Refugees from Nazism, now tourists in their homeland, find all has changed Former Berliners recall fearful flight

July 12, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- The old and middle-aged people come into the great banquet hall as tourists in the land where they grew up, strangers in the city where they were born.

They had left Berlin as pariahs during the Nazi era, driven out by hate and prejudice, most of them Jews, a few of them political refugees. They come back as guests of the city, some reluctantly, many curious and nostalgic, almost all wary.

"When I meet someone here five or 10 years older then I am, I can't help wondering how many Jews did he kill," said Margit Hamosh, a 59-year-old biochemist from Bethesda, Md. She teaches at Georgetown University in Washington.

A specialist in pediatrics, Mrs. Hamosh has lectured many times in Germany. The feeling doesn't change, she says.

"Sometimes I will even ask, because I am not bashful," she said. "Well, they say, 'I was doing this and doing that. I was in the army.' What type of army? I ask. Nothing wrong to ask. It's a touchy subject.

"I think what happened in Germany in the Nazi period can happen anywhere at any time. I think we should use that as a lesson and not let it happen again."

Mrs. Hamosh was a child of three when her family left Germany in 1936, three years after Adolf Hitler assumed power. She's a brisk handsome woman with hair slightly disheveled from a morning boat tour.

Berlin, like many German cities, has had for many years a program to encourage weeklong visits by former citizens who fled Nazism.

This group of about 300 has come now to the Schoenberg district hall for a buffet lunch. John F. Kennedy made his "I am a Berliner" speech from the portico of this building. The square out front is called John F. Kennedy Platz.

Mrs. Hamosh is accompanying her mother, Clara Segenreich, who is returning for the first time since they left. They're sitting at a table with their new friend, Lillyan Schacht, from New York. There's a great bouquet of roses on the table, and on the walls high overhead are murals with pastoral scenes from an earlier, less guilty time.

"We found the street where we lived," Mrs. Hamosh said. "It was in East Berlin. My mother couldn't recognize it."

Mrs. Segenreich wears big dark glasses as if to shield her eyes from a time she says was too terrible to remember.

"I can tell you one thing. I find all very, very changed in Berlin," she said. "My street was a broad, wonderful street. Both sides had wonderful trees. Now it's changed. It's a little street. The new houses look already 200 years old. Nothing, nothing, nothing to see from this street.

"My family from my father's side and from my mother's side was a very big family, grandchildren, nephews, cousins, aunts. More than 200 persons were killed from my family."

The Berlin of their youth has vanished without a trace for most of the people here.

"I should remember," said Aaron Alexander, who now lives in Jerusalem. "I went to the place where I used to live. The house just doesn't stand there.

"I went to the place I went to school, which doesn't stand anymore. And that's it."

He's a vigorous, blunt man of 69 with a level gaze.

"I left alone," he said. He went to Palestine in 1938 on what was called a youth aliya, an "in-bringing" of young people from Nazi Germany. He was 15.

"My mother followed. My father not. He was murdered in Auschwitz."

He and his wife, Miriam, who fled from Austria, were persuaded to come on this trip by their son, Gabriel, who's writing a history of the Jewish community in the Berlin of the '20s and '30s.

"He didn't want to come," Gabriel Alexander said. "I thought it right he should see it once more."

His father recognizes only the monuments in today's Berlin.

"Nothing personal," Aaron Alexander said. "I feel nothing special."

He and his wife say they are very grateful for the opportunity to come. They like the German generation of today.

As for the elders, they don't ask them what they did during the period of the Holocaust.

"If they say they didn't know, I don't want to hear that, " Mrs. Alexander said. "I know they are lying, and I don't want to hear their lies. I'm very careful not to ask."

Mrs. Schacht fled Berlin with her mother in June 1940, perilously late for Jews to be leaving Nazi Germany. They embarked on one of those remarkable journeys of refugees in the 20th century. They traveled through Poland, Russia and Siberia to Japan and the United States.

"I wasn't so much frightened as relieved to be out of Germany," she said. She was 12 years old.

There were 200,000 Jews in Berlin when the Nazis came to power. There are perhaps 10,000 now.

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