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Our Berlin

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.

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