Archive for December, 2008

Return to Berlin

Saturday, 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

Tuesday, 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.