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Apr 2010 Journal

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Thoughts at a Kristallnacht ceremony

Leslie Baruch Brent writes: The author of the following article is a German writer and novelist who grew up in the DDR. She created waves with her autobiographical novel Wir Sonntagskinder (Ullstein Verlag, 2002), in which she described her tragic childhood. On 8 November last year she attended a ceremony in the building that housed the Jewish Boys’ Orphanage in Pankow-Berlin before the war. This was a commemoration of Kristallnacht and included the unveiling and presentation of a tryptic painting - Kaddish - by Franny Swann, the daughter of Ruth Albert, who had been a day-pupil in the orphanage school, as well as a reading from the German edition of my autobiography (Ein Sonntagskind? Vom jüdischen Waisenhaus zum weltbekannten Immunologen).
Here Marianne-Christine Scharfenberg describes her thoughts as she waited for the ceremony to commence. Readers of the AJR Journal will, I think, be touched by this poignant memory of childhood – one that clearly troubles her to this day.
The Betsaal (the hall of the Pankow Orphanage, now used for meetings, discussions and recitals, but was the prayer room or synagogue before the war) is completely full. On the stage is a grand piano. In front of it are a lectern and small table with glasses and a bottle of water. Beside it is a tryptich - demanding attention and pushing everything else into its shadow. Its three sections show barbed wire on a grey background. Thoughts of visits to concentration camps arise. I think I hear voices, remember the smell of barracks. The greyness depresses me. I think of Yad Vashem.
With relief I see that the barbed wire holding the grey captive is torn, has escape holes, allows for hope. The torn ends point into nothingness. In the middle section, the wire seems to bend outwards as though a force has blown it apart from within. The perspective reminds me of works by Vasarely, but without his colourful cheerfulness.
People who have come to the event walk past me, look for seats, arrange their coats, shuffle their feet. They interrupt my thoughts. I look up to the damaged ceiling of the Betsaal.
Suddenly I feel once again the guilt of the past. 1953 in Pankow. An eight-year-old, I lived with my parents in a flat in the triangle formed by the city hall, the old parish church and the Jewish orphanage.
My sister Bele was still not fully potty-trained, even though she’d been going to school for two months. Her floodgates opened up whenever she remembered we no longer lived with our beloved grandmother.
The children in the school quickly noticed her problem. When Bele stood in the schoolyard with a patch developing in her crotch and crying, they would tease her. They pushed her till she fell in the dirt. Then they jeered at her, drunk with victory: ‘Filthy girl, filthy girl, filthy girl!’
One day Bele once again stood in her puddle in the yard. Before I could get to her she was already on the ground, encircled by a jeering mob of children. I of course tried to save her - as well as our honour - nearly every school break. In my family nothing was particularly clean - but ‘Filthy children!’ I couldn’t let that go unanswered.
Blind with rage, I swung my school bag around me. I hit the first yelling blighter on the head with it. His glasses flew through the air in a high arc, projecting colourful reflections of sunrays and landing next to my sister in the puddle.
‘Now there’s really going to be trouble!’, I thought. I pulled Bele up and dashed with her into the street. We ran. In a small chestnut copse near the church Bele couldn’t go any further. I couldn’t take care of her any more - this time it was all about me.
Between the stands and the people of the weekly market, I thought I’d escaped. The market was behind me; I could see the city hall. I cried with rage and fear, felt the bruises from the last class fight. The cry ‘Filthy children, filthy children!’ became weaker and weaker. I could hear only the noises of the street now. I was exhausted and stopped running. I took a deep breath and looked behind me.
I saw a mob of children on the other side of the street. They were interested in a very thin man in a long, black coat and a black hat. Beside him were a few smaller children, also dressed in black. The mob came closer to the man and the children, yelling frenetically. I didn’t understand what they were chanting. They grabbed at his shopping bags, pulled at them, laughing and jeering as they did so. People in the street stood still and laughed along with the children – the show was obviously very funny. The man in the black coat did nothing to defend himself. Suddenly I understood what they were yelling. No longer ‘Filthy child, filthy child!’ - but ‘Filthy Jew, filthy Jew!’
Again and again this phrase. I didn’t know what it meant. I was happy to have escaped. I ran to the other side of the street and yelled with the mob ‘Filthy Jew, filthy Jew!’ Again and again ‘Filthy Jew!’ I felt good because I thought an adult who was being insulted by children and didn’t defend himself deserved it.
I was pulled out of my memories. In his unmistakable, vulnerable manner, Leslie Baruch Brent entered the Betsaal. Without touching the ground – so it seemed to me – he glided past the tryptic and sat on the chair behind the small table. Pale, a little nervous, he arranged his printed pages and began reading. About his Jewish childhood. A childhood full of fear, isolation, deprivation. He read for three quarters of an hour.
Afterwards, as we enjoyed a plesant meal in a restaurant with lively conversation and in a convivial atmosphere, I remained alone in my shame at my actions back then.

This article was translated from the German by Kelly Neudorfer

Marianne-Christine Scharfenberg

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