Peacock Island

January 6th, 2009

On our first day back in Berlin in May 2008, Helen and I resolved to see some of the city’s famous sites.  We took the city bus tour, listening to an English lanugage tape while chugging past noted buildings and monuments.  On the morning of the second day we went by taxi to the Schloss Charlottenburg.  The castle had a northern feel to me, unlike the heavy opulence I’d seen in Italy or Spain.  We wandered up and down impressive stairways and through many sunlit rooms, then ended in the Schloss gift shop.  Helen bought a booklet about Checkpoint Charlie while I browsed through a rack of pamphlets.  I spied one entitled “Pfauen Insel,” Peacock Island and took it from the rack, transfixed by the name. It brought to mind a line from one of my father’s poems, “Erinnerungen” (Memories). This poem was one of some twenty that I had translated into English in 1999, as a small homage to him on the 100th anniversary of his birth. 

The poem, written in New York,  described several places from his youth in Berlin, and mentions a particular smell he remembers from the Pfauen Insel.  I couldn’t remember the German word for the smell, nor even my translation, only that the connotation sounded unpleasant.  All at once, I was curious and wanted to see the Island.  I bought the pamphlet and later that day spoke to my cousin Barbara about it.  She was enthusiastic, saying that a trip to the Pfauen Insel would make a delightful outing for us.  We set the date for two days later.

Return to Berlin

December 13th, 2008

My daughter Helen and I were able to return to Berlin in May of 2008.  This time the trip was private and personal, no radio of television interviews, no performances.  We were free to see more of the city and to spend more time with family: my lovely cousin Barbara who had been a child in Germany during the the war years, her daugher Julia, Julia’s husband Michael, their two boys, eleven-year-old Anton and three-year-old Moritz, and about-to-be-born baby girl Magdalena (who was actually born the day after we returned home).

On our first evening, Helen and I had a quiet dinner at our hotel.  I asked her why she wanted to come back to Berlin.  “Mostly for the family connection,” she said. “But also there’s so much more to see than we had time for last year.”  Then she asked, “What about you?”

“I’m puzzling about that myself.  Why would I feel connected to this place where I never lived?  My parents did, but why would that matter to me?”

“That really isn’t unusual for the second generation.  I know that Lou’s father feels that way about Italy and he never lived there.”

I nodded, accepting the truth of what she said.  But later that night I wondered how it made me feel.  Discouraged at having my unformed enterprise seem so typical?  Encouraged that the theme might be universal?  Both, I think.

A Short History

December 2nd, 2008

In 1933, shortly after Hitler was elected Chancellor in Germany, I was spirited away to Paris by my mother.  Meanwhile, my Jewish father, uncle, and grandfather fled the Hitler regime to precarious and temporary safety in Austria.  From there, after many dangers, my grandfather and his second family wound up in Buenos Aires.  My uncle Henry and his family, as well as my parents and I, found a haven in New York City.  Other Jewish relatives scattered to England; one distant cousin was relocated to Utah.  None of these people whose escape from the Nazis saved their lives, ever made a home in Germany again.

Meanwhile, the Protestant side of my family remained in Germany and there endured the destruction of the war and its aftermath.  Several were killed during the war and one great-aunt starved to death shortly after. 

I was far removed throughout my childhood and adolescence in New York, and was largely oblivious while Berlin, the once great world city was disintegrating.  Hitler, the war, the bombings, post-war hunger and killing winters, the Russians, the airlift and then the divided city.  Finally, slowy at first and then with accelerating momentum came the rebuilding, the German economic “miracle.”

During those lean years–the decade from 1939 to1949–that my parents spent in the States, my father was as unknown as any other subway rider.  But before my birth, his songs had captivated not only Berliners during the 1920s and early 1930s but also young people throughout Germany and Austria.  They sang his love songs, relished his wit, and even Hitler quoted his song title “Das gibt’s nur einmal,” (this can happen only once) unaware that the lyrics came from a Jewish writer.  The recordings from that time, even the most recent revivals, sound hectic, with a jazz age jumpiness and some irony to even the most sentimental phrases.  But the jumpy rhythm reflected the truth that Berlin was actually hectic in those days.  The bright young things, the decadent cabaret denizens and their music makers were dancing in the first blows of the hurricane that would soon whirl away their music and obliterate their world.

Realizing Reality

November 17th, 2008

It was all about my father.  The whole trip.  I realized that when I was back in the States and received the CD of my fleeting TV appearance.  The memoir I had writen, Memories of a Mischling: Becoming an American, had hardly been noticed in America where my father was unknown.  Then, thrillingly for me, it was translated and republished in German.  The ten thousand dollar advance seemed like a mark of God’s finger from on high, and the publisher’s words, “Your book is brilliant,” reverberated in my thoughts throughout the following bumpy year of production.

I was satisfied with the competent German translation and remained more or less agreeable through the series of requests: that I send sheet music and lists of titles of my father’s songs; that the book’s German title be altered to recall one of those songs; and finally that I drop my married last name and use only  my maiden name, i.e. my father’s last name.  It’s a PR decision, I told myself, they have to use him to market the book.  But my book is “brilliant,” and soon will be appreciated for its own sake.

Then came the exciting invitation, the trip to Berlin, the week of radio, print and television interviews and the wonderful evening of my readings and musical interludes of my father’s songs in the garden of the Jewish Museum.   The audience was warm and responsive and I signed many copies of my book after the performance.  Afterwards I received a number of good book reviews that made me happy.  I also received a radio reporters script of the event.  He described the setting and the performers on stage: the three musicians and then at a table at one side, “a dainty elderly woman who beamed with pleasure at this tribute to her father.” 

It’s risky to attribute inner meanings to someone’s facial expressions.  My pleasure during that evening was purely selfish; I was happy that my book was being recognized and gave hardly any thought to my father.   But though he was not on my mind,  as I came to understand, he was much in the thoughts of others.  His songs, much more than my book,  had attracted the large audience. 

A lesson in humility and the beginning of my endeavor to better understand him.

15 minutes of fame

November 12th, 2008

Berlin in 1931 was not a good year for a half-Jewish child to be born.  By 1933 after Hitler came to power, though my father’s songs were played throughout Germany, he and countless other Jews could no longer work in theaters,  films, or cabarets.  Fearing worse to come, my family fled the Nazi regime.  Then much much later, in June 2007 while I was in Berlin, a television journalist wanted to “shoot” me in front of places that I remembered.  “I was one and a half when we left,” I told him.  I don’t remember anything.”

He would have known that if, as he claimed, he’d actually read my book, the occasion for my return to the city.

We visited other places instead.  The crew shot me pretending to gaze at a poster of an ocean liner carrying German emigres to America in the 1930s; in front of the Berliner Dom where my mother was taken to church as a child; and inside a theater where, presumably, my father’s musical hits were performed.

Having posed me among the orchestra rows, the director asked, “What was he like?  How did you feel about him as a father?”

“He was kind to me.  He was witty, and I thought he was wise.”

This last bit of dialogue was the only snippet the survived on TV from five-and-a-half hours of filming throughout the city.  Even that snippet was pre-empted by bulletins covering protests at the G8 Summit in Hamburg and was only aired some weeks later after I had left Berlin.

Berlin: The City I Never Lived In

November 6th, 2008


In 2007 the Jewish Museum in Berlin invited me to give a public reading in the museum’s garden of the German translation of my book, Memories of a Mischling.   The evening program on June 3 opened the museum’s cultural summer.  Having practiced my German that whole spring, I read excerpts from my book in ten-minute segments.  In between, a trio of talented performers played and sang my father’s songs such as “Ein Freund, ein guter freund,” “Sigismund,” “Das gibt’s nur einmal” and others, more familiar than my father’s name, Robert Gilbert, so familiar that the audience sang along.  The evening was festive, despite weather so chilly that the 400 people in the audience were swathed in light blue blankets from the museum’s reservefor such occasions.

The heady days that followed left scarcely enough time to become at all familiar with the city itself and I felt a strong pull to return.  I was born in Berlin, but the Nazis arrived when I was an infant, so I never lived there.  But my parents’ stories throughout my growing up centered around the city of their youth, and my father’s poems were filled with longing for the places he remembered and with fears that they no longer existed.  I  vowed to go back again to see if I could find those places, and I did return to Berlin twice in 2008.

This Blog will be my attempt to report on what I found and am still discovering about Berlin, about my family, and about myself, with hopes that it will be of some interest to others.