David Berney’s Search for Meaning

A civil rights crusader travels to Germany to try to make sense of the unthinkable

Published in 2007 Pennsylvania Rising Stars — December 2007

avid Berney remembers the exact moment the Holocaust entered his life. It was when he was 11. A miniseries about it was on TV, which he wanted to watch with his grandmother. “There’s no reason for me to watch it,” she told him. “I lived it.” 
 
Hungry for more information, he asked his father, also a survivor (he escaped with his parents when he was 3), for details. None were forthcoming. “He wasn’t interested in talking about it whatsoever,” he says.
 
He learned not to press the topic. Yet later, in his teens, while rifling through family keepsakes, he stumbled across his dad’s old passport, which was marked with a swastika. At the time, he figured nothing related to the Holocaust could seem as real to him as what he was holding in his hands. 
 
It got even more real in 2005. That was when Berney, a civil rights lawyer in solo practice in Philadelphia, took 11 members of his family, including his parents, his two siblings, their significant others, and three grandchildren, on a 10-day trip to Germany. There weren’t any relatives to visit—“My grandmother and my father were the only Berneys I knew; everyone else was wiped out”—but Berney was able to fill in some blanks by walking his ancestral ground. 
 
They visited Frankfurt, Munich, Nuremberg and the villages of Karbach and Gemünden. In Karbach, a village historian helped them trace their lineage back to the 17th century; they also found the cemetery where Berney’s great-grandparents are buried. In Gemünden, they visited a tourism information office that stocked a booklet about the town’s Jewish population; it mentioned Berney’s father, grandparents and great-grandparents. The office also had a photograph of the family house, since demolished, which is used as a postcard for tourists. 
 
Berney, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in race theory at the New School of Social Research, found himself asking not only the obvious question—How could this happen?—but “Where were the lawyers?” 
 
While the trip didn’t give him any satisfactory answers—there are none—it did provide him a sense of affirmation about his career. Since starting his practice in 1996, he has settled or won a slew of medical malpractice and consumer fraud cases on behalf of people wronged by large institutions.
 
“The financial rewards are not as high,” he says, “but I feel it’s important to make a difference.”
 
Anyone who doubts his sincerity need only look at the mission statement on his Web site: “Dedicated to fight for those individuals and disempowered segments of society whose voices are heard the least.”
 
They’re more than just words. He lives them.  

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