Author Interview with Dr. Joanne Intrator.
Dr. Joanne Intrator’s highly anticipated memoir, “SUMMONS TO BERLIN” describes the challenges she faced and overcame during her decade-long search for restitution for 16 Wallstrasse, a major center city Berlin building stolen from her family by the Nazis in 1938. Her story has been featured in international magazine articles and museum exhibits.
Joanne spent nine years confronting German bureaucrats, who buried her case at the bottom of the pile. At the outset, her lawyer advised Joanne to split the potential proceeds with the daughter of the Nazi who had stolen the building and claimed it was hers. She maintained Joanne’s grandfather lost the building because her grandfather was an incompetent businessman, not because he was Jewish. If Joanne did not negotiate with this woman Joanne’s successful outcome challenged in Appeals Court by her opponent and her family would “probably be dead” by the time she won. Joanne discovered that her building manufactured Nazi flags -- and one million yellow stars – the same stars that were likely sewn onto her grandfather’s clothes as her grandparents were in Berlin .
Dr. Intrator was born and raised in New York City. As a psychiatrist for 40 years, she conducted groundbreaking research on brain imaging of psychopaths published in The Journal of Biological Psychiatry and are frequently cited. The New Yorker magazine wrote about her research. Joanne has stated that her expertise in psychopaths helped her to understand and confront the German bureaucrats, and gain restitution for her family's building.
What inspired you to write your story?
The Berlin wall came down and restitution of property in East Berlin was a hot issue. The German word for restitution is Wiedergutmachung , to make good again, translated from German. Wiedergutmachung provided money for our family when my father was extremely sick during the early 1950’s, and unable to work. What did that same word mean when I went to Berlin in 1993 to find out about a large building my family owned in Berlin Mitte, the historic center of Berlin? Since I was fascinated my whole life about the Nazis, I had a first-hand vantage point to explore one of their crimes that extended its reach fifty years after the demise of the Nazi regime . More importantly, however, was my father’s death bed questions , “Are you tough enough yet and do they know who you are?” What he meant was, if I was up to the challenge of fighting for restitution of the family’s property. He knew this was no small task as I was burdened with my own demons. I wanted to be in Berlin at this crucial historical time no matter how frightened I was. It was a nine-year undertaking during which, at times, I felt like an explorer, adventurer and detective. And sometimes I felt like a frightened little girl.
How would you describe your book, Summons to Berlin?
When I accepted my father’s deathbed challenge to seek restitution for property stolen from my German Jewish family by the Nazis in 1938, I had no idea what I was in for. For nine years I pursued justice for my family, traveling between New York and Berlin, gradually realizing my German lawyers were not truly my advocates. I drew on my psychiatric training and expertise in abnormal behavior to consider Germany’s situation before and after World War II, and how it has shaped its citizens—including my lawyers. Through this lens I also considered my own damaged childhood, and that of my parents. It is not until I hired a detective that I got real answers. For instance that the people that stole the building were Nazis, and the Nazi flag and one million Jewish stars sewn on Jews identifying them for slaughter were manufactured in the family’s stolen building using slave labor.
The book is both a mystery and a poignant personal journey, packed with twists and turns, yet always returning to its path toward resolution.
Where are you from originally? Can you talk about your experience as a child of refugees?
I was born in 1946 in NYC. My brother ,Jack was born in 1948. Both my parents were refugees from Nazi Germany. My father came from Berlin and my mother from a small town called Miltenberg. They met in a resort in the Catskills. We lived in Queens New York, on a street of attached houses where the children were first generation Americans. We had significant financial problems. The Nazis destroyed my father’s law career,. My mother’s desire to be a doctor ended when the Nazis stopped her education. I spoke German before I spoke English because my mother’s mother spent a great deal of time with us until her death when I was seven. My other grandparents were already dead, shattered and sickened from the stress escaping from the Nazi hold over their lives. Shortly after my grandmother’s death, my father developed a life-threatening kidney disease which required frequent hospitalizations and medication trials. He remained seriously ill for the better part of his life. I became a latch key child as a well as an efficient helper to my mother. There was lots of unspoken pressure on my younger brother and myself to make up what our parents had lost having escaped with their lives from Nazi Germany. And like German homes, Jewish or not, there was a strict sense of order, behavior and expectation to perform well in whatever we did, even at the cost of our emotional wellbeing.
Can you talk about your career? Does it tie into your book at all?
Because of poor self-confidence, it took me a long time to gain the courage to apply to medical school. At 30 years old, I was the oldest woman in my class at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Since I was an anxious child and belittled for my worries yet fascinated by the impact of emotions on people’s live, it was quite natural that I became a psychiatrist. I was precociously aware of the Nazi’s effect on my family thus I became intensely interested in what made people capable of doing heinous things to one another . Simultaneously, during the nine years traveling to Berlin, I spearheaded the first nuclear brain imaging research on psychopaths, published in the Journal of Biological Psychiatry in 1997.
This specialized knowledge of abnormal behavior and psychopath’s idiosyncratic use of language enabled me to maneuver within the German bureaucracy. I knew from studying German history and psychopathy that people readily perverted language to avoid telling the truth ; such was what I faced in Berlin.
Without this skill, I surely would not have been successful in gaining restitution and more importantly learning about the circumstances surrounding the building’s theft.
What was the catalyst for you to start sharing your story with the world?
The amount of obstacles to restitution of German real estate in the 1990’s were overwhelming.. The government’s deadlines and document requirements were insensitive to this aging, traumatized population. I learned how few cases were successful. The elderly Jews, those that survived the war, did not have the means or will to pursue. It became clear to me, that cases such as mine financed by contingency arrangements, ( lawyers paid by clients only if successful), placed enormous pressure on a vulnerable population to accept a less than optimal settlement. And, despite all my experience as a student of history and psychiatry, I too was vulnerable.
What is one key message you hope will stay with readers upon reading this book? From my forty years of experience as a psychiatrist and my own personal journey, I know few of us emerge from childhood without something troubling, yet human beings have an innate capacity to grow and change. I needed my father’s deathbed questions to motivate me so that I could prove that capacity for change inside myself.
Are you currently working on any other projects?
Yes, I am working on the novelization of a screenplay I wrote many years ago about two women , best friends in Berlin before the Nazis, and the impact of the Nazis on their relationship.
For more info on Joanne please visit joanneintrator.com.