Clairvoyant, Rich and Lucky

Chloë Daniel

When I first came to Berlin in 2002, house façades were still pockmarked by shrapnel, weeds grew in the empty plots of bombsites and the wind whipped round the new skyscrapers on Potsdamer Platz, built to fill the no-man’s-land between former East and former West. In Hannah’s Dress, Pascale Hugues writes about one of these ordinary-extraordinary streets: the one she lives on. Born in Strasbourg, Hugues moved to Germany in 1989 and has been the German correspondent for the French weekly Le Point since 1995; she has also written two previous books about Germany and its borderlands. Hannah’s Dress won the European Book Prize – set up by the EU in 2007 to ‘promote European values’– three years ago. In telling the story of her street and the people who lived there, Hugues asks: what if the whole turbulent German century could be told through the history of this ordinary street, chosen for no reason other than that she lives there?

We never learn the name of Hugues’s street. All we know is that it is in Schöneberg, which at the end of the 19th century was a village just south-west of Berlin but by 1910 had become a residential quarter in the west of the city, full of newly built Wilhelmian apartment blocks. The wealth which created the street had trickled in from newly industrialised, imperial Germany; the first owners and tenants – professors, doctors, businessmen and lawyers – sought the status that a concierge, electric lights, a lift and a marble-lined hall could bring. In Theodor Fontane’s The Poggenpuhl Family, old Prussian nobility sit in a cramped, damp flat overlooking a cemetery counting out each pfennig. In Hugues’s street, behind the turreted façades, the spacious flats had seven, eight, even ten rooms – grander at the front and simpler at the back, for the servants. I once visited a friend who lived in one of these buildings and we sat and drank wine on a hidden back balcony, which must have joined the kitchen to a servant’s bedroom.

The first of the street’s former residents Hugues talks to is Lilli Ernsthaft, a nonagenarian in high heels with raspberry-coloured nails, who moved into the second-floor flat at number 3 in 1922. Lilli is ‘the last survivor of the perfectly assimilated Jewish German bourgeoisie’. Her husband, Heinrich Ernsthaft, a former opera singer from Vienna and the owner of a Benz for which he employed a driver, had arrived in Schöneberg in 1905. He ran a beer import and export business before it was appropriated by the Nazis in 1937. The Ernsthafts survived the war by working at the Jewish Hospital (‘a ruse’, Lilli said, ‘to show the whole world how well the Nazis treated their Jews’) in Wedding in the north-west of Berlin. Their only child, Harry, whose bar mitzvah Lilli referred to as his ‘confirmation’, spent the last two years of the war hiding in the cellar of his former governess’s house, going upstairs in the evenings to teach her daughters the piano and help with homework. Through Lilli’s recollections we glimpse Berlin during the Weimar Republic: extravagant dinners eaten in expensive hotels, young women in satin slippers, their businessmen husbands carrying jewel-encrusted cigar cases. These were the happy times Lilli wanted to talk about. Their friends the Kutscheras, who owned Café Wien on Kurfürstendamm, also survived the war, but their children, Gert and Karin, ‘did not come back from Poland’. Over strawberry biscuits and instant coffee (Lilli apologised for not making real coffee: her hands shake too much these days) Hugues catches sight of a photo of Gert and Karin smiling. The photo is on top of a dresser, the drawers of which are filled with ancient leather gloves, a pair to match each handbag.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in