September 10, 2006

The story of the bootblack who once escaped Nazism and now returns to his country


Alike all Jews, his German citizenship was taken away by a law

Bernardo Jerochim fought 68 years to gain back his nationality. In the end he achieved his goal and traveled to Berlin. Upon his return, he will continue to polish shoes.

Streetcars, balconies, fears. Memories of a short childhood travel fast through Bernardo’s Jerochim head. His infancy was cut short when his family had to runaway from a Nazi Berlin in 1938. Sixty years later, the now famous bootblack from Buenos Aires, travels back to his native city as a guest of the town’s government. It is not just a return to the neighborhood where he spent the first ten years of his life; it is also the first time he is recognized as a German by law, after having lost his nationality years ago.

”Hier ist mein Pass, gucken Sie mal” – ”Here is my passport, look”, Bernardo says proudly in a perfect German that he never forgot, even after having lived in Argentina for seven decades.

”Mister Jerochim” (that is the way they now call him in Germany) lost his citizenship due to a law sanctioned in 1941. The rule affected all German Jews. Jerochim had not been able, up to now, to regain his citizenship. He has now, when he is 78 years old, due to the aid of two special men: lawyer Alejandro Candioti, and Baruch Tenenbaum from the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.

”Well…I have plenty of ugly memories”, says Bernardo. ”We were very scared. We were scared of the gangs that chased us in school, on the streets, everywhere. We were scared when they knocked on the door and we were not sure who was out there…”, he explains with the characteristic serenity of a survivor.

The sun shines today in his old neighborhood, Friedrichshain, on the corner of avenue Karl Marx and Andreasstrasse (a part of the city that, after the construction of the Wall, remained on the side of the Democratic Republic of Germany). Here, Bernardo Jerochim was once Bernhard, a little boy who used to sing ”Kommt ein Vogel geflogen…” and wait anxiously for his mother on the balcony until she came back home.

”I used to shout when I saw her, even if she was still a block away”, he comments while he stares at the streets, which are now broader, different. Number 38 on Andreasstrasse Street no longer exists. Instead, there are now apartment blocks built during the Cold War. Bernardo could not found either the house on Belauerstrasse 13, in Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, where he lived with his family for a couple of years.

However, when he arrives to that part of the city, he seems to recognize the area where he used to get of the streetcar with his mother to go grocery shopping. ”We used to go to a store called Tietz, it was like Gath and Chávez in Buenos Aires. Do you know it?” he asks and it seems like he is experiencing sausages with chucrut, meals that made him smile as a kid.

Those who know him from the little cafe ”Portofino” would look at him weirdly, as he takes pictures and declares his love to Berlin in German. ”Du bist die schönste Stadt der Welt” – you are the most beautiful city in the world – he repeats over and over again while he gazes through the window of protestant minister Annemarie Werner’s car.

She is his guide and host during this ten days visit to Germany. ”I am ashamed of being German when I see that, even after all what has happened, instead of giving these people their citizenship back right away, they are required to present tons of documents and certificates of all sorts” she confesses. ”The Holocaust cannot be undone, but the least we can do is to help those who survived so that they do not suffer more hardships than the ones they already endured during those terrible years”, she adds.

If it was not for the Wallenberg Foundation, Bernardo would still be struggling in his effort to regain his father’s citizenship, a man who fought during the Second World War. ”They simply gave him bureaucratic explanations” said Baruj Tenenbaum, founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation. ”The argument was that they were not returning their citizenship to the Jews because they did not want to offend them. They believed that after the Second World War, Jews would not want their nationality back”, explains.

”Hitler was evil…” interrupts an immigrant from Mozambique who comes around while Bernardo takes pictures. With an intimacy common in Argentina but rare in Germany, the bootblack starts to narrate his story and the humiliations he suffered as a kid: ”Once, my brother got into a fight with a kid at school and my mother was convened. When she got to school, she greeted everyone saying ”good morning”. The headmaster yelled: here we do not say good morning, we say Heil Hitler!”

The anger that traveled with Bernardo when he left Nazi Germany (”do not speak in German”, his mother Lotti used to tell him) started to fade away with the years, as he began a new life with his own family, wife and three kids, in Argentina.

”I will not forget anything” he asserts, very confident in his words. The pain is immune to time, he knows it, and feels it when looks at the pictures of his murdered relatives. The memory and consciousness of having escaped are very present as he visits Sachsenhausen, a former concentration camp where his relatives were probably assassinated.

”My dad never wanted to talk about his life in Germany” says Cristina, Willy’s daughter, Bernardo’s niece. ”It was a chapter of his life that he always wanted to forget” he adds as she drinks mate during a family reunion to welcome Bernardo in his trip to Berlin. Here, in the German capital city, live his grandchildren, his nieces and nephews, his sisters Helga and Yuli (the youngest of the ten Jerochim siblings). Werner, who also used to live in Berlin passed away a few years ago. Erwin, who is currently living in Israel, could not come to the reunion due to health issues.

”Everything was fantastic”, Bernardo concludes when he thinks back on his ten days visit to Berlin. After some days of rest, he is now returning to his bootblack’s life in Buenos Aires.

From now on he will enjoy the company of two new partners: his German passport and the memory of having visited his city after 68 years.

Translation: Ileana Cheszes