Today, George Wittenstein is a 91-year old retired physician living in Santa Barbara and he could be mistaken for any other local resident, but in August 1939 he was a 20-year old medical student trying to escape Nazi Germany when he chose take an act of profound courage and save two lives. It took 71 years, but the two people he saved have finally found him again.
Esther Milich and Nathan Berkowitz, both in their 80s now, appeared at the Bronfman Family Jewish Community Center on Thursday evening to recollect about how a stranger had saved their lives.
It had taken years for them to find each other again, an intensive process involving a team of researchers and volunteers, but the siblings who first entered the United States as Esther and Natan Berkowicz while young teenagers had found their rescuer, and all three spoke about the fateful days in the summer of 1939.
Dr. Wittenstein was a promising young medical student then, born to a wealthy Berlin family who managed textiles and fashion businesses. His mother had been disgusted with the rise of Nazism, and she helped smuggle Jews through the family estate in Switzerland.
Dr. Wittenstein recalled that Hitler had ruined the German schools, and he boarded a ship called the Hasna that summer bound for New York City to finish his education, escape a war that was already looming and build a life for himself in America.
The conflict was also personal, he recalled. "Three of my best fiends were Jewish, and they had to leave and emigrate because of that," he said. "Most of my mentors were also Jewish. Jews were important to medicine and especially the arts. Hitler was in power, and (soon) that incredible advantage was gone. (About) 90 percent of passengers were Jewish, who had been taxed for everything they owned. They had made the sacrifice and were on their way to a country of freedom. It was a wonderful feeling."
He was one of the few non-Jews aboard the vessel. He had paid the expensive emigration tax along with everybody else, and later befriended two young Jewish children during their journey.
On the third day, crew members went around shutting the blinds without saying why, and the ship performed a large U-turn. He took his radio, one of the few on board, and listened above deck as BBC broadcasts announced skirmishes on the German-Polish border. The war had started. The ship immediately turned around to avoid British warships, and returned to the Hamburg harbor.
Chaos prevailed as hundreds of people who had recently left Germany for good found themselves back inside the country. The only train leaving was so crowded that people were piling on the roof and hanging from the doors. Dr. Wittenstein was lucky enough to have a car, and quickly made a promise to the two children he had met on board. He found them in a hotel in south Hamburg, where all the Jews had been escorted, and told them, "You can't get back by a train, car or anything. The only way back to Berlin is with me."
He transported the children back to Berlin -- away from the border he was headed to -- and missed his chance to escape.
The young medical student delivered the children to their parents in Berlin, and served out the remainder of the war as a doctor on the Russian and Italian fronts, where he was wounded. He became a member of the resistance group "The White Rose," and lived to see five of his friends and Ph.D. advisor executed. The good doctor also smuggled weapons away from the front lines and delivered them to a resistance movement in Munich.
The children's parents, meanwhile, relieved to have their children back, made a second attempt to get them out of the country. "It was very sad," Mrs. Milich recalled. "The apartment was empty and they were supposed to have left already, but they wouldn't leave until they had gotten other family out." The family of four finally made it to the Belgium border and just as they were about to leave, their father was retained for military service. "He begged my mother, 'Save the children.' I'll never forget. The agent took us to the port, and we went to the United States like two lost people."
"My mother said, 'I'm not going,' " Mr. Berkowitz continued. "My parents never argued, and he said, 'Listen to me. Take the children, and go.' Two weeks later, he was back in Berlin and taken in the final round-up." Their children made it to New York, and lived with two uncles who had been working for their release on the other side of the ocean.
Their mother chose to stay in Germany until she had rescued her husband. Although the chronology of events is not clear, the family understands that their father was sent to a concentration camp outside Berlin. The mother traveled throughout Europe and France during the war, but was finally deported to Auschwitz.
Dr. Wittenstein finally emigrated to the United States in 1947, and has been practicing medicine in Santa Barbara for most of that time. He was having dinner with a colleague and friend one night, Stan Ostern, and mentioned the story and said he wanted to get in touch with the siblings.
Mr. Ostern is a Holocaust survivor himself. He hid in an underground bunker for two years while still a small child. "It was a long shot, but worth trying," he said. "Hitler tried to wipe out all the Jewish history, every DNA that the Jews accomplished, and anything that can be recovered is amazing. The question survivors ask is, 'Why did I survive?' I think maybe I survived so I could do things like this."
Dr. Ostern solicited the help of Dr. Elizabeth Wolfson, director of the Portraits of Survival interviews with whom he had shared his story for the program. She asked several volunteers to research what had happened to these children, without success. It was Jordan Summers, an archivist with the U.S. Holocaust Museum , who found the children after much research. Esther was living in Commack, Long Island, and Natan had become a furrier living in Queens. He had anglicized his name to Nathan Berkowitz, making it more difficult to find them. They, too, had been searching for him.
The three shared their first communication in nearly 70 years on Dr. Wittenstein's 91st birthday, and shortly thereafter the two siblings agreed to fly to Santa Barbara.
The three were visibly emotional during the question-and-answer period as they discussed the difficulty of life after the Holocaust. "I accepted my life the way it was, and tried to make the best of it I could," Mr. Berkowitz said. "I estimate that we must have lost around 200 family members. You couldn't shock me anymore, we had seen all of it. I couldn't cry for 17 years, I had a shield around me that nothing went through. Not that I forgot my parents, or anything like that. My feeling is my parents have always been with me, and still are."
Dr. Wittenstein was asked one of the most frequent questions posed to someone who risks his life to save another: Why? His answer was both disarming and deeply felt. "My upbringing was if you are in a position in society and people are poor, it is your obligation to help them, the noblesse oblige. I was brought up in this sense since early childhood, but there's more than that. Of course, I had regrets not to come to the United States, but on the other hand, somebody had to do that."