berlin | Three weeks ago Gerd Friedeberg walked into the lobby of an old apartment building in Berlin where he’d lived as a young child — more than 70 years ago.
He hadn’t been back to 16 Raumerstrasse since 1939, when his family fled the Nazis and escaped to Shanghai.
“I was 3 years old when we left,” Friedeberg said this week from his home in Windsor, near Santa Rosa. “I’m still trying to process my emotions, to tell you the truth.”
Friedeberg was part of the last official group of former Berlin Jews to be hosted formally by the city as part of a program to sponsor their visits back to their native city. With the number of survivors dwindling, the 41-year-old Invitation Program for Former Persecuted Citizens of Berlin came to an end with the June 2010 trip.
Most visitor programs, begun during the 1960s in German towns and cities, already have shut down. Now only Hamburg’s remains active.
The end of these programs marks a milestone for the survivor generation.
Some 15,000 former Berliners — plus an equal number of family members — have been invited back at German taxpayer expense over the years. Most are Jewish, and mostly from the United States, Israel, Canada, England and South America. The approximately 120 visitors who have come this year have met with politicians and Jewish leaders, visited synagogues and family graves, and sometimes found their former homes.
Friedeberg said the trip “took a lot of soul searching for me.” At first, he wasn’t going to go, but his sister went on the same trip in August 2009 “and told me I must go.”
Friedeberg, born in Berlin in 1936, said his children often complained that he didn’t talk enough about his past, but he always felt he knew too little. “I’m glad I went,” he said. “They [the German organizers and people] treated us just wonderfully.”
Friedeberg made the trip with his wife, Linda, and a cousin from Atlanta who’s his same age. They went into the building’s lobby, courtyard and garden area, but weren’t able to go inside any individual apartments. Neighbors looked on curiously.
Also among the group of former Berlin Jews was Yochanan Asriel, now a Haifa resident. He participated in a ceremony on a street corner where a small, brass plaque was set into the sidewalk. On it was the name of his father: Davicso Asriel, born 1882, deported Jan. 26, 1942, murdered in Riga.
“I am here today,” said Asriel, 85, “to leave a bit of my family behind.”
Rabbi Shlomo Jakobovits, 78, came from Toronto with his wife, Wilma. They visited the synagogue where his father, Julius, had served as rabbi before the family fled to England.
“One day our school principal walked into our classroom and said, ‘Herr Jakobovits, Jude raus’ — Jew, out!” Jakobovits recalled. “I was 6 and didn’t know what was happening. I just went home.”
Ruediger Nemitz, the coordinator of Berlin’s visitor program, began accompanying the Jewish visitors in 1969, when the program began and he was a student.
“When I see the visitors in front of me, I feel a real sadness,” Nemitz said. “It is different to read a book about what happened. But when you see someone who was persecuted as a baby, you can’t understand.”
Friedeberg said that one of the things that struck him most, “from a positive viewpoint, is that the German government is not hiding anything, not sweeping anything under the rug. They are going out of their way to commemorate what happened, with various monuments and school requirements. There are a lot of physical memories; they’re not hiding anything.”
Friedeberg said he experienced his most profound emotions at the Grunewald train station in an affluent district of Berlin. “It’s one of three places that Jews were put into cattle cars,” he said. “That emotionally was the place that touched me the most.”
Emotions can run high on such trips, and just putting a hand on someone’s arm “shows we feel with them, it shows that they are not alone in their sadness,” said Carola Meinhardt, who coordinates the program in Hamburg. She expects the program will shift toward a greater emphasis on the younger generation.
In Berlin, Mayor Klaus Wowereit said a decision must be made soon about how to transition the program now that the survivors themselves are no longer coming.
“If you have the chance to talk to these people, it is so emotional and so important,” he said.
“As long as there are survivors who want to come, the program should continue,” said Lala Suesskind, president of Berlin’s Jewish community.
In fact, Nemitz said, those who wish to revisit for the first time will be invited back, just no longer as part of a group.
Staff writer Andy Altman-Ohr contributed to this report.