SUMMONED TO BERLIN, a memoir by Joanne Intrator
With all my heart, I thank you for your interest in my upcoming memoir.
What is this book about?
In part, my book is about the complex challenges I faced -- and proved able to overcome -- during my decade-long struggle to achieve restitution for 16 Wallstrasse, a major center-city Berlin property the Nazis stole from my family.
Imagine -- One of my German attorneys in the case told me I should just passively accept splitting our restitution money with descendants of the very same “Aryans” who ripped the building away from us.
Next, imagine the same attorney arrogantly telling me that Holocaust-era events at 16 Wallstrasse would be “of merely historical interest.”
And then imagine -- I hired an international private detective who discovered the following: After stealing my family’s building, the Nazis exploited it, with slave labor, for the mass-production of swastika flags and banners, and antiaircraft parts, as well as to fulfill an order of nearly one million yellow Star of David patches used to stigmatize Jewish victims.
But my book is also about my long-running love-hate relationship with Berlin, how I balanced my private psychiatric practice and family life with the demands of the 16 Wallstrasse case, and moreover, how I broke down my own personal “Berlin Wall” to forge meaningful friendships with contemporary Germans committed to making the world a kinder, gentler place.
In the end, I scored only a partial victory, compelled to allow those “Aryan” heirs a percentage of our restitution money. Yet I gained a profound appreciation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s counsel to “love the questions” that arise from perplexing situations. And my hope is that reading my memoir will inspire you more confidently to face – and overcome – whatever challenges arise in your life.
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“Dr. Joanne Intrator has a powerhouse personality and a razor-sharp intellect. Her quest for restitution for one of the center-city Berlin properties that the Nazis stole from her family during the Holocaust is an inspiring saga of vindication and justice, and of one very determined woman prevailing against seemingly impossible odds.”
—Dean Pitchford Academy Award and Golden Globe Award Winner
“Joanne Intrator's proposed Summoned to Berlin is a real-life story that simply must be told. Intrator's perseverance in pursuing justice for her family—in the matter of a center-city Berlin property stolen during the Holocaust era -- is a model of courage and gumption for us all. Where an indifferent German bureaucracy expected Dr. Intrator to split the value of the property with an heiress of Nazis, and additionally wanted to sweep the Nazi history of the building under the rug, Intrator dug and dug and dug and then dragged that Nazi history out into the light of day. That she simultaneously was working on groundbreaking research into the brain structure of psychopaths -- work that relates directly to the complex mysteries of the Nazi phenomenon—guarantees that her unique story will be informed by equally unique insights. Joanne’s story is certain to appeal to readers who love when a strong woman pursues and achieves her goals.”
—Kathrin Seitz, Writer and Producer
“A courageous and determined daughter confronts the German government, seeking justice for her parents, who had been victims of Nazi racism and immorality. Joanne Intrator’s story is that of a woman who dares to confront those who would find security in silence, even as this “silence” is perpetuating the evil and immorality that her parents endured.”
—Rabbi David Greenberg, Temple Sharaay Tefila, Bedford Corners, New York
“Joanne Intrator has a compelling tale to tell, of Nazi perfidy in the past and questionable behavior of the Berlin authorities in the present as she seeks the recovery of her family’s building. It took many years for Dr. Intrator, motivated by love, and fortified by courage and determination, to bring the truth to light. This story must be told.”
—Edward W. Tayler, Emeritus, The Lionel Trilling Professor, Columbia University
“Joanne is an unending inspiration to all of us striving to make the world a better place by seeking redress for injustices. The twists and turns and international intrigue involved in her pursuit of restitution for Nazi theft of her family’s property are sure to be compelling to lay readers with interests in psychology and psychiatry.”
—Robert Sadoff, M.D., Director, Forensic Psychiatry Fellowship Program, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania
“Dr. Intrator’s story Summoned to Berlin deserves illumination and has my endorsement.”
—Ron Meyerson, Former Senior Editor, Newsweek
“It took a lot of guts for Joanne Intrator to go to Berlin and fight for her family’s building. To think that through her fierce determination, Joanne managed to get uncovered that Nazi flags, and worse yet, one million yellow Jewish star patches were manufactured in her family’s building during the war.
I know that Joanne had to morph from being the dutiful daughter of German-Jewish refugees to become assertive in an environment that was totally disinterested, that is, when it wasn’t being downright obstructionist. She could have taken the easy way out and settled at the beginning, gotten some money and gone on with her life. But that has never been Joanne’s way. The same resolve that drove her to become a psychiatrist—years after graduating from Connecticut College—led her to seek justice in Berlin, and makes her a fine model for all women.
I am really looking forward to reading her book and hopefully, to seeing a film based on her story.”
—Judy Licht, Television and Print Journalist
“Dr. Joanne Intrator is uniquely positioned in the literary world to bridge whatever divides there may be between today’s Germans, and survivors and descendants of Nazi terror. Her research assistance was invaluable to me in curating the ‘Geraubte Mitte’ exhibit for the City Museum of Berlin. And, she was instrumental in arranging for the exhibit to travel to New York City. I saw students at a Berlin high-school listening to Dr. Intrator with rapt concentration as she recounted her family’s Holocaust-era stories. Her memoir is certain to be purchased by every school library in Germany, as well as by countless individual consumers.”
—Dr. Benedikt Goebel, Büro für Stadtforschung, Berlin
My grandparents were prosperous Jews who moved from neighboring villages in Galicia, Poland to Berlin in 1905. It was an effort to improve their import/export business. It also created a better life for their children, offering them a classical German education and the cultural atmosphere of Berlin. My Uncle Alex became a distinguished violinist and my father a lawyer and judge. By the end of World War I, my grandfather was thoroughly immersed into German life: professionally, culturally and as a veteran who had fought alongside his fellow Germans. My grandfather, Jacob Intrator, continued to prosper despite the heavy price Germans paid for World War I. My father, Gerhard, attended the Bismarck Gymnasium, and the family moved to the notable address Kurfursterdamn 185. Other members of the family also fared well, which was how my grandfather came to share an interest in the building at 16 Wallstrasse in Berlin Mitte. His cousins, the Berglases, were also part of a successful business undertaking.
I know little about my grandfather’s businesses, but clearly he was among those Jews that moved from the fringes of European culture and industry to the heart of Berlin. Our family, however, was not among the Jews who abandoned their religious heritage. They worshipped at the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue and my Uncle Alex married the daughter of Magnus Davidson, the esteemed Cantor of the synagogue. While politics, music and business surely pervaded, there remained in the household an attachment to a Jewish identity.
My father was a careful observer of the world. (I remember as a small child he would insist that I read the headlines of the New York Times.) It’s not surprising to me that already in the 1920’s he was reluctant to study law, anticipating what would, indeed, happen: his Jewish presence would not be tolerated. He had early confirmation of his concerns in 1932, when in agreement with his dissertation advisor, he changed his assigned topic (designing the penal program for the future Nazi party) to a politically neutral subject (a failed criminal process decree of 1908).
This grim realism made my father one of the first family members to leave Germany in 1937. He had known for some time that prosperity, culture and national service would not protect a Jew from what was taking place in Germany. Indeed he would have left earlier if not for his parents. He made the move knowing that he would leave behind what had been a privileged life. My father never regained the intellectual, economic and cultural wealth that he enjoyed during his formative years. He brought with him instead the responsibility of safely relocating his family from the trap that was now Germany. The years between 1937 and 1943 were filled with ceaseless efforts to get them first out of Germany and then into the United States despite overwhelming obstacles. My grandparents’ life in Berlin radically changed after Kristallnacht, as friend after friend either emigrated or were rounded up and sent east.
What had been a large expansive life had shrunk behind the walls of their apartment. Had it not been for the porter in their building and other neighbors, my grandparents would not have survived to make their train trip to Bilbao, Spain. This was late September 1941, just days after the Gestapo gave the order and contract to manufacture all the Jewish Stars in my family’s building on Wallstrasse 16. The stars were to become infamous symbols, sewn onto the clothing of Jews of the Reich. Two short weeks later, all exits were finally closed. By the time my grandparents left Berlin, they been refused by several countries. Their plan was to wait in Lisbon until my father could persuade a country to accept them.
While struggling to bring his parents to America, my father was able to bring his sister-in-law and nephew to New York. Unlike his parents and brother Alex, who after Kristallnacht had gone into hiding, these relatives were born in Germany and could get a visa more easily. My father’s brother, despite his Polish birth, made it to England. Cousins that my father tried to help perished. Years later after my father’s death, I followed their fate through letters written to him by these doomed cousins, and by way of money orders my father sent in vain to these family members in the Polish ghettos.
My father’s early years in America were filled with loneliness and heartache for his parents. The learning curve was also great, having to adjust to a new life so radically different from the one he had known. It is clear from the documents I discovered that my father’s focus was to get his parents here. In 1942 he was drafted. At the same time, his parents were hearing rumors via Havana refugees that Hitler was murdering the Jews. “It is hard to believe that the country that has produced such culture has come to this.” (12/2/42) My father was finally able to get his parents to the United States, only to have his father die the day after he arrived in New York, April 1943.
Heartbroken by his father’s death, my father learned he would be deployed to the Pacific front. To a relative he wrote, “the few words I had exchanged with my father in regard to my present situation, have caused thoughts which I cannot control and which raise plenty of doubts. I have been alerted once again that I will be shipped out in a few days and honestly I do not care where I go.” (5/16/43) To the best of my knowledge, my grandfather’s last experience with his son likely included his realization of my father’s uncertain future. I know my father was tortured by that final conversation: his father died not knowing that his son would be safe.
Despite the sorrows of leaving his homeland and all the losses of forced emigration, my father settled into the United States, making every effort and working exceptionally hard, often at two full-time jobs. He married another refugee, my mother, Lotte, and they had two children, myself and my brother Jack. When we were very young, My father became extremely ill and was unable to work. Ironically, when our family was most vulnerable my mother arrived at his hospital bed with a check from the German government. It paid for his medical expenses and provided him a lifelong pension. This was compensation for his brief time in German government service before Hitler. We lived a modest life in Forest Hills, among hundreds of other refugees from Hitler’s regime.
While exhausted and mortally ill, my father learned that my grandfather’s name was historically linked to the Grundbuch of Wallstrasse 16 in Berlin Mitte. Bitter from the humiliation and hardships he had endured, my father was convinced that his family would never see a penny from it. A few days before his death in 1993, my father, who had struggled so valiantly to pass onto his children the success and opportunities that were inherently his, looked at me and in his delirious state asked, “Are you tough enough yet? Do they know who you are?”
He was deeply worried that I did not have the strength or courage to make it on my own without him. Rightfully so, he viewed me as anxious and melancholic. Though I answered, “Yes Daddy,” I knew it would be some time before I could make good on that promise. This book is the journey of how I became what I promised him I’d be.
His death prompted unforeseen changes that crept up on me. It began, I thought, very simply by taking over my father’s claim to Wallstrasse 16. The legal issue was presented to me by one of Berlin’s most renowned lawyers at the Waldorf Astoria in New York: all I needed to prove was that my family lost the building in the fall of 1938 because of Nazi persecution. What could be easier? By this time, I had found hundreds of documents in the basement of our home—paper my historically meticulous father had saved. It was irrefutable proof, or so I thought. And so began an eight-year battle proving that my grandfather was not a poor businessman, as maintained by the Ariseur.
My lawyers explained that the burden of proof was on the Jewish owners, not the people that acquired the property in a “forced auction.” What ensued for the next eight years was a legal battle of epic proportion, involving two countries, foreign laws and foreign lawyers. It was a simpering whirl of insult to injury, not the least of which was learning that the Ariseurs had been long-standing tenants in my family’s building, which had been owned by the Nazi Party since 1933. I learned it all, from the use of the building to manufacture Nazi flags and Stars of David, to be sewn onto the Jews in the Reich, to the ongoing lack of empathy and respect for what was stolen from my family. I would endure a series of legal setbacks—many immoral and unethical—along with further injustices inflicted by the very lawyers I employed to fight for me.
Eventually, I prevailed and was able to establish the critical information necessary to prove my case by hiring an international detective agency to investigate the history of Wallstrasse 16. The writing of this book brings my father’s greatest hope full circle, not just by reclaiming what was rightfully ours, but to honor our relatives and document the proper history of our family as it should be told for generations.