Archive for November, 2008

Realizing Reality

Monday, 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

Wednesday, 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

Thursday, 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.