A Jewish haven in Nazi Berlin

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By Daniel B. Silver

Houghton Mifflin, $24, 336 pages, illus.


It defies credence, but when Russian troops marched into Berlin on April 24, 1945, they found 800 Jews alive and well in Berlin’s Jewish hospital. The inhabitants were doctors, nurses and patients. The hospital and the Jewish cemetery at Weissensee were the sole Jewish facilities left in the city that Joseph Goebbels had declared “Judenrein” — cleansed of Jews — in 1943.

How this isolated institution and its staff served, with extraordinary dedication, and managed to survive despite the constant terrible dread of deportation, or execution for the slightest infringement of rule or Nazi whim, is the subject of “Refuge in Hell: How Berlin’s Jewish Hospital Outlasted the Nazis.” It’s a fascinating and highly readable book by Daniel B. Silver, former general counsel of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Mr. Silver learned of the hospital quite by accident at a Washington dinner party and he spent 20 years researching its history. His research included not only earlier publications on the Holocaust, but published and unpublished memoirs of people who were in the hospital during the war years, unpublished archival materials and, most pertinently, interviews with Jewish survivors.

What he discovered reinforces all our notions of Nazi cruelty and anti-Semitism as well as the German obsession with order and bureaucracy. But above all, Mr. Silver discovered the strength of the human spirit.

“Refuge in Hell” is not only a fine addition to the literature of the Holocaust, but it’s an extraordinary examination of what living in Berlin as a Jew was like during the years of the decline of the Third Reich.

The reasons for the obscurity of the hospital’s origins and the story of its survival are complex: the post-war focus was on “succoring the survivors and building the State of Israel” as a refuge for Holocaust victims “and other Jews in danger around the world.” Furthermore, since the German Jews had six years of warning from Hitler’s coming to power to the beginning of the war, and time to leave the country, only 30 percent of Germany’s Jews were left for Hitler to exterminate.

Ninety percent of the Jews of Poland and the Baltic states were murdered by the Nazis, thereby rendering the story of what happened to the German Jews less compelling. The long-standing tension between the German and the Eastern European Jews, arising from levels of assimilation and economic success “and from a perceived ‘superiority complex’ on the part of the German Jews,” contributed to the neglect of the story.

The Nazi racial laws had divided German Jews into several groups. Certain “privileges” were available to Jews married to Aryans and the children of these mixed marriages.

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