It is early afternoon as we land at Tegel. It’s a small airport and manages to be both efficient and endearingly chaotic…
As the taxi drives into town there is a vague sameness to the roads, as seen all over the world, there is an almost universally determined landscape of open land and a series of industrial buildings that leads from an airport to a city.
Then we are here.
‘Here’ is a German city. Unmistakably so.
Wide boulevards and clean quiet pavements.
This is the city of my history.
This is the city of my family.
This is the city of which an imprint lies in my genes.
And now I am here.
There is often a sense that my relationship with Germany is an unusual one.
I regularly see in those who like me, are generationally removed, a detachment.
Almost a denial.
Where they see void, I find connection.
Stories of the old days and some physical reminders.
10 years ago or so I stood in front of the house my grandmother (the daughter of Siegfried, a scion of the Austrian Strauss family and Doris Elsner) was born in, in Hamburg; a handsome building now converted into apartments. The reality of brick and mortar felt acute.
It was so unlike anything I had sensed before – from a small amount of family silver that survived displacement, a small number of family photographs and a small collection of family stories.
The internet provided more information about Doris’ brother – a great-uncle to me -who was a composer. Siegfried Elsner wrote a waltz that won a ‘waltz of the week’ competition and the Hindenburg Marsch – his music is referenced in works on music in the First World War and the archives of the Imperial War Museum.
Berlin feels different. A city in which bricks and mortar had for many years symbolised a fracture so severe that it is hard to perceive of it, is now changed – reunification has made it whole again, but in small measure and almost imperceptibly so – a word spoken with a particular accent will act as a reminder of the old days of division.
It is a city full of visual stimuli: from baroque opulence to the sparse lines of Bauhaus.
Some structures overwhelm me: the sight of Brandenburg Gate transports me to an autumnal night in Kent, it is October and I am in my car in the university car park when the news breaks on the radio of events in Berlin. How it will shape the future is an unknown then, but the certainty that it is of monumental significance is plain.
We drink champagne at the Adlon – in every big city there is always a hotel that takes on iconic status. Weirdly, I tell my travelling companion, it reminds me of the Rex in Saigon… a place of conflict and sorrow.
Later as I settle in my hotel room I spend some time looking at old family photos on my iPad – A treasure trove.
At some point this weekend I hope to find the resting place of great-uncle James and his wife always known to me as tante Stine… both passed before I was born.
James survived the camps and was re-united with his wife and love Christina in Berlin, where they would live out their lives.
Christina was a blonde blue-eyed beauty and the two had eloped many years before the dark times descended. She had not converted to judaism before the Second World War and so was not interned. Instead she remained certain that her husband and love would return.
I have a photo of the death announcement of James. It was the summer of 1963. From there the cemetery address can be gleaned and a few moments online give the opening times.
First though I want to get a feel for this city. Its rhythm and history. We start at Schloss Charlottenburg. Gilded rooms and halls of splendour. A park that delights and gardens that gladden the heart with colour.
The next day we amble to museum island and beyond. We walk to the Neue Synagogue – a testament to the Jewry that once prospered here. There’s a bustling market in the shadow of an old train station. Summer fruit piled up, bunches of herbs in vivid green and stalls of Turkish food – paper thin just-made flat bread encasing salty fresh white cheese and an ever-so-slightly astringent spinach.
That evening the Long Night of the Museums is a wonderful initiative – till 2am museums are open, some have special events on. The Bauhaus archives are fantastic… At the Neue Museum the sight of Nefertiti is breathtaking…. At the Deutsches Historisches Museum, there is an exhibition of hard hitting early press photography… The courtyard has been turned into a club. We stay a while and soak in tunes and colours.
The next morning the sun has broken early, and it is time… the cab ride to Charlottenburg is under blue skies, the cab driver wishes me luck in ‘finding my relatives’.
The path to the cemetery is quiet. On either side there are woods.
The woods are green and lush, there are dappled spots of shadow and light.
When we get to the gates, we are met by the caretaker, a thin man with kind eyes.
I explain my search and he brings out a neat folder containing his lists.
He will take me to them, he says.
We walk a short distance. The air is clear and fresh.
‘There’ he says and points.
And there are their names on a marble headstone.
James. Stine. Elsner.
Dates of birth.
Dates of death.
Either side of them the graves are barren of life.
James and Stine’s plot is overflowing by a lush growth of ivy.
I am overcome with emotion and grateful for the caretaker’s sensitivity: ‘I’m going to go and get some shears’ he says ‘and tidy this up, I won’t waste your time doing it now but I promise’…. then on seeing my tears he slips away quietly returning with the shears after a few moments.
Later we talk, he was born in Budapest at the time of the Cold War and has family back there, in Berlin and in Jerusalem.
He takes care of the cemetery and the dead.
Our last stop is Templehof airport. It is a gigantic monument to the national-socialist ambition. Terrible in its awesomeness. We are taken by a guide for a tour of what is only a fraction of the site. In two and a half hours we experience a strange residue, a compressed energy, in a place through which so many had passed.
Then it’s back to Tegel.
Back to London.
The connection I feel to my heritage today is stronger, tighter, tangible.
Their spirit is with me.