Sum­mons to Berlin: Nazi Theft and A Daugh­ter’s Quest for Justice

  • Review
By – August 10, 2023

When Joanne Intrator’s father—echt Berlin­er and Jew­ish refugee from Nazi Ger­many — dies, his last words to her are enig­mat­ic: Are you tough enough yet? Do they know who you are?” Like so many North Amer­i­can Jews of the post­war gen­er­a­tion, Intra­tor grew up in a house­hold full of silence, of emo­tion thwart­ed and hid­den. She becomes a psy­chi­a­trist out of her com­pas­sion for peo­ple like her­self — peo­ple who’ve been trau­ma­tized by his­to­ry and fam­i­ly secrets. 

Mys­ti­fied by her father’s final ques­tion, Intra­tor begins the age-old, heart­break­ing process of going through his belong­ings. She finds a trove of fam­i­ly doc­u­ments and let­ters, many dat­ing from the dawn of the end of time,” the year the Nazis came to pow­er (it is phras­es like this that make this book so com­pul­sive­ly read­able). She learns of his law career, cut short by the Nurem­berg Laws, as well as his escape to Amer­i­ca and his own par­ents, whose trag­ic trust in the fun­da­men­tal decen­cy of the Ger­man peo­ple leads them to put off their own flight until it is almost too late. A bro­ken man, Intrator’s grand­fa­ther dies with­in hours of set­ting foot on Amer­i­can soil.

She also learns of a build­ing — 16 Wall­strasse, a fac­to­ry and office com­plex in Cen­tral Berlin — that belonged to her fam­i­ly until it was Aryanized” in 1938. Intra­tor decides that she will demand the jus­tice that her fam­i­ly was denied and seek resti­tu­tion for the loss of 16 Wall­strasse. It is through this per­verse, look­ing-glass world of Holo­caust resti­tu­tion-and-com­pen­sa­tion bureau­cra­cy that she finds the answers to her father’s ulti­mate question. 

It would be mis­guid­ed to sug­gest that Ger­many — a coun­try that has gone to extra­or­di­nary lengths to come to terms with its past — is still haunt­ed by actu­al Nazis. That said, unre­pen­tant and influ­en­tial Nazis were present in West Ger­man gov­ern­ment and indus­try well into the 1970s, fuel­ing the rage of ter­ror­ist groups like the Red Army Frak­tion. But LAROV (the Ger­man acronym for The State Office for the Set­tle­ment of Unre­solved Prop­er­ty Issues”) seems dis­in­ter­est­ed, even obstruc­tion­ist, when it comes to Intrator’s claim. In 1933, your grand­fa­ther took out a sec­ond mort­gage on 16 Wall­strasse,” one offi­cial tells her. Anoth­er chimes in, He must have exploit­ed the mort­gage to drain the build­ing dry … lead­ing to the forced auc­tion.”. The impli­ca­tion is clear: No Nazi stole 16 Wall­strasse. The build­ing was lost in a fraud scheme gone wrong. 

It gets worse. Offi­cials, even Intrator’s own Ger­man lawyers, skate del­i­cate­ly around the prob­lem of lan­guage: Nazis are nev­er Nazis, but mere­ly the far less provoca­tive-sound­ing Ariseurs, or Aryaniz­ers. And when the descen­dants of the Ariseurs make a claim of their own (after the war, 16 Wall­strasse was seized by the Com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment of East Ger­many), Intra­tor is advised to split the pro­ceeds with them to avoid lit­i­ga­tion. Even the rev­e­la­tion that 16 Wall­strasse was used for the man­u­fac­ture of Juden­sterne—the Yel­low Star — is, to the intran­si­gent Ger­man bureau­crats, “ … mere­ly of his­tor­i­cal interest.” 

Even­tu­al­ly, Intra­tor pre­vails. The they” her father has asked her about know who she is. She pho­tographs a stunned LAROV offi­cial, warn­ing her, I am going to show my fam­i­ly what you look like!” Yet the first part of her grandfather’s ques­tion remains: Is she tough enough? She is. Thanks to her efforts, a brass Stolper­stein—a memo­r­i­al Stum­bling Stone” — is posi­tioned in front of her grand­par­ents’ Berlin apart­ment; and anoth­er plaque, this one at 16 Wall­strasse, details the building’s sor­did wartime his­to­ry. But it has all come at a ter­ri­ble cost for her­self. The vic­tim has been revic­tim­ized, over and over again. Intra­tor calls it soul murder.” 

As a physi­cian, Intra­tor is a pio­neer in the study of the psy­cho­path­ic mind. In her strug­gles with the Ger­man state, she avoids stereo­types and obvi­ous expla­na­tions — but she is clear about what W. H. Auden called the psy­cho­path­ic God.” The pro­pa­gan­da and lies per­pe­trat­ed on the Ger­man do not just dis­solve in thin air,” she says. “ … we under­es­ti­mate the pow­er of tyran­ni­cal psy­chopaths.” Wis­dom, indeed, for our own time. 

Angus Smith is a retired Cana­di­an intel­li­gence offi­cial, writer and Jew­ish edu­ca­tor who lives in rur­al Nova Scotia.

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