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 Berlin Revisited (Chapter 3)

Written by Paul M. Levitt

Narrated by Roger Netzer

Published by LeRoy Chatfield

Berlin Revisited


Publisher’s Note

Author Paul M. Levitt ~ English Professor Emeritus, University of Colorado at Boulder ~ will publish his latest book “Berlin Revisted” in the Spring of 2022 and asked Syndic Literary Journal to publish “Chapter 3” to better acquaint the Syndic audience with its subject matter.

I am pleased to do so.

In turn, I have asked Syndic Poet/Narrator Roger Netzer to narrate “Berlin Revisited Chapter 3”.

–  LeRoy Chatfield Publisher

Berlin Revisited

Written by Paul M. Levitt

Chapter Three

Narrated by Roger Netzer

When the train crossed into Germany, it passed through miles of rapeseed.  As far as the eye could see, the landscape shimmered with the yellow richness of a Van Gogh canvas.  Five hours later, I stood in the Berlin train station, trying to decide whether to take a tram, bus, or cab.  After changing some money, Korunas for Deutsch marks, I boarded a bus traveling west on Kurfürstendamm.  From my window seat, I surveyed the city’s reconstruction efforts with mixed feelings.  I saw neighborhoods and homes being rebuilt, suggesting a prosperity that left me feeling ambivalent.  Why should post-war Germany—any part of  it—benefit from American aid?  A part of me wanted to see the country suffer for eternity, while another part wanted to see the familiar streets of Wilmersdorf and Charlottenburg as they once were, undamaged.

My first stop was Charlottenburg, a section of Berlin where I had lived before my father’s imprisonment in Dachau, and before my mother’s decision to house me with a friend.  In the old neighborhood, the trees had begun to lose their chlorophyll and take on their splendid fall colors.  The day was crisp and clear, like the Friday I and other non-Aryans had been expelled from school.  I walked the area looking for a familiar face; but the Jews had disappeared, and the gentile shopkeepers said they knew nothing of my parents.  After several hours of futile searching for word of them, I found a place to stay.

A number of homeowners in the Wilmersdorf district, desperate to pay their heating and lighting bills, offered rooms for rent at a reasonable rate.  I took one on the top floor of a three-story house, which had previously belonged, as I learned, to a Jewish family.  The thin, gray-haired woman who now owned the property, Mrs. Hoffmann, had suffered the loss of her husband and son in the war.  Still attractive, though clearly disoriented by the trauma of her personal losses, she aimlessly roamed from one room to the next, as if searching for her lost life.  She told me the history of the house, as we sat over tea and biscuits, which I had bought at the train station.

The former owners of the house, Dr. and Mrs. Beer, had lived there with their daughter, an artist, and their son, a lawyer.  The mother and children had escaped to America, but the father, an internist, insisted on remaining behind and treating the sick, among whom he counted some high Nazi officials.

“In the very room you’re staying in, Dr. Beer kept his medical books.  And on the windowsill stood a candelabra with eight branches.”

When I told her that the candelabra was called a menorah, she guessed my religion and readily told the rest of her story. 

“Dr. Beer used to treat my husband and me.  When one of his patients warned him that he was to be arrested, he arranged for us to occupy his house.  In return, he asked only one favor:  that we should keep the candelabra safe from confiscation or vandalism.  To this day it rests in my son’s room, on his night table.”

Later, she insisted on showing me the menorah, a handsomely crafted work from Poland.  It seemed to be her way of saying, “See, I am not one of them.  I am not a barbarian.”


The next day, I walked to Charlottenburg. I had planned this day very carefully.  Instead of going directly to the villa to see Gemma, for whom I had returned to Berlin, I would stop beforehand at my former residence, where I and Walter Fertig had lived, and capture now, as much as I could, of life then.

As I made my way along Kurfürstendamm, I stopped at the building that had once housed a lively cabaret.  My guardian had taken me there for my birthday in 1936, the year that the Nazis, unhappy with the satire directed at them, banned all further cabaret performances.  A restaurant now occupied the premises.  I asked for a seat near the back, where the stage once stood, and ordered coffee and Blitzkuchen, coffee cake.  The waiter noticed my bag and asked whether I wished to leave it at the front counter.  I thanked him, declined, and asked for the manager, explaining that as a young boy I had once seen a cabaret show here.  A few minutes later, a well-dressed portly gentleman in a black suit and vest drew up a chair beside me.  As he spoke, his pencil mustache twitched, and his jelly jowls shook.  A white opal, which he nervously fingered, hung from his pocket chain, which traversed his ample stomach.  The stone, like one that adorned a necklace owned by Gemma Rosselli, recalled her lovely breasts, between which the opal rested, and the long-forgotten poet’s words: “That stone enjoyed a double grace:  both by the gem and by the place.”  To my question about stage props, the manager replied, “Sold, lost, or stolen.”  His name, Hartmut Burger, bore no resemblance to the famous conferenciers (emcees) and cabaretists, many of them Jewish, like Kurt Gerron, who had satirized Jew and gentile alike, and had made jokes of Hitler’s risible absurdities, bringing audiences to tears from laughter.  I could still picture the revelers, deep in their cups, slapping their thighs in delight, and deaf to the thud of boots on the cobblestones, little realizing the impending Nazi danger.

Cradling my coffee cup, I remembered sitting at a small table close enough to the stage for the performers to make eye contact with me.  To this day, I could still see a pretty, young woman with a curly blonde wig and carmine lips singing:

My mama is a liar,                                                    

My papa is a friar.

My grandma’s an awful thief,

Stuck like glue in her belief

That all mankind is rotten,

And truth has been forgotten.

The world, she says, is awful,

And everyone’s unlawful.                                                              

Look at what comes of a kiss:

A kid and the end of bliss.

Everyone’s a bloody cheat,

Turn your eyes, they’ll steal your seat.

Even now, though the words of the chorus escaped me, one prescient couplet remained: “Life is short and greed’s in season / We’ve all taken leave of reason.”  Such a wonderful birthday; one skit after another:  singers, dancers, acrobats, a magician, comedians, and the mimics and mimes.  Tipping the waiter, I took my bag, paid the cashier, and, as I walked the few blocks to my destination, repeated the words, “Look at what comes of a kiss:  A kid and an end of bliss.”

My thoughts flew ahead to 45 Schlüterstrasse, where my guardian, Walter Fertig, and I had adjoining rooms on the second floor.  We had taken our meals together, around the corner, at a favorite restaurant.  Walter had come from money, and though he chose to live in a multi-family residence, with three rooms, all furnished in the Bauhaus style, he could have afforded his own flat or a country house.  A uniquely kind and generous man, he fell far short of the Nazi ideal:  no blonde hair, no blue eyes, no Nordic nose or mouth or bee-stung lips or ivory teeth.  He resembled Everyman and could easily have passed for any dull, stolid, conventional biedermeier.  He owned a furniture store on a side street that appealed to middle-class comfort:  writing desks, pianos, plump functional tables, couches, and chairs that emphasized light, native woods and geometric shapes.  He also sold sentimental paintings that extolled the virtues of home, family, children, and church.  Like the furniture he sold, he personified bourgeois values, except for his book collecting.  In 1933, when the Nazis were confiscating books for burning, Mr. Fertig pretended to work for the Nazis and filled his small delivery truck with every book he could rescue.  Returning to his shop, he stored them neatly in basement shelves.  He not only loved books, but also reasoned that in time, the banned ones would fetch a handsome price.  And he was right.  My mother, told that he might have a copy of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, by the banned writer Franz Werfel, found a copy at Mr. Fertig’s shop.  She paid very little.  Drawn to attractive and needy women, Mr. Fertig sold them goods at reduced prices.  My mother became his favorite.  In all the years she frequented his shop, she never, except for that first purchase, paid him a single pfennig.  Any objective observer viewing Ruth Rosner conducting business with Walter Fertig would have thought the woman bewitching and the man bewitched.

That morning in 1934 when my mother accompanied me and my possessions to Walter’s apartment house, I felt orphaned, overcome by a sense of loss and early sorrow.  Her explanation for moving me from the family flat rang false.  She said that with the arrest of my father, she wished to live alone—to restore her mental health and to refocus her life.  Perhaps for this reason I paid particular attention to the awakening city at that six a.m. hour:  streets alive with trolleys umbilically tied to sparking overhead electric lines and clanking along metal rails; trains carrying their silent burghers; double-decker buses crawling from one stop to the next; taxis collecting their rich fares; private cars with their right-hand steering wheels exiting hidden garages; bicycles dangerously darting among the moving traffic that undulated like a snake; canals bustling with barges.  Men in oily aprons pushed carts of grapes and lettuce and lemons and limes.  Stall owners unrolled canvas covers revealing piles of clothing and shoes.  Sidewalk hawkers held up pigeons for sale.  Numerous store windows were whitewashed with anti-Jewish slogans and warnings, “Don’t buy here, Jewish owned.”  Building cranes stood like giant spiders waiting to continue their construction.  Poor children scavenged in trash bins, their knee socks having fallen to their ankles.  A public clock chimed the quarter hour.  Two sewer men descended through a hole in the road to the lower depths.  A flag, promoting a Judenrein Germany, fluttered in the spring breeze.  A building with rounded corners displayed women’s slips on mannequins.  Some shops remained shuttered.  A kiosk selling newspapers attracted a pipe smoker.  A woman emptied a pail of water into the cobblestone street.  Several soldiers, carrying Nazi banners and flags and pictures of Hitler, passed in an open truck.  An organ grinder attracted a coin from an appreciative pedestrian.  A woman leaned out of a window and shook her bedding.  Nurses and mothers pushed perambulators.  A garbage truck lumbered to a stop.  Mailmen scurried from house to house.  A few children with their back satchels had already started off to school.  “Cigarettin” cried a man with a leather strap around his neck supporting a wooden box.  A shop selling silverware caught the morning sun, illuminating a restaurant with revolving doors.  A jaunty walker sported a boater hat.  Men and women in jodhpurs were riding horses in the park.  A flower stand blossomed into color as the merchant arrayed his different offerings.  When the train speeded up so too did the panorama of life seen through the window.  There were street sweepers, women beating rugs, chauffeured cars, shoeshine boys, policemen directing traffic, charitable religious women with cans for coins, an old man picking up a cigarette butt, pedestrians dodging cars as they tried to cross a busy roadway.  Advertisements rolled by in a rapid sequence:  Homburg hats, fedoras, peaked workers’ hats, picture hats, bonnets, roll top desks, Torpedo typewriters, rotary telephones, seal coats, Lux soap, Lufthansa flights, a circus, the Hotel Excelsior, accordions, saxophones, clarinets, violins, fireworks, hockey matches, ice skating, boxing, indoor ski jumping, tennis matches, indoor bicycle tracks, horse and boat races . . . all this bazaar of life found in the bounty that was once Berlin.





Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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