"Reflections and Repercussions" -- the memoirs of Si Lewen    
Previous chapter Index Home Next page
Chapter 12

After less than four years in three different apartments, my parents thought it best to leave Karlshorst. It was turning into a hotbed of Nazism. More and more Brownshirts could be seen parading the streets, echoing to their pounding boots, and children echoed and reflected the approaching nightmare. The proverbial handwriting was literally on the walls, adorned with ever proliferating Swastikas, and incidences directed not only at the likes of me - foreigners, "Polish Jews". The "good", the German Jews, would try to dismiss every incident as "only the work of hoodlums". "It'll pass", they insisted, convinced that a people as "cultured and civilized" as the Germans would never allow “these hoodlums" to take over. "It'll pass, it'll pass", they kept repeating.

But it did not pass. One Sunday afternoon, after a heated discussion with visitors, everyone felt that a little fresh air would help, and off we went on the always inevitable walk. The discussion, however, didn't cool down: father flayed the air, pointing fingers at imaginary adversaries. The good, solid burghers of Karlshorst passed in contemptuous silence, and I pretended that I really did not belong to this motley group. Two men came towards us; as they passed they suddenly shoved father off the sidewalk. "Go back where you came from", they cursed. My father was pale and shaken but said nothing. To see my father humiliated was worse than any abuse I myself had previously taken. It was time to move on.

We moved to the opposite end of Berlin. In the very southwest of Berlin, part of Zehlendorf, a new development had been built, cut into the surrounding forest, the Grunewald, and called Onkel Tom's Hutte. Familiar with the American story of Uncle Tom's Cabin, after which the nearby forest inn had been named, I saw in this latest move a most welcome omen. My dream of "America" was coming closer. The new housing development was in the latest Bauhaus style: clean, square and multicolored. Set amid the evergreen of the forest, it was a refreshing sight which apparently also affected its very atmosphere - mainly liberal and progressive; it seemed in every sense an oasis. If one did not venture beyond, into Berlin, or listen to the news, one could easily imagine to have found, finally, the best of Germany.

The 16 months in Onkel Tom's Hutte were certainly my happiest in Germany - before Hitler came to power in January 1933 and I fled. It was to be "forever"; I had no intention to ever return to Germany. But I did, as an American soldier when, once again, I swore that I would never return, or ever speak German again, after I saw the remains of the Holocaust. But in 1977 curiosity, as it had so often, got the better of me: Together with Rennie, I traveled to Berlin and Onkel Tom's Hutte. After 44 years and a devastating war, nothing appeared to have changed in this enclave of the Grunewald, even the apartment on Riemenschneider Strasse. I found myself transported back, as though in some strange time warp, as if nothing had happened in the meantime, and suddenly I was overcome - by an onslaught of diarrhea.

But in 1932, when soon after my so-called "Bar Mitzvah", we had moved into our brand new home, Mrs. Berger, one of father's devoted patrons, had presented us with a housewarming present - a "priceless" antique - a Rococo breakfront, meant to be the crowning piece in the new apartment. Tier upon opulent, ornamented tier, it reached to the ceiling and overpowered the entire room and my sensibilities. I took one look at it and declared: "I won't share the same room with this atrocity." A compromise was worked out: I would be permitted to remodel the antique into a shape and style which, for me, meant "modern". After much sawing and hacking, chiseling, rasping, sanding and several coats of pale gray enamel, I succeeded to transform the ancient antique into a modernistic monstrosity. It was hideous, but reluctantly tolerated - perhaps as an expression of youthful creativity. Not so, however, by the generous donor of the formerly priceless antique. She sat silent throughout the subsequent housewarming party and the inevitable discussions.

Discussed on this occasion, were not only the "forever new" and the "latest in art and literature", but with special vehemence "politics". It was l932 and the beat of the Stormtroopers' boots were coming closer, louder and deadlier. Few people, however, cared to worry. Even among the family's intelligentsia, most were convinced that the German people, the "heart of European culture" would never permit Hitler to come to power, or if he should, " he could not last more than six months". Certainly the Democracies would permit no radical excesses. "Don't worry!"

"How naive; if 'they' (the capitalists) want Hitler, there'll be a Hitler. Who do you think is financing his private army, the Stormtroopers?" It was Herr Rocker who posed this rhetorical question. Rudolf Rocker, one of father's closest friends, was the chairman of the German Anarcho-Syndicalist Party, which in Germany represented a considerable political and ideological movement. Jolly, rotund and bearded, Herr Rocker looked more like a gently passionate dreamer of some Utopia than the cartoon image of an anarchist. With a resonant booming voice, used to orations, he dominated all discussion. As vehemently anti-Marxist as anti-¬Capitalist, he lashed out against both. His main thesis, as the "inevitability" of Hitler loomed ever larger, was that "Capitalism needs a Hitler to roll back Communism. Read Mein Kampf", he urged (I did) - "it's all spelled out in it; Hitler means war. If there'd be no Hitler, Capitalism would have to invent one. It must support and promote Fascism everywhere".

"Yes, but those Western Powers only fool themselves if they encourage Hitler", added Etta Federn, the poet, who though "non¬political", had a keen sense of history. "War promotes Communism: it arose out of the ashes of the World War and must spread with every subsequent war - you wait and see!" "No, eventually we will triumph", Rudolf Rocker retorted. "Ultimately, there'll be no central governments, only Syndicates running all affairs and industries." "You're a dreamer", Rudolf was chided. "We are all dreamers", he answered and burst out laughing. Isaac, the idealist, sided with Rudolf Rocker. Father allowed to be "something of a Socialist", but insisted to be free of all dogma. His ideals derived less from politics than the Bible, especially the ancient prophets' denunciation of power and greed, as well as their concern for "social justice", which he could quote tirelessly. Denouncing Stalin's betrayal of "The Revolution", he took a generally pessimistic view of the future, which mother tried not to share. I thought everyone had "a point". Our collective god, at the moment, was Mahatma Ghandi and "Non-Violence".

Years later, I would try to see two sides to man: his independent, individualistic side, but also his social, communal and collective side, a contradiction, no doubt, but what existence is without inherent contradiction. Like my father, I refused to be restricted by any narrow identity, any dogma. "Identity" imposes a terrible limitation, a prison, a trap, I would keep insisting. “Don’t pin me down like some specimen in a collection of properly labeled bugs”. Anarchism (the philosophical brand, espoused by such as Tolstoy) held a certain fascination, perhaps, because of its seeming contradiction - “A State without authority” would constitute an oxymoron. The "Oxymoron State" appeared to pose a dilemma. There appeared no way around this or any other "dilemma" - except by a blind belief in God or whatever, but which I did not posses. Questioning, examining everything, accepting no Gospel Truth, I came to believe few official pronouncements or even news: "Propaganda, brain-washing, entertainment!" I could believe in "freedom and democracy", but I saw no nation state that had ever truly practiced either. Inevitably, disbelief would lead to what I had to acknowledge as growing cynicism, perhaps the final stage, beyond skepticism, begun in restless curiosity.

But, amid growing pessimism, even cynicism, during the waning days of the Weimar years, few saw "the handwriting on the wall" and left in time, disregarding Germany's "great cultural heritage". Most of our family’s circle of "intelligentsia", clinging to the very last and too late to that same heritage, perished. Dreamers, somnambulists all, no one in their wildest imagination could have imagined the Holocaust. Not far from our increasingly heated discussions, Nazis were marching and shouting "Deutschland erwache! (Germany awake!)" As Germany "awoke" it descended, step by step, into ever deepening nightmare and madness.

But before the winter of 1932-33, and Hitler's triumph, I had my first exhibition in a commercial gallery, a small room in back of a book store. My not very traditional or acceptable Bar Mitzvah may have celebrated my "coming of age". The exhibition was of profounder consequence: it spelled the end of innocence. Up to this time I had always and only painted for the pure love and joy of it, and only too happy to give away my paintings and drawings. Now, total strangers started to pay money for my work. Flattered, and possibly growing greedy, I began making copies of, particularly, one painting which everybody seemed to admire and want. I saved two examples of this self-plagiarism: proof of childhood duplicity and greed. Following that first exhibition, my dreams were filled with visions of "fame and fortune" - in America. I set to work, repeating things I knew were in demand, trying to please everybody.

Success and euphoria, this loss of innocence, of my first exhibition at the age of 13, probably came too soon, but there was little time to reflect on this. The Nazi Storm Troopers' boots were pounding ever louder as were the discussions. During one particularly sanguine debate in the palatial home of Mrs. Berger, her son and some of his business associates had joined in. One pointed a finger at father: "We German Jews are not like you people (meaning outsiders), we have always been Germans and will do what is best for Germany. Don't be shocked - there are many of us who will vote for Hitler. He is what Germany needs, he will rebuild and make Germany strong again. Hitler is the only bulwark against this Eastern Bolshevism." "What about his anti-Semitism?" "Don't worry, this is just for the riffraff; Hitler will need us to help get Germany back on its feet. Your Social Democrats have done nothing but talk, talk, talk, and coddle the Communists. It's time for some real change."

“Change” was on everyone’s mind, and many intellectuals shared Hitlers "dreams". The Nazi movement was not composed of only "bully-boys and riffraff". Few, however, saw what lay ahead. Hitler was awaited, less with trepidation than anticipation and almost relief. And so, on January 30, l933, the "good and proper" Germans triumphed and Hitler came to power - by proper parliamentary procedure. Even I felt a sense of relief. It should have pursued me with guilt and remorse, but with Hitler's triumph, I now had "good reason" to leave. My years of offended childhood, an alien, a misfit in a place I evidently did not belong would now come to an end. For those who preferred to stay on, it would mark the beginning of the road which eventually would lead into disaster. I was fortunate: to leave as quickly as possible. To go to America: this had always been the dream that had sustained me, and now the door suddenly opened. Most objections to my pleas to leave were overcome when the doorbell in our apartment rang one Friday evening.

Filling the door stood three men - two police officers and one “civilian” (the Gestapo?). My mother rushed to light some Sabbath candles, something she had never done before, perhaps trying to elicit from the officers "respect for religion". Our extensive library was scrutinized book by book, and then everyone was interrogated by the “civilian” late into the night, especially about "hidden" books. The family had indeed spirited away some books, but the officers did not get the information out of any family member; I was too speechless with fright, and for long after. Shortly before, the news had appeared about bonfires of books burned, my father's among them. He agreed that it was, perhaps, time to leave Germany - we were marked.

[Go to Next Chapter]Next page


[Return to Home Page]