I am 35 years old, but until recently, all I knew about my great-grandparents, Carl and Paula Brenner, was one vague, frightening sentence: They lived in Berlin and tried to escape the Nazis but were murdered in the camps.
I grew up in Israel, and relocated to the German capital one year ago. Since becoming a Berliner, I have grown more and more interested in the lives of my Berliner ancestors. As I explored different neighborhoods in my adopted city, I often wondered if Carl and Paula had walked the same streets. I tried to imagine what their lives looked like, how they made a living, and who they socialized with. Most of all, I was eager to understand why they did not flee Germany.
The little that I did know about them came from their son Walter Brenner, my grandfather, who fled Germany in 1937 for the United States. But Saba Walter, who passed away in 1993 in Israel, shared little information about his parents’ lives. The heroic Holocaust survival story of Alice Licht — Walter’s wife and my Savta — was told and retold in my family. But the story of Walter’s parents was barely mentioned.
Everything changed when my father, Gary Brenner, who is Carl and Paula’s only grandson, received an email informing him that his grandparents would be commemorated in a Holocaust memorial project called Stolpersteine (or “stumbling stones”). Through this project, created by artist Gunter Demnig, anyone may pay a fee to sponsor a cobblestone-sized memorial. These memorials are embedded into sidewalks near homes where Jews had lived before the Holocaust. Each memorial is engraved with the names, birth years, and fates of the former inhabitants of the locations where the stones are set.
The email my father received came from the Stolpersteine Thomasiusstrasse initiative, whose members are all residents of Berlin’s Thomasius Street. They invited our family to the Stolpersteine planting ceremony for Carl and Paula Brenner, which was to take place June 24, in front of the building on 15 Thomasius St., my great-grandparents’ last registered address.
When my dad forwarded me the invitation, I was thrilled. For the first time I figured out which Berlin neighborhood my great-grandparents lived in. I quickly looked up the address online and saw it was located near Tiergarten, Berlin’s main park — a place that I have strolled through several times in the past year.
My father, mother and brothers live in Israel, so it was up to me to represent our family in the ceremony. Leading up to the event, I asked my dad to email me any information he might have about his grandparents. It was the first time I ever asked him directly what he knows about his grandparents, and he knew more than I expected.
The first revelation that struck me was that neither of my great-grandparents were born in Berlin. Carl, born in 1870, was from the town of Schwetz in West Prussia (today, Poland), and Paula was born 1884 in the then-German-now-Polish town of Neisse. They both relocated to Berlin, just like I did.
More revelations came on the day of the ceremony, which was also the first time I visited the street where my great-grandparents lived. Their building is located in Moabit neighborhood — today a quite residential district, near government facilities and the central train station. I have been in Berlin for a year, but never cared enough about Moabit to explore it.
Speaking with current residents of the street before the ceremony, I learned that Carl, Paula and their only son Walter settled in 15 Thomasius St. back in 1911. Most of my grandfather’s childhood took place in Moabit.
I also found out that the Brenners were not the only Jews in the building. During the June 24 ceremony, Stolpersteines were planted for 16 other Jewish individuals who had the same last known address as my great-grandparents.
The building where Carl and Paula lived was bombed during World War II, after they were deported. Half of it was demolished, but the backside was saved, renovated and continues to be a residential facility today. Most of the participants in the ceremony were current residents of Thomasius Street. Other participants were family members of the people being commemorated, including a woman from Hawaii.
When the moment came to plant Carl and Paula’s Stolpersteine, Rita, one of the street’s current residents, read a text presenting information collected from German archives about my great-grandparents. I know very little German so I could not understand what Rita was saying. With me was my wife Martina, a German speaker, and as the text was read, I could see her eyes begin to shed tears, which then slid down her cheeks. Many others were weeping, especially when it was announced that Carl and Paula’s great-grandson was present. I smiled and said hello.
Following the ceremony, Rita emailed a copy of the text. I quickly Google-translated it, and swallowed the new information it provided. I learned that in 1937, taxes imposed by the Nazis on Jews — such as the “Jewish property tax” — caused the Brenner family’s assets to shrink. I learned that when German authorities forced Jews to sell their businesses to non-Jews, Carl lost control of the wholesale company he had been managing for over two decades. I learned that my Saba Walter fled to the United States in 1937, and that from the moment he left Germany he tried to arrange the escape of his parents.
And I learned why they did not escape. Carl and Paula initially chose to stay in Berlin despite Hitler’s rise because they believed in a big metropolis they would be safe.
By 1941, they realized they had to flee. It was too late. They applied for entry visas to the United States and to Cuba, but were denied.
The most shocking information I received was the dates of their deaths, particularly Paula’s. The couple was deported to Theresienstadt — a camp located 300 kilometers south of Berlin — on September 9, 1942, and Carl died there a few weeks later. Paula’s page in the German Federal Archives states she died May 16, 1944, in Auschwitz. When I made the calculation and comprehended that my great-grandmother — who was then in her late 50s — managed to survive 20 months in Nazi camps, I shivered and felt extremely nauseous.
But the sick feeling went away, and in the days following the ceremony I felt inspired. I started doing my own research about the history of my family in Berlin. I asked Rita for any details she’d obtained about Carl and Paula, and she told me they found handwritten letters, in old German script, from my great-grandparents to their son Walter in the United States. We will be translating these letters in the upcoming weeks.
With every new piece of information I discover, I feel like I am getting a bit closer to my roots. Moabit, for example, is no longer just another Berlin district. It is the neighborhood my family once called home.
Yermi Brenner is a freelance journalist based in Berlin and a frequent contributor to the Forward. Follow him on Twitter: @yermibrenner
Walking the Cobblestones of My Great-Grandparents' Berlin