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Back in time to a painful Berlin past

My wife Karen’s mother Helga was born on August 17, 1926. She had a wonderful childhood in Berlin where she lived with her mother (Mutti), father (Papi) and grandmother (Ode/Oma). Helga’s mother died in 1936 when Helga was a young schoolgirl of 10. In 1939 she was just about 13 when her father decided it was no longer safe for her in Berlin. The atrocities of WWII had not yet begun but somehow Papi knew.

Helga’s older half sister Lotte had left home last year in 1938 to be a maid in England which was the only way a woman could get to England at the time. Lotte then found a guarantor who would take Helga in Surrey, England and quite possibly saved her life in doing so.

Helga's childhood home

Helga notes in her autobiography, “The last I saw of Papi was at a station in Berlin on July 4, 1939. We stopped once more at a second station in Berlin, and there was Papi again! He must have taken a taxi to get one last look at his daughter. He must have known it would be final.” War was declared 2 months later. How does a child get through this? How do they grow up seeing any fairness in life after experiencing that? How do you go on?

Helga continues, “My father was an exception as he died before the Nazis got hold of him. I believe on March 2, 1940. Not only had he been ordered to relinquish a good job in a large department store, but after Kristallnacht he was not allowed to work at all. We also had to list all gold and silver and all valuables, which promptly were taken by the Nazis. Having lost 2 wives, having seen his daughters off to England and having no means to make a living, at 59 years of age he had lost the will to live.”

Although time has obliterated most of her memories of this miraculous escape, Helga does recall a few things. Her place in history is that she was one of the lucky children to be given safe haven to England on the Kindertransport. She sat with a school friend and had wonderful leaders who may or may not have ultimately made it out of Germany themselves. Just shy of her 13th birthday, Helga recalls looking at this trial as an adventure and looking forward to her new school and being free of the Germans. She was met in the Liverpool Street station by her guarantor and began her new life in England.

It is sad to think that it then took until December 1949, when she married Max, Karen’s father, for Helga to realize as she wrote in her autobiography, “It was heaven to finally have someone to call my own, and to be loved.”

Helga is still alive today and Karen and I decided that we had to go to Berlin to try to understand; to seek out a little bit of Karen’s heritage and to see if we could get a glimpse into Helga’s childhood. Our son Gavin and his soon-to-be wife Jordi were travelling and working in Ireland so we decided to meet them in Berlin.

When we met them Gavin commented that his first view of Berlin had been an army tank. That kind of set the tone for our visit. That military feeling wasn’t necessarily there now but we found it was always in the back of our minds. Gavin is somewhat a humanitarian and is very proud of his half Jewish heritage so he was very excited about this trip.

We needed a way to see as much of Berlin as we could in the very short time that we were going to be there. We decided to take a bicycle tour. Exercise and history in one fell swoop. At about 20 degrees C with sunny, clear skies, it was an absolutely fabulous day for a city cycle tour. We could not have ordered a better day.

It was rewarding to tour with Karen and Gavin and Jordi in Karen’s mom’s birthplace. Karen has always wanted to see things firsthand after many years of stories from both parents. They suffered through the holocaust but did survive. It’s hard to see Berlin and not be plagued by these past atrocities but it is much more than Nazis and death. Sadly though, pretty much everything you see is a reminder of those awful times.

The tour pretty much started at the statue honouring Marx and Engels. From there we headed to Humbolt University in the Babelplatz, the site of one of Hitler’s more infamous book burnings. From there we cycled on to Checkpoint Charlie, a command post at the Wall. Known as Checkpoint C, it was the name given by the Western Allies to the best known Berlin Wall crossing point between East and West Germany during the Cold War. Erected by the Soviet Union in 1961, the Berlin Wall served as a barrier to what had become a loophole in the Soviet border system. How awful it must have been, having families separated by the Wall. Gavin and Jordi composed a photo of their own shadows over the plaque in the sidewalk at the Wall. Quite poignant. Thankfully in 1989 the Wall came down.

We had an authentic German lunch at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This was a somber site to say the least. Our tour guide informed us that in an ironic macabre twist of fate the chemical they used to treat the monuments so they would not be vandalized with graffiti was actually the very chemical that was used in the gas chambers in the concentration camps. Hey guys, a little research please!

Berlin's Reichstag

After lunch we arrived at the Brandenburg Gate. Blakely, our guide, started the fun with the true story that the US Embassy, who wanted a larger building nearby, actually asked the Germans if they would move the gate to make room for it. Only in America. A visit to the Victory Column and the Soviet War Memorial preceded our final stop at the Royal Family Church and the Reichstag.

Gavin and Jordi headed out to the Holocaust Museum. Gavin is very anxious to explore and learn more about his Jewish heritage. They also visited a concentration camp museum the next day in an effort to make some sense of this terrible time in history. This is something that would be too painful and emotional for Karen so she was unable to accompany them.

We drove to see, what we in essence had come to Berlin to see, Karen’s mother’s childhood home. I cannot even imagine what it must have been like for Helga after losing her mother to have to leave her father knowing that she would probably never see him again. And all this before she was even 13! We spent some time visiting her home and walking on the street where she lived. Karen had a look into the house to what would have been Helga’s apartment. The window was open; a fitting tribute indeed.

Finally we visited Weissensee, the Jewish cemetery (although not the grave sites as the cemetery was closed) where Helga’s parents rest – the grandparents Karen never knew. It was difficult to take all this in but at last we were gaining some insight to this painful past. We were fortunate to see Helga’s home – a place where she spent many happy times before the war. Like most every historical story in Berlin, this is a dark, sad tale but it is what we all met in Berlin to experience.

More by Eric Whitehead in his book ‘Then there Was One‘.

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