Relics from our past can remind us where we came from in order to show us how far we’ve come. They can remind us of loved ones who have passed or precious seasons of life that we never want to forget.
For one 94-year-old man, a small toy monkey served all of those purposes, but once he hesitantly decided to donate it to a museum in Berlin, the tiny monkey with worn fur helped him reconnect with the family he didn’t even know he had.
In the 1930s, Gert Berliner was just like any young boy growing up in Berlin; he could often be seen riding around the city with his bicycle, never without the toy monkey clipped to the handlebars.
Then in November 1938, the tension between the Nazis and Jewish citizens turned violent. In an evening now referred to as “Kristallnacht,” or the “Night of the Broken Glass,” Nazis and German citizens destroyed multiple Jewish structures like stores, schools and homes. Thousands of Jewish men were taken into custody.
“I do remember,” Gert told NPR. “I went out on the street … a lot of glass; you heard fire sirens; synagogues were set on fire.”
Jewish people became more fearful and for good reason: many of their escape routes had disappeared and one of the only ones left was for children only.
When Gert was only 14 years old, in 1939, he boarded a train, said goodbye to his parents, and was sent to live with a foster family in Sweden. He wasn’t able to bring much, just a small bag of essentials, but that small toy monkey made the cut.
Both Gert and his parents knew that it would probably be the last time they would see each other and looking back Gert recognizes the sacrifice his parents made for him to be safe, even calling that sacrifice “heroic.”
Eventually, the letters stopped coming; Paul and Sophie Berliner were sent to Auschwitz on a train on May 17, 1943, where they were murdered.
As an only child, all Gert had left to remind him of his childhood in Berlin was a tiny toy monkey.
When he turned 22 years old, he moved from Sweden to New York to pursue photography and other artistic endeavors. He eventually met his wife, Frances, and started a family, but the toy monkey traveled with him no matter where life took him.
He didn’t open up much about his past to his son, Uri, and as a result, his son knew very little about the rest of the Berliner family, or even if there were any.
As far as Uri knew, there were only three Berliners left: him, his son and his father.
But when an archivist from the Jewish Museum in Berlin came to visit Gert to ask about his past, they would quickly learn that there were more Berliners out in the world and it was all thanks to that small, nearly century-old monkey.
Aubrey Pomerance asked Gert if he had anything from his childhood in Berlin before he was sent to Sweden. Pomerance was looking for something to add to the museum that visitors could relate to.
Hesitantly, and despite his wife’s wishes, Gert pulled out his cherished toy monkey. He thought it was time that the monkey provides a reminder of Nazi-ruled Berlin for more people than just himself.
Pomerance took the monkey back to its original home country where it would not live on a young boy’s bicycle, but in a museum as a reminder of a past life.
Millions of people walked past the precious monkey and learned more about Gert’s story, but one particular guest noticed something familiar associated with the nameless toy.
Erika Pettersson visited the Jewish Museum in Berlin with her boyfriend when the little monkey caught her attention, or rather, the last name of the owner of the monkey.
“There was this toy monkey and a picture of a small kid, a Jewish kid named Gert Berliner,” she said. “And I thought, that’s a coincidence. My mom’s name is Berliner.”
Pettersson didn’t think much of it, but she mentioned the coincidence to her mother, Agneta, who saw it as more than that; she knew that her family had relatives in Germany and Berlin.
After some internet searching, she found Gert’s photography website and reached out through email.
Soon that email led to a phone call. “Suddenly because of the monkey, I have a phone call, somebody in Sweden of all places, saying, well I think you’re my cousin,” he recalled.
Agneta and her sister Suzanne arranged to meet Gert in person at an opening exhibit of Gert’s photography in Berlin; that’s when they learned that there were more than three Berliners.
Gert’s father, Paul, had a brother named Carl who also sent his two sons to safety in Sweden, but they were sent to work on farms in the countryside. Those two boys were Gert’s cousins.
And now, 80 years later, and with the help of a well-loved toy monkey, the family was reunited.
Uri was able to travel to Sweden in the summer of 2018 to bond with his newfound relatives and even retrace some of his father’s steps; Gert was unable to go, but he did get to talk to his family over the phone.
Gert’s story is both beautiful and tragic — it’s a story of intense loss and triumph — and oddly enough, in the center of it all was a small toy monkey who turned out to be the key to finding his family.
“It’s a gift,” he said. “In my old age, I have discovered I have a family.”
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