Touching Berlin’s Ghosts

David Meyer tells the poignant story of the Schöneberg residents who unearthed the torturous past of their residential block…

The Vohs as children. Image via the author.

Berlin is a city of perpetual reinvention, but it’s also a place of remembrance. Stolpersteine, tiny brass monuments embedded among the cobblestones, can be found in front of many buildings, memorialising the residents who were killed by the Nazi regime.

Despite its name, a district in Schöneberg called the Bayerisches Viertel, or ‘Bavarian Quarter’, was once a prominent Jewish area. There, dozens of signs for Orte des Erinnerns, places of remembrance, hang from lampposts, bearing strange and seemingly random images of hats, musical notes, envelopes and other oddities.

If you look on the other side of each sign, it all comes together: you will see how the image represents one of the hundreds of anti-Semitic laws that piled up during the 1930s and 1940s. These were the laws that quickly led locals, such as Albert Einstein and Erich Fromm, to flee, eventually leading many more to the gates of the concentration camps.

While they usually stem from some citizen involvement, initiatives such as the Stolpersteine and Orte des Erinnerns have generally been carried out with the participation of the city authorities. At the edge of the Bayerisches Viertel, though, the residents of one building recently unveiled a different kind of memorial: self-funded and very personal, borne from years of their own research.

With no official involvement, those living there today—none of whom have any Jewish heritage themselves—exhumed the terrible history of their homes. This community of residents even located a surviving resident from those dark times, inviting him to fly over to Berlin from his home since the 1940s, the United States.

This survivor, Kurt Landsberger, was only 17 years old when he fled with his mother, brother, and sister to join his father in the United States  (Richard Landsberger, a pharmacist, had briefly been interned at Sachsenhausen but was allowed to leave Germany as he already had a U.S. visa).

When Kurt arrived, he found himself standing before the building where he had spent his teenage years. The pale Altbau still looks as good as new, which is all the more remarkable considering a World War Two bomb had obliterated its neighbour. Two floors up from the typically grand foyer is the apartment where his uncle, Heinz Aronheim, often played the piano. Aronheim had a Christian girlfriend and was arrested in 1938 for ‘racial defilement’. He was killed at Dachau at the age of 33, following medical experimentation.

“Those were very difficult times,” Kurt Landsberger, now almost 90 years old but still speaking with a heavy German accent, said after the unveiling. “This is an important project, and I admire the people that really went after this.”

The external plaque at 26 Apostel-Paulus Strasse is accompanied by a board inside the hallway, listing the names of an astonishing 28 Jewish men, women and children who had once lived there, but who had fled or—in the majority of cases—been murdered. The path that led to the telling of their stories began in the spring of 2009, when a couple living in one of the apartments happened to visit an exhibit at the nearby Schöneberg Town Hall.

The display, still there today, is called Wir waren Nachbarn, or ‘We Were Neighbours’. Looking through the albums of old photos there, Stefanie Arnold and Peter Schulz realised that a few early twentieth-century shots showed Jewish people standing on their balcony. “It was a shock – you know these stories about the Holocaust, but then to have for the first time this real connection to the Holocaust, completely out of the blue, was a weird feeling,” Schulz said.

Wondering who the people in the photos were, the couple began to dig. They invited their neighbours to do the same and, to their surprise, almost everyone agreed to participate. It became a community effort of uncovering the truth and making the history of the building’s rooms public and complete.

Kurt Landsberger speaking at the memorial service

One of the neighbours, Gabrielle Pfaff, had had a similar idea in the 1980s, but it met with much less success. Inspired by a temporary exhibit that listed names of locals who had been killed, she had also approached the then-residents of the building to organise deeper research. “They didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” she said. “In the 1980s, the time wasn’t right yet. Now, not only have the times changed, the people in the house have changed as well, and therefore it was possible.”

Arnold and Schulz learned that their apartment, which was below that once inhabited by the Landsbergers, had been home to a family with the names Vohs and Gadiel. The Rothholz-Wollheim family lived next door. The two women shown in the photos on their balcony were friends Hertha Rothholz and Hertha Vohs. Both, it turned out, were ‘deported’ to Auschwitz on 1 March 1943.

“First we went through the official address lists,” Schulz said, explaining how the research was aided by the Nazis’ mania for documentation. “Each year the city of Berlin published a list of all properties. The problem with these lists was only the head of the household was listed, but it was a good starting point.”

“In the late 1930s, due to the race laws of Nuremburg, every Jewish man had to carry the name Israel and every Jewish female had to carry the name Sara, as a second name. So you could immediately tell who of these people were Jewish and, if you went further, you could tell from these lists how the repression got worse. For instance, 1939: ‘Rothholz, E, merchant’. Then 1940: ‘Rothholz, E, merchant’s assistant’. Then in 1941: ‘Rothholz, E Israel, roadworker’.”

Eduard Rothholz had a brother, Siegfried, who had managed to escape to England in 1938 or 1939. As Schulz and Arnold learned, Sigi was declared a ‘hostile alien’ when war broke out with Germany, and was shipped to an Australian internment camp. “The real irony of history is that the British and Americans didn’t really distinguish between refugees who had fled Nazi Germany and Nazis,” Schulz said, pointing out that both aggressor and victim were sometimes interned together.

Remarkably, Schulz and Arnold found letters exchanged between Siegfried and Eduard. Those sent from Australia to Germany were vague and inconsequential, as they would have had to pass the internment camp’s censors. “But the letters from Eduard and his wife and son to Siegfried were much more telling,” Schulz said. “They clearly expected to be deported at any time. Hertha, Eduard’s wife, would write things like: ‘We might change our address. I am working in a factory now. Wolfi has grown a lot but his tender nature leaves us constantly worried’. By 1943, I think Siegfried knew what it meant.”

It was the last letter Siegfried would receive from his family in Berlin. Schulz and Arnold were only able to read it because, years later, Siegfried had to send it as evidence to the German authorities when claiming compensation. Survivors could claim compensation not for the deaths of their loved ones, but for the earnings lost as a result of them being dead. “He got 7,000 German Marks for the entire family being erased, after 16 years of struggling,” Schulz said. “They initially lost their cases for a bizarre reason – the judge argued that they had to prove they were the heirs of Eduard Rothholz, and said ‘Prove first that Hertha and Wolfie are not alive anymore’. They went to Auschwitz!”

Kurt Landsberger was extremely lucky to avoid being sent to a concentration camp himself, as the Gestapo came for him just three weeks after he left. “We were glad to get out,” he recalled. “We had to leave everything behind, including our relatives. My uncle [Franz, murdered soon after] stayed in the building. All of our family friends were gone because everybody was moving. Everybody was chased. Some left to South America, some to Shanghai. People left for all over the world. They just wanted to get away.”

The memorial inside the hallway at 26 Apostel-Paulus Strasse, Schöneberg.

Margot Vohs was one of those who left to South America. Having escaped to Denmark in 1939, in 1943 she was spirited across the Baltic Sea to Sweden by fishermen. She ended up in Peru. Now infirm, she did not attend the memorial’s unveiling. Her daughter Irene Bernfeld, however, was present with her brother and daughters. She gave a speech on her mother’s behalf.

“This speech was very difficult for me because I put myself in my mother’s position, and I tried to speak the words my mother would have spoken – but I think I mitigated them a bit, because my mother probably would not have been very kind,” Bernfeld said afterwards. “It’s a wound that is never going to heal. There are memories that are never going to fade, and they harbour a lot of resentment. You can’t blame them. They killed her entire family.”

But, while Margot Vohs is still bitter, her daughter was grateful for the Germans’ gesture. “Personally I think it’s a very noble thing that they have done,” she said. “It’s wonderful that they have honoured the memory of those people that lived in that building. It shows respect towards the deceased, regardless of whether they were Jews or not Jews. And I think it’s really a wonderful project they’ve embarked upon, to honour those people who died, and I hope it goes beyond just those living in one neighbourhood – there were also other people who were killed.”

Separately but similarly, both Landsberger and Bernfeld stressed that the Holocaust, while astonishing in its scale and methodology, was not an isolated incident. “To a certain point, the youth is being educated about what has happened, and I hope… it’s wishful thinking, because the wars continue,” Landsberger sighed. “The atrocities that happened then are repeated again. Go look at what goes on in Afghanistan and Iraq. I had hoped that people have learned to tolerate other people and not constantly fight and kill each other.”

Pfaff sees the act of remembrance as a noble endeavor in itself:  “If you research or write or speak about the people who were deported or who fled, you give them a face again, you lift them out of oblivion. You prevent them being forgotten forever.”

Schulz, Arnold, Pfaff and their neighbours hope projects such as theirs can make a difference. “It’s as important as it has always been since 1945 to keep hammering it in, that this is part of our history. This is a statement that we have all agreed to have that plate out there, and all of us will do our best to prevent it from happening again,” Schulz said. “There’s hardly one building, not one road, not one neighbourhood, where this didn’t happen.”

All photographs by David Meyer

Those remembered at 26 Apostel-Paulus Strasse are:

• Cäcilie Gadiel,, b. 10.12.1874, deported 14.9.1942 to Theresienstadt
• Moritz Gadiel, b. 7.10.1869, deported 14.9.1942 to Theresienstadt
• Hertha Vohs, b. 13.1.1899, deported 1.3.1943 to Auschwitz
• Werner Vohs, b. 21.1.1926, deported 17.5.1943 to Auschwitz
• Hans Vohs, b. 4.7.1922, fled in 1939
• Margot Vohs, b. 28.7.1924, fled in 1939
• Bertha Hillel, b. 1.8.1863, deported 14.9.1942 to Theresienstadt
• Julius Hillel, b. 12.6.1866, deported 14.9.1942 to Theresienstadt
• Luise Hillel, b. 6.4.1893, deported 3.3.1943 to Auschwitz
• Dorothea Hillel, b. 21.2.1895, deported 3.3.1943 to Auschwitz
• Johanna Hillel, b. 13.9.1897, deported 5.9.1942 to Riga
• Albert Kaatz, b. 19.2.1872, died in the building on 31.12.1942
• Sophie Kaatz, b. 7.5.1877, deported 17.3.1943 to Theresienstadt
• Franz Landsberger, b.2.5.1880, deported 26.9.1942 to Raasiku
• Richard Landsberger, b. 15.7.1884, fled in 1939
• Johanna Landsberger, b. 17.8.1899, fled in 1940
• Heinz Aronheim, b. 12.2.1909, detained at Sachsenhausen and Dachau
• Kurt Landsberger, b.27,5,1922, fled in 1940
• Gerd Landsberger, b. 29.7.1924, fled in 1940
• Inge Landsberger, b. 29.7.1924, fled in 1940
• Johanna Lindenberg, b. 8.3.1884, deported 17.11.1941 to Kowno
• Hermann Lindenberg, b. 24.12.1888, deported 17.11.1941 to Kowno
• Frieda Wollheim, b. 18.10.1871, deported 1.9.1942 to Theresienstadt
• Hertha Rothholz, b. 1.11.1898, deported 1.3.1943 to Auschwitz
• Eduard Rothholz, b. 31.1.1897, deported 1.3.1943 to Auschwitz
• Wolfgang Rothholz, b. 15.5.1931, deported 1.3.1943 to Auschwitz
• Charlotte Prager, b. 21.4.1906, deported 6.3.1943 to Auschwitz
• Israel Bakel, b. 13.6.1876, deported 8.9.1942 to Theresienstadt then Treblinka

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