July 4, 2006

Bernardo Jerochim is German Again

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After his family escaped from the Nazis during the Third Reich, Bernardo Jerochim lived as a stateless person in Argentina. After almost sixty-five years as a Jewish shoe polisher from Berlin, he has finally regained his passport.

This time in Buenos Aires, Bernardo Jerochim doesn’t have to show an invitation to get into the German Embassy. The executives in front of the embassy allow him to pass through. They remember the shoe polisher who visited a few weeks before for a meeting with the ambassador.

When Jerochim leaves the embassy, he has with him the document that he had been waiting for for more than sixty years – his German passport. ”I am the only German shoe polisher in Buenos Aires,” he says. ”And I can finally prove that.” He wears the passport close to his heart in the pocket of his ruby coloured shirt. It seems as though he is still trying to convince somebody when he says, ”my father fought in and was injured four times during the First World War, and for that was honoured with the Iron Cross.” Certainly Jerochim could have applied for citizenship in his new homeland of Argentina, but preferred to stay without any citizenship. ”I am German,” he says. ”Why should I apply for an Argentinean passport?”

In the past, Bernardo was called Bernhard and lived in the Andreasstrasse in Berlin-Friedrichshain. In June 1938, when Bernardo was ten years old, he and his family escaped to Buenos Aires, just before the Nazis took passports away from German Jews and later their citizenship in October 1941.

When little Bernardo was on the ship to Argentina, he expected to see Cowboys and Indians. Bernardo was disappointed when they arrived after fifty days aboard the Formosa in Buenos Aires. ”I thought we were back in Europe,” he remembered. They arrived just one week before the secret memorandum ”Directive 11” was sent to the consulates, which stated that visas could no longer be granted to Jews.

Bernardo speaks German, switching to Spanish only when he can’t place a word. ”When I was a little boy I used to say to my mother: ‘don’t speak German. You have to learn Spanish.’ Later I regret that.” He looks thoughtful. ”Do you know what I mean?” he says. Slowly he starts to sing, while the plates in the kitchen are clanging. ”Kommt ein Vogel geflogen, setzt sich nieder auf mein’ Fuss.”

Bernardo’s father died shortly after the family arrived in Argentina. The family lived in the slums. When Bernardo was only twelve, he had to earn money and look after his younger siblings while the mother worked at the market. Education was seen as a special privilege.

Bernardo first tried to regain his German passport in 1975. ”I wanted to give my children the opportunity to become German,” he says. However, his father’s birth certificate was missing. He was from Schneidemüehl, which today belongs to Poland. How should Bernardo try to get to the papers? He gave up. It was too complicate and expensive for him to get the German passport.

”People are coming rarely to get their shoes polished”

Bernardo Jerochim is now sitting in his favorite café, the Portofino, in the heart of Buenos Aires. At the bar, businessmen are drinking Cortado, a special espresso with milk froth, out of little cups. The lights are very flashy. Around the bar there are a few tables organised in little groups. Bernardo likes the Portofino because he always feels welcome. When his story was published in the local newspaper, all the waiters clapped for him.

Carefully, and with both hands, he puts his passport on the table. On his fingers, you can still see black and brown shoe polish. He is usually running around the tables with a little stool and a little black box offering his service: ”shoe polish, shoe polish!”

Three Pesos, about 60 cents USD, is the price for the shoe polishing. The costumer puts his shoe on the black box and Bernardo gently cleans the shoe with a very soft brush. Afterwards he applies the polish on with an old toothbrush. Then wax, so that the shoe becomes waterproof. ”…And at the end, the pomade. I apply it with a cloth so I can massage the foot also,” says Bernardo.

A few years ago he worked in the café across the Portofino called The City, where he polished about 50 to 60 shoes per day. ”Now people come less frequently to have their shoes polished. Today I have to go to the offices in the financial district to look for my clients,” says Bernardo, who is also called Berni by his siblings, or Berni the One-Eyed, because he lost his right eye at the age of eight when one of his brothers accidentally shot him with an arrow on Christmas Eve.

No fast track for Jerochim

For the Argentines, Bernardo was always ”el Alemán”, the German. Alejandro Candioti, a customer of Bernardo’s and a young lawyer was working in an office right next to ”The City”, noticed that Bernardo pronounced his ”R” very differently.

Candioti could not believe that the Germans did not want to give a passport to Bernardo and he started to intervene in the affair. He tried to get all necessary papers and contacted the German embassy. He also contacted the Senate in Berlin, who sent Bernardo Jerochim an official invitation, but without a passport Jerochim was unable to leave Argentina.

”There was just no fast track for Bernardo to get back his German citizenship,” says Candioti, whose shoes are perfectly polished. ”He was treated the same way as every other applicant.” The lawyer decided to talk to his father, Enrique Candioti, an ambassador of Argentina in Berlin. His father told Bernardo’s story to Baruch Tenembaum, the president of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and then things began to work out.

Candioti spent a few days in Berlin and took pictures of the Andreasstrasse, where Bernardo used to live as a child. He also visited several offices to arrange the bureaucratic procedures. ”Suddenly I realized what I was saying to the executives: I am here on behalf of a friend,” says Candioti. ”It did not seem to fit together at all: A young successful Catholic lawyer and an old Jewish shoe polisher.”

Bernardo meets Candioti in Portfino to fill out all the papers. Since receiving his passport, Bernardo can now follow up on the invitation from the German Major to Berlin with his wife. ”I would love to go to Sachsenhausen,” he says. ”Two of my brothers were there in the concentration camp and escaped.” – ”Where is your pass?” asks Candioti. He wants to see the document that they had been fighting so long for. Slowly he looks at each page. ”I took that picture,” he says.

”How long can I actually stay in Germany?” Bernardo asks. ”As long as you want to,” replies Candioti. Unfortunately, the invitation comes two months too late. Bernardo’s brother, Werner, who returned to Berlin after the war, had just died.

Translated by Vanessa Reuter
Edited by Stephanie Surach