Wednesday, 19 October 2011


My summer visit to Berlin was earlier this year – I caught the full season of asparagus! – because I was invited to come to Berlin to be interviewed on 23 May for a television documentary film by Radio Berlin Brandenburg, rbb-Fernsehdokumentation "Geheimnisvolle Orte: Wannsee”, “Mysterious/sinister places: Wannsee”. Nazi crimes were perpetrated in this lovely suburb set round the lake and by the river Havel. It had been largely started by the enterprise and money of wealthy Jewish residents who were all replaced by Nazi bigwigs and other ‘Aryans’ after 1933, till when I had spent my glorious childhood weekends at my father’s swish sailing club, the Verein Seglerhaus am Wannsee. And just down the road from the club was the notorious house of the Wannsee Konferenz, where the Nazis had decided on the ‘final solution’ of the Jews.

The director of the programme, Karin Reiss, had picked up on my blog the story of my father’s friend and co-owner of our sailing yacht, Adolf Hain – picnics on board with the two families – who turned rabid Nazi boss of the club, and was responsible for kicking out the Jewish members post haste, a story I discovered 70 years later... I was interviewed on the terrace of the club where, total irony, I now have my birthday parties and, in the dining room, we celebrate our annual crisp Christmas goose!

In Berlin one feels all the time that the past is running parallel to one’s daily experiences…

We Berliners dispersed throughout the world get a journal issued by the Berlin Buergermeister twice a year, and they published a letter of mine, in which I described my recent discovery that I dont speak high German,   that I speak berlinerish! I don’t eat ‘Kaese’ – I eat Kese! This pleased me enormously: Ich bin ein Berlienr… Twelve Berliners from all over the world wrote to, phoned or emailed me, touched by this reference to their past, their childhood, their family, their identity. One of these, Hanni Levi, who lives in Paris, was also coming to Berlin, for the laying of some ‘Stolpersteine’, literally ‘tripping stones’, those 4 inch square brass memorial plaques set on cubes of concrete and let into the pavement in front of the houses where Jewish residents had lived before they were murdered by the Nazis.

I collected Hanni and her friend Huguette from their pension nearby – we three had met over dinner the night before -  and we went to the block of flats in the Nollendorfstrasse for the laying of these stones, eleven of them. Now, in this house, Hanni had been secretly accommodated from 1942 till the end of the war by a non-Jewish German family, a hugely brave action. Hanni had peroxided her hair, and had played the role of a normal, ‘Aryan’ German girl. She had had to act completely naturally, with Berlin chutzpah, not be cowed, otherwise people might have become suspicious. And in that way she sometimes actually forgot, that she was leading a secret life!

Some of the descendents of the family that had saved her life were present at the laying of the Stolpersteine, as well as the residents in the flats, all of whom had worked together 2

to unearth the past of the building they were living in, had known about the eleven victims in the house, and had known about Hanni, had been astounded when Hanni had one day turned up with her grandson, whom she had wanted to show where she had lived in hiding. There had been unanimous agreement in the house that                                                                                                                                                
they would erect a wall plaque in the entrance of the block of flats to honour the family that had  risked their lives to save Hanni, and they had arranged a celebration in their honour, to which Hanni had been invited. That was the background to the celebration I attended. When the eleven Stolpersteine had been cemented into the pavement a Jewish man and his son donned their little caps, and the elder read a prayer, which reminded me that of course these historic victims had never had a funeral, had never been buried. I wasnt the only one who was moved. A woman came towards me, and diffidently asked me whether I perhaps had also lost relatives, for whom I might like to set Stolpersteine in front of their last homes. I thanked her for her concern, and said that I could not but  agree to consider her suggestion, although I had never thought before of setting one for Anita’s sister, my Tante Erna, for my father’s sister Hilde, and for my grandfather’s sister Lilly Kirstein, but would welcome her help in checking their last addresses. She found Tante Erna’s, but the information about the other two is as yet not quite convincing, and needs more research. The organisation that deals with this remarkable artistic invention of the Stolpersteine also does research for them. I shall arrange for one certainly for Tante Erna.

So this time Berlin was particularly dramatic, on top of the pleasure of music, theatre, opera, exhibition, favourite restaurants, enjoying the spaciousness and architectural variety and the lovely surroundings of the city of my birth. And seeing my dear friends. Birthday party at Amelie’s; breakfasts at Pitt’s; family dinner at Elisabeth and David’s; Gerhard’s private cembalo recital of the Bach family and of his own work; Amnesty International conference with Annette; meeting Margaret Ewing at the delicious free Tuesday recital in the foyer of the Philharmonie, the Reissner connection; long ramble along the Kleine Wannsee and the Havel with Annelie, with asparagus to follow! Gudrun’s book reading about her research of the Bayerische Viertel, another aspect of the Nazi pogrom; tea party for ten in the sailing club with my new friends; and many other meetings. Not enough time to see everybody...

20 July 2011

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