There’s still rubble in Berlin where grand buildings once stood, before they were destroyed by the bombs of World War II. I came upon those lots, block after block ofthem, last summer. It was my first tangible evidence of the war that defined my family, in a country that had so occupied my imagination that it became the bogeyman of my childhood. Yet there they sat, not at all what I had envisioned: those once-beautiful structures turned to dusty piles of rocks.
My mother and father were Jews who narrowly escaped from Hitler’s Germany. I grew up with the Holocaust as my bedtime story. My parents wouldn’t teach me the language and never spoke it in public. They refused to buy a German car. When I was 11, my sister and I gave my father a shirt for his birthday; noticing on the label that it was made in Germany, he ceremoniously dumped it in the garbage.
As a child, I was embarrassed by everything German, and I strove to be an all-American girl. As an adult and a novelist, however, I’ve found myself obsessively delving into that country and my past. Yet before my trip to Berlin, I’d spent only 48 hours in Germany. That was 30 years ago, when my parents were still alive and my sister and I persuaded them to show us their hometown of Kaiserslautern, 400 miles southwest of Berlin. If a trip could be characterized as bipolar, that one was it. The first day, my parents were moved to tears by the beauty of the Black Forest and the apfel kugel that tasted just as they’d remembered. The second day, we went to a nearby village to find my grandmother’s house. When we asked an old woman if she could point it out, she shouted to her husband in German, “Where was the Jew house?” We packed up and left the next day.
The Kaiserslautern of my parents’ childhood was a little village. To them, Berlin had been the big city, and whenever they referred to a Berliner, they did so in a tone that implied the person was a snob and “not one of ours”—much the way many Americans speak about New Yorkers. The main character of the historical novel I’m writing feels the same way. As he observes in 1931, before leaving the city to return to Frankfurt, “With its clubs and beer halls, and massive buildings cluttering the skyline, Berlin was a loud and crushing city. Even the way Berliners talked—fast and directly—was harsher than the roly-poly cadences he was used to back home.”
When I finally decided it was time to confront my family’s history firsthand, I told myself I was going to Berlin, the epicenter of Nazi Germany, to do research that would fill out the descriptions in my book. But whom was I kidding? From the moment I got on the Air Berlin plane and was served dinner to our last night, when my husband and I ate in one of the fine restaurants in town, I kept looking over my shoulder and seeing my parents watch me in disbelief at the respectful way I was being treated and that I was there at all. In hindsight, I realize the itinerary I chose for our five-day trip was one they would have picked. Was I following them or they me? Sometimes it was hard to tell.
All the books I’ve read about Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s depict a bustling city with overdressed Baroque buildings, gleaming church spires, outdoor cafés. The women wore cloches, the men top hats. Daimler-Benz automobiles clogged the streets, and everywhere there were dance halls, tawdry cabarets and . . . well, you’ve seen the old movies. Of course, those films were all in black and white, and in the way that imagination sometimes trumps reality, I was shocked to find Berlin in living, sometimes lavish, color.
In its heyday, the Potsdamer Platz was the center of the city’s celebrated nightlife. Now the plaza, hypermodernized, is dominated by a glass-and-steel structure that houses the Sony Center and various shops, cafés and movie theaters. Standing under its glass tent ablaze in neon, I felt as if I were aloft in a giant hot-air balloon.