A chance meeting with a Holocaust survivor at a remarkable exhibition in Berlin.
Jan. 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Hanni Levy and her daughter Nicole
BERLIN—Hanni Levy doesn't live here anymore. She hasn't for decades. When it was her home, the city was in ruins. Whole blocks had been flattened; buildings were crushed like toys. Hanni couldn't quite believe that her hiding place, the apartment she'd lived in for the last two years of the war, was still standing, but it was never hit in all the bombings, even though, each time the planes came, she was sure she would return after the raid to find nothing left. When the Allies arrived, Hanni went to work for the Americans and picked up a bit of English. They needed a native German speaker, preferably someone who hadn't been a Nazi. She was the perfect fit; a Jew. For a long time, she struggled to retrieve her own name, it had been so well-erased in hiding. It was 1946 when she left the city for good, though she's been back dozens of times since. Unlike most Jews who survived the Holocaust, Hanni has plenty of good things to say about her years under Nazi occupation. And that has everything to do with why she's in Berlin's Mitte neighborhood today. She has come to speak to Dr. Beate Kosmala.
Kosmala is very, very quiet. Blond and bespectacled, she walks lightly, speaks softly; her presence is unobtrusive to the point of nearly being absent. It is as though she fears she will distract visitors. She is a senior researcher at the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand—the German Resistance Memorial Center, a kind of umbrella organization that funds several small museums and a clutch of historians who quietly toil away on projects dedicated to exposing pockets of good that existed during Germany's darkest period. Kosmala is also the lead curator of the Gedenkstätte Stille Helden—the Silent Heroes Memorial Center, a tiny new museum devoted to the 10,000 to 12,000 Jews who, like Hanni, attempted to hide in Germany during the Nazi period; the 5,000 or so who survived in hiding (1,700 in Berlin alone); and the 20,000 non-Jewish Germans who helped them survive until the end of the war.
This fall, the cult-of-Hitler exhibition at the Deutsches Historisches Museum on Unter den Linden was talked about everywhere. In its careful displays of the love Germany showered upon the Führer (quilts made in his honor, letters sent on his birthday, board games created in his name), the exhibition was called taboo breaking and a "first." But only the foreign press saw it as groundbreaking. Germans of the post-'68 generation have been schooled well for the most part; they are more than equipped to tell the stories of a duped nation. Less attention has been paid to the histories of ordinary people who rejected the cult of Nazism. That's partly because anything that might appear to be self-congratulation runs contrary to the culture of flagellation that has existed since the end of the 1960s.
And yet, says Kosmala, "there is now a kind of openness to become aware," of those who resisted, to borrow a phrase, becoming "willing executioners," to remembering those who actively pushed back against the system. We are standing downstairs in the Silent Heroes Memorial. It is a two-floor affair tucked down a graffiti-encrusted alley in Mitte, a narrow passage that is a throwback to old East Germany, next door to an indie movie theater and near several smart restaurants.
"We cannot now create a new story—'all these wonderful rescuers in Germany'—but we know the group is bigger than we expected, and that is really amazing," says Kosmala. "We are careful not to overestimate it—that's important I think—but there are ordinary people here, and not only people with money or people who had very good positions. So visitors see that ordinary people could do something. That is our main message: People could act. Could react. Because many Germans after the war were saying, 'We ourselves had to suffer under dictatorship! We couldn't do anything! We were persecuted as well!' These examples show what was possible, what people could do."
The museum, if it can even be called that, is a minimalist duplex with dark-stained wood floors and an open stairwell, as though an architect had donated her home to the cause. The first floor is filled with an enormous table into which are embedded a series of large, flat, touch-screen computers. When pressed, each word, each photograph, becomes the entry point into a seemingly endless web of interconnected rescue histories. One screen reads "Spontaneous Assistance" and tells of how Ruth Abraham gave birth to her daughter Reza and hid the baby—in 1943!—with the help of false papers provided by a woman named Maria Nichols. Each person has a paragraph, each detail further explicated with a new series of screens. It is very text-heavy. The few visitors are completely silent as they read.
Alice Lowenstein's surviving daughter—born after the war—donated the doll that belonged to her murdered sisters, her mother's diary of life on the run, and photos of the family before and during the war
Upstairs is a small forest of tall, blond-wood steles. They have text on one flank, the headphones of an audio guide (in German and in English) hang from the next, and then, in the hollow center, artifacts. The first narrates the story of Alice Lowenstein, who hid her daughters in Weimar after two hiding places in Berlin fell through; the younger daughter, barely out of toddlerhood, had a dangerous habit of telling strangers about the men who took her father away. In the summer of 1944, the girls, then aged 4 and 6, were denounced. A piece of period notepaper from the Landesarchive in Potsdam describes how the Gestapo dragged the girls back to their old building in Berlin, asking each of their neighbors if the girls were Jewish. All said no. And then, as they walked away, the building's concierge ran after the SS men and told them, "These girls are Jewish." At the end of the war, their mother returned to fetch them from Weimar, only to discover that her children had been murdered in Auschwitz.
"We wanted to present this in order to show that there are not only happy ends. That hiding often meant other family members didn't survive, and the survivors had a burden on them," said Kosmala, as I struggled, ineffectually, not to cry. A daughter born to Alice Lowenstein after the war donated photos, a doll once owned by her murdered sisters, and a diary her mother kept while on the run.
A final room contains a bank of flat-screen computers filled with the hundreds of stories that didn't fit in the main exhibit; they are a work in progress. People still come to see it, and to add their story. "People are disappointed not to find themselves here," explained Kosmala. One, she said, was arriving that day, that hour, in fact. And, right on cue, Hanni Levy and her French-born daughter Nicole entered the building.
Dr. Beate Kosmala, lead curator of the Silent Heroes Memorial Center, talks with Hanni Levy
Hanni Levy —née Hannah Weissenberg—was born in Berlin in 1924; by 1943, she was an orphan, her parents had died, her grandmother had been deported in September of the previous year to Theresienstadt. * She had no siblings, and she was working as a forced laborer at the Spinnstofffabrik Zehlendorf, a textile factory.
In late February 1943, she caught her right pointer finger in a machine, mangling it terribly, so she went to the hospital. She waves her hand at me; the finger is half-gone, there is no knuckle. We are sitting together in the final room of the museum at a long wooden table holding a bank of computers. Hanni's story—and her 1943 photograph—is up on a screen in front of us. The photo shows a blond girl, perhaps 20, with a dramatic upsweep, a slight smile on reddened lips. In front of me, Hanni is bubbly and vivacious at 86 with tasteful gold jewelry, deep red Paris-chic glasses, and a throaty giggle.
"I left the doctor and came home—no one knew I was gone—and as I was arriving, I see all these people at the curb …" It was what came to be known as the Fabrik Aktion—days the Jewish forced laborers of Berlin were rounded up, en masse, and sent to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. It was part of the final push to liquidate the city of Jews.
Hanni fled the scene. A day later, with no food, no money, no identification papers, and still needing medical attention for her injured finger, she called upon friends. Unlike many Jews left in Berlin, the majority of whom had been completely excised from society, Hanni counted non-Jews among her friends.
"My friend cut my hair and tried to make me be blond," she pointed to my dark hair, indicating her natural color. "But the first time, the first three times, I was red," she said. Then she laughed: "I liked to be blond. It was my dream." For the first weeks after she went underground, Hanni was constantly on the move, seeking shelter. "I was just 19, but when you are 19 … in 1943 this is when you are today 30," she said. Using the address of an uncle who had married a non-Jew, Hanni got herself a fake ID—but the uncle couldn't, or wouldn't, shelter her. For a few months she hid with a building concierge; then for another three months she hid with the Mosts, a family of "intellectuals" who "treated her as a daughter," until Mr. Most, too, had to go underground—he had illegally evaded the military. Out of options, Hanni took a crazy, ridiculous risk: She went to see the cashier at a movie theater, an older woman named Viktoria Kolzer.
Films figure prominently in stories from survivors—Jews were banned from theaters early on in the war. For the young, this indignity—and the ban on visiting parks, musical performances, and live theater—were keenly felt losses of normalcy; a cultural deprivation that sapped them of strength and joy. So, once Hanni had taken off the star, she'd started going back to the cinema, week after week, movie after movie. She would chat with Viktoria, the cashier there, for hours on end. They had become friends.
Hanni's daughter Nicole occasionally breaks into the conversation and prompts additional memories as we speak. Today they both live in Paris; they speak French and German equally in their conversations. With me they switch between French and English. "J'espère que tu a compris?" Hanni wrote to me later, by e-mail—I hope you understood. "Mme. Kolzer ne savait rien sur moi, avant. Surtout pas, que j'etais juive!!" Mrs. Kolzer knew nothing of me, let alone that I was Jewish! To ask her for help was to open herself up to denunciation.
Frau Kolzer, it turned out, had a boy at the front. And she was terribly afraid for his safety. So she made a bargain with God: If he saved her son, she'd save Hanni. Or rather, she hoped that saving Hanni would protect her son. "She said, 'OK, you come to me, and maybe my son will come back from the war.' " Hanni remembers.
Kolzer, it turned out, had very, very little—she was poor and lived simply. Hanni was shocked by her relative lack of luxury. To the neighbors, she and Hanni were either friends, living together during the war, or, perhaps, mother and long-lost daughter; they kept a low profile and didn't invite questions. Their lives quickly became fully entwined. Hanni was so successful in her hiding that she had a hard time re-establishing her real identity after the war; Hannah Weissenberg had completely ceased to exist. *
In 1946, Hanni moved to Paris and met her husband. But until her death, many years later, Viktoria Kolzer remained in her life. Hanni showed me photos of their two families from the 1960s.
In the end, I said to Hanni, as Dr. Kosmala indicated we should all go for lunch nearby, she was like your mother.
"No, she was not 'like' my mother," Hanni said, correcting me. "She was my mother."
In 1978, Hanni had the Most family and Viktoria Kolzer named among the righteous in Yad Vashem. She still visits the family every year. In November 2010, she had a plaque placed in the entryway of the building they shared in Berlin, a small monument. And now the story of ordinary kindness is also at the Memorial to Silent Heroes.
Oh, and the son? He survived, too.
Sarah Wildman is a visiting fellow at the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.