My father left Berlin for Palestine in 1934, he was only 21 year old and was able to obtain a certificate since the firm he worked for relocated to Israel. The rest of his family was not so lucky, his parents and one brother were killed by the Nazis, and another brother survived the war but remained permanently scarred.
Then in 2000, my daughter decided to study music in Berlin. It was right after she had attended a music festival in Weimar, Germany. It was part of the newly founded East West Divan by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said.
I got the first reminder that, sixty years later, Berlin was still not just any other city even before she even moved there. My daughter showed my father the location of her future student housing. Looking at the address, my father realized that it was the same address as his old school. Indeed once she moved into the dorm, she sent a photo of the memorial statue indicating that this was the site where the Jewish School, Adas Israel ,used to be.
In the five years that my daughter stayed there I visited Berlin several times. In 2000 the city had not yet become a desired destination for Israelis. It was still a relatively sleepy town, at least on its east side where it was dark and empty at night and no one spoke English. Even the city’s landmark —: Potsdamer Platz, had not been completed yet, and the government offices took their time moving into the new capital.
Around the same time my father moved into a sheltered living. As we were packing his belongings we found a pile of old letters from his family back in Berlin. The letters dated from 1934, when my father left, till 1939, when the family was forced out of Berlin. We knew about the letters but my father never talked about them and I don’t remember him looking at the letters. .
We decided to loan the letters to the Jewish Museum in Berlin, there is not that much material about domestic Jewish life in Berlin at that that time and the museum was excited to have them. The letters were transcribed (since my grandmother wrote in Gothic letters), typed out, and then translated into English (since I don’t know German).
Nothing dramatic was described in the letters, but they expressed fear and despair. My grandparents hoped that my father, their oldest, son would be able to help. They urged him to write more and reproached him for not doing so. One brother thanked him for the books which he had sent from Palestine, and the other brother was grateful for the new suit that he had gotten from him. They all appreciated my father for all that he had sent and apologized for always needing more, they were proud people..
I read the letters only once, I couldn’t look at them again. It wasn’t that I had forgotten earlier about my family or about the Holocaust, but I thought that I was able to disconnect the old from the new. Yet after reading the letters Berlin was never the same for me.
Berlin is a great city, and right now it is also a metaphor for better opportunities and better life for young Israelis who are disillusioned with the situation here. Back in 1975, in similar circumstances, the great satirists of the time ( B. Michael, Hanoch Marmari, Kobi Niv, Ephraim Sidon, and Dudu Geva among others) produced a brilliant, and funny, book of social commentary: Zoo Aretz Zoo. One of their remedies was that we’d all move to New Zealand. Perhaps we could use that as a metaphor instead of Berlin?