I was nearly on-time. A fact he remarked on as he stood in the station and I stepped off the train at Prenzlauer Alleé. My very long-haired Italian friend looked at his wristwatch in a pointed manner, then pronounced his favorite connector for a change of subject, in English: “Well, okay!”
He was Italian, but his father had been American. A military young man stationed in Italy briefly on his way to Vietnam. That father never returned like so many. In this particular case, the supplier of DNA never knew his seed had taken purchase. My friend had been born with greyish blue eyes and sandy brown hair, yet a distinctive aquiline nose. He’d moved to Berlin several years before I’d arrived. Had worked in the capacity of detective on a police force before he resigned after loss of direction and to focus on his musical career, where his guitar played centre stage.
In Germany, I’d never met a man with such long, thick and beautiful hair as yet. I asked him why he’d done so, and pushing the wings of it back from his cheeks in an oft-used motion, he told me. He also revealed more of his background than I’d previously been granted, by way of vignettes into his past.
In the area he’d lived in Italy, near a USA military base, it wasn’t uncommon if an Italian woman took an American boyfriend for a time. It wasn’t as tolerably viewed if she became pregnant and had a child by one, especially if not having been wedded to them. When he was born with light hair and eyes, his difference was clear. Despite some exclusion, he’d used it to his advantage when he could, and as a buoy to the surface away from the depths of exclusivity, genetic purity, and the prejudice which many societies show for those of “mixed blood”, he’d become a mercurial speaker and entertainer yet with a core of resilience.
He was a wanderer, a lover, mischievious and charming, rather poor in means but quick and intelligent. He prospered in his own interpersonal way. There were few people who disliked him. If he’d been caught without a ticket on the train, with his colouring, he’d pretend he was a foreigner who didn’t know any better. He’d taken a direction into law enforcement himself after moving to Berlin to be with a special German girl, yet in some way he never explained clearly, when that relationship failed, so did his desire to be part of the Polizei.
He’d sought to make a new life for himself in Berlin, at that time living in the south east. Yet a problem arose. With that same colouring, he was occasionally harassed by Turkish dissendent youths. Conversely, he was approached by members of the neo-Nazi movements for his “pure” look. In keeping with his love of the late 1960’s music of Jimi Hendrix in particular, he decided to grow his hair as long as it would go. It went quite a ways.
I’d contacted him when I’d come back to Berlin one early summer, just wanting to go out for a beer and some music. The opinionated yet easy-going man whom I loved dearly for his wide-open personality said he was going to listen to jazz/blues piano in a little bar somewhere outside the “ring” (the S-bahn ring which encircles Berlin main). “If you can make it on time, we can go together.” I barely made it, and he gave me his wry twist of a smile and set off with his deliberate strides, smoking his eternal stream of cigarettes after leaving the “verboten” zone of the bahnhof.
He could have made a great father or teacher. He was as equally deliberate in his teaching or object lessons as he was in walking. On our way, he told me how grappa was made, what it meant to Italians and how it was best to enjoy it.
That’s one of the things about Berlin, one of the direct things left over after WW2 and rebuilding, is the twist and tumble of streets. Certainly there are still the main boulevards or “round-abouts”, but especially after you get outside of the ring, straßen can be very confusing. Many Berliners carry maps, or it is not unexpected, even if you live in the city for years to stop and ask someone for directions to this or that place. I had no idea where I was, but wasn’t worried. Even if I’d been alone, I probably wouldn’t have been.
When we arrived at the typical pub front venue, the room was about half full. Small tables accommodating two chairs at most dominated the floorspace before a small stage upon which a high top piano rested against the right wall. The outside door was open. The bar was clear, its keeper attentive to the balding grey-white haired man sitting on a spinning stool hands lightly resting on the keys. My friend steered us to a table nearest the dias of sorts. We took a seat. The night began with the husky, soulful uplifting of voice as the player played.
Along with the Celtic music I used to listen to on NPR radio during the Thistle & Shamrock broadcasts which I mentioned in my flash memoir, The Shannon: Memories of an Irish Pub. On Saturday late nights, a show played old blues and jazz music. This German man, almost seventy years old, had skills matched what I’d heard. He seemed to have no cognizance of the room. He belted out heart-filled lyrics while banging on the keys, or tripping them lightly. He was the music. With each shake of his head, I felt closer to him. The room has fully filled around us. Listeners stood in the door or pressed faces against the front window.
Afterwards, as he came to the bar for a drink, my friend spoke to him, then said something else to him of me. The piano player turned to me and took my hand in a warm shake, then, in English, said he needed more. He enfolded me in a rather sweaty embrace. His face was filled with joy.
“You’ve come here from America to hear me?” he asked.
Not quite that, I thought, but didn’t deny it. I said I’ve recently come from the USA and he was the first musician I’d been privileged to listen to.
How do you know so wonderfully this music, I asked, not knowing if he needed to play another set or finished for the evening.
“Ah!” he said, collapsing onto a bar stool. “Sit with me please.” I did so.
I was born here in Berlin in 1935. I grew up listening to the forbidden music of America, piano, horn, jazz and blues. My mother was music teacher so I early emulated what I’d heard. I loved it! Absolutely loved it! But as you know, what the Nazis began was coming to a terrible conclusion. My world was blown away. My mother, most everyone I’d known. I grew up on the streets but the music was in my head still. It kept me alive wanting to hear it again, to practice and play. When the Americans came that is what I thought of next after having enough to eat and being safe to sleep at night without violence.
I’ve done many things in my life, whatever work I was told, good things,” his face closed for a moment, “and bad things, but the music always lifts me up. When I am playing I don’t remember any bad past. I am just sitting beside all those great ones of blues and jazz in the USA.”
He told me he would be playing again at another venue later in the week. He hugged me poignantly when I stood to go, and I hugged him fiercely for what he’d given me, what he’d shared with me. There were so many like him across Berlin especially. We have the history books and author non-fiction telling us this and that story of what happened post-WW2, but the personal interviews and conversations I’ve been privileged to have are what tell the true story for me.
The rambling flat I rented a room in at that moment had been offered by a similar sort of man. He had been born in 1947, the product of rape. He didn’t know his father or anything about him, but likely he’d been Russian, yet could have been any of the soldiers pouring into the capital bent on revenge against any convenient person, even children, woman or old people.
He was a taxi driver, just around sixty years old. He knew well several different languages, was open and accepting of all kinds of sexualities, cultures and people. He was quite tall with slightly greying auburn hair, intense yet empathetic brown eyes and an aire which still tended to bow at certain times. He was another who’d grown up on the streets, made his way as best as possible. He’d been able to make himself smile, he told me. He’d been battered around but also usually came out on top because he learned to adapt, to not take some of the vicious treatment to heart. He, like the piano player, were made to be whipping boys of a nation because some of their countrymen, leaders and possible relatives had done enormous evil.
From the tall, still handsome landlord to the grey and scruffy, rounded piano player, both who were single, I remember my other “war baby”. He was seven years old when Nazi Germany was broken. He was already an orphan, parents and all family killed. When the Americans came, he recounted, “They were heroes for me”. They’d given him and other children food when they weren’t suppose to, a kind word, a smile, a brush on the head. He had intense feelings of devotion and pride in his memory of the soldiers who brightened his previously dismal childhood. He had married a young woman with three siblings who’d all survived the war almost physically untouched, being from an isolated region, yet the magnitude of what they’d grown up into affected them. Only that one sister had married (his wife) and had a child. Only one. None of them felt they were worthy to have children after what they’re “parents” and “country” had done.
We discussed, debated and even argued aspects of the world and its aftermath frequently, often after he’d had a number of shots from his very extensive Schnapps collection. With an air of confusion and disappointment, whether sober or inebriated, he felt disappointed at the direction the USA government had headed, lead then by George W. Bush. In his view, they gone from being strong friends to school yard bullies. The occurences of racial hatred taking place across the world, he had no words to express his unbelief at the stupidity of those repeating atrocities. He, like myself, very much respected the strength, independence and energy of the USA, but we didn’t agree with the differences between the peoples in that country which the government was directly or inadvertently supporting. We certainly deplored and rejected the war the US had fueled in Iraq.
After a dream I had of persons struggling with life in post-war Germany, mostly focussed in Berlin, I began further researching the specifics of what life was like from the German perspective. I’ve a very extensive personal library of Holocaust memoirs, biographies and histories, as well as Europe in general of that time, and despite many personal interviews with survivors of the war times, both German and non-German, I’d not directed myself to exact facts and recollections of that sort. To accurately portray the characters, the idiosyncrasies of their existence, the conundrums and hardships, the traumatization, this was what I needed to do to create the novel I planned.
The book I was reading, “Germany 1945” by Richard Bessel, had many accurate facts and accounts, but inevitably…and unfortunately, for certain occurences, the author’s American allegiance and lack of objectivity shown through. If it was something which might make American soldiers and policy look bad, or at least equal to the other atrocities which took place perpetrated by Russian troops and others, then it became “absurd” if one considered Americans might also have done so, despite evidence and results which showed it was true.
No, Americans nor their government could never leave prisoners of war and others to rot and die in enclosures in a form of mass murder, despite their government having condoned the mass murders of Native Americans through diabolical means. With books like that, although I do understand that they are a different type of research or history book, personal statements and first person accounts which refuted the author’s claims were not used. Except for accessing archives, I question whether that author actually went and looked into the eyes of the people from that time. I question whether they could ascertain the unspoken history of which hasn’t been produced in a book readily translated to the English language.
It made me realize the unique memories I have, the conversations I’ve had first hand with ones who lived through those days. But more importantly, for a group who have a painful and hurt shame for what their “parents” or “grandparents” did, who have no hesitation to condemn, question or rant against, IF (that’s the operative term), if they understand you are not the judgemental recorder who asks, but the one really seeking to know the individual’s story and perception.
Special thanks to G.H: “Thanks for helping me learn some Italian in a “roundabout” sort of way.”