Those who compile family trees or take DNA tests are looking for more than just hobbies. They’re searching for a connection to the past, something to provide a firmer sense of identity. In rare cases, they make discoveries that reshape their entire conceptions of their families.
Uri Berliner found the usual sources of family history didn’t do much for him. Everything looked like a dead end. One of his dad’s childhood mementos, however, revealed a familial secret that he never expected…
As a seasoned journalist, Uri Berliner was an expert on a wide array of topics. Yet, he had one blind spot in his knowledge that greatly troubled him: his family history. Uri saw only one possible way to remedy this mystery.
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His father would have to open up. Gert Berliner, now 94 years old, came to the United States in the middle of the 20th century and worked as a photographer. Uri knew that beforehand, he lived in Germany and fled because of the Holocaust. But he never really managed to squeeze any more information out of his dad.
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However, Gert had to face his past when Aubrey Pomerance, an archivist at the Jewish Museum Berlin, asked for an artifact from his childhood in Germany. They were looking for something heartfelt and personal, and Gert’s mind jumped immediately to one object.
Jacobia Dahm / NPR
All Gert’s life, he owned a small toy monkey. There was nothing inherently valuable about the stuffed animal — his son didn’t even know about it — and yet Gert wrestled with the decision for days before deciding to donate it to the museum. Why did it mean so much to him?
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Gert’s parents, Paul and Sophie Berliner, gave it to him when he was just a young boy in Germany. He rode his bicycle around Berlin with the monkey clipped to his bike — until there came a time when he could no longer ride his bike through the streets.
The Nazi Party gained more authority in Germany, and they increasingly oppressed Jewish citizens across the country. By 1938, police forces were rounding up entire families and sending them to concentration camps.
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Paul and Sophie knew they had to get their only son far away. Though they understood that there might not be any hope for their own survival, they heard about ways to save Jewish children. They made one last selfless decision.
Gert’s parents struck a deal with the Kindertransport, a type of Underground Railroad that shuttled vulnerable children out of Germany — but no parents were allowed. Most kids they accepted ended up in England. Gert never made it there.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Instytut Pamieci Narodowej
Instead, the Kindertransport sent Gert to Kalmar, Sweden. He happily spent a couple years there with almost no reminders of his former life, save for his toy monkey. This object remained one of the few ties he had to his family, especially after their letters stopped coming.
Fredrik Daniel Bruno
Gert also carried the stuffed animal with him to New York City at age 22. Utterly alone, he struggled to make it as a photographer, but the monkey helped him think back to happier times.
Earth in the Past
But now that Aubrey asked him to give it up, Gert realized what he had to do. In 2003, he gladly donated the toy to the museum. He knew that it could educate future generations about the experience of the Holocaust. But Gert never expected it to make such a huge impression.
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More than a decade after Gert’s donation, Erika Pettersson and her mother Agneta visited the Jewish museum. One room had a series of boxes with possessions of German children during World War II. They opened only one of the boxes but gasped when they saw what it contained.
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Erika reached out to Uri who, coincidentally, decided to take a trip to Europe to study at the Jewish Museum’s archives and see his father’s monkey for himself. He agreed to meet Erika when she revealed that she had some important information about Gert Berliner.
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You see, Erika’s mother’s maiden named was also Berliner! As it turns out, two of Gert’s cousins also migrated to Sweden through the Kindertransport. However, they lost touch with Gert early on and built new lives in Sweden. Agneta was one of their daughters.
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Uri could barely wrap his head around this idea. He had to meet with Erika and Agneta. Further conversation proved the truth behind all their theories. Uri embraced his long-lost Swedish cousins. He couldn’t wait to tell his father.
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When Gert had a photography exhibit on display in Berlin, Uri arranged for Agneta and Erika to meet him in person. Gert, who never had any extended family, at long last found some other Berliners.
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Gert’s health sadly prevented him from visiting all his Swedish relatives, but Uri made the trip for both of them. He celebrated the Swedish holiday of Midsummer Eve, surrounded by friendly faces and good food. Uri’s discoveries about his father’s past didn’t stop there, either.
NPR / Nana Navntoft
Uri also got to meet Claes Furstenberg, the grandson of one of the Swedish families that housed Gert before he immigrated to the United States. Uri and Claes became fast friends, and Uri got even more insight into his father’s early life.
He gained a new perspective about what a godsend Sweden was for his dad, and how much he owed to these strangers. Gert, pictured below in the middle, happily lived with his Swedish step-brothers, one of whom was Claes’ own father.
For the Berliners, a small stuffed monkey not only brought a father and son closer together; it also showed them they were not alone in the world. “It’s a gift,” Gert said. “In my old age, I have discovered I have a family.”
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All over the world, people affected by World War II are being reunited with pasts they didn’t know they had. At 83, Rudi Schlattner never expected to return to his childhood home in Usti nad Labem, Czech Republicafter 70 years. Naturally, the Schlattners were devastated to leave it.
But they had little choice. By 2015, Rudi was the only one left who remembered their trials and travails, but he made sure the younger generations knew about their troubled past. One callous decision turned their world upside-down.
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Czechoslovakian leaders resented Germany for taking over their country with brute force. President Edvard Beneš retaliated by expelling all ethnic Germans from his country, even those who’d lived in Czech society their entire lives.
So 13-year-old Rudi and his family had no choice but to flee immediately, lest they be forcibly moved by the military. Carrying only a few bags each, they had to leave most of their possessions behind. But Mr. Schlattner had one trick up his sleeve.
After a career as a wealthy merchant, Rudi’s dad knew a thing or two about storing valuables. He told his son that all their worldly belongings were stowed away somewhere in the large attic of their house.
It was a clever move. With the dust settling on an international power struggle, European nations had no qualms about confiscating private property from displaced citizens. With any luck, the Schlattners would be able to return home and reclaim their property.
Fate, tragically, had other plans for the family. They moved into the American-controlled portion of West Germany, where the Berlin Wall totally shut them off from their familiar hometown. Rudi’s parents never saw Czechoslovakia again.
However, Rudi’s desire to rediscover his birthright never wavered. After Soviet Europe opened back up to the world, the octogenarian reached out to Vaclav Houfek, director of the Usti Municipal Museum. He wondered what became of his old house.
Vaclav was pleased to report the building was still in fantastic shape. A kindergarten had taken over most of its rooms, though no occupants ever renovated the attic. It basically looked the same as it had in the 1940s.
This revelation energized Rudi. Was it really possible that all of the relics of his former life were out there waiting for him? He had to find out. Working in tandem with the Usti Museum, he returned to the attic.
As familiar as the dusty planks were, Rudi couldn’t see any hidden stash of family heirlooms. He and the other researchers knocked on the wooden panels with a hammer, but couldn’t locate any hollow spots. They were ready to give up.
Fortunately, a memory buried deep in Rudi’s consciousness came roaring back to him. He recalled his father saying that a small string was the only way to open the compartment. Minutes later, Rudi spied a piece of twine dangling between two boards.
He pulled it. After cloud of musty air puffed out, Rudi stuck his head inside. Amazingly, the Schlattner family’s possessions were still there after all those years! Stacks of boxes lay untouched, and Rudi couldn’t wait to see what treasures they held.
The museum staff, once the shock wore off, loaded up Rudi’s find into a truck and brought it back to the archives for inspection. While cutting open the paper around the first box, they prayed that the items inside were still recognizable.
They soon found there was no need to worry. The contents of the Schlattners’ attic pained a vivid picture of life in 1940s Czechoslovakia. Rudi wiped away tears as he held dolls and toys that were once his childhood favorites.
In fact, his dad packed up nearly everything the family owned. Bottles of makeup and medicine, some of them barely used, suggested that he truly expected to get back home shortly after their exile. Then, there was the matter of some real treasure.
The haul included many paintings by Josef Stegl, a celebrated Czech artist who lived with the Schlattners for a time. Without the foresight of Rudi’s father, these masterpieces may have been lost to mobs of plunderers.
Amid this joy, Vaclav had one bad piece of news for Rudi: none of this belonged to him. The oppressive anti-German policies of President Beneš meant that any abandoned items became the property of the Czech state. But Rudi didn’t mind.
He took pride in his family’s past living on in the Usti Museum. Displaying these artifacts would be part of an effort across Europe to shine a light on the forgotten stories of World War II. Unlike Rudi, however, many were coming across hidden locations through freak accidents.
History came knocking for Simon Marks a year after Rudi’s discovery. The resident of Luton, England, had an accident in his own driveway one Saturday, and he groaned at the thought of a ruined weekend. That is, until he inspected the damage.
With plans to go out in the afternoon, Simon had simply been reversing his black Vauxhall Zafira out of his front driveway. Unfortunately, when he did so, he felt it lurch forward. At first look, the damage was bad — really bad.
Concerned a sinkhole had just opened up underneath his house, Simon took some pictures of the massive crater beneath his car’s tires and sent them to his father, Gerald, who was on his way to help. “I was just terrified the whole house was going to vanish,” he said.
The closer Simon looked at the damage, however, the more he came to realize that perhaps this was something more than a sinkhole or a “badly constructed garden.” Carefully, he began removing the cracked slabs of concrete—and was stunned by what he saw.
Descending into the darkness of what he’d once thought was going to be a massive thorn in his side—and his wallet!—was an old, rusted ladder. That was when he and his dad decided to start digging.
Simon and Gerald didn’t have fancy tools or machines to help the excavate the hole that was, as The Sun later reported, “nearly full to the top with mud.” They simply used shovels and buckets.
The pair dug and dug, the pile of excavated mud growing larger by the hour. Strangely, ordinance surveys didn’t shed any light on what might have been hiding beneath Simon’s driveway. According to those reports, there was nothing but empty land before the home was built.
Soon, Simon and Gerald had removed about five feet of mud in total—enough for them to crouch down inside and further inspect the space. Gerald had a hunch that he knew what it was, though he needed to see it to be sure…
The two men descended the ladder, unsure what they would find. Once they reached the bottom of the chamber and established their footing, they turned around—and came face to face with something unusual.
There in front of them was a strange doorway. Unsure if it was safe to enter the mysterious corridor, Simon did a little scouting. “I got my selfie stick,” he said, “and put it down the hole where I saw two rooms.” So what were they looking at?
Meanwhile, Gerald’s hunch was confirmed. “My dad saw it and instantly said it’s an air raid shelter,” Simon said. “We googled it and found there are quite a few in this area.”
After conducting some research, Simon surmised that the shelter had been built during World War II after a bomb landed near the home. This was a good theory for a number of reasons…
During World War II, the Luftwaffe—Germany’s air force—conducted a number of precision bombing raids on the United Kingdom and its allies. The unit infamously bombed Liverpool, Birmingham, and parts of London not far from Simon’s home.
mperial War Museum / Wikimedia
The looming threat of a bomb dropping at any moment pushed authorities and private citizens alike to construct bomb shelters. At first, tube stations, basements, and cellars served as protection; in the 1940s, communal shelters were built.
When there was an impending threat of an incoming bomb, authorities activated air raid sirens, which prompted people to head to the cover of one of these shelters. Many of them were reinforced with brick—just like the one in Simon’s driveway.
In Simon’s shelter, hidden within the rubble of the largest chamber, were a number of well-preserved historical pieces. This newspaper might have seen better days, but it still served as a reminder of what was happening around the time Simon’s shelter was built.
This milk bottle, filled to the brim with caked mud, also offered a small glimpse into the past. Had someone been drinking from it while waiting for the bombs to drop above their head?
Whoever owned the house before Simon must have built the driveway right on top of the shelter. When the door’s hinges finally rusted away, the door fell into the chamber, making it only a matter of time before the concrete collapsed inwards.
“It’s incredible to think it has all been made by hand,” Simon said about the shelter. “It’s part of our history so it should be kept.” Simon and Gerald hoped that it was structurally sturdy; this way, they wouldn’t have to fill in or remove the shelter.