Berlin celebrates postwar visitor program for expelled Jews

In this Wednesday Sept. 11, 2019 photo, Holocaust survivor Helga Melmed poses for a portrait during an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of a program for people expelled and persecuted by the Nazis. (AP)
Updated 15 September 2019

Berlin celebrates postwar visitor program for expelled Jews

  • The program has brought people like Melmed on one-week trips to Berlin to reacquaint themselves with the city
  • The “invitation program for former refugees” has brought back primarily Jewish emigrants who fled the Nazis

BERLIN: Berlin was the last place Helga Melmed had expected to see again. She was 14 when the Nazis forced her and her family onto a train from their home in the German capital to the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland, in 1941.

That started a gruesome odyssey that later saw her imprisoned at Auschwitz and Neuengamme outside Hamburg before she was finally freed by British soldiers in 1945 from Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany, a 46-pound walking skeleton.

For years, she never considered returning to Germany until she was invited on a trip by the city of her birth, in a reconciliation program meant to help mend ties with former Berliners who had been forced out by the Nazis.

Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the program has successfully brought people like Melmed on one-week trips to Berlin to reacquaint themselves with the city.

Some 35,000 people have accepted the invitation since it was first issued in 1969, and while the numbers are dwindling a few new participants still come every year.

“I thought I’d never come back,” Melmed, 91, who emigrated to the US via Sweden after the war, told The Associated Press in an interview.

The “invitation program for former refugees” has brought back primarily Jewish emigrants who fled the Nazis, or those like Melmed who survived their machinery of genocide.

On Wednesday, she and other former program participants were invited to Berlin City Hall to celebrate the half-century anniversary.

At a ceremony mayor Michael Mueller thanked them for coming back — despite all they suffered at the hands of the Germans.
“Many people followed our invitation, people who had lost everything they loved,” he said. “I want to express my strong gratitude to you for putting your trust in us.”

Despite skepticism at the time that anyone persecuted by the Nazis would want to return, in 1970 — one year after the program’s launch — there was already a waiting list of 10,000 former Berliners who wanted to come back for a visit.

More than 100 other German cities and towns have instituted similar programs but no municipality has brought back as many former residents as the capital.

Berlin, of course, also had the biggest Jewish community before the Holocaust. In 1933, the year the Nazis came to power, around 160,500 Jews lived in Berlin. By the end of World War II in 1945 their numbers had diminished to about 7,000 — through emigration and extermination.

All in all, some six million European Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Melmed’s father was shot dead in the Lodz ghetto — where the Nazis concentrated Jews and forced them to work in factories — a few months after their arrival and her mother died of exhaustion a few months later, shortly after Melmed’s 15th birthday.

Melmed, who lives in Venice, Florida, received her invitation under the reconciliation program 42 years ago. “One day, out of the blue, I found a letter in the mailbox inviting me to come back for a visit,” the retired nurse said at the hotel where she was staying with two of her four children and a grandson.

“So, in 1977, my husband and I traveled to Berlin.” They were part of an organized group tour of dozens of other former Berliners who had been persecuted by the Nazis.

“I don’t know if the trip was a dream or a nightmare,” Melmed said. One afternoon, she went for a coffee at Berlin’s famous Kempinski Hotel — today called the Bristol Hotel — just like she used to do as a little girl with her mother and dad, a banking executive.
“It was heart-breaking,” Melmed said.

Her life story is chronicled in the exhibition “Charter Flight into the Past” about the program, which opened Thursday at Berlin’s City Hall and will run through Oct. 9.

Johannes Tuchel, the director of the German Resistance Memorial Center, which curated the exhibition, said that many returnees had conflicting emotions.

They didn’t trust the Germans — especially in the early years of the program, when many people they saw in the streets still belonged to the Nazi generation. Often, memories of loss and pain were stirred up by the visit, but at the same time many were also able to reconnect with a city that harbored many happy childhood mementos for them.

For Melmed, closure came only at an old age. In 2018, when she turned 90, she decided to return once again to Berlin. It was then that she met the current tenants of her old family home in the Wilmersdorf neighborhood of Berlin.

They invited her back into the apartment and organized a plaque-laying ceremony last week to commemorate her parents on this year’s visit.

Last week, city officials presented her with her original birth certificate and her parents’ marriage certificate. “Now it’s all closure for me,” Melmed said with a peaceful smile as she touched her golden necklace with a Star of David pendant. “It doesn’t hurt anymore.”


Malaysia’s police chief: Daesh fighters ‘must be allowed to come back’

Updated 49 min 9 sec ago

Malaysia’s police chief: Daesh fighters ‘must be allowed to come back’

  • Many Malaysians believe that the Daesh returnees will pose a threat to national security and should not be allowed to return
  • Malaysia claims that its deradicalization program is one of the most successful in the world — a model for the fight against terrorism and religious extremism

KUALA LUMPUR: The Malaysian government has still to decide whether a reported 40 Daesh members of Malaysian origin — including women and children — should be allowed to return to their homeland from Syria. But the Inspector-General of Police of Malaysia Abdul Hamid Bador told Arab News on Thursday, “They are Malaysians and the must be allowed to come back.”
Bador stressed that any returning Daesh members would be charged under Malaysia’s Security Offenses Act and would have to undergo the country’s deradicalization program. But while many Malaysians are opposed to allowing the hard-line militants to return home, Bador said, “As a sovereign nation, Malaysia must fulfill her international obligations. We will undertake the responsibility of subjecting all of them to our rehabilitation programs.”
At a press conference on Saturday, Malaysia’s Special Branch Anti-Terrorist Division principal assistant director Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay said that Daesh returnees would undergo rehabilitation, which would include counseling for the children.
Many Malaysians believe that the Daesh returnees will pose a threat to national security and should not be allowed to return.
“In principle, they are the citizens (of Malaysia), so they have a right to come back,” Dr. James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, told Arab News. “But, in having to fulfill that obligation, obviously the question arises whether or not they broke the law, and to what degree they pose a threat.”
Dorsey warned that “not all deradicalization programs are 100-percent effective,” but said he believed that rehabilitation would enable people to reenter society to some degree.
“The assumption is that they went to Syria to fight, so now that Syria is no longer available they are going to come home to fight. But we don’t know that for a fact,” he said. “That may be true for some, but not for others. It is really going to be a question of evaluating every single one. We need to deal with each of them differently. Sending them to rehabilitation might be one way to resolve this.”
“There are no magic tricks involved in the programs,” Bador said to Arab News. Their success, he said, depended on coordination between the police, the religious department, and prison officers. “We are also thankful that the prisoners themselves have the willpower to return to society,” he added.
Malaysia claims that its deradicalization program is one of the most successful in the world — a model for the fight against terrorism and religious extremism, in which religious institutions play an equally important role during the rehabilitation process.
“Malaysia prides itself to having achieved a 97 percent success rate which indicates that occurrences of recidivism are minimal,” said Muhammad Sinatra, an analyst at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies.
He told Arab News that Daesh returnees would serve time in prison, and would —  along with the women and children — be enrolled in a month-long rehabilitation program by the government.
“The women and children must have suffered from witnessing horrendous violence and losing their loved ones during their time in Syria and Iraq,” Sinatra said. “This is on top of the physical toll that years spent in conflict zones will have taken. It will take a tremendous effort by psychologists and doctors to address the physical and mental issues these returnees face.”
Sinatra added that it is imperative that the government hear testimonies from current Daesh prisoners — or preferably those who have been released — about the effectiveness of the rehabilitation program in order to obtain a more holistic picture of its success.