Monday, April 21, 2014
Peter Wyden (1923-1998), who later regretted changing his last name from Weidenrich, was a German-born Jewish journalist who emigrated from Berlin, Germany with his parents to the US in 1937. Because of restrictions against Jewish students, he attended the Jewish Goldschmidt School in Berlin with other Jewish Berliners whose parents either hadn’t planned to emigrate, thinking that the Hitler would get his comeuppance soon, or who were trying to emigrate. Luckily, Wyden's father had a life insurance policy whose surrender value could be paid out in dollars and, because his mother was insistent, they had started getting their documents in 1935.
One fellow student at the Goldschmidt School who became notorious during the war was Stella Goldschlag, a stunning vivacious blonde, the only child of doting parents. She became one of a number of greifers, Jewish catchers for the Gestapo, hunting down and turning in “U-Boats” – the term for Jews who were in hiding. She was the most notorious greifer, nicknamed the Blonde Poison. After the war she was tried, served her time, and then retreated to the anonymity of a location outside of Berlin. Although Wyden had escaped from Germany before the war and hadn’t personally suffered from Stella’s behavior, he remembered her well, and many years later he tracked her down and interviewed her extensively, the last time in 1991.
This informative and thoughtful book takes a close look at Berlin before and during the war, setting the scene that made Stella’s treachery possible and tracing her behavior. He wants to learn all about Stella and her activities. He conducts research in English and in his native German which includes reading trial testimony, interviewing survivors and experts, and eventually interviewing Stella. He is pre-occupied with what it means to be a collaborator and what would drive someone who is Jewish to collaborate with the Nazis. He is willing to give Stella the benefit of the doubt, positing a number of rationales for her behavior. The most important one he cites is that the Nazis manipulate Stella by telling her that if she works for them they won’t deport her parents. But this only explains how Stella falls into being a greifer. Eventually her parents are deported – she refuses for the longest time to accept that they are dead – and continues her work as a greifer right through to the end of the war. You could make an argument that through the rest of the war she is protecting herself.
In fact, many of the survivors the author interviews seem far less willing to condemn Stella than the writer is. Through his discussions and reading, he demonstrates that there are many versions and potential versions of collaborating and that collaborating with the enemy is difficult to define in many cases. Were Jewish doctors collaborators who worked at the clinics in camps and ghettos and who helped decide who was too sick to recover and should be put on the next transport? What about members of the Jewish councils who were often forced to make up the deportation lists? And what about the Jewish kapos whose job it was to enforce the rules and to keep order in the camps and ghettos? What about the Jews who were assigned to work in munitions factories helping the war effort? How do we make distinctions that exonerate some but condemn others?
Wyden’s book is very provocative and thoughtful about these extremely stressful life or death situations. Aside from discussing collaborators, he brings up many morally ambiguous examples of Jews just trying to stay alive. Some were able to bribe officials to get themselves out of the country, or to get their names off of deportation lists, or to get jobs that would protect them from immediate deportation. There were members of the Jewish councils who crossed names off of lists because people they knew came to plead with them and they then had to send others in their places. Some managed to get food or contraband from secret sources.
Over and over, the survivors Wyden interviewed were not willing to say that Stella should have been shot. And they reminded Wyden that because he was able to get out, he hadn’t been tested.
This book includes photos, a List of Interviewees, a Note on Sources, a Select Bibliography, and an Index.
Click here to read a posted review on this blog of Cioma Schonhaus's memoir The Forger: http://compellingjewishstories.blogspot.com/2014/04/the-forger-extraordinary-story-of.html
To access a cite that has contemporary photos and eye-witness accounts of what happened in Berlin during World War II, click here.
To read an article about the moral dilemmas faced by Jewish doctors in camps and ghettos, click here.
Erich Weidenreich – son of Maximilian; married Helen (Leni) Silberstein (Stein)
Peter Wyden – son of Erich and Helen
Ronald Wyden – son of Peter
Franz Weidenreich – son of Maximillian
Max Brahn – uncle ?
Richard Weidenreich – son of Maximilian; married to Marie
Siegfried and Walter Weidenreich – sons of Richard and Marie
Carl Silberstein – son-in-law of Rafael`
Helen Silberstein – daughter of Carl
Ursula Finke – distant cousin
Hans Finke – brother of Ursula
Friends and Acquaintances
Lili Baumann (Hart)
Margot Beck – twin sister of Gad
Jancsi Bekessy (Hans Habe)
Natan and Ursula Celnik
Elie A. Cohen
Ernst and Erwin Cramer
Marion Dann (Weiner)
Marion Ehrlich – daughter of Gerd
Marion Ehrlich – sister of Gerd
Leopold Adolphus Ellenburg – cousin of Gerhard Goldschlag
Peter Froelich (Gay)
Szloma and Julia Gejdenson
Sam Gejdenson – son of Szloma and Julia
Gerhard and Toni Goldschlag
Stella Goldschlag – daughter of Gerhard and Toni – married to Manfred Kubler
Yvonne Meissl – daughter of Stella
Ernst and Lenore Goldschmidt
Rudi Goldschmidt – son of Ernst and Lenore
Ernst and Herta Goldstein
Heinz Guenhaus (Harold Greene)
Moritz and Hildegard Henschel
Abel J. Herzberg
Eric Homburger (Erikson)
Heinz Holstein – brother of Hans
Rolf Isaakson – son of Gertrud; second husband of Stella Goldschlag
Inge Jacoby (Reitz)
Heinz (Henry) Kissinger
Frieda de Klein
Kurt and Nanette Kubler
Manfred Kubler - son of Kurt and Nanette; first husband of Stella Goldschlag
Edith Latte (Wendt)
Robert Jay Lifton
Hans Oskar DeWitt Loewenstein
Heinz (Heino) Meissl
Dr. Herschel (Heinrich) von Neumann
Georg and Lotte Nomberg
Fredi Nomberg (Yair Noam) – son of George and Lotte
Harry Nomberg – son of Georg and Lotte; married to Beatrice
Sharon Nomberg – daughter of Georg and Lotte
Max and Ruth Nussbaum
Marion Sauerbrunn (House)
Cioma Schonhaus (in this book called by the pseudonym Guenther Rogoff)
Karola Ruth Siegel Westheimer
Lore Weinberg (Shelley)
Rudoph Wolf and Hertha Eichelhardt Wolf
Esther Zajdmann (Seidman) – daughter of Abraham
Moritz Zajdmann (Seidman) – son of Abraham
Mislowicz, Upper Silesia
Goldschmidt School, Berlin
Wilmersdorf district, Berlin
Levetzowstrasse Synagogue, Berlin
Monday, April 7, 2014
The Forger: An Extraordinary Story of Survival in Wartime Berlin by Cioma Schonhaus, translated from the German by Alan Bance, edition in English published in 2007
The Forger is fascinating to read. Although it is about Cioma Schonhaus’ distressing story of surviving in Berlin during World War II, the memoir is full of dark, absurdist humor which reflects the personality of the author. Many times observations he makes and the jokes he tells are quotes from his father who lives on in his memory and who serves as a beacon in dangerous times. The humor is undercut by the stressful set of circumstances he finds himself in and by the fact that his father is gone. Schonhaus was only nineteen years old and an only child when both his father and mother were deported.
Schonhaus avoids being deported because he knows people who know people who get him work in a factory that is deemed vital to the war effort. When they finally force him out, through his contacts he joins the resistance where he works as an invaluable graphic artist altering identity cards and passbooks for fellow Jews.
In the course of his work he alters documents for his own use, fashions multiple identities, lives in a series of rooms and apartments, and is constantly inventing and reinventing his life story in order to navigate as safely as possible in the world populated with potential German informers and Nazis. He tries for a bit of normalcy, often eating in restaurants off-limits to Jews, and enjoying the company of women. His intelligence, his high tolerance for danger, and his luck contribute to his surviving the war.
A very interesting and a large part of the story he tells is about the importance of a number of Protestant clergy and their parishioners who worked in the resistance movement as members of the Confessing Church. In doing so they risked their lives to save many Jews, and, in fact, some were caught and were shot; others were jailed. He explains that parishioners handed in their identity cards which they then reported as lost. These documents were then handed over to Schonhaus so that he could alter them. Everyone involved in the process was impressed with his skill.
He also writes about a number of incidents where German citizens, not connected to the resistance movement, protect him. It is clear that, based on his experiences, he wants his readers to know that not every German was out to rid the nation of its Jewish residents. But eventually his identity becomes known, and he escapes by bike to Switzerland despite having been told by any number of people that it would be just about impossible to do because of the thicket of border patrols. Again, due to ingenuity and luck, as well as determination and stamina, he manages to escape into Switzerland. He settles in Basel where he starts a business, marries, and raises a family.
The last chapter consists of a list of many of the people he had known and worked with in Berlin and their ultimate fate.
To watch a thirty minute film interview with Cioma Schonhaus called Oifn Weg, click here.
Enta Marie Berman
Fanja Berman – daughter of Ente Marie; married Boris Schonhaus
Samson (Cioma) Schonhaus – son of Fanja and Boris
Adi Berman – son of Ente Marie
Meier Berman – son of Ente Marie; married to Sophie
Friends and Acquaintances
Walter Prager – married to Nadja
Dorothee Fliess – daughter of Julius
Ruth and Werner Schlesinger
Angelica Kaufmann – daughter of Franz
Rishon LeZion, Israel
Majdanek Concentration Camp, Poland
Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, Czech Republic