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.

Lilli was an exception: of the 309 people who lived in the street in 1939, 106 were deported for being Jewish. When Frau Rath and her children moved into number 25 in 1943, ‘breadcrumbs were still on the tablecloth, cold coffee in the bottom of the bowls, and the chairs had clearly been pushed back in a hurry.’ Even now, it isn’t clear how the street’s residents should remember what happened. For some time, Hugues writes, her building ‘had been in an uproar’:

The psychoanalyst on the first floor was trying to win the support of the renters to have a commemorative plaque in a wooden frame mounted in the entryway that would bear the names of the 13 Jews deported from the building … Some accused others of repressing the past: So we draw the curtains and go on like before! Others reproached some for their moralising tone and the accusatory finger … I had just arrived in Berlin at the time, and this quarrel illustrated to me the insoluble problem that the Germans have with Germany.

Of the 160,000 Jews living in Berlin in 1933, 90,000 had emigrated by 1945. Many left the city before they could be deported. Hugues set out to find those who had been ‘clairvoyant, rich and lucky enough to have escaped in time’ by placing an advert in Aktuell, a biannual publication sent out to Berlin’s expatriate Jewish community. She received 13 replies. One was from Hannah Kroner Segal, now of New York, who gave the book its title. Hannah lived on the street until 1939. She wore the eponymous dress, long and black in crêpe de chine, when she escaped to America aged 19 onboard the SS Rotterdam. It had been made by Susanne Wachsner at number 9, the adopted sister she’d had to leave behind. Susanne, who was meant to emigrate with the Kroners, arrived at the American Consulate 15 minutes too late to get a visa. She stayed in Berlin, where she fell in love. ‘Susanne has done something really stupid,’ Hannah’s mother wrote to her. ‘She … got married. They met at the soup kitchen. His name is Günther Cohn. He’s a Polish Jew. That means that Susanne goes from the German waiting list to the Polish waiting list, and the latter is interminably long.’ News of Susanne’s deportation was sent by a friend who followed the car that took her to the train station. Years later, Hannah went to an exhibition in Queens where lists of names of the deported were displayed; under ‘C’ she found ‘Susanne Cohn’. In New York, Hannah danced in a cabaret with a friend from Berlin and went on to marry, have a family of her own and set up a dance school which still exists today. At the end of their conversation in Hannah’s retirement home in North Hills, New York, she gave the dress to Hugues. ‘There is only one person who can wear that dress and it’s you. I would be so happy if you’d take it, if you brought it back there where it belongs in Susanne’s street.’

Another reply came from Miriam Blumenreich in Haifa. Miriam was born Marianne Gerda Fliegel in September 1931 at number 3, two floors below the Ernsthafts, with the assistance of a Catholic midwife. Miriam’s father, a lawyer, uprooted his family in 1934 to Kiryat Bialik, a settlement built on land donated by the Jewish National Fund set up by immigrant German Jews, mostly doctors, jurists and engineers. Arabs called them ‘Nazis’, but as ‘Jeckes’ (German Jews), they felt superior to the rowdy Russians and Poles. The Jeckes stuck together, founding an orchestra and never stepping off the bus without offering their ladies a hand. Marianne became Miriam, her mother, Klara, became Esther, but her grandmother remained Else: ‘Trade in Else for Deborah or Schlomi! Nein, nein!’ Although the memory of their elegant seven-room Schöneberg flat was fading, Herr Doktor Fiegel dug a garden in the sand at the front of his house and the family continued to eat black bread with quark and cumin in the evenings – a Berlin habit to which Miriam still holds. Miriam asked Hugues to bring cheesecake mix and cream stiffener from Berlin, for the Kuchen she will serve to her German-speaking bridge partners. Miriam’s late husband, Wolfgang Blumenreich, was affectionately teased by his in-laws for being an Ost Jude; he was born in Swinemünde (then eastern Germany, now Poland). For years he wouldn’t say anything about his life before he became a taxi driver in Haifa, and suffered from severe depressive episodes. ‘At home, even the walls breathe the Holocaust,’ Nava, Miriam’s daughter, told Hugues. ‘Germany tried to exterminate them and when they arrived in Israel their new country didn’t know how to listen to them.’

When Hugues visited Liselotte Bickenbach at her residential home in Berlin to ask her about her years in the street, Liselotte said ‘it was a happy time,’ but she didn’t want to speak of it: it made her ‘too sad’. Liselotte left Swinemünde in 1935 to escape her strict Prussian father. Once in Berlin, she cut off her long blonde plaits, found a job as secretary to the supreme high command of the German army and rented a room at number 3 from Mutti Nehrenberg (when servants became unaffordable the street’s residents let their many spare rooms). Liselotte married Wilhelm Wagner, a Luftwaffe pilot, in 1942, but he was killed two years later on a test flight. At the end of the war, pregnant following an affair with a captain in the merchant navy, Liselotte travelled east against the flow of refugees to find her parents. The family home had been requisitioned by the Red Army. She found her mother downstairs assisting a doctor who was performing abortions. Her father had shot himself when Germany surrendered. The doctor delivered her of a son, Joachim, just before they were expelled west (Swinemünde had become Swinoujście). After settling near Düsseldorf in a town called Hagen, which she found ‘provincial’, Liselotte worked until retirement as a secretary in the Chamber of Commerce. All her life, she kept close a cyanide capsule given to her in 1945 by an officer of the Navy High Command: ‘I keep it in case anything happens to you,’ she would say to Joachim, looking at the red capsule with ‘disquieting tenderness’. ‘I’ve lived through enough misfortune already.’

Annaliese Krüger – another young married woman who lived in the street in the 1930s – thought about her furniture. In the cellar during air raids, she contemplated what might become of her antiques:

the cherrywood dresser – a wedding present from her parents purchased from one of the most fashionable antique dealers on the Kurfürstendamm – in cinders. The elegant English sideboard that had pride of place in the dining room – also a ridiculous pile of charcoal. The clock encrusted with lapis lazuli that marked the passing hours in the den – now a skeleton of blackened metal covered in soot, its two hands sticking up into space like a dead beetle on its back. Only three years earlier this same clock had kept the time in the Krügers’ harmonious, orderly bourgeois household: mealtime, bathtime and bedtime for the children, coffee with the neighbours, washing day, and house-cleaning day in springtime.

But the furniture didn’t burn. It was evacuated along with the children to Zehdenick, a village just outside Berlin, though not before Annaliese had it photographed in situ. Having fled the advancing Russians at the end of the war, she returned to Zehdenick in 1947 to find her mahogany dining table hacked to pieces and the house linens ripped up for toilet paper. The few salvageable pieces followed her again in 1963 when – a brilliant feat of ‘brinkmanship’ – she arranged for them to cross the East-West border with her. Later, she turned down the offer of a subsidised Berlin flat in a 1950s block (her due as a victim of bomb damage) for a Wilhelmian flat near the Botanic Garden. The furniture fitted better there.

Of the few buildings still standing in Hugues’s street in 1945, most were close to collapse. Children ran along exposed timbers and lampposts were covered in posters for missing brothers, husbands and fathers. Hugues noticed as she listened to the stories of the street’s former residents that ‘the arrival of the Russians is an episode that gets retold tirelessly. The Bolshevik is even worse than he appears in Nazi propaganda. Russians cut down trees, hog the water pump at number 3, and rape women.’ But then the Americans arrived (Schöneberg was in the American sector). Rubble was cleared, the remaining stone-carved grapes were plucked off the façades of the buildings, and the 12-foot ceilings were lowered. The street was no longer home to professors and lawyers but to a ‘railway conductor, a seamstress, a house painter, a lathe operator, a panel beater, a cook, three bakers, a hairdresser, two postal workers – one retired’. Many flats had been divided during the economic downturn of the 1930s, now the rest followed. Families shared toilets and kitchens; parquet was covered over with linoleum. This Schöneberg street was distant from the Wirtschaftswunder, which put West Germany at the top of the world economy 15 years after the war, but Hugues’s neighbours got into the spirit. ‘After working themselves to exhaustion, they were hardly thinking of the past anymore. It’s handy all that work,’ Hugues remembers her father saying when the family visited Germany in the late 1960s.

The student revolts of 1968 barely touched the street. In Schöneberg washing machines and bowling clubs seemed more important. But in 1970 Edgar Froese, founder of the electronic music collective Tangerine Dream, moved into two and a half rooms in his parents-in-law’s second-floor flat at 7B with his pregnant wife. In 1976 he set up ‘administrative and audio-technical headquarters’ in another flat at number 7. The apartment was briefly a refuge for a detoxing David Bowie, who wanted to hide from the attentions of his coke dealer while his own Berlin flat was being renovated. In her fitful correspondence with Froese, who was one of her teenage idols, Hugues mentions the kaleidoscope mirror still hanging in the hall at number 7. Froese replies that ‘David Bowie, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, George Moorse, Friederich Gulda and many other contemporaries glanced at themselves in it.’

For anyone used to London or New York or Paris, property in Berlin is still cheap – but not for those who have always lived there. Schöneberg is now hip – the centre of Berlin’s gay scene – and it’s clear that professors and lawyers and digital marketing managers will soon displace the retired sports teacher and his hippie wife. In Hugues’s building, tenants used to ‘take it in turns cleaning the stairwell once a week, now that chore is outsourced to a private company’. The low-income housing estate that was built in the street in 1964 was demolished, despite people protesting with placards that read: ‘Schöneberg does not belong to the powerful! Against the destruction of affordable housing!’ In its place sleek apartments rise. Façades imitating the 20th-century buildings’ appearance are tacked onto the 1950s stucco. Bärbel Soller, who moved into Hugues’s building in 1973, worked for 38 years at the massive department store KaDeWe before being laid off, and could always be relied on to feed pets while their owners were away in the summer, packed up her Christmas lights, scrubbed down the lino and moved out.