The School on Bleibtreustrasse

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

In the spring of 1934, a new stage of my life began: I started school.

Because the German school year began in the spring and I had a July birthday, I was six, going on seven, when my mother first walked me the short distance to the public school on Bleibtreustrasse in Berlin-Charlottenburg.

To sweeten the occasion, my mother’s friends, the Winbecks in Hannover, sent a Schultuete, a large cone-shaped bag of candy, for me.  It was a sweet occasion, and I was happily excited over it.

My best friend at the time was Ursula Kurzweg, the daughter of our concierge. Every day we walked together to and from school where our first grade teacher, Herr Klausewitz, an elderly gentleman near retirement, treated us in an easy-going manner and instilled in us the history of Germany during Bismark’s time.

I enjoyed that year for yet another reason.

At recess, when everyone was allowed into the courtyard for “fresh air,” I had the almost daily chance to see my first cousin, Hans Gottschalk, who attended the boys’ school next door to mine. Hans was three years older than me–almost an adult in my eyes–and I had strong feelings of affection for him. He waved to me over the fence whenever he saw me. This not only made me happy but improved my status with the other girls in my class who were impressed that I rated the attention of an older boy. Of course, I never let on that he was my cousin.

The following year, though, things changed considerably at the school on Bleibtreustrasse

A new teacher, Fraeulein Schulz, who walked with a heavy limp, brought in an entirely different atmosphere of strict discipline. I was affected as soon as she noticed that I used my left hand to write the cursive script we were learning. It became her special project to convert me to right handedness. She tried to do this by hitting my left hand with a ruler whenever she saw me writing. I ducked behind the desk of the girl in front of me when it came time to practice writing, but Fraeulein Schulz and her long wooden ruler waited to pounce on me at every chance.

At some point during the school year she adopted a new stance. Obviously she had entered a rejuvenating period in her life by fixating on the persona of Adolf Hitler. She trained us to become part of her new purpose in life. Every morning when she limped into the classroom each of us had to stand at attention, raise our arm and return Fraeulein Schulz’s greeting of “Heil Hitler.” With her big swastika emblem pinned to her bosom, and her arm outstretched in salute, this teacher introduced us to the new world of Nazi Germany.

That year during the Jewish High Holy Days, when all the Jewish girls were absent from school, our teacher instructed the rest of the class to no longer speak to us when we came back. She threatened punishment should anyone disobey her orders.

So, I had no idea why my friend Ursula Kurzweg suddenly ignored me and would no longer walk to and from school with me. Only when I managed to ask why she was mad at me, especially since we hadn’t had a fight, did she reveal Fraeulein Schulz’s command not to be caught speaking to the Jews in class.

I now believe it was during this episode of being ostracized that I first realized I was Jewish. Prior to the second school year, the subject did not touch me, or perhaps I did not think about it. My mother taught me it was wrong to sew or write on Saturdays because it was Shabbes, a day of rest. Other than that, few Jewish holidays were observed in my parents’ home. Even my religious maternal grandfather was part of a very liberal assimilated trend of German Judaism. He and the rest of the family thought of themselves as German citizens who were Jewish, with the emphasis on their nationality.

But the ostracism of Jewish children at school brought to me an awareness that I was different, perhaps less worthy than the others. It started me on a habit of being apologetic for just about everything I did. I certainly did not recognize that the feeling might have been exactly what the Nazi thought-machine hoped to foster. How could I at that age?

By laying down her own personal rules, Fraeulein Schulz did more damage than many a Nuremberg law. In the name of the Third Reich, Fraeulein Schulz inflicted psychic injuries on me and my Jewish classmates for which I blame her to this day. And for which, I trust, she still sizzles in that hot part of the netherworld where she deserves to spend eternity.

It has taken a great part of my life to overcome the demeaning attitude of being Jewish that was laid upon me in grade school.

I feel extremely happy that my grandchildren are free of such negative feelings, are well into their religious experience, and are proud to be Jewish.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

4 Comments

Filed under Jewish identity

4 responses to “The School on Bleibtreustrasse

  1. rachel

    Another wonderful piece of history – thank you!

    I have given this blog an award – please go to this link:

    http://shavuatov.wordpress.com/2009/01/19/awarding/

    It might seem frivolous, but if it helps this blog get some more recognition, I hope you’ll be pleased!

  2. Rachel,
    Thanks so much! It’s good to know that the stories are so highly valued and finding readers as appreciative as you.

  3. Martha Hauptman

    I was moved to read Ellen Stern’s piece. I would love to read her whole memoir now… One could feel her childhood pain in this short excerpt.

    Thanks, Ellen, for introducing us to your childhood.

  4. Marta Kadziolka

    Dear Ms. Stern,

    I have been reading your blog with great interest. In this entry, you mention the name Kurzweg. That was my grandmother’s maiden name. She died when I was very young, and she had never been very effusive. Is Kurzweg a typically Jewish last name? What regions does it come from? I would really like to know, but I haven’t been able to find it.

    My grandparents were both born in Russia, but my great-grandmother’s family was thought to come from Belarus. Her last name was spelled “Kurdzwieg.”

    Sincerely,

    Marta

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