Berlin Memories

All of my other memories of those few days in Berlin when I was eighteen (nearly forty years ago) seem to me now to have set the stage for my meeting with the man in the trenchcoat. But at the time—at least at first—it was the lightheartedness of our adventure that absorbed me and whatever war scars I could see were no more shocking than the terrors of a funhouse. We were following a girls’ tour around Europe, my friend Teddy and I, and most of the mental snapshots I can retrieve from that time are hallowed by the face of his young ghost.  I can still see a hazy picture of us dancing with those two girls in a noisy nightclub late into the night. And I can see the four of us—two Jewish boys and two Jewish girls—sitting inside a van, driving into the headquarters of Hitler’s Gestapo and being shown the wall where, for their plot against Hitler, the generals were hung up on meathooks. And my memory retains a postcard picture of the war-ravaged facade of a cathedral—and another, seen through the window of a taxi, of a vast expanse of still bombed-out buildings.

Of course now, forty years later (when twice as much time has passed as between then and the end of the war) I can see how very raw the scars were. But at the time it seemed to me that I was looking at history, that the war had been over long ago. Or at least that is what I thought—until I got my first glimpse of an enduring ugliness beneath the champagne effervescence of the place. And from this memory I have retained a very sharp mental picture: it is of Teddy and me talking with a dry, sneering man in a booth at a hotel-finding service and of my handing the man a large bill payment of the fee. It was the size of the bill that provoked the man’s remark: “Juden” I heard him say. As young and naive as I was, I nevertheless understood him very well and asked him to repeat what he had said. “Oh, nothing,” he said. “I was just wondering who your creditors are.”

Well, we must have spent that money very fast. Because I have another memory—and in it Teddy’s ghost is standing next to me in a park at night. And I remember that the wind was cold and that we were both hungry, because we didn’t have any more money to buy food. So that’s how come, the next day, I went to the American Express office, to pick up the check that my family had wired me. I distinctly remember being all alone there. And I very clearly recall standing on a long line, waiting for my turn to go up to a window on my left. And that is when the man to my right began to speak to me in German. I can no longer see his face in my memory. But I do remember that he was short and stocky and of about my father’s age and that he wore a trenchcoat. When I replied in French that I don’t speak German, he began to speak to me in French. And when I mentioned, in French, that I’m an American, he began to speak to me in English. Eventually he asked me where I was staying and I said: “The Hotel Kurfurstendamm.”

And that is when it happened—the piercing look in his eye and the unmistakable tone of intentional menace in his voice:

“Do you know,” he asked, “that the Hotel Kurfurstendamm is owned by a . . . Jew?”

I simply froze. “No, no I didn’t,” I said.

 

I can’t say that I consciously remembered then how, years earlier, a bully in a schoolyard had attacked me for being Jewish, and how I had picked him up and thrown him and cried afterward. But the memory was certainly in my sinews, as now I turned away from my interlocutor and attempted to ignore him. Several uncomfortable minutes passed before I was finally first in line and could go up to the window and get my check.

I remember walking out as quickly as I could. But then I found that he was following me, and now catching up to me and asking if he could accompany me out. And then I remember being outside on the sidewalk—and that he was staring right at me.  He had quite cornered me now and there was that same fiercely inquisitorial look in his eye and, in his voice, that same deliberate tone of threat.

“Are you . . . Jewish?” he fired at me.

“Yes, I am,” I said.

He paused and looked at me. “Sholom aleichem,” he said—and then he stretched out his hand to shake mine. He was, he said, a reporter from a Jewish newspaper in Paris. His whole family had been murdered by the Nazis and now he had come to Berlin to collect reparations. “I hate these bastards,” he said. He asked me if I could spare him just a few minutes of my time—and, when I agreed, he took me to a synagogue.

It had been rebuilt, he said, after the Nazis had demolished it on Kristallnacht. He particularly wanted me to understand that they had broken the windows of so many synagogues and Jewish homes and businesses that the “crystal night” had been named for all the broken glass on the streets. I can still see, in my memory, a blurred mental snapshot of a modern-looking library downstairs in the synagogue and another of a man seated at a desk—a librarian whose hand I shook. And I remember my companion introducing me to him, saying: “This is my son.”

After that we went outside again and stood for a moment on the sidewalk. He asked me whether I had understood what he had told me about the broken glass. Of course I didn’t really understand—either about Kristallnacht or his loss. But I did realize that his need to make me understand had been the reason why he’d tested me. And so I assured him that I would remember—and he shook my hand and walked away. I have no idea where he was going or what his name was. But as I’ve learned more about the quickness of time, about the obstinacy of grief and the tenacity of love, I’ve often thought of him.

 
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Full List of Essays
“A Noble Apology” • How I received an apology for the Spanish Inquisition (anthologized in Travelers’ Tales Spain)

“Allegro Furioso” • An introduction to my impossible grandparents and why Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote a musical about them (published in Columbia Magazine)

“Silver Bullets” • How I disturbed my great-grandmother’s ashes, didn’t meet Oscar Hammerstein and became the Lone Ranger.

“This Pen for Hire” • A lament upon the indignities suffered by an unpublished writer that, ironically, earned me my first publication—in The Washington Post Book World.

“The History of My Adversities” • The so-help-me-God true and lugubrious story of my first bloody taste of the perversities of the publishing world.

“Château d’If”A tribute to the tiny prison where I pen my deathless prose.

“Berlin Memories” • How I was frightened and tested by a stranger in a trenchcoat.

Just Who, Exactly, Is the Master? • An homage to my superlative cat. (Published in Westchester Magazine)

And click here to read my essays exclusively on the topic of TITULOMANIA (my love of titles).