An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
28 May, 2018

With each passing year, the world is just a little more different than the world into which I was born.  Some of that is about technology, sure.  Some of it is about the environment or politics.  But also, on some very basic level, it’s simply about the people who are in this world.  And, more to the point, the people who aren’t.  Among the latter group may now be numbered my Uncle Art, né Arthur Levine and finally Mr. Arturo LeMay.

Which – and OK yes, I’m getting off track kind of early here – is a bit ironic.  The name, I mean.  Because Art was a pretty religious dude.  No, that’s not quite right.  I don’t think he was particularly religious.  He didn’t keep kosher, so far as I know.  I’m not sure how many holidays he “celebrated” in the religious sense of the word; although he was at every Seder of my life until this year.

But he went to schul three times a week.  He was very pro-Israel in that old-school, unquestioning sort of way; the way which my generation – and those younger than me – are finding increasingly difficult to be.  And the dude could beast through a page of Hebrew like it was nobody’s business.  Though I don’t actually know if he could understand the language.  But he could read it off the page, and he could do it with the oldschool Yiddish pronunciation, where all the final tav’s sounded like “S”s; not the way people my age were taught.

The point is, his Judaism – however secular it might have been – was a huge part of his identity.  So yeah, I always found it more than a little ironic that he would change his name.  Because “Levine” is a pretty big deal name in Judaism.  It’s of the priest class, right up there with Cohen.  It’s not a Euro-Yiddish invention like Lindenberg (Mountain of the Linden-Tree), my mother’s maiden name; or Starr, and who even knows what the origin is there.  Levine – the Levis – goes all the way back to the Torah.

So why would he give that up for the totally non-Jewish sounding LeMay?  Because he liked the way it sounded.  But it was a very Art thing to do.  He could be eccentric like that.  The dude had his own way of making sense of shit.  Like anti-Semitism.  More than once he said Jews could be more anti-Semitic than gentiles; ‘self-hating Jews’ was, I think, the term he used.  But he also said that Arabs couldn’t be anti-Semitic.  Because the Arabs are themselves a Semitic people.  So there you go.  In Art’s world, there were anti-Semitic Jews and non-anti-Semitic death-to-Israel Arabs.

Or the fact that although he’d be at schul every Saturday, he’d insist he wasn’t religious.  Called himself a ‘fraud.’  Sure Art.  You read Hebrew.  You practically lived at the synagogue.  But you weren’t religious.  As you wish.

He was the the last Patriarch standing.  That’s a bit weird to think about.  All the grandparents were already gone.  So Art was the last of that generation.  That’s fucking weird, I’m sorry.  To look at my parents, my aunts and uncles and realize, shit, they’re the patriarchs now.  Or matriarchs.  They’re the grandparents now.  The Olds.  Which knocks me back a generation too.  That knocks me into the Aunts & Uncles generation, rather than the Children & Cousins generation.  With Art’s passing, I became a generation older.  I’m just realizing this as I’m typing, btw.  So, you know, thanks for that, Art.

So now it’s Shelly and Don, on my mom’s side.  Shelly sits at one head of the Seder table and Don at the other.  And this year, I had to read the big Hebrew spiel.  Art’s part.  The part that actually says, in Shelly’s homemade Hagaddah, “Uncle Art reads:”.  Surreal is the word I’m looking for.

Anyway, what about the man himself?  What about Arthur “the atomic bomb saved my life” Levine?  Lemme start by saying he was a tough motherfucker.  The short, red-headed Jewish kid from the Bronx who volunteered to carry the big Browning Automatic Rifle in the army.  The dude who took over his father’s business and made it big.  The dude who ran marathons.  The dude who went back to college – cut short by the war – and got a degree from Columbia when he was already a million years old.  Those are some pretty serious achievements.

Soldier.  Businessman.  Athlete.  Student.  All of those words describe Arturo.  But the word I would choose, if I had to pick just one, would be this.  Storyteller.  That man could spin a yarn.  Let’s start with the whole “the atomic bomb saved my life” spiel.  We’ve all heard that one a gazillion times.

When I was a kid, there was one major school of thought on our use of The Bomb in WWII, and one minor one.  The major school of thought was that it ended the war sooner and saved untold lives.  Along with that was the notion that by seeing the power of those early bombs in 1945, later world leaders were sufficiently scared into never pushing the button.  The minor school of thought was that even if this were all true, the bombs were so terrible as to be unjustifiable by any argument.

Those were the arguments I heard when I was young, when I was in school.  Nowadays, the latter argument seems to be more in vogue.  To the point that the term “war crime” is even trotted out to describe their use.

My point here, though, is that Art was one of the last people entitled to a different view by direct personal association.  Because he was ticketed for the invasion of Japan.  So when the war ended shortly after those two terrible detonations, it meant that rather than dying on a beach, he would spend a couple of years cooling his heels in the Philippines.

And you know what?  I don’t know if he thought the bombs were a good thing.  I don’t know if he thought we did the right thing in using them.  Maybe he did.  I don’t know.  But he always believed that The Bomb saved his life.  And that is almost certainly true.  And there aren’t many people left now who can say that.

So yeah, the stories.  My favorite thing about Art in the later years was the car trips to Passover and Thanksgiving.  We’d drive over the Tap and pick him at his home “upstate” and drive him up to Connecticut with us.  And he’d just tell stories the whole way.  Stories about how he nearly married some Jewish dame in the late 40’s, but didn’t, “because she was fat.”  Or the one about the rich oilman relative, who may or may not have killed an “Irishman,” who may or may not have screwed Indians out of some land, who may or may not have sold dry goods to settlers moving West, but who definitely was cut out of the family because “he didn’t keep kosher.”

There were stories about his time in college.  About his military training.  About how his, I want to say father, moved from one of the Baltic states to Germany (Frankfurt am Mein) because they needed a Rabbi; and then moved to America.

I once asked him if he could speak Yiddish.  He couldn’t.  I asked him if his father could.  “He could,” he said.  “But he didn’t like to.  If somebody addressed him in Yiddish, he’d answer in Yiddish; to be polite.  But he always said, ‘I’m an American.  I speak English.’”   And that was Art too.  Proudly Jewish.  Staunchly pro-Israel.  100% American.

Art had a million stories.  And not one of them was self-aggrandizing.  You knew he had to have been one tough SOB, because only tough SOB’s volunteer to carry the BAR.  But when he talked about his military training, it was always about how it affected his schooling, or about how some other guy outperformed him.  He wasn’t religious, he was a “fraud.”  But he went to schul more times in one week than I’ve been in the last decade.  He talked about business trips to Asia but he never let on how successful his business was.  He talked about about business trips to Puerto Rico, but never mentioned that he could understand Spanish quite well and could even speak it a bit.

He had a sister, Ferna.  She had Down Syndrome.  She was in an institution or a home or something; not totally sure on the deets.  The point is, yeah, of course other people visited her.  But he visited her every single week.  And you know what you never heard stories about?  That.

A few years back, we were over his house.  And he had this room full of old junk.  Mementos, pictures, awards, all that kind of shit.  Anyway, I found the damnedest thing.  It was a framed letter to a rabbi on his mom’s side of the family, so a Coblenz; maybe it was an uncle, I’m not sure.  The point is, it was a personally addressed letter from FDR thanking this rabbi for some small service.  I’d need to see the letter again.  I don’t know if he had served on some religious council, or given some kind of advice or what.  But it was a thank-you letter from Franklin fucking Delano fucking Roosevelt.  I mean, come on, that’s kind of a big deal.  Yeah, well, he never spoke about that either.

So as I’m writing this, I’m texting back and forth with my mom, asking for little clarifications here and there.  And she reminded me that I have a couple of recordings of him from the last years.  I have one on my phone, where I asked him a few questions and just let him go.  It’s only about two minutes.  But sure enough, it’s the whole “the atomic bomb saved my life” spiel.

And so, just two little things I want to add to that story.  There was no glory in it, no joy.  He simply said, “I was fortunate.”  He also said he enlisted because “the army paid for six months of NYU.”  What a good Jewish boy.  The goal wasn’t war, it was an education.

More important than that though, is simply the fact that I have his voice.  Because people don’t sound like that no more.  See, he had this oldschool Bronx accent.  And let’s be clear here.  Not the stereotypical “New York” accent from old movies.  Not “dese, dem ‘n’ dose.”  Not “I’ll meetcha at tree’o’clock on toity-toid ‘n’ toid.”  No, it’s far more subtle, but also far more real.

Mel Blanc once described his choice of voice for Bugs Bunny as being a cross between a Brooklyn and Bronx accent.  Because Bugs was a wiseguy, and that’s where wiseguys came from.  And if you think you can tell the difference between a 1930’s Brooklyn accent and a 1930’s Bronx accent, I think you’re full of shit.  But whatever is the Bronx part of Bugs Bunny’s voice, that’s what Art sounded like.

And I gotta tell y’all.  It’s beautiful.

And maybe it doesn’t matter to other people.  Maybe it only matters to me, because I’m interested in language.  But when Art died, that sound died with him.  That voice died with him.  There ain’t nobody left in my life who sounds quite like that anymore.  But I’m sure as shit glad I can still go back and listen to it now.

But maybe it doesn’t just matter to me.  Because I know I’ve heard my mom talk about the way Carol’s booming “Hi!” could fill a room.  My point is, you don’t just remember the person.  You remember how they sounded.  It’s really a sort of Proustian experience.  A sort of auditory madeleine.  He says having never read Proust.

But yeah.  I can still hear Carol’s warm and grand greetings; which, btw, was also Herb’s warm and grand greeting.  I can still hear Ida’s glottal stops, how she would pronounce ‘dentist’ as den’ist.  I can still hear Steve’s absolutely classic Brooklyn.  Just as I can hear Daitz’ baritone “Well, Dave…”.  Or how, on the phone, Mike sounded exactly like my dad.

And it makes me treasure the sound of those who are still around.  My dad’s very subtle but unmistakable Brooklyn which 30+ years on Long Island haven’t dimmed; totally different than Steve’s btw.  My mom’s sharp, elbows-out Brooklyn when she gets mad; totally different than my dad’s.  Jay’s ‘Vinny Baggadonuts’ Brooklyn, different from all of them.  To say nothing of Margaret’s again totally different Sicilian-Italian Brooklyn, which yields the wonderfully hypercorrective vodker.

So, always when people die, come the inevitable questions of regret.  Art had his.  He regretted never marrying in general, and, towards the end, never marrying Linda specifically.  Man, Linda was a character.  I didn’t know her well, so keep that in mind.  But she had this gracious southern accent; I don’t know from where.  And she had all these wacky southern idioms, all of which escape me at the moment.  But she was probably Art’s best friend.  And I’m fairly certain they were a thing at some point.  It never worked out though.  She had MS, which may have had everything – or nothing – to do with it.  In any case, she died quite a few years back.

But towards the end, you could tell he missed her.  And you could tell he was lonely, which was tough.  In the last few years, he would talk about how he wished he’d gotten married.  To which my dad would invariably reply with something along the lines of, “Trust me, Art, you’re better off.”  But it was just a joke to try and make him feel better.   And he appreciated the sentiment.  He’d play along.  But yeah, that was kind of sad.

On the other hand, he loved his family.  He was close with Cookie, I know.  And my mom would always call him.  But – for me at least – he wasn’t an easy guy to get close to.  “Demonstrative” is not a word that comes to mind.  Which should not be mistaken for not caring.

He was always asking about Germany.  Always asking if I was happy.  If I enjoyed teaching.  And, not for nothing, always asked if there was anti-Semitism in Germany.  Because the Jewish identity was always central with him.  And now, as I write this, I’m wondering if that also didn’t play a role in him and Linda never really getting together.  Because when he talked about the fatty he didn’t marry back in the 40’s, he never failed to mention that she was, if nothing else, Jewish.

Oh!  And the worst insult in his book – at least towards another Jew – was that they were “of the shtetl.”  Shtetl is the Yiddish word for the backwater ghettos which Jews used to inhabit in Eastern Europe before…well, you know.  But if somebody was “of the shtetl,” they were low class, uneducated, uncouth, worthy of derision.  It’s witheringly brutal and wonderfully oldschool.  My cousin Jay (Mike’s son) is the only person of my generation whom I know that still uses it.  And even then, it’s always ironic and spoken with an old-timey Jew-y accent; either preceded or followed by an “Oy!”

So yeah, regrets.  I regret that I didn’t know the man better.  I regret that I didn’t get more of his stories down by recording.  Because already the finer details escape me, and I can only paint them with broad strokes.

But these are small things.  The dude made it all the way to 91.  Lived at home, just until the very end.  Drove his own car until he was 89 or 90.  Which, OK, may not have been the best idea.  Ran his business right up to the end.  Was mentally with it until the end.  When I was home in March, he knew exactly who I was, knew I was living in Germany, The Whole 9.  So what if he asked the same questions 20 times?  He knew who he was asking them to, and they were on point.  We should all be so lucky.

I feel like I’m walking around with dead people in my back pocket.  Hm.  There’s probably a better way to phrase that.  What I mean is, there are people – dead people – who are always with me.  Daitz, right?  For as long as I read Homer – which will be as long as I live – Daitz will always be sitting across from me, nudging my pronunciation, carefully noting the verb tense and debating my interpretations with a deep, gentle, “Well, Dave…”.

My grandfather will always be the measure by which the Starr family judges itself.  Whether that be the love of music, the love of learning or just curiosity about the world.  If he’s not around to be the patriarch anymore, he’s very much the spirit animal.  Nobody who knew him doesn’t still get emotional when he comes up.

And now Art.  By way of a slight detour for the goyim, the Hebrew word for the number ‘five’ is chamesh.  From this, we get the word chumash, which means “The Five,” meaning the five books of Moses, the Torah.  The use of the article matters here.  When we say a Torah, we mean the scroll, whichever one happens to be in the ארון קדש – the ark – at your local schul.  When we talk about the Torah, we mean the content, the thing generally.  All this to say that a chumash is not a Torah, but it is a bound-book edition of the Torah.

All this to say, I have Art’s chumash.  Well, really, Cookie’s chumash, which Art gave to her as a gift, which she then gave to me.  He inscribed it too, you know.  He wrote:

                                                                                                            February 26, 2005
To my Niece “Fran”
I hope you enjoy this Chumash.  Happy Birthday.
Love
Art

Two things about this are great.  First, “Fran” in quotes?  So her name is Francine, but she goes by Cookie.  So like, if you were gonna put a name in quotes, wouldn’t it be “Cookie”?  But he always called her Fran.  So in Art-World, her real name is Francine; obviously the shorter “Fran” deserves quotes.  Classic Art.  Also, “enjoy”?  I mean, this book is great for a lot of things.  Cultural connection.  Learning.  Family heirloom.  Whatever you want.  But enjoyment?  Uh, not so much.

Whatever.  The point is, it came from Art.  And this is the book that I work with.  Every day.  Remember my whole Operation Read the Whole Fucking Torah in a Year thing?  The Torah that I’m reading is Art’s chumash.  So he’s with me.  Every day, when I sit down to read, Art’s there too.

Daitz and Homer.  Art and Torah.  One more dead guy in my back pocket.  If this keeps up, I’m gonna need bigger pants.

So that’s the end.  No, that’s not quite right.  It’s an end.  You say goodbye to the man.  And lemme tellya, I’m so glad I got to see him one more time, this last time I was in.  So glad I got to say goodbye.  Even if I didn’t say the word “goodbye.”  Because I’m pretty sure what I actually said was, “Take care of yourself and listen to your doctors.  I expect to see you at Passover next year.”  But that’ll have to do.

So yeah, it’s an end.  It’s the end of his life.  It’s the end of an era, even.  It’s a different world without him.  It’s passed just that much more from the hands of his generation to the hands of the next.  But he did his part to shape this world, and my life in it.  And whatever I do with my life, it will be what it is for his having been a part of it.

So I raise my glass to you, Arthur Levine.  Rest in Peace, Arturo LeMay.  You bloody well earned it.

Let me end this with a wish, with a hope.  It is my wish that, for many years to come, I will have the great honor at our Passover Seder of reading the Hebrew bit in the Hagaddah marked, “Uncle Art reads:”.  And I hope that one day, there will be a child; a child not yet born.  And I hope that child will see the words “Uncle Art reads:” and ask, “Who is Uncle Art?”  Because on that day, I will say, “Come ‘ere, kid.  Lemme tellya a story…”

זײַ געסונט

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
15 May, 2018

Oh hey, Writer’s Block.  What’s up?  Ugh, you guys.  I’ve tried writing a post – the same post – twice already, and just…I’m not feeling it.  So I’m officially ditching it and starting a new one.  Maybe I’ll circle back at the end though and try to recapture some of it though.  Not that you, dear reader, would know the diff if I didn’t tell you.  So why am I telling you?  Because it’s my blogue and I can ramble if I want to.

Anyway, Germany.  No matter how much I like this country and its fine people, there’s always gonna be some shit that’s just straight up weird, you know?  And by weird, I mean, yeah, every culture is different and they’re all valid and blah blah blah.  But listen to this and tell me if you don’t think it’s fucking weird.

So a couple of weeks back, I went for one of my walks.  I ended up in Friedrichshagen, which is adorable and one of my favorite spots in this neck of the woods.  There’s a Japanese joint I really like there as well as what passes for a good Vietnamese spot in this town.  It was at this Vietnamese outpost that I stopped for a late lunch after several hours of strolling.  I got a bowl of Pho, which was quite good for Berlin, but wouldn’t even make the menu at Pho Grand.  Such is life.

Anyway, after this lovely meal, I mosey up the block where I encounter a little gelato shop.  Well, remembering how nice it was to have a bit of gelato back when I was in Florence, I decided to get a little desert.  I mean, a little gelato never hurt anybody, right?  Well, it hurts me if it has lactose.  So I ask what they’ve got that’s lactose free and the lady behind the counter gives me my options.

And at first, it seemed like I was getting the answer I was hoping for.  Namely that they had both a chocolate and a raspberry that were lactose-free.  Great.  So I ask the lady if I can get a small half-chocolate-half raspberry.  And that’s where things got weird.  Cos the lady looked at me like I had three heads and said, “Halbkugeln geht nicht bei uns.”  We don’t do half scoops.  And I’m like, how do you say “Can’t…or won’t?” in German?

Like, what the actual fuck is that?  I mean, what exactly is stopping you from taking half a scoop of one and half a scoop of the other and jamming them into the same tiny little cup?  Sure, I get that they won’t be exactly halves.  And, yeah, maybe that offends your German sense of…what, even?  Exactitude?  I ain’t exactly asking you to go in the back and concoct an entirely new flavor, just for me, you know?  And I’m not asking for extra ice cream.

I’m literally asking for the same total amount of product for the listed price.  And you know what even?  Fuck the listed price.  If you need to charge me an extra twenty cents for asking for something “off-menu,” so be it.  Although, even that, honestly would be weird.  But just flat out being all, “Yeeaaah, sorry, we don’t do half scoops”???  Oh, and not even “sorry.”  Just straight up, “We don’t do that, [implied] you monster.”  Like, that can’t be normal.

Except, apparently, that’s totally normal.  Here, I mean.  Apparently it’s totally normal here.  It’s obviously not normal.  What I mean is, I’ve told this story to like three people here; three Germans.  And it was the same reaction each time.  Every time I get to the part where I ask for half-&-half, their eyes go wide and the look at me like I’ve just kicked their dog.  I can see it in their faces.  Oh gods, you’re going to take her side, aren’t you?

“So she says – get this – she says, ‘Halbkugeln geht nicht bei uns.’  Can you believe that?”  And they all said the same thing.  “Dude, this is Germany.”  As if that were sufficient as an explanation.  I try to reason with them.  I try to make them see where I’m coming from.  They can’t.  Because Germany.

They have a saying here.  Kunden ist König – the customer is king.  Unless the customer asks for two half scoops.  Then apparently, the customer is a mad king and needs to be protected from himself.  It’s weird, is all I’m saying.

Anyway, Saturday I went for another walk. I didn’t really have a plan.  Just, it was a nice day.  So why not grab a brew and stroll?  Well, so I do that, and it’s lovely.  I got back to my Infinite Monkey Cage podcast.1  For some reason, it feels like a summer podcast to me.  My first time here, in 2015, I listened to it a lot whilst exploring.  So it evokes that – this – time of year for me.  I’m rambling again.

Well, as my walk is winding down, I notice that it’s about 4pm and also that I haven’t really eaten anything yet.  Which isn’t as bad as it sounds, when you consider I couldn’t be bothered to get my ass out of bed before noon.  But I was hungry, is the point.

So I pass a döner shop and awkwardly pause to look in the window.  It looks good, but there’s another one up the block, so I decide to check that one out too before making a decision.  I dunno why.  Not like they’re gonna be vastly different.  Meanwhile, I say that, and sure enough, the second one doesn’t look quite as good as the first.

What I mean by that is, the huge rotating döner in the window of the first shop looked crispier.  Which I like.  Because first of all, I feel like if it’s crispier, then it’s less likely to be super greasy and therefore a bit easier on my not-so-iron gut.  But also, when it’s crispy, you get that nice little crunch.

OK, now I sound like Billy Crystal in the Princess Bride.  You know, with the MLT – Mutton, Lettuce and Tomato, when the mutton is nice and lean…

Right, so I decide I want to go back to the first shop.  The only problem is, I’ve now lingered in front of both their windows; long enough for the guys behind the counter to see me.  And like, that’s awkward.  I mean, it’s not awkward for the more well-adjusted among us.  But I’m like, Great, Döner Guy #1 is gonna be all, “Oh, now you want my sammich only after deciding you didn’t want the other one more?”  And then I’d have to re-walk past the second shop with my purchase from the first shop in hand.  So then Döner Guy #2 could be all, “Oh, I see how it is.  My sammich isn’t good enough for you?  So you bought one from my competitor and are walking past my shop with it, what, to rub it in my face?”

Am I overthinking this?

Anyway, I decide to walk around the block the long way.  That should buy me 5-7 minutes, by which time, hopefully, both Döner Guys will have forgotten about my awkward window shopping.  Except, on the other side of the block, I find a cemetery.  So obvi I need to go check that out.

And at first, it’s just your usual cemetery business.  Nothing’s very old, mind you.  The oldest stones might be from late 19th or early 20th century.  But that’s OK.  It’s still nice and peaceful.  And it reminded me of the time me and Niki went to a cemetery.  That was either one of our last “dates” or one of our first “friend activities.”  We made up stories for some of the people.  And this one guy, Ruben (or Rueben?), Niki actually found a picture of his family.  Crazytown.  Probably not any Rubens in this joint though.  Not a very goyish name.

Well, as I’m looking at these stones I’m noticing the dates.  And it gets my mind going.  Because a great many of the people buried in this cemetery lived through the Nazi times.  And for me, it’s impossible not wonder about that.  Who were they?  What did they do?  Were some of the Nazis?  Did some of them resist?  Did most of them just go with the flow?  The shit these people must have lived through.  And why?  Because they happened to be born at a certain time, in a certain place?

And that’s when things took a turn.  Because then I came to a most interesting part of the cemetery.  Most interesting indeed.  Here, there were not the usual upstanding gravestones.  More square plaques, almost flat in the ground.  And I start to notice, all the death dates are 1945.  These stones are very Spartan, I should say.  Just a name (or “unknown”), a birth date (if known), a death date (if known), and then at the bottom “1939-1945.”

So is this a military part of the cemetery?  There’s nothing to indicate branch of service, rank or anything else.  But all the stones are of equal size, make, layout.  And it’s got the war dates.  So what’s the deal?  I start to look closer, and some of the people died in their 20’s and 30’s.  But some are definitely teenagers.  And a lot of them have death dates of April-May ’45.  So now we’re talking Battle of Berlin?

But so far, I can’t find any sign or plaque that gives actual information.  So after reading a bunch of the first stones I stumble across, I make my way to the front of this little area.  (I had entered from the back of it).  And there I do find a plaque.  But all it says is, 1st and 2nd World War.

Hey?  First also?  I turn around, and sure enough, at the front of this area, all the stones – which are otherwise identical to the ones above described – show the dates 1914 – 1918 across the bottom.  Well now that’s interesting.

So what is actually the deal here?  Did this start as only a cemetery for WWI soldiers; if indeed actually soldiers?  Was it expanded after the second world war?  Or was it all done at one time, later on?  Were bodies exhumed from both wars and reburied here all together?  I don’t know, because I can’t find any information.

But there’s layers of history here, beyond the obvious.  One just has to look at the names.  What I mean is, while many of the names are clearly German, a whole bunch are also Polish.  Which means there are even more stories here.

First, we need to remember that a huge chunk of western Poland was part of Germany up until Versailles.  So Polish names in the WWI section shouldn’t be so surprising.  And Berlin, after all, is quite close to the border.  So at least for these guys – the ’14 – ’18 gang – it’s probably safe to assume they were German citizens of Polish descent.

But what about the Polish names in the WWII section?  Were they also German citizens, long settled in or around Berlin?  Could they have been POWs or other Poles forced to fight, forced to defend Berlin in the last days of the war?  Was that even a thing?  Or did they see themselves as “German” as the guy buried next to them?  And if so, what did they make of the war, of German aggression against Poland, of the Nazi position that the Slavs, the Poles, were subhuman?  How could they take up arms in defense of that regime?  Questions.  But no answers.

And then, going back to the WWII stones, the ones showing deaths in April-May ’45.  The dates are very clearly Battle of Berlin, and I think it’s a safe assumption given where they’re buried.  Right in the path of the advancing Red Army.

But even then, what does that tell us about them?  Almost nothing.  The Russian Army was brutal.  “The Big Red Rape Machine” would be un unflattering but historically not inaccurate epithet.  So even if you hated the Nazis, do you take up arms willingly, when these guys are knocking down your door; knocking down your house; knocking down your whole block?  Do you defend your family, even as you pray for the end of the Nazis and all the madness they’ve wrought?

Or were some of these guys true believers?  The younger ones especially would have known nothing else.  They would have been indoctrinated almost from birth.  How many of them willingly gave their lives for The Führer?  Again, questions.  No answers.

And another point of interest.  While all the WWII stones that I inspected showed 1945 death dates, some of them were as late as September, October, November.  The war was already over.  How did they die?  In POW camps?  As war criminals?  From wounds or sickness sustained in battle?  How does somebody die 4, 5, 6 months after the war is over and still get buried beside the fighting dead?  (Again, assuming these are the fighting dead).  More questions.  Still no answers.

And then, finally, some answers.  But answers that beg more questions.  All the way in the front of this little area, I find a plaque with the following inscription:

In diesem Grab ruhen über 60 unbekannte Frauen und Männer, die infolge von Kriegseinwirkungen verstorben sind.  Die Toten wurden im Jahr 2009 vom St. Laurentius-Friedhof in diese geschlossene Gräberanlage des kommunalen Friedhofsteils Rudower Straße verlegt.

In this grave rest over 60 unknown women and men, who died due to the effects of war.  The dead were lain here from the St. Laurentius Cemetery in this separated grave area in 2009, by the Rudower Steet community.2

Well, the only thing I know for a fact after reading this is that this special section was only dedicated in 2009.  The cemetery itself is St. Laurentius, so I gather that before ’09 all these people were buried elsewhere in the same cemetery.  Oh, and women also?  I didn’t see any lady names, but then I didn’t inspect every stone.  And also, this plaque seemed only to be about the 60 unknowns.  What about all the “knowns”?

And what about the Kriegseinwirkungen – the “effects of war”?  Did they fight?  Or were they just poor civilian bastards who bought it in the Battle of Berlin?  From shelling or bombing or gods know what?

Indeed, now that I think about it a second time, was this plaque for the “unknowns” who were under “unknown” stones or was this a separate 60 people who didn’t even get that much?  So that was good for like two answers and a shit-ton more questions.

So much of this was unexpected and unexplained.  But the most unexpected, and the most wanting for explanation were the final two stones I found, set apart from all the others.  Just two.  The stone themselves looked just like all the others.  Name, birthdate, deathdate.  Only instead of the war dates across the bottom, were these words: NS – OPFER.  Nazi Victim.

Well, shit.  What does that mean?  Political victims?  Resistance fighters?  Jews?  Probably not Jews.  I can’t imagine any Jews would find their way into this cemetery.  But then again, who knows?  I mean, maybe.  So what was their “crime”?  Why were they victims of the Nazis?  Again, no answers.  But whatever the reason, here they lie.  And for them, for these two poor bastards, I’ll give their inscriptions.  It seems worth it.

GOTTFRIED KILIAN
* 7.10.1892
+ 6.8.1940
NS – OPFER

ERICH JANITZKY
* 21.7.1900
+ 21.6.1938
NS – OPFER

I don’t know what you did, fellas.  But you pissed off those Nazi bastards enough to get yourselves killed.  So here’s to you.

Anyway, that was my detour to the cemetery.  I grabbed my döner on the way home.  From the first shop.  And it was quite good.  Not too greasy and with a little bit of crunch.  Just how I like it.

A few weeks ago, my friend-former student Margit asked me if I would do a bit of tutoring with her daughter.  I’ve written about Mag before.  She’s awesome.  Half buddy, half my Berin-mom.  Total wiseass.

I had written a whole thing about this, but I wasn’t happy with it.  So here’s the short version.  The tutoring itself was great.  Super easy.  Sarah, her daughter, is very smart, very good with English.  But more than that, we just had fun.  Not just me and Sarah.  But also Margit, her husband, the other two kids; even Sarah’s French boyfriend visiting from France.3  They’re just good people, you know?

But good people can also be boring people, amirite?  No fear here though.  Everybody in that family is a total wise-ass.  And I mean that as a compliment.  They’re all very sweet.  You walk in the door, and you know right away there’s a lot of love in that house.  But everybody’s just giving everybody else shit all the time.  I fit right in, is what I’m trying to say.

Mag is also taking classical guitar lessons.  So I asked if I could try her axe.  She gladly let me.  It’s a great instrument.  I ran through a couple of Bach preludes and the Sor variations.  Thoroughly enjoyed that, I tellya.  But even more fun was the Edith Piaf.

See, the kid is also studying French and has a bit of culture.  So during the tutoring time, she was goofing around with Je ne regrette rien.  So I’m like, “Hey kid, come here and sing this with me.”  So we sat together and jammed out on that for the fam.  Crazy fun.  Seriously.

Like, Mag is already one of my favorite people.  And not just in Berlin, either.  I think I said last time, she reminds me a lot of my mom.  Which, when I told her, I think she found alternately flattering and annoying.  Annoying if only because who wants to be thought of as a mom by their friends?

But flattering because this.  We went out for drinks around Christmas.  And we wound up at some not-so-cheap (for Berlin)4 German restaurant on Unter den Linden.  And she insisted on paying for the whole thing.  So next time we met up, we went to a Vietnamese spot.  Whereupon I insisted on paying.  At first, she wasn’t having it.  But I reminded her that she had paid last time and that it couldn’t have been cheap, so really she didn’t have a choice.  At which point she relented, and said, “You know, your mom did a good job with you.”  Which I’m not writing here to brag.  Only because I know my mom reads this shit and I thought she’d like to hear the compliment.  All to say, I think Mag is OK if I happen to notice some similarities between her and one Cindy A. Starr.

Anyway, I’m a big fan of this whole family.  Add a few more to the list of awesome people I’ve met in this town.  I mean, I’m still always wondering how much of this is luck, you know?  What if I went to a different city?  What if I worked in a different school?  No Anne.  No Margit and fam.  No Jan and Zibs.  No J-Dawg.

Would there be other awesome people?  As awesome as these people?  Maybe.  I dunno.  What I do know is, I think I’m pretty fucking lucky here.

Could I still kvetch?  Sure.  But it’s baseball season.  Why would I?

זײַ געסונט

 

  1. Highly recommended, btw.  It’s a BBC science/comedy pod. []
  2. My translation.  It may not be perfect, but it’s close enough. []
  3. He had virtually no English and even less German, so it was a good opportunity to speak some French; though I did get my wires crossed quite a bit. []
  4. Which means cheap anywhere else. []