Survival was foremost in the minds of the Berg family when they arrived in the highlands of Kenya in 1939. They were among hundreds of Jewish families who fled the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, but just a small number of those arrived on the east coast of Africa. The land and culture were strange to the Bergs, but the kindness and help of the Kikuyu people helped them survive and thrive.
“I have a stronger bond with the Kikuyu people than with Germany, and our family lineage there dates back to the early 1700s,” says Jill Berg Paully. “I consider Kenya my homeland.”The story of Inge Berg Katzenstein, 74, and her younger sister Jill Berg Paully, 70, is unusual in the Jewish diaspora. They were small girls, 10 and 6, in 1939, when their family fled to the East African nation.
“Our story is about five families, which later grew to seven, who were able to escape the persecution and raise enough money to buy land in Kenya and survive,” Mrs. Paully says.She says her family’s trek began in 1933, the year she was born, six years before the Bergs fled. Adolf Hitler rose to power as Germany’s chancellor that year, and the situation for Jews became worse day by day from that time on.The Bergs, who were wealthy cattle dealers in Germany, began moving their money out of German banks to Holland (now the Netherlands) in 1935. That bit of ingenuity, fostered by their grandmother, eventually would enable them to secure safe passage to Africa.
Mrs. Katzenstein was supposed to start public school in their hometown of Lechenich, but six months after school began, Jews were barred from attending public schools. She was forced to attend a Jewish school several miles away in Cologne, where her grandmother lived.”I remember walking to the [public school] building, and the Gestapo were there with their German shepherds – I am still afraid of those dogs to this day – and told me I was no longer welcome at the school,” she says.”But it was Kristallnacht (Crystal Night) where our story really begins, as with most Jews of the Holocaust,” Mrs. Paully says.
On Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, hundreds of Jewish homes, synagogues and other properties were burned, shattered and destroyed. The term Crystal Night is a reference to all the broken glass from Jewish homes and stores that littered the streets.Members of the Nazi Party rallied Germans into a destructive frenzy after the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, the secretary of the German Embassy in Paris, by a 17-year-old Polish Jew named Herschel Grynszpan. He was seeking revenge for the expulsion of his parents from their Polish home to a wasteland between Poland and Austria.”It took our family seven months to find a place that would accept Jews. Many Jews during that time had been swindled into trips where they were turned away when they arrived,” Mrs. Paully says.
Along with their parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, the girls finally would arrive in the grassy highlands of Kenya in June 1939, without an understanding of Swahili or English, the only languages spoken there.Kenya was a colony of Great Britain until 1963, and although the level of persecution against Jews was far less there, “the British were also anti-Semitic and not fond of Jews ,” Mrs. Paully says.
“Anti-Semitism was rampant throughout Europe hundreds of years before Hitler, and the British were no exception,” she adds.The girls endured great hardships not only because of the language barrier, but also from British schoolchildren, who beat and ridiculed them with impunity.”We were compelled to play sports three days a week at school, and often I fought with the girls and they would beat me with their lacrosse sticks. Nothing was done,” Mrs. Paully says.Amazingly, Mrs. Paully says, she and her sister were speaking nearly fluent Swahili within three months and becoming proficient in English as well.
“Two Kikuyu boys taught us as they escorted us to and from school,” Mrs. Katzenstein says.The Kikuyu tribe of Kenya was the native population on the highland where the sisters lived for the next eight years. Mrs. Katzenstein says the Kikuyu were a strong, intelligent people and the only inhabitants of the highlands who treated the Berg family with kindness and respect.At the end of the first three months, though, World War II broke out, and all the Jewish men were taken into custody, considered enemy aliens by the British.
Although the men were returned to their homes soon afterward, it would be several years before most of the world would become aware of the Nazi death camps and the vehement anti-Semitic persecution that enthralled the German populace under Chancellor Hitler and the members of his National Socialist German Workers’ Party.”For the entire eight years we lived there, the British were unaware, or so they said, that the Jews were being persecuted,” Mrs. Paully says.
“Many of our family members, like most others, died, and even we were unaware of the totality of what happened until much later.”In 1947, when Inge was 18 and her sister 14, the family was prepared to move again, this time to America. Shortly after their arrival, they learned of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya and were shocked. In preparation for efforts to gain freedom from British rule, members of the Kikuyu, Embu, Meru and Kamba tribes in Kenya took oaths of unity and secrecy to overthrow the colonial rulers, beginning the Mau Mau movement.
Although the British greatly inflated the atrocities committed against English settlers, the rebellion was bloody, and many Kenyans who refused to join were killed for fear they would sell out their brethren who were fighting for freedom.”We got along so well with them and they were so kind to us, we had no idea what their relationship was with the British until that happened,” Mrs. Paully says.The family’s journey to America was long and treacherous, Mrs. Katzenstein says.”It took us seven weeks to get there on a cargo boat, and it was so stormy that the boat was tipping at 421/2 degrees. At 45 degrees a boat capsizes,” Mrs. Katzenstein says.A trip that was supposed to port in New York wound up in Boston harbor. Inge was expected to work, but Jill was forced to adjust to a new school with a new culture.
“It was difficult for her to adjust,” Mrs. Katzenstein says.”Our experience in Kenya made us aggressive and tough, and that did not translate well at first,” Mrs. Paully says.The family eventually found its way to Vineland, N.J., “a stronger Orthodox Jewish community than what my father found in New York,” Mrs. Paully says.Mrs. Katzenstein met and married her husband, Werner, and they had three children – two sons and a daughter now living in Boston, Pittsburgh and Highland Park, N.J. Mrs. Paully met and married her husband, Kurt, and they had two children, a son and daughter now living in New York and Florida.
The compelling story of the Berg family and how they were able to barter their escape from Germany is only one story of Jews who fled to Kenya. A film on the subject, “Nowhere in Africa,” was released in 2001. The sisters were intrigued by the parallels the movie had to their lives in Kenya. The two retired real estate brokers who immigrated to Vineland, N.J. in 1947 with their mother and father now live in Silver Spring. Both volunteer at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Mrs. Paully has volunteered at the museum for nearly a decade, and her sister since 1998, when she moved to the region.The siblings will be telling their family’s unique story at the Holocaust Museum downtown, across from the Washington Monument.
“What we want is for people to learn what it is like to live in countries that are not free and what it means to be discriminated against,” Mrs. Paully says. “We want them to understand what they have and what they need to do to preserve it.””Children are not born knowing hate; it is taught. And born Americans must understand what it is they have overcome and know that it can be quickly taken away, especially in these times,” Mrs. Katzenstein says.Jill Berg Paully (left) and Inge Berg Katzenstein, who as children fled Nazi Germany with their family and found safety in Kenya, pose with the family’s Sefer Torah at Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring. The Torah was carried from Germany to Kenya and then America and has been donated to the Kemp Mill synagogue.
By: Brian DeBose