History Group – Berlin at War

Under Hitler’s Nose – Jews in Wartime Berlin

Eminent historian Roger Moorhouse provided another fascinating talk to the History Group on 3 November. The success of his previous two talks meant that 75 members came to hear ” Under Hitler’s Nose – Jews in Wartime Berlin”.

History Group
History Group Meeting – Hitler at War

He began by outlining the experiences of Jews in Berlin during the first few years after the Nazis came to power. There was a gradual introduction of ever more restrictive laws governing what work they could do, whom they could meet and where they could go.

Encouraged by the regime, there was a major exodus of Jews – of the 522,000 Jews living in Germany in January 1933, only 214,000 were left by the eve of World War II and in 1943, Germany was declared judenrein (clean of Jews).

A minority of Berliners helped Jews by hiding them in their houses or helping them forge ‘Aryan’ identities, but most Berliners remained indifferent to, and even contemptuous of, the Jewish population in their midst. Roger’s talk did, however, focus primarily on the 11,000 so-called divers (die Taucher), also referred to as U-Boats, who went underground in Berlin during the war. Only 1,400 survived. The decision to go on the run was contrary to a Berliner’s way of life, a culture which prided itself on belief in the law and civic duty. That was often the reason given for the “betrayals” that would find Aryan Berliners hiding, and then denouncing, local Jews.

Another risk was die Greifer, “the catchers”, particularly the “Aryan-look Jew” Stella Kübler, known as “the blonde poison”, who betrayed others to keep herself and her parents from deportation. In the spring of 1943, she and her parents were arrested and Stella was tortured. In order to avoid deportation of herself and her parents, she agreed to become a “catcher” for the Gestapo. She was promised a salary of 300 reichmarks for each Jew that she betrayed. She combed Berlin and, as she was familiar with a large number of Jewish people from her school days, she was very successful in finding and betraying former schoolmates to the Gestapo, whilst posing as a “diver” herself. Estimates of her victims vary from between 600 to 3,000.

Stella Kubler
Stella Kubler

Despite her collaboration, the Nazis eventually broke their promise to her and her parents were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where they were killed. Her husband, Manfred, was her first betrayal and deported in 1943 to Auschwitz.

At the end of the war she went into hiding, but was found by the Russians in 1945 and sentenced to ten years’ camp detention. Afterwards she moved to West Berlin. There she was again tried and convicted, and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. However, she did not serve this because of the time spent in the Soviet prison. Kübler committed suicide in 1994 by throwing herself out of the window of her Berlin apartment.

Roger described some of the methods used to improve the odds of a diver’s survival.

  1. Remove your star.
  2. Destroy your deportation order.
  3. Learn to live on the run.  Be prepared to lie, cheat and steal.
  4. Avoid your past.  Forget your family and friends. Avoid areas of the city where you may be recognized.  Forget you ever were a Jew.
  5. Change your appearance.  Commit visual sleights of hand if you “look Jewish” through hair  dye, clothing, stolen uniforms.  Do not allow yourself to appear unkempt, even if you have  nowhere to live, as disarray, even in wartime, will attract attention in Berlin.
  6. Find somewhere to live.  Available accommodation can include lofts, basements, trams, parks, houseboats, bordellos.  Find someone who will hide you or somewhere to hide: the  tomb of Josef Schwarz in the Jewish Cemetery in Weissensee, which remained open throughout the war, provided a hiding place to sleep in the dome of its mausoleum.
  7. Have an accident, injury or illness and get yourself admitted to the Jewish Hospital, which  kept patients from being deported through a variety of radical “operations.”
  8. Get the right paperwork with the right stamps. Hope for a sympathizer to drop them before you, Present yourself as a victim of bombing to receive a “bomb certificate as refugee”.    Search fresh corpses in air raids.

Roger’s talk prompted many questions and comments and the large audience was clearly enthralled. Roger will be returning next year to talk on “The Third Reich in 10 Objects”.