Twin stories of refugees, 80 years apart

Twin stories of refugees, 80 years apart

For the Times of Israel posted February 16 2017

Heinz Hirschberg was 13 years old when he made the first of two escapes from the Nazis. And the Syrian-born Ahmed, whose surname we do not know, was around 10 or 11 when he fled his native land.

Eighty years separate the terrible experiences of the pair, but in an extraordinary video made for Unicef, (the United Nations International Children’s Fund), they are united, side-by-side, to remind the world about the plight of refugees.

Heinz, 92, became a Liberal rabbi in Britain, who changed his name to Harry Jacobi in 1948. He was found for the film through the Association of Jewish Refugees, with which he has long been associated. Today Ahmed lives in Sweden; and in a depressing irony, was refused permission to enter the UK last November for the Unicef filming.

Instead, as Rabbi Jacobi reported, the film was made in Berlin, his birthplace, “and gave me a good excuse to go back, meet friends, and see the stolpersteine (memorial stones) outside where I had lived with my parents and grandparents”.

Unicef worked with a creative agency, 180 Amsterdam, and Smuggler, a production company, to find Harry and Ahmed. A spokesman for 180 Amsterdam told the Times of Israel: “The film hinged on powerful storytelling, so it was vital that the team worked with two people who were willing to share real, personal experiences that bore staggering parallels, just as Ahmed and Harry’s did. 

“They were filmed individually, telling their own stories in their own words. Both had sadly been through very similar experiences – from leaving their mothers, to fleeing on a boat, to the harrowing wait for what was to happen next. With alternated sentences from each, and their story told side by side, Harry and Ahmed’s personal stories became one story — and a stark reminder of the devastating crisis still facing child refugees today.”

What is remarkable about the film is the similarity of the experiences, something made more poignant by the accompanying scenes of devastation and terror in Nazi Germany and war-torn Syria. “People were screaming,” says Ahmed, but that could easily have been Rabbi Jacobi’s memory.

Ahmed and his brother fled the killing and slept in streets, fields and parks, wherever they could find, and escaped, first, to Egypt. Rabbi Jacobi had an uncle who had presciently left Berlin in 1934 for Amsterdam. In October 1938, he had his barmitzvah — the last to take place in Berlin’s Friedenstempel before its total destruction on Kristallnacht — and left Germany for Holland in February 1939. “My uncle saved my life”, he says, by getting permission for him to enter Holland.

Rabbi Jacobi’s parents had divorced when he was five years old and he lived with his mother and grandparents. The family lived on the third floor of a large Berlin house whose balcony overlooked the main road leading to the Olympic Stadium, and one of his earliest memories was seeng Hitler en route to the opening ceremony in the summer of 1936. He says: “The adulation and jubilation of the crowd were overwhelming. The impression will always remain with me and explain how ordinary people can be wound up to senseless frenzy”.

“My parents were very assimilated”, Rabbi Jacobi says, and owes the fact that he was barmitzvah at all to his maternal grandfather, with whom he would go to synagogue on Shabbat.

“My father used to say, I fought for the Fatherland in the First World War, I have the Iron Cross, they won’t touch me. To tell you the truth I think he was more proud of being German than being a Jew”. But his father was among 10,000 Jewish men rounded up and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp on Kristallnacht, and on his release, after three weeks, “he looked about 70, though he was only 50 years old then.”

For the first two months after his arrival in Holland, the Jewish teenager was kept in a refugee camp “where conditions were so bad that diphtheria broke out, from which I nearly died”. Eventually the local Jewish community transferred the young refugees to an old orphanage in Amsterdam and there Heinz resumed his education, at an ORT school, until it was time to leave again when the Nazis invaded Holland in May 1940.

“Five days after the invasion,” Rabbi Jacobi remembered, “a non-Jewish woman [Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, who was subsequently honored by Yad Vashem] hired buses and took us children to the Dutch port of Ijmuiden. She persuaded the captain of an 8,000 ton cargo boat to take us on board and sail away. Two hours after embarkation, the Dutch capitulated to the Nazis.”

It took five days at sea before the children landed in Liverpool, refugees once more. On the Unicef film Rabbi Jacobi recalls how “planes flew over us and gunned our boat. I dived and hid under a raft. I was never more scared in my whole life”.

And seated next to him, Ahmed says: “Then the men [smugglers] came and put us into a small boat. It was meant for two or three, but we were 12 [people], at any time it could flip. It was dark. I couldn’t find my brother. I started screaming, Bashar, Bashar!”

After 10 days at sea, Ahmed finally arrived in Sweden, where he had an older brother. This brother, and his wife, accompanied Ahmed to the filming of the Unicef video in Berlin.

Right at the end of the film Ahmed, older and wiser beyond his years, turns to look at Harry Jacobi, and gives him a look so complicit in understanding that it makes the hairs rise on one’s neck. “I know exactly what you’re talking about”, says this look, “I went through it too.” And the look is the more poignant for being almost certainly the first time that this young Syrian boy had ever met a Jew, much less sat next to one to recount a shared experience.

Harry Jacobi knows all about hating the other. “I began to hate the Germans immediately after the war”, he says, “none of them admitted guilt or knowledge. But then I went back in 1958 and I became reconciled, in the footsteps of my teacher, [Rabbi] Leo Baeck.”

At 92, and with two of his three children ordained as Liberal rabbis (Margaret and Richard), Rabbi Jacobi is amused at what his parents would have thought of the path he took in life. But he and Ahmed have come to the same conclusion. “I was one of the lucky ones”, they say.

The Unicef video can be viewed at

  • 16 February, 2017