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How a tiny toy monkey escaped Nazi Germany to reunite a family after 80 years

NPR reporter Uri Berliner shares the story of his father Gert Berliner who escaped Nazi Germany at the age of 14 with limited possessions that included the ti

How a tiny toy monkey escaped Nazi Germany to reunite a family after 80 years
Image Source: Jewish Museum Berlin

The Second World War resulted in some of the worst human suffering the world had seen. The stories that are told by the survivors of the Nazi prosecution of the Jews in Germany are heartbreaking. NPR reporter, Uri Berliner is the son of a German Jew who managed to escape the country through an escape route that existed for children and took them to the safety of other countries. He had to leave his parents behind and as a 14-year-old boy, he had to go to a foreign country by himself. He was taken in by a kind family in Sweden but among the limited possessions he could take with himself he took with him a tiny toy monkey.


"I do remember," Uri's father, Gert recalls how The Gestapo stomped the Jewish population out of Berlin. "I went out on the street ... a lot of glass; you heard fire sirens; synagogues were set on fire." As a frightened teen, he was worried about his parents and what would happen to them. The only thing connecting him to his childhood was the monkey which, in the distant future, would come to hold more significance than he could have imagined. His parents wrote to him at first but the letters stopped coming. In 1943, they were taken away to Auschwitz along with the family that sheltered them and murdered. Gert was orphaned and after the war, he went to New York to work as an artist and photographer.



Life went on for Gert who made a life for himself in America. He never spoke about the ordeal he had been through and Uri did not even know about the existence of the toy monkey. In 2003, Jewish Museum Berlin archivist, Aubrey Pomerance, paid him a visit to ask if he still had any childhood possessions from Nazi Germany. Gert was torn, having to decide whether we wanted to part with the little monkey that had kept him company for nearly six decades. After much deliberation, he decided it was time the toy went into the world to "do more good as a little ambassador to history."



The toy joined an exhibit at the Jewish museum that told stories about the lives of Jewish children during the Nazi years. In 2015, Erika Pettersson visited the museum and chanced upon the monkey. "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." Even though she did not think much of it, Erika's mother Agneta Berliner decided to do some investigation and got in touch with Gert. She mailed him and said that they could perhaps he related. Until then, Uri was certain there were only three Berliners left.



"Suddenly because of the monkey, I have a phone call, somebody in Sweden of all places, saying, well I think you're my cousin," Gert stated. Now, after eight decades the Berliners reunited. Uri decided to retrace his father's steps from the time he left Berlin and then met his extended family in Sweden. He learned that his grandfather had a brother who had two sons who were also sent to Sweden for safety. But they had lost touch and reconnected after 80 years. Unfortunately, Gert could not make the trip at the age of 91 but could not help but marvel at the series of events that unfolded because of a toy monkey. "It's a gift," he stated. "In my old age, I have discovered I have a family." He passed away in 2019.


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