I found myself in the company of Germans before I could get out of Singapore: a bunch of teens on a school trip surrounded me like a flock of boisterous chirping German birds. On the midnight flight they soon roosted while I dozed like some wary owl as the great Airbus 380 carved through both still and turbulent airs to land us safely and efficiently in Frankfurt. It was simple enough to find the Fernbahnhof and get a ticket to Frankfurt Main Station.
The journey from Frankfurt worked well once I found my seat; the ride wasn’t cheap at €120 even with the Goethe Institut discount. I had a conversation with a woman called Christine who works selling food handling equipment to airlines. She asked me what I did and so eventually she got the Hasenburg story. I was helped on the Berlin station by another guardian angel who showed me where to go and how to buy a ticket. People were so kind.
Only two S-Bahn stops to Hackescher Markt and I was at the Institut in ten minutes. Humping my suitcase on cobbles made me think of a visit to Prague 1999. I told the interviewer at the school that I was a raw beginner and was too jetlagged to sit the test so he gave in and put me down for Level One. I spoke to Petra in accounts about paying the travel repayment in cash and she agreed it would have been better to have given me the money in my bank in New Zealand, but some emails crossed. I hope to get my online German bank open soon; I sent away the documents today and once it is approved she can put the money in there.
I emailed Konrad my host that I was coming and he met me halfway down the street outside Grunewald station. He’s a lovely man of 72 with good English but he struggles to understand me unless I speak slowly. He made me coffee and we had some homemade biscuits. I will be living separately in this comfortable private upstairs room with a view of the large tree-lined garden in an old established well heeled area.
He took me walking to Gleis 17, the memorial platform and tracks next to the present station where from October 1941 to March 1945, 50, 000 Berlin Jews were transported. He and his wife Gaby had pushed the railway company to do this against years of resistance, 1977-1998. They have a plaque on the wall outside my room, showing that six palms are planted for them in the Itzhak Rabin gardens in Israel. Truly they are righteous Gentiles.
Konrad and I got on very well. I was absolutely buggered, but had to keep going and meet Gaby when she came home and cooked us a meal. She is lovely too, very warm and friendly and like Konrad a little less than fluent but hey, I have to learn German to make it easier for all of us! She cooked us a chicken and potato meal as a welcome, but from now on it is mostly self-catering.
I hit the sack soon as I could, crashed, woke at 2.30pm, went back to sleep, woke at 5.30 and had to stay awake as I needed to catch a train at 7.30 to get to the Institut at 8.15. I worked out the bathroom in my fog but with no coffee or any food up here, I had to go cold turkey till I got to the local Kaiser superette. The Kutts were still asleep when I left. I had a coffee at the station to kick my batteries over (average, but mead of the gods to me by then).
I spoke German to the girl in the cafe and she understood. I asked a commuter which train was coming even though I knew the answer, because I mean to speak German as much I can. I got to Berlin early and had another coffee at the station (latte, below average). I made it to Goethe and found my name on the class list. In the classroom the teacher didn’t read my name out with the others (she wasn’t the teacher on the list I was on and so I’d been sent to the wrong room). It was like being back in the primers.
I found Room 102 and a met my new teacher, Nicole Braeuer who is very professional. This is a class of people from India to Benin, Brazil to Italy. Jacopo at my table was from Genoa: I think he’s Jewish and so I think is Rebecca from London (also at the same table). Jacopo is a rocket scientist (true!!) who resigned his job in Turin as he was bored. He wants to retrain in Berlin in sustainability engineering, the big thing here it seems.
The class is run very like the ones my wife teaches in New Zealand: lots of preparation, handouts, pairs and groups, intense and interactive. Damn near killed me! I was gasping by 10am at coffee break. We survived. At one point Nicole was watching me trying to do an exercise and I said, ‘Please go away, you are making me nervous’! I was just soooo tired.
I went to Alexanderplatz afterwards and posted my bank application, took in all the cycles (just like Holland, no helmets, all very casual). I looked at a cellphone to use here (this has way cheaper texts if you are using prepay) but the cashier refused Visa and MasterCard. Cash or American Express. Weird. Big store too, Saturn, Dick Smith on steroids. Will have another look when I get my €€ cash situation sorted.
I headed back to Grunewald and visited the memorial at the station for a second time, on my own in the light of day. I walked slowly, trying to take it in, as I took photographs of the fallen leaves on the plaques and the wilting roses left by pilgrims.
I went home via Kaisers again and shopped for some food for the night. I wasn’t hungry really so just snacked on cheese, crackers and toast. Hard to have an appetite after what I’d just walked over.
My visit to Gleis 17 is turning into a draft first chapter, The Jews of Grunewald. Walking along the station platform, with every transport to the east recorded, it is too hard to explain. What number of post-mortem words written by unrelated strangers can do justice to that number of deportations and deaths?
You say it so easily, it slips off your tongue, fifty thousand, fifty thousand. You have reached the point where words fail and only silence has the power to speak.
These commemorate individuals outside their homes: in this case, Gisela Niegho, an infant who briefly lived near where I now study German and was deported to Auschwitz a babe in arms in 1943 and murdered.