Book Review: The Last Jews in Berlin by Leonard Gross (Four Stars)

Book Review: The Last Jews in Berlin by Leonard Gross

Four Stars

“There comes a point when life is so unredeemed that great risks seem of no consequence.”

The focal point of Nazi power and policy was Berlin. As soon as Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 he began to marginalize, deport and exterminate all Germany Jews. A special goal was to make Berlin Judenfrei. But a surprising number of jews went “underground” and illegally, miraculously survived one man’s approximation of hell on earth. How? This book explores that question. Published in 1982, it is based on interviews with the survivors. Well researched; well written.

“Make yourself invaluable to someone and you’ll survive.”

“None of the Jews who went underground in Berlin … would have survived without the help of at least one Gentile benefactor.” Jews found help among other Jews, Swedes, even Germans. The Church of Sweden had an official, but secret program to help Jews and political dissidents escape. There were German Gentiles who cared for them to the point of risking their lives. Gross seems to discard the notion that some of these “Gentile benefactors” did so out of Christian compassion. He posits guilt, but I can’t imagine someone risking death to assuage a guilty conscience.

Countess Maria von Maltzan‘s efforts were so extraordinary that she deserves to a book (she has a movie: Forbidden) about her life.

Did you know there was a resistance movement inside Germany–a German resistance? I didn’t either.

The most successful Jews were those who could hide in plain sight, the Aryan-looking Jews who, except for the lack of proper papers, could mingle with Gentiles on the streets. Survival required papers, shelter, food and luck.

“One Jew brings another to the knife.”

Unfortunately, some Jews betrayed by their own people. Called “catchers,” they would help the Gestapo identify, capture and deport illegal Jews. Their described motive was the hope that, by helping the Nazis fill their quotas, they might themselves be spared.

“The greatest adversary he faced in his fight to stay alive was … himself.”

When the Russians conquered Berlin, the nightmare was almost over. Almost. Russian soldiers raped a thirteen-year-old survivor. They were arrested, tired and executed by their officers. Stella Kübler, the notorious “blond ghost” catcher, was sentenced to ten years hard labor by the Russians. The Russians burned the Swedish church on Landhuasstrasse, focus of the Swedish rescue program. (The staff fled to the Swedish embassy.)

“Once we go, we’ll never return.”

By June 1945 1123 Jews remained in Berlin out of 160,000 before the Hitler rose to power. Paradoxically, after all that many who survived stayed after the war. Gross suggests they stayed because they were inside Germans. They just wanted to be accepted: “free to be a Jew.”

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