Emotional return to Germany for last refugees

By Toby Axelrod, August 5, 2010

When he was a boy, Shlomo Jakobovits used to walk from home to school to synagogue and back. He knew his Berlin neighbourhood like the back of his hand.

So it was an emotional return when he visited the city last month for only the second time since he fled in 1939, taking in the synagogue where his father, Julius, had served as rabbi and the apartment building where they had lived.

Rabbi Jakobovits was part of the last trip organised by the Invitation Programme for Former Persecuted Citizens of Berlin. Over 41 years, the scheme has sponsored more than 15,000 visitors and an equal number of accompanying family members. Most are Jewish, and come from the US, Israel, Britain and South America. There have been similar programmes all over Germany, most of them initiated during the 1960s. Only Hamburg's remains active.

They were begun during the soul-searching 1960s, when the first post-war generation was coming of age and pressing their parents for the truth. What started out as a confrontation with the past, in many places led to a search for contact with former neighbours. Some small towns held special events, to which former Jewish citizens were invited. In some cases, the visits have led to decades of exchange.

Now the programme is being phased out because the wartime generation is dwindling. But individual invitations will be possible for anyone who has not yet taken up the offer, said co-ordinator Ruediger Nemitz.

Many of the guests on the last Berlin trip were so young when they fled Germany, that they did not remember much. But Rabbi Jakobovits will never forget certain details.

"One day our school principal walked into our classroom and said, 'Herr Jakobovits, Jude raus' - Jew, out! I was six and didn't know what was happening. I just went home."

Gradually, the family made it to London, where his brother Immanuel became Chief Rabbi. Shlomo Jakobovits arrived by ship in the USA in 1953, and settled in Toronto, Canada, where he had a career in education.

For Rabbi Jakobovits, the visit to Berlin brought a revelation: hundreds of family papers, letters, photographs, even a stack of sermons written by his father, are in the collection of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. They had been bought from a dealer in Amsterdam, he discovered. How the papers got into the dealer's hands he may never know.

He said that today he had the impression that Germany wants to show "that it is truly repentant. Altogether the trip was a very positive experience. But of course, the memories of the Holocaust can never be eradicated."

Last updated: 4:05pm, October 5 2010