1. A good luck charm in an unlucky time
Gert Berliner carries the name of his hometown, as he was born in Berlin in 1924. His parents Paul and Sophie Berliner ensured that Gert had a happy childhood, which he loved to spend riding his bike with his two cousins and playing.
Sometime during his childhood, Gert was given a toy monkey, and he liked it so much that he attached it to the front of his bicycle. “I liked him,” recalled Gert. “He was like a good luck piece.” Gert didn’t know it when he rode his bike around in the early 1930s, but his life was about to be turned upside down, and he would soon need all the luck he could get.
2. The Nazis came to power during his childhood
The year before Gert was born, a former corporal in the German army stormed a beer hall in Munich and proclaimed that the revolution had begun. His name was Adolf Hitler, and for this attempted coup, he was thrown in jail.
By the time Gert was born, Hitler was out of jail and the author of a new book, “Mein Kampf.” In it, he outlined his plan for genocide of the Jews and world domination. Over the course of the next decade, he would put his efforts toward an incredible rise to power, eventually leading the most despicable political party in the history of politics: the Nazis.
3. Kristallnacht – Night of Broken Glass
Hitler was able to gain the title of Chancellor in 1931, and by 1933, he successfully consolidated his power and gave himself the title of Fuhrer. Even though it was well known that Hitler had a distaste for Jews, most people, including many Jews, approved of his leadership.
Many Jewish professionals like Paul and Sophie, and Paul’s brother Carl Berliner, didn’t see any danger, even though signs kept hinting that something was wrong. This would cause them to make a catastrophic mistake, as they even stayed after witnessing something that should’ve told them they weren’t welcome in their own country anymore: Kristallnacht, Night of Broken Glass.
4. Gert remembers Kristallnacht
On the night of November 9, 1938, Hitler unleashed the might of his Nazi party, and as a result Jewish homes and business were destroyed, and Jewish lives were threatened. According to historical data, nearly 100 Jews were killed, and another 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.
It happened all over the country, and Gert recalled the scene in Berlin: “I went out on the street…a lot of glass; you heard fire sirens; synagogues were set on fire.” Nazi henchmen even went so far as to prevent the fire department from extinguishing blazes that threatened Jewish homes and businesses, but saved the homes of Aryan folks.
5. They knew they had to leave, but couldn’t
Though Hitler had long preached anti-Semitism, the Nazis really hadn’t been violent toward Jews until Kristallnacht. There could be no mistake after it happened, and Paul and Sophie prepared to get Gert out of Germany; Carl prepared to get his two kids out as well. The only problem was the Nazis anticipated this move, and cut off escape options for Jewish families.
Paula and Sophie had a very difficult decision to make, as they couldn’t find a way out of the country. But that wasn’t the case for Gert (who was only 14 years old at the time) and his cousins. His parents and uncle reached out to a group that was responsible for smuggling an estimated 10,000 Jewish children out of Germany and surrounding nations, called Kindertransport.
6. Kindertransport saved Gert’s life
The Nazi regime in Germany was happy to let Jews leave the country, provided they left all of their possessions behind. It was an absurd choice, but the real problem lay in trying to find a country to flee to. Luckily, Britain answered the call, and organized Kindertransport to get any Jew that was 17 and under out of Germany.
Gert was able to pack one small bag, and even though his toy monkey wasn’t of any particular use, he packed it anyway. He hoped it would bring him luck, which he would need plenty of, as he boarded a boat that took him out of Germany and away from his parents.
7. Gert was all alone
Gert and his cousins left Germany, and all of them arrived in Sweden. Most of the children who were moved by Kindertransport ended up in Britain, but that wasn’t the case for the Berliners. It was also a very hasty operation because Gert was separated from his cousins.
His parents went into hiding shortly after Gert left for Sweden, but Sophie promised to write. Despite being alone, Gert’s talisman, his toy monkey, had given him a ton of luck—if he stayed it was very likely he would’ve been killed. “Suddenly you could breathe,” Gert said about arriving in Sweden. “It was like the air was different.”
8. The world turned into a very ugly place
“As long as we are still here,” wrote Sophie, “we will write to you every third day.” At least one letter survives from Sophie to her beloved son Gert, and it conveys a sense of extreme doubt about the future, and their safety. The situation in Germany quickly went from bad to worse, as the Germans began rounding up Jews en masse.
The state of world affairs was also abruptly spiraling out of control. Germany’s war of aggression started within months of the Berliners leaving the country, as the German war machine smashed through the Polish border on September 1, 1939. WWII had only just begun.
9. The Nazi’s came for the Berliners
For the next couple of years, Paul and Sophie did their best to keep their promise, and for the most part they did a great job of sending letters to Gert. The above letter survives, but is heavily redacted, and was sent just two weeks before it got really bad for the Berliners.
In the winter of 1942, though many Jewish ghettos had already been created in Germany and territory that the German army now occupied, Hitler’s “final solution” was ready, and Jews across Europe were rounded up and shipped off to death camps. Sophie promised to let Gert know if they made it out, and for weeks no letters came.
10. The Berliners went into hiding
In 1942, Paul and Sophie narrowly missed being rounded up by the Nazis, and were forced to go into hiding. Then, nine days later, Gert received a letter from his parents; they were safe, and in the care of Fritz Mynarek and Charlotte Mynarek.
The Mynareks were assuming a terrible risk by taking in Paul and Sophie. If they were caught, they would most certainly be executed, but for another year they were able to keep up correspondence with Gert. He was 17 years old now and approaching adulthood. He often wondered if he’d ever see his parents again, clinging to hope and his lucky toy monkey, that he would return to them one day.
11. The letters stopped coming
In May of 1943, Gert began to fear the worst, as the letters, which had become consistent from his parents, stopped coming. The young man clung to the hope that they were still alive, but there was absolutely no way to know.
Gert decided to mail a postcard, and in April 1944, it was returned to him with the stamp “Standard Mail Only.” Gert was alone, having been separated from his cousins and forced to leave his parents, and now he was in a foreign country with no answers as to the fate of his parents. But the kindness of the family that took care of him in Sweden kept him alive.
12. Gert waited in Sweden
Gert’s cousins did survive the war, but they would never see each other again. They were sent to a working farm in Sweden and evidently spent the rest of the war there. Sweden was one of the few neutral countries during WWII, and although Britain harbored most of the children from Kindertransport, a handful of them were routed to Sweden.
In Sweden, Gert was adopted by the Furstenberg family, who took him in and raised him like their own. That’s where Gert spent the rest of the war, wondering about what happened to his parents. Then in 1947, two years after the war was over, a letter finally arrived.
13. Gert received a letter
In 1947, Gert was no longer a boy, as it had been eight long years since the man in his early 20s had seen his parents. The letter that arrived after the war was from Charlotte Mynarek, who had taken his parents in and saved their lives.
Unfortunately, the letter had some terrible news for Gert. In May of 1943, right around the time the letters stopped coming, the Gestapo located their hideout and arrested Paul and Sophie. Not only that, but they arrested Charlotte and Fritz Mynarek, who had risked so much to hide the Berliners; they ended up paying a heavy price for having done so.
14. The final fate of Gert’s parents
Charlotte Mynarek ended up writing Gert two letters, and each of them outlined what happened. After Gert’s parents were arrested, they were loaded onto Transport 38, and were shipped to Auschwitz prison. There aren’t too many details about their final moments, but it was at Auschwitz prison that Paul and Sophie were murdered.
Charlotte’s husband Fritz was also murdered in a death camp, but Charlotte managed to make it through her ordeal in a work camp. In the end, the Holocaust killed six million Jews, and like so many who survived, Gert and Charlotte’s lives had been completely torn apart.
15. Gert packed his toy monkey
Gert lost his parents, had no siblings, and had completely lost touch with his cousins. Unfortunately, this was a common occurrence for those whose lives were ruined by the Holocaust, as families that were separated spent years trying to track their loved ones down.
But it was different for Gert, and he wanted to put it all behind him and get away. In 1947, he packed his bag as he prepared to sail to America. He found his toy monkey, and once again he decided to pack it, as now it had become the last relic of his childhood. All else was lost, but the toy reminded him of better days, when he was a happy boy with his family.
16. Gert headed to America
Gert arrived in New York City in 1947 and began a career as a photographer and an artist. This was actually very lucky, as the U.S. didn’t revise its immigration policy regarding refugees until the next year, and only allowed a trickle of 30,000 Jews a year to immigrate during WWII.
Gert moved on with his life and married a woman, and had a son named Uri. For the next 25 years, Gert mostly lived in New York, but also had stints in New Mexico, and abroad. And every time he left for someplace new, he always kept his good luck charm. The toy monkey had kept him alive so far, and he wasn’t about to part with it.
17. The toy monkey
Gert did well for himself in the United States, but he never really formed a close relationship with Uri. They shared many moments of awkward silence, especially when Uri asked him about his experience during WWII. It was too painful for Gert to talk about.
In fact, Gert spent the next several decades forgetting about his experiences altogether. The culminating event took place when Gert placed his toy monkey in a drawer for good, turning his back on his past life. It was all he had from his childhood, and now it was time to move on, or so it would seem.
18. Gert receives a visit from a museum representative
Gert had even lost touch with his adopted family in Sweden, and never heard from Charlotte Mynarek again. Even Uri didn’t know much about Gert’s past, and he certainly didn’t know about his toy monkey. But that all changed around 15 years ago, when Gert received a visit from a very unlikely person.
An archivist at the Jewish Museum in Berlin named Aubrey Pomerance contacted Gert Berliner, and then later came to visit him in his apartment in Manhattan. He had an important question for him: Did he have anything from his childhood that he could donate to the museum?
19. The toy monkey comes out of the drawer
Gert had met Aubrey before, and was comfortable with the idea of helping him. But the only item he had was his ragged, toy monkey. He decided to pull it out of the drawer, and that was the first time Uri learned about his father’s good luck charm.
Gert didn’t want to part ways with it, having had it in his life for so long. In fact, his wife Frances insisted that he keep it, since it was his only link to his childhood. But Gert felt that it was time for the monkey to return to the world, and the historic relic of his life told a story that could now be heard by millions of people, back in his home town of Berlin.
20. One of the visitors recognizes the monkey
Gert’s story was written down and placed for all to see in the Jewish Museum. It was one of many in an exhibit that displayed Jewish children’s toys during the Holocaust. Tiny wooden boxes were on display with the toys and a picture inside, and visitors could open them and look inside.
One such visitor was Erika Pettersson, and in 2015, about a dozen years since the monkey was put on display, she opened the box and looked inside. “There was this toy monkey and a picture of a small kid,” Pettersson later said. “A Jewish kid named Gert Berliner, and I thought, that’s a coincidence. My mom’s name is Berliner.”
21. Erika told her mother
Erika didn’t think the coincidence was a big deal, but she decided to tell her mother anyway, who had a much different response. Agneta and her daughter Erika were Swedish, but had family connections to Germany and Berlin. Agneta’s curiosity was piqued, and she had to know.
Agneta decided to go online, and that’s when she found Gert Berliner’s website, “Photographs from the Sixties.” “There was an email address,” Agneta said.“I was hesitating a bit because I thought maybe this is just a stranger. But then I was so curious. I sent an email and said, ‘Could it be that we are relatives?’”
22. Gert received an email
Gert received the email and,“Suddenly because of the monkey, I have a phone call,” recalled Gert. “Somebody in Sweden of all places, saying, well I think you’re my cousin.” Gert was in his 90s by this point, but he agreed to meet Agneta Berliner, her sister, Suzanne Berliner, and Suzanne’s son Daniel.
They decided to meet in Berlin, as Gert had a photography exhibition that was opening there. As it turns out, Agneta’s father was one of Gert’s long-lost cousins that he was separated from in Sweden. After 70 years of thinking the worst, it turned out that Gert was not alone, as he was reunited with his family.
23. Uri took the reigns
“It’s a gift,” said Gert.“In my old age, I have discovered I have a family.” The family would’ve never been reunited if it hadn’t been for the toy monkey. Maybe Erika and Agneta didn’t recognize the toy itself, but if it hadn’t been on display, they would’ve never found each other.
Picking up where his father left off, Uri decided to go to Sweden and visit his long-lost family. “Even though we had just met it felt good to be around my newfound relatives,” wrote Uri. “To be part of a larger family — a family that hasn’t just survived, but has grown and thrived.” But not all mysteries have been solved.
24. An investigator found them
Uri was so intrigued and touched by his father’s story and the finding of his long-lost family, that it set him on a quest to find the people that helped him in Sweden, and the people who helped his parents in Berlin. But it wasn’t going to be easy, as Gert was now well into his 90s.
Then in March of 2018, a Swedish journalist named Claes Furstenberg was digging through some of his records when he came across a stack of old letters. There was a pile of correspondence between his father and a man named Gert Berliner. Claes went online to find him, and sent him an email right away.
25. Gert reconnects with his Swedish family
Claes contacted Gert via email, and then Gert responded with a simple message: “Your grandfather Sigge Furstenberg saved my life.” All of a sudden, the long-lost family that took care of Gert had found him; and since then, they’ve become very close.
Gert was too old to travel upon hearing the news, but members of the Furstenberg family began visiting Gert at his apartment in Manhattan. Not only that, but Claes has kept up a correspondence with him that has amounted to nearly 100 emails. And as it turns out, Sigge Furstenberg saved a lot more lives than just Gert Berliner’s.
26. Sigge Furstenberg was a hero
Sigge Furstenberg evidently had no intention of remaining on the sidelines while the Holocaust was going on, despite his country’s neutral stance. In 1943, a group of Danish Jews arrived on the shores of Sweden after escaping from Nazi persecution in their home country.
Sigge did what he could to help them, and was targeted by Nazi sympathizers because of his efforts. In fact, the Nazis had records on Sigge Furstenberg, as they would be ready to arrest him if they decided to invade Sweden (his name was first on the list). For his efforts, after the war the King of Denmark awarded Sigge “the medal of liberty.”
27. Uri connects with the Furstenbergs
Claes sent Gert a soccer jersey from the Furstenbergs’ hometown team out of Kalmar. Unfortunately, Sigge’s sons, who Gert spent his late childhood with, were not alive anymore. But Gert remembered Nicke and Bosse fondly, as their offspring welcomed the Berliners with open arms.
Gert’s gift of two families in his old age was something that he never expected to get, and now his son enjoys that gift too, after spending a childhood without any relatives on his father’s side. And even though Gert and Uri found the Furstenbergs and the Berliners, they still had one more family to find.
28. Uri’s search continues
Dredging up the past connected Gert and Uri like never before. Uri took the story public and National Public Radio (NPR) has run several specials, including articles and interviews. It’s funny to think that for Gert, who turned his back on his past for so long, the smallest gesture of donating his toy monkey allowed him to reconnect to that past.
NPR has worked with Uri to help him find the Mynareks, who helped keep his parents alive for so many years, but have since come up short. Their final days are telling, and a message to the future as the search for Uri continues.
29. The Mynareks
When the Gestapo came for the Mynareks in 1943, it was clear that someone in the community had ratted them out. They were each sent to different places, and Charlotte confided in one of the letters to Gert that the last time he saw his mother, she was crying, and wanted Charlotte to tell her husband where she was going.
But they would never see each other again, and only Charlotte would live on. “I have to say I am envious of the dead,” wrote Charlotte. “For me everything is over…My dear boy…you are still very young and have your life ahead of you.” Charlotte Mynarek died in 1975 without having any living relatives to speak of.
30. Uri Berliner
NPR and Uri continue the search for any surviving relatives of the Mynareks to this day. Uri wants to tell them how thankful he is for their efforts, and says, “I want to tell them what happened to their family, and mine. It has not been forgotten.”
But as much as the tragedy of the Holocaust endures almost 75 years after the fact, families are still finding each other and reconnecting. Uri has visited Sweden and become close friends with Claes Furstenberg and his family. All thanks to a childhood toy monkey that a 14-year-old child decided to keep, for if he didn’t, none of this would’ve ever happened.