Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin


A selection ramp at the death camp Auschwitz: the group on the left (mostly women and children) would have been sent to gas chambers at once. (Photo from the “Auschwitz Album” at Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Centre).

February 27, 1943 in Berlin marked the beginning of what came to be known as Fabrikaktion (Großaktion Juden was the name implemented by the Nazi administration and its minions).

This mass raid and round-up of all remaining living Jews in Berlin – almost all of whom were slave labourers in Germany’s armament industry – was a direct result of the order issued by Hitler in September 1942: all Jewish slave workers should be replaced by slave workers with other ethnic background.

All those aware of the order knew that it effectively meant a death sentence for nearly all remaining Berlin Jews (few exceptions were, for example, Jewish parents married to a non-Jewish German and raising their non-Jewish child). Those among them who did not fall into any of the “protected categories” faced ruthless annihilation. Special railway transports, known as Osttransporte, were to transfer them to Eastern Europe: to the ghetto in Riga and the death camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Hitler insisted on a tight schedule: the (sic!) deadline was set for the end of March.

At the beginning of 1943 Berlin records held names of approximately 15,000 Jewish slave workers – records kept by the Zentraledienststelle für Juden beim Arbeitsamt, Central Job Office for Jews, in Fontanepromenade 15 in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Thanks to their mercilessly impeccable book-keeping, the Nazis were able to trace down almost every single Jew still alive in Berlin: be it workers themselves or their families.

Building of the former Zentraledienststelle für Juden beim Arbeitsamt, Central Job Office for Jews, in Fontanepromenade 15, before the last renovation and with the temporary memorial installed there in 2013 .(image by BerlinCompanion)

During the raid on February 27, 1943 they managed to arrest around 8,000 people who were immediately transported to one of the six “collection points”: to Konzerthaus Clou, Zimmerstraße (former Markthalle III building actually survived the Second World War); to the Hermann-Göring-Kaserne in Reinickendorf (now known as Julius-Leber-Kaserneand used by the Bundeswehr); to the stables of army barracks in Rathenower Straße in Moabit, to the synagogue in Levetzowstraße in Moabit as well as to the Jewish Old Pensioners Home in Große Hamburger Straße in Mitte. The sixth location was the building of the Jewish Community in Rosenstraße, Berlin-Mitte.

That last address went down in history as the scene of “Rosenstraße Protests” when non-Jewish parents and spouses of the arrested Jews (as already mentioned above such marriages were tolerated until February 1943 as “Mischehen”) successfully objected their detention and had some of their relatives set free again: 25 of those seized were released from the Rosenstraße arrest and 35 – and this should be considered as a miracle – were actually returned from Auschwitz.

Tragically, at the same time over 1,800 men, women and children were transported to the Nazi death camps from this Sammelstelle only. Over two-thirds of those arrested during the Berlin Fabrikaktion of 1943 and sent to the Nazi death-camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau in occupied Poland were murdered immediately upon arrival. From 8-week-old babies to their great-grandparents.

As much as it is important to give each of them a name, it is not possible to do so here in this post. But, following the wisdom of the Talmud, if saving one life means saving an entire world, then calling out one name will call out all of them. So let us speak out the name of the two-year-old Berl Eisenstaedt, son of Käthe and Kurt Eisenstädt, of Hoffmannstraße 9 (now Erkelenzdamm) in Berlin-Kreuzberg.

Berl and his parents were arrested during the Fabrikaktion in February 1943, only two weeks after Berl’s second birthday on February 6th. Both he and his mother were sent to Auschwitz – along with other 1,754 men, women and children on the list for that day – on one of the first of the six Osttransporte between March 1st and March 12th that year (it was the 32nd Oststransport organised by the Nazis since the war began).

Little Berl and his mother, Käthe, died in a gas chamber immediately after their arrival in Auschwitz on March 2nd, 1943. The Nazis referred to the procedure as “Sonderbehandlung”, or special treatment…

In 2012, after stumbling upon his name in the old Jewish records of Berlin-Kreuzberg, my family and I decided that it was time his name were remembered again and arranged for a Stolperstein to be placed in front of his house. A Stoperstein, literally a “stumbling stone”, is a small metal block sunk in the pavement next to a house where a Jewish victim of the Nazi regime lived before and/or during the war and naming the person as well as the dates of their birth and death (if available).

Coincidentally, in March 2013 and shortly before the Stolperstein was to be installed in today’s Erkelenzdamm 9, we learnt that somebody else arranged for Berl’s parents to be commemorated in the same way.

And so, in what was nothing but a sheer coincidence, the boy was re-united with his parents.

Stolpersteine in Erkelenzdamm 9, Berli-Kreuzberg: Berl, Kurt abnd Käthe Eisenstaedt (image by Chris Trois).

So whenever you see any of these small metal blocks in the pavement, treat them with respect, do not step on them. Rather, halt and pay your respect. Those are, after all, the only graves, the only mention of their name that most of those people will ever have.


  1. berlioz1935
    Feb 27, 2020

    Thank you for remaining us about those terrible events during the Nazi years. When in Berlin I never step on the Stolpersteine but stop to read the inscription and remember the people murdered by an inhuman government. The other day, they had the initiator of the Stolpersteine as a special guest on the DW TV. I wept because that crime of the Shoa can never be forgotten by me.

  2. Babewyn
    Mar 3, 2020

    I like that you chose the word “slave labourers” to translate the somewhat euphemistic term “Zwangsarbeiter*innen”. Writing “slave” labor rather than “forced” labor (the other common translation option) gives clearer insight into the machinations of the Nazi mindset, and points less ambiguously to the historical strategies of empire that infuse the Nazi project than simply pointing out that the work in question took place under duress. It was more than duress. Racialized forced labor in Germany between 1933 and 1945 had its roots in some of Europe and North Americas oldest and most horrific traditions. It is worth referencing these clearly, especially with an eye to continuities after ’45 into the present.

    The Shoa may have been the most obvious manifestation of the horrors that haunt the European mind, but the disdain for human life that is evident in the Shoa did not begin nor did it end with the Shoa. When we say “Never again,” we cannot simply mean, never again millions of people systematically murdered within a space a few years, we must search for the thinking in ourselves and structures in society and culture that give rise to the possibility of the Shoa. These are still very much with us.

    • berlincompanion
      Mar 4, 2020

      A frightening thought which many seem to find improbable bordering on ridiculous. It is, however, most likely a defence mechanism and not malice that stands behind it.

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