Berlin afternoon

By Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

I was on my way home from school that wintry day. It was a long walk for an eight-year-old carrying a school bag and a lunch box. That day it seemed even longer because there was no one to walk with.

Most days my mother came to pick me up at school and walk me home. This day something had prevented her from coming.

In my childhood memories of Berlin I see empty streets lining endless blocks of grey tall apartment houses. The buildings cast dark shadows onto sidewalks where no trees grew. I see no people on the streets, only a silent landscape of hard grey shapes.

When I look at a map now, so many years later, I find street names long forgotten. Suddenly the names are back and I remember the streets on which I walked daily on my way home from school.

I didn’t mind being by myself. I was always a bit of a dreamer and thought of all sorts of lovely things when I was alone, thoughts that could not run around in my head if someone was talking to me.

Adults always tell children, “do this,” or “don’t do that,” even on walks. I suppose children must do what they are told. I was told not to talk to strangers on the street, and I never disobeyed that admonition willingly. Yet, that afternoon …

I was daydreaming when someone appeared at my side and started talking to me. It was a young blond German man, but I couldn’t tell how old he might be. He suddenly came out of nowhere. I wasn’t even aware know how long he had been walking and talking with me.

“Little girl, I need some help,” he said. “You look as if you are just the person to help me.”

I was startled when he put his hand on my shoulder, but he continued to speak as he walked with me.

“You look like such a nice little Jewish girl… you are Jewish, aren’t you?”

I nodded.

“Then I am sure you can help me to find Rabbi Silberstein who lives on this street. I have been looking for his name in most of the houses on this block. Do you know in which house he lives?”

I had no idea who Rabbi Silberstein was or where he lived. I did tell the man that I didn’t know. He was talking so fast I am sure he didn’t hear me. Or want to.

At that moment I became quite desperate. I wanted to run away, but I was afraid to be so impolite. The nice upbringing won out.

Within a few seconds he stopped at the front door of the nearest large apartment building and asked whether I would help him look inside. Once in the lobby, I noticed that he didn’t look at the large area of mailboxes where each box had a name affixed to it. I showed the mailboxes   to him.

“No, no,” he answered impatiently. “His name isn’t there. We must look on the second floor.”

He pointed to the large staircase and motioned for me to go ahead of him.

It got dark early that time of the year. I had never before been aware how dim the insides of those big apartment buildings were. The late afternoon sun filtered through the leaded glass panels on the landing barely enough to light up the stairs but left the rest of the building in semi-darkness.

The man pretended to look at the nameplate of every door on that floor. Then he shook his head again and pointed upstairs to the next floor, making me walk up ahead of him again. I thought of the punishment that awaited me at home if my mother found out about this.

I got a tight grip on my school bag and turned around to face the man who stood just a step below me on the stairs. I wanted to tell him I could not stay any longer to help him and that he would have to search by himself.

Suddenly, before I could say a word, he reached out, grabbed my waist, and knocked me down. In the darkness of the stairwell I couldn’t see his face but his heavy rapid breathing warned me that I must get away quickly. Like a trapped animal I felt a desperate urge to escape.

It was suddenly clear there was no Rabbi Silberstein in this house. The man had lied to me. Intense fear warned that I must get away quickly. In desperation I looked for an escape.

At the same time I was terribly angry. Hot anger boiled in me and gave me the strength I had not felt before.

I sat up, ducked, and ran right through the man’s legs, swiftly down three flights of stairs, and out of the house. Never looking back to see whether he was behind me, I did not stop running for at least ten blocks. When I finally reached home I darted into the house entrance, up the steps, and into our apartment.

Not until the door was closed securely behind me did I feel safe.

I rushed into my room and lay down on my bed. I cried and cried. When my mother questioned me, I told her the man had wanted to hurt me. I sobbed too hard to be coherent. She felt my head for a temperature and put me to bed for the rest of that day.

The scare did not pass easily. The next day I did not go to school, nor the next. I was calmer and could tell my mother some of the facts, but I was still afraid to go out on the street alone. Perhaps the man had found out where I lived and was outside waiting for me?

My mother finally went to the police without me. When she returned from the precinct station, she said the police had taken down her story and promised to look for the man who fitted the details.

She took off her coat and sat down in a chair next to the warm, safe bed I did not want to leave and talked to me. She fed me sips of hot tea. She looked sad and gazed past me out of the window into the winter sky.

My big pink teddy bear, dressed in my outgrown clothes, sat in another chair and listened, too.

I wondered what she had really been told at the police station. Perhaps they did not believe my story and said it must have been a child’s fantasy. Or did they care at all and had put her off politely?

I had always taken my problems to my mother, confident she would find the solution to them and set my world straight again. Her sad face suddenly revealed that my protector was not as strong as I had always believed. That day I knew for the first time that my mother too, was vulnerable.

About six months later I thought I saw the man again.

My mother and I were with friends on a Sunday outing in Berlin’s Grunewald at an outdoor cafe where strollers stopped for coffee and cake after a hike through the woods.

My parents had recently decided to divorce. No one explained to me what that meant.

All I knew was that my father was no longer living with us. My mother and I now lived in a newer apartment complex in West Berlin’s Wilmersdorf district. Walking home the long blocks from my school on Bleibtreu-strasse to our new home took much longer. After that past winter’s episode I had been unhappy and withdrawn. When spring came she took me out often, hoping that fresh air and exercise would perk me up.

That Sunday afternoon we sat at a round table covered with a white cloth. The waitress had already brought our order. Suddenly I was aware of a pair of eyes looking my way. They were the eyes of a young, good-looking, blond German man who smiled in a way that was not nice at all. I could not understand that kind of smile, and I stiffened with fright.

I was not sure he was looking at me, or that he had even seen me, yet somehow I sensed he had recognized me and that his smile dared me to open my mouth.

“That’s him, that’s the man, “ I said to my mother. I pulled her hand to get her attention for she was talking to someone at our table.

“Mother, that’s the one.”

I was anxious to go home. Those staring eyes, that smirking smile had spoiled the Sunday outing for me.

During the months that followed there were several occasions when I thought I saw the man again, especially among crowds of people. Perhaps it was my imagination.

As time passed I could no longer completely recall his face. His eyes, however, stayed with me for a long, long time. Now, after many years, the eyes too, have disappeared from my memory. Only in an occasional nightmare do they still linger.

Just prior to the start of my third school year the Nazi regime decided its good German children should no longer be exposed to daily contact with undesirable minorities and permanently barred Jewish children from attending public school.

I did not mind at all that I could no longer go to school.

I was glad.

Born in Germany, Ellen Norman Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.





1 Comment

Filed under Family history, German Jewry, Jewish identity

One response to “Berlin afternoon

  1. Peter Rothholz

    It is amazing to read your essay in Paris, one day after we arrived here from, Berlin. Not only that, but we actually walked on Bleibrteu Str.We celebrqted my 85th birthdqy at the kempinski and qre now spending 10 days in FrANCE;

    Congratulations on your story . You transmit so many deep feelings in so few words. That is a great talent!

    We hope you are both OK and send you much love ;

    Barbaqra & Peter

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