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Survival in banishment

Shoshana Berman survived two dictators: Hitler and Stalin. Now the 83-year-old Israeli would like to record her life story in an autobiography and is therefore carrying out research in several archives. When she visited the Documenta art exhibition in Kassel recently, she took advantage of the opportunity to stop by at the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen.

Her search in the ITS archive quickly led to results. Documents from the camps for displaced persons report on how the family survived the Holocaust, what it was like for them to wait for emigration in Germany, and finally their departure for Israel. "I couldn't remember the exact dates of my stays in the DP camps,” says Shoshana Berman. “This is very helpful.”

She was born as Susanna Schmidt in Pinsk, Poland (now Belarus)— an important center of Judaism at the time —on March 15, 1934. The town fell to the Soviets through the Hitler-Stalin Pact on the division of Poland. They confiscated the Jewish family’s property. "My grandfather was a real estate owner and therefore a capitalist in the eyes of the communists. He owned the largest hotel in Pinsk." The family spent a year living with relatives in a neighboring village. Then, on June 20, 1941, they were arrested and deported to a place in Russia near Novosibirsk. Not only Shoshana’s parents and sister, but also two paternal aunts and her paternal grandparents had to go with them. "Only my mother's family was allowed to stay. To this day, I can still remember my grandparents saying goodbye to us at the station."

Of the documents in the ITS archive, the Israeli is particularly fascinated by one dated July 1943 from the World Jewish Congress, listing Jewish refugees in Siberia. "Where does this information come from?" Shoshana Berman wonders. "The names, the ages, the address—everything's correct. I’ve never before had any trace of this phase.” The time in Siberia was hard, the living conditions miserable. "I can remember everything quite vividly. What kept the family going was the knowledge that the Germans, and thus the threat of the Holocaust, were far away. In 1946, they were able to leave Siberia and return to Poland in accordance with repatriation agreements between the Allies.

"My mother immediately set about looking for her parents and the rest of her family.” The family members had presumably fallen victim to the firing squad of the Mounted Police Branch II, which had murdered the Jewish inhabitants of Stolin, where Susanna’s maternal relatives had lived, on September 11, 1942. What they had once called home was irretrievably lost, even after the end of the Second World War. Pogroms against the Jewish returnees to Poland forced them to continue their journey. The parents entrusted Shoshana and her sister to the Kibbutz movement with the aim to rescue them from the pogrom ridden Poland. "In a group of children, walking by foot at night, partly crawling and climbing along 35 kilometers. We crossed the border between Poland and Czechoslovakia hearing from afar barking dogs and drunken soldiers songs, until we felt free”, Shoshana Berman recalls. She got a extreme stomach ache when the group crossed the border to Germany. "In Hof, I was brought to a clinic and left there all on my own. I was twelve years old. Around me, everyone spoke German. I never felt so lonely in my life again."

The documents in the ITS archive testify to the short hospital stay in Hof. "I'm really grateful for that," says Shoshana Berman. "My sister still teased me years later, saying my memory was playing tricks on me.” From Hof, the children’s group continued on to Bad Reichenhall. There the children had to take leave of the aunt who had accompanied them until then. "Another painful moment." Now the girls were on their own. The Hashomer Hatzair youth kibbutz movement arranged for them to stay in a monastery in Jordanbad near Biberach. The youngsters were undernourished. “The nuns pepped us up with beer, vegetables and fish oil.” For months the sisters had no word from their parents. “We couldn't bear it any longer, so we ran away and took the train to Munich. I have no idea how we managed it—two teenage girls and no money.” When they arrived, they were unable to obtain any information, so they travelled on to Bad Reichenhall, to their aunt. "One of those inexplicable things that happen in life happened there. At 1:00 o’clock in the morning, there was a knock at the door. It was my aunt's younger sister with the news that my parents were in Landshut."

The next day, the teenagers set out on their way. "It was pouring rain. The whole ground was muddy and there they were. Hugs and tears followed for hours." Initially the refugees were housed in tents in Landshut; later they were transferred to the Wasseralfingen DP camp. "Compared to Siberia, the conditions were bearable. After all, I had a bed all to myself." The teenagers went to school. "I took advantage of the waiting time to learn as much as possible: languages, telegraphing, sewing, and I took private lessons with a professor." The family finally reached Israel on August 29, 1949. Shoshana Berman studied law and became a judge. She had two daughters and four grandchildren. "I rarely talked to them about my childhood and youth. But we should share our experiences with future generations."