Just before World War II broke out, half the students and teachers of the ORT Berlin school made it to Britain, where they found refuge. The other half remained behind, hanging on for another few years. August 29, 1939. Thousands of Jews crowded the platforms of Charlottenburg station. To all it was clear that a world war was about to erupt, and anyone who had a visa to another country was rushing out of Berlin. Most of the trains had already been commandeered for the Wehrmacht, to carry soldiers eastward, to the Polish border. Between the families frantically searching for a place in a carriage were 106 young men in ordered lines. They were between the ages of 14 and 17, and some were accompanied by parents, trying to hide their feelings, although most had already said farewell to their families.
The cars of the train that was supposed to travel west, toward Holland, were locked. Two of the smaller boys were hoisted up to break through the windows and open the doors from within. After midnight the train started its journey.
Three days before the start of World War II, half the student body of the ORT Berlin vocational high school had succeeded in leaving Nazi Germany and within a few hours had boarded a ship that took them to safety in Britain. But the path of the remaining 100 or so Jewish students at the school, who were supposed to set off a week later, was blocked by the invasion of Poland, and with the declaration by Britain and France of war on Germany two days later, on September 1. They had no choice but to return to the school building on Siemensstrasse, in Berlin’s Moabit quarter, and resume their lessons, without knowing how long they would be allowed to continue. Theirs was the last Jewish school in operation in Nazi Germany.
World ORT, the international educational movement, was founded in 1880 in St. Petersburg, Russia, to provide professional and vocational training for young Jews. In 1921, following the Bolshevik revolution, it moved its headquarters to Berlin. That Berlin office dealt mainly with fund-raising and support for branches in other countries where the Jews were less well off. In Germany itself, World ORT had no schools, as the Jews of that country – enjoying the height of material and cultural success in the 1920s and early 1930s – had no need of philanthropy from other Jewish communities. German Jews preferred the prestigious gymnasiums, where they could educate their children in white-collar professions.
With the rise of the Nazi Party to power in 1933, however, the situation was reversed, and the German Jews were those in need of outside assistance. Jewish children were thrown out of “Aryanized” schools, and lawyers, doctors, business executives and civil servants were fired from their jobs. In the first years of Nazi rule, ORT focused on professional training for adults, to equip them with “practical” skills, but the main mission was to set up a new vocational high school in Berlin. But the growing restrictions on Jews, and in particular the confiscation of their property, made it extremely difficult to locate a building and purchase the necessary equipment.
The solution was to use ORT’s international ties and have the British branch of the organization buy the school building and dormitory, as well as the mechanical equipment that would be used by the students. This was a clever move: During the school’s first years, the Germans were reluctant to expropriate property of foreign citizens, even if they were Jews. But even after the necessary funds had been raised by ORT UK’s donors, German bureaucracy continued dragging its feet for a year and a half, until finally, the Security Police official in charge of Jewish emigration, Adolf Eichmann, gave the necessary authorization to open the school. That was in April 1937, only after ORT had promised that all the school’s graduates would leave Germany once their studies were over.
The fact that it was a British-owned school gave ORT Berlin a certain degree of immunity. On the night of November 9, 1938 – Kristallnacht – when groups of rioters were sent out with prepared lists to smash and burn synagogues and other Jewish-owned buildings, ORT Berlin was one of the few left untouched.
The school offered its students training in mechanical engineering, electricity, plumbing, welding and as locksmiths. The opportunity to obtain a set of skills that might also enable them to emigrate made many parents enroll their sons at ORT. Families from smaller towns were also glad to send their sons to the boarding school, thinking that in Berlin, with its embassies and diplomats, the Nazis would restrain themselves from attacking Jews openly. A year after its foundation, the new school already had over 200 students.
A safe haven
Those who studied at ORT Berlin describe a sheltered haven amid the stormy Nazi capital. “Despite what was going on outside, we could learn in relative calm, we were left alone,” says Hans Futter in a phone call last week, from his home in England. He arrived at the school at the age of 15 from his hometown of Greifswald, on the Baltic coast. “I had to leave because they kicked all the Jewish children out of the school. I came to ORT after my brother, who started there nine months earlier. The level of study was high, but mainly it was a safe place, especially for the boys who had come from the provinces, because the Jews in Berlin were better connected and could usually find a job or emigrate. It was much harder for us.”
“Life in the school was calm,” says Sydney Sadler, speaking to Haaretz by phone from England. Like Futter, he was among the group of 106 who succeeded to fled Germany. “But we were always afraid they would close us down. I went to Jewish school[s] before that, but they closed us down. At 15, I went to work as a tea-taster, but they arrested my boss and I was at my wit’s end about what to do. I got accepted at ORT and began studying engineering – that saved me.”
By 1939, when war seemed likely, the ORT leadership in Britain became very worried about the school’s fate. They decided to try and evacuate the entire school, with all its 215 students and teaching staff. Pressure was brought on the British Home Office, which was in principle against giving entry visas to Jewish refugees. The ORT people claimed that Britain could not allow valuable equipment and trained young men to remain in the hands of the German war-machine. Eventually the British government agreed to give visas to the students and teachers – on condition that the school’s equipment would also be brought to Britain.
The school’s headmaster, Werner Simon, began visiting the Gestapo offices to obtain exit permits from Germany. In August 1939, ORT UK sent one of its leaders to the German capital, Lieut. Col. Joseph Levey. Levey had served in the Scots Guard regiment during World War I; he strode into the SS building in Berlin, wearing his regimental uniform, including the Scottish kilt, shouting orders to the officers and clerks. When it seemed that the students would not be able to travel since they did not have British stamps on their passports, and the embassy’s staff had already been evacuated – Levey located a local consular employee, broke into the embassy with him and had all the passports stamped.
“Colonel Levey succeeded where everyone else failed, because he was very impressive and the Germans still respected military figures,” says Futter.
“We were ready to travel,” recalls Sadler, “In June they told us twice that we are going, and then again in July. When it happened, we got a warning of two or three hours; they just called us up and said to get to the station. We were delighted to leave, we didn’t realize at the time we would never see our parents again.
“My father came to see me and my brother off, my mother was too heartbroken to come. The station was pandemonium, hundreds of people trying to board trains, most of them Jews. We had to break a window to get in.”
Twenty-four hours after departing Berlin by train, 106 students, seven teachers and their spouses – all led by Colonel Levey – arrived at Harwich on the English coast after sailing from Holland. The second group of just over 100 students, the rest of the teachers and Simon, the director, were supposed to arrive a week later.
The first group was taken to the Kitchener Camp in Kent, which was serving as a temporary center for thousands of Jewish refugees, relieved at reaching Britain in the last minute before war broke out. They remained at the camp for three months, until a new ORT school in Leeds was built and equipped, with the financial support of the local Jewish community and World ORT. The realization that the students and teachers of the other group were stuck in Berlin and would not be allowed to leave, began sinking in, along with the fears for parents and siblings still in Germany. Through the International Red Cross, each child was able to send one postcard a month to their families back in Germany, with a maximum of 20 words, and to receive one in return.
“It was very difficult to remain in contact,” says Futter, “one postcard had to be very carefully worded. At some stage my parents were sent to a concentration camp, and then we got one letter in six months, and after that nothing.”
In December 1939, the Berlin school in effect “reopened” in Leeds, with Joseph Levey acting as a stand-in headmaster. The colonel employed military discipline. The refugee-students were forbidden to speak in German outside their rooms. The school remained in existence until all the students graduated. Blind wartime bureaucracy intervened also in Britain: Students who had arrived in the United Kingom after their 16th birthday were later interned as enemy subjects. Some were even sent to Australia, others to the Isle of Man. Those who had arrived under the age of 16 were snapped up by the British army the moment they finished school because of their in-demand skills.
Meanwhile, back in Berlin, to their surprise, the remaining teachers were allowed to continue working in the school, though it was not only Jewish but now also the property of an enemy nation. While thousands of Jews in Berlin and throughout Germany were being arrested and sent to concentration camps, the ORT school, its students and staff were allowed to continue almost unhindered until 1943. The main reason seemed to be the Germans’ interest in cultivating and maintaining a group of skilled laborers with necessary skills.
Little is known about those four years. The ORT archives still have parts of a correspondence with the German Interior Ministry and local courts over technical details of the school’s legal status. Among other documents is a letter, signed by Eichmann, from March 1941, in which he notifies ORT that from now on they are part of the “Association of Jews in Germany” – the body into which the Nazis incorporated all the remaining Jewish organizations in the Third Reich.
Dr. Arthur Feige, one of the only two people in the second group from ORT Berlin (along with a student ) who survived, wrote a short account of his work at the school, in 1977.
“I also had a visa and travel permit, but it was too late,” he wrote, “and along with the director Simon and other teachers, we resumed teaching in Berlin.” Despite the appointment of an outside inspector “who caused a lot of trouble,” for the next two years, they continued to function, accepting more students and even added new courses for adults.
In April 1941, the Nazi authorities ordered the school disbanded, but allowed the students to remain there. Now they had to work during the days in workshops and factories around Berlin. To continue protecting the students, the school tried to continue activity with some courses, and ORT Berlin remained a refuge for another two years, even though, as Feige wrote, “the condition of Jews continued to deteriorate, there were raids and arrests in the streets, synagogues and food rationing offices and we had to wear the Jewish star.” He himself was arrested by the Gestapo in December 1942, though he managed to escape from a train that was on its way to Auschwitz. A few months later, in one of the last deportations of Jews from Berlin – according to one account, in February 1943 or, according to another, in June – the SS arrived, arresting and deporting to Auschwitz 100 students and the last teachers at the last Jewish school in Germany.