Published: May 2009
By Christopher Benfey
Ted Benfey was 11 when he was forced to flee his homeland. Sixty-six years later, his son Christopher brought him back, with his two grandchildren, to revisit Berlin and reclaim it as the family's own
Inside: Genealogy Resources
"Just before my eleventh birthday my life changed completely." My father wrote those words to my son Tommy, who had just turned 11, in a letter explaining how his upper-class upbringing in Berlin had come to an abrupt halt in 1936. That year my father left Germany, for his own safety, to live with foster parents in a foreign land. He was separated from his family for what stretched into a decade while war destroyed his homeland. I had often wondered, as I grew up and then had children of my own, what these experiences had been like for my father. Though I knew the basic outlines of his life, I'd never had access to the texture, terrain, and emotional tone of his childhood.
The idea of getting together the two 11-year-olds—my father then, and my son now—prompted our recent trip to the great German capital. I wanted to see how much of my father's Berliner youth we could recover, and find ways for all of us to share it. That Tommy was born in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down, added another magic number. It was a boys-only trip: my father, Ted; my two sons, Tommy and eight-year-old Nicholas; and I. My brother Stephen joined us for a few days, bringing along a video camera; the kids packed trip diaries. Even as we looked for my father's past, my sons were creating histories of their own.
I wanted the trip to be fun, and to spark curiosity rather than impose canned responses. I was especially wary that the serious subject matter—Hitler, World War II, the Berlin Wall— would translate into gloom and boredom for the kids. Before we left, I tried to gradually acclimate the boys, tossing a Dorling Kindersley book about World War II into the car, where they could pore over the vivid photographs on the way to piano lessons and basketball practice. The questions that erupted—"What's this weird-looking cross?" "Was Hitler a very bad man?"—allowed us to cover some history without the kids feeling they were cooped up in a classroom.
In the months before the trip, my father, now living in North Carolina, sent a series of letters about his childhood to Tommy, who was studying immigration in his fifth-grade class in western Massachusetts. Ted wrote how he'd been forced to leave Berlin and his family behind because of his Jewish background. Ted's father, a supreme court justice and World War I veteran, had converted from Judaism to Lutheranism as a young man, both for patriotic reasons—to feel more "German"—and to advance his judicial career. My father's mother belonged to the German-Jewish Ullstein family of publishing fame, and her sister, the well-known textile artist Anni Albers, was associated with the Bauhaus. The Ullsteins had been baptized as a family in the late 19th century. But to Hitler they were all Jews. The Nazis fired my grandfather from his post in 1935, when he was 60. Ted described how his father had come home ashen-faced "because at some Nazi office, when he introduced himself as 'Senatspräsident Benfey,' an official replied, 'Sie sind nicht Senatspräsident Benfey. Sie sind Jude Benfey.' " ("You are not Chief Justice Benfey. You are Benfey the Jew.")
Close friends of the Benfeys, also of Jewish descent, fled Berlin for England in early 1936, settling in the town of Watford, outside London. They had a son my father's age and suggested that Ted join them. So my father said good-bye to his family. He saw them briefly—his parents, his older sister, his younger brother—on summer visits to Berlin until they left for the United States in 1939. The plan was that Ted would join them when they were situated. Instead, the war broke out, and Ted didn't see his family for six years. By the time he did, he was 20 and had begun a career as a professor of chemistry at Haverford College, where he met my mother, a North Carolina native; his childhood was long over. Amazingly, all of my father's immediate family escaped from Germany, and were reunited in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after the war.
Ted had had to learn a new language in England, and I wanted Tommy and Nicholas to have some idea of what that involved. I also hoped that the German language would be something more than background noise for them. I brought out a little alphabet set that I'd gotten in Vienna as a child. (My father had been a visiting professor there, and I learned to read German before I could read English.) Inside a case were tiny squares of white paper, each with a letter or punctuation mark on it, and these could be lined up to make words and sentences. Every day I composed a common phrase for my sons in German—"What time is it?" "Did you sleep well?" "Where are you from?"—and that was the sentence of the day. Still, when we took a boat ride with a German-speaking guide along the rivers and canals of Berlin on our first day, Nicholas said, "Daddy, there are a lot of German words you didn't teach us." My father, still fluent, did the translating.
I had been in Berlin once before, with a student group in 1977. Berlin was still a divided city then, rife with suspicion, and I remember the sensation of always being watched. This time, though, my father, my sons, and I waltzed through customs together with nary a stamp on our passports or a questioning glance from the smiling officials. We were met at the airport by a friend, Sten Nadolny, a novelist who's writing a book about the Ullstein family. Together we drove into the vast and bewildering urban network—of dilapidated old neighborhoods, glittering new downtowns, skyscrapers under construction, and bombed-out spaces—called Berlin.
We arrived on the afternoon of the Love Parade. This annual Mardi Gras—like frolic on the second Sunday in July started in 1989, when a DJ celebrated his birthday by blaring music from a truck as he drove down the Kurfürstendamm, followed by a raucous parade of friends. With no political or religious agenda whatsoever, the Love Parade has become a mob of boozy, scantily clad revelers surging up, across, and down Unter den Linden, the main thoroughfare of the Eastern sector, through the Brandenburg Gate, and into the Tiergarten, Berlin's biggest park. My father and I covered our ears, but the kids liked the relentless techno beat coming from loudspeakers— Tommy bought the official Love Parade CD—though the dyed hair and bare breasts did take them by surprise. That night, back at the hotel, Nicholas drew pictures of spiked green hair and wrote in his trip diary: "I think they made too much of the word LOVE."
Our hotel—the sturdy, unfashionable Stuttgarter Hof—was within walking distance of the old center (the "Mitte," or middle) and the futuristic new skyscrapers of Potsdamer Platz, and an easy bus ride to the shopping in the western neighborhoods and the zoo. Checkpoint Charlie and the most extensive surviving section of the Berlin Wall were both nearby. The kids were engrossed by the House on Checkpoint Charlie Museum, where exhibits show how people escaped under, through, and over the wall—via tunnels, VW bugs with secret compartments, and hot-air balloons.
What I hadn't bargained for was the hotel's unnerving proximity to the old Gestapo headquarters, just a block away. The building was destroyed by Allied bombing, but the basement rooms, where prisoners were interrogated and tortured by the SS, came to light during recent construction. The site is now an ongoing archaeological excavation and outdoor museum called Topography of Terror.
Berlin is indeed a haunted city, and, as I was soon to learn, children react in unexpected ways to scenes of past suffering. There was no point in trying to corral their emotions into acceptable "grown-up" responses. Two days into our visit, we went with Sten Nadolny to the recently opened Berlin Jewish Museum. The building, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, is an extraordinary zigzag of zinc and steel based on a fractured Star of David, with oddly placed windows and corridors meant to evoke the historical dislocations of the Jewish people. Along one hall are exhibits of letters, passports, and other documents of flight; my father showed Tommy the large blue J—for "Jew"—stamped across the passports, exactly like those his own parents brought to America. My father was particularly moved by a dungeon-like space filled with tens of thousands of iron medallions, each with eyes, nose, and mouth stamped into them, representing the millions of murdered Jews.
Tommy and Nicholas, by contrast, were thrilled with the building's fun-house effects—stairways leading nowhere and narrowing corridors ending in dark shafts. Libeskind's Garden of Exile and Emigration, a maze of 49 concrete pillars topped by willow trees, was the ideal setting, the boys thought, for a boisterous game of hide-and-seek. "This place is cool!" Tommy said. Their irreverence made me a little nervous until a museum official put me at ease. One message of the museum is that Jewry survives in its children, she said, and children are especially welcome there. Overhearing this, Sten remarked wryly: "Exile is terrible for grown-ups, but children can find fun things along the way."
I was turning over Sten's observation as we took a taxi to the apartment house where Ted lived until age 11. It is a lovely cream-colored stucco structure of six stories, built in 1910, on the Fürstenplatz in the luxurious neighborhood of Charlottenburg. We rode up in a cast-iron elevator that rises beside the marble staircase, passing purple-and-pink Secession-style stained glass on each landing, and then knocked on the door of Ted's former apartment. A friendly couple, a lawyer and his gynecologist wife, with their new baby, invited us in. Only the bathroom and its claw-footed tub were unchanged. But the dimensions of the other eight rooms were the same, and Ted and Tommy stood in Ted's old bedroom talking about what it's like to share a room with a little brother.
The apartment seemed so warm and comfortable, with the happy family there, but I couldn't help thinking about how suddenly Ted's life in it had ended. If my father felt any sadness, he didn't show it. "I have only pleasant memories of this apartment," he said, and I realized I had two cheerful 11-year-olds on my hands. I was the one feeling bereft. I had wanted to reclaim, somehow, this vanished German-Jewish world of sophistication and ease, stained glass and stucco, as my heritage. My father had moved on long ago.
As we left the apartment, Ted was telling Tommy and Nicholas about the "street polo" games he and his brother had played decades before, with bicycles and croquet mallets in the park outside. The big event of 1936 was the Olympic Games, when Hitler wanted to show the world the greatness of the Third Reich. Each morning, Ted and his friends would run to the Heerstrasse, the triumphal boulevard laid out by Albert Speer, to see Hitler's motorcade racing to the games. "When he appeared in an open convertible, we cheered like mad," Ted remembered, "and everyone was shouting 'Heil Hitler!' Our parents knew about Hitler's hatred of the Jews, but they didn't want to scare us." Ted's father took his children to see the Olympic field hockey and polo matches (hence the street polo), and sneaked the kids into the Olympic Pool, even though Jews were forbidden to swim there.
We visited the Olympic Stadium—now undergoing a face-lift—where the soccer World Cup is to be held in four years. Tommy and Nicholas swam in the outdoor pool, and while they toweled off Ted regaled them with stories of runner Jesse Owens's triumphs at the games, and Hitler's fury that the four-time gold medalist was African-American. I stared up at the diving boards, playing over in my mind Leni Riefenstahl's great film Olympia, with its divers gliding through the air. Amid the happy scene of children swimming on a summer day, I again had that sense of mourning, though for exactly what I couldn't say. Perhaps it had something to do with the sheer richness of Berlin's history, with beauty and horror so consistently interwoven.
That sense of unreality was compounded when we stopped at the massive dark-granite court building where my grandfather had presided as chief justice, and where the Nazis had later conducted show trials to convict political prisoners. The main door was slightly ajar, so we walked right in. Strewn about was the apparatus of a pre-war office building: manual typewriters, ancient black filing cabinets, stenographers' Dictaphones. It was as though a time machine had transported us back to 1936. A stylish young woman briskly approached to explain that we were standing in a movie set. They were filming a 1930's crime thriller.
Our week in Berlin went by quickly. We had barely begun to explore the stores in the rebuilt and futuristic eastern neighborhoods, and we wanted to see more of Museum Island, especially the Pergamon Museum, with its monumental temples and gates from the ancient world. The kids had found a favorite lunch spot—Berlin's Hard Rock Café, which happened to be directly across from the building where my grandmother grew up. By the end of our stay we were all feeling a little nostalgic, as though my father's erstwhile home were now somehow our own. In the final entry of his trip diary, Nicholas wished we could have "one more day here." At night in our hotel we watched videos the kids had filmed of our boat ride, our visit to the Jewish Museum, and our pilgrimage to Benfey Street, named after my father's great-granduncle, a fairy-tale-collecting linguist and colleague of the Brothers Grimm.
We spent our last day at the zoo, one of Ted's childhood haunts. The best entrance is the chinoiserie Elephant Gate near the shops of the Kurfürstendamm. After visiting the flamingos and panthers, we watched a baby spider monkey learning to jump. He would leap from his mother's arms and try to grasp a low-hanging branch, miss, fall, return to his mother's arms, and jump again. It seemed, in the late-afternoon haze, a fitting image of a child's first perilous steps into the uncertain world. This handsome city had pushed my father out into the world, and without that expulsion and his flight to America, my sons and I would never have been born.
The baby monkey jumped one last time, grasped the branch firmly, and swung back and forth. I could swear that he smiled in triumph.
Christopher Benfey, who teaches literature at Mount Holyoke College, is the author of Degas in New Orleans.