The Last Jews in Berlin

Leonard Gross

Carroll and Graf 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004
On February 27th 1943, Goebbels issued the order to round up Berlin's remaining Jews, protected until then because they worked in armaments factories or other key positions. Thousands escaped and went underground, becoming "U-Boats", and a few hundred survived the war. The Last Jews in Berlin tells the story of seven of these, and of members of the Swedish church in Berlin who helped to save Jews.

Gross skillfully weaves his story together, moving between the protagonists to maintain continuous tension. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of their lives is their variety. Some were by themselves, others had children, spouses, or parents with them. Some spent most of the war in hiding; others were linked to more organised resistance networks and could obtain false papers. They maintained themselves by sewing, by black-market trade in jewels, or by the charity of others. Some snuck into opera and theatre performances; others found romance in unlikely circumstances.

Gross also works the background history into the narrative naturally, without interrupting the flow of his stories. Based on interviews carried out in 1967 and again in 1978, The Last Jews in Berlin is oral history, but Gross seems to me to have done a good job of evaluating the evidence by its "plausibility, consistency, and comprehensiveness". Only the occasional passage seems like an obvious retrospective intrusion:

"But what the Riedes received from the Wirkuses was far more important than food or shelter and the confirmation of friendship. It was the knowledge that there were German Gentiles who cared for them to the point of risking their lives."

Which leads to my first caveat. There are no villains in The Last Jews in Berlin. Only the Jewish "catchers", employed to betray their own, are foregrounded — none of the Gestapo have faces, nor do the Germans who assisted in, or profited from, the capture and deportation of Jews. Instead we meet a continuous stream of Catholic anti-Nazis, sympathetic Prussian policemen, and so forth. Perhaps this genuinely reflects the experiences of those Jews lucky enough to survive, but it surely distorts the overall picture. (It may reflect post-war German amnesia — all the protagonists of The Last Jews in Berlin remained in Germany after the war.)

Perhaps the most serious problem is unsolvable: to tell the stories of the survivors is to shadow those of the dead, and who can speak for them? The epilogue explains that none of the friends and relatives of the protagonists deported to concentration camps in the course of the book survived, but it does so incidentally, tacked onto a mention of a White Russian taken by the Russians and never heard from again. I would have liked to have seen a list of those dead, with the place and manner of their deaths where known, to give some idea of just how atypical the survivors were.

Though perhaps best read alongside other books on the Holocaust, The Last Jews in Berlin is a powerful and gripping portrait of life in Berlin during the Second World War.

January 2004

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%T The Last Jews in Berlin
%A Gross, Leonard
%I Carroll and Graf
%D 1999 [1992]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0786706872
%P 349pp