(After visiting the Jewish Museum, our trip moved on to a different side of Berlin.)
The next day, we took a long walking circuit of Berlin through Insider Tour Berlin. Led by a savvy and energetic New Zealander named Mike, our group passed sites that were becoming familiar to us. We paid particular attention at a museum entrance where classical columns still bore thousands of pockmarks from bullets fired during the Battle of Berlin. After I told Mike about in interest in Soviet history, he suggested I visit the main Red Army Memorial in Treptower Park, and marked the location on a map.
Bullets over Berlin
Still, we cut short the tour near the Topology of Terror to switch gears for another personal appointment. We were going to explore the sporty side of Faust’s Metropolis.
Naomi and her father had been in touch with Carsten and Jan, two members of the fan club of Tennis Borussia, the venerable Berlin soccer club founded in 1902, for which Naomi’s grandfather had been a star player. We had arranged to meet them at an outdoor café at the Berlin Zoo. We weren’t sure how we would find them. But that was easy; they were waiting on the road as we approached, practically bouncing with anticipation of meeting the granddaughter of the superbly talented “Sim Leiser,” who must have been the Imperial German equivalent of Babe Ruth.
Indeed, he gets his own chapter in this book, Davidstern und Lederball: Die Geschichte der Juden im deutschen und internationalen Fußball. Photos show him as a balding, vigorous athlete ready to make his mark on the German soccer scene. He made his mark on other scenes, as well, as a ladies’ man with several marriages and children. He moved to Palestine after divorcing Eric’s mother Valeska and they had no more contact with him, although he lived into the early 1960s.
Lunching at a picnic table under the shade of beer-brand umbrellas, we spread copies of Naomi’s materials about her grandfather on a picnic table. As trains rolled by, hidden by screens of trees on the side of the café, Carsten and Jan examined them and shared materials from the club’s archives.
Many items had been lost, but they still had a 1951 club newsletter with an article about the three Leiserowitsch brothers: Sim the soccer player, Leopold the orchestra conductor and Fritz the other soccer player in the family. Leopold helped manage Tennis Borussia and was the only brother to live in Berlin after the war. As noted earlier, Sim left for Palestine in the 1930s and Fritz was killed by the Nazis, along with his wife and four-year-old daughter. Leopold, a veteran of World War I, was first sent to a camp but he was released; he then hid in Berlin until the war ended. He lived there until he died in 1950. The club’s newsletter noted,
How tragic and cruel is the fact that a man such as Fritz Leiserowitsch who wore the colors of Berlin’s jersey several times, was barbarously murdered by the rulers of his home. How sad a reminiscence overwhelms us when we think of a man such as Simon Leiserowitsch, who had to leave Germany after having played on Berlin’s team more than thirty times, and thus because of evil people with the lust of power disregarded the principles of humanity.
After that, we all piled into a car for a tour of three neighborhoods where the Brothers Leiserowitsch lived or worked. We drove from the zoo past the Victory Column on Platz der Republik on our way to the first stop, Nikolsburger Platz. There, we looked for a café where Sim had worked. The address no longer existed, but we found three stumbling stones, for Jews killed in Minsk and Auschwitz. Nearby, a sign said, in translation, “Until 1939 approximately half of the 600 pupils of the Cecilien-School at Nikolsburger Platz left. They had to leave the school because they were Jewish.” In the photo below, another sign tells a similar story:
Our next stop was Bundesalle, where we found a building where Sim had lived. Finally, we reached a pleasant apartment building near Babelsburger Strasse where Eric had lived with his uncle Leopold while attending a Jewish school in the late 1930s. We slipped inside the lobby of the building, with warm yellow walls and dark woodwork around the doors. The spiraling staircase with its beaded bannisters seemed timeless – was it original or a post-war rehab effort? The more I saw of Germany the more I wondered about the provenance of everything. But old or new, the building impressed me as much as anything I’ve seen on New York’s Upper West Side. Solid, comfortable and, at one time, Jewish.
Our time together could have ended there and Naomi and I would have deeply appreciated the hospitality of Sim Leiser’s greatest fans. We had traded stories and seen parts of Berlin we would have never found on our own. But Carston and Jan had other ideas. Back in the car, we drove north, toward the Olympic Stadium, and finally to the stadium where Tennis Borussia plays its home games.
The stadium surprised me. I envisioned something like a high school football field in the U.S. Instead, my faulty assumptions were red-carded when we reached a stadium that could easily hold thousands. Runners circled the track surrounding the green field as Carsten and Jan took us to stand at the end of the field in front of the scoreboard. Their big surprise: They had programmed the sign to read
Our warmest regards to Eric Leiseroff, the son of “Sim Leiser”! Welcome, Naomi and Van!
We posed for photos in front of the sign, and Naomi later wrote in an email of thanks to Carston and Jan, “I had never seen my name in lights!”
At the club, as elsewhere, history displayed itself. Here, a sign said,
Zum Gedenken an die judischen Sportlerinnen und sportler im Sport-Club Charlottenburg e.V. 1933-1945 die sich um das Ansehen des Vereins verdient gemacht haben und Opfer der nationalsozialistichen Verfolgung geworden sind.
(In memory of the Jewish sportsmen and women of the Sport-Club Charlottenburg e.V. 1933-1945, who contributed to the reputation of the club and became victims of the National Socialists’ persecution.)
Jan and Carston told us about the team and the intricacies of German league formations, the rise and fall of teams into different divisions. We strolled around the stadium and its facilities.
Dusk began to fall over the great flat metropolis, so Carston and Jan drove us back toward Rosenstrasse Platz. Still, they had one more historical stop on the agenda. We drove past the Brandenberg Gate as the shadows gathered and electric lights bathed its columns. The drive switched around the narrow streets near Museum Island and we finally drove past the site of the building where Tennis Borussia had been founded in 1902. It’s now a parking lot with no sign of its connection to the Leiserowitch family history—but now we knew where the sports legends began.
Our day and evening with Carston and Jan showed us the fun side of Berlin. While the sites dealt with the grind of history, we enjoyed this freewheeling day racing across the city and learning about their lives as Germans and how the city connected with Naomi’s family. Life goes on even as we remember the lives vanished.
And Tennis Borussia gained two more loyal fans.