“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”—Elie Wiesel
“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”—Elie Wiesel
NOTE: This article tiers off my previous post dealing with my Uncle Fedor, and a postcard he mailed on his 14th birthday from Breslau, Germany. For most of my readers, I expect this article will be of limited interest, so briefly let me explain why I’ve written it. With the exception of my Uncle Fedor, I had never heard of the other people whose names appear on the postcard. I had low expectations when I started gumshoeing, so was pleasantly surprised when I figured out all their identities. I was even more delighted when I found pictures of the person to whom the card had been mailed. Sadly, I also felt an obligation to share with readers the fate of my great-aunt Charlotte Berliner, and in a small way remember that she once existed. And, finally, I wanted to tell about the various databases I checked to uncover the vital events of the named people.
In the previous Blog post dealing with my Uncle Fedor Bruck, readers will recall that on his 14th birthday on August 17, 1909, my uncle went on a hot-air balloon ride in Breslau (today: Wrocław, Poland). Along with “Alfred & Lotte,” all signed a card postmarked from a mail train, copied here (Figures 1a & 1b), addressed to “Fräulein Helene Rothe” and sent to the attention of “Martin Rothe” in Meseritz in the province of Posen, Prussia (today: Miedzyrzecz, Poland). This was the first time I came across the surname “Rothe” in my family research.
I had been told by my parents that members of my grandmother Else Berliner’s (Figure 2) family had immigrated to New York. While I’d never met them growing up, my parents had occasional contact with them in America. These included two of my father’s first cousins, Peter Berliner and his sister (Figure 3); Ilse’s husband, Walter Goetzel, was even a witness at my parent’s wedding. (Figure 4) Gradually, though, our families lost contact. Still, without too much difficulty I was able to find Peter Berliner’s ancestors, though too late to meet Peter who died in 2000. It was while researching him in ancestry.com, however, that I learned his parents were Alfred Berliner and Lotte Berliner, née Rothe, thus, the great-uncle and -aunt “Alfred & Lotte,” who, along with my Uncle Fedor, signed the card postmarked in 1909 from Breslau, Germany. Hence, the Rothe family is related to the Berliner family by marriage.
During a visit to the Polish State Archives in Raciborz in 2014, I discovered the certificates for two of Alfred and Lotte Berliner’s three known children, Peter Berliner and his sister, Ilse Goetzel, née Berliner. Both of these documents confirmed that Lotte Berliner, née Rothe, was their mother.
I discovered additional information about my great-uncle Alfred Berliner from familysearch.org, the Mormon Church website. Microfilm roll 1184448, containing Jewish death records from Ratibor, confirmed Alfred died there on February 19, 1921, and that his wife Lotte Berliner was present. (Figure 5) Readers may remember Alfred Berliner was a brewer and the owner of the “M. Braun Brauerei” in Ratibor. Alfred was interred in the former Jewish Cemetery in Ratibor, and a photo of his tombstone exists among the photos archived at the Muzeum Raciborzu that I examined in 2015. (Figure 6)
While all these documents provided conclusive evidence of when and where Alfred Berliner died, I did not yet know his wife’s fate. Previously, I’ve made mention of the database: Östliche preußische Provinzen, Polen, Personenstandsregister 1874-1945 (Eastern Prussian Provinces, Germany [Poland], Selected Civil Vitals, 1874-1945). Not only was I able to locate Alfred and Lotte Berliner’s marriage certificate here (Figures 7a & 7b), but I also was able to find Lotte Berliner’s birth certificate (she was born Charlotte Henriette Rothe) (Figures 8a & 8b), that of two of her siblings, Helene Lina Rothe (Figure 9) and Curt Isidor Rothe (Figure 10), the names of her parents, Martin Rothe and Babette Pinner, and the death certificate of her father Martin. (Figure 11) Thus, with the historic documents found in the “Eastern Prussian Provinces” database, I was now certain that the 1909 postcard had been sent to Lotte Berliner’s sister, Helene Rothe, to the attention of Lotte and Helene’s father, Martin Rothe.
I previously mentioned I was able to locate descendants of Peter Berliner and his sister Ilse, in America. Through them, I even obtained photos of the Helene Rothe to whom the 1909 postcard had been sent. (Figure 12) I also learned a little about “Tante Lena,” as she was affectionately known; members of the Goetzel and Berliner families visited her a few times in Landau in der Pfalz, Germany, where she then lived. They learned that her husband, Dr. jur. (lawyer) Johann Alois Schönhöfer, a non-Jew, hid her in a basement and protected her throughout WWII, and that she emerged severely malnourished, with a deformed back. Knowing where Helene Rothe had lived, I contacted the Rathaus, basically City Hall, in Landau, and obtained a copy of her death certificate and learned she died there on January 17, 1981. (Figure 13)
Lotte Berliner was the last name on the 1909 postcard whose fate I had still to work out. When researching one’s Jewish relatives during the Nazi era, at some point one must consider they may have been murdered in the Holocaust, and search their names in the database of victims. Such was the case with my great-aunt Lotte Berliner. She is listed in Yad Vashem, as having been deported from Berlin, Germany to Auschwitz-Birkenau aboard “Transport 27, Train Da 13 on January 29, 1943,” arriving there a day later (Figure 14); whether Lotte relocated to Berlin after her husband’s death is unknown. A recently added feature on Yad Vashem allows users to view the route trains took to transport their victims to the extermination camps, in the case of my great-aunt Lotte, Auschwitz-Birkenau. (Figure 15)
Below is a summary of the vital events of the five people whose names appear on the postcard mailed on August 17, 1909 from Breslau, Germany:
NOTE: The last two Blog posts have dealt with three of my grandfather Felix Bruck’s sisters, two renowned personages and a third who gave birth to a well-known artist. My grandfather had two additional surviving siblings, both of whom fled Berlin during the Third Reich never to return, and their stories will be the subject of upcoming posts. However, in this Blog post, I will talk about my father’s oldest brother, Dr. Fedor Bruck, and, tell his life story and relate his compelling tale of survival in Berlin during the era of the National Socialists. This is a story I’ve looked forward to relating to readers on account of some of the historic figures who played a direct and indirect role in my uncle’s life.
As a child, my Uncle Fedor was interested in hot-air balloons. Among my father’s surviving personal papers, there exists a postcard sent by my uncle to his maternal aunt’s sister on his 14th birthday, that’s to say on August 17, 1909, when his aunt and uncle, Alfred & Charlotte (“Lotte”) Berliner, took him on a hot-air balloon ride in Breslau, Germany (today: Wrocław, Poland). (Figures 2a & 2b) By researching the names on the postcard, I was able to entirely reconstruct a branch of my family I had previously been unaware using the “Eastern Prussian Provinces” database cited above.
Beyond the names, however, the postcard is interesting for multiple reasons. It came from an association (“des Artillerie-Vereins 1908, Ratibor und Umgegund”) founded in 1908 by former artillery soldiers from Ratibor and the surrounding area; the club’s stamp appears in the upper right-hand corner of the card. The artillery association partially supported itself by offering hot-air balloon rides, and the balloon pilots, Ulrich Gaebel and Hans Zynwi (?), signed their names. The oval cancellation mark, “Breslau-Oderberg,” specifically indicates the postcard was stamped and postmarked aboard a mail train, traveling the 256 miles between these locations; such mail trains were apparently common in Germany until 1945. The photo was taken from a hot-air balloon at a height of 150 meters, and shows the new Town Hall in Leipzig, a city in Saxony 231 miles to the west of Breslau. “Luftschiffer,” printed on the backside of the postcard, refers to German airship (balloon) units.
My Uncle Fedor fought for the German Army in World War I, and was assigned to the 89th Infantry Division as part of their fire brigade. (Figure 3) For a time in 1916, he was stationed in the Ukraine on the Eastern Front. A postcard written by my Uncle Fedor during his deployment there also survives among my father’s personal papers. This one is one dated September 3, 1916, and was written by my uncle to his Aunt Franziska Bruck in Berlin, the famed florist, in which he proudly tells her he has been promoted to the rank of a non-commissioned officer. (Figures 4a & 4b) My uncle’s duties on the Front ended when he was wounded, wounds from which he fully recovered.
By 1921, my Uncle Fedor had obtained a dental license from the University of Breslau. He owned his practice in Liegnitz (today: Legnica, Poland) (Figure 5) from November 1924 through April 1936 (Figure 6), when he was forced out of business by the National Socialists. Already, by March 1932, they had relieved my uncle of his responsibilities as municipal school dentist (“Schulzahnarzt”) for schools in small communities surrounding Liegnitz (Figures 7 & 8); a Schulzahnarzt merely examined pupils‘ teeth, advising them on whether a followup with a dentist was required. There was widespread support among German dentists for the National Socialist ideology, so in expectation of their rise to power many dental organizations displaced their Jewish colleagues as a sign of “anticipatory obedience.“ Since my uncle could no longer practice dentistry in Liegnitz, he left for Berlin in 1936.
During his time in Liegnitz, my uncle had an illicit love affair with a married non-Jewish woman (Figure 9) by whom he fathered two children, my first cousins. As offspring of a Jewish man, this could have been dangerous to the children and their mother, but because the cuckolded husband never betrayed them both children survived into old age.
After leaving for Berlin, for a period of time at least, my uncle could still work there, though under very trying circumstances. He continued to have his own practice at Fasanenstraße 20 in Berlin-Charlottenburg for a while. However, as a result of the “Regulation for the Elimination of the Jews from the Economic Life of Germany,” after February 1939, my uncle had his dental license revoked. Only in November 1939 was he again certified, but then only as a “Zahnbehandler,” which meant he could only treat Jews and relatives.
Interestingly, the archives at the Centrum Judaicum Berlin show that during this period, specifically on June 11, 1939, he converted from Judaism at the Messiah Chapel in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg, Kastanienallee 22. My Uncle Fedor must still have believed even at this late date that conversion from Judaism would alter his fate.; my theory is that as a wounded veteran of WWI, it was totally inconceivable to him that the Germans would incarcerate or murder him.
For several months starting in March 1941, my uncle had the good fortune of managing the practice of a colleague preparing to emigrate, and then, again, in June 1941, he took over a well-equipped practice located in the Kürfurstendamm. As a result, for a period of time he was better off economically than other Jews still in Germany, although by January 1942, he had been permanently displaced from this last office by a National Socialist colleague. (Figure 10)
Eventually, in a letter dated October 12, 1942, my uncle was summoned by the Gestapo to present himself to an “age transport.” Realizing this was a death sentence, he fled to a friend in Berlin-Dahlem and went underground. Roger Moorhouse, in his book entitled “Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital 1939-1945,” estimates that of the 11,000 Jews who went underground in Berlin during the war years of 1939-45, only about 1400 survived the war, of which my uncle was one. Time and again, Uncle Fedor had good fortune. When his friend, Dr. Sieber, was arrested on February 15, 1943, by the Gestapo in his presence, he miraculously escaped. In the ensuing months, my uncle found refuge with a cousin or hid in “green belts,” coal cellars, and parks.
Most helpful to him during his underground odyssey was a dentist by the name of Otto Berger, a right-minded individual who was adamantly opposed to National Socialism. (Figure 11) Berger somehow was able to illegally procure papers for Fedor in the name of Dr. Friedrich Burkhardt, matching my uncle’s own initials; without these papers, it is certain that Fedor would not have survived the war. In March 1944, both Berger and Fedor were among nine survivors from a group of 44 people who had sought refuge in a basement destroyed by Allied bombers. Following this narrow escape, for a short period Fedor again hid with his cousin before returning to live with Berger, first in Berlin-Zehlendorf, then in Berlin-Steglitz. The last apartment was destroyed by fire on the eve of the Russian capture of Steglitz on April 26, 1945.
The capture of this part of Berlin marked the beginning of the next phase of my uncle’s life. When Fedor had his own practice in Liegnitz, he trained as one of his dental assistants a woman named Käthe Heusermann, née Reiss. (Figure 12) After Fedor was forced to close shop in Liegnitz and move to Berlin, she too moved there, and from 1937 on, she was in the employ of Dr. Hugo Blaschke, Hitler’s American-trained dentist. (Figure 13) Following the Russian capture of Berlin, on May 4, 1945, Fedor visited his former dental assistant Käthe Heusermann in the Pariserstraße in Berlin-Wilmersdorf, and she encouraged him to apply to take over Dr. Blaschke’s dental office, which had only been lightly damaged. As a victim of National Socialism, he was entitled to such consideration.
Dr. Blaschke’s dental office was located at Kürfurstendamm 213 (Figure 14), and was at the time situated in the Russian sector of Berlin. With the approval of the Russian commandant, Fedor Bruck was assigned Blaschke’s office and living quarters. Post-war Berlin phone directories for both 1946 (Figure 15) and 1948 list Fedor Bruck as a “Zahnarzt” (dentist) occupying these premises, as indeed he did until he left for America in 1947 (his name continues to show up in the 1948 phone directory even though he was no longer in Berlin).
My uncle’s former close association with Käthe Heusermann allowed him to become a “witness” to history. As Dr. Blaschke’s dental assistant, Käthe had always been present when Hitler was undergoing dental treatment. Because the dental records describing the work performed on Hitler had been lost or destroyed, Käthe Heusermann was questioned by the Russians and asked to give her opinion on the basis of memory whether the parts of the jaw found in the Reich Chancellery garden were those of Hitler. She recognized the dental work and affirmed they were indeed Hitler’s remains. Several days later, she conveyed this information to my uncle, which inadvertently placed him at risk.
Eventually, both Käthe Heusermann, and Dr. Blaschke’s dental technician, Fritz Echtmann, were captured by the Russians and imprisoned for some years. Stalin seemingly did not want any witnesses who could confirm Hitler’s fate, perhaps wishing to perpetuate the myth that Hitler had survived the war and was an ever-present danger. Since my uncle also knew of Hitler’s death, he too was in jeopardy of being kidnapped by the Russians, so, forewarned by the Americans, he decided to emigrate to the United States in July 1947.
Fedor Bruck never met Dr. Blaschke because he had already fled to the southern part of Germany by the time Fedor was assigned his dental practice. Blaschke was eventually captured and interrogated by the Americans, and imprisoned for a period of time. Fedor was able to salvage the abandoned dental records of some Nazis treated by Dr. Blaschke, although the records dealing with more prominent figures such as Himmler, Ley, Göring, Goebbels, and others were taken away by the Russians when they searched the premises. The salvaged records survive in the estate of Fedor’s grandson. (Figures 16a & 16b)
The events described above, including Fedor Bruck’s knowledge of some of these happenings, are documented in at least three books and one newspaper account. These include H.R. Trevor-Roper’s “The Last Days of Hitler,” Lev Bezymenski’s “The Death of Adolf Hitler,” and Jelena Rshewskaja’s German-language book “Hitlers Ende Ohne Mythos.”
Trevor-Roper’s book was initially published in 1947, and this edition makes no mention of Fedor Bruck. However, in the Third Edition of this book published in 1956, a lengthy introduction was added by the author. This was made possible by the release, in that year, of Russian prisoners whom Trevor-Roper had been unable to question during his initial inquiries in 1945. Fedor Bruck’s name and witness to the events described above are discussed on pages 32-33. In Lev Bezymenski’s book, the events are described on pages 53-57, and my uncle Dr. Bruck’s name is cited on page 53. Ms. Rshewskaja’s book mentions Dr. Bruck on page 120 and following. In addition, Fedor Bruck was visited on July 7, 1945, in the former office of Dr. Blaschke by three British correspondents, including William Forrest of the “News Chronicle.” Relying on the account provided by Fedor Bruck, William Forrest chronicled in an article published on July 9th the positive identification of Hitler’s remains.
Like my father, my Uncle Fedor never again practiced dentistry after he arrived in America. In December 1952, Fedor Bruck became a citizen of the United States, and legally changed his name to Theodore A. Brook. He married for the first time on March 4, 1958. (Figure 17)
For a period of time after his arrival in American, my uncle worked as a night watchman in a church in the Upper Westside of Manhattan, although he eventually landed a job with the State of New York as a toll-collector on the Tappan Zee Bridge. (Figure 18) Unlike many Jews who’d been professionals in their countries of origin, my uncle never bemoaned the fact he’d had to change his vocation in America; I remember my uncle as a boundless optimist for whom the glass was always half-full. He loved his job as a toll-collector because it allowed him to engage in another of his lifelong passions, namely, coin collecting. His wife, my Aunt Verena, once recounted to me the time my uncle approached her about buying a coin book to identify valuable coins and estimate their worth. While she initially balked at the “extravagance“ of such an expense, she quickly changed her tune when my uncle regularly came home from his job with valuable coins exchanged for those of lesser value.
My Uncle Fedor passed away in Bronxville, outside New York City, in February 1982. (Figures 19, 20 & 21)
1968 The Death of Adolf Hitler: Unknown Documents from Soviet Archives. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. New York.
2013 Prinz von Preußen—Hotel rodziny Bruck. Almanach Prowincjonalny 1/2013 (17) (p. 58-73).
2006 Die Lebensgeschichte des jüdischen Zahnarztes Fedor Bruck (1895-1982) Von Liegnitz nach New York. Zahnärztliche Mitteilungen 96, Nr. 10, 16.5 (p. 124-127)
2010 Berlin at War. Basic Books. New York
2005 Hitlers Ende Ohne Mythos. Neues Leben, Verlag. (120 ff.)
Trevor, Roper, H.R.
1947 The Last Days of Hitler. The Macmillan Company. New York.
1987 The Last Days of Hitler (Sixth Edition). The University of Chicago Press. Chicago (p. 32-33)