A piece for Omnified by Yermi Brenner
This essay was written by Yermi Brenner and is one of the 12 stories featured in “A Place They Called Home: Reclaiming Citizenship. Stories of a New Jewish Return to Germany,” edited by Donna Swarthout. You can find more information on the book here. To listen to our interview with Donna Swarthout, click here.
I have never been a famous person, nor have any other living members of my family. But after I obtained German citizenship and came to live in Germany, I started noticing that my grandmother, who died in 1987, has become quite a celebrity in German society and amongst visitors to Berlin.
“What?? You are the grandson of Alice Licht?!” was the response of a tour guide I met during my first month in Berlin when I told him my grandmother’s name. He spent the next twenty minutes excitedly barraging me with questions about Alice’s post-Holocaust life. “I have introduced your grandma’s story hundreds of times,” he said. “She’s like the star of my tour. I can’t believe Alice Licht’s grandson is right here in front of me!”
Alice’s post-mortem journey to Holocaust fame was ignited in the late 1990s, when a group of students from Berliner Fachhochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft collaborated to create an exhibition about Otto Weidt, a Berliner who risked his life to hide Jews during the Nazi era. The students, who wanted to show there are Germans that dared to resist the Nazis, told the story of Weidt, a semi-blind man who ran a workshop that produced brooms and brushes for Germany’s armed forces and protected Jews from deportation by providing them with secret hideouts, forging documents, and even bribing Gestapo agents. One of the Jewish women that Weidt helped was my grandmother Alice, whom he hired as a secretary in 1941.
The students’ project led to the creation of the Otto Weidt Workshop for the Blind museum, which was established at the exact location and structure that housed Weidt’s workshop during the first half of the twentieth century. The museum displays Weidt’s brave actions and the personal stories of Jews he saved or tried to save. Alice’s amazing survival story is also on display in this museum, along with a poem she wrote in Theresienstadt concentration camp, encrypted postcards she miraculously delivered from the concentration camp to Otto Weidt in Berlin, and images of her as a charming young woman with a warm smile. The museum presents a rare “feel good” Holocaust story—with its narrative of human bravery in the face of evil, survival through hardship, and revival. And my grandmother is one of the main characters.
The heart-warming narrative of the Otto Weidt Workshop for the Blind museum—along with its convenient location in Berlin’s touristic Mitte district—has made it a popular attraction for tour guides, foreign visitors and groups of German students of all school ages. About ninety thousand people visit the museum every year.
In 2013, German film director Kai Christiansen used the story that is told in the museum to make A Blind Hero: The Love of Otto Weidt, a feature length docudrama based mainly on the eyewitness accounts of Inge Deutschkron, a ninety-five-year-old German Jewish woman whom Weidt also saved from the Nazis when she was in her twenties. In this movie, the main character is a young Jewish Berliner named Alice Licht, played by the beautiful German actress Henriette Confurius. The plot subtly implies a juicy detail that is not featured in the museum’s narrative: my grandmother was Otto Weidt’s protégé and his lover.
While the true nature of Otto Weidt and Alice Licht’s relationship remains unclear, the framing of the narrative as a tale of “forbidden love” in Nazi Berlin, between a married middle-aged Christian man and a Jewish woman in her twenties, made “Alice’s survival story even more captivating and memorable for Germans and tourists alike, as well as for the media. The film won awards in festivals worldwide and aired on ARD, the main German public TV station. Articles published by German magazines and internationally featured Weidt’s heroic acts and Alice’s story, her aspirations to be a doctor, her deportation to Theresienstadt, and her daring escape to Weidt’s hideout.
I was born in 1980 in Israel and came to Germany for the first time in 2004 when my parents decided our family should visit Berlin and the Otto Weidt Workshop for the Blind museum. We spent a few days touring the city, trying to learn about our family’s history. We went to the museum, and my father Gary was interviewed for a German documentary about Otto Weidt (that never aired). We heard additional details about Alice’s life from Cornelia Siebeck, a historian who had joined the museum’s staff and was responsible for most of the research about my grandmother. We visited Heinrich Heine Street, the last known address of Alice’s parents and my great grandparents, Georg and Käthe Licht, who were also deported to Nazi concentration camps but did not survive.
Near the intersection of Heinrich Heine and Annen streets, embedded on the sidewalk, we saw two cobblestone-sized gold plates, engraved with my great grandparents’ name, birth year, and fate. These small and powerful memorials are part of a well-known project called Stolpersteine (“stumbling stones” in German) by the artist Gunter Demnig, commemorating victims of the Holocaust at their last known address. I didn’t know then that thirteen years later I would be renting an office space a few hundred meters from the same address.
Back then I had no German passport and no aspirations to live in Berlin. But our tour of the German capital and the Otto Weidt Workshop for the Blind museum, and the details about young Alice’s life journey that Siebeck the historian shared with us, encouraged me to visualize and understand my German heritage. I started thinking about how values that were prevalent in early twentieth century Berlin—like cosmopolitanism, individual freedom and rationality—are a big part of my identity today.
Prior to that visit, I had never before felt any personal connection to Germany. Like all Israelis, I learned again and again about what the Nazis did to the Jews. But while some people in Israel, particularly of older generations, still resent Germany, I don’t recall ever having any negative emotions towards German people—nor was I ever particularly interested in them or their country.
Actually, until that family trip to Berlin in 2004, I always thought of my paternal grandparents—Alice and Walter Brenner—as Americans, not Germans. Of course I was aware that Alice survived Nazi concentration camps and emigrated from Germany to the United States after the war. But I never actually heard her or Walter speak German (they spoke English and learned some Hebrew after immigrating in 1974 to Israel to live nearby their only son) and I knew my dad was born and raised in Los Angeles. When I was a young boy, Alice would sweet-talk me in English; they always brought me American gifts, and their home in Rehovot, an Israeli city close to where I grew up, had toy tractors and snacks that none of my friends had.
Alice died of a bacterial infection when I was six years old and Walter passed away when I was twelve, so I spent time with them only as a child. The only other memories I have from my interactions with Alice are that she would always have American-brand cornflakes in her kitchen (uncommon in Israel of the early 1980s) and that one time when her sleeve was folded up, I saw a number tattooed on her forearm.
A few years after that family trip to Berlin, I was studying journalism in Tel Aviv and was chosen for an exchange program of young Israeli, Palestinian and German journalists. The program started with a ninety-day language course in north Bavaria’s University of Bayreuth, where hundreds of young people from all over the world convene every summer to study German. One of my fellow students in this German summer school was a Croatian woman named Martina, who would later become my life partner.
I wasn’t a diligent student of the German language, probably because at that time I had no intentions of staying long-term in Germany. After the summer school, as part of the journalist exchange program, I spent four months interning in the radio newsroom of Deutsche Welle English—a German public broadcaster based in Bonn. Then I returned to Israel, without any hesitations about that decision.
Around that time, my parents—who live in Kibbutz Hatzor, near the Israeli city of Ashdod—initiated the process of reclaiming German citizenship, first for my dad and later for my two brothers and me. My parents decided to invest effort and money in this legal process because they believed it would open up opportunities for their sons. Also, my mom Tamar has always believed that Israel might become unsafe for us at some point, in which case having another passport can’t hurt.
The application process took a few years, but I barely noticed since my parents were taking care of everything. In September 2011, my dad was awarded a German passport. Two years later, when I was living in New York City—I went there to study for a Master’s degree in journalism—I entered the German Consulate in Midtown Manhattan to have my first direct interaction with German authorities. It went smoothly. I exited the Consulate with a brand new burgundy red passport. Walking across Manhattan that day, I for the first time fantasized about the possibility of living in Berlin.
As time went by, I started to become more interested in German history and contemporary society; I remember swallowing up articles on Berlin’s counterculture vibe, its international feel and open-minded lifestyle. The book A German Requiem by Amos Elon had an important role in my process of reclaiming German identity. It introduced me to the culturally rich and fascinating environment in which my grandparents were born and raised, and to the important role that Jews had in society during those times. As I read this book, I felt excited about becoming a Berliner myself because I realized that much of my identity is rooted in culture and values that flourished in this city up to eighty years ago, were brutally repressed, and are being revived.
About a year after I completed my graduate studies in New York, Martina and I deliberated where to settle down. There were many options on the table. Our mutual collection of passports (my Israeli, American—which I’ve had since birth due to my American father—and German, and her Croatian) enabled us to choose between living in Israel, the United States, or the European Union. We knew we wanted to be in a diverse urban environment, not too far away from our families, where we could secure a safe and pleasant existence, and find some inspiring, fun people to befriend. New York offered the most professional options for both of us (for me in journalism, for Martina in digital design), while in Tel Aviv we had many friends and great hummus. We ended up choosing Berlin because it was close enough to both of our families, affordable and more mysterious and interesting.
The Migrant Hub
We landed directly to an Airbnb flat in Neukölln, a Berlin borough that is known for its cultural diversity. Neukölln saw a major influx of non-Germans back in the 1960s and 1970s as many Turkish and Balkan Gastarbeiter (“guest workers” that came to Germany as temporary, low-paid labor) ended up settling there due to its relatively low housing prices. The portion of migrants in Neukölln expanded even more in the early 1980s when Lebanese and Palestinian refugees started arriving. Today, Arabs and Turks are Neukölln’s largest immigrant communities, but there are many other cultures and ethnicities, including quite a lot of Israelis who relocated to Berlin in the past decade. More than forty percent of Neukölln’s current residents originated in a different country or have a parent that was born outside of Germany.
As soon as we dropped our belongings (two overly stuffed suitcases and a couple of laptops) in the Airbnb apartment, we headed out to explore the neighborhood. As I strolled with Martina through the heart of Neukölln—Karl Marx Straße, Hermannplatz and Sonnenallee—on that sunny summer afternoon, I was mesmerized. We observed stores selling Islamic wedding dresses, sipped heart-shaped macchiato in hipster cafés that would fit well in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, or Florentin in Tel Aviv, nibbled the sweetest cherries I had ever tried in an outdoor fruit and vegetable market, explored shops selling Palestinian memorabilia, and couldn’t decide which of the various inexpensive eating out options—from falafel to Vietnamese noodles to vegan burgers—to try first. Everything seemed so new, yet so very familiar; a mixture of German, Middle Eastern and cosmopolitan vibes.
I was particularly fascinated with Sonnenallee, a long, busy commercial street that serves as a hub for Berlin’s Arab community. Many of Berlin’s Arabs are people who left the Middle East due to violence, personal persecution, or a sense of desperation resulting from the political situation in their homeland. In the past two years, at least five Syrian restaurants have opened on this street.
Sonnenallee’s development into an Arab hub brought people like Mussa, a Lebanese national who fled his homeland in 1990 to Germany in hope of a safer life. Mussa—whom I interviewed for an article in 2016—opened the Umkalthum pastry shop on 50 Sonnenallee, which goes by the same name as the pastry shop his family previously owned in Beirut. The Umkalthum storefront features tall pyramids made up of hundreds of baklavas, and inside Mussa offers several kinds of Cremeschnitte, a German cake filled with vanilla pudding.
About thirty meters down the street from Umkalthum, on Sonnenallee 54, is my favorite eatery in town: a popular Palestinian-Lebanese restaurant called Azzam, where one can get a juicy, warm Musabbaha, with pita bread, olives and pickles on the side, for three and a half euros. I love eating at Azzam because of the inexpensive, tasty food but also because I enjoy being in an environment where Arab families are eating, talking and laughing. Back in Israel, I never hung out in Arab communities, I knew nearly nothing about Arab culture and had fewer Arab acquaintances than fingers; when I thought of Arabs, it was almost always in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Azzam, as I slowly wipe my plate clean and observe the people around me, I see Arab people having regular lives, enjoying a meal with their friends or loved ones. The dehumanization of Arabs that was socialized into me in Israel has disintegrated since I started spending time in Azzam and Sonnenallee.
I visited Sonnenallee a lot in my first two years as a Berliner because we found an apartment half a mile away. We rented a two-room flat on 36 Lohmühlenstraße, located a few meters from where the Berlin Wall stood from 1961 to 1989, in what was once East Berlin. For my Facebook cover photo, I chose a 1987 photograph showing the tall cement Berlin Wall filled with graffiti and behind it on the East Side a watchtower and our building.
When I first discovered this photo online, I went outside to the exact location it was shot, and stared at the spectacle. In a site where just thirty years ago there was so much political tension, I saw people sitting on benches sipping beers, families with bicycles and baby trollies passing by, and a hip café restaurant called Kalle Klein that serves gourmet coffee and overpriced brunches. The peacefulness of that scene was inspiring. It was a much-needed reminder that humans have the ability to turn bloody conflict zones into peaceful residential areas.
Some segments of the Berlin Wall were purposely kept to remind locals and visitors of the time when the city was divided and its residents were physically and socially disconnected. But along Lohmühlenstraße, all the segments of the Wall have been torn down and replaced by a double row of small cobblestones, which were installed by the Berlin Senate to give people a deeper understanding of the city’s history. Only one lonely watchtower in the adjacent park has been preserved. Most people pass across this small double row of cobblestones and don’t even notice them, and don’t even realize that such a huge, dramatic freedom barrier was here such a short time ago. I rode my bicycle across those cobblestones almost every day when we lived in that Lohmühlenstraße apartment, and it excited me every time.
Getting a bicycle was an essential stepping-stone in my Berlinization process. In our first year as Berliners, Martina and I went for countless rides around Neukölln and in other boroughs, exploring neighborhoods and appreciating the various settings this metropolis offers—from the overly touristic Mitte to gentrified Prenzlauer Berg to politically active Kreuzberg to party driven Friedrichshain to the always soothing Tempelhofer Feld park. In the warm months, we put our bicycles on the train going to the outskirts of the city, to take rides in the forests and dips in the lakes.
I learned about the FKK (Freikörperkultur, literally translated ‘free body culture,’ is a cultural and political movement practicing and defending personal and social nudity) and it seemed so logical and right that I managed to overcome the deeply implanted fear of being naked in public and take off my bathing suit. On dance floors of house parties and clubs, where Berlin’s open-minded ethos is most visible, I for the first time in my life felt comfortable to let loose and shake my body without feeling judged. Step by step, I was becoming a Berliner, and loving it.
Reporting About Refugees
I started working as a freelance journalist, writing articles in English for American and international media. The focus of my journalism since I arrived in Berlin has been on migration and minorities—topics that are relevant to my present, past and future. Reporting on these issues felt personal to me, and it was also very relevant because the number of asylum seekers arriving in Germany dramatically increased in 2015 and editors in news organizations I worked with desired articles on refugees.
On reporting assignments to refugee reception centers I saw family members who had been disconnected in Syria reunite in Germany, and kids who grew up in war zones playing around in a safe space. I took the train out of Berlin to rural Brandenburg to interview refugees who had been assigned to live in small towns where locals’ attitudes towards Muslims can be unwelcoming and even racist. And I covered the countless grassroots initiatives created by Germans to support the integration of newcomers, like the Sharehaus Refugio, a building in Neukölln that houses both refugees and locals who collaborate to operate a small café and community center on the ground floor.
Throughout Germany, I have met dozens of people who fled countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq because they encountered a situation that is similar to the reality my grandmother Alice faced in Berlin of the 1940s. Talking with these people—some of whom lost their parents just like both my Berlin grandparents did—was another way for me to learn about the experiences of my family during and after the Holocaust.
While I came to Berlin under very different circumstances, I have often identified with refugees I met because we do have a shared experience: we were both trying to learn German and find our place within a foreign society. I have managed to learn some conversational German, but most of the social interactions I have even today as I start my fifth year in Berlin are in English. Some of the refugees I met and interviewed have become my friends. Being a migrant is the common denominator of most of my Berlin circle of friends, which includes people who grew up in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Greece, Ireland, France, the United States, Canada, Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia.
Our first year in Germany ended with the creation of another memorial for my family on the streets of Berlin. This time it was the parents of Walter, my grandfather and Alice’s husband, who were being commemorated with Stolpersteine. Two cobblestone-sized gold plates, engraved with the name, birth year, and fate of Carl and Paula Brenner—who died in Nazi camps—were planted in the sidewalk near their last known residence: 15 Thomasius Street in Berlin’s Moabit district.
During the ceremony, Rita, who is one of the residents of Thomasius Street and a member of the group that organized and funded the commemoration, read a short text introducing the lives of Carl and Paula, based on information collected from German archives. As she completed her speech, she glanced at me and said that it makes her so happy that Carl and Paula’s great grandson is now living in Berlin. I smiled and said hello.
That ceremony was a feel-good moment for me and also for the other German residents of the street, who clearly shared Rita’s excitement from the fact that I chose to settle in Berlin. For these people, my decision to live in Germany is proof that the decades-long struggle to heal the German society from anti-Semitism has at least partly succeeded. And I think they are right; even though academic research and news reports show racist attitudes towards Jews are still prevalent in German society, I have not experienced any form of anti-Semitism since relocating to Berlin.
My Berlin Fetish
Not long after that ceremony, Martina and I hung a large map of Berlin on a wall in our apartment and on it we inserted pins marking locations in the city that are of importance to us, like our favorite restaurant, the park we enjoy relaxing in, and the lake with the clearest water for swimming. Also marked on this map are locations that are relevant to my family’s history in Berlin: the streets where Alice and Walter were raised, the apartment where Georg and Käthe Licht hid and were caught, the factory that housed Carl Brenner’s wholesale company, and of course, my favorite, the Otto Weidt Workshop for the Blind museum at 39 Rosenthaler Straße, where Alice worked as a secretary for Otto Weidt in the horrible first half of the 1940s.
I love this museum and I visit it often. Most times, I stroll through the exhibit and observe visitors as they are learning about my grandmother’s life, reading her poem and postcards. I eavesdrop as they talk about her, and get emotional when people chat about being inspired by her story. I especially like to tag along with tour guides as they lead groups through the museum, and hear them telling Alice’s story to their groups, and seeing how people respond. Being anonymous at the Otto Weidt museum has become my little Berlin fetish.
But one of the museum’s shift managers knows who I am, and when he’s there and notices my arrival, he likes to introduce me to visitors as Alice’s grandson. People usually respond with excitement and awe, and then ask questions about my grandmother’s post-Holocaust life and about my decision to live in Berlin. Some have asked how is it that I came back to live in the country that murdered my ancestors.
I tell them that in Berlin I feel a sense of belonging—to the people, to the primary values—and that I feel welcomed here. I mention that I find Berlin culturally and historically fascinating, and that I have met and made friends here with many like-minded folks. I say Berlin offers me a society in which I am not afraid to start a family, and a liveliness that encourages me to keep learning more.
During a recent visit to the Otto Weidt Workshop for the Blind museum, after the shift manager exposed me as Alice’s grandson to a group of tourists, I struck up a conversation with a German tour guide who had just finished leading a group. He was thrilled to meet me and asked the usual questions about my grandmother and about my life. His excitement peaked when I mentioned that I recently emigrated from Israel to Germany.
“Alice Licht’s grandson is now a Berliner,” he said. “That is the perfect anecdote to end the story I tell in my tours.”
“A Place They Called Home: Reclaiming Citizenship. Stories of a New Jewish Return to Germany,” edited by Donna Swarthout, is available now.