Lotte Berger Keiderling lost her mother in the Holocaust – and went on to bear thirteen children to “give Hitler a kick in the pants.”
Just days before my friend Lotte Keiderling died in August, I received a handwritten card from her – the last of many sent from her home in an upstate New York Bruderhof to the Australian outback where I live. We’d been friends since my early twenties, when I helped care for her daughter Sonja, who required full-time care for her disability. We’d stayed in touch ever since – with her gift for friendship, at age eighty-nine Lotte still corresponded with scores of extended “family” members like me around the world. In fact, we’d recently become properly related when one of my nephews married her granddaughter; as I write, I’m holding their baby, Ava, Lotte’s great-granddaughter, in my non-writing arm.
But I only understood why Lotte so deeply treasured her family, both biological and adopted, when in 2018 she made a trip back to Vienna. She had always described her childhood hometown in vivid terms: a wonderland of promenades lined with horse-chestnut trees where she and her father gathered conkers; world-class musicians and Strauss waltzes; delicious Torten. She told of holidays in the Alps, ice cream by the Danube, and enough love from two adoring parents to overflow the heart of any child. As an adult, she could still sing the folksong her father had taught her: “Nun ade, du mein lieb’ Heimatland”:“Farewell, my beloved homeland.”
Above all, she remembered the mysterious Ferris wheel, or Riesenrad, every Viennese child dreamed of riding – the tallest Ferris wheel in the world. She told of walking hand in hand with her father on Sunday afternoons along the Wiener Prater, into the Riesenradplatz, where it stood. There, Lotte would beg her father to take her on the wheel.
“Please, Papi, please?”
But the answer was always the same: “Lottchen, when you are old enough I will take you. Not yet.”
These precious memories comprised an entire childhood, condensed into a few short years. It ended abruptly, when she boarded a train without her parents; she didn’t return for eight decades.
By age seven, after the 1938 Anschluss, Lotte had watched Hitler screech from a swastika-emblazoned balcony to adoring throngs shouting “Heil Hitler!” Not long after, she was chased down the streets by boys shouting “Jew! Jew!” Her parents had their bakery confiscated; she remembered her father refusing the nightly demands from bands of roving Nazis that he clean the pub across
In June 1939, sensing impending doom, Josef and Valerie Berger put their much-loved seven-year-old daughter onto the lifesaving Kindertransport train with a small suitcase, a blanket, and her favorite foods. Where she was going, they told her, there would be horses (Lotte imagined the Lipizzaners of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School). They promised that they would soon follow.
Lotte rode the train with hundreds of other weeping children, and, after a brief reconnection with relatives in London, was welcomed into the Cotswold Bruderhof, which had offered to take in four children fleeing Nazi persecution.
On arriving, Lotte stared: “All these women in kerchiefs and long dresses. I thought I’d landed on a different planet.” And yet she soon felt at home, in what she described as “an atmosphere of love.”
Even so, Lotte cried herself to sleep many nights as she thought of her parents. The threat of Nazism was never far away; later she remembered playing in the English meadows and seeing the familiar black cross on low-flying German planes overhead.
In 1941, when Bruderhof communities in England were ordered to emigrate to South America or face internment, the other three Kindertransport children at the community were returned to relatives. But after Josef and Valerie were asked whether Lotte should leave England for Paraguay, they wrote back immediately: “Take her as far away from Hitler as possible.”
In the Paraguayan jungle, as the community struggled to build up a pioneering settlement, Lotte enjoyed what she described as a happy childhood, as a foster child with several families. Still, she craved the touch of her own mother. Once, a friend’s mother noticed she was sad and took her onto her lap to comfort her, a moment Lotte cherished the rest of her life.
During the first year in Paraguay, Lotte received frequent letters from her parents, who were still in Vienna. Then the letters stopped. Time passed, and her parents became an increasingly distant memory. But in July 1945, a letter arrived from her father, postmarked Bergen-Belsen:
My dearly beloved child,
You will surely have joy in receiving a letter from your Papa. I hope you are well, which is the case with me. I have not heard about the whereabouts of your dear Mutti, as everyone had to travel with this war. I hope to see you soon; I want to either come to you or Uncle Adolf. Please write back immediately.
Many thousand kisses from your Papa.
Many greetings to Lene [Schulz, Lotte’s guardian] and your schoolmates and Mr. Trümpi [her teacher].
Shortly after this brief note arrived, Lotte’s teacher took her on a walk and told her that her mother was dead. The news had come from the doctor who had treated her father on his release from Bergen-Belsen – he had weighed only one hundred pounds, the doctor said. Lotte wept bitterly.
She and her father began to correspond. In May 1948, he wrote from a small town in Bavaria:
My dearest Lotte!
I received your dear letter from April 16, and was so happy about it. I am reassured if you write to me regularly. I wish I could mail you the wristwatch which I promised to you.
As you do not remember Harry Raab I am sending you a photo of him today, which you and your dear Mutti are also on. At that time we were visiting you in the children’s home in Annaberg. Please save this picture; it is precious. I got it from Aunt Carla.
Do you still remember when I taught you to ride a small bike? It is nice to do some sport. I also ride my bike sometimes. Do you remember when we went ice skating? Perhaps the time will come when we can do this together again. It is very hot here now; always when I see the children eating ice cream I think of you, as I know how much you liked it too.
Now, my dear child, you will soon have your seventeenth birthday, and I want to wish you the very best for this day. May all your wishes be fulfilled and may you always stay healthy and happy. May God also grant me the joy that after so many years of separation I could embrace you once more.
On this day please think of your Papa who is so far away from you.
Josef’s wish was never fulfilled. He eventually immigrated to the United States, where he settled in Niagara Falls, New York. Both dreamed of a reunion, but travel between Paraguay and the United States was a formidable economic obstacle, and before they could meet again, he died.
In the meantime, Lotte had reached adulthood, and in 1950, at age nineteen, she fell in love. It was a story she never tired of telling: “Roland was a German, but he didn’t worry or care that I was Jewish. He just loved me, and I loved him. We married in 1952, and – guess what! – we had thirteen kids. So I say, ‘I gave Hitler a kick in the pants!’”
Lotte’s love for Roland and his for her began to heal the wound of loss that had accompanied her through childhood. Years later, she would write about the first afternoon after their honeymoon, when they settled into their first tiny one-room apartment. “We sat at our table and I just wept, because now we had our own home. Since leaving my parents as a young child, I had not had a home that was really my own – I was always cared for by other families. Having our own little home meant a great deal to me, and I kept it like a little jewel box, always with fresh flowers and just beautiful.”
One baby followed the next. Sonja, their third, was born in 1957, healthy, brown-eyed, and robust at ten pounds. They were still living in Paraguay. When she was five months old, what began as an ear infection turned into severe meningitis. Despite being flown to Asunción for treatment, Sonja almost died, suffering severe brain damage. She was never able to talk, walk, or care for herself. Lotte, and later her other children with her, devoted herself to Sonja for the next forty-one years, until her death in 1998.
By this time, Lotte’s other eleven daughters and her son were grown, and many were having families of their own. Today her eighteen grandchildren and six great-grandchildren live in the United States, Europe, and (in the case of baby Ava’s family) here in Australia.
In 1994, Roland and Lotte, long settled in New York, visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, to register her mother’s name, hoping this might help bring to light more information about her imprisonment and death. Not long afterward, a hand-delivered letter from the American Red Cross finally gave a few sketchy details. Valerie Berger had been deported from Vienna to the Litzmannstadt (Łódź) Ghetto, in Poland, on October 19, 1941; barely six months later, on May 7, 1942, she died. Lotte was immensely grateful to learn the date her mother died, but the bare facts left a great deal to the imagination, and Lotte often found herself hoping that her passing had been natural and dignified.
In 2018, Lotte decided she would return for a visit to Vienna. Now eighty-seven and a widow (Roland had died in 2000), she wanted to see the city of her childhood. Finally, the folksong of farewell that her father had taught her was reversed.
As she and the daughters who traveled with her walked the streets of her beloved hometown, drank cream-topped coffee, and stood outside her parents’ bakery and the family home, she connected to her Heimatland and its people. Strangers who heard her story prepaid her taxi fare. Others refused to let her pay for a meal, or for studio photos or souvenirs. A principal at a local high school invited her to speak to his students.
A particular moment of restoration came as she strolled down her favorite avenue of horse-chestnut trees in the Wiener Prater. Here every fallen conker somehow brought back her lost childhood, and she rejoiced and wept. As if for the first time, she could fully reflect on her parents’ pain and suffering, and her own.
And, of course, she rode the Riesenrad; her eighty-year-old question, “Papi, when?” finally had its answer. One of her daughters told me later that it was a moment of pure, carefree wonder. As Lotte was carried high above the city that loved and betrayed her, the great wheel became a symbol of closure; a life came full circle in a union of completion and peace. Perhaps her father was there in the gondola with her.
But the visit to Vienna was a continuation of Lotte’s story, not its end. Among the Austrians she met were two women, Uta Lang and Marie-Louise Weißenböck, committed to working for reconciliation regarding the atrocities committed against Austria’s Jews. After Lotte returned home, they arranged for researchers to investigate who Josef and Valerie Berger had been, and what had happened to them.
A year after the trip, Lotte learned that her parents had been deported together to Poland. This was welcome news – she had always supposed they were separated right from the beginning, because of her father’s letter from Bergen-Belsen, so she took some comfort in knowing they had spent her mother’s last six months together.
More details followed. It emerged that the Bergers had not been bakers, as Lotte had always assumed; her mother had owned a bakery, while her father had worked in finance. Other researchers tracked down the Bergers’ address in the Litzmannstadt ghetto, which allowed them to surmise how Valerie had died. She was, they determined, among the thousands of physically unfit inhabitants of the ghetto rounded up in early May 1942 to “ease overpopulation.” They had all been gassed in mobile extermination vans.
When Lotte’s daughter Christine called her with the news, she wept: “They killed my beloved mother!” Yet even in this fresh grief, she told her family, she was thankful to finally know the truth.
Back in Vienna, Uta Lang was working to make sure the memory of Lotte’s family would be preserved. In recent decades, tens of thousands of distinctive Stolpersteine brass “stumbling stones” with engraved names – have been installed in sidewalks or roadways outside the last freely chosen home or workplace of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust. The idea is metaphorical: they serve as figurative stumbling blocks for passersby, inviting reflection and keeping memories alive. A stone for Lotte’s family was commissioned, to be installed outside her childhood home. The dedication date, initially set for May 2020, was postponed to September 27, 2020, because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Lotte looked forward to the Stolperstein dedication with great anticipation, and wrote out a statement:
I want to express my deep thankfulness to my dear parents Josef Berger, my father, and Valerie Berger, my mother, who in very dangerous times of Nazi persecutions not only against them personally, but against all Jewish people, including children, had the courage to send me, their only daughter, alone to safety in England, in June 1939.
One month before the ceremony, however, Lotte died. The family painted the Riesenrad on the lid of her pinewood coffin.
Christine attended the Stolperstein dedication in her mother’s stead, together with a few dozen other relatives and friends. At Lotte’s request, those present sang together the words of the prophets Isaiah and Micah, set to an ancient Jewish melody:
Into plowshares turn their swords,
nations shall learn war no more.
And every man ’neath his vine and fig tree
shall live in peace and unafraid.
“I felt Mama there with us,” Christine told me. “She now knows perfect peace, and she was with us as we sang.”