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Faces of Courage, Louise

Louise

As the persecution of Jews in Germany intensified, life became increasingly dangerous, whole families were deported and sent to concentration camps. By August 1942, very few yellow stars could be seen on the streets of Berlin. Emigration had become impossible and many people went into hiding.

Hiding meant living in constant fear of being recognized and reported; those in hiding has to be constantly alert. The people who helped them hide were in as much danger as the people they hid. Hiding meant staying out of sight for the duration of the war in empty warehouses, bombed out buildings, and rat infested cellars. Some people were able to obtain false identification papers and obtain work, but most of those in hiding depended on other people for food and other necessities. It took enormous courage and determination to survive.

Despite the difficulties, those in hiding were able to help one another. In Berlin, young Jewish people in hiding managed to meet in cafes and keep in touch with one another. They gave one another information about obtaining false identity papers or making contact with “border runners” who could smuggle them out of Germany. Berlin provided a unique opportunity for hiders to find one another. Those who were hiding in the countryside or small towns had few other Jews to help them.

Jewish resistance groups were formed. The Chug Chaluzi was organized in 1942 by Edith Wolff and saved many young people from deportations. This group viewed saving Jewish lives as a form of political resistance. The members met regularly, exchanged information, and organized meals and lodgings for one another. The intense bombing raids over Berlin did not stop them from meeting one another in pre-arranged secret meeting places. It was a miracle that most of the members of this group survived.

Louise had just gone to bed when she heard the loud knocking on the door and

then the words she feared the most, “This is the Gestapo. We have come to search the house. We know you are hiding a Jew.”

Louise leaped up from the bed, smoothed the sheets, grabbed her schoolbooks and dashed into the closet. Holding her breath, she could hear the pounding of her heart as the footsteps came closer and closer. Louise felt she had been in the closet for a very long time, but the footsteps disappeared, they did not open the closet door.

Not daring to move and feeling as if all the strength was drained from her body, Louise stayed in the closet until Frau Muenter opened the door. Still clutching her school books, she crawled back into the room.

Frau Muenter tried to smile, but she had tears in her eyes as she helped Louise off the floor. She knew Louise was no longer safe in her home.

Herr and Frau Muenter were social democrats who opposed the Nazi regime. Herr

Muenter was a close friend of Louise’s father, an active trade union leader. Arrested after he organized an anti-Nazi protest demonstration, Louise’s father, who was not Jewish, was no longer able to protect his wife and child from the anti Jewish laws. Like other Jewish people, Louise and her mother had to wear yellow stars sewn to their clothing and could only shop for food in the late afternoon. Forbidden to go to the school, Louise’s mother enrolled her in the Jewish school and they had to move to a small rooming house.

Despite the difficulties, Louise made many friends at the new school, but when the persecution of Jews intensified in 1942, many of her school friends disappeared. Hundreds of Jewish people, young and old were arrested and being sent to concentration camps, and many tried to emigrate to other countries. Sixteen years old, Louise tried to help her mother cope with the difficulties of living in Berlin. Her grandparents, aunts and uncles on her mother’s side were arrested and sent away. Her father’s parents had died when she was very small and she had no contact with the rest of his family. She had no contact with her father’s family. When the Nazis forced the school to close, Louise tried to keep in touch with her Jewish friends.

Louise’s mother kept telling her that life would be better as soon as her father got out of jail. But instead of being released, he was sent to a forced labor camp. Herr Muenter was able to see her father before he was moved and he promised him he would look after Louise and her mother.

The final round up of Jews began in February of 1943. Louise was just coming home when a neighbor stopped her and told her that her mother had been arrested and warned her not to go into the rooming house. Louise turned away from the house and recklessly pulled her off her yellow star and then began to run. She crossed the street and headed to the busy street alongside of the canal. It was safer to be walking with other people. A feeling of deep sadness welled up in her as well as fear.

“I have nothing to lose,” she thought. “I’ve lost everyone and everything dear to

me”. She did not know where her mother was, her father was far away in a labor camp, her grandparents had died and she did not know her father’s family. They lived in another part of Germany. The clouds began to gather and the sun was sinking, it was getting dark. Then she remembered Herr Muenter’s words. “If you are ever in trouble, come to me”. Louise turned around and began walking to the big apartment complex on the other side of the canal where the Muenters lived. As she approached the large sprawling building, she saw a group of Nazi Youth standing in front of the building. She did not make eye contact and walked more slowly. A housewife with a big bag of food was just entering the building. She stopped at the entranceway of the building and realized she did not know the number of their flat. But before she could speak to the woman who had entered the building with her, she saw Frau Muenter coming towards the entranceway. Frau Muenter was a nurse and was coming home from the hospital. Louise went up to her, but Frau Muenter put her finger to her lips and took her into the courtyard and then into another building. She dared not speak. Frau Muenter took out her key, opened the door to the flat and led her inside. As soon as she closed the door, Louise could not hold back her tears. She told Frau Muenter that her mother had been arrested. A tall stately woman, Frau Muenter put her arms around Louise and held her close.

That morning on her way to work, she saw lines of army trucks with gray canvas covers on the street. The trucks were escorted by armed SS men and stopped at factory gates, in front of private houses and were full of men, women and children. Her heart was heavy and she thought about Louise and her mother.

“You will stay here with us and you will be safe”, Frau Muenter “We promised both your mother and your father that we would look after you and we will” Frau Muenter tried to smile.

The Muenters’ small flat overlooked the courtyard of the big housing complex. It
had a coalstove, a small kitchen and parlor and two bedrooms. Frau Muneter took Louise to a small bedroom and told her it was her very own room. There was a small bed, a dresser and a chair and a table. The window in the bedroom overlooked the courtyard.

“Make yourself comfortable and try to rest”, she told Louise and went into the kitchen to prepare supper.

As soon as Herr Muenter came home that evening, he went to talk to Louise. He told her he was glad that she had come to them. He had heard about the raids on Jewish homes that had become known as the final round-up of the Jews in Berlin. AT dinner that night the Muenters told her that she woul d be safe as long as no one knew she was there. Louise understood that she was now in hiding, she could not leave the flat or answer the door bell. When visitors came to the house, Louise had to stay in her room. Frau Muenter would bring her books and puzzles to keep her amused. Louise asked her for school books too, so she could keep up with her studies.

Frau Muenter left for work early in the morning. She and Louise ate breakfast together and then Louise went to her room and spent the day doing school work and reading the books Frau Muenster brought her. She could not listen to the radio for fear the sound would attract attention. When visitors came, Louise stayed in the bedroom.

The days were long and the Muenters seemed to understand how difficult it was for the young girl to stay in her room day after day. They tried to cheer her up in the evenings and the three of them played cards and talked.

“We’ll take it day by day. Before you know it, you will have a normal life again”,

Frau Muenter told her.

The Muenters often had visitors and then Louise had to go to her room. Only a very few of their trusted friends klnew she was living with them. Herr Muenter brought her a jigsaw puzzle to work on when she had to stay in the room.

The kindness of Herr and Frau Muenter made Louise miss her parents all the more. Herr Muenter told her many stories about her brave father. Slowly Louise adjusted to the routine and the Muenters were confident that Louise was safe in their home until the night of the Gestapo raid.

After the raid, Frau Muenter discovered that it was her neighbor who had reported them to the Gestapo. The neighbor saw Frau Muenter bring Louise to the flat and when. she asked Frau Muenter about the young girl, Frau Muenter replied , “Oh, she is my niece, she comes to visit now and again”. But the woman was already suspicious of the Muenters because they had so many visitors. She watched the flat every day and noticed that the girl Frau Muenter said was her niece, never left the apartment, she reported them to the Gestapo.

The little flat was no longer a safe place for Louise, but Herr Muenter would not let her leave until he could find another safe place. He knew other anti-Nazis and social democrats who were hiding Jewish people. The very next evening, Herr Muenter brought home an address and told Louise to memorize it and throw away the paper. He gave her instructions.

“You will be safe in this place”, he assured her. “I have been told that there will be other young people there. But be very careful that no one sees you enter the building. If there is someone on the street, don’t go inside.” Herr Muenter gave her a wallet with some money. Frau Muenter gave her some clothing, a skirt, a sweater and two blouses and stuffed them in a paper bag along with some food. Louise was to leave early the next morning. No one slept that night.

After breakfast, Louise hugged Frau Muenter and left the flat. She had to walk along the canal for a mile and calmed herself by looking at the early morning shadows on the water. She could not remember a time when fear was not part of her life. She thought about her mother and her father and wondered if she’d ever see them again. Thinking about her mother, she tried to remember happy times.

She walked a long way and then turned away from the canal as she was told and headed up a small street, she found herself in a neighborhood she did not know, but she did not stop walking until she reached the address she had memorized. It was a deserted building with a broken door and it looked so empty she thought no one was inside. Louise rapped on the door four times, paused and then rapped four times again just as Herr Muenter had instructed.

The door opened and Louise went inside. As soon as the door closed, Louise saw
the boy who had opened the door. It was Gabriel, a boy she knew from the Jewish school. Tall and good looking, Gabriel was a year older than Louise. He often played the violin at the school and wanted to be a musician.

“I’m glad to see you”, Gabriel told her.

“Did you know I was coming?” she asked.

“I didn’t know it would be you, but I was told to watch for a young girl”, he replied.

Gabriel told her that she was now part of a group of young people in hiding and that they looked after one another. The groups that were in hiding were called “U boats”.

“You’ll be meeting other members of the group. You are not alone. We are going to survive all this cruelty and chaos”. He spoke calmly and with confidence as he explained the important rules.

“We never do anything to draw attention to ourselves like walk around in groups or wear funny clothing. And when you see someone you know, walk away as quickly as you can”.

Gabriel hid most of the day. As a young man out of uniform, he knew he would arouse suspicion if he walked around the streets and if he wore his Jewish star, he was in even greater danger. Nevertheless, he managed to look after the others.

Looking out for one another often meant bringing parcels of food to hiding places. Knowing there were spies on the street looking for Jewish people in hiding. Whenever a young Jewish person was found to be homeless, Gabriel or some of the others made arrangements for them. People in hiding lived in deserted buildings and cellars, some slept behind counters in grocery or fruit stores. There were also people that Gabriel knew who were willing to smuggle Jewish people out of Berlin.

During the day the members of the group had various hiding places. Some were able to obtain false identity papers and get jobs, but others spent their days in hiding. At night they met together in cafes or cellars. Berlin was famous for its many cafes called kneipen. In working class neighborhoods, there were kneipens on almost every street. Some members took chances and went to theatres or movie houses, but most of young people took hiding very seriously.

That night Louise went with Gabriel to a meeting in a back room of a café, where she met a few of the other young people. One of the girls worked illegally in a laundry run by her Christian aunt. Whenever someone in uniform came to the laundry, she had to run away. A boy who was the same age as Louise had false identification papers and was able to work in a factory and shop in food stores. He often bought food for the others who were not as fortunate. Another girl slept under a bed in a Christian friend’s house, but could not stay there during the day and spent the days traveling on streetcars or in the train station, pretending to wait for a train. When she saw a soldier or a Gestapo officer she hid in the public toilet.

Leon worked in an armaments factory in North Berlin and was on his way to work, when a co-worker, a young Frenchman met him in the train station and warned him not to go to work. He had heard a rumor that the Gestapo was looking for Jewish workers. Leon went back to his flat and the next day the Frenchman came and told him to find another place. Leon left his flat and made contact with another Jewish boy on the street who brought him to Gabriel.

Ilse was the daughter of a Christian mother and Jewish father, her blonde hair and blue eyes made her look “Aryan”, but her mother died when she was a small girl and she was raised by her Jewish grandparents. When her grandparents and her father were arrested, Ilse managed to escape and to her aunt, her mother’s sister, who was able to get her identity card from a priest. Ilse became an active member of the group and like Gabriel, she found suitable hiding places for newer members.

With her identity card, Ilse was able to get work as a waitress in small restaurants, but she never spent more than a few months in any one place, for fear of being discovered.

“I just don’t want people to know me too well”, she explained. “You never know who’s going to give you away”.

That night at the meeting in the small café, they At the café meeting, they talked about many things, Jewish holidays, looking for other Jewish young people, and safe hiding places. Louise looked around at the bright young faces and felt good to be counted one of them. After the meeting, Louise went with Ilse to her tiny room in an old rooming house. The owner was an elderly woman who was only interested in getting rent for her rooms and did not ask for identity cards.

The Allies began bombing Berlin in heavy nightly raids in 1943. The bombing raised many new dangers; those without identity cards could not seek shelter in the underground air raid shelters. At the same time, the bombing made it easier to find hiding places. There were also many more homeless people, seeking shelter after their homes had been destroyed. Mothers with crying children, elderly people carrying luggage, and other people filled the streets after the air raids.

Louise, Ilse and the others hid in cellars during the raids. Fire and smoke were everywhere. Ilse managed to find an identity card for Louise with the name “Alice Wissen” printed on it. With the card, Louise was now able to get to a shelter during a raid. She was also in a better position to help Gabriel and Ilse rescue other Jewish young people.

Gabriel learned about a 14 year old boy hiding in a cellar and sent Louise to meet him. The boy’s name was Samuel. Louise found him in the cellar of a bombed out building and gave him a parcel of food and some clothing. She looked at the skinny boy and wondered how he managed to stay alive. Samuel had been living by raiding garbage cans or buying stale bread with the few coins he had.

One night when Louise was in a bomb shelter, a girl she knew from school called her name. Louise tried to ignore her, but when the girl persisted, Louise said, “You must have the wrong person. My name is Alice, not Louise.”

The girl looked at her and shrugged. “Louise was Jewish so I guess she’s not around any more”, she said.

The group continued to meet regularly. They even had study sessions to learn more about the Jewish holidays. Together they shaped a strong sense of identity. Belonging to a group gave them courage and determination. One of their favorite topics of conversation was what they would do when the war was over.

There were many rumors of the Nazis losing the war and they heard about the Russian army attacking the Nazi troops inside Germany. Hope rose like a flame as they thought about having a future.

In the spring of 1945 the Allied armies captured Berlin. White sheets were hung from windows and on the lamp posts that were still standing. Every member of the group had survived the war.

The Fall of Berlin, Anthony Read and David Fisher, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1992

Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany, Marion A. Kaplan, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998