Growing up in Berlin
Spring was trying to wake up the plant life on a fine morning in March of 1921.
Reb Solomon Dzubas had traveled to his home town Czestochowa in Poland to arrange the import of paints and soaps from his uncle’s factory. The Dzubas family members were all Gur Chassids. His uncle, Reb Jacob Dzubas was an important member of the town’s Jewish community and its many charitable activities. Reb Solomon had expected to return home to Berlin a week ago but a breakdown in the Polish railway system had delayed the return trip.
Whilst sitting in his uncle’s tastefully posh office Solomon had gotten word of the delays. He sunk deeply into the well upholstered light brown leather armchair. “Oof, these Poles haven’t managed to get anywhere near the standard of the railway system in Germany. The tracks are a mess, the locomotives have not the power or stability of the DRG’s, and the stations are so poorly tended. Well I just hope I can get back soon, my wife is due to deliver any day now.”
Uncle Jacob gave his guest a teasing poke in the ribs and said, “Oh don’t worry so Soli. Here you’re a guest in my house, so you have where to sleep comfortably and good kosher food to eat and you are pampered as nowhere else. As for your wife you know she’s in good hands in her father’s house. Reb Mordechai and the Rebetzin along with their adoring, and I dare say from what I saw quite competent, servants will look after her far better than you can. Trust in God my dear nephew, pray and trust in God. Tomorrow is Shabbat, I will have the Chazan make a special blessing for her at the opening of the Torah Holy Ark. She’ll be just fine. Look you are bored here with nothing to do. Go to the Beit Midrash and tell my son there to learn the “Sfat Emeth” on this week’s Torah Portion with you. It will give you something better to do with your mind than to uselessly worry.”
The center of Solomon’s concerns was in Berlin, in a luxurious two story house with a full basement, part of which was a concealed secret section, and a full attic. Before it was a well planned and cared for decorative garden. By the carved oak entrance door stood two well groomed apple trees. The exterior design showed tasteful wealth without being ostentatious.
Inside too was well appointed. Persian Bukharin and silk oriental carpets largely covered the parquet floors of the spacious rooms and the walls had wood paneling half of their height, with the upper half fine tasteful wallpaper. While the tables, bureaus etc were from the previous century they were of the best quality and well cared for, so they appeared all in new condition. The cooking and cleaning servants’ quarters were on the ground floor. Those of Hindeh and Gheert and their daughter Lizeh, as well as of Karl and his wife, were on the second floor separated by the baths from the bedroom suites of the family. This better enabled them to be attentive to any need day or night.
A few days after the Shabat wherein Reb Solomon’s wife was given the blessing for an easy birth in Czestochowa; up on the second floor in that Berlin house in a bedroom with double curtains on the beveled glass windows, cherry wood paneled and gentle flowery design wallpaper covered walls, silk oriental carpets on the polished wood floor, stood Dr. Englehart with his famous monocle. He was standing next to the tastefully decorated canopied bed. He had removed his silk top hat and tailed coat, and had his shirt sleeves partially rolled up and of course a serious look on his face. He shouted an order to the awaiting maid, “Hindeh, bring the boiling water and some alcohol. Do you have spirits in case she faints?”
The doting anxious maid answered, “Immediately Herr doctor!” as she scampered off excitedly running down the fancy curved oak stair case with its walnut banister.
She ran into the kitchen as fast as she could, excitedly shouting in her Frisian farm country accent, “Gheert get me the water upstairs. Mistress Becka is ready to give birth now! Gertrud where’s the alcohol, quick. Heh, I thought ahead of the big pompous doctor. The ammonia spirits are in my apron pocket already since yesterday evening. What does a man know about giving birth anyway?”
The entire kitchen was in an excited stir. Their beloved "Sheinah Becka" (Beautiful Rebecka), the only daughter of the master of the house Rabbi Mordechai Maxim Marcus Suesskind, was giving birth.
As Hindeh ran back up the oak wood stairs with the alcohol and ammonia spirits in her hands, the entire help staff crowded near the bottom of the steps awaiting the big event. Massive Gheert ran up the stairs with the big pot of boiling water in his huge hands and placed it silently on the service cart waiting by the bedroom doorway. Rabbanite Leah musing to herself, “I still don’t understand how that big ox of a man can still do things so gently.” Hindeh of course stayed close by the door her breath and heart racing, “Oh goot Godt in the merit of Avraham Yisshhak and Yaakov, Sarah Rivka Rachel and Leah, please help our precious Becka deliver a live healthy baby safely.”
On the ground floor all the other servants were waiting at the bottom of the staircase to hear the announcement of the birth.
Twenty minutes later, under Dr. Englehart’s critical supervising eye the midwife was already saying, “Becka dear Becka you have given birth to a contestant for your title as the most beautiful girl in Jewish Berlin. What a bonbon, Mazal Tov!”
Hindeh ran down the stairs so fast her feet barely touched the steps; she almost stumbled when she got to the floor. She was so excited she was incoherent. Gheert came close after her and with his big Dutch country boy smile announced to the rest of the servants, “It’s a girl, a pretty little girl for our dear Becka and honorable beloved Solomon”.
Hindeh had been a fifteen year old child when her mother had been the maid who assisted in the birth of Becka. As the two children grew she had often been responsible for helping care for the young Rivka Suesskind. They had also been playmates in their younger years. She had often protected the younger pretty yet frail “Sheineh Becka” from the rough children in the surrounding neighborhoods when they went outdoors. Now at age forty-five she had helped her beloved playmate and charge, give birth to her first child, a beautiful little replica of Becka.
The servants were as happy as the grandparents, Rabbi Mordechai Marcus Maxim Suesskind and Rabbanite Leah Elise. Each of them wanted to be the first to inform Reb Solomon Dzubas upon his return. Hindeh quickly raced back up the stairs to help the midwife with the post partum care and to clean up.
After the delivery and initial post partum care was done, Rabbi Suesskind and Dr. Englehart sat down for a small “Lechayim” glass of fine vintage kosher wine. When the servant Karl opened the bottle and poured the wine, Dr. Englehart was taken aback and asked the Rabbi, “How does a man of Torah and Halakha let this gentile open a bottle of wine?”
Rabbi Suesskind smiled at him and responded, “You dear man would be correct in your concern were it not that in my house I take care of a commandment that has been sorrowfully ignored by the vast majority of our people.”
“And what may that be?”
“Herr Doctor have you forgotten that it is commanded to us in the Holy Torah to be ‘a light unto the nations’? Each and every one of my servants and maids has been instructed and observe the seven Noachide commandments. This is an absolute prerequisite for working for me. Karl, Gheert and their respective wives were so impressed by life with the seven Noachide commandments that they chose to go further and convert, and the four of them are Gerei Tsedek, full-fledged Jews. However due to the nature of the times we live in, it is kept somewhat a secret. I also request of you to never divulge this secret.
Therefore they may carry, open and pour wine, as well as see to all the cooking, without any Halakhik problem. The other servants are all fully observant Bnei Noahh and do not touch the wines nor light the stove or oven.”
Dr. Englehart stood and said, “Rabbi Mordechai Marcus Suesskind, you have taught me a point in Torah I never knew. You have also shown a hidden side of greatness. I give you my humblest apologies for having suspected you of a slighting of halakha, and my great respect for your erudition and depth. I also apologize to Karl for any embarrassment I may have done him.”
“Thank you, though I am small in comparison to my elder generations. Now will you come join us for dinner?”
Two days later an excited call was heard from the doorman, “He’s here; the taxi has just arrived from the train station.
The servants crowded around the entrance hall all ready to call out “Mazal Tov” like excited little children. Their love for “Master Soli” and “Mistress Becka” was so great that at times they forgot their normal prim and proper staid manner.
Hindeh, looking out the bay window, excitedly called out, “He’s gotten out of the cab and the driver’s helper is bringing his valise”. Deiter opened the door to receive Master Reb Solomon and the entire team of servants was poised to run out to escort him and give the good news, when Frau Rabbanite Leah Elise entered the salon. Quickly quietly, albeit a bit clumsily from the excitement, everyone took their proper places.
Rabbanite Leah Elise Suesskind, youngest daughter of the respected Rabbi Tsvi Hirsch Kuttner and Rabbanite Rebecca, was a kind considerate thoughtful boss to her house help, yet though only 155 centimeters in height, she quietly radiated a definite air of matriarchal authority. She didn’t have to say a word. Her mere entrance put order in place.
It was not out of fear in any way. It was out of love and respect of the house’s matriarch. Even the tall regal stern authoritative Rav Herr Mordechai Marcus deferred to her.
Reb Solomon walked up the curved paved path through the exquisite entrance garden to the already waiting open carved oak door, and entered the house. After the entrance hall’s passage to the grand salon the men servants were on the right side, the maidservants on the left, and in between at the end of the double row stood Rabbanite Leah Elise.
In spite of their efforts to appear staid and proper the servants were all grinning from ear to ear and fidgeting. Solomon could see that entire staff was all ready to jump on their toes.
They barely fumbled the proper “Welcome home Master Reb Solomon” and they all burst out as one with, “Mazal Tov, Mazal Tov, it’s a darling baby girl!”
“Wonderful, thank you all. Good to be home again. Where are they?”
Hindeh and Gheert lead the way up the wide staircase. Rabbanite Elise was at Solomon’s side telling him that the birth was easy enough, Esther the midwife had done her job excellently, and that the pompous professor Dr. Englehart was quite extraneous in fact, and all is well. Seeing his dear wife again and that she was well and happy along with meeting his new baby daughter was a great joy and relief to Reb Solomon.
Rabbanite Elise left the bedroom, closed the cherry wood doors and shooed off Hindeh and Gheert, “Hindeh go bring a tray with tea and cake. Then let them be alone a while to chat and enjoy their new threesome company without us bothering them. In the meantime, Gheert, make sure that Reb Solomon’s room, bath and change of clothes are ready.”
The following Shabbat in the elegant exquisite synagogue, his father-in-law, Reb Suesskind, called him up to the Torah with an honored Aliyah. After the reading of the portion he said the “Gomel” blessing as a thank you to God for his return from his voyage, and the Chazan made the blessing for the health of his wife and for the health of the newborn baby girl along with the giving of her name as announced by Reb Solomon “Dvorah Dorothea Ursala bat (daughter of) Rivka”.
The entire congregation of two thousand called out, “Mazal Tov – Mazal Tov”, and Reb Mordekhai Suesskind invited the entire congregation to festive Kiddush brunch after services.
A year and a half later there was yet another festive “Mazal Tov” with the birth of the couple’s second daughter, Yehudith.
With their illustrious grandfather being, among other responsibilities, in charge of the Jewish school system in Berlin, the girls got the best education possible.
Though sprite little Dvorah had her father’s sky blue eyes, her coal dark curly hair won her the nickname “Ushy”. Yehudith’s high pitched chirping voice was to win her the moniker of “peeps”.
Even though the house had a full team of servants, the girls were not overly pampered. They both had chores to do according to their ages, and were taught to cook and sew as well.
The young Lizeh, daughter of Hindeh the head maid servant was charged with helping them with homework in secular subjects, accompanying them when they went outdoors as well as seeing to their needs. The three of them grew together, sometimes playing and teasing each other in an admixture of relations which was both as close friends, and as servant to those served. The sisters never took undue advantage of Lizeh and never were demeaning, and she never abused their close relationship to slough off from her responsibility or station to them. Such was in general the atmosphere in Rav Suesskind’s home. Servants were to some extent family as well. There was a healthy admixture of love and respect with recognition of relative station. It gave a warm wholesome air to all.
However outside the air was quite different.
In spite of many efforts to boost it, the German economy continued to flounder. This made it easy for the radical Nazi Party, to gain support among the public. After the failed “Beer Hall Putsch” Reb Solomon realised sadly “My suspicions were right. This is surely the dangerous mad one I was warned about by Ben-Tsion. The good days for Jews in Germany are over.”
By 1935 half of the servants have had to be let go due to the economy. Hindeh, being second generation in service with the Suesskind family, her husband Gheert and daughter Lizeh were kept the longest since they were almost like family. Karl and his wife too were kept. The two couples themselves even offered to work for lower wages, just to be able to stay with their beloved employers.
One autumn afternoon Mother Rivkah turned to her 18 year old Dvorah saying, “Ushy, I sent Peeps to the baker shop an hour ago and she hasn’t returned yet. Please go see where she is and what is taking her so long to buy a couple loaves of bread.”
“Yes Momma.” She quickly donned her coat and hat and off she went, buttoning up as she raced down the garden’s path.
The streets were less busy than they used to be only a couple years ago. Many non-Jews had been drafted to the armed services. Many Jews had simply disappeared. Add that to the collapsed economy and Berlin was far from being the vibrant city Dvorah which had seen it be in her younger years.
Dvorah was a delicate petite girl 145 cm (less than 5 foot) tall and thin as a matchstick. She went along the regular route to the bake shop, like a typical teenager half in her daydreams and not too worried, until … until she turned the corner to the street the bakery was on and saw ….
What she saw made her gasp and for a moment stop her breath. There was her little sister, Peeps, standing frozen with fright, and opposite her only a few centimeters away, stood a tall brawny Nazi SA sergeant grilling her. In his huge hand was his army issue dagger with the skull and crossbones at the end of the hilt, pointed at Peeps’s face. Peeps was as white as a sheet with tears streaming down her face, stammering and trembling.
As petite and frail as she was Dvorah knew that she had to save her little sister, somehow.
She ran faster across the cobble stoned street than she ever thought she could, jumped and gave a flying kick to the soldier’s knee and scraping down his shin. He let out an animal shriek and as his skull and crossbones dagger fell to the sidewalk. Dvorah screamed, “Peeps home”, grabbed her hand and the two girls sped off like lightning into the nearest alley. They ran like rabbits through the maze of old city alleys that only someone who grew up in the neighborhood would know where they led to.
The suddenness and the sharp totally unexpected pain of the desperate girl’s kick left the Nazi sergeant breathless motionless just long enough for the two girls to disappear from sight.
By the time he composed himself, and picked up his dreaded dagger they were long gone without a trace. He had not even managed to get the terrorized girl’s address or name in spite of a half hour of questioning. In the shock of pain from the surprise kick he had not even noticed into which alley they had run off. To search for them would be futile and further humiliating.
With a plethora of foul expletives curses on the Jews pouring from his mouth he limped off on his way.
After Hitler’s party rose to power the inflation got worse and worse. The Deutsche Mark was devalued weekly, then biweekly, then daily, and eventually twice a day. It got to the point where the government stopped printing new bills. The banks simply got rubber stamps to add zeros to the number on the existing bills.
It devolved to the point to where Becka Dzubas, who was working as a secretary in Rabbi Frier’s office, received her salary twice daily in a suitcase filled with cash. Once at noon along with a midday leave to go buy the family needs before the prices jumped again later in the day. Then at the end of her work day she would get paid again and go shopping on the way home for by next morning the prices would be higher again.
Of course there was also no assurance that the shops would in stock the food items one went for. Add to that the fact that there were times the shopkeeper would refuse to sell some item of other to a Jew.
The newspapers, the radio, the school lessons, etc. everything everywhere more and more were blaming the economic problems on the Jews. Each difficulty the government met with in its goal for gaining control of Europe was also blamed on the Jews.
Jews were disenfranchised and many other ways were found to make life terribly miserable for them. More and more Jews simply disappeared.
They either never came home from work or school, or vanished in the night from their homes during an “Akzia”.
The nice sweet artistic humanistic culture of Bach Brahms and Beethoven availed the Jews naught to prevent the very trains they had manufactured and the very railway system they had constructed to rebuild the strength and pride of Germany, from being used to exterminate them wholesale.