Benno Simoni’s life in partitioned Berlin

Benno Simoni describes how he grew up and lived as a Jew in the GDR and – until the building of the Berlin Wall – in the four sectors of Berlin. In 1987 he fled to the West of the city and is still active in Jewish community life today.

“Um es kurzzufassen: Ich bin der typische Nachkriegs-Berliner mit Stationen in allen vier Sektoren in Berlin. Geboren 1948 im Jüdischen Krankenhaus im französischen Sektor. Meine Eltern brauchen eine Ausfuhrbescheinigung für mich, weir wir im russischen Sektor, in Pankow, damals Teil von Ost-Berlin, lebten. Dort bin ich zur Schule gegangen und groß geworden und habe bis 1987 dort gelebt. Dann kam mein Wechsel nach West-Berlin, dort hatte ich meine Wohnung in Mariendorf, im amerikanischen Sektor, und arbeitete schließlich als Grundschullehrer in Charlottenburg, im britischen Sektor. […]

Bis zum Mauerbau fuhr ich wöchentlich […] zum Religionsunterricht am Jüdischen Krankenhaus nach West-Berlin. Noch einen Monat vor der Grenzschließung feierte ich, am 15. Juli, meine Bar Mitzwah in der Synagoge im Jüdischen Altersheim im Wedding. 11Die Grenze zwischen dem russischen Sektor und den übrigen Sektoren Berlin wurde am 13. August 1961 verriegelt. Dieses Datum markiert zudem den Beginn des Berliner Mauerbaus. Als der Weg nach West-Berlin versperrt war, besuchten wir die Ost-Berliner Synagoge, dort wurden jeden Freitag und Samstag Gottesdienste gehalten. […]

Welches Lebensereignis hat Sie sehr geprägt?

“Zum einen mein Neu-Anfang in West-Berlin mit 39 Jahren. Ich durfte zur Beerdigung meiner Tante ausreisen und entschied mich, nicht mehr zurückzukehren.

Ich hatte nur einen Koffer dabei. Meine vollmöblierte Wohnung und meinen Laden für An- und Verkauf ließ ich zurück. Dass mein Besitz vom Staat einkassiert würde, nahm ich in Kauf. Im Nachhinein ärgerte ich mich, dass ich es nicht besser vorbereitet hatte und bestimmte Dinge zur Seite geschafft hatte, beispielsweise meine Fotoalben. Die nicht mehr zu haben, machte mich schon betrübt. Umso mehr freue ich mich heute, wenn alte Erinnerungen wieder auftauchen. […]

Zurück konnte ich bis zum Mauerfall allerdings nicht mehr. Die ersten Wochen wohnte ich bei meiner Tante, dann fand ich eine kleine Wohnung, machte das Zweite Staatsexamen fürs Lehramt nach und begann als Lehrer zu arbeiten, was mir in der DDR verwehrt worden war.

Mein Vater starb ein paar Wochen nach dem Mauerfall, zu seinem Begräbnis durfte ich dann wieder rüber.”

    Footnotes

  • 1Die Grenze zwischen dem russischen Sektor und den übrigen Sektoren Berlin wurde am 13. August 1961 verriegelt. Dieses Datum markiert zudem den Beginn des Berliner Mauerbaus.

“To put it briefly: I am the typical post-war Berliner with stations in all four sectors in Berlin. Born in 1948 in the Jewish Hospital in the French sector. My parents needed an emigration certificate (Ausfuhrbescheinigung) for me because we lived in the Russian sector in Pankow, then part of East Berlin. There I went to school and grew up and lived until 1987. Then I moved to West Berlin, where I had an apartment in Mariendorf, in the American sector, and, finally, I worked as a primary school teacher in Charlottenburg, in the British sector. […]

Until the Wall was built, I traveled to West Berlin every week […] for religious instruction at the Jewish Hospital. One month before the border was closed, I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah on July 15th in the synagogue of the Jewish nursing home in Wedding. 11The border between the Russian sector and the other sectors of Berlin was closed on August 13, 1961, which also marked the beginning of the construction of the Berlin Wall. When the road to West Berlin was blocked, we visited the East Berlin synagogue, where services were held every Friday and Saturday. […]

Which life event has had a major impact on you?

“For one thing, my new beginning in West Berlin at the age of 39. I was allowed to leave for the funeral of my aunt and decided not to return.

I only had one suitcase with me. I left behind my fully furnished apartment and my store for buying and selling. I accepted that my property would be confiscated by the state. In retrospect, I was annoyed that I hadn’t prepared it better and had put certain things aside, for example my photo albums. Not to have them anymore saddened me. All the more I am happy today when old memories reappear. […]

But I couldn’t go back until the Wall came down. I lived with my aunt for the first few weeks, then I found a small apartment, took the Second State Examination to become a teacher and began working as a teacher, which I had been denied in the GDR.

My father died a few weeks after the fall of the wall, and I was allowed to go back over for his funeral.”

    Footnotes

  • 1The border between the Russian sector and the other sectors of Berlin was closed on August 13, 1961, which also marked the beginning of the construction of the Berlin Wall.

The child of a Jewish father who survived the Shoah in the underground – hidden also by his later wife, who converted to Judaism after the war – Benno Simoni was born in Berlin in 1948 and describes himself as a “typical post-war Berliner with stations in all four sectors”. In this interview excerpt, he describes how he experienced (Jewish) life in the “four-sector city” and in the GDR. In 1987, he left the East of the city, which had been closed off since the Wall was built in 1961, to start a new life in the West. In this way, his story is testimony to the long history of the division of Berlin, while people fled from one part of the city and sought refuge in the other.

Benno Simoni still lives in Berlin today. After working as a teacher and retiring in 2008, he co-founded two progressive Jewish communities. In the synagogue community “Bet Haskala” he has been chairman of the board since 2014.

Benno Simoni was interviewed as part of the project “Mutige Entdecker Bleiben” (“Courageous Discoverers Stay”). The book, in which Jewish and Muslim immigrants of the generation after 1945 are asked about their experiences of arriving in Germany, was created as part of the project “Schalom Aleikum. Jüdisch-Muslimischer Dialog” (“Schalom Aleikum. Jewish Muslim Dialogue”) by the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland (Central Council of Jews in Germany).

This excerpt from the interview with Selafet Hizarçi is published in the We Refugees Archive with the kind permission of the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland (Central Council of Jews in Germany).

First published in:

Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland (ed.), 2019: Mutige Entdecker bleiben. Jüdische und Muslimische Senioren im Gespräch. Schalom Aleikum Buchreihe 1. Berlin/Leipzig: Hentrich & Hentrich. p. 50.

Translation from German into English © Minor Kontor.

Search Help