The broken umbrellas of Hamburg would have been a good title for what might be my last post from Germany, as time is running out and I leave in just over a fortnight with some writing to do and some visits to make: hopefully to Dresden and maybe, Gottingen. But last weekend it was Hamburg, my first real trip in the pursuit of material somewhere that I knew for sure my quarry had lived, at least until 1928, at Klosterallee 20. What I was to find – in the teeth of a powerful North Sea storm that battered us the entire weekend – was broken umbrellas.
Another victim, this time near Alexanderplatz in Berlin.
Since my course at the Goethe-Institut had ended on 18 December and the following day I had flown to England on Germanwings from Texel, travel and family connections had been uppermost in my mind. I had first stayed with my friend Paul Ewen and his family in Denmark Hill after a baptism of commuter fire at Paddington Station fresh off the Heathrow Express. After Berlin railway stations, it seemed like I had entered a feeding frenzy of bluefin tuna, swarming around me from every direction. Welcome back said London and gave me a shove.
Paul playing with Violet and Vincent.
Paul, who I have only known for just over a year is a sublimely talented satirist and his rightly acclaimed spoof on the Booker and literary prize industry in general is too funny for words. I have – truly – never laughed so loud or so long and almost choked trying not to on the flight back to Germany ten days later. Seek out “How to be a Public Author” and see for yourself. His family – wife Linda, children Violet and Vincent – were delightful and it was sweet to lean back into their hospitality in a London ex-pat household, with Hotere and McCahon on opposite walls of the living room where I slept on the fold-out couch.
After two nights of R&R I headed off to Woking and an evening with my cousin Jen; the afternoon though was spent with us taking my other cousin Gary from another Holman branch to see his 90 year old father Colin in a Haslemere rest home. We joined in a Fawlty Tower-esque set of Christmas carols with a brass band in one room just visible but highly audible, as Colin sang away to himself, a sweet sound, a song known there and then to no-one but him.
I pressed on the following day to Chesham in Buckinghamshire were another long lost family member awaited: Clive Newlands, the grandson of my famous great uncle Hector Bywater and my second cousin, if I have this whakapapa correctly grasped. I had contacted him from New Zealand earlier in the year as I searched for any family members who might know anything about great aunt Lillian and Carl Hasenburg – but he had nothing at all.
In fact, he hardly knew anything of the wider Bywater connections: his mother, Sylvia, had said very little about her family; he knew of but had never met her brother, his uncle Robin who had wonderfully written to me in 1990 when I had discovered his existence through reading Bill Honan’s book on his legendary father, Hector. If not for Robin’s letter, I would never have known of Carl’s Jewish ancestry, his death at the hands of the Nazis nor Lillian’s repatriation from Germany back to England during the war.
We spent a wonderful evening together with his wife Pat comparing notes, meeting his brother Nick, a cousin and their wives, Pat’s daughter and her Irish boyfriend. They put on pre-Christmas feast which was as good the one on the 25th when it came, and the next morning drove me to a pub lunch at England’s oldest ale house, the 900-year veteran, The Royal Standard of England near Beaconsfield, before dropping me off for my next trip, down the Sussex coast to Selsey.
My time at Selsey was with family connections from my first marriage: I had been the best man when Tony and Kate Grant got married and we’d stayed in touch ever since, with a few gaps. They were my down home Christmas hosts and we had a great time catching up, watching Tony feed his flock of seagulls every morning and sympathizing with him as his once great West Indian cricket team gave him the Jamaican blues with a series of dropped catches against South Africa.
Next stop in the whistlestop tour was Poole and my elderly auntie Pat who is now also in a rest home, not very far from the house she lived in for many years in Broadstone so she can still wander around and visit her neighbours. She was – as I would be too in the same situation – very happy to see me and we spent three precious hours in her upstairs room catching up with my family news and me milking her memories of the Holman clan of Southwark, the ageing aunts and grannies of a long gone era before the Second World War when they lived poor but close and formed deep bonds. She may not have been pining for the harsher side of that era but she conveyed to me something of what our affluence has cost us in loss of community. No sentimental “poor but happy”; rather, “poor and connected”.
By five pm, my next ride was at the door: Jeremy Windust, a union organiser and secretary of the RBA in the 1990s when I worked for Waterstones Booksellers on Charing Cross Road and was for quite a few of those years a delegate for the London M25 area. We too had stayed in sporadic contact, kept alive by our mutual love of Bob Dylan’s music; he’s way deeper in that fan culture and the musical element than I am, but we follow His Bobness through thick and thin with eyes and ears wide open. I said farewell to my auntie and we drove off down to Weynouth for my furthest reach south before I was to turn around and head back to Selsey.
Jeremy’s Dad flew Sunderlands off West Africa during the war, which is one more thing we have in common, a love of planes and this big boat especially. I have been spoiled that way on this trip as Clive in Chesham loves flight too and as a boarder in England flying from Nigeria to London every year, more than once over his years of schooling he got to fly in some very exotic types, including a Boeing Stratocruiser, a postwar airliner based on the B-29 atom bomber. So two more days passed in seaside mode as I was treated to pub lunches and a walk on the famous Chesil Beach at sunset. Magic.
My time there was too soon over and it was back to a brief stopover in Selsey on the way north to a four day hotel stay at the Arora near Heathrow, chosen for its price (excellent), its proximity to the airport when it did come time to leave (convenient) and its halfway point location between central London and a trip I wanted to make to see Jacqui, another old friend from London days now living in Reading.
That was sorted through a National Express bus trip there and the kind offer of a ride back to Heathrow with her daughter and family who turned up for tea in the evening after her Mum and I had had a few hours to touch base and reconnect. It was another special encounter with much to share, but by this time, I was getting very low on battery power and needed to chill out the next day. I was simply peopled out and exhausted, and still had a couple more dates on my dance card and a visit to the National Archives in Kew, in search of Lillian’s time on the Isle of Man as an internee during the war.
That was to prove a little frustrating: no trace of her and then to discover that very few of the internees are recorded in what the NA holds; it would be more fruitful to chase the Isle of Man government sources, the helpful man from Lower Hutt New Zealand informed me from behind the bookshop counter. I suspect he knows more than a lot of the archvists. I bought a book from him, “How To Research Your German Ancestors” and left after photographing some files in the archives about Hector Bywater’s hassles with the Foreign Office as he tried to prove he was actually a British citizen, not an American (a fake US birth created for him by his brother Ulysses in the American Consulate in Dresden, so Hector could carry out his espionage activities in Germany and not be taken for being British). Hector was granted the “favour”in the end but it was obvious there was no love lost between officialdom and my great uncle once the war was over.
My last two contacts were an old AA friend from London days who of course must remain anonymous here, but I did have a really amazing encounter after a central city meeting with someone who had actually been enrolled as an “enemy alien” during the war, but as a child was not sent to an internment camp. He did recall going to the Aliens Registration Office at 16 Bloomsbury Square, being registered and sent home. My other hoped-for contact, the son of the Czech Jewish obstetrician who had delivered my brother in February 1946 and saved my mother from dying from pregnancy toxaemia, was not to be. Maybe next year.
So it was back to Berlin after four very handy days in the airport hotel, with free buses taking me a ten minute ride to Terminals 1,2 and 3 where I could either catch a flight or a the Tube into town. We had a bit of flight delay as Germanwings were clipped by the delays of incoming flights due to fog, but by midnight I was back in Berlin, zipping home in Konrad’s black VW Golf and very pleased to be in a German language zone again, as I’d been losing the little I had, I knew it. The next step was to get some good sleep and prepare to go to Hamburg the following weekend.
No sooner was I back than the globetrotting Kutts were off to a conference in Norway and a holiday in the fjords near Stavanger, but not before Konrad had framed a couple of my Phantom Billstickers’ poster poems to hang on the wall for the upcoming Hauskonzertt they are planning for January the 16th. They are hosting Katsuya Watanabe, a Japanese oboist and Ulugbek Palvanov, a pianist from Uzbekistan. Into this illustrious lineup they have invited me to read some poetry and enjoy the experience of seeing them hanging on the walls with their art collection that fills the house. They are such an inspiring couple.
So to Thursday and the bus journey to Hamburg: it worked a treat, with plenty of room, only three hours whizzing along the autobahn passing and being passed at speed, arriving in the city as the rains began. I foolishly opted to walk the 1.5km to the A&O Hostel as the rain set in and soaked me on what would prove to be a stormy weekend. The night on the third floor was not much better as traffic noise finally drove me at 11pm for ask for another room. I went from 337 to 814 and the noise abated. Sleep was pretty much wrecked by then, but I survived a rocky landing into Hamburg in search of my Hasenburgs.
The next morning, I waited in my room for Kate to arrive, my German friend who had stayed with us in Christchurch last year and promised to help me with translation when I needed it in Germany on my research trips out of Berlin. She is a professional translator now training to be an interpreter at a college in Mannheim and she had travelled all that way by bus too, overnight. Once we had connected, it was time to make our way over to the Staatsarchiv where we had arranged to meet Manuel, a friend of Kate’s friend Britta who I knew from Berlin. He was a committed and expert genealogist, an engineer by profession who had taken a day off work to help me. Just look at the kindness of these people, children of a nation I had been trained to distrust and fear.
Manuel was quiet, shy and as they say here, “so freundlich” – so kind. He and Kate noted the remarks of our expert adviser and he went to work on the files in the system, making a copy for me of all the relevant numbers we would have to pull up later. The catch was, anything required had to be ordered for the following day, in this case Saturday and they were closed. I was leaving on Monday, so – I would have to come back. We sat in the cloakroom with cheap coffees and decided that we could do no more and it was time for lunch. Would he suggest somewhere local: indeed. Would he join us: of course. We shared and excellent meal in a spacious Tex-Mex restaurant that could have been anywhere in the world except for the German spoken all around me.
Manuel departed, promising to do some more work on the Hasenburgs for me in the old telephone directories of homes and businesses and being more than willing if I did come back in July as I am planning. Kate and I went sightseeing in the rain down on the canals of the waterfront, only turned back from some fascinating and delightful architecture by the gathering storm that was filling the rubbish bins of Hamburg with hundreds of dead, skeletal umbrellas, their pretty canopies ripped to shreds and their spines sticking up like fishbones.
He later sent me both an PDF with dates of Carl’s addresses in Hamburg from 1924 to 1931 – and an invitation for Kate and I to visit for coffee the next day, Saturday. The wind and rain had dashed their plans for an outing, along with smashing all those pretty brollies ( a new English word I taught Kate). So that was just what we did, after another sight-seeing jaunt to the famous church of St Michelis, chased hither and thither by the the moody weather. Kate lit a candle for her grandmother while I took in the international Holy Family with its Japanese baby Jesus and multi-national Three Wise Men. In view of the current Islamophobia sweeping the West, it was nice to see an Arab sage worshipping a Christ figure wrapped in a tiny yukata gown.
The afternoon with Manuel, Helena and the delightful three year old Louise capped off a difficult but richly endowed weekend. No, we had not seemingly struck oil, but we were now pretty certain Carl – and Lillian? – left Klosterallee 20 in 1931 and one or both of them left Hamburg. The Crash and the Depression may well have killed Carl’s rubber business: he had gone from a partnership in 1924 (Hasenburg & Lerch) to working from home by 1931. He might just have had to go elsewhere for work. That was a result: more facts to work with.
Then there was the prospect of contact the Hamburg Jewish Genealogy Group when I got back to Berlin, Kate’s offer to contact the authorities in the locality where Carl was born and Manuel’s offers of future help. I gave him a copy of one of my poetry books, Autumn Waiata and promised more. I also left him a copy of the pages of my grandmother’s address book, which had the name of the woman whose nearby house they lived in after they left Klosterallee: Frau Bosche of Mundsburgerdamm 25.
Manuel has since been in touch with the information that Frau Bosche – and I assume any Hasenburgs with her – left that address after 1934. The pieces come together: last night I kept hearing “Wuppertal” in my broken early morning visions. The broken umbrellas of Hamburg. The abandoned shelters of my ancestors, the whispers of their vanished dreams.