Van Wallach
A Jew from Texas, who knew?

Birthright Germany, Part 4: Rena in Berlin

(With Dresden done, the trip continues to Berlin and more encounters.)

We took the train from Dresden to Berlin the next day, in sunlight so I could see the landscape. With 80 million people packed in a country the size of Montana, so I had read, I imagined Germany as one vast urban sprawl, similar to the train trip from New York to Washington. But that wasn’t the case. Much of the landscape looked rural, mostly farms with some slight hills, no dense constructed landscape.

Once unpacked at the hotel on Rosenstrasse, in former East Berlin and in the heart of what had been the Jewish community, Naomi and I began exploring. A few blocks from the hotel we came across the first Stolpersteine we would encounter in Berlin, for Kathe Simonsohn, born in 1891 and deported to Auschwitz in July 1942. It was in front of what had been a Jewish school in the 1930s, the Jűdischen Geminde zu Berlin.

From the stones at our feet to the memorials in front of us to the construction cranes soaring across the skyline, history and its implications confronted us at every turn in Berlin.

Europe 09-2014 1370-edit

On that first afternoon we strolled down Friedrichstrasse, past the Checkpoint Charlie area, past the Trabi Museum and the Stasi Museum, to the brooding Topography of Terror Museum, built on the site of the SS and Gestapo headquarters, next to the only extant Nazi office building to survive the war, Hermann Goering’s forbidding Aviation Ministry building (now used by the Finance Ministry).

In the coming days, we visited the enormous Jewish Museum, the New Synagogue (partially damaged during Kristallnacht, further damaged by bombing, now partially restored and used as both a museum and religious facility), and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas) consisting of 2,711 concrete slabs, on undulating ground, giving the sense of walking through a graveyard.

Europe 09-2014 1427-edit

At the Jewish Museum

As with Dresden, the trip took on deeper meaning as we moved from cultural observation to personal connection.

Once in Berlin, I confirmed our plans to visit the Jewish Hospital, where my late New York friend Rena Frank had trained as a nurse in the 1930s. Rena and I knew each other through Project Dorot in New York, connected volunteers with elderly Jews. We had been friends from 1980 to her death in 1994.

I didn’t know its location or what to expect. A member of the Dresden group scoffed that it was now little more than a drug rehab center. I had visions of a dreary facility in a rundown part of town. This did not discourage me. Once I realized the hospital was only a few stops north of our hotel at the Rosenthaler Platz station, I knew we would definitely go there.

Europe 09-2014 1494-edit

We quickly found the hospital, on a pleasant street with some signs in Turkish. Gerhard, the PR director, arrived at the main gate at the moment we did and we made introductions. A social worker from Canada joined us to provide an English translation. The grounds were striking with their quiet, well-tended feeling, on a sunny late summer day.

We sat in the hospital’s synagogue and discussed the history of the hospital and its current services. As we parted, Gerhard gave me a book in English about the hospital, From Heqdesh to Hightech: The 250 Years of the Jewish Hospital as Reflected in the History of Berlin Jewry. I also was given a dark blue kippah, trimmed in gold, from a hospital Hanukkah event in 2002; I now regularly wear this treasure at my shul in Westport, Connecticut. I felt deep satisfaction that I had honored Rena Frank by returning to the hospital that trained her.

Europe 09-2014 1474-edit

Rena had played a part in my life for 14 years, very much like an aunt who doted and cared for me, enjoyed our exchanges and worried when I traveled, always calling as soon as I returned from a trip to make sure I got home safely. I listened to her stories of Berlin but lack a coherent sense of her early life, the 20 years she lived in Berlin. She experienced the restrictions and insults of six years of the Third Reich and that was enough. The Jewish Hospital, which had no records of her time there 80 years ago, was the one part of Rena’s Berlin I could touch and see.

After the trip, I learned far more about the hospital, and always scanned photos in books to see if she appeared in them. Its history astounded me as it testifies to the sheer tenacity of Jewish survival against overwhelming forces. Given the slightest possibility, Jews will indeed hang on. The book points out that the Jewish Hospital was the only Jewish institution to survive the Nazi era intact. It states,

Here in America it is difficult for people to understand why the Gestapo maintained the Jewish Hospital to the end, although they otherwise followed the principle of exterminating sick people as quickly as possible. The amazing thing is that the hospital not only existed in name, but that the sick were actually treated in a proper manner. . . .


Nowhere could one have better observed the developments in the last days of the Thousand-Year Reich than here at the Berlin hospital ghetto: how 800 Jews, limited to a tiny space, cut off from the world, with no mobility, exposed to all the dangers of a terrible war, lived through these days and anticipated the dawn of a new day, how they longed for and looked forward to their liberation, how in the awareness of their coming deliverance they were gladly willing to take on all the work and hardship, for there was nowhere else where so many Jews were crammed together as they were here . . .

I also read the outstanding book on the hospital’s Nazi-era history, Refuge in Hell: How Berlin’s Jewish Hospital Outlasted the Nazis, by Daniel B. Silver. Calling on his skills as an attorney in sifting evidence, Silver examines the personalities, histories and twists and turns in the hospital’s path to survival (the most likely theory involves its real estate, rather than medical or humanitarian impulses by the Nazis).

I’m surprised the book has never been a movie; the personalities, drama, moral conflicts faced by the hospital’s administrators and the heart-stopping finale—when the Red Army arrives and can’t believe Jews survived the war in Berlin—would make for an incredible film.

Maybe I’ll write it.

Rena May 1987-edit


About the Author
Van "Ze'ev" Wallach is a writer in Westchester County, NY. A native of Mission, Texas, he holds an economics degree from Princeton University. His work as a journalist appeared in Advertising Age, the New York Post, Venture, The Journal of Commerce, Newsday, Video Store, the Hollywood Reporter, and the Jewish Daily Forward. A language buff, Van has studied Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew, although he can’t speak any of them. He is the author of "A Kosher Dating Odyssey." He is a budding performer at open-mic events.