The sins of the Nazis are visited upon their children
One of the last restitution cases of its kind is underway
1943, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Alice Donat stood on the unloading ramp of the Nazis’ biggest concentration and death camp. Two boys were clinging to her fearfully, fourteen-year-old Emanuel Berger and his younger brother Erwin. The children had lost their parents but Alice had given them a home in the picturesque town of Wandlitz on the leafy outskirts of Berlin where she had run an orphanage together with her colleague Helene Lindenbaum. ‘Aunty Alice’ had read bedtime stories to the boys at night. When the weather allowed it, the children had eaten dinner outside, sitting on long benches. The beautiful Lake Wandlitz wasn’t far. But the Berger boys were Jewish and there was no place for them in Nazi Germany.
There was no place for Alice and Helene either. The women were forced to sell the orphanage and the land it stood on to a textile maker by the name of Felix Moegelin for 21.500 Reichsmark in 1939. A contract was drawn up, stamped with the swastica and signed ‘Heil Hitler!’. Alice and Helene declared that they were ‘Jews as defined by the Nuremberg Laws’ and Felix confirmed: ‘I am Aryan.’
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By 1943, Alice had lost everything, standing on the platform at Birkenau as men who looked healthy enough to work were separated from women and children. Somehow Emanuel ended up with a group of adult male prisoners. This was to save his life. The teenager survived several concentration camps and wrote about his experiences years later, convinced that it was Alice who knew that he might be tall enough to pass as a young adult and pushed him to join the group designated for forced labour. He would never see her again. The Nazis murdered her, Helene and Erwin.
2015, Wandlitz. Thomas Lieske stood in the kitchen of his family home and opened a large brown envelope that had just arrived. The 51-year-old had no idea what the letter could be about but it looked official, sent from a government department. He pulled out sixteen pages written in convoluted, formal language and began to decipher them. In the end, he found out that the property in which he lived and which he co-owned with his mother Gabriele was to be ‘given back.’ Thomas couldn’t believe it. But studying the pages in his hand again, there could be no doubt: the Lieskes would lose their home.