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Culture

A Tale of Hide and Speak

13 years after her book shed light on a little-known German Holocaust hero who saved Jews from deportation, Inge Deutschkron returns to the workshop museum where her life was spared to read from her latest work.

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A tireless crusader: Inge Deutschkron

A small musty room located at the far end of a run-down backyard in central Berlin is an unlikely venue for a book-reading.

Yet the place is full and everybody is trying hard not to stare openly at a diminutive, spry woman with cropped red hair sitting at a desk at the front.

The people who have turned up seem to be aware that it’s no coincidence that Inge Deutschkron is reading in this dilapidated room – bare of all furnishing except for the chairs, the peeling walls, the creaking floorboards.

After all this is where the German-Jewish author, journalist and survivor of the Holocaust worked and sought refuge between the years 1941 and 1943 together with other Jews on the run from the Nazis.

Now more than 60 years later, the 78-year-old Deutschkron is reading from her autobiographical book "A Death Sentence and Four Lives " in the very same surroundings that saved her from certain deportation.

Authentic setting for a poignant tale

Otto Weid am Telefon

Otto Weidt

The room grows still as the author speaks of a day in 1941 when she arrived in the workshop of a German called Otto Weidt (photo) to seek work. People involuntarily shift their gaze to the crumbling room they're in - formerly part of the workshop run by Otto Weidt in the early 1940s, who mainly hired blind, deaf and mute Jews to produce brooms and brushes for the Wehrmacht, Hitler's army.

Using every trick in the bag to save Jews

But Weidt wasn't seeking to exploit the Jews. Instead, he had intentions reminiscent of a more famous Holocaust hero - Oskar Schindler. Secretly abhorring the Nazis and their ideology, Weidt convinced the authorities that his skilled Jewish workers were indispensable in manufacturing vital items for the revered national army and thus managed to keep the Gestapo from taking too close an interest in his factory.

Word of Weidt’s generosity spread among the few remaining Jews in Berlin who had managed to avoid the Nazi deportations by going underground.

Otto Weidt mit Mitarbeitern

Otto Weidt, Alice Licht, Gustav Kremmert

Before long Weidt was hiring physically able Jews, falsifying documents, and bribing the Gestapo to bring back some workers deported to transit camps.

When Deutschkron turned up, Weidt hired her as a secretary, though it was strictly forbidden to hire Jews for their writing skills. Weidt also hid a Jewish family of four in a back room and camouflaged it with a backless cupboard.

The devastating end

But Weidt’s luck ran out in 1943, when a spy betrayed the actual purpose of the workshop to the Gestapo. Most of the workers were rounded up and taken to concentration camps. Weidt managed to save a few by personally going to Auschwitz. But most of the others were killed.

Die Hackischen Höfe

In the 1930s

After Otto Weidt died impoverished and lonely in 1947, the workshop was abandoned.

Memory of Weidt's efforts kept alive

Today the grim rooms of the "Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt" house a museum and an exhibition called "Blind Confidence – Hidden at the Hackescher Markt 1941-1943".

"Hidden" is the right word because among the tourist bustle of the trendy Hackescher Markt area, it’s easy to walk past the entrance to number 39 Rosenthalerstrasse and miss the plaque on the ground dedicated to Otto Weidt.

Today the hip poster- and graffiti-splattered courtyard where the workshop is located is home to a cinema, art galleries, clubs and multi-media companies.

Those who follow the memorial plaque to the dank rooms on the first floor at the back of the courtyard come face to face with a sense of the horror of the Holocaust. The bare rooms, peppered with black and white photographs of Otto Weidt and his staff, postcards and a few items such as brushes produced by the Jewish workers, convey the oppresiveness of the Nazi years.

Museum marked by a personal tale of courage and tragedy

"The place is authentic. It speaks to you", Deutschkron told DW-WORLD after the reading by way of explaining how the museum differed from other modern-day monuments and intellectual works of art dedicated to the Holocaust.

"Children especially are moved by the place because they’re so close to the terror, yet can’t actually grasp it".

Inge Deutschkron, who survived the rest of World War Two by hiding with her mother among other places in an abandoned horse stable, went to England and later to Israel after the war and worked as a journalist.

Her first book , "I Wore the Yellow Star" (" Ich trug den gelben Stern"), which initially shed light on the workshop in the Rosenthalerstrasse and Otto Weidt, was staged by the Grips Theatre in Berlin in 1989.

The play called "From Now On, You’re Called Sara " (" Ab heute heisst du Sara") was a runaway success and still runs to full houses at the Grips Theatre. Deutschkron has since written several more books, among them a work for children called "Papa Weidt ."

Deutschkron holds readings and lectures and is often invited at schools and universities all over Germany to speak about her experiences in Nazi Germany.

Woman with a mission

Inge Deutschkron

Inge Deutschkron

The author admits it was very painful to confront the workshop for the first time after so many years when "I wore the Yellow Star" was performed in 1989.

"The strange thing was that everything was just how it was in 1943, when we were forced to leave - right down to the creaking of the floorboards and door". She winces, "I went out that first evening and got drunk!".

But the pain didn’t stop Deutschkron from speaking and writing tirelessly about the workshop and Otto Weidt.

"I always knew I needed to write about my experience. You see, when you’ve survived something like the Holocaust, you have a duty to write about it", she says.

But there's another reason for Deutschkron to go on about a subject that's been dealt with exhaustively in Germany. "I also want to let the world know that there weren’t only bad and mean people during the years of national socialism in Germany", she says with a smile.

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