In the course of January 1946, some one hundred 15-16-year-olds were brought from the Bergen-Belsen DP camp to an estate on the banks of the River Elba in Blankenese, a suburb of Hamburg. The estate, which had been expropriated by the Nazi authorities in the 1930s, belonged to the Warburgs, a family of Jewish bankers. After the war, the property was given to the AJJDC for use by Holocaust survivors. A children's home was established there, which served as a base and transit point for some 300 young survivors who were trying to reach Eretz Israel (Mandatory Palestine) in 1946-48.
The first group of children arrived from Bergen-Belsen with counsellors, caregivers and Jewish Brigade soldiers. Some were teachers, while others became teachers by force of circumstance. Among them was Eliyahu Ben Yehuda (Erich Stiefel), one of the children's home founders. Ben Yehuda arrived at Bergen-Belsen in October 1945. He relates:
We came to Bergen-Belsen. The excitement was palpable, as they could see that we were a Jewish army. They were moved by our uniforms. … We gradually stopped wearing our uniforms and received forged papers from the She'erit Hapleita management, because we were also part of the She'erit Hapleita in a way. … We didn't eat in the British dining room anymore, we ate in our rooms. … We received food from the She'erit Hapleita operatives and we slept in their [the survivors'] barracks because we didn't want to be caught. … We saw our role principally as working with the youth in school. There was a primary school there. … The main element lacking at the school was the spirit of Eretz Israel, that's what we wanted to provide at the school, that's what we saw as our main mission. … I felt that the educational atmosphere inside Bergen-Belsen was not appropriate for the youth. … I was one of those who said that we had to get the youth out as fast as possible. … It was a closed place. …You needed a license to leave. …Not far from Bergen Belsen, near Hamburg, there was a farm belonging to a rich Jew. … And we got that place. So some of the youngsters were transferred from Bergen-Belsen to Blankenese. I was director of the boarding school there.
In April 1946, the first group left Blankenese for Marseille port, and from there, they made their way to Eretz Israel on the "Champollion". The group members had immigration "Certificates". One of them, Matityahu Zur wrote about the last days in Blankenese in his diary:
5 April 1946
We left school at 9 AM, and marched through the streets of Blankenese in a line, singing Hebrew songs; [Eliyahu] Ben Yehuda was at the front of the line, in his uniform, and Zvi [Taier, a teacher from the Jewish Brigade] brought up the rear, also in uniform. Everyone looked at us, marching and singing in Hebrew. We were elated. And indeed, one year earlier, who would have thought that in this cursed land you would hear the sound of Hebrew songs from the mouths of marching Jewish youngsters led by Jewish soldiers?
(Cherries on the Elba)
The immigrants settled in Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim and Kibbutz Dorot. A group of eight girls was sent to the Mikve Israel agricultural school.
After the departure of the first group, only a few children remained at the home, but not for long. New children started arriving at Blankenese, mainly through Bericha activists. The home was run by Jewish Agency emissaries Genia Shevdron and Chana Eizik, and they were helped by teachers and caregivers, some of them Holocaust survivors and others members of the Jewish Brigade. While the children from the first group were sitting at the Seder table in Marseille, the first children in the second group arrived in time for Seder night in Blankenese. Chaim Katz, one of the boys who arrived, recalls:
In April 1946, I bade my brother farewell in Hanover, and left for Hamburg on the recommendation of the Jewish Committee in Hanover. I arrived there and found about 15 youngsters, aged 13-16, whom I was told had belonged to the previous group, the first group that had departed on its way to Eretz Israel a few days earlier. … I got organized. Food was delicious and plentiful, and for a "Katzetnik" [concentration camp inmate] who hadn't been out of the Auschwitz and Gerlitz camps even a year, food played a critical role. …Straight after my arrival at Blankenese, I was fortunate to celebrate my first post-liberation Passover! To be sure, the words "and now a free man" resonated with meaning, and a "stranger" – someone who hadn't been through it – couldn't grasp that. This was a Passover Seder brimming with pride, run by Jewish Brigade soldiers who served as teachers and counsellors.
(Cherries on the Elba)
In the summer of 1946, the Jewish Brigade was officially disbanded, and its members had left Blankenese by March 1947. In May 1947, a group of 65 boys and girls left for Marseille via the Netherlands accompanied by adults, and sailed on the "Providence". They reached Kibbutz Hulda with Chana Eizik.
After the departure of the second group, arrangements were made to absorb new children. The children were smuggled into Blankenese from the American Zone in Germany, so that they would be able to immigrate to Eretz Israel openly, in accordance with British policy. The British and the Americans guarded the borders of the occupation zones very stringently, so bringing the children over was a complex, not to mention illegal operation. In the course of 1947, children aged 5-13 were brought to Blankenese together with counsellors and caregivers. They were generally organized in groups according to youth movement affiliation: Hashomer Hatzair, Dror, Hanoar Hazioni, Gordonia and the Zionist Coordination (koordinacija). The flow of children depended on the ability and schedule of the Bericha activists, and the new arrivals were sometimes only at Blankenese for a short time before immigrating to Eretz Israel. Two new women arrived to take over the running of the home: Betty Adler, from the Joint Distribution Committee in New York, and Reuma Schwartz (later Weizman), from the Jewish Agency, born in Jerusalem and a graduate of the Kibbutz Seminar. Both women were young and lacked experience, but were highly motivated. When the groups arrived at Blankenese, they were no longer divided up according to youth movement affiliation, but were schooled and housed according to age and academic requirement. Survivors Yitzhak and Chana Dichter, both teachers by profession who had been liberated at Bergen-Belsen, were asked to move to Blankenese and to run the school. Recalling the challenges they faced, Chana wrote:
We went on a tour of the place. … children were playing in groups, counsellors by their side. I heard many languages spoken: Polish, Russian, Yiddish, Lithuanian and Hungarian; …There was no communication between the groups. There were many differences between the children, and a strong sense of foreignness. … Most of the children had never gone to school, there were no teachers, and all the counsellors were preoccupied with the children's problems. ... There were no studying facilities – no books, no writing equipment. … I took it upon myself to prepare the counsellors. …After a month, the children started to relate to each other, to play together, and even to quarrel – and all in Hebrew!
(Cherries on the Elba)
Hela Slutzki, a caregiver from the Zionist Coordination, came to Blankenese with two other caregivers, Ida Rosen and Lena Kelach, and a small group of 5-9-year-olds from Poland, via Vienna and various camps in Germany. Hela recalls:
When the war ended, I came to Łódź. You could sense and smell the antisemitism in the air. Every Jew's life was in danger. … I was informed that a children's home under the auspices of all the Zionist youth movements had opened at 18 Nerotivica Street. The goal was immigration to Eretz Israel. …I started working. …We had cases where children who had been retrieved from convents and Polish families would run back to the places they had been taken from. … Most of these children hated us and the Jewish environment. … In spring 1946, I left Poland. We posed as Greek refugees returning home from Auschwitz. …We crossed over to the British Occupied Zone illegally with the little children, and we reached Blankenese. …Our last stop on the way to Eretz Israel.
(Cherries on the Elba)
The groups arrived and departed according to the speed with which the "Certificates" were obtained. By March 1948, all the children and their escorts had left Blankenese for Eretz Israel. Some arrived there at the height of the battles in the War of Independence.
In 1995, Reuma Schwartz-Weizman, the wife of the President of Israel, hosted a conference for "Blankenese Children" at the President's Residence. In the wake of the conference, the book "Cherries on the Elba", the story of the Blankenese children's home, was published in Hebrew, and edited by Yitzhak Tadmor, who had lived at the home. Renia Kochman née Baff, one of the children in the group that settled in Kibbutz Hulda, was unable attend the conference. She wrote to her friends:
I emerged from the death camps after enduring the most terrible experience ever recorded in history. …After indescribable losses – my family, my childhood and my friends – I was overwhelmed with emotional and physical pain. The "Kinderheim" [children's home] in Blankenese restored part of my lost childhood to me. It became my home. My teachers and the other girls I met became my friends and my family... Chava [Eizik] became my substitute mother; Genia [Shvadron] gave us direction and purpose; Malka [Rochel] rekindled the love in my soul. There, amongst you my dear friends, I discovered love and humanity.
(Cherries on the Elba)