by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)
The knock on the door of our Berlin apartment came around five o’clock one dark morning in May of 1938.
It was the favorite time of day for the Gestapo to make house calls. Their victims were usually asleep and not many other people saw them at such an hour.
When my mother opened the door, two men in dark raincoats stood outside. One of them muttered, “Geheime Staatspolizei,” and pushed the door open and let himself and his partner in. Their clothing was as anonymous as their faces. Perhaps secret agents are picked for their faces. Only members of a Secret Service look like this, no matter what their country. No one ever remembers them afterwards.
We lived in a time of constant rumors, all of them threatening. Even I, a child, had recently heard of an impending roundup of Jewish men in our Berlin community. There would be a mass raid, a razzia. Why–and what was to happen later–no one knew. A pre-dawn knock on the door was dreaded, almost expected, that summer. The only speculation was for whom that knock would come and when. Yet when it came for us, it surprised my father and mother.
Inside the apartment, the agents confronted my father in the foyer and announced their orders for his arrest. My father asked permission to take a little of their time: he needed to shave and dress. There was no way of resisting.
Permission granted, one agent remained in the bathroom with him and took up a position by the window facing into the room. The other man stayed in the foyer with his back against the slightly open bathroom door.
I tried to be unobtrusive. From my spot in the small entrance hall, I peeked into the bathroom. Inside, I saw my father’s face in the mirror over the sink. I thought him calm and accepting. But I noticed how his hands shook while he freshened up.
My father had suffered several recent gall bladder attacks. My mother said it was bad nerves. Conditions in Berlin were more than favorable to nervous tensions that spring in 1938, especially if you were Jewish and in a prosperous business.
Now she went into the kitchen and got ready a dose of his medication. She came out holding a small bag in her hand and said he must be sure to take it with him. One of the agents remarked drily there would be little chance for using it.
I saw my mother’s eyes starting to blaze. I cowered as she turned on the two Gestapo agents. Fearlessly, she chastised them for barging in on our peaceful household at such an hour, for taking away an innocent man when everyone knew how wrong that was. How could they face their consciences performing such a mission?
I like to think the Gestapo men remembered that scene. I did, all of my life. It took incredible guts to speak out the way Mimi did. She remained lady-like, even in her scolding. But she certainly exploded that morning. She had good reason. The Gestapo men knew that, too.
In later years, when her health and mental strength failed, she was often afraid of things that seemed childish to outsiders. But I remembered Mimi’s courage and I recalled how she stood in the hallway of our fashionable apartment, wagging her finger under the nose of the Gestapo agent, backing him against our bathroom door. Would I have such guts were I put to the test?
That dark morning the man at the door just shrugged his shoulder while the other one inside the bathroom ignored her. None of that deterred her. “Where are you taking my husband?” she asked repeatedly until the second man finally answered.
“To the police station.”
The landing outside our apartment door was still dark when they took my father out. My father, wedged between both agents, turned to Mimi.
“I have a cousin in America. He lives in Louisville (he pronounced it Lewisville), in the state of Kentucky. Try to contact him and see if he can help.”
Mimi dressed quickly, then she helped me with my clothes. We began the rapid walk to the police station just a few short blocks away. Just as we arrived, breathless, at the precinct, several police vans pulled out. All the vans were fully loaded. The razzia had already produced sufficient results.
Inside the station Mimi asked again and again about the destination of those departing vehicles.
“Alexanderplatz,” was the desk sergeant’s brusque reply.
She decided we would follow them. A long taxi ride brought us to the center of Berlin. The driver stopped at a large, dark gray, forbidding-looking building. Threatening, just like the mood of everything else that morning.
Many years later I saw the dreaded headquarters of the Gestapo in a television newsreel. Even after many decades that view crystallized the special and horrible aura I once felt. I could not know what went on in that building, what unspeakable and excruciatingly painful torment people experienced there. What I sensed at age ten was that it was an evil place.
The day I entered it with Mimi, I saw a warren of dark corridors filled on either side with windowless, small, brown cubicles. In one such sparse hole in the wall I waited quietly at her side while Mimi faced a heavy-set official behind a desk. The chubby man rustled some papers pretending to look up my father’s name.
The prisoner, Leopold Nussbaum, he informed us, was on his way to an interrogation center, but the family would probably have some news from him within a few days.
Not encouraging information, yet the official was a shade kinder than others we had encountered on our way in. Why that was, I couldn’t tell. The way he looked at Mimi was definitely less insolent and arrogant.
We stood waiting for the streetcar at its Alexanderplatz stop. Buildings just as dismal and forbidding as the one we had just left surrounded the traffic-filled square. I glanced across the street at another evil-looking dark, tall structure. I felt Mimi shudder as she looked at it, too.
“The Volksgerichtshof,” she volunteered without my asking.
In later years I learned more about the People’s Court and its use by the Nazi regime.
Mimi might have known even then what kind of place it was. Few prisoners left it without an order for their execution, if they left the building alive at all.
The long ride home on the streetcar was bleak. Mimi looked discouraged and fearful. My feelings of course, were a reflection of hers. She was quiet and sad and barely spoke. It was May, yet everything around us was still gray and cold. It started to drizzle. Times were suddenly desperate. I had a dreadful sense of foreboding.
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.