“This is where he stood,” Frau B told me as she stood tall with a male stance. “There was a huge crowd,” she continued pointing to where she had stood. “We shouted ‘Ken-ne-dy, Ken-ne-dy.'” Frau B couldn’t understand his entire speech because she did not speak English, but she remembers the most famous part very well: “‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ and we all cheered so loudly.” Frau B declared, “He said it at the end, too, and everyone cheered again.” Experiencing President Kennedy’s famous 1961 speech in response to the Berlin Wall was just one of many historical events I witnessed through the eyes of Frau B.
While in Berlin I volunteered with the Juedische Gemeinde (Jewish Community) through Aktion Suehnezeichen Friedensdienste (Action Reconciliation Service for Peace) for a year, during which time I visited the elderly at their homes, helped them with shopping and things around the house and generally kept them company. I became particularly fond of one woman, Frau B, and continued to visit her every Friday after my year of volunteer service had come to an end. Eventually, I also started going to her apartment on Tuesday evenings as well to watch TV together (her favorite show was Colombo). By 2005, when I left Berlin, I had been visiting Frau B for three years, having learned an incredible amount about the many changes the city had undergone.
Frau B was of medium height with white hair and walked with a cane. She could no longer see more than dark shapes so I was her eyes when we went walking and she held my arm as she navigated our way through the history of Berlin based on her 80+ years of living in the city.
Frau B always referred to the 1930’s as the best time of her life. She told me about social dancing and roller skating with friends but when speaking about this time in her life, she almost always talked about her “Grosse Liebe” (great love). Once, while listening to songs on her CD/cassette player combo, that sat on the kitchen table next to her weekly pill organizer, Frau B burst into tears. She had remembered her grosse Liebe singing this song to her from the courtyard below her apartment window. All the neighbors also came to their windows to listen and applaud. Frau B had fallen in love.
Then the Nazis Came
Frau B remembered the Nazi party marching through the Brandenburg Gate and things changed. She began to notice some of her neighbors disappearing. She recalled two beautiful children in particular who had always curtsied to her – one day they were simply gone never to return.
Her father was continuously pressured to join the Nazi party, but never did. Frau B told me, with tears in her eyes, that as a result, her father never got promoted and so remained a low level employee while younger and less qualified workers furthered their careers all around him.
At the young age of 19 Frau B married her Grosse Liebe, only to send him off to war shortly thereafter. She showed me the city hall one day where they had gotten married. She gave birth to their son while he was away.
One day, a couple of SS officers came to her door demanding to know why their Nazi flag wasn’t up. Frau B and her mother quickly made up the excuse that they tried but without a man around they were unable to secure it. The officers told her to have the flag up by the next day or they would be in trouble. They came back to ensure that their orders had been carried out to find Frau B’s household flag flying with all the rest of the neighbors’.
Shortly thereafter Frau B received the worst possible news. Her Grosse Liebe had been killed on the Russian front. His body was never recovered so she was never able to bury him. Frau B showed me a picture of him dressed as a soldier, the only photograph she had of him. The war waged on and many more people died and by the end, Berlin, like many cities in Europe, was left in shambles.
Frau B said that towards the end of the war some men refused to fight. She took me once to an obscure location, what seemed like a random street corner to me and told me “this is where I saw the man hanging” and pointed to a lamp post, which I confirmed was indeed still there.
Then the Russians Came
Frau B’s hard times didn’t end with the war; in fact, they were just beginning. Berlin was at the mercy of the Russian army, who, according to Frau B, went anywhere and did anything they wanted. One day a Russian soldier came to her house and, at gun point, demanded that Frau B went with them. Standing between her parents and her 4-year old son, she knew what he wanted and told him, “But I am a mother,” pointing to her son but he didn’t believe her, insisting that she was too young and that the little boy was her mother’s child. Her son still remembers the day his mother was forced to go with a Russian soldier. When she came back, Frau B’s mother quietly asked her, “Raped?” Frau B just nodded her head. Like so many women after the war, Frau B had been raped and there was nothing anyone could do.
It wasn’t long after that, that Frau B ended up in the hospital. “That soldier gave me something,” she told me, “and whatever it was it was bad enough to warrant giving me a glass of milk”, which of course was scarce at that time. “I was lucky to get the top bunk.” Frau B continued to share, “If you got the lower bunk the Russians would rape you.”
When she was released from the hospital, Frau B returned home only to be pursued again. The soldiers kept coming by for her, but each time her parents insisted that she was still in the hospital or otherwise out somewhere. But after several failed attempts, the soldiers got angry and forced their way into their home demanding that she was there hiding. Frau B’s parents sat on their sofa and watched as the angry soldiers violently searched the house. Getting more and more frustrated as they went, they eventually suspected that Frau B was hiding in the bed. Her family watched in horror as the soldiers raised their weapons and shot up the bed and left. When it was safe again, her parents stood up so Frau B could climb out of her cramped hiding space inside the sofa, which turned out to be a pretty good place to hide.
Potatoes, Tickets and the Quakers
One of my favorite memories with Frau B was sitting on a bench under a huge oak tree in a quiet Berlin neighborhood. She explained that the first winter after the war was incredibly cold, resulting in most of the trees being cut down to keep warm. As we sat and talked under the tree that had witnessed and survived the war, the significance of my location was not lost on me.
Frau B talked about potatoes. “Ah, potatoes!” she sighed. “That’s all we ate. We ate potatoes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We even made coffee out of potatoes.” She confessed that, as expected, the potato coffee did not taste very good. All other food items had to be rationed due to the shortage, so the government handed out ration tickets for things like butter.
One day her son came home from school and told her that he had been given a lunch. He went back the next day and got another lunch. Frau B had discovered that her son, as well as the other school children, had been receiving meals under the Quakerspeisung program. American Quakers had been sending food to feed the German children after the war. As an American Quaker, I had heard of Quakerspeisung, but it was quite something else to hear first hand how this program directly helped Frau B and her family. I felt proud.
Frau B Meets Herr B
Herr B grew up in a large Jewish family in Warsaw, Poland, witnessing and experiencing first hand the horrors of humanity. One day when the Nazis were coming, his mother turned to him and said, “I have a bad feeling. Out of all of us you will be the one to survive. Be sure to have a good life.” This premonition turned out to be right. Herr B survived the Warsaw ghetto and concentration camps but lost all his 12 siblings and both his parents.
After the war, he arrived in Berlin by stowing himself on a ship carrying freight from Poland. And he did have a good life. According to Frau B, he became a pillar of the Jewish community in Berlin and was considered “a mensch” by everyone. He was known as “the guy who could help” as he assisted numerous people in getting them out of communist Poland and escape to the West, just as he had done.
Frau B Becomes Jewish
“He asked me to marry him,” Frau B told me, “and although I didn’t love him, how could I say ‘no’ after all he went through in the camps?” So at the age of 26, Frau B got married for a second time and converted to Judaism. They opened up a jewelry store and had two children together.
“It wasn’t always easy,” Frau B explained about being a Jewish wife. “At Pesach I had to thoroughly clean the kitchen, and if Herr B found even one crumb or speck of something, I had to do it all over again.” She told me that she eventually did love him and they led a pretty good life together, even traveling to Israel a couple times. When he passed away in his later years from a heart attack, his funeral was attended by the entire Jewish Community of Berlin.
The Wall Goes Up
In 1961, the Berlin Wall was built, cutting the city in two. Having gone up in only 6 short days, the sudden obstruction in the middle of Berlin caught everyone by surprise. Frau B had lent a friend a vacuum cleaner and when the wall went up, her friend found herself on the other side of it. Needless to say, Frau B never got her vacuum cleaner back.
While it was possible for those in the West to visit those in the East, it was a big pain having to pay money and wait in lines, so visits to what became East Berlin were few and far between, further dividing family and friendships.
The Wall Comes Down
In November 1989, Germany changed again. The wall fell, Germany became reunited and Berlin was once again the national capital. The countries of East and West Germany were a thing of the past. “Everything happened so quickly,” Frau B told me. “At first, the East Berliners came over in droves and bought all the food in the stores, especially bananas. I didn’t have a banana for the longest time because there were never any left!”
The Nazis Come Again
In 2005, Berlin prepared to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII, and it became known that a large number of neo-Nazi groups were planning to march together through the Brandenburg Gate. Frau B was outraged, “I remember the first time the Nazis marched through those gates! The real Nazis!” Although the march was rerouted away from the Brandenburg Gate, their very presence on such an occasion caused anger in many. So much so, that there was a huge anti-racism march planned. Clashes between the two groups were expected across the city. I asked Frau B if she would like to go.
With a big sigh she tells me that she can not attend. She reminds me that she can not see and it is not always easy for her to walk. Frau B seemed pleased when I told her I would go in her place.
And so I brought all of Frau B with me to the protest, as well as her Grosse Liebe and her second husband. As it turned out, thousands and thousands of others showed up, too. So many in fact, that the train holding the neo-Nazis was completely surrounded at Alexanderplatz station! Anti-racism demonstrators covered the platform, blocking the train doors to the point where the neo-Nazis could not disembark. Police officers, there to keep the peace, would not let anyone off the train until the crowd dispersed. But the crowd didn’t leave. Minutes turned into hours, and the train just sat there for the entire morning, filled with hate. The afternoon was no different, and eventually the neo-Nazis simply rode the train back to where they came from.
Frau B was indeed pleased.
Saying goodbye to Frau B was one of the hardest goodbyes I have ever said. We watched Colombo one last time and ate griesbrei before she sent me off with a piece of jewelry from her store. With tears from both of us, I left her apartment for the final time.
I have kept in touch over the years, sending her letters and postcards from all over the world. She went through the trouble of having her eldest son write down congratulatory remarks in a card for my wedding. Frau B has since moved into an assisted living facility in Berlin and I’m told has shown signs of dementia. I wonder what parts of her past she has forgotten and which ones might haunt her still.
Update: Frau B passed away in April 2016 at the age of 94 with her family around her. She now lies next to Herr B in Berlin’s Jewish Cemetery.