I phoned my mum from Berlin (or Ber-leene as she says it). I spoke in a formal voice.
‘Guten abend’ she replied. There was a pause.
‘Wie geht es dir?
‘Ich bin in Berlin’.
‘It’s me….I’m in Berlin…’
We laughed so much.
People might not realise that there’s still an older Germany in existence. An older Germany that lived through the Nazis but who were never Nazis. Who came from an earlier tradition still. That Germany to me is always flamboyant, organised but slightly anarchic, full of singing and life. My mum told me that her father, my grandfather, who was a wood worker was always singing when he worked. Old German and Silesian songs. Her mother, my grandmother, died when she was about five and she doesn’t really remember her. But her older sisters told her that when certain songs came on the radio he used to take his wife, Charlotte, and dance around the room. ‘Meine Lotte’, he would say.
There are photographs of my grandfather in the First World War. He looks fed up and unconvinced by the whole thing. There are earlier photographs of when he did his apprenticeship as a wood worker. And a certificate when he became a master craftsman. He built up a business and owned and managed a wood working factory. During the Nazi period my mum had to stand by the window and watch out for sneaks. He didn’t care for Hitler and would work on the national day for his birthday. During the war all he made was coffins. When the sound of the Russian guns could be heard approaching where they lived everyone slept in the coffins at night. Then the Russians came.
‘The first ones were ok’, my mum said. ‘They threw chocolate and apples to us. But the ones who came next were terrible’.
She told me that she lived in a cellar. Then she told me recently that they were hidden under great piles of sawdust. This went on for some time. I went to visit her recently on her 91st birthday. She showed me a map in which she described how they fled the village where they lived, the school where they were assembled before they were deported. The street where they all once lived.
She was one of the 10 million or so Germans who were deported from ‘the east’ from around 1947 onwards. One of the biggest forced displacements of people ever and little known. Incredibly there are still Stalinists and neo-liberals and all sorts of unpleasant groups who argue that all these people were Nazis and deserved what they got. As if babies, small children, teenagers, anti-Nazis, socialists, communists, trade unionists, Christians were all guilty by association.
I have few principles, it’s easier that way. But one principle I do have is that I will have nothing to do with Stalinists. It’s one of the reasons I was always a bit sour towards Corbyn, good in other ways that he was.
My mum is one of the most broad minded people I know with little, if any, rancour and hate. And yet I have to listen to Stalinists who have never lived through a war, never had to hide under sawdust, never been so terrified, never had to endure terrible things, never to know terrible things happen to their teenage friends. And yet those Stalinists so angry and fierce and …safe. No, that’s not for me.
I went to Charlottenberg station and bought a weekly ticket. There was a long pause as the woman working there had gone to make a cup of coffee and had the sort of attitude of being a worker which the world would be a much better place if more people had. Once the coffee was made the woman in front of me was served. She had a big black and white check coat. It seemed to take an age. It’s a very strange dynamic. The speed and rush of the train and the slow, deliberate serving of the ticket. Is this really so bad? The age in fact was a couple of minutes.
Then it was my turn. I did the whole transaction in German but repeated everything twice because I don’t want to be caught with the wrong ticket on the S-Bahn. The woman behind the counter smiled and closed her eyes.
‘Is das A aus B?’ I said
‘Und das ist ein Woche? Seben tag?’
She must have thought I was a complete idiot.
She smiled and closed her eyes again. It was the closing the eyes which was such a good trick. But then I played my master card, based on learning the word ‘stampe’ yesterday.
‘Und ich muss stampe?’ I asked.
I got the sense that she may be writing a novel based on the people she has to put up with each day. Or a philosophical tract on ‘my life as a customer services agent’. I really hope it’s the latter. What would Marcuse make of that?
Those few stops on the U-Bahn were hard work.
I got off at Friedenau to explore where Rosa Luxemburg once lived. It felt so extraordinary to be in these streets. Suddenly she became so alive. That time so alive.
And then to Ceciliengärten. I will research this more thoroughly and write a structured article, rather than inchoate thoughts. But those thoughts are useful too.
What a super space. One needs to visit, to walk around, to experience the atmosphere. Big groups of kids rushing around. A couple of grown ups chalking stuff on the pavements – something like a chasing game. A tall woman wearing a long red dress and a white head scarf raised her arm and scooped up some cherry blossom and spent an infinity absorbing the experience.
People having picnics on the grass. More kids running around. A couple of grown ups who seemed to be there with a load of kids. Supervising? That word doesn’t fit for what was going on. It wasn’t like that. The adults had a good looking bottle of white wine which they were sharing. The kids raced along in a column and then swerved and swooped and raced again.
I don’t know how I got talking to two women, one who was pushing a bike. But we did and we talked for a long time and they told me a lot of stuff about housing in Berlin and growing up in the city and Bruno Taut. They wrote places in my notebook for me. Places I need to go and see. They wrote an email address and said, ‘get in touch if you have anymore questions’.
‘Did your mum come from Berlin?’ I ask. There was a pause.
‘No. She was from outside the city and came here after the war’.
What must that have been like.
Somewhere I’m trying to form things to say. But they won’t come because I know a little, and that’s not enough. And knowing just a little only reveals the vast ignorance. But it’s a starting point. You just need to listen. All the stories about all the streets are already there. Find people and ask them to speak and then the stories all come out.
I liked Ceciliengärten a great deal. From the outside? Well designed public space, good looking housing with lovely variation and detail. But the lives of the people? I suspect they will be like my mum’s life. And that’s not just a German experience but a Syrian experience, Palestinian, working class, an experience of the poor and the working people. And those stories are still not loudly told or often. And the telling of those stories, under the regimes of lies and corruption and hypocrisy are revolutionary in themselves.