How A Stuffed Toy Monkey Reunited A Holocaust Survivor With Relatives

Dec 2, 2018
Originally published on December 2, 2018 5:44 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah, and for observers, it's a time to get together to connect, eat and share stories with family. All throughout this month - this holiday season, in fact - we are sharing different kinds of family stories with you. Today, we're going to hear from the Berliners, who have just recently started talking to each other about their family's experience in the Holocaust. Uri Berliner is the senior business editor here at NPR, and he's here with his father, Gert Berliner, who left Germany with thousands of other Jewish children in the late 1930s. Over the last few months, Uri has been putting together missing pieces of his family's story, and he's been sharing that journey with NPR.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

GERT BERLINER: Thank you.

URI BERLINER, BYLINE: Hi.

MARTIN: OK, Uri. The story begins with a toy monkey, and I'm going to ask you to take it from there.

U. BERLINER: It sure does - starts 15 years ago when an archivist came to my father's apartment in New York. He was looking for items for the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and he was looking for things that would connect to people in a personal way. And he asked my dad if he had anything. And my father thought it over, and he knew that he did have something. It was a toy monkey, a stuffed monkey, a Steiff monkey, very small, that he had kept with him since he was a very young boy. And he had kept it with him from the time he was in Berlin to when he left and fled for Sweden and came to America and many stops in between.

And my father finally, after thinking it over, gave the monkey to the museum. And it led to an amazing discovery that connected us with new family in the most remarkable way.

MARTIN: It is a remarkable story. Gert, Mr. Berliner, how old were you when you left Berlin? Do you remember?

G. BERLINER: Yes - 14.

MARTIN: Fourteen - and I know it's a painful story, as it is for so many people. But can you just share just some of your memories from that time? And do you remember, like, why did you take the monkey with you?

G. BERLINER: (Laughter) Yes. The - actually, the monkey was sitting in - on the handlebar of my bike. And I had just - had put it there. It looked nice, and I liked it. And when I left, somehow, I just took it along. And it went with me all over the world (laughter) - from Germany, to Sweden, to America and back to Europe, to Italy, to other places until I finally gave it to the archivist at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

MARTIN: And, Mr. Berliner, you left Berlin alone.

G. BERLINER: I left with - I don't know if you're familiar - it was called a Kindertransport (ph).

MARTIN: Yes.

G. BERLINER: It was organized for children to get out - get out of Germany.

MARTIN: I think by alone, I think - I - what I think I meant is that you'd had none of your immediate family with you.

G. BERLINER: No, no, no, no.

MARTIN: These were all children unaccompanied by their own family members.

G. BERLINER: Right, right - all children, just children.

MARTIN: And, at that time, did you think that you would see them again - your family members?

G. BERLINER: I was not so sure.

MARTIN: And you never did.

G. BERLINER: I never did.

MARTIN: Yeah.

G. BERLINER: No.

MARTIN: Uri, do you remember the first time you heard your father's story? I know this is the story that has been shared by so many people. But one of the things that you write about is that, like, within your own family - and this is also true for many people - it wasn't discussed. Do you remember when you first heard?

U. BERLINER: Well, there were many things that weren't discussed. There were things I did know. I mean, I knew the story - that my father had to leave Germany and that he went to Sweden and that his parents were killed in the death camps. But we never talked at great length about it. And one of the things we never knew was the many details about the monkey. I didn't know that my dad had this toy monkey, that he took it with him, that it was personally so meaningful for him. And I didn't know that he had given it up until we discovered that we have this Swedish family.

MARTIN: Tell me about that, Uri. How did you reconnect with your Swedish relatives, like, four - eight decades later, right?

U. BERLINER: Yeah.

MARTIN: It just seems impossible to believe. But tell me.

U. BERLINER: Well, what happened was my father gave the monkey to the museum, and that monkey had been on various exhibits there at the museum for years. And, in 2015, a young woman named Erika Pettersson was at the museum, and she came to an exhibit with my dad's story and the monkey. And what connected her - she looked at the monkey, and she read about my father, and she looked at the name, Berliner, which happened to be her mother's name. And she thought that was interesting. She didn't think that much of it. But she told her mother. Her mother's name is Agneta Berliner (ph). And Agneta got very curious. She became more and more interested. And finally, she looked my father up on the Internet, and they connected. They talked by phone. And they discovered they were all related.

MARTIN: And, Mr. Berliner, I hope it doesn't offend you to keep hearing us say, as we have been saying that so many of these things were not discussed. Do you agree with that, that these were not things that you talked about very much?

G. BERLINER: Oh, no. No, no. They were pretty private, yes.

MARTIN: And so I'm wondering what it's like for you to discuss these things now. How is that for you?

G. BERLINER: No, in a way, it's a relief. It's good. It should come out. It's a kind of a wonderful story. It's uplifting. It's positive - for a change, in this awful world. So, no, I'm actually - I'm very happy. I think Uri did a wonderful job.

MARTIN: Uri, there's another family that you wanted to track down. That was the family that hid your grandparents for a time in Berlin. Do you know anything of what happened with them?

U. BERLINER: Very little. So there were two families, and I'll start with the ones who took in my dad in Sweden, the Furstenbergs. They also found my father over the Internet through his website - Claes Furstenberg, a journalist in Sweden, and reached out to him. And my father was reconnected with his family that took him in. And it's been wonderful. And there are many Furstenberg relatives, and we're all very close now.

There was also a couple that hid my grandparents beginning in 1942, and they took a grave risk in doing so because if they were discovered, they could be killed and sent to the camps too. And, in fact, that's what happened to the husband. He was sent to one of the camps and murdered there. The wife was imprisoned in a camp. And after the war, she wrote two incredibly powerful letters to my father that I had - I knew they existed, but they're in German. I don't speak German. And when they were translated for me, the tremendous risk and the courage that they had really dawned on me.

So it became very important for me to find out if there was any way to connect with any of their relatives. The name is Mynarek - Fritz Mynarek and Charlotte Mynarek. Her maiden name was Nicksdorf (ph). I've been trying to find any living relatives of the Mynareks or Charlotte Nicksdorf - I haven't been able to find any - just to tell them what happened, what they did, their bravery, just exactly what happened.

MARTIN: It is a - it's almost overwhelming, isn't it, Uri, to even think about all the things that could have been different, right?

U. BERLINER: Yes. Yes, definitely. Yeah.

MARTIN: So, Uri, I've asked your dad what it's been like for him. I do want to ask what it's been like for you. I mean, as a journalist, you know, so much of our training is not to talk about ourselves and to put the focus on others. And this is - you are the story. Your family is the story. If you don't mind, I find myself wondering, what has it been like for you to report this and to share this?

U. BERLINER: I mean, ultimately, it's been a wonderful experience, the response. And I also think my father and I have connected a lot over this experience. And we've talked a lot more about each other and what happened. But just the reporting, I think there were two things going on. One was I treated it like any other story. I had to find out the facts. I had to structure the story. I had to try and tell it in the best way.

But it was also a profoundly personal experience for me. And I think nothing more than when I went to my father's apartment and had to turn on the microphone and put on the headphones and talk to him about these things that were very painful, many of them very painful, some of them quite wonderful - that was the hardest part for me because I didn't know how it'd go. And my father was just wonderful. And he was so open. And it meant a lot to me.

MARTIN: So, Gert, what do you think? Did he do a good job?

G. BERLINER: He did a wonderful job. And one other thing that happened is that it really brought us much closer together, and that's very important.

MARTIN: Well, I'm so glad. Gert Berliner, Uri Berliner, thank you both so much for talking with us.

U. BERLINER: Thank you, Michel.

G. BERLINER: Thank you.

MARTIN: You can read more about Uri's journey to document his family history at npr.org. And as we mentioned earlier, throughout the holiday season, we will be bringing you more conversations between family members. Some are sharing personal stories for the first time, others are looking into shared histories. So we want to open it up. If you have a story you'd like to tell us about, we'd like to hear it. You can email us at NPR - crowdsource@npr.org and put Family Story in the subject line. Or you can go to the NPR Facebook page and fill out a brief form. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.