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Refugee in Hell

It is a unique story. A miracle of Jewish survival in Berlin during the Nazi era, during the Holocaust. Refugee in Hell - How Berlin's Jewish Hospital Outlasted the Nazis )Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, NY 2003).

The author is Daniel B. Silver who served as General Counsel of the National Security Agency and the L.I.A. as well.

The book was praised by Walter Laqueur. Silver presents an amazing account of people living in the Nazi inferno. Silver has conducted a great deal of research, a journey into the terrible past.

The following are questions and answers by Daniel B. Silver:

Is Refuge in Hell the first publication about the Berlin Jewish Hospital under the Nazis?

Refuge in Hell is the first full-length book in English about the Berlin Jewish Hospital during the Nazi period. However, the main facts about the hospital from 1938 to 1945 have been published in two small books in German. The author of one, an Israeli historian, also published an article in English in a fairly obscure scholarly journal, and the hospital's survival under the Nazis has been noted briefly in a few English-language books and articles about other Holocaust-related subjects.

How did you become interested in the hospital?

I first heard of the Berlin Jewish Hospital and its survival through the war about twenty-five years ago at a dinner party, in a casual remark by a recent acquaintance, Klaus Zwilsky. Klaus's accent told me that his native language had been German, and I knew that he was Jewish, but beyond that I knew very little about his background, except that he would have been in his early teens when the war ended. Prompted by something said at the table, Klaus mentioned how terrified he had been as a child during the Allied bombings of Berlin in 1943-45. Someone asked Klaus incredulously how he, a full-blooded Jew, could have been living in Berlin right up to the end of the war. "My father worked at the Jewish Hospital," Klaus answered, "and that's where my parents and I lived." The fact that there had been a functioning Jewish hospital right through the Nazi period, with Jewish doctors, nurses, and patients, intrigued me so much that I never forgot it. Many years later, my curiosity unabated, I set out to discover the hospital's story.

So was Klaus your main source of eyewitness information about the hospital?

No. That one remark is all he said at the time. Indeed, for the next twenty years or so I don't remember ever hearing him talk about his experiences in Germany. When I decided to try to find out the real story of the hospital - what life had been like there; how it had managed to stay in existence in the heart of Nazi Germany - the first person I asked was Klaus, but he was reluctant to talk about it. He later explained that his hesitation arose in large part from two factors, "survivor guilt" that he had made it through unscathed when so many of his relatives had been murdered by the Germans and unwillingness to open up unhappy memories of his traumatic childhood experiences. It was only after I had done several years' of research and uncovered a wealth of information from other sources that Klaus overcame his reluctance and began to supply me with information, including some extraordinarily interesting documents from the papers of his late father, Ehrich Zwilsky, who had been a senior official at the hospital during the war and became its director for the first year after liberation.

Did you get most of your information about the hospital from already published material?

The research published by earlier writers contributed enormously to the book, but at the heart of Refuge in Hell are experiences and observations drawn from interviews of Jewish survivors that were done specifically for the book. I also relied heavily on published and unpublished memoirs by people who were in the hospital during the war years - patients, staff members and other Jews who lived there - and on unpublished archival materials.

Did you interview everyone now living who was at the hospital during the war?

I think I have identified most, but probably not all, of the people still alive today who were on the hospital staff during the war years, and I interviewed most of them. I have no idea how many former patients remain alive, although I suspect there are very few. A few former staff members refused to be interviewed. Some others who I thought were still alive I did not try to contact because I knew that they'd had sexual liaisons with the hospital's wartime director, Dr. Lustig, and, in one case, also with the commandant of the Gestapo contingent at the hospital. I assumed that they would not want to be interviewed, and, even if they were willing, I didn't see how the subject of Lustig could be avoided. I didn't have the stomach to ask elderly women embarrassing questions about their sexual conduct sixty years ago.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered in the course of your research?

Although it was known that the hospital had been under the direct supervision of Adolf Eichmann's office, probably the most surprising thing I learned was that Eichmann personally visited the hospital on many occasions and himself selected patients and staff members to be deported, in many cases to their deaths. On two occasions he ordered his assistant to torture an elderly patient in her bed in the hospital's prison ward in an attempt to learn the whereabouts of her husband, who had gone into hiding; Eichmann stood and watched while the woman was beaten. The torture would have continued at a third session had the victim not managed to commit suicide, using poison smuggled to her by a sympathetic male nurse. This survivor's testimony is at odds with the picture Eichmann tried to give of himself as a bureaucratic drone who directed the logistics of mass murder but remained aloof from personal involvement.

Why did the Nazis allow the hospital to remain operating as an openly Jewish institution? Was it so that the Nazi leaders could have access to outstanding Jewish doctors?

Many people jump to that conclusion, but it's entirely wrong. The most renowned doctors on the hospital's staff were among the first to be deported. Moreover, the Nazis strictly prohibited any contact between "Aryan" patients and Jewish doctors and nurses, and vice versa. It wasn't until the last days of the war, when conditions in Berlin were getting desperate, that wounded non-Jewish patients were treated in the hospital.

What was the reason for the hospital's survival?

There is no single reason that convincingly explains what happened. The hospital survived through a combination of factors, some of which were so unlikely that many of those who lived through it consider the hospital's survival - and their own - to be a miracle. That was also the opinion held during the war by many of the Germans living in the neighborhood. When the hospital got through repeated bombing raids without a single fatality, the neighbors became convinced that it was under God's protection and forced the Gestapo to allow them to take refuge there during air raids.

What were the most important factors that combined to ensure the hospital's survival?

There were two. One doesn't fully explain the hospital's survival but surely was a necessary precondition. That was Hitler's vacillation over whether to deport (and eventually murder) German Jews who were married to Aryans and people who were half Jewish. Fearing political repercussions from the Aryan relatives, he kept deferring that step in the hope that the course of the war would turn more in his favor. This ensured the continued legal presence in Berlin of some 6,000 to 7,000 people whom the Nazis classified as Jews and who consequently, under Nazi law, could be hospitalized only at the Jewish Hospital. The second factor was the character of the Jewish doctor whom the Gestapo appointed to preside over the hospital in the last years of the war, Dr. Walter Lustig. His courage and tenacity, as well as his keen understanding of how to exploit tensions within the German bureaucracy, saved the hospital from disaster.

How did Lustig decide who was to be deported and who was to be saved?

There's the rub. Lustig told his closest associates that the only principle of selection was to keep the hospital viable. Accordingly, he said, he spread the impact among the various medical departments so that none would be completely emptied out. Others claimed, however, that personal favoritism and sexual politics governed at least some of Lustig's choices.

Sexual politics?

Lustig was a notorious womanizer. At least two of the young hospital nurses were his mistresses, and he may have had other liaisons. Some have charged that he used the threat of deportation as a way of obtaining sexual favors. Others claim that he allowed his mistresses to guide his choice of whom to deport and that others in the hospital had to curry favor with these women in an attempt to escape deportation.

What happened to Dr. Lustig after the war?

One day shortly after the end of the war, he was taken away from the hospital by men in Soviet uniform, and he was never seen again. The report that gained currency was that he had been murdered by the Soviet occupying forces. There are no documents or eyewitness accounts of what happened to him, however, and there are reasons to doubt that the commonly accepted story of his fate is true.

What was life like for the people who lived or worked in the hospital?

It must have been very strange and incredibly stressful. These people (except for those who were confined to the prison ward) were almost the only Jews in Berlin who enjoyed a modicum of freedom and a relatively non-hostile environment. Because the hospital shared a heating plant with a German military hospital that had been housed in three confiscated pavilions, the inhabitants were warm when the rest of the remaining Jewish Berliners were freezing, and their food was generally better as well. On the other hand, even in the hospital they had to wear the yellow star and were subject to harassment by the Gestapo and the SS at any time. Outside the walls of the hospital they were subject to the myriad of humiliating restrictions that the Nazis imposed on Germany's remaining Jews. In addition, virtually all had suffered the deportation of friends and relatives, most of whom they never heard from again. And, since deportations of hospital staff continued almost to the last days of the war, they lived in constant fear that they would be assigned to the next transport.

How did the hospital population behave under conditions of extreme pressure?

With surprising calmness and self-possession. To the extent possible, they tried to lead normal lives. The devout held Jewish services in secret, despite the Gestapo's prohibition of all religious observance. People fell in love. Some had affairs. There were occasional festivities and moments of levity. Many of the younger staff members, convinced that their future was fairly hopeless, took enormous risks to enjoy a bit of fun. Those who thought they could pass for Aryans would take off their yellow stars, leave their identity papers behind, and go out in the city to enjoy activities that were forbidden to Jews. The price, for those who were caught, was almost inevitable deportation, which most people knew meant likely death.

What was your own psychological reaction to exploring this little-known aspect of the Holocaust?

My research and writing about the hospital brought home, more directly and realistically than most of the voluminous Holocaust information to which I had been exposed, the horror of what happened to the Jews in Germany under the Nazis. In that regard, the work was profoundly saddening, and at times it was hard to continue. It also turned out to be therapeutic, however. When, like many people, I was thrown off balance and depressed by the events of September 11, 2001, I found it very comforting to think of the hospital survivors whom I had interviewed. The reflection that they had experienced things much worse, had come through psychologically intact, and had led useful and productive lives helped me regain my own mental equilibrium. The example set by these women still serves as an inspiration not to lose hope even as the world appears to be going from bad to worse.

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