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This is the story of my grandparents, on my father's side of the family, and how they managed

to save themselves from Nazi Germany and make their way eventually to Canada.

I wrote this story 30 years ago, at the time being quite concerned about environmental issues.

During these past thirty years I came to realize that truly changing the world starts within ~ the more peace and harmony we experience within, the more that can spread out into our world to help create a more peaceful, beautiful and harmonious planet.

Enjoy the story.


As I sit in my enclosed porch, my eyes drift through the window to a quiet backyard setting in midtown Toronto. My senses transform the garden into a symphony of life; the melody of the Cardinal mating call, the deep blue sky, rustling of leaves from the previous fall and the sweetness in the crisp air.

The harmony of the present moment seems eternal yet I know how quickly it passes. Into the symphony creeps an underlying beat, providing a constant reminder of the reality hidden by the beautiful melody. The beat that pierces the beauty is the present crisis that the human species as a whole is facing. Everywhere one turns the reminders are there: the expanding hole in the ozone layer, deforestation, contamination of our basic life support: food, air and water. For many, the beat is barely audible and so they go on living their life as if the symphony will never fade.

For me the beat seems to get louder every day and so I must act. I recall the story of my maternal grandmother who heard a beat many years ago, in a different land, facing a different kind of threat to her existence. My grandmother, Edith Berger, who passed away in 2000 leaves a great lesson on the power of foresight.

On March 16 1994, my grandmother celebrated her 93rd birthday, and inspired me to write about part of her life. It is the story of her family's exodus from Nazi Germany in December 1935. Every time I remember this story, I am reminded that we must always look to the future.

Born in Vienna in 1901 Edith moved to Berlin shortly after her second birthday. Her first cousin, and husband to be ~ Stephen Berger ~ moved from Hungary to Berlin in 1919. As a Jew, living in Hungary, the government did not allow him to attend University. He knew that he would be able to pursue his educational career in Berlin. They married in 1929 in a peaceful time in European history.

On March 4 1931, their first son John was born and Edith spent much time with him at home. After a year or so, she felt as though she should be working. Responding to an ad in the paper, she contacted a person by the name of George Molder who was setting up a business to clean offices. At the time, it was just another acquaintance but this relationship eventually led to the freedom of her family from the Nazi crematoriums.

George Molder (which likely was not his real name) was forced to adopt a lifestyle of constant movement. George was a communist, in Hungary. At the age of eighteen, he was condemned to death by the Fascist government. With the gallant help of friends and relatives, he escaped from that country. He knew he could never return, his fate to an extent was outlined: false passports, constant fear of being identified and a wandering lifestyle. Although he had few possessions, he was described as a genius for creating and opening businesses. His area of weakness was in maintaining and administrating what he had begun. He knew the consequences of an unsuccessful business in a foreign land and so, he reached out for help and friendship.

This new partnership led to the first cleaning business of its kind in Berlin. George was in charge of production, Edith became his partner, specializing in administration and not long after, her husband became the sales manager. Together they were a dynamic, complimentary team. The business flourished, the future seemed secure. At the same time, Edith had a hectic life, raising her first child while working towards her PhD in Economics at the University of Berlin.

For many people, with a shortsighted view of the political situation, there was a general feeling of contentment with life in the early to mid 1930's in Germany. Very few people extrapolated the current political situation into possible outcomes in the near future. Many did not hear the faint, persistent beat that the Nazi government was creating. The symphony of life was too loud. An old story, one that the Greeks knew well, tells how Prometheus when he made the first humans, gave them the gift of foresight, knowledge of their fate. Years later, he took the gift away. Humans who knew their own fate were too unhappy, too overwhelmed by the shadow of death.

By 1934, only one year after Hitler came to power, Stephen and Edith were not happy with what they saw and felt. They began to hear the faint beat; it was not a pleasant sound yet they knew they could not block it out. So, this same year, Stephen began risking his life by smuggling money to Belgium. Knowing that if he were caught and charged he would be sentenced to death, he took the utmost precaution. The money, stashed in a mangled up paper bag under his seat in the train, was not questioned by the border guards. While Stephen smuggled money, George was already in Brussels setting up contacts to open another cleaning business. Perhaps the foresight that Prometheus bestowed upon the human race had trickled down throughout the ages - it's power soon became quite clear.

In early April of 1935, when Edith was 7 months pregnant, she sat in the small Berlin office with her husband and their secretary making plans for the business. The discussion was abruptly interrupted by a sharp knock on the door. Two SS guards walked into their office, with a cruel smile hidden behind their expressionless orders. The eviction notice left them with 10 minutes to pack and relinquish the keys. There would be no further dialogue.

Time seemed to slip by quickly. On June 3, 1935, their second son Michael was born into an age of uncertainty. By December of 1935, plans were made to move to Brussels. Leaving behind everything they had built, with only a few suitcases in their hand, a small sum of money, and two young children, they boarded a plane. Through the small window accelerating down the runway, the city in which they had lived in for most of their life sped by. They saw their short life of youth and early adulthood pass before them.  Soon they would find themselves on a new stage in a foreign country.

Before their departure from Germany, they had tried to convince many friends and relatives to emigrate. To many people, it was easier to continue living their traditional life than to acknowledge that there was a real threat to their very survival. A friend, who was a lawyer, said that Hitler would be gone in half a year. In fact, six months after they left Germany, only the affluent people were able to escape through bribes to German officials. The foresight of Edith and Stephen was definitely blended with luck and timing. To this day, Edith acknowledges how close their family was to the concentration camp, not only in Germany but also in the country to which they fled.

Upon arriving in Brussels, they immediately contacted George. His brilliance became evident once again. The team re-assembled and the business was built up. Since foreigners were not allowed to work, Stephen secretly managed and dealt with administration in the office. George must have arranged a false passport enabling him the privileges of a Belgian citizen.

Edith now raised her two sons. She described the climate as pleasant and much less stressful, a sense of security pervaded their life within this small country. Stephen began playing his violin; with a pianist and two other experienced musicians, they formed a quartet. Edith recalls how they would meet each Friday night stating, "They were crazy about their music, they almost forgot about everything else."

By 1938, Belgium was becoming less attractive as a safe haven. George decided to leave. Obtaining a visa through connections and bribery, he traveled to Portugal. Portugal was one of the few countries that was not only relatively safe but allowed refugees of Jewish descent to enter. In Italy, Mussolini and his Fascist government made life extremely unpleasant. Traveling to Eastern Europe was not even a consideration.

Edith knew that it was a race against time. There was a very short period when Hungarians (upon marrying Stephen, a Hungarian citizen, Edith lost her German citizenship) could obtain a transit visa in order to travel through France. Each day she would wake at 5 a.m. to stand in line for up to seven hours. On the third day, she found herself speaking to the official. She knew that if he was in a bad mood or did not like how she looked, he could have easily decided the fate of her family. In a stress filled moment stretched out into what seemed an eternity he nodded, signed a piece of paper and yelled, "Prochaine" (next). Edith clutched the document and quickly hurried home.

It was September 1939, The Germans were opening up their Eastern front and began marching into Poland. Edith began packing her bags and getting her two sons prepared for the voyage. Stephen was not as keen to leave Brussels. Edith knew arguing would be futile, she had to follow her heart. In December of 1939, taking their passport and two children she headed for the next train to Portugal. She was sure Stephen would follow. The foresight and courage of Edith was a powerful tool, she followed the voice within her at the expense of leaving her husband behind. As the train sped south, the darkness on the horizon slowly rolled past them which would soon engulf the lives of millions of innocent people.

Upon her arrival in Portugal, Edith was able to see even more clearly the darkness from which she had fled. She promptly sent their joint passport back to Belgium with a note telling Stephen to pack up and join the family. As each day passed there persisted a nagging thought of that lifesaving passport aimlessly floating in the sea of hysteria. World war two had begun at an alarming pace.

Stephen, who would be the only member of his little orchestra to escape, boarded the next train, two weeks after Edith and his two sons. Fourteen days after his departure, the Nazi army stormed through Belgium.

The tiny country of Portugal, thousands of miles from the front lines, enabled Stephen to enjoy the Mediterranean sun and the company of his family. He acknowledged the courage and determination of his persistent wife and once again began rebuilding a new life in a foreign country.

They lived in a small town named Kaldash, a beautiful inland city. All refugees were concentrated in this area and were not allowed to travel in Portugal except for the occasional trip to Lisbon. As was the case in Belgium, they were not allowed to work and so they spent much of their time with friends, going for walks and watching their two young boys grow. They heard frequent reports about the war. They spent long hours wondering what the fate of many relatives and friends would be. They wondered if they really were safe in their little haven.

In 1942, a ship from the Jewish Agency in America arrived in the port of Lisbon. It's original mission was to pick up orphans from Marseilles, a small Mediterranean town in the south of France. Upon arriving in Marseilles, the ship officials heard the tragic news ~ the orphans had been boarded into cattle cars and taken to the furnaces of Germany. The extermination of the Jew from the face of Europe was gaining momentum. There were no Jewish kids in Marseilles to save. The captain could not justify returning to America with an empty ship. Sailing into Lisbon, the word was sent out to Jewish refugee families.

Although life seemed peaceful, Edith and Stephen were too experienced to believe that they were really safe. They decided to send their two boys to America so at least they would live if the Nazis marched across Spain. It was a very difficult decision but they had come too far, this was their final insurance on life; John, 11 years of age and Michael, 7 years of age boarded the ship and sadly waved goodbye, not knowing if and when they would see their parents again.

Michael and John lived with an adopted family in the outskirts of Boston for over a year. Stephen and Edith now waited for an opportunity to leave Portugal. They had a chance to board a ship headed for Israel, their preferred option, but they could not be guaranteed that they would be reunited with their two little boys. In 1944, they sailed to Canada with fifty dollars in their pocket. Half a year later, their two sons joined them in Toronto.

In a small apartment on St. George Street they began once again building a life. From the comfort of North America, they watched in horror as the tragedies of the Holocaust slowly emerged from the ashes of Europe. In May of 1948, they rejoiced in what some say was the Jewish response to the Holocaust, the creation of the State of Israel.

George remained in Portugal. It was very difficult for him to leave due to his false passport. His stamp business was quite successful but he frequently found himself in the loan/debt cycle due to his spend thrift nature. While Stephen and Edith were returning from Israel in the 1970's they stopped in Portugal to visit their friend, partner and saviour. The news was harsh, George had hung himself just days before they arrived. The pressure of life was too great.

There is much wisdom to be learned from this story of hope, courage and foresight. We must live in the present and become conscious of what is happening to the planet. We must shatter the concept that the quality of life will continue as always, if we do not change the way we live our life. Each and every person must make changes within their life so that we create a future which our children will thank us for. Today, we have before us two possible paths that we can follow. However, we can only afford to travel on one of those roads. As Rachel Carson so poetically stated in 1962...

"We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the road in Robert Frost's familiar poem, they are not equally fair.

The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road - the one 'less traveled by' - offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth."

And so the quality of future life will be the result of the path we choose today. We must develop a vision for our future and begin walking towards it.

My grandfather, Stephen Berger, eventually became very involved in the Jewish community in Toronto, working on many committees and raising money for both Jewish Canadian organizations and ones in Israel.  In 1974, he was awarded with a dinner for a statesman nominated as the 'Man of The Quarter Century' in the Jewish community with a formal dinner at one of the biggest synagogues in the city.

As I lift my head, my eyes drift through the window to a quiet backyard setting, the leaves are budding now, flowers pushing up through the moist earth, it is a time of great change.

1. Carson, Rachel, Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 1962.

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