch-Krone, where he helped his parents with the business, and Berlin, developing his new contacts.
Each time he returned to Deutsch-Krone he found it more difficult to maintain his old relationships with non-Jewish friends. One day, walking on the street, he saw a friend named Hans Beckmann with whom he had gone through school. Beckmann was wearing the uniform of a Wehrmacht officer. Thinking he would spare his friend the difficulty of having to deal with him in public, Fritz looked the other way. But Beckmann hailed him.
"Aren't you asking for trouble?" Fritz said when Beckmann came up to him.
"I really don't care," Beckmann said. "I'm glad to see you. I want to talk to you. I'm doing this deliberately. It's my way of advertising that I don't accept the strictures against the Jews."
But that encounter, in 1937, was the only offer of moral support Fritz received.
Almost ten years had passed since the Nazi seizure of power had tapped a reservoir of ill will against the Jews. The family store had been taken and the family pushed from Deutsch-Krone, and no Gentile friends had come forward to protest. Fritz's father, Willy, was now making gun barrels in a Berlin munitions factory, and Fritz was working on a railroad gang at forced labor for a few pennies an hour. The malevolence of the early years of Nazi power was, in retrospect, mere practice for the horrors that had since transpired. The horror of horrors had been "Crystal Night," the night of November 9–10, when Nazis throughout Germany had arisen in retaliation against the Jews for the murder, in Paris, of a young German diplomat by a Polish-German Jew.
In Berlin, Fritz had watched the Nazis burn the synagogues, rip the Torah scrolls and plunder the Torah silver, smash windows and loot the Jewish shops, feeling completely detached from what he was witnessing, as though it was an aberration that had nothing to do with him. He was German and rational; what he was watching was not German, because it wasn't rational—Polish or Russian, perhaps, because Poland and Russia had had pogroms, but not German, because there had been no pogroms in Germany, where law and order prevailed.
Fritz's feeling that he was not part of what he was seeing held through the next day as the looting continued and police arrested thousands of Jewish men—a warning, in the wake of the shooting in Paris, that no Jew should ever again touch a German—and Fritz received word of what had transpired in Deutsch-Krone. Had he been there instead of in Berlin, he would surely be dead, because a gang of young men had marched to the Croner home, not knowing it had been confiscated, intent on seizing Fritz and stringing him up on a gallows they had constructed especially for him—the final act of retribution against the richest young man in town.
Fritz had been determined never to leave Germany, but to stand and fight instead, because Germany was his as much as it was anyone's, and if he left it to the rabble, there would be no Germany left. But this was no longer his Germany, and so, one day late in 1938, he had gone to the Aliyah office for emigration to Palestine and filed his application, along with one for Marlitt. Several times a week he would join the crowds at the Meinekestrasse office to see how his visa was coming. The signs were promising. Finally the Croners' applications were' approved. Fritz had already deposited several thousand dollars in a bank in Amsterdam in anticipation of their emigration. Now he and Marlitt packed their clothes and shipped them to Palestine, along with his motorcycle and some furniture.
On March 20, 1939, the Croners received notice to be at the depot that evening to take a train to Marseilles, where they were to board an illegal transport. But two hours later another caller advised them that there was no place for them on this transport after all. They would receive word of a new passage within a few days. Fritz and Marlitt rushed to the Palestine office to protest. They pointed out that they had already shipped their possessions and were almost without funds. Each day they were told to return the following day. Finally Fritz bluffed; he said that he had no more money. The bluff didn't work; the office refunded his passage money. They were off the lists.
Fritz and Marlitt suspected that the officials at the Palestine office had been putting their own relatives and friends on the ships. Nonetheless they told each other, "It's happening for the best." In truth, they had not wanted to emigrate. In spite of everything, they still felt German. They felt that somehow they would get along.
How wrong they had been, they now knew. On September 1, 1941, the Nazis had ordered all Jews older than six to wear a Star of David over their hearts as of September 19. It was a yellow star outlined in black and embroidered with the word Jude. Jews had been crammed together into apartments, sometimes more than twenty to a room. They were forbidden to leave their districts without permission or to be outdoors after evening curfew hours—policies whose underlying purpose became clear once the deportations began. Not only had the Jewish cattle been branded for easy identification, they had been penned into stockades where their captors could cut them out of the herd for the trip to the slaughterhouse.
Excerpted from The Last Jews in Berlin by Leonard Gross. Copyright © 1992 Leonard Gross. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A great read. Very interesting stories about people I had never thought about before.
I bought and read this year's ago when it first came out and have never forgotten it. The powerful stofies, the writer takes your emotions and doesn't let you get away. It's great history for those who aren't familiar with the realities of the worst regime and persecution of the Jews at a time of America's supposed innocence.
Gripping, sad story. Couldnt put this book down!
I was in awe!
Excellent and quick read. Almost like reading an accounting of the apocalypse......hmmm; oh wait, any similarities?