Bricks Link Newtown Resident’s Past And Present

Oscar Berendsohn has inserted a piece of family history into his life. On Tuesday, October 22, masons at his Appleblossom Lane home chinked out three bricks near his front door and replaced them with three glazed “clinker” bricks, remnants of his childhood home outside of Hamburg, Germany.

It was in the grand, custom designed brick house overlooking a branch of the Elbe River that Mr Berendsohn recalls a happy childhood, “until the Nazis came along, in 1933,” he said.

 “My father was a very wealthy man,” explained Mr Berendsohn. The owner of a shipyard, he mainly dealt in scrapping of old ships, but also built and sold small ships.

“I am probably one of the last guys to have ever put eyes on the US wooden transport ships from World War I,” Mr Berendsohn said. “My father had bought them for scrap.”

His childhood home was completely constructed of sturdy red bricks, he said, with decorative clay shingles — “Each one tied on separately” — running down the steep roof. Inside, the walls were lined with teak, and his own bedroom door was crafted from a three-inch thick slab of hand carved teakwood from an old wooden ship.

But when the Nazis forced his father, Paul Berendsohn, out of the shipyard business, denying the Jewish business owner access to currency he needed to run his business, the family ran into hard times. A secret organization known as the WIFO (Wirtschaftliche Forschungsgesellschaft) took over the family home for office space, and the family moved into the city of Hamburg. It was the last time Mr Berendsohn would see the beautiful house for many years.

Even in those difficult times, his father did not want to leave Germany, Mr Berendsohn said. But as Jews disappeared from Italy, France, Germany, and Poland, the family began to wonder if — and how— they should go. Then, on the night of November 9, 1938, quasi-military groups attacked Jewish sections of cities throughout Germany and Austria. Known now as “Kristallnacht,” or the “Night of Broken Glass,” Mr Berendsohn, 14 years old at the time, remembers hearing the crash as “hooligans” smashed the windows of nearby Jewish-owned shops, and looted. He witnessed beatings in the streets, and smelled the burning of the synagogue. By morning, glass glittered all over the streets.

Kristallnacht was the warning that would send the Berendsohns abroad from the Fatherland.

“At 2 am, the Gestapo was in our home, making sure everyone was getting out. My father told him we were leaving as soon as we could,” Mr Berendsohn said, but it was still four months before he, along with his parents and seven siblings, could get visas and flee to the Honduras.

In August 1940, the Berendsohns emigrated to America. In 1943, Oscar Berendsohn was drafted, but because he lacks a left thumb, he was not accepted.

“I was very disappointed,” he said. In 1948, when he was once again drafted, he managed to conceal that hand, went through basic training in Texas, and joined the Reserves. He fought in the Korean War, and it was while he was on furloughs that he was able to visit his homeland — and the lovely brick house of his childhood.

Although the house and shipyard had been heavily damaged during the war, his father was able to sue for return of the shipyard. His parents returned to Hamburg. The house was rebuilt, and the Paul and Mabel Berendsohn continued to live there until they retired.

“In later years, I again saw our home, under other ownership,” Mr Berendsohn said.

Two years ago, he found out that the house was to be razed to make way for a modern container port.

“I was in contact with the contractors, and asked for one brick from the house, and the door from my room,” said Mr Berendsohn, “but I got neither.”

Knowing how disappointed Mr Berendsohn was, a relative received permission to visit the site.

“He dug around in the sand there and found three bricks, and brought them with when he visited me last year,” said Mr Berendsohn.

At first, he thought perhaps he would have the distinctive red-glazed bricks inserted into his fireplace façade.

“But they are outdoor bricks, really. So then I thought next to the entrance to my home would be a more proper place,” he said.

Placed waist-high, immediately adjacent to the front door, the bricks serve as a touchstone for Mr Berendsohn.

“I think,” he said, “they have the blessings of my parents with them.”


More stories like this: Oscar Berendsohn, clinker bricks, Kristallnacht
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