“Berlin has changed quite a bit in the past 75 years,” said my Dad as we pounded the streets where he spent the first 20 years of his life.
I suggested that perhaps most cities have changed in the past three-quarters of a century. But my father hasn’t been back often to the city of his birth, and – at the age of 95 – he thinks this trip may well be his last chance to relive some of his earliest memories.
“There used to be a flower shop on the corner here,” he says as we walk along the street where his childhood home once stood. “The florist always called me Herr Lustig, even though I was only a child. I’ve never forgotten it.”
On another corner, there’s a post office, where he and his father would arrange to meet his mother every morning after they’d gone into hiding following the Kristallnacht anti-Jewish pogrom of November 1938. Jewish men were being rounded up and deported – so my Dad and his father decided to make themselves scarce for a few days.
Where the family home used to be there’s now a modern block of flats. It’s covered in scaffolding as developers turn it into high-end executive apartments. But at the end of the street, there’s still the park where my Dad used to play – and when we visit the site where his school once stood, the head teacher’s red-brick house is still there, exactly as it was more than seven decades ago.
My Dad says it feels more surreal than ever being back, perhaps because he suspects he will never see Berlin again. In the past 25 years, ever since it became a re-united city after the fall of the Berlin wall, it has undergone a major transformation. It’s as if all the energy that was suppressed during the years of the Cold War has now been released. More than most modern cities, Berlin is reinventing itself.
At the Weisensee cemetery, Europe’s largest Jewish cemetery, we find the graves of my father’s paternal grandparents and of his great grandparents. He swipes away at the ivy with his walking stick, trying, in vain, to sweep away the effects of the passing years.
He still remembers his grandmother’s funeral. He was 13, and it was the first funeral he had ever attended. When the eulogy was delivered, he was mentioned by name, something that to a shy 13-year-old, seemed both extraordinary and overwhelming.
On a day trip to the medieval city of Magdeburg, 100 miles west of Berlin and the hometown of his mother’s family, we visit the site of his great uncle Robert’s house. It’s a children’s playground now, but in the street local residents have embedded three “stolpesteine” – literally, stumbling blocks – in the pavement. They are cobble-sized memorials to his great uncle and other family members who were murdered in Nazi death camps. Some of the residents are there to greet us with red and yellow roses; we place the flowers on the ground and stand for a moment in silence.
Back in Berlin the following day, we’re in a bus driving along Berlin’s main shopping street, Kurfürstendamm. My Dad points out of the window: “Look at that shop. It was there even before the war.” And as we wait for the tram to take us back into town from the cemetery, he notices the city transport company logo: BVG. That hasn’t changed either.
I think he’s pleased. It’s nice, after 75 years, to be able to recognise at least something.