For 27 years, I’ve made pilgrimages to Berlin to visit family. My mother’s sister moved there in 1964 and her children and now grandchildren were all born there. Since I can remember, Berlin has never been a tourist destination, more a homestay, sometimes a stopover. When I lived in Poland I went numerous times and when I moved to the US, I tried to break my homeward journey there. And still, when I visit Europe, I try to sneak in a trip. My aunt has lived in the same apartment – large, high-ceilinged, stately – since she left India. We knew that before World War II it had been an area where a large number of well off Jewish people lived; Albert Einstein’s home is around the corner (A funny anecdote about him and his flat here). Imagine our whole family’s surprise when we came across a expat writer’s NYTimes travel piece mentioning the street she lives on.
But what got me was this mention of tiny brass plaques called Stolpersteine (meaning “to stumble across something”) *that I’d never noticed* to mark the names of residents who were sent to the camps. “How could I have missed them?” I wondered. “How bloody self involved am I?”
So this August, when I went to visit, I had my eyes peeled. Thankfully, I also had my cousin with me who told me they’d only been installed five years ago. Whew! I’ve been to Berlin since, but hadn’t been to my aunt’s place.
Seven from her building were interned. We know that the original owner of my aunt’s flat was not — she’d managed to emigrate before the progroms. In fact, I believe she came back some time in the 70s to show her son (?) where she’d been born and was grateful, my aunt says, the old flat hadn’t been sold to a German! There are more plaques along the street. Some doors have five, some have three; some are shiny from constant footfalls, others are tarnished from neglect.
Later that day, we went to Cafe Haberland in Bayerischer Platz and I was moved to see a multimedia exhibit about the neighborhood. Monitors looped short black and white videos, a projected slideshow of famous inhabitants lit up a wall, a colorful map allowed sunlight in through the window like stained glass and each table had lots of reading material.
The neighborhood used to be known as Wilmersdorf. One of my all time favorite Hollywood directors, Billy Wilder, I learned, had also lived down the street, as had many German luminaries. What a shame.