Ludwig’s bed was where my son’s bed is, his parent’s bed where my daughter’s is.
Ludwig is 92 and had not been in his – in my – Berlin apartment in 79 years. Not since he left, with his family, escaping the Nazis, in April 1939.
A few weeks ago he came back. He seemed relieved to be able to remember how the old apartment looked. It was a relief for me too.
Ludwig Katzenellenbogen is a stocky, balding man with a firm handshake and a walking stick. He likes to look you in the eye when he speaks. He’s still fit although the trip to our apartment was tiring. Airports, taxis, stairs, from his old people’s home in Netanya, Israel to Schoeneberg.
His parents, who rented my apartment, died in Israel after a life, with Ludwig, on three continents. People who know Jewish history tell me their story is in some ways typical of German Jews who managed to escape the concentration camps. For me it seems remarkable.
The story of exactly how Ludwig came home is also remarkable – how someone whom to me for years only existed as a name on faded German documents, suddenly came to life (after false starts and with the help of – love him or hate him - Mark Zuckerberg).
Hans Katzenellenbogen, Ludwig’s father, came from Krotoschin, in what is now Poland, where his father and grandfather were shopkeepers, an occupation that followed Ludwig to Israel generations later. Hans, his sister Else and his parents moved after World War I to Berlin in 1922.
Hans married his wife Frieda in Berlin and Ludwig was born in 1926 in Schoeneberg. One of his earliest memories is moving house, in 1933, from a nearby street to his-my apartment in Rosenheimerstr 40. “Why did we have to move, of all days, on my birthday?” to exclaims to me. “To make up for it, the man who helped us move, with horse and cart, put me on his horse and I rode around the streets of our area. What a day!”
I’ve been living in his-my second floor apartment, with my family since 2011. It’s an Alt-Bau with high ceilings, Stuck, and signs of well-off previous occupants: two grand representational rooms at the front, a servant’s staircase at the back.
We were interested in the house’s history and looked for information in a permanent exhibition in Schoeneberg townhall on the district’s pre-war Jewish community. Then in 2016 some neighbours in the house shared what they knew about the Jewish families who had lived in the apartments where we lived now.
Since then every May my wife Anke Hassel and I lay out on our living room table a small exhibition of documents about the Katzenellenbogens. The documents from Berlin’s archives chart the compensation claims Hans, Frieda and Else made in the 1950s to German authorities for their losses in leaving Germany. We join friends who have formed Denk Mal am Ort * to open our apartment to dozens of visitors interested in learning about former neighbours persecuted by the Nazis.
The faded papers in old-fashioned German are about compensation but really they tell the story – part of the story - of the Katzenellenbogen family. They were well-off, with three shops in Berlin selling porcelain and glassware. Hans was chair of the local branch of the association of specialist retailers. A respected local figure.
At home they had two servants and many comforts. As Hans writes in one document: “We lived in a comfortable apartment (in Rosenheimerstr) with five rooms with many extras. Our interior design was luxurious with modern furniture, Persian rugs fine silverware, crystal chandeliers etc”.
The Katzenellenbogens were aware of the growing threat posed by Hitler, but this hit home in autumn 1938. One of Hans’ shops was forcibly shut by the Deutsche Arbeitsfront. “Hans Katzenellenbogen was able to avoid being arrested by escaping with the cash till through the back door” a former staff member notes in another document.
After that, the only questions were how to leave quickly and where to go. They settled on Argentina, spent RM1850 on tickets on the Cap Norte from Hamburg, and set sail on 28 April 1939.
They tried poultry farming in Argentina, but life was hard. In 1954 the German embassy in Buenos Aires confirmed that Hans and his family were “poor and needy”. The family later moved in the mid-1960s to Israel.
That’s all we knew of the Katzenellenbogens. We had tried to find them. I asked Holocaust researchers I knew, and we’d looked in the Israeli phone book, with no success. But we have busy lives and in any case the story felt somehow complete, enough to have meaning for us and our annual visitors.
What we didn’t know was that, at the same time as we started opening our apartment to honour the family, the family was actively trying to retrace its own history in our apartment.
Two years ago, Dan, a student and one of Ludwig’s grandchildren came from Israel to Berlin and stood outside our house, wondering which apartment his grandfather had lived in. A year ago, Elsa, one of Ludwig’s daughters made the same trip. They asked neighbours and climbed the stairs but no success in making contact with us. Dan even talked with a neighbour who knew the house’s Jewish history, they exchanged email addresses. Still a dead end.
Would this little bridge across time and between continents ever be built?
Ludwig’s experiences before their hasty exit to Argentina mirrored his parents. He was happy in his private Jewish school in Dahlem and recalls ‘cycling and skating” around Berlin. Then things turned nasty, especially Kristallnacht, 9 November 1938. He recalls his older brother Herbert telling him of seeing the broken windows of their father’s shop in Goltzstr, Schoeneberg. Ludwig himself was living away from Berlin, near Bochum, going to school with a Jewish cousin.
“The house we were staying in was set on fire that night. They wanted to burn us, they cut down the door with an axe. My uncle told us to scream. We screamed and screamed, then jumped out of the window in our pajamas”. He recalls walking across broken glass in his bare feet.
The police were not interested in attacks on Jews such as Ludwig. Back in Berlin, it was time to leave. People “were calling us Jews, I was scared, it was really awful” he says.
A Sunday in March this year, my phone buzzes early. A message from a wonderful friend, Jani Pietsch, one of the founders of Denk mal am Ort. We’ve found the Katzenellenbogens! she writes. She had stumbled on a Facebook group of people called Katzenellenbogen and asked for help. A member in the Philippines contacted another in Israel who connected another…leading to Elsa, Ludwig’s younger daughter.
“I think I’m going to cry” Elsa says when I call her that evening. Neither of us can believe it. Names on a page were becoming real people, in real time. We don’t know what to say but don’t want to stop talking. We agree she and her father MUST come to the next Denk mal am Ort event in May. Yet how will it turn out? How will Ludwig react if traumas are rekindled? What will they think of us exhibiting intimate family details in public? My wife and I want to be welcoming, but we are anxious too.
Elsa and Ludwig arrive in our apartment with a suitcase, a treasure trove of German and Jewish history. Hans had to leave most possessions behind before boarding the ship to Argentina but they took many documents and photo-albums from the apartment: prized memories now returning to their starting point 80 years later.
They tell the family’s typical-yet-remarkable stories. There’s a picture of Ludwig, happy on his first day at school with Schultuete in the early 1930s. There’s a certificate dated 1935 from Hitler giving Hans the Honorary Cross for fighting alongside 100,000 other Jews, for Germany in World War I. This medal was only given to those who applied – did Hans believe the award would protect him from persecution?
And a letter from Ludwig to his parents in 1965 from Naples, written during his emigration journey by sea to Israel. “Tomorrow midday we’ll be in Israel. We are starting our new life”. He later opened a Kolonialwarenladen there, selling imported food and other goods. He put down roots and became the head of big Israeli family. His two daughters have seven children; Elsa lives with her husband Shlomi on a collective farm in southern Israel. “You must visit” she insists to my wife and me.
One family story comes from Hans, retold by Elsa. Hans and Frieda made a trip to Palestine in 1936, to see a relative. It was not planned, they decided to take a boat while on holiday in Italy, with Frieda selling her jewelry to pay for it. Their relative pleaded that they stay, fearing what would happen in Germany. Hans said no – their boys were in Germany and in any case, they had a good life there, compared with the humble conditions in Palestine at the time.
Elsa adds that this story was a rarity. “Hans didn’t like to talk about having survived” she says. “He didn’t want to put a weight on our shoulders”.
Ludwig enters Rosenheimerstr 40 and seems to feel at home. “There was my father’s desk” he says, “in the Herrenzimmer”. He walks through the apartment, content to be here. He and his family appreciate our exhibition. Later, he is surrounded by visitors keen to listen and show respect. His voice breaks a little when he talks about Kristallnacht, but otherwise his emotions are in check. “It doesn’t make me sad to be back here”. He has had a long life and the persecution his family suffered appears not to weigh on him too much.
Yet his core identity remains important. He recalls his only other Berlin visit, with his Spanish-speaking wife in the late 1960s or 1970s. A woman at the weekly market on Winterfeldplatz in Schoeneberg asked him why he was speaking Spanish. He explained that he had had to leave for Argentina in the 1930s. “Ah, so you left the country because you fled?” the woman asked. “No. I left because I’m Jewish” he replied.
* In early May every year, marking the end of WWII, Denk Mal am Ort honours former neighbours in Berlin persecuted by the Nazis. www.denkmalamort.de
This original version was edited slightly as published in German