Berlin flat dwellers trace former tenants lost to Holocaust
A plaque hangs on the wall of a well-to-do apartment building in a quiet German street commemorating nearly 30 former residents driven from their homes or murdered by the Nazis.In the entrance hall their names are listed one-by-one -- most died at Auschwitz, Theresienstadt or Treblinka. They may have long been lost to Hitler's hatred of Jews, but they are not forgotten.
Thanks the efforts of a group of Berliners to trace the Jewish residents who once lived in their building, the victims are finally being openly remembered.
"To the 28 neighbours, women, men and children, who lived in this building and who were persecuted, expelled or killed by the National Socialist (regime)," reads the commemorative plaque.
About 160,000 Jews lived in the German capital before Hitler rose to power, many of them in the Berlin district of Schoeneberg.
"The Nazis' goal was to annihilate these people. What we wanted to do was to completely prevent that," Niki Graca-Heilmeyer, one of the researchers who today lives in the building, said.
"We will never be able to bring back the people who lived here but we can be aware of their names," she said.
It took three years of painstaking research to track down the former tenants, with hundreds of hours spent combing through city archives, sending letters all over the world and evening gatherings to share information.
Eight residents undertook the mammoth task, despite them not being professional historians nor archivists, which represented "a kind of political act", said Gabrielle Pfaff, who has lived in the building for nearly 30 years.
"If we, residents here, don't do anything, nobody will," Peter Schulz, another member of the group, said.
Three years ago while wandering around an exhibition on Jews before World War II with his partner, he stumbled across a photo of two children, Margot and Werner Vohs, taken on a balcony.
It was his balcony, he realised.
"It was a real shock," he said.
'My parents' generation closed its eyes'
"Until then, we only knew about the deportation (of Jews) from history books. Suddenly we realised we were much closer to the horror of the Holocaust than we had imagined," he added.
Shortly afterwards he began trying to identify the two youngsters seen smiling into the camera and was joined by his neighbours who also started looking into who else had lived in the building at that time.
Werner Vohs died aged 17 at Auschwitz; his sister, Margot, the only survivor among her immediate family, today lives in Peru.
Kurt Landsberger, who was 18 when he was forced to leave the building, recently returned to the place where he grew up for the first time -- aged 90.
The Berlin group of researchers tracked him down to the US state of New Jersey, where he has lived since World War II and invited him to come back to his old apartment.
"When I first entered the building which I had left 72 years ago, I did not know what to expect," Landsberger told AFP in an emailed statement.
"I walked up the stairs to the second floor and was welcomed by (the current residents). They gave us a tour of the apartment which I only vaguely remembered since so many years have passed," he said describing the commemoration of the former residents as "very emotional".
Landsberger was tracked down by Gabrielle Pfaff, who said: "I was born in 1949 and I often asked my parents what they did under the Nazis.
"My parents' generation closed its eyes. I want to make sure that such a crime never happens again."
Before the two commemorative plaques were inaugurated, the granddaughter of the Lindenbergs, a couple deported in 1941, wrote to the tenants saying: "It's a little as if Johanna and Hermann were alive again."
Having completed his task, Peter Schulz, now feels more appeased. But he recalled, movingly, how on renovating his apartment he had discovered tiny pieces of a toy between the wooden floorboards.
"I wondered if they weren't bits left behind by the people who lived here and who were deported," he said, tears welling up in his eyes.
AFP/ Yannick Pasquet