World War II – Jewish Hospital in Berlin

Extract from the book “Refuge in Hell: How Berlin’s Jewish Hospital Outlasted the Nazis” by Daniel B. Silver.

“You are Jews? Not possible!”  That was the typical reaction of  Russian soldiers during the capitulation  of Berlin in April 5705/1945 when  they came across about 800 Jews still  sheltering within the walls of Berlin’s  Jewish hospital as the Third Reich neared  its end. Somehow, the Nazis had failed to  obliterate them. Somehow the Nazis had  failed to obliterate the inscription on the  hospital’s administrative building that  remains there till this day: “Krankenaus  der Judischen Gemeinde,” Hospital of  the Jewish Community. 

As if in mockery of the Nazi goal of  ridding Europe of the Jews, thousands of  Jews had survived in Berlin, the nexus of  Nazi terror, even though their numbers  had shrunk drastically as was testified  by the text of a banner carried by Jewish protesters after the war:

“Judische Gemeinde zu Berlin  (Jewish Community of Berlin), 1933 –  186,000, 1945 – 5,100.”

It cannot be denied that many of  these Jewish survivors were Jewish  only by virtue of Nazi definition, nor  can it be denied that the majority of  them were half-Jews, or assimilated and  intermarried Jews whom the Nazis had  been less enthusiastic to exterminate  due to their direct relationship to  hundreds of thousands of Germans.

After all, not every German relished  seeing a cousin or brother-in-law carted  off to a concentration camp. Towards  them, Nazi policy remained ambivalent  despite the insistence of hard-liners that  no exceptions should be allowed.

However, at least 162 of the Berlin  survivors, most of them sheltering in  the Jewish hospital, were one hundred  percent, unassimilated Jews.

There were Dr. Helmuth Cohen,  his wife Meta, and their daughter Eva,  and there were the administrator Ehrich  Zwilsky, his wife, and their son Klaus,  whose bar mitzvah was the first to be  celebrated in Berlin after the war. Klaus  remembered how his mother baked  matzos in the hospital during those years  in defiance of Nazi regulations.

“One of my vivid memories is of  her baking matzah at Passover,” he  reminisced. “She would roll out the  dough and used the top of a salt shaker to  make holes… My job was to stand guard  outside the apartment to let her know  whether anyone was coming, especially  anyone looking like Gestapo. To this day  I marvel at her courage…”

Another survivor, Bruno Blau, had  similar memories of Jewish mesirus  nefesh:  “From time to time on holidays, on  special Sabbaths, and after the fortunate  conclusion of a heavy bombing raid, in  complete secrecy minyanim gathered  in the hospital, in director Neuman’s  apartment, to which ten occupants of  the hospital were invited through special  trustworthy people. I, too, had the  opportunity to participate in them. We  had to go there as inconspicuously as  possible, and after the conclusion of the  minyan return to our rooms separately,  in part using the cellar corridors.”

The hospital had a number of  departments, each one with its own  category of survivor. There was the bona  fide hospital. There was the Extrastation  (special ward) where perfectly healthy  privileged Jews were allowed to live  in peace, there was thePolizeistation  where a handful of sick Jewish prisoners  were allowed to convalesce for reasons  unclear to anyone except their captors,  and there was the deadly Samellager where Jews were imprisoned before  being exiled to the east.

A survivor of the latter department,  Dr. Ernst Eichengrun was the genius  working at Germany’s Bayer chemistry  works who had invented aspirin. After  his expulsion to Thierezenstadt, Bayer  set up a laboratory for him in order to  enable him to continue his research for  their benefit.

Other Jews in the hospital were kept  on ice in order to be exchanged for  German nationals interned by the British  in Palestine. And completing the roster  of survivors were sixty orphans who  somehow made it to the end of the war.

In charge of the hospital was the  brilliant but notorious Dr. Walter Lustig,  an assimilated Jew who headed the place  not out of choice, but because it was his  ticket to survival after the Nuremberg  Laws stripped his right to serve at non-  Jewish hospitals and every other Jewish  hospital closed down. Among his myriad  duties was deciding, on behalf of the  Nazi overlords, who among his staff and  patients would live and who would die.  “Everyone lived in absolute dread of  him…., he was very clever, a very clever  man,” hospital secretary Eva Beleski  recalled. “But he wasn’t terribly liked  because of the temper. We had to type  out these lists of the people who were  going to be taken away. And one mistake  and he was in a rage.” 

At the beginning of 5703/1943, the  Nazis deported the majority of Berlin’s  Jews in theFabrikaktion, the deportation  of the Jewish factory workers whom  Industry Minister Albert Speer had  spared until then. This deportation is  famous for the famousFrauenprotest,  the public protest of wives and Aryan  relatives of half-Jews who protested for  days against the deportation of their close  relatives, one of the few occasions when  the German public publicly objected to  mass murder.

Josef Goebbels, who besides his job  as Minister of Propaganda also served as  Gauleiter (governor) of Berlin, eventually  caved in and halted the deportation of a  few thousand mischlings:

“Shacht gave me a long lecture about  the current situation in Berlin after the  last air raid,” he recorded in his diary.  “It is extremely serious. The damage  done to the capital is very great and we  judge that it will take six to eight months  before things are half way restored. Just  at that moment, the SD (security service)  thought it was the right time to continue  the evacuation of the Jews.

“Some rather unpleasant scenes  took place before the [former] Jewish  old age home where the population  had assembled in large numbers and  even sided with the Jews. I shall give  an order to the SD not to continue the  evacuation of the Jews at such a critical  time. We should wait a few more weeks  and then carry out the operation more  thoroughly.”

During air raids like that mentioned by  Goebbels, the hospital was left to its own  resources since the Berlin fire department  did not regard itself responsible for  protecting Jewish property. Protecting  the hospital was left to the hospital’s  Nachtwache whose chief job was to  extinguish incendiary bombs before they  burnt the place to the ground. In between  raids, hospital workers repaired bomb  damage with materials scrounged from  nearby bombed-out buildings, as no one  was interested in supplying building  materials to Jews.

Around the time of the Fabrikaktion,  the hospital was almost closed down  for good when ten Gestapo and police  officials marched into Director Lustig’s  office and a large contingent of Gestapo  trucks drew up outside the Jewish  hospital in order to cart away the staff  and patients. At this critical moment,  Lustig executed a brilliant maneuver. The  Gestapo officials in his office had been  sent by the Berlin Gestapo headquarters,  while the hospital was actually under  the jurisdiction of the Jewish affairs  department of the RSHA (Reich Security  Head Office, a subordinate organization  of the SS), headed by Adolf Eichman.

Phoning up Eichman’s office,  Lustig explained to Eichman’s people  what was going on and then handed  the phone to the officials crowding his  room. Although the hospital survived,  fifty percent of its personnel were later  deported with their families. All in all,  less than twenty nurses served at the  hospital from beginning to end and  about twelve doctors. Most of the others  were deported over the years, together  with thousands of the hospital’s inmates.

Survivors were traumatized forever.

“Can you understand how it was  here?” Meta Cohen wrote in December  5705/1945. “Every time a piece of our  hearts left with them, and the fear that the  next time it would be one of us. As for  our plans… we are certain of only one  thing: to leave this ghastly country.” 

THANKSGIVING    About a month after the hospital’s  liberation, a group of Jews gathered in  the hospital offices to thank Hashem for  their salvation.

On May 6th, Bruno Blau remembers,  “the chief rabbi of the Polish army,  Kahane, who had arrived in Berlin with  the Red Army, gathered around him  a group of Jews in the rooms of the  Reichsvereinigung (Jewish community  organization). Although the event was  completely improvised, the room was  not big enough to hold the deeply moved  multitude; part of those who had come  had to remain in the adjoining rooms  and hallways.

“First the rabbi said Mincha… In  remembrance of the victims, the chazzan,  who also belonged to the Polish army,  sang Kel Molei Rachamim, which was  interrupted by the sobs of the stirred  listeners.”

How did the Nazis allow the hospital  to persist in their midst? Daniel B.  Silver, author ofRefuge in Hell, lists a  number of theories and rejects them. He  rejects the notion that the Nazis used it  as a showpiece of humanitarianism, or  that they preserved it in order to avail  themselves of its medical personnel. He  also rejects theories that its purpose was  to prevent epidemics or to provide easy,  safe jobs for German officers.

One strange theory that he regards  more reasonable is that the Gestapo  allowed the hospital to survive in order  to keep their grip on its buildings. During  5702/1942 the Jewish community had  been compelled to transfer ownership  of its buildings toAkademie, a non-influential unit of Germany’s medical  establishment. In order, to prevent  anyone else from taking over the place,  the Gestapo and RSHA (that were in  charge of the hospital) maintained the  hospital’s Jewish presence until the  bitter end.

The truth is that there is no clear  answer except the unanimous opinion  of most of the survivors: “It was a  miracle!”

(Source: Silver, Daniel B. Refuge  in Hell. How Berlin’s Jewish Hospital  Outlasted the Nazis. New York:  Houghton Miffl in Company, 2003.)

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