Saturday, February 28, 2004


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 His research included not only earlier publications on the Holocaust, but published and unpublished memoirs of people who were in the hospital during the war years, unpublished archival materials and, most pertinently, interviews with Jewish survivors.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.

Hitler’s ambivalence about what to do with these groups contributed to the survival of the hospital. The fuehrer feared Aryan resistance to the murder of the spouses of Aryans and their children. Indeed, one of the extraordinary events recorded by Mr. Silver in “Refuge in Hell” is the 1943 demonstration by gentile women in response to the arrest of their husbands. Bold resistance occasionally thwarted even the SS and the Gestapo.

The Hospital of the Jewish Community (Krankenhaus der Juedische Gemeinde) dates to the 18th century, but its roots go back to medieval Jewish settlements in the 13th century, when hospitals were a traditional function of organized Jewish communities.

The Berlin hospital was located in a spacious compound of seven buildings set in a large garden. During the war, most of the buildings were taken over by the Nazis for other purposes, such as a hospital for wounded soldiers (which enabled the Jewish portion of the hospital to be supplied with heat), a prison facility, a sammellager, or temporary holding camp, for Jews scheduled to be transported to concentration camps.

The hospital was under the jurisdiction of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) headed by Adolf Eichmann, who made regular visits to the hospital where he picked Jews at random for Auschwitz and Theresienstadt; he had no qualms about beating patients if they resisted giving him the information he sought.

Everyone was required to wear the infamous yellow star at all times, even in the hospital, and the slightest infraction of the rules carried dire consequences. But otherwise the staff was relatively well protected within the walls.

Once outside, however, they were subject to the same dangers and deprivations as the Jewish population remaining in Germany: Jews were not allowed to ride streetcars unless they lived more than 7 kilometers (about 4.4 miles) from their place of work, and then they were subject to taunts and insults from fellow passengers.

They were not permitted to enter public buildings, attend theaters or the movies; they were allowed to shop for groceries only during a one-hour period late in the afternoon when the stocks were usually exhausted.

They were required to carry identity papers at all times. If they were stopped or questioned for any reason, they risked almost certain deportation to the camps.

Despite the restrictions, the young nurses tried to live as normal a life as possible. Taking off their yellow stars and leaving behind their identity papers stamped with the large “J,” they would engage in forbidden activities: the movies, the streetcars, the hairdresser and even dining at the Adlon, the Nazi Party’s favorite restaurant. There were love affairs, even marriages, among the staff. The desire for life is greater than the fear of death.

From 1941 to 1945, the man in charge of the hospital was Dr. Walter Lustig, an arrogant and predatory man, a stickler for order and the German penchant for following orders without question. Occasionally, however, he shut his eyes to conduct which warranted severe punishment. He seduced many of the young nurses and was generally disliked by his staff.

He was charged with the onerous task of picking staff members for deportation. When ordered to put half the staff on a deportation list he spread the impact among various medical departments to keep the hospital running.

When ordered later on to liquidate the entire remaining staff, he played on the bureaucratic rivalry between the RSHA and the Gestapo until the order was rescinded. Mr. Silver concludes that Lustig saved the hospital with his courage and tenacity.

Fear hung heavy over the corridors and wards: fear of deportation, of beatings, of summary execution, of separation from family; of being stopped in the streets on the way to or from the 12-hour shifts at the hospital; of being assigned to forced labor in factories; of imprisonment or deportation on the whim of an officer or clerk.

Many who were put on lists to be “resettled” killed themselves. “Going underground” meant that someone else would go instead. The courage and self-sacrifice of the hospital staff under these circumstances was extraordinary.

Yet, it was the bizarre Nazi notions and arbitrary conduct that saved many lives. Jews too ill to be transported to Auschwitz for extermination were sent to the hospital for surgeries and to recover sufficiently for the journey east to be murdered. Some patients managed to remain long after they regained health.

All the while, Nazi zeal to exterminate the Jews continued: when the advance of the Russian army precluded transportation to the extermination camps in Poland, Jews were shipped to camps in Germany. The last human shipment left Berlin as late as March 1945, only a month before the surrender.

Mr. Silver attributes the hospital’s survival to a number of reasons, pragmatic and theoretical, and concludes that “the two most important factors were bureaucratic convenience and ambition.” The hospital served the Gestapo in connection with the deportations, and the various branches of the Nazi regime coveted the hospital grounds.

Or the survival of the hospital may have been luck, happenstance — or divine intervention. Despite the continuous Allied bombing of Berlin, there were no fatalities in the hospital. The neighbors noticed, and requested permission to seek refuge there. These Jews were, perhaps, God’s chosen people, after all.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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