Berlin and beyond. Broken promised lands

Berlin in late April, sunny in a wintry way, a spritz of rain, a South African Australian wrestling with a lifetime’s demons: sweetly, many of the particularities of my Cape Town childhood are there – the milk-rice my mother made my German father as a treat, for example, was echoed in the supermarket, milchreis, milchreis everywhere, and the men’s manicure sets he was partial to and kept in his bedside table were there, at the Sunday neighbourhood flea market. But at the flea market too, were some people of a certain age (I found myself doing the calculations all the time) selling antique jewellery, and I wondered where it came from. Contradictions, loving the language of the émigré who bought their salt pretzels from the German bakery in Cape Town, but shuddering still at its associations.

On arrival, my friend who picked me up (who had confessed some time ago, in sunny Sydney, that his parents were Nazis) drove straight to the Olympic Stadium where Herr Hitler had held his rallies. From there, since I expressed no preference and had never heard of it, it was off to Gleis 17, the train platform from whence Jews were sent to Auschwitz and other camps, and from there it’s a blur of monument after monument for the rest of the week. And still I didn’t see them all: the restored synagogues, the infamous bunker, and all those pavements with embedded name plaques of their one-time Jewish residents

Germany's restored parliament, The Reichstag, in Berlin

I learn from my host, who is a history teacher, that the school syllabus has an age-appropriate holocaust unit every year. I go to the Gestapo headquarters, I walk in the lovely Tiergarten but imagine these poor people sheltering there, just as I imagine them hiding among the gravestones when I visit the resting place of my late grandmother in the toppled cemetery, where trees have once again made a forest with ancestors between. There, I greet the other Hirschs, the Liebermanns and the various bergs, baums and steins whose names are second nature to me. 

I am dazed and not seeking it out, but I stumble upon the “Topography of Terror” which takes perhaps three hours to go through, a huge covered open-air display detailing the horrors. I go to the Berggruen Museum, and read that the art collection had found its place in Germany because the art dealer Heinz Berggruen, a German Jewish man who fled and fought with the Allies, had decided on a gesture of reconciliation, to show he’d made his peace with his past. He was buried in Berlin in 2007. Nearby, an avenue where people cycle up and down, and smoke cigarettes and wheel babies among huge weather-proof fabric banners with pictures of victims (Polish, Russian, others too) fluttering in the wind, and I feel obliged to stop and read every story, out of respect.

I meet with a cousin who’s about my age and bears the same surname, a good German name once upon a time, and who returned to Berlin after living in Israel awhile (there are reportedly 150,000 Jews living in Germany, reclaiming their rights). I don’t want to say goodbye to her, wanting family, us wandering Jews, in my case with relatives all over the world post-Germany and because of leaving South Africa, to which my father Hans fled in 1936 (he had a sister, believe it or not, called Gretl and another, Lisl and a brother Fritzl, more German they could not have been).

The cousin, whose holocaust history is more scary than mine in terms of immediate family, is a psychotherapist specialising in trans-generational trauma and says that it is here of all Europe that she feels safest in terms of the rising tide of anti-semitism, because the Germans have worked so hard to process their past.

At lunch, I refrain from the Jewish joke that I’ve heard at tables groaning with food in the festive season, “They tried to kill us, they failed… Let’s eat”.  She shows, to my mind, that same mix of German pride my father did when he used to try to instruct me in the use of a fish knife or some such thing and tell me that “we” do it this way, and I would be maddened by the “we”. My father who would be home trembling with fear if I’d been at a student protest at university, who saw only too clearly what was going on in South Africa but, not surprisingly, lacked the courage (or will) to speak up. I see now only how hard it must have been for him, and why he rushed to pay his bills early, and why he was often almost obsequious in his dealings with authority.

My cousin says she’s most comfortable with German people her age because she just knows them, the way I guess I just know South Africans my age. But back to Berlin. I am bristling on arrival, but in the middle, I appreciate what they have done in putting their shame on display, right there in the streets and on subway walls, not in an apartheid museum or a District Six museum, not really a matter of choice but unavoidable.

For me, though, more than all the monuments and museums and tours, it is a solitary thing and I am more disturbed by the everydayness in the stairwell of an old building where I see in my minds’ eye people with their belongings scuttling down, or a window from which I imagine someone jumping while the gestapo stamp up those stairs. And so on, my imagination paints it all for me, and I think of South Africa, and even Australia, and the humiliations visited on people there, where reparations have not been made, can never seem to be made, and how does one make them?

Before I leave, I make sure to go to a biergarten and have a bratwurst sausage and mustard on a white roll and sit among these people, being ordinary on a Sunday. But it is Tempelhof we are at, which was Hitler’s air-strip and is now an extraordinary open-air playground, alive with farm garden allotments, kite fliers and roller bladers and believe it or not, refugee housing on its perimeters.

I am a little uplifted, but then I meet a blue-eyed baby called Leni and my friend makes a comment in German to the baby’s mum about Leni Riefensthal and my being Jewish and this does not escape me and I realise maybe I did not want them to be expiating their historic guilt this way, and that my family story seems to be part of one giant tourist attraction, the unspeakable made real and feasible, and there is something repulsive in the display on the streets.

Avocado and citrus farmer Cor Greyling, his wife Bertha and children Kara, Lisa and twins Evert and CG down on the farm near the Gwydir River

On arriving home, I read about my old friend Graeme Bloch’s family, and a story in The Australian is headlined: South African dreams taking root in our safer soils. A 50-year old citrus and avocado farmer, Cor Greyling, has been sponsored to manage an orange orchard in NSW, and he and his wife and four children live in a spacious farmhouse without gates and security cameras. The Australian goes on to report that it’s a happiness Mr Greyling would like more South African farmers to have the opportunity to enjoy, as violence invades his former homeland and farmers, mainly white, are killed in their remote farmhouses at the rate of one a day*. He says he has friends keen to follow in his footsteps and work in Australian agriculture, particularly since radical February 27 laws were passed authorising government land seizures from white farmers without compensation. “South Africa has excellent farmers and it would be good for Australia economically, as well as from a humanitarian perspective,” Mr Greyling reportedly said.

*Various readers have correctly noted that Greyling's sensationalist claims, as reported in The Australian and quoted by various Australian politicians, are not to be taken at face value. According to statistics compiled by the Transvaal Agricultural Union, there were 84 farm murders in the 2017 calendar year. Of these, 59 victims were white farmers. A further 15 people, including 8 white farmers, were killed on farms in the first three months of 2018. While each one of these was undoubtedly one too many, there is a vast difference between his claimed "one farm murder a day", and the actual 67 that took place in the previous 15 months. It must also be noted that the circumstances surrounding these murders differ widely from case to case.

Also to be noted: The governing party, the Africn National Congress has declared that, if necessary, it intends changing the law to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation, but as yet no such bill has been introduced in parliament.

Share this article:

Reader's comments

Like to add your own comment ? Please click here to subscribe - OR -
Submitted by : Marylou Newdigate of Knysna on 2018-05-28 21:39:52
"He says he has friends keen to follow in his footsteps and work in Australian agriculture, particularly since radical February 27 laws were passed authorising government land seizures from white farmers without compensation." Really? These laws have passed already? I thought it was an agreement to discuss it. Maybe it won't happen. I can't see how the banks who are owed trillions and really run everything, will allow expropriation without compensation.


While every reasonable effort is taken to ensure the accuracy and soundness of the contents of this publication, neither the authors nor the publishers of this website bear any responsibility for the consequences of any actions based on the information contained therein.