The First Bar Mitzvah of 1945 in Berlin
By the Jewish calendar, the bar mitzvah took place on Shabbat, 18. Aw 5705. In the chapel of the Jewish Old Age Home on Iranische Strasse, shortly before his thirteenth birthday, Klaus Zwilsky was called upon to read from the weekly portion of the Torah, the parashah, and the Haftarah portion from the books of the prophets. This rite marked his entry into Jewish adulthood and the acceptance of the responsibilities and obligations that came with it.
In Judaism, the bar mitzvah symbolizes the transition from childhood to adulthood. Klaus Zwilsky had been robbed of his childhood by the Nazis. Although his parents Ruth and Erich had tried their best to provide him as “normal” an upbringing as possible, persecution and the constant menace of deportation under Nazi rule had made this a hopeless undertaking.
Klaus Zwilsky was issued with an ID-card in August 1942, at the age of 10. Marked with a “J” and including the forced name “Israel” made mandatory by the National Socialists at the beginning of 1939, the card retained its “limited validity” following the end of the war.
Only in May 1947 was the family issued with new papers that did not have any visible sign of discrimination and persecution.
On 24 April 1945, Klaus Zwilsky was liberated by Soviet troops, along with his parents and around 800 other Jews at the hospital.
A Soviet Army commandant gave his father Erich Zwilsky this handwritten certificate, in which he “categorically forbade” the oppression and forced displacement of the Jewish population and civilians.
In 1938, Klaus Zwilsky was enrolled in the 4th private elementary school of the Jewish community.
In 1941, he switched to the community’s higher school .
This school, like all other Jewish educational institutions still in existence, was closed down by order of the German Reich at the end of June 1942.
In summer of 1945, a typhoid epidemic swept through Berlin. To protect him from the contagious disease, Klaus was given vaccinations at the Jewish Hospital. The series of three injections was administered at one-week intervals.
The certificate was issued by Dr. Helmut Cohen, who later emigrated to the USA.
For the Zwilskys, too, remaining permanently in Germany was not an option. Ruth Zwilsky made this very clear in a letter of January 1946: “We want to leave this ‘hospitable’ land as quickly as possible!” Three of Erich Zwilsky’s siblings had also been murdered during the war years. The family had set its sights on the USA.
Jewish Museum Berlin:
– Collection of the Zwilsky / Herzberg families
– Collection of Herbert Sonnenfeld
Text and object selection: Aubrey Pomerance
Editor: Henriette Kolb, Jörg Waßmer, assistance: Lisa Schank
Translation: Jill Denton, Michael Ebmeyer
Proofreading: Julia Bosson
Photo reproduction: Jens Ziehe
We would like to express our sincere gratitude to the donor Klaus M. Zwilsky and, for the kind loan of artifacts, to the Friends of the Jewish Museum Berlin.