A Berlin family’s Irish refuge

Weekend Read: In 1933, when Nazism made life unbearable for the Jewish Abraham Wyszniak, he fled the German capital – and ended up in Ireland. Recently, his grandchildren returned to the city

 

A crowd of 30 people has gathered on the broad pavement outside an apartment building on a Berlin side street. The cream building is occupied, on the ground floor, by a hairdresser and a French restaurant offering baked artichokes as the daily special.

As a cross-town train rattles past overhead all eyes follow a kneeling, tattooed workman in dirty orange dungarees as he whacks a mallet against the pavement. A ringing sound echoes up, as bright as the five brass squares he has just set into the pavement, each containing an engraved name.

A middle-aged man with a round face and grey beard, in a wide-brimmed black hat, steps forward and introduces himself to the expectant faces.

“I’m Edwin Shorts, and my mother . . .”

His voice fails. Eyes fill up and throats choke. On a sunny spring afternoon in Berlin, ghosts are watching us.

*****

Bleibtreustrasse, just off the Kurfürstendamm boulevard, is one of Berlin’s most beautiful streets, an elegant stretch of cobblestones lined with mature trees and spacious apartment blocks from the early 1900s. Streets like this are 10 a penny in Paris or Vienna but not in Berlin, where war, division and radical urban planning shredded the original, orderly streetscapes into an untidy collage of concrete scar tissue.

But squint your eyes and time seems to have stood still on Bleibtreustrasse – appropriately enough, given its name. Although it honours the painter Georg Bleibtreu, the name translates literally as Remain Faithful Street.

With a perfect Berlin mix of dusty antique shops, lazy cafes and late bars, Bleibtreustrasse has remained true to itself. But eight decades ago this street and its residents betrayed too many neighbours to mention.

Whenever I walk up and down Bleibtreustrasse – which I do several times a week – I think of the people who should be here but aren’t. Even on a balmy summer day you are liable to catch a chill if your eye is caught by the brassy glare of the Holocaust at your feet.

Up and down this street, and all surrounding streets, are dozens of Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones”. Laid flush with the pavement before apartment doors, these square brass plaques have been inlaid by today’s residents to remember vanished former neighbours.

The artist Gunter Demnig laid the first of these plaques officially in 1996, as a small tribute to a big evil. Today there are 56,000 all over Germany, remembering victims of Nazi persecution, mostly Jews. Each Stolpersteine contains a name, date of birth and date and circumstances of death – or flight from death.

Betrayal

Before the Nazis, about 160,000 Jews lived in Berlin. About a third settled in the newer, western Charlottenburg district around Bleibtreustrasse. These doctors, scientists, lawyers and artists favoured the broader boulevards – and minds – of Berlin’s west end. By the early 1930s these middle-class Jewish families were so integrated into the fabric of German life that few could imagine the looming betrayal.

Of Berlin’s 6,500 Stolpersteine almost half are in this part of town. On Bleibtreustrasse they remember betrayed neighbours such as Mascha Kaléko, a poet with the looks of a silent-film star who lived at Bleibtreustrasse 10. She fled Germany in 1938, when her works were banned. Or Gotthard Laske, a confectioner and prominent Berlin bibliophile, who lived at number 12 until he took his life, in 1936; his wife, Nelly, was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943.

At number 15 lived the celebrated Austrian actor Tilla Durieux; she fled in 1933 with her Jewish husband. Alfred Flechtheim, an important dealer in avant-garde art, who fled to London and died destitute, lived in the same building.

*****

Beyond the railway bridge, in the first house on the left – number seven, second floor – lived the Wyszniaks.

Abraham Wyszniak was a diamond merchant from Warsaw who moved to Berlin with his wife, Dvora, in 1918. The new Weimar Republic capital was a centre of European cultural and economic life, and the young couple saw here great opportunities for their three daughters, Gina, Sabine and, later, Asta.

Many years later Sabine could still remember the buzz on Bleibtreustrasse and the elegant crowds in cafes on nearby Savignyplatz, where she and a friend would do the rounds with their autograph books. “You would see all the film stars there, like Marlene Dietrich,” she wrote decades later. “There were no airs or graces about anyone.”

Perhaps it was the Dietrich influence, but a teenage Sabine discovered that she could sing. When she announced at home that she wanted to become a performer her religious father was horrified. Singers were morally dubious figures, he thought, and the stage no place for a nice Jewish girl.

But Sabine was a strong-willed teenager, and she wore down her father until he agreed to piano lessons. Life in Berlin was good for the Wyszniaks.

But things fell apart quickly when the Nazis took power, in 1933.

A latent anti-Semitism, simmering under the surface for years, burst into the open with a state-sponsored open season on Jews.

Although their campaign against German Jews was began slowly, the Nazis went straight to work in 1933 persecuting foreign Jews such as Abraham Wyszniak. He was often beaten by roaming Nazi gangs and thrown in jail. After one particularly brutal beating he lost the sight in one eye. Eventually a lawyer friend warned him that he couldn’t keep bailing him out, and in May 1933 Wyszniak left for Warsaw.

Back in Berlin his daughter Sabine soon learned what being Jewish meant in the Third Reich. A visit to a friend’s house ended abruptly when the mother said: “I don’t want to see you here again.”

Decades later Edwin Shorts can still remember the wide-eyed shock in his mother’s face as she recalled the moment, standing frozen on a Berlin street, that the wrecking ball of betrayal crashed in and smashed her world. She rushed home in tears to tell her mother what had happened.

The Wyszniaks’ life in Berlin ended in July 1933, just half a year after Adolf Hitler came to power. Sabine and her mother had returned late from buying shoes to hear from a neighbour that a group of men in leather coats – the Gestapo – had been looking for them.

Sabine’s mother ordered her daughters to pack. An hour later, carrying as much as they could, Sabine got into a taxi with her mother and younger sister, Asta. At the station they boarded a train east to Warsaw and to a family whom Sabine barely knew, and who spoke an alien language.

Old life evaporated

In just an hour her old life – and the security of Berlin – had evaporated. “I felt deeply and emotionally hurt that this could happen to us,” Sabine later told the journalist Mary Rose Doorly. “I was 16, and when you’re that age you have dreams about the future and what you want to do. I no longer had any say in the matter.”

Life in Poland was not only alien: cultural anti-Semitism meant it was, increasingly, just as dangerous for Jews as Germany was.

Determined to get his family to safety, Abraham Wyszniak left for Prague. As a stateless person he was forced to keep moving: to Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Britain. Ireland was the only country that allowed him to stay as a refugee.

Back in Berlin new residents had swooped on the coveted Altbau apartments on Bleibtreustrasse, vacated by vanishing Jewish families. At number 4 lived Hermann Fegelein, a Waffen SS general who would later oversee the first wartime extermination of entire Jewish communities in Ukraine. He was married to Gretl Braun, sister of Eva, the later Mrs Hitler.

*****

In 1938, as the dictator extended his grip on Austria and the Sudetenland, Sabine’s father, Abraham Wyszniak, stepped up his efforts to get his family out of mainland Europe, one by one.

His oldest daughter, Gina, had left Germany for Palestine in 1936. His wife and two other daughters were still in Warsaw. From Ireland he sent Sabine a letter about a fictional ailing aunt, telling her to bring it to the British consulate to secure a travel visa.

Seeing the queue outside, the resourceful 22-year-old found a phone and jumped the queue by securing an appointment with a consulate official.

He let her in a side door and took her to his office, where she babbled on about her sick aunt in Ireland, willing him to stamp the visa permit before him.

Edwin Shorts remembers his mother telling him: “His hand drifted left and then right over the form. One direction meant visa granted, the other refusal.”

The stamp came down in the right box; Sabine got her visa and left Warsaw the next day.

After she arrived in Ireland, in December 1938, she began work to get her mother, Dvora, and younger sister, Asta, out, but she never saw them again. A final telegram in 1941 from Dvora, then living in the horrific conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto, was a pitiful plea for help in what she said was a dire situation

Dvora died some time after that; Asta either died with her mother or was murdered in the Majdanek camp, near Lublin.

Three years later, in 1944, Sabine married a London-born furrier named Monty Shorts, and they had two children, Edwin and Ivor. She didn’t teach her sons German; nor did she talk with them much about her wartime experience.

Yet, growing up in Dublin, Edwin and Ivor sensed that a terrible loss weighed on their mother’s mind. “She had so much guilt that she had to leave her sister and mother behind,” Ivor says. “I know she cried about this often, but not in front of us.”

Sabine had escaped but was not yet in safety. She had only a four-week visa; when it expired she was to be deported to Belfast, and she could easily have ended back in Germany. But she remembered later how the department of external affairs official took one look at her and told her not to get on the train. It was her first encounter with Ireland’s elastic approach to rules – a pragmatism that would save her life.

Sabine found a room with a welcoming family on South Circular Road in Dublin. But when she realised that the man of the house was a garda she decided to leave.

Before she could tell him her reason for going – that he was, unwittingly, harbouring an illegal alien – the garda, James Stapleton, gave her a wink and told her she was welcome to stay.

Apologetic judge

There was also an encounter with an apologetic judge who fined her £5 and banned her from working, for living illegally in Ireland. But as she was heading out of the court an immigration official who knew she was supporting herself as a seamstress told her to keep on as she was doing.

“They told me much later that they all knew perfectly well that I was living and working here,” Sabine said later, “but they never said a word.”

Such random acts of kindness must have been overwhelming for a young Berliner used to the unyielding hand of Prussian officialdom, which fitted perfectly in the brutal Nazi-era glove.

With her first life gone Sabine set about building a second one in Dublin. It wasn’t until 1987, half a century after leaving Berlin, that she finally returned. Although this was the city that had shunned her, her sons say she viewed it as home. “Even though she lived over 60 years in Ireland,” says Edwin, “she was still a Berliner.”

He accompanied her on a later trip to Berlin and, when they arrived on Bleibtreustrasse, saw the years fall away from her lined face. Those visits unlocked long-buried feelings, and shortly before Sabine died, in 2001, she began to write her memoirs – something she had put off for years, she wrote, “due to sadness and hidden tears”.

On the first page she said she was writing because she didn’t want to be like other refugees, “who never spoke out and committed emotional suicide”.

Sabine died before she could complete her story, but her sons have some unfinished business in Berlin.

*****

Back at Bleibtreustrasse it’s past noon, and the workmen outside number 7 are quietly cursing the pavement before them. They have dragged every power tool from their truck, but the paving slabs refuse to yield. After a strenuous half-hour they finally lever one aside.

Swiftly, methodically, two men put the five brass panels mounted on concrete cubes in place. They surround the plaques with sand and small paving stones. Then they use a mallet to level it all out. The Stolpersteine are stumbling stones in the symbolic, not literal, sense.

Edwin and Ivor Shorts watch the workman in silence as he clears sand from the newly laid stones with a hand brush. With tender care he uses a cloth to wipe the plaques. Then he stands up and vanishes. Edwin and his wife, Martina, light candles and lay a bunch of white roses.

“My mother and sister had no burial, no grave; they just died so alone,” Sabine wrote in her memoir. “But they should never be nameless anymore and never [be] forgotten by all my dear family.”

 

Abraham, Dvora, Gina, Sabine and Asta have all gone now, but, 83 years after they fled for their lives, they have been reunited where they were happiest, on Bleibtreustrasse. And for Dvora and Asta the brass Stolpersteine are the gravestones they never had.

These are the thoughts in Edwin’s head as he introduces himself to the crowd. A spring of grief shoots to the surface and washes over him. The words won’t come. He takes a deep breath and starts again.

“My mother, Sabine, loved Berlin. Her eyes lit up when she spoke of it. She had a most wonderful time here. But with one hour’s notice they had to leave,” he says, rocking back and forth, his hand cupped on his chin and his voice choking.

“She was one of the lucky ones who escaped to Ireland, and we are only here because of the kindness of Irish officials – a judge, a policeman and others who could have sent her back but didn’t. Her family had to split up, but it is very poignant that they are together again in the place where they had their most happy time.”

Edwin and Ivor stand, dazed, in the moment, surrounded by passersby and neighbours, including tenants of the Wyszniaks’ old building, number 7.

One tenant is Dr Klaus Bätjer. He was born in Bremen the year Sabine fled to Ireland. His childhood memories are of nights in bomb shelters, running through burning buildings and, after his evacuation to the countryside, watching shot-down British pilots being massacred by pitchfork-wielding farmers.

“Even now there is one question that gives me no peace: whether ordinary people could have done more to help families like this,” he says of the Wyszniaks’ fate.

As children of a Holocaust survivor Edwin and Ivor Shorts admit that they have often asked themselves the same question: what would I have done?

“I think our generation has more anger than guilt over what happened, because people here in Berlin didn’t want to know what was happening,” says Ivor, a retired clinical psychologist. “But if I was in the same situation, who’s to know how I would react. Would I sacrifice my life, risk being picked up? We are not all heroes.”

Edwin says that his mother never felt malice or resentment towards the German people who betrayed her – something that was tested when he brought home Martina, a non-Jewish German woman, who would become his wife.

“My mother said to me: ‘You can’t hate a people. You’ll never have peace in the world if you do,’ ” says Edwin, a writer and retired academic who specialised in human-rights law.

As the crowd drifts away the mood lightens and we head for a happy lunch in a nearby restaurant where, legend has it, Marlene Dietrich bid farewell to Berlin. Hopefully the star-struck Sabine would have approved.

Days later, on the phone, Ivor tells me that he returned to the Stolpersteine that evening. While he was there five children gathered around him, gazing curiously at the brass plaques.

“One read out the name ‘Asta’ and . . .” he says, choking up at the idea of his long-dead aunt’s name living again on her old street.

The Wyszniaks didn’t get their old Berlin life back, but their names have been restored to Bleibtreustrasse, and a painful circle has closed.

*****

This would be the tidy, feelgood moment to end this story had I not returned to the apartment block after our lunch. The tea-light candles were still burning, the parched roses starting to wilt. And a lone man in a scruffy anorak was staring down at the plaques. I tell him how they were laid a few hours earlier.

“I think it’s a disgrace,” Klaus says. “I am sick of them always dangling in front of us what we did to them, to get reparations and weapons and everything.”

He points to the plaques for Gina and Abraham, who ended up in Palestine.

“They should know better, after what they went through, but they are doing the same with the Palestinians,” he says.

By “they” I gather he means “the Jews”, by which he means Israel. His argument is that they are all the same – and that they are no better than us.

He rambles on until I interrupt him and ask a question. If it is just the same now as then, where are the Israeli death camps, the gas chambers, the medical experiments, the SS, the Gestapo and the millions of innocent people murdered and shovelled into furnaces?

Stripped of dignity

In a small voice Klaus agrees that it is perhaps not the same after all. So why, I want to know, does he feel provoked by a few brass squares in the pavement?

“My father fell in Russia. We don’t know where or why. I never knew him,” he says quietly. “It bothers me that this is brought up to make us feel guilty when I don’t feel guilty – I was born in 1941 – particularly given what ‘they’ are doing to the Palestinians.”

I tell him that the family here today came from Ireland, not Israel, to remember relatives robbed of their home and stripped of their basic human dignity. I want to tell Klaus: this is about them, not you. But, 71 years after the second World War ended, I realise that this is about people like him.

The candles flicker on, but our conversation is going nowhere. I express my condolences for the father he never knew and suggest that we agree to differ.

I stalk off down Bleibtreustrasse, a street that is blessed and doomed to stay true to itself. It’s days before my mood lightens again, after I stumble across a few lines by Mascha Kaléko, the poet from 10 Bleibtreustrasse. Her words could have been written for Sabine Wyszniak, a girl she perhaps once passed on the street, a woman saved by fate – and by Ireland.

Man braucht nur eine Insel
Allein im weiten Meer
Man braucht nur einen Menschen
den aber braucht man sehr

You only need an island
Alone in the wide sea
You only need one person
Without whom you cannot be

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