The monkey’s fur is worn away. It’s nearly a century old. A well-loved toy, it is barely 4 inches tall. It was packed away for long voyages, on an escape from Nazi Germany, to Sweden and America. And now, it’s the key to a discovery that transformed my family.
The monkey belonged to my father, Gert Berliner, who as a boy in Berlin in the 1930s rode his bicycle around the city. Clipped to the handlebars was the toy monkey.
“I liked him,” recalls my dad, who is now 94. “He was like a good luck piece.”
“Night of the Broken Glass”
In pictures from his young days in Berlin, my father looks confident, a tad rebellious with a wry smile. But his life was about to be eviscerated. The Gestapo would steadily crush every aspect of Jewish life in the city.
It exploded in a wave of violence — in November 1938 — on Kristallnacht, the “Night of the Broken Glass.” Jewish shops, schools and homes were smashed and burned by German civilians and Nazi storm troopers. Thousands of innocent Jewish men were rounded up.
“I do remember,” my father recalls. “I went out on the street … a lot of glass; you heard fire sirens; synagogues were set on fire.”
You could breathe
Escape routes from Germany vanished. One that existed was for children, the Kindertransport. Jewish and Quaker organizations led a rescue effort, a kind of Underground Railroad, to help save children from the Nazis. Thousands of children were sent on trains, often placed with foster families. But there were no takers for their parents. The children had to go by themselves, alone. Mostly to England. My father’s destination: Sweden.
In 1939, at the age of 14, he had to say goodbye to his parents, Paul and Sophie Berliner. He boarded the train in Berlin, bound for the city of Kalmar, on the Baltic Coast. He had a small bag and there wasn’t much he could bring. But stashed away in his suitcase was the toy monkey, his talisman.
The monkey wasn’t useful. But he took it with him anyway. He was worried, fearful about his parents. But he had reached shelter, taken in by a generous, kind family. My dad’s first impression of Sweden was the air. Free from the violence of Berlin, he could exhale. “Suddenly you could breathe,” he recalled. “It was like the air was different.”
A great loss and a new life
But his parents’ fate remained uncertain. Eventually their letters stopped coming. Paul and Sophie Berliner were captured by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz on a train, Transport 38, on May 17, 1943. They were murdered there.
After the war, my father moved to the United States. He left Sweden for New York as a young man of 22. He was an orphan. He had no siblings and he was alone. Again, he picked the toy monkey to come with him. But by now it was something different: the most tangible connection to his childhood, to a fleeting moment of innocence.
My dad has lived mostly in New York, working as a photographer and artist, with stints in New Mexico and Italy. And for more than half a century, his toy monkey went with him. But it lived in drawers, existing only in a private space, so private that I never even knew about his childhood toy, and all that it symbolized.
It was just one of the many things I didn’t know about my father’s past.
Throughout my childhood and well into my adult years, we rarely discussed what he’d been through, the murder of his parents, how alone he must have felt as a young refugee. How it affected his life, our relationship. He was a distant father. And I was a distant son, much of our time together beset by halting, uncomfortable silences.
What I did know is that our family — on the Berliner side — was very small. There were just three Berliners: my dad, me and my son, Ben. At least that’s what we thought.
And then two things happened — with the toy monkey at the center of both events.
Journey to the museum
In 2003, an archivist from the Jewish Museum Berlin named Aubrey Pomerance visited my dad at his apartment in Manhattan. My dad had met Aubrey before and liked him. This time, Aubrey was there to ask a favor. Did my father have something from when he was a Jewish child living in Nazi Germany? Something that visitors to the museum could relate to personally?
My dad was torn. His wife, Frances, didn’t want him to part with the monkey. She had a good point. It was the most intimate object he had left from his childhood. But eventually he decided that the toy monkey should go back out into the world where it would do more good as a little ambassador to history.
And so the monkey returned to Berlin, this time living in a museum, not on a young boy’s bicycle. Aubrey said it is likely that millions of visitors have seen the nameless monkey in various exhibits at the museum over the years and been exposed to my father’s story.
One of those visitors was Erika Pettersson. In 2015, she was at the museum with her boyfriend, Joachim. At one point Erika wandered to an exhibit with images about the lives of Jewish children during the Nazi years. It had some wooden boxes with lids you could lift to learn about the kids.
She opened one of them. It was the only one she opened. “And there was this toy monkey and a picture of a small kid, a Jewish kid named Gert Berliner,” she recalled. “And I thought, that’s a coincidence. My mom’s name is Berliner.”
Erika didn’t think that much about it. But her mother, Agneta Berliner, did. Erika and Agneta are Swedish. And they had a family connection to Germany and Berlin. Agneta couldn’t get it out of her mind. She went online and found that my father has a website with his photography.
“And there was an email address,” she 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?’ ”
My dad read the message and it led to a call. “Suddenly because of the monkey, I have a phone call, somebody in Sweden of all places, saying, well I think you’re my cousin.”
The monkey did its job
Agneta Berliner and her sister, Suzanne Berliner, and Suzanne’s son Daniel arranged to meet my dad when he was in Berlin at an opening exhibit of his photography.
And so it all came together.
How we weren’t only three Berliners.
It turns out that my father’s dad, Paul Berliner, had a brother named Carl. Carl Berliner had two sons and Carl sent them to Sweden for safety, too. But they didn’t get out of Germany on the Kindertransport. They were sent to work on isolated farms deep in the Swedish countryside. Those boys were my dad’s cousins. But they had lost touch with each other.
Now, some 80 years later, a bond has been re-established with the help of a tattered toy monkey. This summer, I traveled to Sweden to meet my newfound relatives and to retrace my father’s steps. I met Agneta and her family on Sweden’s solstice holiday — Midsummer Eve, and we celebrated together with a traditional Swedish feast lasting well into the evening. The famous meatballs, salmon, toasts with schnapps and a beautiful cake with more strawberries than I’d ever seen in my life. Even though we had just met it felt good to be around my newfound relatives. To be part of a larger family — a family that hasn’t just survived, but has grown and thrived.
My dad didn’t make the trip. So we called him in New York — Erika, Agneta and me all on speaker, filling him in our visit. It was a bittersweet call. At 94, my dad doesn’t get out much. He’s alone a lot in the apartment with time to reflect.
“You get old,” he says. “I walk around with a cane, shaky. You have time. You sit in a chair, an easy chair and start thinking about your past, what happened.”
What happened to his parents, to him and our family is still hard to absorb. But one little thing from the past also delivered a big surprise. My father packed that monkey in a suitcase when he fled for his life nearly 80 years ago.
It turned out he had to give up that treasured piece of his history to discover something new about the past. “It’s a gift,” he says. “In my old age, I have discovered I have a family.”
Two couples sheltered Uri Berliner’s family when the Nazis came to power. One thrived; the other paid a terrible price. Read that story.