The Cost Of Courage: The 2 Couples Who Rescued My Family From The Nazis

Nov 14, 2018
Originally published on November 15, 2018 12:40 pm

In recent months, I've learned that my life is bound together with two families who took enormous risks to save my father and my grandparents from the Nazis.

What I have discovered about the rescuers is both wondrous and bleak. One family, the Furstenbergs, has thrived; another, the Mynareks, is gone, seemingly without a trace.

My father, Gert Berliner, was 14 years old in 1939, when he escaped from the certain death of Nazi Germany. He left via the Kindertransport, a rescue train organized to take Jewish children away from harm and place them with families in other countries.

My dad's parents, Paul and Sophie Berliner, were trapped in Berlin. The Kindertransport did not include adults, and eventually they would be on a list for deportation to a death camp. So on Dec. 6, 1942, my grandparents went into hiding, finding refuge with their friends and neighbors, Charlotte and Fritz Mynarek.

The terrible price they paid

It was no small act of generosity. If the Mynareks were caught hiding my grandparents they, too, would be targeted by the Gestapo. But they did it anyway. And I now know that they paid a terrible price for their generosity.

At 8 a.m. on April 22, 1943, the Gestapo arrived at the Mynareks' apartment. Someone had betrayed them. The two couples were arrested and detained at the infamous Gestapo police station at Berlin's Alexanderplatz. Less than a month later, on May 17, my grandparents were sent to Auschwitz on a deportation train, Transport 38. They perished there.

Fritz Mynarek was sent to Buchenwald, a death camp. He was murdered there in the winter of 1945, just months before the Nazi surrender. Charlotte was imprisoned in Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women, for the "crime" of trying to save my grandparents.

The last time Charlotte saw my grandmother was in a hallway at the police station. They embraced; my grandmother was crying. Her only request for Charlotte was to get word to my father, knowing at that moment she would never see him again.

The air was different

My father, who had been rescued via the Kindertransport, was taken in by the Furstenberg family in Kalmar, Sweden.

Suddenly, in Sweden he could breathe, he said. "It was like the air was different."

And now, 80 years later, my father, Gert Berliner, age 94, has been reconnected with the Furstenbergs. Last year in March, a Swedish journalist and writer named Claes Furstenberg was digging through documents of his own family and came across some letters. It was correspondence between his grandfather and my dad.

The discovery buried in letters

Curiosity piqued, he began to search for my father and emailed him. My father responded to Claes: Your grandfather Sigge Furstenberg saved my life. Since then, they have exchanged more than 60 emails. Claes sent my dad a soccer jersey with the colors of the Kalmar team. Various members of the Furstenberg family have visited my dad and his wife, Frances, at their home in Manhattan.

It also turns out that the Furstenbergs are the same Furstenbergs who have shaped literary and culinary life in my own hometown of Washington, D.C. The late Carla Furstenberg Cohen was a founder of the city's landmark bookstore, Politics and Prose. Her brother Mark Furstenberg is a renowned baker and James Beard Award winner.

This past June, I went to Sweden and met Claes. He spent a day showing me around Kalmar, retracing my father's footsteps. We went back to the sprawling house where my dad lived as a foster brother with Claes' dad, who was exactly my dad's age — both boys were born in 1924.

We visited the graveyard where Claes' grandparents Sigge and Anna-Lisa are buried. We stood at the headstone together. The smell of freshly cut grass mingled with the sea air. I was reminded of what my dad said to Claes: Your grandfather saved my life.

A medal and a deportation List

Sigge Furstenberg was a successful businessman who owned a garment factory in Kalmar. While Sweden remained neutral before and during World War II, Sigge was anything but neutral or passive as Europe went up in flames. He helped Danish Jews who found asylum in Sweden after fleeing from Nazi occupation on small fishing boats in 1943. For that, he received a "medal of liberty" from the King of Denmark.

Sigge and Anna-Lisa were founders of Kalmar's refugee committee. Sigge became a target for Swedish Nazi sympathizers. Each town in Sweden had a list of people whose names would be turned over to the Nazis if the Germans invaded the country, said Claes. In Kalmar, Sigge's name was the first on the deportation list.

Sigge Furstenberg is not known to history like his countryman Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from death camps. But he is a linchpin to my own family's history. The action Sigge took in saving my dad is also what allowed me to be born. It's why I'm here, breathing, writing these words. It's why my son, Ben, is alive. These facts, which suddenly became real to me in Kalmar, are both unsettling and clarifying.

The families connected

I sent my dad photos of Claes and me in front of the house where he lived in Kalmar with Sigge and the family — the house that was his sanctuary. And he responded, touched, more excited than I've known him to be in years. The past merging with the present in digital pixels — an image of survival and renewal. That's the reunion with the Furstenbergs. Our families are now connected in an ever expanding circle. For my father, this a happy surprise in old age. Everything about it is life-affirming.

Never recognized but not forgotten

The contrast with the Mynareks could not be more stark.

After the war ended, in 1946, Charlotte wrote to my father in Sweden. Two letters spell out the final days she and Fritz spent with my grandparents and the terrible events that followed.

Charlotte speaks of the tightly knit community in Berlin where they all lived — bombings; friends and neighbors lost. So many of the best are gone, she says.

"I have to say I am envious of the dead. ... For me everything is over," she writes.

But she tells my father, who was 21 at the time, "My dear boy ... you are still very young and have your life ahead of you."

Go forth and live.

And so he did.

The next year, 1947, my father left Sweden for America. Thriving in the freewheeling bohemian climate of New York, my dad worked as a photographer and on films, including a dreamy short called Pull My Daisy with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He painted. He made his own way in a new country.

Charlotte Mynarek died in 1975. She and her husband, Fritz, were childless. Their act of extreme generosity is not recognized in any historical record.

Over the past several months I have tried to find living descendants of the Mynareks. The staff at the NPR library has been working the online ancestry groups. A German colleague in Berlin, Jacobia Dahm, has dug through federal archives, phone books, death certificates and other government documents. I've reached out to Mynareks around the world on social media.

So far we have come up empty. I will keep trying to find someone in the Mynarek family. I want to tell them what happened to their family, and mine. It has not been forgotten.

Gert Berliner packed a stuffed toy monkey when he fled Germany from the Nazis as a child. He kept the toy for more than a half-century before finally donating it to a museum, an act that led to a remarkable discovery. Read that story.

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