Resistance under national socialism: the silent heroes

With a ceremonial act, the German Resistance Memorial Center opens its expanded special exhibition on the help given to persecuted Jews under National Socialism.

In the Silent Heroes Memorial Center, showing the resistance to the persecution of Jews Photo: Silent Heroes Memorial Center.

A museum’s inventory may be as descriptive as it likes, but it remains dead matter, be it paintings on display, photographs or soup plates. When has it ever happened that all these objects come alive, that they tell stories, laugh, gesticulate, and are irrepressibly happy to now be in the museum themselves?

This week there was such a rare exception.

Because that’s when the expanded permanent exhibition at the German Resistance Memorial Center on Stauffenbergstrabe about "silent heroes" was opened with a ceremony. Silent heroes, that is the term for people who unselfishly helped persecuted Jews during National Socialism, who gave them food, shelter and hid them from deportation, usually without making a big fuss later about their dangerous solidarity at the time. A bitterly needed reminder in times of resurgent anti-Semitism.

Upstairs on the 3rd floor of the memorial, one can trace the fates of those who stood up for their neighbors. The exhibition uses pictures, documents and everyday objects to present the help given to the hidden "illegals". Around 5,000 Jews, more than 1,700 of them in Berlin, managed to survive in this way throughout Germany, in cellar holes, in the attic, but also disguised as supposed "Aryan" relatives in the visiting room, always changing quarters in case of danger. An estimated 20,000 helpers were needed to make this survival possible.

There were far too few. About 160,000 German Jews were murdered by the Nazis.

What makes one want to help?

Downstairs in the large hall on the first floor of the hotel across the street, playwright and theater author Nele Hertling gives Tuesday’s keynote address. The white-haired lady recalls her parents Cornelia and Hanning Schroder, who took in a persecuted couple in 1944. The protecting family was itself persecuted, because mother Cornelia came from a Jewish family. They "demonstrated the image of a normal life," Hertling reports, while also having to watch out for a billeted Wehrmacht officer. And she asks the all-important question, "What makes individuals want to help?"

For decades, this resistance of the "silent heroes" was ignored

As a ten-year-old, Nele Hertling says afterwards, she didn’t notice anything about the action at the time. That would have been far too dangerous," she says, because a child can easily blab.

Across the hall on the third floor, the sewing box of Ilse Rewald, whom the Schroders rescued together with her husband Werner, is displayed behind glass. It is an inconspicuous white box with three open compartments. But peeking out of the top compartment is Ilse Rewald’s "Jewish star," which she had taken off in 1943 to go into hiding. There is also an inconspicuous cloth ribbon, on which she wrote down the most important addresses during her time in hiding. At the time, she had sewn the ribbon into the hem of her skirt. On the wall next to the sewing box is a photo from 1948: It shows the Schroder couple, who made the survival of the Jewish Rewald couple possible, together with their daughter Nele, who has just given the celebratory lecture opposite.

Life underground

Walter Frankenstein, seated in the front row, listened attentively to Nele Hertling. At 93 years old, the man has traveled all the way from Stockholm to witness the opening of the exhibition. Frankenstein did not save any Jews – he himself was one of those who had to live underground as a persecuted person. He is pleased that so many people – there are several hundred – attend the event. Because after the war, neither the rescuers nor the rescued were particularly popular, on the contrary. For decades, this resistance of the "little people" was ignored – for a weighty reason. For the help of the "silent heroes" demonstrated to the now former Volksgenossen, the majority of whom did not want to have known about anything, that it would have been possible to do more than just look the other way.

"There was silence," says Nele Hertling, who grew up in the supposedly so anti-fascist GDR, "no one was interested." On the contrary, she says, there was hostility against her from the neighborhood after 1945.

After the ceremony, Walter Frankenstein and his son Uri take the elevator to the third floor of the building across the street. There, in the exhibition, he remains suspended for a long time in front of a screen on which the story of the rescue of a persecuted person is documented in multimedia with pictures and texts. It is his own.

Frankenstein, a man with a white crown of hair and a walker on which he leans, is wide awake despite his age. He sees the pictures of his own photo album, which he was able to save at that time through the persecution: his wife Leonie, now deceased, with little Uri in 1944 under a false name in a Brandenburg village, ball games in the Jewish Auerbach orphanage in Schonhauser Allee in the 1930s, where he grew up, the helpers Arthur Ketzer and Arthur Katz, and the little son Michael after his arrival in Palestine in 1946. He came into the world in illegality and under a false name, which is why this station of the exhibition is titled "Birth in Hiding." The entire family of four survived. At his own youthful image, it escapes Frankenstein: "That was me!"

Help for the persecuted

Ten stories of help for persecuted Jews in hiding are shown in detail in the show, and others are presented in multimedia form. More than 900 are documented in a database that can be clicked through. And the exhibition is to be expanded in the future. Then, according to project manager Johannes Tuchel, the aid given to Jews in the countries of Europe occupied by the Germans will also be looked at. A small group of scientists is undertaking extensive research on this.

Nele Hertling praises the exhibition. She says it is "a very belated recognition" of those who selflessly helped in times of need. And Walter Frankenstein says, "This show is fantastic."

The Silent Heroes Memorial, Stauffenbergstrasse 13-14, is open daily. Admission is free, the exhibition catalog costs 10 euros.