BACK TO MY ROOTS My fa­ther was bap­tised but he still had to flee the Nazis

Robin Lustig ar­rives in Ber­lin on the third stage of his ge­nealog­i­cal jour­ney and finds not even con­ver­sion could save his fam­ily from per­se­cu­tion

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS -

I SUP­POSE it’s not sur­pris­ing, if you em­bark on a jour­ney in search of your fam­ily roots, that you end up vis­it­ing a lot of cemeteries. That is, af­ter all, where you’re most likely to find your fore­bears.

So here I am, in the grand­est cemetery of them all — the Weis­sensee, in the eastern sub­urbs of Ber­lin, a 20-minute tram ride from the cen­tre of town.

Weis­sensee is the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, cov­er­ing more than 100 acres and con­tain­ing more than 110,000 graves. Among them, those of my great-grand­par­ents and my great­great-grand­par­ents.

They couldn’t be eas­ier to find. Hand in the de­tails at the of­fice, a few clicks of a com­puter mouse, and the pre­cise plot num­bers and lo­ca­tions are iden­ti­fied. A help­ful map is pro­vided, with a dot­ted line along the foot­paths to show how to find the right plots.

On my way along the im­mac­u­lately swept paths, I pass soar­ing fam­ily mau­soleums that would make a Medici or a Bour­bon proud. They don’t re­flect the un­adorned sim­plic­ity of most Jewish cemeteries. But these are the last rest­ing places of Ber­lin­ers who were as much Ger­man as they were Jewish — and it shows.

My great-grand­fa­ther Theodor Lustig (1837-1906) shares his more mod­est spot with his life-long friend David Hesse. They mar­ried two sis­ters, Pauline and Franziska Cohn (not re­lated to my mother’s fam­ily, who were also called Cohn), who are each buried with them.

Theodor was a mod­estly suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man who would much pre- ferred to have been a doc­tor. He wasn’t a prac­tis­ing Jew, un­like his much more de­vout fa­ther-in-law Vic­tor Cohn (18031896).

Theodor’s son, my grand­fa­ther Franz, was even less Jewish, and he and my grand­mother de­cided to have their chil­dren bap­tised as Luther­ans. My aunt wrote many years later: “They be­lieved… their chil­dren would no longer be con­sid­ered Jews, which was al­ways a hand­i­cap in Ger­many. Hitler taught them oth­er­wise.”

In­deed, he did. My fa­ther and his three el­der sib­lings man­aged to get out of Ger­many in the years fol­low­ing Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. My grand­par­ents didn’t es­cape un­til April 1940, when they left Ger­many by train for Italy and took a boat to Por­tu­gal to spend the rest of the war there with their daugh­ter.

But back to the cemetery and my great-great-grand­fa­ther Vic­tor Cohn. He and his wife Amelie ran a leather busi­ness — he shares his plot here with her, and with two of his four daugh­ters, Therese and Jenny.

The only pic­ture I have of him shows him to have been round-faced, with a high fore­head and slicked-back hair. I’m afraid I don’t think we would have got on.

On this jour­ney I have vis­ited the grim Ninth Fort at Kau­nas, Lithua­nia where my grand­mother Ilse Cohn was mur­dered by the SS. In Wrocław, for­merly Bres­lau, I found my grand­fa­ther’s grave, hid­den be­neath 70 years’ growth of ivy. So many cemeteries, but thank good­ness, not all the sto­ries are sad ones.

My mother’s fam­ily story was sad­der than most, but when she came to write down her mem­o­ries of her life, she called them Born un­der a lucky star. I asked her why.

“I was lucky to be born with an op­ti­mistic dis­po­si­tion,” she wrote. “It helps when things go wrong.” Robin Lustig is a jour­nal­ist and broad­caster. More about his project ‘In the Foot­steps of Our Fam­i­lies’ can be found at www.wan­der­ingscribes.com

Trains to Life, Trains to Death — the sculp­ture out­side Ber­lin’s Friedrich­strasse sta­tion com­mem­o­rat­ing child refugees and vic­tims of the Holo­caust. Robin Lustig’s fa­ther was one of those who made it to safety

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