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Jul 2008 Journal

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Berlin days

I owned a cosh - a de luxe model, encased in finest pigskin, a covered steel ball at one end, a leather thong at the other to slip over your wrist. The spring-loaded handle had the kind of stitching you’d see on the most expensive shoes. It could have had only one previous owner: my dodgy Uncle Stefan, who was quick to slap faces but liked to over-prepare against retaliation. He had long been dead when I found the cosh among my grandmother’s possessions; I doubt she would have known what it was.
The year was 1935, the place Berlin, and the idea of a Jewish boy walking the streets with a cosh was suicidal folly. At that time I had just joined a small private youth club, the brainchild of an enterprising young man in his early twenties. Heinz B. started with just a few local boys and girls in his mother’s spacious apartment in Wilmersdorf - initially just a place for us to go to, play table tennis and fool around. Of course, sex was high on the agenda - we were bursting with surplus hormones and acne and the heat we generated made the air shimmer. But Heinz was a leader who wanted to inject purpose into our blighted lives. One of his ideas was that we should perform a Purim play. I was allowed to write and act in it. Guess who had the best lines! Heinz not only hired a real miniature theatre for three performances; he also persuaded Julius Bab, dramaturge of the Kulturbund, to attend the first night. (For those who need reminding, the Kulturbund was the only theatre Jews were able to visit.)
My ambition was to be a playwright and actor. It was in the family, and I had already started to accept professional engagements as a stand-up comedian at bar mitzvahs and other social gatherings. My audiences must have been very indulgent or cowed by the cheek of a 15-year-old. Bab was more critical. The way he put it was that I showed more promise as a playwright than as an actor; he may have meant ‘even less promise as an actor’. It was many years and a stern no-no from Conrad Veidt before I gave up the dream of acting. The flow of bad plays took even longer to dry up.
Heinz was endlessly ingenious. He decided that we older ones should be taught the rudiments of self-defence and persuaded the then German featherweight champion in ju-jitsu (was his name Wittgenstein?) to coach us. He was barely taller than I, but he threw me round our improvised gymnasium like a dog playing with a rag doll. I don’t know whether Heinz had an ulterior motive, but one afternoon he told us about some younger boys who were being attacked on their way home from Hebrew lessons at the local synagogue. Not physically attacked, but threatened and abused by Nazi hooligans from the nearby Oberrealschule. What did we think of escorting them home after lessons and delivering them to their parents? The reactions were interesting. The girls were quickest to volunteer. The boys from the ‘best’ families were a bit hesitant; the most enthusiastic response came from us ruffians. I was feeling eager and heroic, asking to take charge of a boy whose sister I happened to be keen on at the time. As her brother’s saviour I could hardly miss.
‘Of course,’ said Heinz, ‘you must ask your parents for permission.’ I had no intention of doing anything of the sort, lovingly fingering the cosh in my pocket. Heinz was meticulous and careful. He worked out different routes which we were to change randomly, one boy escort to walk a little behind the protegée, the other on the opposite side of the street. The idea was not to get into fights, but to provide moral support and prevent the disruption of Hebrew studies. So we kept our heads down, and our spirits up, following Heinz’s strict rules: no eye contact with the enemy, no change in walking pace when they hove into sight.
One afternoon, on escort duty, I came face to face with a boy from my own school. He had changed into Hitler Jugend uniform but had the same runny nose he had in the classroom. There was no way I could just walk past him. He stopped and said: ‘We know what you are up to.’
‘Taking a walk,’ I said. ‘Want to come?’
‘Jews are not allowed to form groups of more than two,’ he said, looking across the road to my two companions.
‘There is no such rule,’ I told him. ‘And anyway, I am a foreigner so it would not apply to me.’
‘Clever,’ he said. ‘But we’ll get you one day.’ He turned heel and motioned his friend to follow him. I suppose this was one of the rare moments when being an Austrian had done me any good.
For me the story ended suddenly in the spring of 1936, when our flat in the Regensburgerstrasse had been emptied into packing cases, leaving the bare walls with the dusty outlines of paintings I had known all my life. My mother and I travelled to stay with relatives in Holland, en route to England. Heinz B. survived by emigrating to Australia. Wittgenstein was murdered. I don’t know what happened to the cosh.


Victor Ross

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