BERLIN – Hundreds of Jews once lived on Heilbronner Street, where I now live at No. 10. Hundreds of people who suddenly disappeared, in the middle of the day. The first ones to be expelled from our building lived on the second floor. Their names were Georg and Charlotte Nomburg. On October 18, 1941, they were transported to the East together with more than 1,000 other Jews from Berlin. It was the first transport to leave Germany.
Their son, Manfred Nomburg, whose name today is Yair Noam, survived. He and I meet in an old-age home in Ramat Gan. It’s likely to be his last address – he’s 96.
At 12:30 every day, Noam turns off his hearing aid and puts on sunglasses. It has nothing to do with his age. His eyes have always been sensitive, like his skin, which is too light for the intense Levantine sun.
Noam is the last survivor of the Nomburg family. Since the death of his brother Harry in 1997, there is no one left to call him “Fredchen” or “Freddy,” no one to address him as Manfred Nomburg. He’s now exclusively Yair. Yair Noam from Ramat Gan. “Dear Mr. Noam” is the salutation of the letters he receives from the German pension service. He gets 747.07 euros a month, for life. Recompense for the life that was taken from him in Germany. The shame of the survivor, the one who escaped before it even started.
Every family has its own mythology. In Noam’s family there was the name of a legendary ancestor, Shaie Ben Issac, born in 1775 in Friedland, Germany. Noam’s parents often spoke about him. He bought a house at an intersection in Furstenberg, which shortly afterward was dubbed “Shaie’s corner” and became a locus of considerable wealth. In 1812, when the Jews of Prussia were emancipated, they were required to adopt German surnames; Shaie chose the name of his birthplace. Shaie Friedlander was awarded the highest honorary title: “Protected Jew in the Prussian court.” Elegantly attired, he went about with a walking cane that bore a round handle made of silver. In 1845, he died falling down the stairs of the cellar in his house. A banal home accident. He was buried next to his wife, Jeanette, in the Furstenberg cemetery on the banks of the Havel River.
Noam’s mother, Charlotte, was a descendant. She and her brothers, Gerhard and Siegfried, grew up in poverty. For a time they lived with their mother in Braunschweig, then in Freising, near Munich, and finally in Berlin. Growing up in the big city in the merry 1920s, Charlotte loved music and theater. She was only 22 when she met Georg Nomburg, a traveling salesman.
He had grown up in a small community near the city of Oels, which at different times had belonged to Poland, Prussia and Austria, and is today Polish. After completing school, Georg worked in the men’s clothing department of Bernstein’s department store in Oels. He performed well and was soon sent on business trips. World War I cut short Georg’s career; he served with his brother, Hans, in the Austrian army as a combat soldier on the front, in the 100th Infantry Battalion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
After the war, Georg settled in the Bavarian city of Coburg and founded his own company, Nomburg & Co., which manufactured men’s and young men’s clothing.
It was a mutual friend, Sally Gabbe, who introduced Georg and Charlotte to each other. Charlotte wanted to get married in Berlin. Her brothers lived there, and she also had an extensive network of uncles, aunts and cousins, who published a mock congratulatory notice in honor of the young couple’s wedding: “Special edition! Berlin, December 27, 1921. Editorial board: Gabbe, Jacobson & Baron: Georg Nomburg is sentenced irrevocably to a relationship for life with Miss Lotte Heymann, his guilt in the cruel crime having been proved without a doubt: He attracted Miss Lotte’s attention, turned her head and broke her heart!”
Georg Nomburg was compelled to return to Coburg, as his company needed a manager. Charlotte Nomburg went along, not knowing what lay in store for her there.
On October 15, 1922, the Nazi-symphathizing German Racial League for Defense and Defiance, held an event in Coburg: informal greetings, a German prayer and a memorial ceremony. On the agenda was a lecture on “New Working Methods in the National Movement.” The audience was requested not to smoke during the talks.
The official agenda did not include the activities of 650 members of the SA (the Brownshirts, the Nazi party’s original paramilitary). They ran amok in the streets on the way to the gathering, wielding rubber truncheons, accompanied by an orchestra, headed by Adolf Hitler. He hoped to get publicity for the Nazi party, his National Socialist German Workers’ Party, which wasn’t yet well known. And he got what he wanted. Within less than three months, a branch of the Nazi party had been established in Coburg. In June 1929, Coburg was the first German town to elect a representative of the party into a city council. Coburg acquired the title of “the first National Socialist city in Germany.”
In the meantime, Nomburg’s business flourished. Georg and Charlotte had two children, Manfred (later, Yair Noam) and Harry. The family moved from an apartment to a spacious home with a garden. Noam recalls little about his life in Coburg. A few family outings in the gardens of the local castle and falling into the garden pond when he was four. And then: broken glass below the window of the salon and a paving stone on the Persian carpet. Nomburg had become a victim to Coburg’s rising inflammatory propaganda.
“Who is Georg Nomburg?” a local newspaper wrote in 1928. “At a time when there is a serious housing shortage, the migrant Jew, with true Jewish impudence, succeeded in obtaining a residence in one of the most beautiful houses in Coburg… There are still people in Coburg who are not willing to acknowledge the degenerate character of the nation of peddlers, who stole in here like Gypsies.” Not long afterward, Nomburg’s factory went up in flames. The family left the city and moved to Berlin.
Germany’s capital was like an island. The Nomburgs felt like their lungs could fill with air after years of breathlessness. Georg and his brother, Hans, found a building at 11 Spandauer Street, and the Nomburgs’ business got a new lease on life. Manfred and Harry attended a mixed school, of Jews and non-Jews. That the homeroom teacher, Mr. Simonson, was Jewish, did not seem to bother the other parents.
In 1934, the family moved to an apartment of three and a half rooms in a respectable area of Wilmersdorf, with a dining room, smoking parlor, hall, kitchen and bathroom. The half-room was for the housekeeper. Harry and Manfred shared the large third room. Life in Berlin was good for those who didn’t think about the future.
But after six years in Berlin, the past rose up to assail the Nomburg family again, in the form of a letter from the Coburg city council: “The naturalization of the East European Jew Georg Nomburg and of his wife Charlotte must be seen to be contrary to the principles of nation and nationhood. Nomburg did not serve in the German army. Accordingly, we demand the annulment of the naturalization, which took effect on 6 December 1922.”
Hans, Georg’s brother, received an identical letter. He replied, “I request, with indulgence, to be allowed to retain my citizenship as a resident of the German Reich, because I was educated only as a German and all my thoughts and feelings are German. I do not know any other language. My mother was German, a citizen of the German Reich, my father is Austrian, thus I am of German origin. I always tried to prove my belonging to the German Reich in the best way.”
An opinion provided by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry confirmed that the brothers ran their company impeccably. The Nomburg brothers traveled to their old homeland, then under Polish control, in order to find comrades-in-arms to confirm their service on the front. Nothing was sufficient. Georg and Hans became “Ostjuden – Jews of Eastern Europe.” Charlotte Nomburg lost her citizenship because she was married to Georg, and Manfred and Harry suffered the same fate.
In the evenings, when Georg came home from work, the family sat around the dining table for dinner. The housekeeper placed the pots on the sideboard, set the table and served. If Georg and Charlotte talked about what was happening to their family, they chose their words carefully so that the boys wouldn’t understand.
On September 17, 1935, the housekeeper left. “Jews may not employ in their households female citizens of German or related blood who are under 45 years old,” Article 3 of the 1935 Law for the Protection of German Blood and the Protection of German Honor stated.
Manfred lived the life of a boy in a bourgeois Berlin family. Sports after school, then time with friends before heading home. In 1938, the Reich minister for science, education and national culture issued a directive stating, “Jews are not allowed to attend German schools. In so far as this has not yet occurred, all Jewish schoolchildren attending a German school are to be dismissed at once.”
Dreams of Chile
On the morning of October 31, 1938, a group of young people with backpacks arrived at the Anhalter Bahnhof railway station in Berlin. Among them was Manfred, not yet 16. On the platform were his parents and Harry, who was a year younger, and went on waving goodbye long after the train left. First stop: Trieste, Italy, where the group slept in a Jewish school. He met a beautiful girl named Anita, but had to say goodbye again the next day. Four days after the ship Galil set sail from the port of Trieste, it reached its destination. Waiting on the dock in Haifa were Uncle Gerhart, Charlotte Nomburg’s brother, and Aunt Ilse, who had immigrated earlier. Manfred Nomburg arrived in Palestine one day before Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938). His brother, Harry, managed to escape to Scotland in May 1939 with a Kindertransport.
In Berlin’s Wilmersdorf quarter, an apartment of three and a half rooms became available for Germans of Aryan descent. The keys to the apartment were taken from Georg and Charlotte. Nomburg & Co. was liquidated. The Nomburgs were instructed to go to 10 Heilbronner Street and ring the bell of the Balai family, second floor in the front. Sigmund Balai opened the door. Strangers, but he had been waiting for them. Georg and Charlotte Nomburg moved into their room in Jews’ apartment No. 299.
Like hundreds of other flats, that of the Balai family had also been declared a Jews’ apartment. In these homes the Gestapo concentrated Jews in overcrowded conditions. Gerta Rosenberg, from the first floor, was also ordered to take in a family – Alfons, Paula and Gerhardt Heldt. The building’s other occupants, the Aryans, were not asked to make any changes in their way of life; 10 Heilbronner remained a respectable building, in an excellent residential area.
Sally Gabbe, a friend of Georg and Charlotte Nomburg – it was in his home that they had met and fallen in love many years earlier – wrote in the winter of 1940 to his son Heinz, who had also immigrated to Palestine: “You can’t imagine how much I miss all of you... The hopes of many have faded because Chile’s gates have been closed. The Münzen family has completed all its preparations and they can now only wait. It is the same for the Nomburgs. The rumors have it that many of those who wished to get to Chile now wish to get to Palestine. Hence, the full waiting list. But I am already registered and stand a good chance.”
Chile was a very distant goal, but to the Nomburgs it seemed to be the only possible haven, once the British had closed the gates of Palestine to refugee Jews. Georg managed to obtain two tickets for a ship that was sailing for Valparaiso. Shortly before the scheduled departure, they discovered that their transit visa was a forgery. Because they were Polish subjects at the time, they stood poor prospects of obtaining an authentic visa for Chile. And then Chile, too, decided to put a stop to immigration. The Nomburgs were trapped in Germany.
Georg saw in advance to his son Manfred’s sustenance. He transferred 3,175 Reichsmarks (equivalent to 162 euros) to Haifa’s Technion university for the coming two years. Manfred studied carpentry and sculpture with Prof. Hermann Struck, the well-known artist, who had also immigrated from Berlin to Haifa. Here he was no longer called Manfred but by his Hebrew name, Meir, which was still foreign to him. “Meirke! Meirke!” the men shouted after him, as in the Yiddish folksong “Meirke mein sohn.” He went to the Population Registry to change his name to Yair, the future tense of “meir” (Hebrew, meaning “to illuminate”). The surname Noam (pleasantness) recalled Nomburg to some extent. Manfred Nomburg became Yair Noam.
In September 1941, a letter reached Noam, many weeks after it was mailed. Dated August 27, it was a request to the Red Cross to transmit a telegram. The sender: Georg Nomburg, Berlin 30W 10 Heilbronner Street II; addressee: Manfred Nomburg, Haifa – Palestine, 85 Arlosorov Street (maximum number of words: 25): “Heard good things about you through Friedl, hoping Gerhard and you are well. We too. Harry wrote he’s happy. May it always remain that way for him and for you.”
On October 15, 1941, the building’s superintendent informed Sigmund Balai of their “evacuation.” A circular sent to the officials in charge of the operation stated: “You are to enter at the times set, which were assigned to the Jewish apartments. If a fire is burning in the hearth, do not add wood or coal. Then you are to go through the apartment with the head of the residence to pack the suitcase or knapsack. After the packing the suitcase is to be sealed with sealing tape. In every case, all the other members of the family must be kept under supervision and not be left alone even for a minute. The Jew must collect all the valuables, the savings books, the jewelry and the cash and hand them over to you. Wool blankets, which may be packed, are to be rolled up or folded so they can be carried without difficulty.”
Balai signed a 16-page Declaration of Property with a fountain pen. “Name: Sigmund Israel Balai, date of birth: 11.8.1868, member of the Mosaic faith, married to Emma Sarah née Nacher, former employee of the Engelhard AG beer brewery, pension 400 Reichsmarks.”
In the space for “Objects of gold, jewelry, precious stones,” he drew a long line. He and his wife had already handed over everything. The following items were found in the apartment: a closet, two beds, two curtains, two beds, a buffet, a large table, a small table, a mirror, four cooking pots, an iron, a coal box, a ladder, a grandfather clock, six coffee spoons, two pincers for sugar cubes, paintings/art objects: a marble sculpture depicting “Nathan the Wise.” Georg and Charlotte Nomburg were not required to draw up a list. They had been deprived of all their property years earlier.
On the morning of October 18, 1941, Sigmund and Emma Balai and Georg and Charlotte Nomburg locked their apartment. Perhaps they took the elevator, probably they carried their suitcases down two floors on the same steps that I now use every day. They handed the keys to the official, got on the truck that was waiting for them next to the entrance, left Heilbronner Street and after a drive of five kilometers arrived at the synagogue on Levetzowstrasse. Hundreds of others were also waiting there in the rain. Children and the disabled boarded open trucks. The others walked seven kilometers in the rain to the Gruenewald train station.
Platform 17. The first transport train. Transport No. 1 rolled out of Berlin with more than a thousand people on board. On October 19, 1941, the Nomburgs and the Balais arrived at the ghetto in Lodz, Poland, a city that the Nazis had renamed Litzmannstadt. Georg and Charlotte Nomburg were assigned to lodgings at 11 Alexanderhof Street; the Balais disappeared into a hut at 26 Gnesener Street.
On May 10, 1942, after seven months in the Lodz ghetto, Georg and Charlotte were put aboard a special train of the German Reichsbahn. At the end of a 90-kilometer journey, they and the other 1,003 people on the train reached Warthbrucken (as the Nazis called the ancient city of Kolo), where they were made to board a smaller train for a journey of 13 kilometers to Kulmhof (Chelmno). Trucks took them to an uninhabited manor house, known as the “Castle” by the men who served there. A thunderous voice announced the procedure: Everyone who had just arrived was to undress, enter a shower and be deloused, in order to be taken afterward for work service in Germany.
Georg was 56, Charlotte 44, and both were still capable of working. They entered the Castle and walked toward the sign that someone had painted on the wall: “To the bathrooms.” They walked to the end of the basement corridor and undressed. A truck was already waiting at the platform – perhaps they would proceed directly to Germany from here. The doors closed behind them.
Furniture of an empty room
The building I live in gives no hint of what happened here beginning in October 1941. No. 10 is one of seven buildings on our street that survived the war intact. The other 23 buildings were turned into heaps of rubble. The old wooden elevator from 1907 still operates in the building. An open terrace was built on the top floor where a bomb struck and left a large hole. On our street, the scars, still unhealed, testify to the war. However, in our building the crime left no traces.
In 1941, there were 21 families registered at 10 Heilbronner Street in the Berlin Population Registry. The Nomburgs, who were subtenants, did not appear on the list. Two years later, in the 1943 Population Registry, more names were missing. All 14 Jews who had lived in our building were rounded up and transported, or “evacuated,” in official German: the Nomburgs and the Balais, Grete Rosenberg, the Heldt, Lichtenthal and Loewenstein families and the merchant Max Tuchler. Dr. David Juda, who had owned the building but never lived in it, was murdered in Theresienstadt in 1943.
In the fall of 1943, another 256 Jewish residents on our street were deported: 91 of them to Theresienstadt, 90 to Auschwitz, 36 to Riga, 13 to Trawniki in Poland, 14 to Lodz, seven to Kovno, four to Raasiku in Estonia and one to Sobibor. None returned. Five neighbors, among them the Wolffs, at No. 29, and the Ewalenkos at No. 21, committed joint suicide in their homes before the Gestapo arrived to take them.
Ludwig and Camilla Neumann, from No. 26, put off their suicide. Camilla’s doctor refused to give her a prescription for Veronal, as she requested. A week later, the doctor himself swallowed the pills. Not much later, Ludwig Neumann, who once worked for the Dresdner Bank and was forced into retirement by the Nazis, was picked up by the Gestapo at the ammunition factory where he did forced labor. Camilla, who did forced labor in evening shifts at the Blaupunkt factory, had already prepared his bed for sleep that night. She laid her cheek on his pillow for one last moment and then left the house carrying only her handbag. If she wore her coat closed, the yellow patch would have been seen from afar; if she wore her coat open, as she customarily did when leaving her home on Heilbronner Street, the patch would have been covered by the wide collar. Camilla Neumann hid until the end of the war and survived. She never returned to our street.
The Nomburgs’ friends – Sally Gabbe, the Jacobsons, Max, Isabella and Willy Baron – were all murdered. Noam’s uncle, Hans Nomburg, managed to flee to Chile in time.
On October 14, 1947, Yair Noam received a letter from Berlin. It informed him that the traveling salesman Georg Nomburg and his wife Charlotte were dead; they had been sent as Jews to Litzmannstadt, so their death could be ascertained with near certainty. Under Article 9 of the Missing Persons Law, the day of their death was determined to be January 15, 1942. The letter was signed by Froehlich, officer of the Magistrate’s Court. It was a nominal date, invented by the authorities, to provide relatives with some sort of information.
Yair Noam’s right to reparations was only dealt with in the 1960s. He needed witnesses to testify fully to the Nomburg family’s standard of living – a good life, rich and tranquil, which was destroyed years before the death of Georg and Charlotte. The financial officer representing the West German bureaucracy sent letters: “I must insist that the contents of the victims’ apartment be described under oath and be confirmed by witnesses who visited not long before the transport.”
In Noam’s memory, every object remains in its place. An oak floor; a buffet with an upper section; a Koesting radio; a make-up table with three mirrors; a panoramic picture of the city of Rottenburg, 50x70 centimeters; the grandfather clock in front of which his father put on his tie every morning, using its glass window as a mirror. Also the armchair in which Uncle Kurt would nod off after a meal, Persian carpets and wallpaper embroidered with flowers, and a library of selected classics. Mother kept tablecloths and silver utensils in the buffet. From the window in the living room, father looked down into the street.
Aunt Ilse from Haifa was asked to advise the authorities on the subject. Under oath, she recalled visits to the theater with tickets for the best seats, ball evenings, fur coats and winter trips to Arosa in Switzerland. She declared that the Nomburgs had always shared their wealth with others. With petty pedantry, the National Socialist bureaucrats drew up complete lists of the confiscated property of Jewish families, estimated its value and documented it in official records. Aunt Ilse was now compelled to vouch before the authorities of the Federal Republic of Germany that the china of her murdered sister-in-law listed in the inventory was not fake.
Not even the family’s testimonies proved sufficient. But anyway, what really interested the authorities was “the furniture from an empty room of a subtenant at 10 Heilbronner Street.” The landlord, Erich Hoffmueller, wrote that although he bought the building in 1939, he managed the real estate himself only from 1950. The Nomburgs do not appear in his documents. The tenants who remained after the war said they had never heard that name.
Following his military service, Noam and some friends established a moshav in which he ran a small print shop. Later, he moved to Tel Aviv and worked in a graphics studio. Once, when he was out friends, he ran into Anita, the Jewish girl he had first encountered in Trieste. She was no longer a girl; in fact she was a widow. She had lost her husband during Israel’s War of Independence, in 1948. In 1953, Anita Chamizer became Anita Noam. She already had a son, Dan Chamizer, who later became the famous quiz master. Yair Noam is his adoptive father. The year after their marriage, the couple had twins, Raphael and Gabriella. They stayed together until Anita’s death, in 2011.
Ramat Gan, 2018, Tuesday. Manfred Rosenbaum, 95, usually comes to visit Noam at his old-age home at teatime on Tuesdays. He teaches German in a club for the elderly. “Rosenbaum,” Noam says, “is a true Holocaust survivor.” Rosenbaum survived Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen. He almost died of starvation. His students are people of 80 and above who want to learn their parents’ language and understand something of the world they lost. Germany, which occupies a central place in their lives, gives them no peace.
As the years pass, Noam hears his mother tongue with ever more infrequency. The German-speaking survivors are, naturally, declining in number. But when the program “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” is broadcast on German television, via satellite, enough enthusiastic viewers at the home gather around.
A computer course in the old-age home teaches the participants how to do Google searches. Noam doesn’t want to do any more searching. Jonas Kaufmann, his favorite tenor, is singing on YouTube, and Simon Rattle is conducting the annual summer concert at the Waldbuehne Stage in Berlin. The audience is sitting in the rain, with or without umbrellas. At the end of the concert, as they do every year, the Berlin Philharmonic plays “Das ist die Berliner Luft, (Luft, Luft)” (“This is the Berlin air, air, air”). And as every year, the viewers sing from their seats, “So mit ihrem holden Duft (Duft Duft)” (“With its sweet scent, scent, scent”).
A young couple now lives in the apartment on the second floor. Daisies are in bloom on the balcony.
Eva Sudholt is a reporter at the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, where this article was originally published. Since they first met in Ramat Gan, she and Yair Noam have been in regular contact by email.