German Exhibit Sheds Light on Fate of Jewish Berliners

Thousands of letters, pictures offer a glimpse of the final days of Schoneberg district's Jewish community.

BERLIN - Doris Kaplan died at age 11, but what exactly befell this German Jewish girl remains unknown to this day.

In March 1942, she went from Berlin to the Warsaw Ghetto. Shortly afterward, any trace of her disappeared. Perhaps she died of disease in the ghetto, perhaps she was sent to Treblinka and murdered in the gas chambers, like thousands of others. The only thing known for certain is that she did not survive the Holocaust.

Kaplan is one of 131 Jews, all residents of the Schoneberg district of Berlin, whose stories are being told at an exhibition that opens this week at the Berlin municipality, entitled "Wir Waren Nachbarn" ("We Were Neighbors").

The residents of this Jewish district were all expelled from their homes in a single day, never to return. Now, thousands of letters, personal documents and pictures are helping to bring their stories to life.

Some of the residents' names are well-known: Albert Einstein, author Carl Zuckmayer and photographer Helmut Newton. But most, like Doris, were ordinary people whose fate never interested anyone before.

Doris was born in 1931 in Guben, in eastern Germany. Her father, Ernst Kaplan, was a physician, her mother, Elisabeth, a nurse. In 1940, her parents sent her to live with friends in Berlin, hoping she would be safe there until the family found a way to leave Germany.

Until her death two or three years later, she wrote her parents every Sunday. Her letters survived the war and are now on display.

On August 3, 1940, she told her parents about school. "Everything is good at school," she wrote. "On Thursday I didn't have my English book and notebook yet, because they were still in my bag ... How are you? Mom, when are you coming to Berlin?"

She then detailed the time at which she finished school each day and concluded, "please write me back."

On January 9, 1942, she wrote, "We always need to talk in our letters, as if we were really seeing and speaking with each other. If something I wrote isn't clear to you, then think of me, of how I would have said it, and it will be clear to you."

It is hard to remain apathetic after reading these letters, which reflect their author's optimistic spirit. The colorful drawings she added to the text, the red flowers with which she decorated her words, the exclamation marks after the words "Dear Mom and Dad!" - these, perhaps better than anything, bring the dimensions of the tragedy into focus.

In October 1941, her maternal grandparents were deported from Berlin to the Lodz Ghetto. A month later, on November 22, 1941, she wrote, "Since November 1, four people have disappeared from my class. The two nicest girls, and two boys ... I didn't sleep very well. There was scary gunfire, and also some bombs fell. Yesterday I was at Aunt Paula's and I spilled a little salt. She said now the seven bad years had begun. I didn't believe her. For me, things are actually very good."

That same month, her father, who had lost his job long ago, was sent to serve as a doctor in a slave labor facility near Guben. Doris found this encouraging, writing, "Dear Dad! Today is Sunday and I wish you all the best. I'm happy that you're once again working as a doctor. How are you?"

A month later, he died of typhus.

"I've numbered all the Sundays on the calendar, so I'll know how many weeks have passed since Dad died," Doris later wrote her mother.

That winter, Doris was still going to school. Even when the temperature dropped to 12 degrees below zero, she continued wearing summer shoes, to prepare herself for the cold in Poland - where her family planned to flee if their first choice, Brazil, did not work out.

"I'm not wearing boots, because I must prepare for Poland!" she wrote. "Mom, just write me once. I love getting letters, but we must save up!"

In another letter that winter, she wrote, "I can't decide whether to wear my scarf. I always think about my uncle in Poland, where it's even colder. Even now, in this cold, which is bearable, my ears are freezing. I try to wear my scarf around my ears, like a turban. That works, but then I have nothing around my neck."

On March 14, 1942, she wrote a longing letter to her mother: "Do you know what I'm already longing for, and how much? For Easter. When we'll be together. I hope we'll manage to be together on my beloved father's birthday ... Do you know what I want to do most over the holidays? To go with you to the pier. To read books. In another two weeks, right?"

But when Doris finally rejoined her mother, there was no time for celebrations. On April 2, her aunt put her on a train from Berlin to the Polish border, where she met her mother. Three days later, they were deported to the Warsaw Ghetto.

Not long after, her aunt was informed that Sweden, where they had relatives, had finally agreed to give them a visa. But by then, it was too late.

In the overcrowded Warsaw Ghetto, residents suffered from hunger and disease, and from July through September of 1942, thousands of Jews were sent from the ghetto to Treblinka every day.

The last sign of life from Doris and her mother was a letter they wrote on July 28, 1942.