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A Toy Monkey That Escaped Nazi Germany And Reunited A Family

Nov 14, 2018
Originally published on November 15, 2018 10:01 am

The monkey's fur is worn away. It's nearly a century old. A well-loved toy, it is barely 4 inches tall. It was packed away for long voyages, on an escape from Nazi Germany, to Sweden and America. And now, it's the key to a discovery that transformed my family.

The monkey belonged to my father, Gert Berliner, who as a boy in Berlin in the 1930s rode his bicycle around the city. Clipped to the handlebars was the toy monkey.

"I liked him," recalls my dad, who is now 94. "He was like a good luck piece."

"Night of the Broken Glass"

In pictures from his young days in Berlin, my father looks confident, a tad rebellious with a wry smile. But his life was about to be eviscerated. The Gestapo would steadily crush every aspect of Jewish life in the city.

It exploded in a wave of violence — in November 1938 — on Kristallnacht, the "Night of the Broken Glass." Jewish shops, schools and homes were smashed and burned by German civilians and Nazi storm troopers. Thousands of innocent Jewish men were rounded up.

"I do remember," my father recalls. "I went out on the street ... a lot of glass; you heard fire sirens; synagogues were set on fire."

You could breathe

Escape routes from Germany vanished. One that existed was for children, the Kindertransport. Jewish and Quaker organizations led a rescue effort, a kind of Underground Railroad, to help save children from the Nazis. Thousands of children were sent on trains, often placed with foster families. But there were no takers for their parents. The children had to go by themselves, alone. Mostly to England. My father's destination: Sweden.

In 1939, at the age of 14, he had to say goodbye to his parents, Paul and Sophie Berliner. He boarded the train in Berlin, bound for the city of Kalmar, on the Baltic Coast. He had a small bag and there wasn't much he could bring. But stashed away in his suitcase was the toy monkey, his talisman.

The monkey wasn't useful. But he took it with him anyway. He was worried, fearful about his parents. But he had reached shelter, taken in by a generous, kind family. My dad's first impression of Sweden was the air. Free from the violence of Berlin, he could exhale. "Suddenly you could breathe," he recalled. "It was like the air was different."

A great loss and a new life

But his parents' fate remained uncertain. Eventually their letters stopped coming. Paul and Sophie Berliner were captured by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz on a train, Transport 38, on May 17, 1943. They were murdered there.

After the war, my father moved to the United States. He left Sweden for New York as a young man of 22. He was an orphan. He had no siblings and he was alone. Again, he picked the toy monkey to come with him. But by now it was something different: the most tangible connection to his childhood, to a fleeting moment of innocence.

My dad has lived mostly in New York, working as a photographer and artist, with stints in New Mexico and Italy. And for more than half a century, his toy monkey went with him. But it lived in drawers, existing only in a private space, so private that I never even knew about his childhood toy, and all that it symbolized.

It was just one of the many things I didn't know about my father's past.

Throughout my childhood and well into my adult years, we rarely discussed what he'd been through, the murder of his parents, how alone he must have felt as a young refugee. How it affected his life, our relationship. He was a distant father. And I was a distant son, much of our time together beset by halting, uncomfortable silences.

What I did know is that our family — on the Berliner side — was very small. There were just three Berliners: my dad, me and my son, Ben. At least that's what we thought.

And then two things happened — with the toy monkey at the center of both events.

Journey to the museum

In 2003, an archivist from the Jewish Museum Berlin named Aubrey Pomerance visited my dad at his apartment in Manhattan. My dad had met Aubrey before and liked him. This time, Aubrey was there to ask a favor. Did my father have something from when he was a Jewish child living in Nazi Germany? Something that visitors to the museum could relate to personally?

My dad was torn. His wife, Frances, didn't want him to part with the monkey. She had a good point. It was the most intimate object he had left from his childhood. But eventually he decided that the toy monkey should go back out into the world where it would do more good as a little ambassador to history.

And so the monkey returned to Berlin, this time living in a museum, not on a young boy's bicycle. Aubrey said it is likely that millions of visitors have seen the nameless monkey in various exhibits at the museum over the years and been exposed to my father's story.

One of those visitors was Erika Pettersson. In 2015, she was at the museum with her boyfriend, Joachim. At one point Erika wandered to an exhibit with images about the lives of Jewish children during the Nazi years. It had some wooden boxes with lids you could lift to learn about the kids.

She opened one of them. It was the only one she opened. "And there was this toy monkey and a picture of a small kid, a Jewish kid named Gert Berliner," she recalled. "And I thought, that's a coincidence. My mom's name is Berliner."

Erika didn't think that much about it. But her mother, Agneta Berliner, did. Erika and Agneta are Swedish. And they had a family connection to Germany and Berlin. Agneta couldn't get it out of her mind. She went online and found that my father has a website with his photography.

"And there was an email address," she said. "I was hesitating a bit because I thought maybe this is just a stranger. But then I was so curious. I sent an email and said, 'Could it be that we are relatives?' "

My dad read the message and it led to a call. "Suddenly because of the monkey, I have a phone call, somebody in Sweden of all places, saying, well I think you're my cousin."

The monkey did its job

Agneta Berliner and her sister, Suzanne Berliner, and Suzanne's son Daniel arranged to meet my dad when he was in Berlin at an opening exhibit of his photography.

And so it all came together.

How we weren't only three Berliners.

It turns out that my father's dad, Paul Berliner, had a brother named Carl. Carl Berliner had two sons and Carl sent them to Sweden for safety, too. But they didn't get out of Germany on the Kindertransport. They were sent to work on isolated farms deep in the Swedish countryside. Those boys were my dad's cousins. But they had lost touch with each other.

Now, some 80 years later, a bond has been re-established with the help of a tattered toy monkey. This summer, I traveled to Sweden to meet my newfound relatives and to retrace my father's steps. I met Agneta and her family on Sweden's solstice holiday — Midsummer Eve, and we celebrated together with a traditional Swedish feast lasting well into the evening. The famous meatballs, salmon, toasts with schnapps and a beautiful cake with more strawberries than I'd ever seen in my life. Even though we had just met it felt good to be around my newfound relatives. To be part of a larger family — a family that hasn't just survived, but has grown and thrived.

My dad didn't make the trip. So we called him in New York — Erika, Agneta and me all on speaker, filling him in our visit. It was a bittersweet call. At 94, my dad doesn't get out much. He's alone a lot in the apartment with time to reflect.

"You get old," he says. "I walk around with a cane, shaky. You have time. You sit in a chair, an easy chair and start thinking about your past, what happened."

What happened to his parents, to him and our family is still hard to absorb. But one little thing from the past also delivered a big surprise. My father packed that monkey in a suitcase when he fled for his life nearly 80 years ago.

It turned out he had to give up that treasured piece of his history to discover something new about the past. "It's a gift," he says. "In my old age, I have discovered I have a family."

Two couples sheltered Uri Berliner's family when the Nazis came to power. One thrived; the other paid a terrible price. Read that story.

Music for the audio version of this story was composed by Nicholas DePrey.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now a story about a monkey - a stuffed toy monkey barely 4 inches tall made by the German toymaker Steiff. It belonged to a young Jewish boy at the time Hitler was rising to power. The monkey would take a journey that spans decades and continents, a journey that includes tragedy and a remarkable discovery. Its owner was Gert Berliner. He's the father of NPR's Uri Berliner, who picks up the story from here.

URI BERLINER, BYLINE: Fifteen years ago, a museum archivist from Berlin came to my dad's apartment in New York. He asked for a favor. Did he have something, anything from when my dad was a kid growing up in Berlin?

GERT BERLINER: When he was here, he said, you know, we have exhibits. And at the exhibits, what people really want is something personal. Do you have anything? And I thought, I don't know. Then I realized what I had. I had a little monkey.

AUBREY POMERANCE: He showed me the monkey, and I said, that is an amazing, amazing object.

U BERLINER: That's Aubrey Pomerance, the archivist from the Jewish Museum Berlin. The toy monkey is pretty beat up. It's fur is frayed. One of its hands is completely missing.

POMERANCE: And I remember him looking at me and saying, you'd like to have it for the museum, wouldn't you? And I said to him, Gert, it's such a personal object. It's an object which has so much meaning and is filled with emotion for you. I'd never ask for you to give it to the museum. He said, you know what? I'll think about it.

U BERLINER: And he did think about it. It wouldn't be easy to give up the monkey, the most intimate object from his childhood. He'd kept it close for more than 60 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

G BERLINER: Now, the story of the monkey really begins in Berlin. On front of my bicycle on the steering - what is it called?

U BERLINER: The handlebars.

G BERLINER: The handlebars - I put the little monkey there.

U BERLINER: It's the 1930s, and like other kids in Berlin, he rides his bike everywhere. Except as a Jewish kid, the situation becomes more ominous by the day. And then it explodes in a wave of violence against Jews in 1938 on Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass. Nazi brownshirts and German civilians smashed and burned Jewish shops, schools and homes. Thousands of innocent Jewish men were rounded up and arrested.

G BERLINER: You heard fire sirens. The synagogues were put on fire.

U BERLINER: Less than a year later in 1939, my father packs the monkey away in a small suitcase.

G BERLINER: I liked him (laughter). He was my - like a good luck piece. I don't know (laughter).

U BERLINER: This is before the war and the concentration camps, but it's clear that my father and his parents and Jews everywhere in Germany were in mortal danger. Escape routes vanish. One that does exist is for children. It's called the Kindertransport. Jewish and Quaker organizations lead a rescue effort, a kind of Underground Railroad to try to save children from the Nazis. Thousands of children are rescued this way, often placed with foster families. But there are no takers for their parents, so the children have to go all by themselves, mostly to England. My father's destination - Sweden. His parents, Paul and Sophie Berliner, had to say goodbye.

Can you remember the days before leaving - what was going on, what you did?

G BERLINER: I was the only child just like you were. The marriage of my parents was not the best, so I really - I was my mother's all. And for her to give up her child is heroic. You know, the pain that she felt must have been so terrible. But she let me go.

U BERLINER: So my dad boards the train at Berlin's Anhalter Bahnhof station with that monkey stashed away in his suitcase. He's 14. Other kids are there, too, all in the same situation.

G BERLINER: Amongst those kids, you know, you would expect it to be lively, but it was very quiet. I don't remember anything there. It was quiet.

U BERLINER: My father arrives in the city of Kalmar, Sweden, on the Baltic coast. He's worried about his parents, but he's reached shelter, taken in by a generous, kind family.

G BERLINER: Suddenly you could breathe. You know, it was like the air was different.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

U BERLINER: My father - he's 94 years old now. We're sitting on a couch in the living room of his apartment in New York, and I'm hearing many of these things for the first time. Maybe they were too big, too painful. After Sweden, my dad came to America. Maybe he just wanted to get on with his new life in New York, his work as a photographer and a painter.

How do you think what happened to you in your childhood and what you grew up - how do you think it affected our relationship?

G BERLINER: Oh, I think we never talked about it. You really had no idea who I was.

U BERLINER: It's true. Until recently, I didn't even know about the monkey. There was a wall of silence between us. He was a distant father, and I was a distant son. Now I feel like there's no time left for me to waste. Though my father didn't talk about his childhood, he kept the evidence. I ask him to read one letter from his parents translated from German.

G BERLINER: Now I have to report things of great concern. But you're already a reasonable young man and will be able to endure this.

U BERLINER: The letter is dated November 6, 1941. Jews are just beginning to be sent to the concentration camps, and there's a large section of the letter blacked out by Nazi censors. And then it continues.

G BERLINER: My young son, I can't write much. I'm in a terrible state. Papa's written everything important to you. As long as we are still here, we will continue to write to you. Chin up - with God's help, (laughter) we will see each other again - loving, greetings and a thousand kisses, your mother. I remember the letter.

U BERLINER: You do.

G BERLINER: So...

U BERLINER: But my father never saw his parents again. Sophie and Paul Berliner were sent to Auschwitz by train, transport number 38, on May 17, 1943. They were murdered there. This is what I could never ask my dad about - exactly what happened. Had his whole family been killed off? One thing I thought I knew for sure - the line of living Berliners - it was small, very small - my dad and me and, later, my son Ben.

There was just...

G BERLINER: No relatives.

U BERLINER: No relatives.

G BERLINER: None.

U BERLINER: And this brings us back to the toy monkey and my dad's decision, the one he'd been thinking about. He had held onto the ragged stuffed toy for so many years, tucking it away in drawers, his last connection to his childhood, to innocence and to innocence destroyed. Would he give this up, too?

G BERLINER: Frances, my wife, didn't want to give it away (laughter). But I did give it away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

U BERLINER: He couldn't have guessed what would happen once the monkey was back out in the world.

ERIKA PETTERSSON: It was in November 2015.

U BERLINER: That's Erika Pettersson. She was 28 at the time, visiting the museum with her boyfriend, Joachim.

PETTERSSON: After a couple of hours, I got a bit bored. I felt I was done with it.

U BERLINER: She wound up at an exhibit with images about the lives of children during the Nazi years. It had some wooden boxes with lids you could lift to learn about the kids.

PETTERSSON: And I opened one of them.

U BERLINER: It was the only one she opened.

PETTERSSON: And there was this toy monkey and a picture of a small kid, a Jewish kid named Gert Berliner. And I thought, oh, that's a coincidence. That's my mom's name. My mom's name is Berliner.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

U BERLINER: It was only because she opened that particular box, only because of the monkey that she paid attention to the name, Berliner, her mother's name.

PETTERSSON: Well, I didn't think that much about it, but she obviously did. And so this started something in her head.

AGNETA BERLINER: Yeah, my name is Agneta Berliner.

U BERLINER: Agneta Berliner is Swedish, and so is her daughter Erika. Agneta got very curious and found that my father has a website with his photography.

A BERLINER: And there was a email address, and I was a bit maybe hesitating a bit because I thought maybe this is just a stranger. But by then, I was so curious.

G BERLINER: Suddenly, because of the monkey, I have a phone call, somebody in Sweden, of all places, saying, well, I think you're my cousin.

U BERLINER: Agneta Berliner and her sister, Suzanne, arranged to meet my dad when he was in Berlin at an exhibit of his photography. And so it all came together - how we weren't only three Berliners. It turns out my father's dad, Paul Berliner, had a brother named Carl. Carl Berliner had two sons, and Carl sent them to Sweden for safety, too. But they didn't get out of Germany on the Kindertransport. They made it to safety a different way, sent to work on isolated farms deep in the Swedish countryside. Those boys were my dad's cousins, but they lost touch with each other.

(LAUGHTER)

U BERLINER: Now I'm in southern Sweden where my father escaped to as a boy. But I'm here under such different circumstances - with Agneta and her family at their country house.

This is the first time we've ever met.

A BERLINER: Yes, it is. It's a bit strange...

U BERLINER: It is.

A BERLINER: ...And also exciting.

U BERLINER: It's a special day here.

A BERLINER: Today's Midsummer night's eve, one of the big celebrations in Sweden.

(LAUGHTER)

PETTERSSON: Meatballs are cooking.

U BERLINER: Yeah.

PETTERSSON: Sausage is cooking, potato.

U BERLINER: And a beautiful cake with more strawberries than I've ever seen in my life. My dad - he didn't make the trip, so we call him in New York.

G BERLINER: Hello.

U BERLINER: Yeah, hi, Dad. It's Uri and Erika and Agneta.

G BERLINER: (Laughter) Yeah, I know. How are you?

U BERLINER: We're fine.

PETTERSSON: Hey.

U BERLINER: We're very happy to talk to you.

It's a bittersweet call. At 94, my dad doesn't get out much. He's alone a lot in the apartment with time to reflect.

G BERLINER: You know, you have time. You sit in a chair - in an easy chair and start thinking about all those - your past, what happened.

U BERLINER: What happened to him and our family is still hard to absorb, but the past has also delivered a big surprise. My father packed the toy monkey in a suitcase in 1939 when he fled for his life, but it turned out he had to give up that treasured piece from his past to discover something new from the past.

G BERLINER: It was a gift. It really was a gift - it was - to discover that I have a family at my old age. I discovered I had a family.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

U BERLINER: And that is the sweet part. Uri Berliner, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.