Berlin Storiesby Roy Hall
“How can you stand to be here after all that happened to your family?” Her name was Anna and she lived in East Berlin. I met her at the champagne bar in the food level of the KaDeWe department store in West Berlin. The champagne bar is a great place to meet people. After a few glasses of bubbly, everyone is your friend. She had been coming to this bar on the same date every year since the wall came down in 1989. This bar was her first taste of true freedom after a lifetime of communist rule. She had been married. Her husband had died a year before and she felt compelled to carry on this tradition. Perhaps it was the champagne, or just the anonymity, but she poured out her heart to me.
Tomorrow would be her father’s 56th birthday and she felt obligated to visit him. She never liked her father, but she recently discovered that he had been a spy for the Staatssicherheitsdienst, SSD (more commonly known as the Stasi), the infamous East German State security service, an internal spy agency reviled in East Germany before the wall came down. What bothered her most was that many years ago, her husband had been interrogated by the Stasi for having western leanings. He was summoned numerous times for questioning and, even though they found nothing to incriminate him, the experience was traumatizing for both of them. She now suspected her father of pointing the finger at her husband. He had never liked him and disapproved of their marriage. She asked me what she should do.
“What would happen if you never see your father again?” I asked.
She said she would be ecstatic.
I suggested the following, “Go see your father tomorrow and tell him this. ‘I know what you’ve done and I’ll never forgive you as long as I live.’ Then turn around and walk away.”
She thought that this was great idea, but I doubted that she would carry it out.
She then asked me why I was in Berlin, and I told her of my family’s history and that I was in the process of retrieving family property stolen by the Nazis. She couldn’t accept the fact that I had come to Berlin and harbored no hatred for the place. What she didn’t know was that I felt comfortable in Berlin because I had discovered something about my father; I had always thought of him as a German, but I found out that he was a Berliner and his manner of speech and mannerisms, not to mention his sense of humor, were specifically from that town. After all that had happened to my family, I felt at home there.
We closed out the bar at some late hour, but to our surprise, we also had closed down the store and had to walk down six flights on the frozen escalators to the exit. Empty department stores are most eerie. I walked her to the tram, kissed her on the cheek, and strolled back to my hotel through the gloom of the evening.
One evening, my lawyer said that another client of his was joining us for dinner. I didn’t mind, as I enjoyed dining with Dieter. His taste in food and wine was excellent, and over the years of my dealings with him, we had become good friends. We went to the restaurant and were presently joined by Mr. Streusand. He was in his sixties and rather sour looking. I was planning a celebration, as I had recently acquired the deed to a property owned by my grandmother and was going to meet with a realtor the next day to try to sell it. I was on my second drink when Streusand arrived, and his demeanor immediately sobered me up. Some people bring joy to an evening, others suck up all the oxygen. He lived in Israel and was having problems with his daughter. He said all she ever asked for was money, and that she gave him no respect or love in return. He droned on about how bad business was, etc. This wasn’t the evening I had planned.
To try and changed the subject, I asked him, “Streusand, that’s a unusual name. Are you related to Barbara Streisand?”
He said, “Yes, my grandfather and her grandfather were brothers. One came to Palestine, the other to the USA.”
“Have you met her?” I asked.
“She would think I wanted something from her.”
“Why would she think that? Maybe she would be interested in meeting new members of her family,” I replied.
“I wouldn’t know how to contact her.”
I said, “I’m sure I could find out who her publicist is, and you could write a letter to him to pass on to her.”
For the first time since we met, he brightened.
“Sure, just let me know, and I’ll see what I can do.”
That conversation was the only enjoyable part of the evening. No matter how much I drank, I was cold stone sober all night. A few days later, my lawyer rang me to tell me that Streusand had returned to Tel Aviv and committed suicide. I often thought of writing this down and sending it to Ms. Streisand, but I never did.
The deed to my grandmother’s block of flats in Lichtenberg, adjoining the railroad station, had a swastika stamped on it in 1941 when my grandmother defaulted on the mortgage after the family had fled to the Gironde in France. There was another stamp from 1953, stating that the property was now owned by the GDR, The German Democrat Republic.
Lichtenberg was a run-down suburb of East Berlin. The property on Weitlingstrasse consisted of around 20 apartments, with three or four shops below. At some point in the seventies, the building had done renovations and under some quirk of German law, I had to settle the mortgage before getting clear title. It wasn’t a significant amount of money, but it really pissed me off. As I had no alternative, I arranged a bridging loan with a local bank. I met with the realtor. He told me the following.
“Lichtenberg was a poor suburb, and was also poor before the war.”
This I knew.
He continued, “Also, the market has recently dropped.”
This, I also knew. It was the mid-nineties and the initial euphoria and speculation over the unification of East and West Germany had faded.
“Then, there is the added problem.”
“What added problem?” I asked.
“This is where the Neo Nazis live in Berlin.”
I sold it for a pittance and never returned to Lichtenberg.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in PS Audio’s Copper Magazine, Issue 75.