Those who compile family trees or take DNA tests are looking for more than just hobbies. They’re searching for a connection to the past, something to provide a firmer sense of identity. In rare cases, they make discoveries that reshape their entire conceptions of their families.
Uri Berliner found the usual sources of family history didn’t do much for him. Everything looked like a dead end. One of his dad’s childhood mementos, however, revealed a familial secret that he never expected…
As a seasoned journalist, Uri Berliner was an expert on a wide array of topics. Yet, he had one blind spot in his knowledge that greatly troubled him: his family history. Uri saw only one possible way to remedy this mystery.
His father would have to open up. Gert Berliner, now 94 years old, came to the United States in the middle of the 20th century and worked as a photographer. Uri knew that beforehand, he lived in Germany and fled because of the Holocaust. But he never really managed to squeeze any more information out of his dad.
However, Gert had to face his past when Aubrey Pomerance, an archivist at the Jewish Museum Berlin, asked for an artifact from his childhood in Germany. They were looking for something heartfelt and personal, and Gert’s mind jumped immediately to one object.
All Gert’s life, he owned a small toy monkey. There was nothing inherently valuable about the stuffed animal — his son didn’t even know about it — and yet Gert wrestled with the decision for days before deciding to donate it to the museum. Why did it mean so much to him?
Gert’s parents, Paul and Sophie Berliner, gave it to him when he was just a young boy in Germany. He rode his bicycle around Berlin with the monkey clipped to his bike — until there came a time when he could no longer ride his bike through the streets.
The Nazi Party gained more authority in Germany, and they increasingly oppressed Jewish citizens across the country. By 1938, police forces were rounding up entire families and sending them to concentration camps.
Paul and Sophie knew they had to get their only son far away. Though they understood that there might not be any hope for their own survival, they heard about ways to save Jewish children. They made one last selfless decision.
Gert’s parents struck a deal with the Kindertransport, a type of Underground Railroad that shuttled vulnerable children out of Germany — but no parents were allowed. Most kids they accepted ended up in England. Gert never made it there.
Instead, the Kindertransport sent Gert to Kalmar, Sweden. He happily spent a couple years there with almost no reminders of his former life, save for his toy monkey. This object remained one of the few ties he had to his family, especially after their letters stopped coming.
Gert also carried the stuffed animal with him to New York City at age 22. Utterly alone, he struggled to make it as a photographer, but the monkey helped him think back to happier times.
But now that Aubrey asked him to give it up, Gert realized what he had to do. In 2003, he gladly donated the toy to the museum. He knew that it could educate future generations about the experience of the Holocaust. But Gert never expected it to make such a huge impression.
More than a decade after Gert’s donation, Erika Pettersson and her mother Agneta visited the Jewish museum. One room had a series of boxes with possessions of German children during World War II. They opened only one of the boxes but gasped when they saw what it contained.
Erika reached out to Uri who, coincidentally, decided to take a trip to Europe to study at the Jewish Museum’s archives and see his father’s monkey for himself. He agreed to meet Erika when she revealed that she had some important information about Gert Berliner.
You see, Erika’s mother’s maiden named was also Berliner! As it turns out, two of Gert’s cousins also migrated to Sweden through the Kindertransport. However, they lost touch with Gert early on and built new lives in Sweden. Agneta was one of their daughters.
Uri could barely wrap his head around this idea. He had to meet with Erika and Agneta. Further conversation proved the truth behind all their theories. Uri embraced his long-lost Swedish cousins. He couldn’t wait to tell his father.
When Gert had a photography exhibit on display in Berlin, Uri arranged for Agneta and Erika to meet him in person. Gert, who never had any extended family, at long last found some other Berliners.
Gert’s health sadly prevented him from visiting all his Swedish relatives, but Uri made the trip for both of them. He celebrated the Swedish holiday of Midsummer Eve, surrounded by friendly faces and good food. Uri’s discoveries about his father’s past didn’t stop there, either.
Uri also got to meet Claes Furstenberg, the grandson of one of the Swedish families that housed Gert before he immigrated to the United States. Uri and Claes became fast friends, and Uri got even more insight into his father’s early life.
He gained a new perspective about what a godsend Sweden was for his dad, and how much he owed to these strangers. Gert, pictured below in the middle, happily lived with his Swedish step-brothers, one of whom was Claes’ own father.
For the Berliners, a small stuffed monkey not only brought a father and son closer together; it also showed them they were not alone in the world. “It’s a gift,” Gert said. “In my old age, I have discovered I have a family.”