Looking for the truth? Go to the theatre.

Last night I went to a small Berlin theatre to see a one-woman play called Blonde Poison.

It’s about Stella Goldschlag, a German woman who collaborated with the Nazis to send hundreds, if not thousands of people to their deaths.

Using a poisonous cocktail of good looks and charm, she infiltrated hiding places and revealed them to the Gestapo.

Ferocious in her pursuit of victims, she was a dream come true for the Führer and his followers.

Blue-eyed and blonde, she epitomized the Aryan ideal.

Except for one thing.

She was Jewish.

Yes, you read that right.

Stella Goldschlag was a Jewish woman who embodied Nazi terror.

It’s an uncomfortable thing to write. Especially here in Germany, where the horrors inflicted on six million Jews are omnipresent – carved, literally, into the pavements and our consciousness.

The notion of a Jewish woman engineering the brutal deaths of her own people is something we might prefer not to think about.

Except, of course, that we must.

Because whether you consider her a monster, a victim of one, or something in between, Stella Goldschlag was a real person.

And real people do grotesque things. Most of the time, without considering themselves vile.

In the production I saw at the Brotfabrik, Stella Goldschlag is brilliantly portrayed by Dulcie Smart as an old woman waiting for a journalist to come and interview her.

As she paces nervously about the stage, counting down the minutes until she can put the coffee on, we witness an extraordinary pyschological range, which reveals not only the intelligence but also the empathy of the actress, who flits seamlessly from one state of heightened emotion to the next.

We see the girlish traces of vanity and vivaciousness and the suggestion of how they could have morphed into tools of treachery and deceit.

The flickers of innocence and pride as she recalls the way her father used to call her “Pünktchen” – and tell her she was destined to become a star.

We learn that Stella Goldschlag continued to betray Jews even after her parents were murdered at Auschwitz.

dulcie

Dulcie Smart as Stella Goldschlag Source: Brotfabrik

We watch in horror as her thoughts advance unrestrained.

She speaks of the mortification which must be experienced by those who get spinach stuck in their teeth. To tell them or not to? That is the question.

She is proud of her clean, white smile and examines it frequently in the mirror.

Her anti-Semitism is expressed in the disgust she has for the hooked noses and black hair of her fellow Jews.

Is she mad or bad or both, we wonder.

A victim or an engine of a totalitarian regime?

You will leave the theatre with an unsettled feeling in the pit of your stomach.

Embrace it.

It’s the sting of a painful truth.

Despite our enormous appetite for it, there is no such thing as a single story.

No one embodiment of monstrosity.

No defined point at which democracy erodes.

No real wisdom that can fit into 142 characters or less.

We may be closer to the truth in the theatre than on Twitter.

But even then, the sign of a good production is one that reminds us that in a functioning democracy, the absolute truth is allowed to elude us.

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Their spines contain their highlight reel

Here I am on a Monday morning in the Staatsbibliothek.

With my folders and flashcards.

And the Microsoft Word document open before me.

Surrounded by faces scowling in concentration, I am blank as a slate.

Here, where minds bathe in luxury, anything is possible.

All it takes is the scratch of a pen, the tap of a key, the turn of a page.

“Read over document as a netural, distant reader might,” it says on my to-do-list.

I breathe in. And out. And in again as I begin:

It was the day everything began to change and bit by bit, the threads of Dora Danckelmann’s past became unraveled…..

I scroll through the document.

Then 40 minutes later, the verdict.

The neutral, distant reader shakes their head apologetically.

They are neither kind nor unkind.  Neither my champion nor my challenger.

Their task is indepenent arbitration.

The words (all 54,375 of them) the reader says carefully, refuse to dance together.

Some shoot out in vulgar bursts. And others crawl too carefully along.

Too uncertain and at once too brash to form a bond.

Less than the sum of their parts.

I thank the reader and survey the truth:

The story has no flow. In 54,375 ways, it has steered off course.

A sorry tribute to its source.

It doesn’t work. Not because I am in the mood for self-destruction; but because it’s the plain and simple truth.

My story isn’t any good.

Not yet.

The shelves around me bulge with books. Thousands of them, forced into neat rows.

Like soldiers in waiting.

Their spines contain their highlight reel. The anguish that made them, rubbed away like sadness on your Facebook timeline.

Their polished boots ready for inspection, ready to deny the battles they’ve seen.

Like them, I’ve got no choice but to soldier on.

54,375 ways I’ve gone wrong. 54,375 ways to make it right.

One word; one battle at a time.

The rabbit cage

A few years ago, a large grey rabbit appeared in the hallway of the nursing home.

Residents would park their Zimmer frames and wheelchairs by its cage and stick their fingers through the bars.

The rabbit would twitch its nose in curiosity, and in response they’d exchange satisfied smiles.

Frau B told me it belonged to Alessandro, one of the care-workers. She said his girlfriend had thrown him out of the flat they shared and ordered him to take the rabbit with him.

This wasn’t true. But it was amusing, and so I went along with it.

I wasn’t sure Frau B really, truly believed it either.

Sometimes, when Alessandro came into the room, Frau B would say, “Here he is! The rabbit’s daddy.”

“It’s NOT my rabbit,” Alessandro would reply through gritted teeth. Then he’d slam the little cup that contained her painkillers down on the table and leave before she could say another word.

Frau B’s stories always had a dramatic narrative arc. When an old man named Mr Klein moved into the room next to her, she swore he was having a liaison with one of the women at her table.

She said she’d caught them looking at each other across the dining hall.

It was a most appealing tale which conveniently erased Mr Klein’s wife, who lives downstairs.

Still, I nodded indulgently.

As time went by, Frau B’s stories changed. They became less Mills and Boon.

She became increasingly paranoid.

The care-workers were coming into her room at night and eating her pears.

The cleaners were stealing her money and helping themselves to her jewelry.

The other residents were giving her dirty looks and talking about her behind her back.

She had deliberately been given a wheelchair with a faulty brake.

Frau B didn’t respond well to my attempts at gentle persuasion, so I mastered the art of deflection.

I’d listen as she catalogued the slights against her, then change the subject. I’d tell her about my friends’ love lives, or read to her from the Erich Kästner book.

For a while, it seemed to work.

But things are different now.

She insists that the staff  hate her.

And that the people she sits with at mealtimes are conspiring against her.

She sits in her room all day, ruminating about their treachery.

As a result of these perceived slights, this year, she is boycotting the Christmas party I’ve accompanied her to for the past five years.

The one where one of her favourite care-workers dresses up as Santa Claus and distributes gifts to every single one of the residents.

When I suggested she may regret not going, she became angry.

I didn’t bring it up again.

Last Sunday, when LSH and I came to visit, we found her looking for money.

She’d hidden it envelopes all around the room and couldn’t remember where she’d put it.

I offered to help, but she refused, in a tone that suggested she thought I wanted to pocket it.

We unpacked the shopping she’d ordered on the phone the day before: pears; hair slides (the long ones; she can’t grip the shorter ones with her arthritis-ridden fingers); two bars of chocolate and baby powder. We’d also picked up her jumper from the dry-cleaners.

“Is that all?” she said.

“Oh?” I said. “Did you need anything else?”

“You know I did,” she said. “Why didn’t you get grapes?”

I tried to explain as politely as I could that she hadn’t asked for any.

“And what about the pine branch?” she asked.

On this, she had a point.

She’d been talking about getting a small festive centerpiece for her table.

I’d actually bought her one already. But when I’d arrived with it last week, I discovered that her niece from Hamburg had been around in the interim and had supplied her with an alternative. It featured a glittery cut-out of a reindeer wedged inside a box of festive vegetation.

Frau B preferred mine, but thought it would be too risky to switch them in case her niece came back. On her instructions, I took the little pot home back home.

Photo from Katzi

Photo: LSH aka Andrew Hayden: instagram.com/andrewchayden

She did mention pimping her inferior centerpiece with a real pine branch. But she hadn’t brought it up again when I called, and – after a tiring week of getting up at half past three for work every morning – it had slipped my mind.

“So you’ve begun to exploit me too,” she said. “You think you can do what you like because I’ll forget.”

“That’s not fair,” I said, calmly.

“I told you I wanted a pine branch,” she said, her voice rising in anger.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get you one,” I said, curtly now. “I’ll get one this week.”

“You’re playing me for a fool.”

“Let’s read,” I suggested.

I thought it would help.

But she interrupted and said she needed the bathroom.

I let her wheel herself in and closed the door behind her – a small dignity she still insists on.

“Let me know if you need help,” I called after her.

LSH and I sat there, looking at our phones and whispering about how this wasn’t a very enjoyable visit.

Suddenly, a terrible cry came from the toilet.

I shot up and found Frau B hovering over the seat, clutching the bar with one hand and trying to pull her soiled underpants back over her knees with the other.

I re-inserted the sanitary towel that had slid down the inside of her tights, pulled up her underpants and tucked her vest into them.

Then she slid back into her wheelchair, and broke down.

“I can’t do this anymore,” she said. “I can’t go on.”

I bent down before her, and looked her right in the eye.

“Today is a bad day,” I said. “Tomorrow will be better.”

“I’ve been horrible to you,” she said.

“Don’t worry.”

“I need to get out,” she said. “I need to leave this room.”

We left LSH in the bedroom to ward of the thieves and I wheeled her up and down the corridor.

When we came back, some of the darkness had lifted. I made up stories about my baby niece I knew would make her laugh.

Still, a heaviness accompanied LSH and me home that evening.

The next day, I called her on my way home from work.

“Who’s this?” she said.

She sounded agitated and I realised she would have to strain to hear me above the traffic.

“Das Kätchen!”

“Kätchen?”

“Yep, it’s me.”

“I wasn’t expecting you.”

“I just wanted to see how you were.”

“I’m feeling ashamed,” she said.

“Don’t,” I said.

“I treated you terribly.”

“It’s nothing.”

“And to think that after everything I said, you still call me.”

“I was worried about you.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line.

“I often think I’m no longer capable of crying,” she said finally. “But the thought that there’s still someone who worries about me is enough to make me shed tears of joy.”

Now it was my turn to pause.

Then, in a matronly tone designed to stop me from welling up, I said: “Of course I care! How could I not?”

We hung up just as it began to drizzle.

As I walked on towards the train station, I imagined her watching the clouds form from her bedroom window, imprisoned in a cage she had a part in making.

Falling leaves

The doors of the lift slid open and I found Frau B sitting in her wheelchair, waiting.

Heaviness hung in the air. It was a bad day for me to be late.

“I’ve been so sad this past while,” she said when we were back in her room. “I couldn’t hold back the tears.”

We looked out the window at the tree. Its stark crown stood out against the grey sky. A gust of wind swept a handful of orange leaves off its lower branches. We watched them swirl to the ground.

“The weather doesn’t help,” she said.

We’d arranged to clear out the wardrobe, a task I was not looking forward to. Frau B is a back-seat tidier.

“No Katechen!” she will say as I stand haplessly before the wardrobe. “Hang it up so the zip faces left!”

“No!” she exclaims when I do what I’m told. “Put it over there with the blouses.”

We got the job done, and by the time I’d closed the wardrobe door, Frau B’s sadness had morphed to anger.

I found out when I tried to convince her that a sticker might be the solution to an ongoing problem she’s been having with her television.

Frau B’s fingers are crooked and hook-like so she often ends up pressing the wrong button on her remote control.

This results in a maddening situation where she cannot remove the teletext from the screen.

My suggested solution, as with all uncooperative technology, is to turn the offending device off and on again.

But there’s little point if you don’t know where the on button is. So I’d brought along some luminous stickers I thought could be used to mark the right button.

Frau B was having none of it.

“That’s not the on button,” she insisted when I showed her. “It’s somewhere down here.”

I politely persevered.

“NO Katechen!” she snapped. “That’s NOT where it is!” 1478964532403

I put the stickers away.

“You meant well,” she said.

I reached for the book and we continued the story about Rosa Luxembourg, which had captivated Frau B last week.

I was a few sentences in when she asked me to stop. “Let’s just chat instead,” she said.

“Sure.”

Frau B’s sadness-turned anger had morphed into remorse.

“You’re my one and only, Katechen” she said. “You really have no idea where I’d be without you….”

Her eyes were glistening and her gaze reached far beyond me.

“And me without you!” I said, with that false kind of brightness that stops you from welling up.

“And I was so snappy with you!” she said.

“Nonsense!”

“My mother always said I would find someone to take care of me in old age,” she said. “And then you came along.”

“You see, mothers are always right!” I said, and made her laugh.

We sat there for a while, looking at the falling leaves, safe in the knowledge that this kind of melancholy too would lift.

Reader, I married him.

Reader, I married him.

In a tower in the forest.

On a wet and windy August afternoon.

“Pity about the weather,” the florist said when I appeared, drenched, to pick up my bridal bouquet.

“Wrong weather, right man,” I quipped, a little too enthusiastically.

We took a taxi to the forest.

LSB, gallant as well as handsome in a three-piece suit, held a giant pink umbrella over my head as I clambered in with my sopping bouquet.

The driver appeared indifferent to our finery.

“We’re getting married,” I said, in case clarification was needed.

He nodded. “What’s the address?”

Our journey began in amicable pre-marital silence.

The windscreen wipers swished back and forth.

“The weather could be better,” the driver said, finally.

“Wrong weather, right man,” I quipped, a little too enthusiastically.

On arrival at the tower, we held a conference with the manager.

“How hardy are your guests?” she asked.

I thought about our Irish cohort. All but the youngest had survived at least one recession, years of rule by the Catholic Church and the indignity of immersion heaters.

Then I thought about our Bavarian relatives. My mother is one of nine. They are Nachkriegskinder – or “post-war children” – a generation constantly reminded of the horrors they narrowly escaped.

“Very hardy,” I said.

“Very well,” she said. “We’ll do the ceremony outside.”

LSB and I walked down the aisle to the Queen of Sheba, played beautifully on the violin by my cousin and sister.IMG-20170826-WA0032(1)

Everyone gazed at us benignly, snapping pictures as if we were a Very Important Couple indeed.

This, I thought, is what it feels like to be the Duchess of Cambridge.

The celebrants, two of our best friends, performed their roles superbly, holding fast to their flimsy folders as gusts of wind attacked its pages.

LSB and I took turns to read this poem. A friend sang. Another read The Trees by Philip Larkin.

And we planted an olive tree. (Or at least we moved it, ceremoniously, from one pot to another.)

We also let off 50 red balloons, one more, apparently, than local authorities allow.

balloons

Photo: Emma Chaze https://berlinerdiary.com/

But the highlight for many came later, with the performance of my Bavarian family’s choir. Members had disappeared discreetly after dinner. Later they paraded in, singing a traditional Bavarian wedding song in cannon. They brought the house down.

We did a first dance too, one of the few concessions we made to convention.

It was an awkward but happy shuffle.

“We did it,” LSH whispered to me as we took a look around at all of the people we love, gathered together.

“We sure did,” I said giddily, swerving to avoid his toes.

“Let’s get the others up,” he said.

We gestured wildly to our friends and family and soon the dancefloor was packed with people, boogying joyously to a playlist we’d compiled with the help of YouTube autoplay. (If you need 100 classically cheesy tracks in one place, write to me).

It was a glorious day, made so by the people who honored us with their presence.

We returned to the island of Rügen for our honeymoon and found the rock, where one year earlier, we’d said yes.  

There were no swans this year.

But as we stood there, gazing out to sea, we remembered how they’d drifted past – showing us this point in time.

da rock

The rock, where we said yes.

 

One old lady’s quest for a fish sandwich

LSB and I were out walking in Charlottenburg this weekend, when we happened upon an old woman sitting on her Zimmerframe.

It’s not an unusual sight in this part of town, known primarily for its elderly population and the leafy neighborhoods they frequent.

We would have walked right by her, without a second glance, except that she gestured at us to come over and handed me a handwritten note, wrapped in a five-euro note.

In case this sounds implausible here is a picture:

IMG-20170731-WA0011(1)

The note says: “Please buy me half a smoked fish in a sandwich (salted fish) No salad! ROGACKI.”

I haven’t eaten fish in a decade but I do know Rogacki. The family-run fish shop, located on the Wilmersdorfer Straße shopping street, has been there since 1932. It’s an institution and you can smell it a mile away.

The old lady was wearing a breathing apparatus underneath her clothing. “Fish.. Warm.. No lunch,” she said in between gasps, then smiled sweetly in anticipation.

I nodded, as if processing a routine request.

“What on earth..?”said LSB as we made our way to Rogacki. “Why do things like this always happen to you?”

I can only assume I was born with the kind of face that invites old ladies’ requests to buy fish sandwiches (Smoked. No salad).

We knew there was something wrong as soon as we turned onto Wilmersdorfer Straße.

For one, it didn’t smell fishy.

The lights were out.

The shutters boarded up.

“No!” we cried theatrically. “WHY?”

It was an hour past closing time.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that one cannot return empty-handed to an old woman gasping for breath and in need of a fish sandwich.

But that’s what we had to do.

She looked up in happy expectation as we returned, presumably relieved we hadn’t made off with her fiver and carefully crafted note.

“Closed,” I said, gesturing wildly, before remembering she wasn’t deaf.

“Closed?” she said, rasping. “Oh!”

She looked crestfallen. I asked her if I could get her anything else instead.

She didn’t understand.

“Polish,” she said. “Little German.” (It explained the spelling of Rogacki.)

I offered her the fiver back. But she was not ready to give up.

“Penny,” she said.

“Yes!” I replied. Penny is a supermarket nearby.

“No Penny.”

She held up two fingers and moved her arm around.

“Warm fish..” she said.

I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. I looked over at LSB but he looked just as confused as I did.

We had no choice but to try again.

“Me” (she pointed at herself) “Wait here,” she said and stroked my arm in appreciation.

We set off again.

“I have no idea what she was trying to say,” I said to LSB.

“Maybe there’s a fish place two doors down from Penny?” he suggested.

There wasn’t but we did pass a bakery.

I peered desperately into the glass display, my crazed expression attracting the attention of a young cashier.

“Do you have any smoked fish?” I asked. “You see, a lady gave me a note and…”

Her look, a combination of complete incomprehension and mild contempt, caused me to trail away.

Then, suddenly,  among the salami rolls and cheese and tomato baguettes, beckoning like a jewel, I discovered it.

One half of a roll, with a piece of smoked salmon slapped upon it.

I pointed at it enthusiastically.

“Could you heat this up for me?” I said. “Please?”

“For here or takeaway?”

“Oh, definitely takeaway!” I said, picturing the old lady gasping for breath as her stomach grumbled.

It wasn’t salted. It wasn’t smoked. But it would have to do.

She placed it in a bag, which was pleasingly warm to touch. It cost €1.50.

We returned to the old lady.

“Ah!” she said, beaming. “Warm?”

I nodded.

She smiled widely, as I tucked €3.50 worth of coins into the handwritten note, and handed it back to her.

We made to leave.

“Wait!” she said, and with an enormous effort, heaved around to reach into the basket of her Zimmerframe.

She handed me a sweet in a purple wrapper. Devastated, she looked at LSB.

“We’ll share!” I said, again gesturing with excessive enthusiasm.

She took a deep breath and smiled.

“Schönen Tag noch!”

“You have a good day too!” we said and walked away, relieved, yet bewildered.

How long, I wondered, had she been sitting on her Zimmerframe, waiting for a fish sandwich? And does she do it every day?

 

On enountering a tipsy punk

I was on the way to work the other day, preoccupied with global problems, like Donald Trump and the war in Syria. I’d just read a New Yorker article covering these topics and, not uncommonly for the newly enlightened, was energized by the urgent conviction that I must act to better the world. Immediately thereafter I was filled with the foreboding that I didn’t know how. And that even if I did, I probably didn’t have the courage to follow through.

I’d rolled the magazine up and packed it under my arm as I waited to change to the U9 line. The screen revealed I had a three-minute wait.

Enough time for a woman with a large dog and a leather jacked adorned with Tipp-Ex to engage me in conversation.

“Is this the right side for Hansaplatz?” she asked.

I paused to think (I shouldn’t have had to since this is my daily commute but remember, I was carrying the combined weight of the world’s problems as well as my New Yorker).

Punk-27947

By Pax – Transferred from pl.wikipedia.org to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2118607

Then said: “Yes!” a little too brightly, hoping to make up for my hesitation.

“Good,” she said. “I was afraid of getting it in the wrong direction.”

“Oh, I do that all the time,” I said. (It’s true.)

“My friends will be wondering where I am!” she continued. “I spent all night partying in Tiergarten with the other punks.”

I nodded knowingly, hoping to convey mindfulness of alternative lifestyles.

It seemed to work because she kept talking.

“I turned 30 yesterday!” she said.

“You did?! Happy Birthday!” I blurted enthusiastically.

She combed her hand through a mass of hair in the center of her otherwise shaved head.

“Thanks!” she said. “Got my hair done too. Had to, for the occasion.”

“It looks great,” I said, and meant it.

“Check out my jacket,” she continued. “All my buddies signed it.”

She pointed to various names signed in Tipp-Ex. “That’s my best friend Nina .. and my buddy Timo!”

She was the kind of intoxicated we all aspire to: cheerful but not embarrassing, her non sequiturs redeemed by elegant syntax.

As I was nodding along, I couldn’t help but think: we’re almost the same age! And she lives in the park, with her huge dog and all her lovely punk friends, enjoying life instead of obsessing over her failure to make a meaningful impact. And then, because such things are in my nature, I felt inadequate in the presence of such hard-won resilience.

As the train came, she pulled out a bottle of liquor from the inside of her jacket pocket and waved it in the air.

“Breakfast!” she said happily, before ushering her hound on board.