/ 26 December 2005

Jewish survivor makes peace with Berlin

It was July 2 1938, start of the school summer holidays, and Erwin Goldberg, a 24-year-old teacher, was cheerful as he strode home.

His mood changed minutes later. In his post box was a letter from the Berlin police president’s office on the Alexander Platz. Gingerly opening it, he was appalled by its brutal content.

It informed him he was to be taken into custody and had to ”leave the country within 24 hours”.

Panic-stricken, Goldberg dashed to the nearby premises of the Jewish Emigration Authority. There, he fought his way through milling crowds of anxious people, nearly all wanting to flee Nazi terror.

Shown the letter, officials warned Goldberg not to risk returning home. Arrangements were hastily made for him to stay overnight at the home of a rabbi until a lawyer had clarified the matter with the police president.

Later, the 24-year-old learned a mistake had been made. The Nazi order to round up city Jews was not due to go into force until two months later.

Despite the mistake made by two officials, the police president insisted Goldberg would still have to leave the country within 24 hours or face arrest.

Earlier, Goldberg had not been restricting himself to just teaching. A keen musician, he trained to become a cantor in the mid-1930s and was for a spell a stage extra at the State Opera House on the Unter den Linden, where he later became a member of the company choir before being kicked out because he was a Jew.

He was shocked by the savage turn of events. He had never been out of the country before, and had no passport.

Jewish officials recognised he would never get one from the Nazis at short notice, and swiftly arranged for him to be provided with a Polish travel document, valid for six months only.

He was told that, in Milan, a Jewish aid organisation would help him overcome any initial difficulties. Erwin’s world had turned into a nightmare.

The sheer speed of events would not even allow him time to say farewell to his parents and younger brother. He would never see them again. All would be murdered in Nazi concentration camps.

Following an exhausting train trip to Italy via Switzerland, during which he came close to being arrested by two SS officials at the German-Swiss border, he arrived in Milan with only a few coins in his pocket.

He survived in Italy thanks to a generous family who, with war brewing in Europe, helped him catch a ship at Trieste bound for Buenos Aires once Mussolini began whipping up anti-Semitic hatred.

It was to be the start of an extraordinary new life for Goldberg as a teacher in the jungle regions of Argentina.

He graphically describes his adventures in a new 220-page book, Storms of Fate, printed by Hamburg publishers BellaVista.

Goldberg, now 92, spent more than 35 years building up a reputation as a skilled teacher and director of schools in the jungle regions of Misiones, a beautiful province about 1 280km north of Buenos Aires.

He married, became an Argentinian citizen, and later moved to Buenos Aires where he combined being a cantor at a Jewish community synagogue with teaching posts at the city’s Pestalozzi School and Goethe Institute.

For decades, Berlin-born Goldberg never gave much thought to ever again seeing the city that had treated him so cruelly during the Nazi era.

Then, in 1972, he learned the then West Berlin authorities had begun asking people who had been persecuted and forced to leave Germany during the National Socialist era if they would like to revisit the city as a gesture of reconciliation.

Goldberg describes in his book how he wrote to the Berlin Senate, which was delighted to hear from him, and reacted by sending him air tickets for him and his Argentinian wife to fly to the city for a week’s stay at government expense.

During the flight across the Atlantic, he writes how ”I closed my eyes and tried to relax, but my thoughts kept racing back to the past. After more than 30 years, l was about to see the city of my birth again. Memories of my childhood and youth kept flooding back, and much as I tried to keep calm, I couldn’t.”

Safely in Berlin, Goldberg says he became nostalgic strolling down the city’s showpiece Kurfuerstendamm boulevard, and pausing to look at the war-ruined down-town Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial church.

”Everything was different and much changed. Berlin had survived a terrible war bombardment, but the city’s reconstruction was still not finished.”

Despite all the changes, Goldberg today speaks of feeling ”at ease again” in the city of his birth.

When he was not far short of his 60th birthday, the Berlin education authority offered him a teaching post at a school in the city’s Neukoelln district — and he accepted.

Five years later, when he was close to his 65th birthday, they extended his contract by a further three years, so valuable were his services regarded.

Only when he had a cancer scare did he finally retire. Now 91, Erwin and his 79-year-old wife Virginia divide their time half and half between Berlin and Buenos Aires. In Berlin, they have an apartment on the city’s Wielandstrasse in Charlottenburg.

”I have a great affection for Berlin. It’s a wonderful city, and I am happy it is now firmly reunited. But of course, I can never forget the past,” he says. — Sapa-DPA