{21} The Day the Wall Was Built

On August 13th in 1961 the Berlin Wall was built. I will always remember this day - here is my experience of it:

In the living room, men were shouting. Those loud voices had been in my dream as roaring trains. But now I was awake and the men were still arguing next door. Usually I was the first one to wake up but today it was late, the sun beamed a slice of brilliance through a gap in the thick curtains. Why hadn’t my aunt woken me up to fetch Broetchen from the bakery? And why did we have morning guests? Eight years old, I was staying with Tante Maria and Onkel Walter, who were like grandparents to me. Then I realized there were no guests. It was the radio, turned up loud.


“Psst” Onkel Walter brought his finger to his lips when I entered the living room. He was sitting at his enormous desk and behind him, tall dark brown shelves held hundreds of books that smelled like my mother’s leather wallet, only dustier. His face earnest, my uncle pointed to the radio, as if I hadn’t heard it. He always got stern during newscasts, but today something was different and it wasn’t just the volume. Just then, the phone rang, startling me. Onkel Walther bellowed into the receiver louder than the men on the radio. I heard Russen and Amerikaner and Kalter Krieg and I wondered how a war could be cold on such a bright summer day.

Tante Maria, her silver hair pulled back in a twist, came in to see who was calling. She kissed the top of my head and pulled me into the bedroom. “Get dressed, Muckelchen, we’re going out.”  Why was she whispering? Why was everything so serious today?

“Where are we going?”

“To find out what’s going on. The Russians have fenced us in.”

 “Fenced us in?” I repeated the words.

“Not here. By the Brandenburger Tor.”

Every kid in Berlin knew this landmark. I had been there and I was relieved now because it was far away, in another district. So the fence wouldn’t affect us.

But as soon as we got out on the street, I realized that it already had. Those urgent radio voices blared from every open window. Strangers nodded at each other, their lips unsmiling. 

Men in suits and women in dresses had gathered around a newspaper kiosk. Boys in starched white shirts were kicking a ball, girls in pinafores shooting marbles on a strip of dirt. Amazingly, no one was scolding them for getting stains on their Sunday clothes. The adults were shouting and gesturing, shaking their heads, pointing at headlines screaming from sandwich boards. Rolls of barbed wire going through the heart of the city! East German soldiers on the other side! Soviet tanks! Everyone spoke with exclamation marks.

A man with thick-framed glasses said that the barbed wire was just the beginning.  “A wall will be built between East and West Berlin, mark my words. People will not be able to cross from one side to the other.”

“You mean we can’t get out?” A woman wearing a wide straw hat shrieked and grabbed her husband’s arm.

Another woman pressed her hand over her mouth. “My mother lives in the East! She’s old and she needs my help.”

“The Russians are taking over!” A white haired man pounded his fist on an invisible table. “I told you they’d find a way to make us pay for the war.” He poked his wife’s shoulder with his finger as if it was all her fault. And then, everyone was talking at the same time.

“How dare they do this?”

“Why don’t the Americans stop them?”

 “Maybe they’ve given up on us?”  The woman with the hat threw up her hands.

 “The Americans would never give up on us. West Berlin is the outpost of freedom, the Frontstadt,” That was Onkel Walter, sounding like he had a direct line to the American Commanders.

Balancing on the lines between the pavement stones, I tried to make sense of things: Russians and Americans didn’t like each other, I knew that. We were somehow caught in the middle because we happened to live in Berlin. Berlin was divided and we were in the Western part. I didn’t know anyone in the East. Once, my father had taken my sister and me over there, to a children’s opera in a fancy old building. But now there were rolls of barbed wire and soldiers were guarding the border. I didn’t have to understand the details of politics to know that this was extraordinary. The warm summer day felt important and somber, like the inside of a cathedral. “A wall will be built and that will be the end of West Berlin!” the bespectacled man boomed again. With his fine hat, he reminded me of my school principal, so I believed him. But I wasn’t afraid. On the contrary, I felt a thrilling excitement. Strangers were talking to each other, even touching each other’s arms. I had an urge to do something heroic. But I couldn’t think of anything. So I took hold of Tante Maria’s hand.

Over the next months, a wall did replace the barbed wire coils and it completely enclosed West Berlin. I saw newspaper photos of workers laying the bricks and soldiers with rifles guarding them. But the wall wasn’t the end of West Berlin. like that man had said, because trains and planes and boats carried supplies through East Germany to our half of the city. East Germans were the ones most affected by the wall; they couldn’t leave anymore. Not for the West, anyway.

(Excerpt from my Memoir in progress)

{20} Sandals with socks? More on what's distinct about Germany.

Thank you for sending your ideas for the list “You know you’re in Germany when…” I’ve also thought of a few more things:

 You know you’re in Germany when

- There are no SUV’s in the streets and police sirens are rarely heard, even in big cities like Berlin or Frankfurt.

- Municipal swimming pools have a special diving pool featuring 1,3,5 and 10 meter diving boards and anyone who dares can take the leap. Ten meters is thirty feet!

- You see men wearing sandals with socks.



- You see a Kiosk. This is a stall or a small bodega – you can buy everything from newspapers butter to canned tomatoes. It also serves as an outside bar, with people standing at a tall table to have a beer and socialize, also called "Wasserhäuschen" in earlier times, because the working class people went there to have a "Feierabendbier" (a quick beer after work).

- You see Balkonkästen (balcony flower boxes) on almost every balcony, especially in cities or towns where people don`t have a garden of their own. They are planted with the most colorful arrangements of flowers and herbs. Taking care of them is like a meditative activity to the owners occupying themselves with nature and its beauty in the midst of tightly built living quarters.


- Parking garages have spaces reserved for women close to the exit or the agent’s booth.

 - People bag their own groceries at lightning speed.

 - Everyone says hello when you come into a waiting room or a small store, and they say goodbye when you leave.

 - People you meet on a path in the woods don’t say anything as they pass you. 

 - There’s a little box with dials and lights on the wall in the bath, and that’s the efficient water heater!  (WHY doesn’t America switch to these?  Just to get more closet space alone! )

 - Voting happens on Sunday, almost like a religious duty.

 - You can’t congratulate someone on his or her birthday until the actual date they were born, or afterwards.  To say “Happy Birthday” even one day earlier is considered bad luck, holding a party a day earlier, say Sunday, when the birthday is on Monday, is out of the question. 

 - Cars are passing you going 100 mph and the train you’re on is going 140+ mph.  This works because the roads and train tracks are flawless, very well-maintained, the cars are some of the best on earth and they are, by law, inspected regularly, and all licensed drivers have passed a difficult exam after completing mandatory rigorous driver’s education.

 - There is a serious, lengthy, detailed discussion of a political/social issue on TV.


- When you’re in a hurry and ask a railway official (the guy with the red peaked cap) from which platform the train to Frankfurt  is leaving, he will lead you to a large display and will instruct you how to read the timetable posted there. He knows the answer but his mission is to teach you self sufficiency. Your train might be gone by the time you get to the platform, but you will be wiser than before.


- When your window is also a door…or the other way around. Just turn the handle up and the window opens at an angle. Turn the handle to the side and it opens like a door.


- When the bus driver drives away even though he sees your running to catch the bus.

- When people are pushing to get into a movie or subway instead of standing in line.

- When you see people leaning out their open windows, their elbows propped up by a pillow, just watching the world go by.

- Most people live in apartments their entire lives.


- When you think you’re in a fairy tale (in Southern Bavaria).


- When the cashiers in supermarkets sit on chairs instead of standing up. The power of trade unions!


- When there’s lots of bureaucracy. For example, it turned out to be quite complicated to buy a seat reservation to add to my train ticket after I had already bought the ticket.

- You see lots of solar panels on roofs and solar parks and windmills everywhere.

- Organic groceries are widely available, even in small towns.

- People eating and drinking outside at sidewalk cafes and beer gardens enjoying the summer weather. This is very pleasant. Why don't we do this more at home?

- There are red tile roofs, giving an entire village or even a cityscape an earthy, beautifully textured roofline.


- The public transport system is full at all hours of day and night

- People coming home from the symphony on the bus talk in detail about the music with each other.


- People drink Glühwein (mulled wine) at Christmas


- University fees are around 300 Euros per Semester, mainly to cover a discounted public transportation pass for the school year. 

- When museums are free once a month or more, they are packed with people of all ages.

{19} You know you’re in Germany when..

This continues my list of things that are particularly German to me. I realize I’m keeping things light here. I know there’s lots more and I invite you to comment and share your own ideas about things that you consider deutsch – things you remember from your travels, your childhood in Germany and/or from your German friends.

Source: Huffington Pos t

Source: Huffington Post

I know I’m in Germany when

-       People freely discuss leftist progressive ideas because leftist ideas are an accepted part of the political spectrum.

-       I see the warm glow of dozens of unattended lit candles in a church. Lighting my own by holding it close to one of the tiny flickering flames, I realize that no one is nervous about the possibility of fire.

-       Counting out money becomes a daily amusement. If my groceries total 12 Euros and 27 cents, for example, I know the cashier would rather I hand him a 20 Euro bill plus a 2-Euro coin, 3 ten cent coins and one 2 cent coin than a 20 Euro bill. He will give me a 10 Euro bill and a 5 cent coin in return. Germans enjoy turning such small cash transactions into little math problems. It allows them to exercise a skill they learned in school: Kopfrechnen – doing arithmetic in their heads. There are more possibilities for every day math play because there are eight coins of different denominations in Germany as opposed to only four  (penny, nickel dime and quarter) in the US.

-       When the yoga gear is just a t-shirt and leggings or shorts, nothing skin tight and fancy and no visible labels.

-       I head for the container full of paper and plastic packaging near the exit doors of the supermarket. In 1991, German parliament passed the first Verpackungsverordnung (great scrabble word!) – a law that required product manufacturers to dispose of packaging materials. Since then, customers can simply strip their purchases of plastic wrapping and Styrofoam padding and leave store owners to return packaging to manufacturers. (Product packaging has significantly decreased since that law was passed.)

-       Every conversation contains at least one word that would make me a Scrabble winner (for example, a Zeitungskiosk, is newspaper stand, a Bürgersolarpark is a citizen-owned solar powerplant, a Zärtlichkeitsbekundung is a declaration of affection. Imagine if you had triple word count! Some words, like  Schmetterlingsflügelsammlung  (a collection of butterfly wings) wouldn’t even fit on the board. I can choose between subways, trams and buses and it’s easy to live without a car in a city.

-       When cars on the freeway pass me – always on the left - at shocking speeds because there’s no speed limit on the Autobahn.

-       No one hovers by my restaurant table and takes my plate as soon as I’ve set down my fork. In Germany, diners are expected to linger.

-       Waiters and waitresses take my order without writing anything down. When I signal to pay, they come to the table and calculate the bill from memory.

-       A complete stranger chides me (because I crossed the street on red, for example) or tells me what to do - “put a cap on that baby, it’s cold outside.”

-       When everyone waits for the light to turn green before walking, even if it’s a Sunday morning and there’s no car in sight.

-       I hear church bells toll the hours.

-       Virtually all stores are closed on Sundays. Bakeries are the exception because Germans like to get their fresh rolls for Sunday breakfast.

-       Small children play naked on the beach.

-       People mention capitalism, banks and corporations in a conversation about current events.

-       People display colorful Gartenzwerge - little gnomes - in their front yards.

{18} You know you’re in Germany when…

I just returned from a few weeks in Germany. Just for fun, I wrote down some of the things that are particularly deutsch to me. It’s a partial list, of course, and I’m posting it in two parts.  Please feel free to comment and add your own items to the list!

Gartenzwerge   Photo: Beverly Crawford

Gartenzwerge Photo: Beverly Crawford

 I know I’m in Germany when

-       I sit down at a communal table in a restaurant and feel fur against my bare leg – it’s a dog accompanying her owner for dinner.

-       I’m sharing the sauna with naked men and women and everyone feels at ease.

-       the fitness studio has only one, all-sex dressing room and people change into their stretchy gear with ease. No one stares or hesitates because for Germans, there’s a difference between nudity and sexuality.

-       Everyone – politicians, teachers, farmers, techies, even children - knows that climate change is real.

-       I visit my mother in the hospital and the windows in her room are wide open to let the fresh air in.

-       Every bakery – and there’s one on every block - has at least a dozen different kinds of rolls. Depending on the region, the rolls are called Brötchen, Semmeln, Schrippen or Wecken and they come in different shapes, sizes and flour and seed combinations (flax, pumpkin seeds, buckwheat and more).

-       The construction worker whose legs are dangling off the scaffolding is washing down his sandwich with a mid-day beer. The ease with alcoholic beverages has historic roots: in medieval German towns, the primitive sewage systems contaminated much of the fresh water supply, so people were forced to quench their thirst with beer and wine. In Germany, it’s okay to walk around with an open beer. A “Wegebier” is literally a beer to be imbibed en route– by pedestrians.

-       There’s zero alcohol tolerance for anyone driving any kind of vehicle.

-       I’m greeted with a friendly Guten Tag as soon as I step inside a small shop. Whether I’m buying a single breakfast roll or a winter coat, there’s a sing-song of Dankeschön (thank you) and Bitteschön (you’re welcome) that closes with an exchanged Auf Wiedersehen.

-       Trains have special compartments for adults traveling with children.

-       News reports are truly international and even the weather report broadens my perspective on things by mentioning temperatures in every European capital city.

-       The favorite street food is German sausage and Turkish döner.

-       Pharmacies only carry medicine, remedies and cosmetics and they are never part of a larger store that sells alcohol and shoe polish.

-       I don’t automatically get a glass of tap water at a restaurant and when I ask for it, the waitress eyes me like I’m trying to get away with something.

-       I see a stack of newspapers and magazines in cafes. Sometimes these are clamped onto a long wooden stick so the pages stay in place and the newspapers stay in the café.

-       People pay for groceries and most other things in cash.

-       The windows of apartments and houses, shops and cafes are sparkling clean. For Germans, Fensterputzen – washing windows – is part of routine cleaning. Grimy panes suggest an unkempt interior and even more importantly, spotless windows allow the light to flow in.

-       Drivers don’t stop for pedestrians.

-       Customers bag their own groceries, always. The cashier – who sits in a chair instead of standing up for an entire shift - wouldn’t think of helping out.

-       I walk home from a concert or a party at midnight and don’t worry about my safety – even after midnight. Crime exists in Germany, but it hasn’t confined behavior for women the same it does in US cities.

More to come...

{17} The Greek Crisis

The German expression – Oberlehrer –fits the role Germans are playing in the Greek debt crisis. Oberlehrer translates as head teacher but it refers to someone who is a self righteous know it all intent on forcing a lesson down someone’s throat. In demanding that the Greeks choose a course of austerity and belt-tightening, Germans are forgetting their own history. Not only have they defaulted on loans more than once, they paid ridiculously low war reparations to Greece after World War Two. For a take on the German experiences with international debt, see Eduardo Porter’s article in the Times.

But this isn’t just about the Greeks and the Germans. The Greek debt crisis is part of a larger political agenda. In a letter sent from Germany, my American friend Melody Chavis summarizes what’s at stake and why she disagrees with the opinions she hears from Germans.

Melody Chavis:

… here in Germany, I hear people repeating so many of the media lies and omissions about the Greeks: they are spoiled spendthrifts, their pensions are far too high, they’re irresponsible and have to pay their debts as we all do, etc.

I get frustrated with this, as I can’t argue very well in German, and these views are so far from mine…to me, it’s clear that this attack on the Greeks by the world finance elites is one of the opening salvos in an attack on Europe and on social democracy. If that succeeds, then Europe will begin to break.  My German friends who are so judgmental of the irresponsible Greeks do not realize that Greek defiance may be protecting the futures of their own grandchildren, and their hopes for living in the social democracy that Germans have built. 

Though the “Troika” – the IMF, ECB and EC: International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Commission -- say they fear the fallout of a Grexit and the resulting instability, there are some signs that they want Greece out of the Eurozone – such as the IMF changing the terms at the last minute, as soon as Greek’s President agreed to new austerity measures. 

I think it’s obvious that the world financial rulers – U.S.-based Goldman Sacs, and IMF (which overlap) and others hate social democracy.  They hate the example Americans and others around the world can see of populations with health care, subsidized food, environmental policies to turn away from fossil fuels, strong unionized workforces, large secure pensions, generous parental and sick leave, rules for CEO compensation far below US levels, strong consumer protections from Pharma and other sectors, flawless infrastructure and public transit.

The Eurozone structure makes it hard to help any one nation, whether Cyprus, Greece, Spain, Italy, Ireland, or Portugal.  If it were really a Union of Europe, with common financial governance, as is the United States, there would be no question.  If, for example, Florida with its many pensioners runs too high a debt or deficit after a financial collapse, no one would think of forcing every pensioner to live on 40% less, raising the price of electricity or gasoline 400 percent, lowering the minimum wage far below a living wage, etc.  All of this was done to the Greeks in the wake of the 2008 collapse.  The banks are seen in Europe as international entities, and they, who had given Greece loans that could not be paid back, were “saved” and “bailed out” using mainly French and German funds.  The Greek debt was restructured but not written down – the Greeks still owe it, and it is so much now that it cannot be repaid in hundreds of years.

How did this debt get there?  First, bad loans were given by the banks.  If one wants to speak in moral terms, the “moral hazard” of not paying back loans should go hand-in-hand with the “moral hazard” of issuing loans to those who probably cannot pay them.  One is supposed to be punished and learn not to do it again.  But when were the bankers punished?  Before the collapse, Greek debt was hidden.  Only in 2009 did it come out that the country’s deficit was twice what had been publicized.  Papandreou, the former President, had to admit the truth.  Yet the amount was still not impossible then.  The ratings agencies downgraded Greece bonds, and the banks then imposed extremely high interest rates on the debt and the bailout funds that made the amounts unpayable. 

The people with decision-making power – a small group, really, the heads of the Troika -- have only one tune to sing: more austerity, and pay.  Simply pay with money that is not there.  Though the measures have caused suffering to children, old people, poor people for the past five years, and have been a total failure, causing a depression in Greece and unemployment of 25% (higher for youth, up to 50%) the Troika wants only more of the same.  More austerity – cut the pensions even more deeply.

Where did those billions before 2008-9 go?  Where is the money now?  An estimated 70 Trillion world-wide is estimated to be stashed in tax havens, and surely a big portion of the stolen Greek funds are a part of that.   How is it stolen at first?  One common way if for “developers” to take out loans to build something: an airport, housing, power plants, whatever.  Either the project is never built or the “budget” is raised far over initial estimates, or what is built is shoddy or never finished.  The money is pocketed, politicians or their relatives or their firms get paid off.  The money leaves the country and so do the elites who borrowed it.  The stealing in Iraq and Afghanistan has been epic for 13 years, as billions in US tax dollars lined the pockets of “contractors” from many nations.  I’ve seen on TV an example in Spain – an airport that not one plane has ever landed at.  The people who do these crimes operate by the motto from Wall Street uncovered in emails between hedge funders trading in worthless loans.  “By the time this all blows up, UBG and IBG” short for “You’ll be gone and I’ll be gone.”  In other words, we can steal with impunity.

The ordinary Greek people did not borrow these billions.  On our TV we see interviews with a chef who is closing her restaurant, with no way to feed her children; a fisherman who cannot sell his fish; homeless people digging in garbage cans for food.  Yet the Troika expects them to live with even less, and pay.

And where is democracy?  The fact that a tiny group of wealthy people can impose such measures on millions, without any voice from the people is astonishing.  I admire the Greek leftist government for having asked the people to advise them in a vote. 

{16} Summertime: Germans and the Sun

Germans are not known to be positive thinkers but in the summer, their optimism soars: they plan picnics and Grillparties, street fairs and bazaars, outdoor concerts, plays and movies. Schedules are set and invitations sent out far in advance. Days before the event, equipment is hauled and food prepared, booths and stages are decorated. Always, the weather follows its own agenda and more often than not, on the day of the event it is cold. Or rainy. Or both. This does not deter guests and spectators. They follow the German rule Es gibt kein schlechtes Wetter, nur falsche Kleidung - there is no such thing as bad weather, only wrong clothing. They would never give up on the chance of having a sunny outdoor event, so they make the best of things.

Photo: Corinna Schöfer

Photo: Corinna Schöfer

Even though – or maybe because – Germans cope well with inclement weather, they have a love affair with the sun. As soon as the winter chill disappears, people spread out blankets in parks or settle on park benches, their faces turned towards the brightness like sunflowers. Cafes and restaurants move tables outdoors and patrons shift in their chairs to catch every warming ray.  It seems like everyone lights up and has a spring in their step when the sun comes out. Germans continue chasing the sun in the depth of winter: when the clouds part, they might sit by an open window, just to feel the warmth. Right by the heater, of course. Stately old homes feature a Wintergarten – a glassed in veranda that lets in the rays but keeps out the cold. Sunshine is a precious commodity because most days in Germany are grey. Even in the summer. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? And everyone is happy when the weather report promises freundliches Wetter – friendly weather.

Geht an die Sonne” my mother would command when the clouds parted and shoo my sister and me out the door. If you didn’t rush outside immediately to catch the cherished beams when they appeared, they might be gone, swallowed by those clouds. All adults agreed that sunlight, like fresh air, was a requirement of health and a boost for wellbeing.

Imagine my predicament when I moved to Northern California years later to go to graduate school. In the Bay Area, days usually begin and end with low coastal fog, but for the most part, the sky is clear and bright. I would feel antsy when the fog receded mid-morning and sunlight spilled into the lecture hall or the library. It seemed almost sinful to stay inside. I should be rushing outdoors to catch the rays before they disappeared! I’ve lived thousands of sunny days in Berkeley and still notice this primal urge to go outside and “take advantage” of the sunshine.

Nowadays, Germans are aware of UV rays and the dangers of sunburn. Reluctantly, they put on hats, open brightly striped umbrellas on beaches, and slather on sunscreen before going out to worship the sun god. But the love affair continues. Even when German weather reports on television and radio sound like doomsday dispatches - showers, sleet, dropping temperatures - they always predict the expected hours of sunshine. Even one predicted Sonnenstunde  (sun hour) keeps people hopeful and focused on the positive. 

{15} Enjoying the Beach, German Style

If you’ve ever visited the beaches of the North Sea or the Baltic Sea in Germany, you’ve seen them: Strandkörbe. From far away, they look like tiny shacks but when you get closer, you’ll realize they are unwieldy box seats with solid sides, a high back and a roof. The northern coastlines of Germany are known for unpredictable temperatures, year-round storms and winds. Strandkörbe were invented so that beachgoers could have shelter. The first model appeared at the Baltic seaside resort of Warnemünde in 1882 and slightly improved versions followed in subsequent summers.  They quickly found favor among German seaside vacationers. By the 1930’s, thousands of Strandkörbe lined mainland and island beaches; today the total number is estimated at more than one hundred thousand.

My husband enjoying a  Strandkorb  at the North Sea.

My husband enjoying a Strandkorb at the North Sea.

Inside, the Strandkörbe remind me of American lay-z-boys: while seated, you can adjust the back and pull out a footrest to recline comfortably. Like the bench seats of classic American cars, each Strandkorb can accommodate at least two people. In the old days, the top and the sides were made of willow boughs to allow for air circulation; today, they are woven of plastic strips. The seats used to be upholstered with canvas, today they are covered with striped plastic fabric. But they still have pockets in the sides for newspapers and sunscreen and a small fold-down tray to hold beverages. A string runs beneath the roof so bathing suits and towels can dry in the breeze. Under the footrest, a handy storage box allows occupants to keep their beach site uncluttered. At night, the whole thing can be locked up with a trellis-like contraption. That way, you don’t have to carry shovels and buckets and air mattresses back and forth between your hotel and the beach. Literally translated, Strandkorb means beach basket: a practical container for people as well as their possessions.

The design of beach baskets has has not changed in the hundred years of their existence even though beach culture has evolved.

In the early 20th century, a beach vacation was the privilege of the wealthy bourgeoisie. People went there to “take the good sea air” and they sat in their semi-enclosed Strandkörbe fully dressed, protected from rain, wind and sun. Sunbathing was taboo because bronzed skin was evidence of low class, outdoor work. For the extremely adventurous, bathing (which meant submerging in water rather than swimming) was possible, but only in body-covering bathing attire, in special private areas, designated for men or women. In the late twenties, vacationers started exposing a bit more skin and men and women were allowed to walk together from their Strandkörbe directly into the waves. Still, most vacationers remained tucked into their beach refuge rather than frolicking on the sand or in the water. German writer and Nobel Prize recipient Thomas Mann used his Strandkorb as a study during seaside holidays. Inspired by what he called “the isolating roar of the surf, “ he put fountain pen to paper in spite of winds and sands.

Typically, families would rent their beach refuge for the duration of their vacation and make it the centerpiece of their beach activities. Children and adults dug moats and built sand castles and painstakingly decorated their “property lines” with shells and pebbles and little flags. After Hitler took power, swastika pennants were popular. In the war years, of course, seaside holidays ceased. When the Wall was built in the sixties, East Germans enjoyed their Strandkörbe at the Baltic Sea and West Germans at the North Sea.

I remember a childhood vacation on the island of Amrum, in the West: my cousins and I would sneak into an unoccupied Strandkorb to play. Not for long though, the beach warden kept an eye on things. If you didn’t pay, you didn’t get to use one.  To get back at the privileged beach loungers, we’d kick our ball near their elaborate sand moats and the fortresses, laughing at the shouts that were supposed to shoo us away.

Today, most beach life on German coastlines happens out in the open, in the sand and the water, with volleyball nets, kite surfing and boogie boarding. But in their Strandbkorb, vacationers can hide from the elements and they can also hide from each other. The other day, walking along the beach of the Island Sylt, I saw only legs stretched out on the footrests. It was a blustery day, so people had wrapped themselves in blankets to enjoy the “isolating roar of the surf.”

Beachgoers still rent their Strandkörbe for the duration of their stay – that’s why the private shelters have bold numbers painted on the outside. The beach wardens who groom the sand also take care of the baskets. When you get to the beach in the mornings, you’ll see the Strandkörbe lined up in neat staggered lines, so the view isn’t completely blocked for the back rows.  Throughout they day, occupants will shift their box seats by their large handles to block the wind and follow the sun. On the next day, the Strandkörbe will be lined up perfectly again, facing the sea like they are expecting a grand theatre performance.

The German word gemütlich is usually translated as homey and cozy. It also connotes comfort, pleasure and safety. In a Strandkorb, Germans make a retreat for themselves in an unlikely place: the beach.

{14} Summertime: The German tradition of the AUSFLUG

Last week, my father, my brother and I decided to go on an excursion. We considered several destinations within a fifty kilometer radius before deciding on the water-castle Dyck. With its venerable history and its expansive two-hundred year old landscape park, it would make for a perfect Ausflug.

Photo: Timo Ben Schöfer

Photo: Timo Ben Schöfer

An Ausflug is an excursion or an outing. It’s a get-away but not a trip. More than a Spaziergang – a walk - it fills an entire day and that’s why it usually happens on Sundays or holidays. If you stay away overnight, it’s no longer an Ausflug. If you set out without a specific destination in mind, you are doing a Fahrt ins Blaue – a trip into the blue, into the unknown.

Going on an Ausflug is a well-established German tradition. It dates back to the late nineteenth century when a large part of the population migrated from the countryside to urban areas. Workers who lived in crammed tenements as well as prosperous city dwellers liked to leave the stench and the noise of urban life for a day among rolling green hills, lakes or forests.

Even then, a proper Ausflug always included food and drink. Those of limited means carried a Rucksack full of bread and sausage and cheese; the well-to-do had coffee and cake at a café or dinner at a restaurant or both. That’s why you’ll find Ausflugslokale – establishments that serve drinks and simple meals have been around for more than a century, catering to day-trippers who come in carriages, by tram and train, on bicycles or, today, in cars.  That’s one aspect of an Ausflug: it takes you farther from home than a walk or a hike.

Once we had decided on our destination and departure time, we stopped planning.  Instead of trying to anticipate every eventuality, we wanted to be open to surprises. After all, this kind of outing is a small-scale exploration, undertaken for the fun of discovering and learning, being with friends and meeting new people. Knowing that in Germany, you are never far away from a café or restaurant, we didn’t pack a picnic. Clothing? No special gear is required for an Ausflug, just comfortable shoes, maybe a rain jacket or a sunhat. I like to carry only what fits in my pocket: an apple, a piece of chocolate, a map or a smartphone- not for making calls, but for taking pictures.

My father, my brother Timo and I left Cologne mid-morning. When we reached the outskirts of the city, I noticed a familiar feeling of anticipation. How great: I was about to discover a new place and someone else was driving. We started reminiscing about other excursions we’d taken in past years when I visited them in Köln: investigating the ruins of a medieval fortress, losing our way in a vast bog, playing hide and seek in the woods, and rambling among Mosel vineyards. In retrospect, it seemed that all those Ausflüge had included getting lost. And impromptu singing.

When we arrived at the castle Dyck after an hour’s drive, we made a beeline for the glassed in café. Fortified by coffee and a shared piece of cherry Kuchen, we explored the grounds. We crossed two small stone bridges and marveled at the perfect whiteness of swans gliding on the murky water of the moats. The castle, an impressive four-winged baroque building, was more than three hundred years old. We didn’t go inside but made our way towards the English Garden that was designed and planted between 1820 and 1835. Following a groomed path, we passed a tall hedge of pink rhododendron blossoms, clusters of old-growth beeches and oaks, lawns that looked like green carpets. In the distance, solitary trees reached towards the sky like magnificent sculptures. When we came to a large meadow of wild grasses, we sat down on the bench that gave a direct view of the ochre-colored castle in the distance. Here, among honeybees and songbirds, our conversation flowed easily. When Timo and my father started singing Brecht songs, I hummed along. After some time, we resumed our stroll along the gently rolling hills, beneath exotic trees that bore tiny identification tags. We imagined the counts and princesses who had wandered here before us and wondered how many duchesses had enjoyed illicit trysts – perhaps with the gardener? - in the most secluded green nooks.

Instead of going straight home, we drove along the Rhine and had dinner at the restaurant Rheinfähre near the landing of a small old-fashioned ferry. Looking out at the wide river from our table in the garden, I thought of all the ferries that had shuttled passengers across the river in this very spot since the Middle Ages. When we learned that the town of Zons was nearby, we decided to look at the remnants of its medieval town wall and meander through its narrow streets. This, too is typical for a German outing: you begin with an endpoint in mind but once you’re moving, the world opens up and reveals its treasures. I always find myself making a mental list of possible destinations for a future Ausflug.

{13} On my Father’s 84th Birthday

I’ve always been a visitor in my father’s home. Many times I’ve climbed the five flights of stone stairs and opened the door of his apartment to the familiar smell of books and tobacco, My father has lived in this Belle Epoche apartment building in Cologne’s Südstadt for a long time, close to the Rhein river that he loves. On warm days, we sit on the rooftop terrace and in between sentences, he pulls small weeds and dead leaves from the potted flowers. When it’s cold, we sit in the large room that is his study and living room. Even though he is a man who advocates radical changes in politics and society, nothing really changes in my father’s room.

my father's room.JPG

The skull I remember from childhood visits still sits atop the heirloom clock whose gleaming pendulum tick-tocks my heartbeat. My father’s mother’s death mask hangs on one wall, below an oil painting she did. The white mask suggests a soft face with generous lips. I imagine that they weren’t kissed enough - she was in her thirties when she died of blood poisoning, leaving behind a fatherless ten year old son who would become my father. He was only nineteen when he had his first child and I was born just a year after my sister.


Newspapers and magazines sit on a long narrow table; letters collect on his desk. There used to be a steady stream of letters, at least five every day, with hand-written or typed addresses. Letters that needed to be answered. Correspondence was an afternoon matter for my father. He reserved the mornings for his real writing: stories, essays, articles, radio plays and novels.


My father was fourteen when Germany capitulated to the Allies. The hunger of his early years instilled in him a deep appreciation of food. No matter how simple the meal, he eats it slowly and savors the flavors. He rarely throws things away. And he doesn’t buy many things, either. He listens to newscasts, two or three times a day, on a stereo he had before he moved into this apartment. The sound is rich and deep. He tells me that the blue vest I gave him ten or fifteen years ago has frayed and thinned. Perhaps it’s time to get a new one? This is not an appeal but an explanation.

My father handwrites first drafts on the back of printed pages.  He never uses tape when he wraps a gift, but tightly knots the colored string.

He has more vases than plates, sitting on top of a cabinet in his small kitchen. In the warm season, he picks blooming braches, grasses or wildflowers on his walks along the Rhein and selects the perfect container for his bouquet.


At least two thousand books are gathered on his shelves and much dust must be gathered behind them. He knows he does not have the time to read all the volumes in his vast collection that includes Brecht and Goethe; Marx and Kant, Hemingway and Sartre, Woolf and Wolf. And still, he adds new books, arranging them in alphabetical order. My father has enormous respect for the written word. He sees books as a source of knowledge and a journey into places and lives unknown. A great pleasure, too. And a weapon against illegitimate authority, against lies and ignorance.


My father believes in language. He believes that truth can be written or spoken and that people who hear it will be transformed by it. If the facts are lined up right, people will see and understand. Hence his life project of writing – several thousand pages at least. Most have been published or performed or received as letters. There’s also an archive filled with journals and folders no one else has seen. He laments the fact that people no longer read the way they used to: for hours at a time, with a thirst for knowledge and great respect for the author.


My father’s second biggest disappointment must be that even the soundest arguments and the most beautifully constructed sentences will not get people to change their minds. His biggest disappointment is seeing capitalism sweep the planet, spinning ecological devastation, injustice and war in ever-intensifying spirals. Or maybe his biggest disappointment is that he isn’t more famous.

No. I’m sure he would trade fame for peace.


Five flights of stairs. He doesn’t like to leave the house more than once a day now because the steps are a great effort. He’s put a chair on the third and fourth floor landings so he can rest. When he was sixty, he sprinted up those hundred plus steps, my suitcase in hand, and he challenged me to race him down when we went out.


Now that my father is older, the things that hurt and bothered me are receding into the background. I’m older, too and I no longer focus on my father’s abandonment, his affairs, his narcissism. I value his knowledge and his discipline, his commitment to social justice and peace, his appreciation of beauty and his sense of adventure. I love his quiet voice and hidden smile. I recognize his way of showing love. I respect that he lives his life so deeply and uncompromised.

Happy Birthday, Vater.

{12} RUMTOPF – a Summer Project

In Northern Germany, winter is a somber affair: four months of cold weather, grey skies and extended darkness. During this time, a dessert of Rumtopf, a happy melange of preserved summer fruit, is sure to brighten my mood.  Every bite highlights a different flavor: strawberry or peach or pear, blueberry or peach or plum, depending what lands on my spoon. In the depth of winter, with sleet needling the windows and wind howling at the door, Rumtopf - a composition of summer fruit, sugar and rum - conjures up warm, light and carefree days.

For generations, Hausfrauen in this four-season region have devised ingenious ways to preserve the summer harvest for the long winter months. By adding sugar, salt, oil, vinegar, alcohol - or a mix of these - they have transformed fresh fruit and vegetables into delicacies with a long shelf life. Think jams and preserves. Sauerkraut. Pickles. Think Rumtopf – the sweet, intoxicating specialty that comes from Germany’s northern regions, where harbor cities have long guaranteed a steady supply of imported rum. 

Making a Rumtopf is not difficult, but it requires tending. Not as much as a pet, more like a houseplant. You will be adding fruit as it ripens in the garden or arrives at the farmers’ markets, layering it in a covered earthenware pot, checking on it and stirring it. Rumtopf is a long-term commitment.

In Germany, people start their Rumtopf in May because that’s when the first strawberries appear at the markets. In late September, they add the last fruit - blackberries and pears. Then the Rumtopf has to sit for at least four more weeks so that all the flavors intermingle and intensify. Traditionally, it is first served to friends and family in December as a special advent season treat.


A tall ceramic container with a lid, cylindrical or shaped like a small wine keg. It should be large enough to hold three quarts of liquid and have a generous opening at the top.  If you use a glass container (large mason jar), make sure you cover it with a cloth to keep it in darkness.


Unblemished seasonal fruit at the peak of ripeness.

Good quality rum, at least 54% alcohol.


Begin with strawberries, the first fruit of the season.

Wash and stem one pound of perfectly ripe, unblemished small strawberries, (halve them if they are larger than an acorn), set on towel to dry. Combine in a bowl with one pound of sugar and let the mixture sit for an hour.

Pour the sugared strawberries into the pot and cover with rum, leaving at least 2 centimeters of clear liquid at the top. If fruit floats up, weigh it down with a porcelain plate in the rum. Place the lid on the container and store in a cool dark place (not the refrigerator).

Throughout the summer months, add fruit as it becomes available at the farmers’ market, ending the season with pears. Each pound of fruit after the strawberries requires only half a pound of sugar (for smaller amounts of fruit, adjust the sugar). Allow the fruit and sugar mixture to sit for at least an hour before adding it to the pot, then cover it with rum (see above).

These fruits are perfect for Rumtopf:

Rasberries, blueberries, red or black currants, blackberries (wash very gently, dry on towel before adding sugar).

Cherries (do not remove pits, prick with needle so liquids can penetrate).

Apricots and peaches (remove pits and skin and cut into small sections).

Plums (remove pits and quarter).

Pears (remove pits, peel and cut into sections.

Traditionally, only regional fruit is used in a Rumtopf. Apples do not work well. Since this delicacy is a labor of love and I don’t want to spoil the entire contents of the pot, I don’t experiment with non-regional fruit.

After you’ve added the final fruit, let the Rumtopf sit for at least a month before serving it.  Check on it every 10 days or so. Stir the fruit, make sure it stays rum-covered (at least 2 centimeters). Since it absorbs the liquid, you will probably have to add more rum as time passes. 

Rumtopf is a decadently delicious dessert all by itself, ladled over ice cream or rice pudding, or served with a dollop of whipped cream. If you crave a second helping, remember that its sweetness masks its alcoholic punch. To minimize the alcohol content, serve Rumtopf as a flambé delight – just put a match to the fruit mixture for a dramatic blue flame. Mixed with champagne or sparkling water, Rumtopf makes a tasty cocktail. Poured into small jars, it becomes a delightful gift.

So that it lasts all winter, make sure to check on your Rumtopf after you’ve started enjoying it: stir the fruit mixture, add rum to keep the fruit covered, weigh down the fruit with a plate, keep the lid on the pot and store the container in a cool dark place.

The German saying: Gut Ding braucht lang’ Weil means “A good thing requires a long time” - a perfect motto for the Rumtopf specialty. 

{11} Eulogy For Günter Grass

Günter Grass, Germany’s pre-eminent author, died on April 13 at the age of 87. I’m not a die-hard fan of Grass’ work, but I have deep respect for the man. Following the announcement of his death, The New York Times published two articles about Grass. Both of them left a bitter taste in my mouth; neither of them do him justice. 

The Trinity of post war German Social Democracy, from left to right: Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass, Willy Brandt       Photo: DICK/EPA

The Trinity of post war German Social Democracy, from left to right: Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass, Willy Brandt  Photo: DICK/EPA

More than a writer, Grass was a 20th century intellectual. His work is steeped in the history of National Socialism and World War Two and peels away the many layers of Hitler’s legacy in post-war Germany. Like other European writers of his generation, Grass believed literature plays an important role in shaping readers’ consciousness and therefore a country’s culture. His writing was always closely linked to politics. On a more personal note, Grass cultivated traditional values: he foraged for mushrooms, cooked family dinners, handwrote and typed his manuscripts, and used archives and libraries for research. Computers, he said in an interview in 2014, abbreviate thinking.

Grass catapulted to fame in 1959 with his novel The Tin Drum, a realistic-fantastic tale of Nationalism seen through the eyes of the idiot-savant dwarf, Oscar. Some critics lauded Grass as the voice of post war German literature, others condemned him, calling the novel perverse and pornographic. Grass himself liked to point out that as a best-selling author, he was finally making money and had a platform for his left-wing political views.

Like other progressive artists of his generation, Grass was optimistic about the democratic structures and institutions that were implemented in West Germany after World War Two. But he was outraged that the men who filled the top political positions had, for the most part, been high ranking Nazis. (An article published in Spiegel Online in 2012, verified that 25 cabinet ministers, one president and one chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany had been members of Nazi organizations. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.)

In 1969, Grass started campaigning actively on behalf of future Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt, whose impeccable political credentials set him apart from most politicians in West Germany, and he supported Brandt throughout his political career. Even as he wrote more than a dozen books, Grass continued to speak out politically; not just against former Nazis still in power, but also against German remilitarization, the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the Vietnam War, political repression in East Germany, the hasty pace of German reunification – the list is too long to complete. In Germany, he was often referred to as the “conscience of the nation.”  Not surprisingly, Grass always had enemies on the right who attempted to discredit him.

The day after Grass’ death, Stephen Kinzer’s extensive front-page article in the Times lists many of Grass’ accomplishments, including, of course, his Nobel Prize for literature (which he received in 1999). But the reader comes away with the impression that Günter Grass’ most enduring legacy is hypocrisy. He deserves better than that.

In 2006, Grass disclosed that he had joined the Waffen SS in the final months of World War Two. In earlier years, he had acknowledged that he believed in Hitler as a boy. But his new admission incited an uproar in Germany. Most Germans didn’t condemn him for the biographical fact itself - after all, Grass was barely 17 in the fall of 1944. Given that Grass had been indoctrinated by Nazi propaganda in every part of his young life for 11 years, could he really be expected to have known any better? Germans weren’t judging the actions of the boy but the actions of the man: why did the politically outspoken author wait so long to come forward with this biographical fact?

Let’s assume that as a young man, Grass saw his actions differently than he does now. He was an iconoclast. The Tin Drum was a searing indictment not only of National Socialism but also of the values and attitudes that made Hitler possible and still festered in Germany. Surely, Grass believed that his writing and his political engagement against all things having to do with the Nazi regime absolved him of his wrong-headed youthful “misstep.”  Perhaps his teenage decision began to chafe only much later, as Grass grew older and felt the inescapable burden of German history weighing on him, too: how could I not have known better? In 1993, Grass witnessed what happened to his literary colleague Christa Wolf, who had been a voice of conscience in East Germany. Shortly after German unification, Wolf’s files revealed that as a young woman, she had worked for the Stasi as a low level informant for a short time. Subsequently, that fact came to overshadow Wolf’s entire career: her books, her speeches, even the fact that the Stasi spied on her for almost twenty years, until the Wall opened in 1989. Finally, thirteen years later, Grass did come forward, saying that those who will judge would judge him. Grass’ right wing detractors jumped at the opportunity to rake him over the coals.

Is this the most important fact of Grass’ life? Should we allow it to cast a shadow on this man of letters? To do so is to ignore the value of Grass’ life work and to side with his right wing critics.

On April 15, two days after Grass death, the Times ran an opinion piece by Die Zeit writer Jochen Bittner. Bittner’s assertion that Günter Grass’ generation has had it “pretty easy” is a matter of debate. But his contention that “you [Grass] grew big in times when ideology…counted more than the hard work of examining what is actually going on around us” is downright insulting, as is his statement that “the way you [Grass] saw the world counted more than the way it actually was.” Grass as ideologue – that’s the way his detractors in Germany have always tried to discredit him.  

Grass was a great novelist (and a poet, essayist, dramatist, sculptor and graphic artist).

He was also a true democrat.

He loved popular debate and nurtured public scrutiny of politics and politicians. The German word streitbar, which was often applied to Grass, signifies the pleasure of engaging in political debate, the courage of stirring up controversy and the willingness to come forward with unpopular opinions. Indeed, Grass was streitbar - not for the sake of polarizing public opinion, but in the interests of fomenting the lively political discussions that have been a cornerstone of German democracy since 1945.

Indeed, such public discussion is the foundation of a thriving democracy anywhere.

I worry that this culture of robust and heartfelt political debate is disappearing, along with brilliant intellectuals of the 20th century like Günter Grass.

{10} The Green Heart of Germany: Don’t Throw that Away

A couple of weeks ago, the son of friends arrived in San Francisco. Bo, just twenty years old, was raised in a small town in Northern Germany. He made the trip because he wants to improve his English.

Photo: Christine Schoefer

Photo: Christine Schoefer

“You must be hungry,” I said when he arrived at our Berkeley house. I’ve welcomed many visitors over the years and always have something prepared: soup, salad, veggies. Transatlantic travelers want to eat healthy and light.

“Sure I’ll have some.” He didn’t sound very excited.

“You got good food on the plane?”

“I did. And on top of that, I’d brought some Stullen just in case there wouldn’t be enough.” Stullen are the German equivalent of sandwiches but they have only one layer of ingredient between two slices of bread: either cheese or ham or sliced cucumbers. Not all of them.

“Just before we landed someone told me I couldn’t take any food through customs. So I ate everything I'd packed before we landed.“

So German, I thought. All the Germans I know eat up the food that’s on their plate: my sister and brothers, my nieces, my friends. My stepfather sponges up the last trace of gravy with a piece of bread and my father used to make a game of licking our plates clean (sorry, Ms Manners). My husband often finished our daughters’ meals because he couldn’t stand the idea of letting food go to waste. Now we compost food scraps, so he’s loosened up a little.  

Germans have a collective memory of hunger because it has been woven into their history. Even though they eat very well today, the wars of the past linger in family stories of deprivation. The stern admonitions of my elders still ring in my head: Man isst was auf den Tisch kommt  - You eat what is served. That meant you finished whatever you – or someone else – had put on your plate. And you better not complain about it because having a full plate was, first and foremost, a privilege. When Germans became prosperous once again in the sixties, adults rebuked children who picked at their Rotkohl and Kartoffeln (red cabbage and potatoes) with a reminder of this privilege: Denk an die armen Inderkinder – think of the poor children of India (who would love to have what you don’t want). This ill-guided attempt at empathy linked the food on my plate to guilt. I learned that all food had value and if it found its way onto my plate, I was responsible for eating it.

One of the first things I learned about Americans was that they always leave a little – or a lot – of something on their plates. My teacher told me so when I announced to him that my family was emigrating to the United States. “Amerikaner think it’s bad manners to clean their plate and they don’t care that food is thrown away.” I was shocked. But I adjusted quickly. It felt liberating not to have to finish every last bite and I became accustomed to leaving a morsel of goulash, a bit of rice, dots of peas. When I returned to my native country as a student, Germans in the East and the West frowned at me when I did that. Spoiled American. Careless American

In today’s Germany, the explicit admonitions to finish what’s on your plate have faded. But the value bestowed on a meal is much the same: leaving food on a plate is considered an affront to the cook who has prepared the meal. But even more: it insults the gift that food is and it disregards the privilege of having something to eat.

Recently, I ate at a small restaurant near a Berkeley neighborhood park. It was a sunny day, so I sat outside. After gobbling up my hamburger, I didn’t have room for the skinny French fries. Savoring a moment of quiet contentment, I heard the familiar sound of a shopping cart rattling across a sidewalk. A homeless man pushed his load of bottles and cans past my table. His blue stocking cap was rolled up high above his ears and his beard stubble was growing in white. He looked at the pile of French fries on my plate.

“Man, don’t throw that away.” He said it in a matter of fact voice without slowing his pace. How did he know that I wasn’t going to eat the fries? How many half-eaten meals did he see on his rounds? Was he hungry? Thoughts tumbled in my head. Should I offer him my leftovers? That didn’t seem right, I should buy him his own meal. Too late, the man had disappeared behind a clump of trees, his cart jangling as he made his way towards the park’s trash bins. I asked the waitress for a take home container. But it just languished in the fridge. Who likes old French fries?

Don’t throw that away.  The man’s words came back to me when Bo told me about the Stullen he ate before deplaning. In the same situation, I’ve tossed out “just in case” apples and bread and cheese that I took on a flight. I didn’t eat them because I wasn’t hungry. Throwing food away has become part of my daily routine, a mindless gesture of clearing from my life what I no longer want.

How had it happened that I so easily dispose of perfectly good food? Somewhere along the line, my sense of being liberated from strict rules of eating had turned into carelessness. Was it a consequence of living in a country where 33 million tons of food are wasted every year? Not a consequence – I’d become part of the problem. Obviously, I’ve left my German upbringing behind.

Food Guru Michael Pollan sets out wonderful 'food rules' in his Eater’s Manual. #77 is the only one that rankles me: leave something on your plate. Why?

I could be mindful about my appetite. I could choose moderation. When I do that, it is easy to finish what’s on my plate.   

{9} The Green Heart of Germany: Clotheslines

In Berkeley, where it is warm year-round and rain rarely provides relief, ours may be the only family that uses a clothesline to dry laundry. When we lived in a village in Nordfriesland, where overcast skies and cold winds rule every season, we may have been the only family with a dryer.

Air Drying     Photo: Maxine Schoefer-Wulf

Air Drying   Photo: Maxine Schoefer-Wulf

Germans use clotheslines, Americans use dryers. The preference has nothing to do with the weather. Nor is it a rural versus urban thing. At our El Dorado country cabin, jeans dry in under an hour on sunny days and most days are radiant. Yet our neighbors don’t have a clothesline. In Germany, even city dwellers air dry their wash on balconies in the summer and on collapsible indoor racks in the winter. They make room for the drying racks as needed even in the smallest apartments. These contraptions are marvels of design: they hold an entire load yet take up no more space than an oversized baking sheet when folded up.

With three kids, we had lots of laundry. When we moved to forever overcast Northern Germany, I didn’t want damp clothes taking up bathroom and hallway space - that’s why I bought that dryer. I didn’t use it often, but every time I did, an argument started. My husband considers hanging up wash a matter of honor. He’s more German than me, I guess. He likes to pull out the clogged lint tray to make his point: “see what gets sucked out by the hot air? That’s why air-dried clothes last longer.”

I think the difference in clothes drying conventions has to do with two things: the attitude towards nature and technology on the one hand and conceptions of privacy on the other.

Most Germans could afford a dryer, so the difference in clothes drying conventions isn’t a matter of social class or affluence. Germans are practical and frugal. Why employ a machine when the wind will do? Why use electricity or gas when air suffices? Americans are enamored with convenience and the idea of plugging in to seemingly limitless resources. Whenever possible, let a machine do the work. Once on a cross-country trip, I used a Laundromat in Ely Nevada and I observed a young woman opening a dryer when its cycle was finished.  She took out a single pair of bright white shoelaces. That was all.

Now to privacy. It’s not that Germans don’t like it – they do. Generally, they keep doors shut and sheer curtains closed even in the daytime to prevent passersby from looking in. But when it comes to laundry, there’s a shared robust sense that  “underneath all appearance, we’re the same. Our clothes get dirty. Yours do too.”

There’s a saying in the US about not hanging out your dirty laundry. Not your clean laundry, either, apparently. Dangling panties and bras? Much too intimate. Better keep them out of the sun, usher them from hamper to machine to dresser drawer, tuck ‘em inside your sheets at the laundromat.

I actually like clotheslines and the stories they tell. In the Sicilian harbor city of Palermo I was delighted by the cheery garlands of dresses and stockings and towels that hung in tiers from lines strung across narrow streets, connecting one family’s balcony to another’s.

Germans don’t hang their wash so visibly. Outdoor clotheslines are in the courtyards of apartment buildings or in backyards. Gazing from train windows, I often had views of them  and appreciated the laundry line information: where tiny pants hung next to man sized ones and wee pink shirts next to ample nightgowns, I knew I was passing a family home.  A row of black dresses made me think of an old woman, a widow perhaps, living alone in her house. When Germany was divided, I could tell what side I was on by the flapping pieces: magenta undies, brightly flowered skirts and various pairs of jeans meant West, subdued colors and an occasional single pair of jeans was East.

My friend Barbara likens clothes waving on lines to prayer flags, carrying messages on the wind.

When I see shirts and pants fluttering outdoors like excited scarecrows, absorbing breeze and sunlight, I know they will be fresher than anything that emerges from a dryer. I don’t mind the extra work. In fact, I’m not sure it is extra work. I like tending to my things in this tactile way. When I stand on my deck and clip the items to the line, one by one, I appreciate the humble moment of quiet focus. And if the sun is shining, all the better - it will make the dry clothes smell like light.



{8} Dr. Martin Luther King in East Berlin

Last summer, I stayed at the Hotel Albrechtshof in Berlin-Mitte, formerly East Berlin. In a corridor, I noticed framed black and white photographs of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in East Berlin. The date was September 14, 1964. I had never seen these photos before nor had I heard of Dr. King’s visit to East Berlin. How was that possible? When President John F. Kennedy went to West Berlin a year earlier, his visit made headlines around the world.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Berlin in 1964   Source: Getty

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Berlin in 1964  Source: Getty

Unlike JFK and other American leaders, Dr. King did not only speak in West Berlin but crossed the Wall into East Berlin, the capital of East Germany. At a time when East Germany was not yet officially recognized by the United States or by West Germany, this was a radical move. Perhaps that is why Dr. King’s speeches in the divided city barely made a ripple when they happened and have pretty much been ignored since then.     

In 1964, the Cold War was hot. Ideologically, politically and militarily, Europeans and Americans had divided the entire world into two hostile and opposing camps. West vs. East was shorthand for United States vs the Soviet Union and that stood for capitalism and democracy vs. communism. Politicians, scholars and journalists on both sides of the divide saw even remote regional conflicts and events in terms of this larger dichotomy of Good Empire vs. Evil empire. By the time Dr. King visited Berlin, the Cold War was almost twenty years old and people had accepted the Balance of Terror as the new World Order. In heated and often simplistic ideological rhetoric, politicians in East and West condemned the other side as illegitimate and immoral. If the Cold War had a bull’s eye, it was the divided city of Berlin. When Dr. King arrived there in 1964, the Wall had been in place only three years. Berliners on both sides were still jittery because they didn’t know what the sealed border would mean for their lives. Reports of attempted escapes across the Wall headlined West Berlin’s daily papers. Only a day before Dr. King’s visit, an East German was shot for swimming West across the Spree River and the incident all but turned into an East West confrontation.

In East and West, Germans of all ages revered Dr. King for his leadership in the Civil Rights movement and West Berlin Mayor Willi Brandt welcomed the outspoken minister in his island city. Dr. King’s was in Berlin for only a day and a half and his itinerary was jam-packed. In the morning, more than twenty thousand West Berliners came to hear him at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall where he opened the 14th Annual Cultural Festival with a Memorial Service for John F. Kennedy. In the early afternoon, Dr. King delivered a sermon at the annual gathering of West Germany’s Protestant Churches in the open air Waldbühne amphitheater (which attained notoriety less than a year later, when it was ransacked during a Rolling Stones concert by ecstatic fans). Right after his sermon, Dr. King was awarded an honorary degree by the Theological School of the Protestant Church. Then, the American visitor went to see the Wall.

He had been invited to speak in the Marienkirche, a Protestant Church in East Berlin, but the American Embassy had confiscated his passport to prevent him from crossing the Wall. The civil rights leader was not deterred. At Checkpoint Charlie, his limousine approached the border guards, who recognized the famous civil rights leader, heralded in East Germany’s daily newspaper as a leader of  “the other America.” They let Martin Luther King pass without a passport when he showed them an American Express card for identification. I’ve personally experienced the tight security at East German checkpoints many times, so I had a hard time believing this, but German and US sources corroborate the story. It’s still not clear to me who actually invited  Dr. King to East Berlin. We know that there was no announcement of his visit in the media. A small sign next to the front portal of the Marienkirche church named him as the evening speaker. East Germans were eager to hear the man who stood for civil and human rights and for freedom. By the time he arrived, the Marienkirche had filled up and hundreds of East Berliners patiently gathered outside. So as to not disappoint them, Dr. King agreed to deliver a second sermon at the Sophienkirche, which was also packed when he got there. He did all that in one day. Before he had to return to West Berlin at midnight, he agreed to meet with members of the Protestant Church of East Germany in the Albrechtshof  which is now a hotel. That’s why those photos were hanging in the corridor.

The very fact that Dr. King went to the East during this time of absolute polarization riled political commentators. No mention of his visit was ever made in the East German press, probably because his message of liberation did not fit with the immediate political agenda. Western media mentioned Dr. King’s Berlin visit to East Berlin and then allowed it to disappear, probably because it amounted to a legitimization of East Germany.

To me, Dr. King’s visit is audacious because the minister broke the unspoken rule that required public figures to follow the Cold War language of division and separation. Here are excerpts from his speech:

I come to you not altogether as a stranger, for the name that I happen to have is a name so familiar to you, so familiar to Germany, and so familiar to the world, and I am happy that my parents decided to name me after the great Reformer. I am happy to bring you greetings from your Christian brothers and sisters of West Berlin…

Certainly, I bring you greetings from your Christian brothers and sisters of the United States. In a real sense we are all one in Christ Jesus, for in Christ there is no East, no West, no North, no South, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole, wide world…

May I say that it is indeed an honor to be in this city, which stands as a symbol of the divisions of men on the face of the earth. For here on either side of the wall are God’s children, and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact. Whether it be East or West, men and women search for meaning, hope for fulfillment, yearn for faith in something beyond themselves, and cry desperately for love and community to support them in this pilgrim journey. (See the complete speech here, a great website on African Americans GI’s in Germany).

A year before Dr. King’s visit, President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade had also passed the Wall, but the President did not cross to the other side. He did address a crowd of thousands in front of West Berlin’s city hall. West Berliners loved him for representing American largesse and power and for assuring them of continued US support. His iconic statement Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner) not only ignited thunderous applause, it became a legendary catch phrase of Cold War politics.  

Dr. King’s words are not Cold War sound bites. They are timeless.


{7} Double Vision

I’m a hybrid: born German, raised in the United States. Nature vs nurture – you may take sides in that debate, I know that it’s both. Depending on where I am, I’ve been told that I’m “so German” and “that’s so American of you.”

This photo was taken one week after I arrived in the US from Germany, in my aunt's Manhattan office.

This photo was taken one week after I arrived in the US from Germany, in my aunt's Manhattan office.

When I came to St. Paul Minnesota from Berlin as a teenager, I experienced being German as a plus, a positively received distinction. At Cleveland Junior High school, my teachers helped me with my English after class; they forgave all my mistakes and lavished praise when I succeeded on spelling tests and written reports.

The only fault-line in the school ran between white Catholics and white Protestants: non-Catholics complained about the fish served in the cafeteria on Fridays. All classmates clamored to learn how to cuss in German and came by my family’s East Side apartment asking to play with “the German girls” - my sister and I. It didn’t take long for me to make friends and figure out how to organize my school work in a three hole binder. After a few months, I was fluent in English. The laughter that occasionally erupted in the classroom when I pronounced a word incorrectly wasn’t hostile. My German stepfather explained the melting pot as holding a soup of many ingredients, all of which added up to a splendid taste.     

A year after I arrived, Polish twins started attending Cleveland Junior High. Adam was tall and freckled, Eva had straight brown hair that touched the waist of her dress. Even though I had just begun to comprehend the complicated social rules of hallway and classroom, I saw right away that these newcomers were received very differently: teachers were impatient and students avoided them. In ninth grade, I gave a speech about life in Germany at the school wide assembly. Students applauded and the student council gave me a lipstick. Adam and Eva were not asked to speak. I wondered why no one cared about Poland.

In the United States, people identify me as German; in Germany, they refer to me as Amerikanerin. Perfectly at home in both cultures and fluent in both languages, I’m not quite German in Germany, not quite American in the US. In third places, I’m a little of both and it’s not always deemed a sweet cocktail. In London, I was publicly scorned by a flower vendor at Piccadilly Circus. When I asked the old woman for a twine-tied bunch, she studied me, her eyes slightly squinted in her lined face.

“Are you German then?”  Right away, I knew that the question was loaded with memories of Blitzkrieg bombs.

“German-born yes, but I live in the United States.” I was trying to appease her but my words had the opposite effect.

“German and American, that’s the worst possible combination! Go on then, get away. I will not sell my flowers to you!” The woman rose from her stool, yelling and gesturing. A line of brown twine coiled in front of her boots when she dropped the spool, I didn’t dare pick it up for her. Passers-by turned their heads, some stopped.

Oh, to have an invisibility cloak! I’ve never forgotten the feeling of being hated for my born identity. Of not having the option of explaining who I am and what I believe.

This blog is that: an opportunity for me to lay out my German-American perspective on my two countries. As I continue writing, posts will reference history and illuminate cultural differences; some will describe childhood memories, others comment on current events. It will become clear that my two countries are intertwined, and not just in my heart.

I hope that American and German readers will learn about the other country and discover new ways of seeing their own.

{6} Christmas Surprise

The night before Christmas Eve, my grandmother Nona came to string the Zuckerkringel with us, stars made of chocolate and icing. We pulled a thread through the opening in the middle so the Kringel could be hung from the Christmas tree along with little glass trumpets and angels and bells. To keep the fine strings from tangling, we hung the threaded sweets onto a wooden broomstick which Nona had balanced on two chairs. They dangled there, their sweet scent wafting up, until the adults hung them from the tree in the daylight hours of Christmas Eve. My sister Corinna and I would drop a couple of the fragile sweets on purpose, because we were allowed eat broken bits.

In 1962, World War II had been over for seventeen years, but it was very much alive in the minds of the adults who had lived through it. And it was still palpable in Berlin, where the remains of bombed-out buildings and the presence of thousands of Allied troops reminded us daily that Berlin was an occupied city. In the story-lore that shaped my childhood, Christmas figured as a time of earthly miracles: a pork roast procured for the holiday meal in the hungriest of winters, fathers who unexpectedly returned home from POW camp just in time for the family celebration. Such tales inspired me to wish fervently, irrationally, for things that were impossible: a dog, a divining rod, a father who spent time with me, a mother who did not have to work so much.

"Sweets" from American Sold  iers (1945)   -   photographer unknown

"Sweets" from American Soldiers (1945) - photographer unknown

Like all Germans, we celebrated on Christmas Eve and always, the daylight hours seemed endless. My mother dispatched Corinna and me outside, so she could finish the preparations for the evening celebration. She blindfolded us before she led us through our living room, which smelled of fir and spices, to the front door. On the street, Corinna and I watched adults doing last-minute errands before the shops closed for the holidays, scurrying with colorful packages, pulling Christmas trees on sleds. At dusk we returned home. We put on our finest dresses and pulled our hand-made gifts—crocheted potholders and necklaces strung from apple seeds—from their hiding places. The tiny chime of a bell was our signal to enter the living room. For the first time I saw the Christmas tree with its shiny ornaments and red wax candles. My giddy excitement was tinged with reverence as I sat down to open my gifts—a set of watercolors, a book, a game and, of course, the plate filled with Lebkuchen, chocolates, nuts, and two oranges - which were so precious that each one came wrapped in colorful tissue paper.

When my sister and I had finished unwrapping, the adults had their turn. My mother announced that she had decided to give herself a present. “It’s not Christmas music,” she explained as she held up an LP, “it’s Dave Brubeck.”

For some reason that was the moment when everyone noticed that Uncle Ludwig was missing. Uncle Ludwig was the wild card, the charmer who commanded everyone’s attention with his tales of exploits and adventures. He was a nine-year old’s dream: an actor who could talk like Donald Duck, recite Goethe ballads and make coins disappear only to retrieve them from my ear. To my delight, he had come to live with us for a few months. The women he brought to the apartment were hopelessly in love with him and he always handed my sister and me a couple of coins so we would go and play outside “for at least two hours.”

When Ludwig didn’t show up for family events, there was a blank space. We did fine without him when we weren’t expecting him. But when he promised to come and did not, the adults seemed to be in “pause” mode. Waiting for Ludwig. 

My mother set out plates for the traditional meal of herring salad with potatoes and bread, but the cheerfulness seemed half-hearted. Just as we sat down to eat, the doorbell rang. It was Ludwig, with his usual impeccable timing: he always arrived right when everyone missed him the most, just before they became angry with him.

He entered the room with a gust of cold air and a uniformed stranger by his side. “Meet my new friend, Troy,” he said grandly. “I saw him standing alone at the subway station so I invited him. No one should be alleine on Christmas Eve.”

“Merry Christmas everybody,” Troy said, taking off his army cap and smiling all around. How could three words be so melodious and teeth be so brilliantly white? Ludwig introduced us all by name and I looked down shyly when it was my turn to shake Troy’s hand. “Ein Neger,” I whispered to my sister.

While my grandmother set out another plate and my mother unfolded the ironing board for my sister and me to sit on, Ludwig waved me into our tiny kitchen “Don’t say Neger,” he instructed me in what was my first introduction into the complexity of race, “because it sounds a lot like a bad American word.”

The dinner table conversation was an animated mix of English and German, with occasional translations tossed my way like delicious morsels: Los Angeles, Cadillac, turkey, sweet potato pie, homesickness. “We say Heimweh my uncle told him, clutching his heart dramatically. “Heymway,” Troy repeated. He looked at his watch. “At home it’s ten in the morning and my little brother is probably riding his bike with his friends. He’s your age,” Troy said and patted my arm.

After dinner we always sang Christmas carols a cappella, but this year, Troy played along on his harmonica. When he didn’t know a song, he improvised boldly, sometimes hitting a note so high that it made my spine tingle. Our singing had never been so upbeat. Always, we saved “Stille Nacht” for last. Troy joined in, harmonizing his English lyrics with our German words. His voice was deep and daring. As if on cue, we all stopped singing and listened to him. He sang the third verse solo, embellishing it with unfamiliar side notes and quivers. He’s decorating the song, I thought to myself. Goose bumps rose up on my arms. Behind Troy, the candles flickered on the tree, their small flames reflected in the blue and silver glass balls.

In the past, “Silent Night” had always given way to a somber mood as the adults drifted off into their individual reveries and memories. Not this year, though—Troy went on to lively music, gospel songs that I had never heard before. Drumming the table with his fingers and working his voice like an instrument, his singing made me feel like I was going to burst. Laughing or crying—it was a toss up and then he made a face at me and I laughed and laughed and had no idea that this was the sound of my heart overflowing.

Later, when my sister and I were sent to bed with our new books, Dave Brubeck was playing Take Five in the living room. I am not sure, but I think our mother was dancing with Troy and Ludwig. I imagined her tossing her head back and laughing.

I never opened my book that night.



A version of this story was published in the Monthly in 2008.

{5} Caroling on Hanukkah

One of the reasons I like living in the Bay Area is that I am aware of Jewish culture. Being German, this is important for me – I learn things here that I could never learn in my native country. Mostly I learn from interacting with Jewish people: conversations, questions, a place at a friend’s Passover Seder. This story describes an instance of holiday spirit healing old wounds. (A longer version appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in December,  2007.)

When our friends asked us to go Christmas caroling, my response was lukewarm. I feared the Berkeley PC patrol. But our young family friend Leila assured me that everyone loves this holiday tradition and her twin sister Pera reminded me of the Hanukkah song we know. She started singing, my daughters joined in, and I harmonized. My husband assured me that we sounded good enough to go public.

We were a motley dozen when we set out on a late afternoon with photocopied lyrics and votive candles. Nine-year old Marlene, wrapped in colorful scarves, was the youngest; my aunt and uncle who were visiting from out of town were in their sixties; the rest of us somewhere in between. Our spunky dog, more interested in exploring scents than carrying a tune, was tugging at his leash. It happened to be the second day of Hanukkah and the chilly darkness almost felt like winter.

In front of a brightly lit house, we raised our voices. But the woman who opened the door sent us on our way. “Making dinner”, she explained, wiping her hands on a kitchen towel. We headed for a porch decorated with green garlands and poinsettias. When we started Deck the Halls, a forty-something man came to the door. His smile waned when it dawned on him that we were intending to sing all six verses. After the fourth falalala refrain, his wife rescued him.  “We have guests coming any minute,” she mumbled and pulled him inside. At the next house, we got no response at all, though we could see that someone was home. Maybe caroling belonged with the ghosts of Christmas past? But I was starting to have fun and our singing was kicking into high gear. We were getting more daring on our harmonizing and experimenting with less familiar songs. I suggested that we continue at home, with tea and cookies. But Leila and Pera wouldn’t hear of it. Each grabbed one of my arms and pulled me along. We started singing and a young couple opened the door and brought their children outside. They offered us bell-shaped cookies from a red tray. Leila stacked the goodies into the hood of my aunt’s jacket. “I can’t carry them”, she explained, waving the song sheets and the votive, “so I’m saving them for later.”

Encouraged, we moved on to a house with bright lights and sparkling blue and silver decorations. A Menorah glittered in the Bay window, laughter and conversation wafted through the open door. “A Hanukkah party!” Aisha cried, “it’s perfect for our Song of Light.” We sang and people gathered at the door. When the song was finished, the host asked us to come inside and sing something else. Pera confessed that this was the only Hannukah song we knew. “A Christmas carol, then”, he suggested. We deliberated briefly and decided on our best piece, a multi-verse carol that we could harmonize not only in melody, but also in language, combining the original German with the English translation. My husband waited outside with the dog; the rest of us stepped into the festively decorated room. After singing the first line of Maria durch den Dornwald ging  in German, a familiar unease rose up in me. After all, this was a Jewish gathering. Suddenly, like pristine snow turned to muddy slush, the beautiful song seemed shamefully German. My native country’s history weighed down every measure and seemed to distort the lyrics. I imagined misgivings, questions, accusations and looked down at my songbook and read the words that I knew by heart in order to avoid the eyes of the attentive listeners. I felt an urge to explain myself - “I know what you are thinking, but believe me, I am a thoughtful German, I’ve read dozens of books about the Holocaust and I have cried at concentration camp memorial sites.” My mind was racing. My  singing had a subtext: I am sorry. Once again I realized I had no idea what it would feel like to raise my voice proudly in my native language.

When I finally looked up, two dozen faces were beaming at us. There was no reproach, only appreciation. So I lifted my voice and sang as beautifully as I could, in German - da haben die Dornen Rosen getragen - the thorns were wearing roses.

Everyone clapped when we had finished, and the host offered us mandelbrot from the heaping banquet table.

“You sang in German at a Hannukah party!” my husband exclaimed when we were back on the sidewalk. I don’t think I could have done that.”  I told him about how my mind pulled me into the darkness of German history.  How I almost stopped singing.  “But then I saw their faces and I realized that they liked our song, German lyrics and all.”

Looking at the  blue and silver decorations from the sidewalk, I felt relieved. And grateful.

Holiday spirit, indeed.

{4} Weihnachtszeit – the German Christmas Time

Visiting Berlin in December, I am reminded that Germany is a land of five seasons: there’s spring, summer, fall, and winter. And then, there’s Christmas time. The Weihnachtszeit is not so much a frenzied countdown of shopping days (though gifts have a place) as an elaborate protocol of traditions, rituals and festivities. Many of these are country-wide, some are regional and some vary by family. All of them offer a reprieve from the bleak December days, when trees are bare and dusk descends in the afternoon.

General (President) Eisenhower commissioned this advent calendar for his family in 1946.

General (President) Eisenhower commissioned this advent calendar for his family in 1946.

Christmas is by far the most popular German holiday and has been celebrated since the sixteenth century. It is a quintessentially Christian holiday but it has pagan roots. Centuries ago, Germanic tribes celebrated the Winter Solstice by lighting fires and torches and bringing evergreens indoors to ward off the encroaching darkness, and to symbolize their trust that light – and the cycle of growing - would return. In order to convert the pagans, Christians followed the calendar of these non-believers and adapted their rituals. They picked a day close to solstice - December 24th – as the night of Christ’s birth and allowed the evergreen tree to have a place in the Christmas holiday. East German authorities attempted – unsuccessfully – to wean the population away from Weihnachten. They did away with Christian images and with Santa Claus and even came up with the neutral term Jahresendzeitfigur (year’s end figure) to replace the word angel. Unsurprisingly, that word never stuck. But for many years it was difficult, if not impossible, for East Germans to obtain Christmas trees and decorations.

Weihnachtszeit is the Advent season, marked by the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. In the Christian tradition, Advent is a time to prepare for the high holiday of Jesus’ birth. But with its brightly burning candles, Advent also links to the celebrations of light that characterized the older solstice rituals.

On the first Advent Sunday, fat evergreen wreaths appear in homes, public offices, cafes and hotels. They don’t decorate font doors, like American wreaths do, but they sit on tables, shelves or pianos and they hold four candles. On the first Advent Sunday, one candle is lit, a second is lit on the following Sunday and so on, until the four burn brightly just before Christmas Eve.

As a child, I would find an Advent calendar thumbtacked to the wall by my bed on December 1. Usually, it was a glitter-sprinkled holiday scene, with the numbers 1 through 24 written on windows or doors. I remember gently pushing these open with my finger to reveal the second layer of images—a tiny gingerbread man, a rocking horse, or an angel. The images were simple, but the daily ritual of opening these little windows filled the dark winter days with anticipation, helping me to keep a countdown until December 24th, Christmas Eve.

Advent calendars originated in Germany in the 1920’s. Originally, they depicted religious images, usually a nativity scene, but over time, they became more secular: a snowy village, Santa with a sack full of presents. For decades, Advent calendars remained a uniquely German tradition and I really missed them when I came to the United States as a twelve year old. Just recently, I learned that General Eisenhower, stationed in Germany after World War Two, commissioned an advent calendar for his family in 1946 (the one featured in the photo). Nowadays, they have become more common and more elaborate. I’ve seen exquisite three-dimensional scenes whose hidden pictures delight adults as well as children. It’s good to know that the small ritual of uncovering a tiny surprise has lost none of its magic.

Advent is the time of Germany’s famous Christmas markets, which transform urban plazas and village squares into brightly lit fairylands with booths featuring sweets, food and drink as well as handmade crafts. Depending on the region and the town or even the district of a city like Berlin, each market has a distinct atmosphere. But all of them feature mulled wine, gingerbread Lebkuchen and raisin-studded Stollen, roasted almonds, marzipan and chocolates.

On December six, children arise with great eagerness to see what St. Nikolaus has left in the shoes they have polished eagerly and set by the front door. Like Santa Claus – the figure he inspired - St. Nikolaus knows which children are “good” and which are “bad” and he distributes goodies accordingly: sweets and nuts for the well-behaved and coal pieces or switches made of twigs for those who were naughty.

During the days leading up to Christmas, more and more decorations appear: the colorful nutcracker immortalized in Tschaikovsky’s ballet, the traditional wooden Pyramide with candles whose heat rotates tiers of carved angels, the Räuchermännchen – a hollow wooden figure of a man that hides an incense cone. When lit, smoke curls from the man’s pipe. Often, these are family heirlooms, handed down through generations. Some Germans force hyacinth or narcissus bulbs, others cut a branch from a fruit tree and put this in a vase on Saint Barbara’s Day, the fourth of December. In twenty days – just in time for Christmas – the Barbarazweig sprouts leaves and blossoms – another welcome symbol of rebirth at the end of the year.

Traditionally, Advent is the time for baking cookies - peppery Pfeffernuesse and cinnamon flavored Zimtsterne as well as family favorites. In my family, the women baked Schokoladenherzen whose recipe was passed by word of mouth until I badgered my mother to write it down. The recipe is a list of ingredients, with vague measurements, so the cookies, like fine wine, have their unique taste every year.

As a child, the Weihnachtszeit was magical for me because of its sweet surprises. It was full of specific sensory sensations: the smell of fir and spice, the taste of nuts and chocolate. Cold hands and feet were a part of it, too. Whispered secrets and hidden presents heightened the sweet sense of anticipation. Years later, when I raised my daughters, I realized how much work was required to create the excitement and Vorfreude (literal translation: the “ joy before”) that I had cherished. All the markers of the season are labor intensive and I found myself writing the longest to do list of the year. As I paced myself to complete this list in a spirit of calm and good cheer, I found myself wishing for a real Weihnachtsmann who would take care of buying and wrapping the gifts.

{3} The “C” Word.

The recent media coverage of the anniversary of the fall of the Wall is strangely incomplete. In describing the history of the Wall, most commentators (see examples here and here) never mention capitalism as a driving force. They refer to communism as though it was the sole reason for the Wall’s existence, leaving us with the impression that the Soviets and the East Germans built the Wall in 1961 because that’s what Communists do: annex lands, imprison populations. This bothers me. For one thing, this approach disregards events and conflicts of the post war years that led up to the building of the Wall. For another, it suggests that there was only one actor – the Communist Soviet Union. In fact, the capitalist, liberal democratic United States played an equally important role in structuring politics in post-war Germany. Mentioning only communism when you talk about the Wall is like narrating a football game by only describing one team. When we expunge the word capitalism from a historical analysis, we lose sight of the fact that the Wall was a consequence of a contest between communism and capitalism known as the Cold War.

Soviet - US Standoff at Checkpoint Charlie, 1961 

Soviet - US Standoff at Checkpoint Charlie, 1961 

When the Soviets and the East German authorities built the Wall in 1961, the division of Germany was a fact and the political, economic and ideological differences between East and West Germany were firmly anchored in each country’s constitutions and institutions.

Who remembers that the United States, the Soviet Union, France and England fought on the same side in World War Two? Together, these countries made up the anti-Hitler alliance that defeated Germany. Together, they divided Germany into four occupation zones so that it would never again rise as a military power. The Allies also partitioned the capital city Berlin that was located in the Soviet Zone. Each sector was to be administered by its occupation power. Germany’s division pre-dated the Wall by sixteen years. It was an Allied decree and a direct consequence of Hitler’s defeat in World War II.

Once the common enemy was defeated, the anti-Hitler alliance fell apart because of the fundamental political and economic differences between the Soviet Union and the Western Powers. Already in the spring of 1946, English Prime Minister Winston Churchill coined the phrase “Iron Curtain” to describe the ideological division between Eastern and Western Europe. The Cold War era began taking shape before the two Germany’s had formally proclaimed themselves as separate states.

At a time when it seemed like life could and should never be normal again for the Germans who had unleashed such vast destruction, the Cold War shifted the political focus away from recent German history. A new battle was being waged, between Capitalism and Communism. Its front line ran through Germany and divided Berlin was the hot spot, with American, French and British troops stationed in the West and Soviet troops in the East.

In 1947, the Americans initiated the Marshall Plan, a 13 billion dollar aid package for Western Europe and specifically Western Germany. Many Americans were opposed to financing German reconstruction with tax dollars. Why jumpstart the broken economy of the enemy? Just two years earlier, Hitler-loving Germans were waging war against us, indeed, against humanity. But by 1947, Germany had become the frontier country where Communism had to be stopped. It was also a great market for American-made goods.

Fueled by Marshall Plan funds, the Western sectors of Germany quickly prospered. Meanwhile, the Eastern zone remained impoverished and not just because of its Soviet-style planned economy. Hitler’s armies had ravaged the Russian cities and the countryside and killed an estimated 25 million Russian people. Even if they’d wanted to, the Soviets were not in a position to give aid to the country they had helped to defeat with such great sacrifice. As victors, they demanded reparations and began dismantling industrial plants and railways as soon as WWII ended. For years to come, they claimed a share of East Germany’s industrial production. Even in the seventies and eighties, my East German friends would bring up these unequal starting positions when someone compared the lumbering East German economy to the Economic Miracle in West Germany. “Here in the DDR, we paid the price for Hitler’s war and we’re still paying the price. You West Germans were bailed out by the Americans and you got fat on Marshall Plan money. There was no way we could ever catch up.”

In 1949, the two German states were officially proclaimed. Even though the Cold War had generated hostility and distrust among leaders, people could still move fairly freely across the East/West border. Motivated by the prosperity and the liberal democratic politics in West Germany, more than two million East Germans moved there between 1949 and 1961. This exodus led the East German authorities to seal the border. The Wall was built to keep East Germans in and also to keep capitalism out.

When the rolls of barbed wire appeared in Berlin on the night of August 13, 1961, Western leaders actually expressed relief because they were tired of the German border conflicts that threatened to escalate into another war. The British ambassador to West Germany,  Sir Christopher Steel, commented in a dispatch to London: “I personally have always wondered that the East Germans have waited so long to seal this border.” President John F. Kennedy told  his advisers “it’s not a very nice solution, but a Wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”

Of course, the Wall confined and restricted East Germans. It quickly became a symbol of tyranny and a convenient way to discredit ideas of socialism and communism. But it was not simply a communist scheme for oppression. Rather, it was the result of communism and capitalism - at Cold War with each other.

When we drop the term capitalism from the conversation (and from our thinking), we lose sight of the ways it shaped, not only the history of divided Germany, but the history of the 20th century. And we might forget that it continues to play a crucial role in contemporary events, conflicts and wars.


I couldn’t be there in person, so I followed last weekend’s Berlin celebrations on television. I enjoyed revisiting the iconic photos of people waving and dancing on the Wall, men and women hammering away at what had been one of the most fortified borders in the world. And I liked the new images, the line of white (biodegradable) balloons marking the border that once divided the city, all of them released into the sky on the final day of festivities.

Border Balloons  -  photo: Corinna Schöfer

Border Balloons - photo: Corinna Schöfer

Watching the public spectacle, I sensed a subtext: relief. Finally, thanks to the East German people, all Germans have an historic event they can commemorate without shame and guilt.

Since the Third Reich, German atrocities have sidled up right next to music, literature and philosophy. Think: Beethoven and Eichmann; Goethe and Goebbels; Hegel and Himmler - two sides of the same coin that is German history. Hitler, as we know, loved Wagner operas.

As a German, it’s hard to feel proud.

November 9 is a case in point. This is not just the day the Wall opened, but also the day of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Crystal.” Such a misnomer - if you didn’t know better, the term might conjure up bubbling champagne flutes and sparkling chandeliers. But November 9, 1938, was a pogrom. On that night, Germans gathered to destroy Synagogues and Jewish businesses in cities and towns. Kristallnacht signaled clearly the Nazis intention to eliminate Jews with force and violence.

I imagine German children peeking through drawn curtains, witnessing adults – maybe their uncles and neighbors – smashing the windows of the corner grocery, the pharmacy, the bookstore. Maybe the children saw shop owners running for cover, crying, falling on the shattered glass. Maybe they saw beatings, killings. Once the windows were smashed, the looting began. The same people who wrought destruction filled their pockets with Jewish property. This is one of the seldom talked about open secrets of the Nazi era: the massive redistribution of wealth that resulted from the persecution and murder of Jews. (But that’s another topic.)

Maybe the parents shooed their kids to bed, muttering vaguely and shaking their heads. And on their way to school the next morning, these children felt glass crunch underfoot and saw the street sweepers clear away glittering shards along with the autumn leaves. Restoring order. Except of course, within that order, hell was breaking loose.

Turn back the clock twenty more years, to November 9, 1918, just two days before Germany surrendered and World War I ended. It was a time of political upheaval with right wing Socialists battling left wing Socialists in parliament and in the streets. On November 9, 1918, the Kaiser abdicated. Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann declared the Weimar Republic at the Berlin Reichstag. Two hours later, Karl Liebknecht proclaimed the Free Socialist Republic from the steps of the Imperial Palace. (I wonder if anyone has traced the possibility that the duality of the Weimar Republic was reflected, years later, in the differences between East and West Germany.)

If Germany’s first parliamentary Republic had not been born in strife on November 9, maybe the Führer would not have been able to gather the following to attempt a coup five years later. On November 9, 1923 Hitler and his supporters marched to the center of Munich in an effort to take over the Bavarian government in the notorious Biergarten Putsch. Police managed to contain what was supposed to be the first step of the Nazi “March on Berlin” - but we know how things ultimately unfolded.

I’m not saying that the opening of the Wall shouldn’t be celebrated. I was in Berlin on that historic day and I’ll never forget the euphoric feeling of liberation. When my East Berlin friend appeared at my West Berlin doorstep in the early morning hours of November 10, I thought I was dreaming. Together, we joined the ecstatic crowd at the Wall. Carrying my baby in a snuggli, I helped my two-year old daughter hammer a chip from the concrete.

Still, I hope that in the midst of celebration, Germans remember that long before the Wall opened, November 9 was a day when ransacking Germans consolidated a regime that took millions of lives and forever left its mark on the world.

If you only remember one date in Germany’s history, let it be November 9. The date stands for both sides of history. It invites discussions about contradictions, what ifs, and the long shadows cast by war, genocide and the Wall. It also offers an opportunity to consider the long-term unfolding of historical events: Germany would not have been divided by the Allies in 1945 if there’d been no strife in the Weimar Republic, no Hitler, no World War Two, and no Kristallnacht.