“Mazel tov!”

Jewish Museum Berlin

The First Bar Mitzvah of 1945 in Berlin

The First Bar Mitzvah
On 28 July 1945, barely three months after liberation, the newly re-founded Jewish community celebrated its first post-war bar mitzvah. It was a moving and momentous occasion, as the bar mitzvah boy, Klaus Zwilsky, was one of the very few Jewish children in Berlin to have survived.

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.

The Jewish community gave Klaus Zwilsky a special gift: a Pessach Haggadah from 1921–22. It is illustrated with woodcut prints by the German-Jewish artist Jakob Steinhardt, who had emigrated to Palestine in 1933. This Haggadah was published in a limited edition of 200 copies.

The Haggadah illustrates the story of the Israelites’ liberation from enslavement in Egypt.
This made it a highly symbolic gift, the Zwilsky family itself having experienced their own liberation only three months earlier.

Erich Nelhans, chairman of the Jewish community, wished Klaus “Mazel Tov”—the best of luck!

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.

The Zwilsky family numbered among the very few people who—despite being designated “full Jews” by the Nazis—did not survive wartime Berlin in a so-called “mixed marriage” or by going into hiding. Rather, it was Erich Zwilsky’s appointment in 1941 to the position of pharmacist at the Jewish Hospital that saved the family of three from deportation. As of early 1943, the hospital also became the Zwilsky’s living quarters.

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.

Three weeks after the capitulation of the German capital, Erich Zwilsky assumed responsibility for the only Jewish institution to have survived the war. He was appointed head of administration at the Jewish Hospital in Berlin.

After years of having to do forced labor, Ruth Zwilsky also began to work at the hospital. For the first time since completing her training thirteen years previously, she was finally able to work as a pharmacist. “My husband wasn’t too happy about it—he thought it was high time I took some rest—but for me, work is the best medicine, as at least it keeps me from dwelling on things.” Three of Ruth’s siblings had been murdered in Auschwitz.
Back to School
On 1 July 1945, Klaus Zwilsky was enrolled at the Lessing-Oberschule in the Berlin district of Wedding. It was his first day at school in over three years.

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.

“…to leave Germany.”
The Zwilskys may well have survived, but they were very concerned about the future. In August 1945, Erich Zwilsky wrote a detailed report on the situation of the Jews in Berlin, in which he described their deplorable circumstances. Not only were they were faced with a terrible food shortage, like everyone else, but also with persistent antisemitism, also on the part of the city administration. Their bank accounts, including that of the Jewish community, were frozen. This compromised the work of the Jewish Hospital, which was in need not only of medicines but also of beds, linens, blankets, and towels. Erich Zwilsky stated that the majority of the survivors wished to leave Germany.

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.

Off to Sweden
Although the Zwilskys had received two affidavits, they were refused permission to travel directly to the United States. They nonetheless left Germany in July 1946, on a Red Cross bus that took them via Denmark to Sweden. Before leaving, they had to seek written permission from all four of the occupying powers.

While waiting to be allowed to continue their journey, the Zwilskys lived for several months in Stockholm.
In November 1946, Klaus Zwilsky, who still had German citizenship, was issued an alien passport. On 13 December 1946, he was granted the longed-for visa for the United States.

Off to the USA
In January 1947, the Zwilskys left Gothenburg on a liner bound for New York. Shortly after their arrival, they moved to Lakewood, New Jersey, where relatives of theirs had a chicken farm.

Once in the USA, Klaus Zwilsky was able to continue his schooling. After his father had been appointed pharmacist at the Marlboro State Hospital in New Jersey, the family settled permanently in nearby Freehold. Klaus graduated from high school there in 1950.

In March 1950, the local newspaper published an article that described the fate of 17-year-old Zwilsky and his parents under the Nazi regime.
After graduating from high school, Klaus Zwilsky went on to study metallurgy at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Bearing Witness
In 2003, Klaus Zwilsky donated his significant collection of documents, photographs and artifacts to the Jewish Museum Berlin. He has since traveled to Berlin several times in order to talk with high school students about the life and fate of his family during the Nazi era.
Credits: Story

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.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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