The Jewish community of Berlin had survived many difficulties since the Nazis came to power in 1933. There had been a gradual introduction of ever more restrictive laws governing what work they could do, who they could meet and where they could go. The Nazis felt incapable of launching a full scale assault against them like they had in the East.
Most Berlin Jews were fully integrated into German society and many hardly considered themselves to be Jewish at all, not practising the Jewish religion at all or being converts to Christianity. None of this made any difference to Nazi racial laws and they were gradually marked out as being ‘different’.
For a long time the thousands of Jewish skilled workers contributing to the war economy thought that they had found a niche where they were needed. All this changed on the 27th February 1943 when the Germans launched what became known as the ‘Fabrikaktion’ – the Factory Action when thousands of Jews were seized from their place of work and sent off in goods wagons to Auschwitz.
There was some notice of these events because the Jewish community hospital had been told on the 26th to provide teams of doctors and nurses to stand by on the 27th. Some Jews were able to go into hiding as a result, others took more drastic steps. Hildegard Henschel was one of those who saw the events that day:
27 February began like any normal work day. The music hall at the nurses dormitory of the Jewish hospital was empty. In every corner sat a doctor and two nurses with cases of medicine and supplies, waiting for what was to come.
There was nervousness and restlessness in the air. People hardly spoke to each other. Between 9 and 10 a.m. the phones started ringing: Oranienburger street [the community offices] reported that all community officials had been arrested at their work places all over.
People were loaded onto SS trucks and brought to four assembly camps (the “Clou” concert hall, two military camps and the building at Rosen street). Large teams of aides and medical staff were taken there. Treatment was to be given around the clock.
Orianienburg Street was ordered to have the community staff come and present themselves with all necessary equipment. They also nominated certain people to be the Jewish commanders of each such camp. It was now known what had happened, but it was yet unclear how it happened.
I just want to state that this action was executed with terrible cruelty and no human consideration. The people were quickly loaded onto the SS trucks. The women came straight from work, in their work clothes, with no coats, no breakfast. These were all left in the factories’ changing rooms.
Naturally, the community staff’s families felt paralyzed. They did not act until the first suicide case was brought in. People jumped from the windows, threw themselves under cars, swallowed Veronal and cyanide. Careful people always carried poison with them.
It was hard, almost impossible, to find out where people were. There were as yet no lists of the people detained in the camps. All telephone lines at the factories were occupied by the SS, and one could not call to find out information about the whereabouts of relatives. There was absolute chaos everywhere.
In addition, there were manhunts in the streets and house to house searches. Meanwhile it was noon. The Gestapo did not provide food. The community people got permission to supply the camps with food. The Gestapo did not ask where the food for 8,000 people came from. The food was available, but there were many logistical problems…and the supply went slowly. But eventually all these problems were overcome, and each person received something to eat.
Before nightfall, the [community] clothing store handed out as many blankets as possible. The supply was minimal compared to the demand, and it is very difficult to describe the hardship and sadness. The people in the camp were worried about their relatives, and community workers looked for these relatives in other camps.
The Jewish camp officials did their best, but in many cases relatives could not be traced. There was exceptional worry about the small children who had remained behind at home, some of them locked in the apartments. Since it was Saturday, the parents knew that they would finish work at 2 p.m. and had left their children at home and did not send them to the day-care center or kindergarten.
Some were with neighbors or a grandmother who had not yet been deported. The Gestapo informed the camps to accelerate the evacuation of the Jews. Only people with yellow passes could stay at home or were released from detention.
They also separated those who declared they were Aryans and sent them over to the camp at Rosen Street, where they awaited decision in their matter. Those who could prove they had the right to be sent to Theresienstadt [a ghetto in Czechoslovakia where elderly and prominent Jews from Germany were concentrated] were separated from the others. Only in a few cases were people with such privileges overlooked because of the chaos.
The question of the children left at home, and luggage that had been prepared and left there, caused a great deal of worry and needed a solution. During the night between Saturday and Sunday, all of the Community social service workers and nurses went all over Berlin to the addresses given to them to pick up the children and bring them to their parents who were detained in the camps….
Read the whole account at the Shoah Resource Centre.