Return to My Mother’s Life

Berlin Before 1933


I do not remember when exactly (1924, 1925 or 1926?) our family moved from Darmstadt to Berlin where my father had a new job with a company that made small civilian airplanes, the first all-metal airplanes made in Germany, as my father explained proudly.

On our train trip from Darmstadt to Berlin we made a few sight-seeing stops. One of them was in Eisenach from where we climbed up to the Wartburg where Martin Luther had spent time and translated the Bible. A guide showed us around and I remember a rather dark room in which Luther allegedly threw a bottle with ink at the devil. One could still see the dark spot on the wall. The story was pretty fantastic to my mind and I asked my father whether this could be true. My father hesitated, and then he said with a smile, “Who knows?”

The only other thing I remember from this event is that in Eisenach we had dinner in a small restaurant where the owner and his wife catered to the customers in person. We had roasted goose, potato dumplings and red cabbage that were so utterly delicious that I have not forgotten the meal after all these years.

My father had gone to Berlin a few weeks before and had rented an apartment at 83 Pfalzburger Str. in Berlin-Wilmersdorf. That’s where we lived until after the start of World War II.


The years after 1918 were very hard for the majority of people in the many lands that had suffered in World War I. It was no different in Germany.

In Berlin-Wilmersdorf, where I lived with my parents and my sister, I remember seeing innumerable men crippled and or blinded by the war’s horror. During the day many, many of them stood against the walls of buildings on Kurfürstendamm, the main business street of West-Berlin. Most of them had a shallow box hanging around their necks selling something: shoe laces, post cards, pencils etc. Those who did not hide their eyes with dark glasses looked beaten and hopeless. Many of them had at least one arm or one leg missing, some had both legs missing. I remember several men who had no legs and only one arm. They sat with their rump stump on a slab of wood with small wheels underneath and pushed themselves forward with the one arm.

I don’t remember anyone in a wheelchair. Who could afford a wheelchair when you could barely feed yourself and/or your family in a satisfactory way?

Once in a while there was a hungry looking man cranking out sentimental songs from a cranky old barrel organ while hooked on a thin chain, a hungry looking little monkey with soulful eyes watched the people go by. If they could afford it, people put pennies in a dirty old hat on top of the organ.

I’ll never forget the faces of the majority of the adult population in the streets of Berlin: faces deeply etched by the horrors and sorrows of the multitude of misery the war had brought on and the consequences people had to bear year after year. It made an indelible impression on me.

I remember that often at night – I often could not sleep for hours – I said to myself and repeated it again and again: NO MORE WAR – NO MORE WAR – NO MORE WAR – EVER. Little did I know that the seeds of World War II were already in the ground … I was still a child.


In Berlin I first attended Cäcilienschule, a small public elementary school — girls only since there was no coeducation. It was a beautiful little school with an indoor fountain and a picture of St. Cecilia in beautiful glass colors on a giant window in the assembly room. I loved to go to this school, feeling warm and secure. And I loved school, homework and extra reading.

At home times were hard for everyone: Inflation was sky high and rampant, day after day. As soon as people received their pay (in actual money, not in checks), they ran to the grocery stores to buy whatever food was available for fear that half a day later the bread cost even more . A bread cost a million marks at a time.

These were terrible years of instability for all families. It also was a time of political instability and untold unrests and vicious police reprisals — clouds of turmoil for years to come.

Neither my father nor my mother ever belonged to any party. Politics was not discussed in the presence of the children. I only remember that both father and mother hated Nazis. However, they certainly were not Communists — I can only assume that they swam somewhere in the middle of the political mainstream before the Nazis came to power. After that, there was no mainstream. You were either for the Nazis or you were their enemies.


At home my sister and I received very different signals from father and mother in regard to religion. My mother, a sincere believer in Christian Protestant values, prayed before meals while my father, not always but often, folded his hands prayer style, turned his thumbs around while rolling his eyes in mockery.

Although I did not share the depth of my mother’s religious feelings, I was embarrassed by my father’s attitude and found it respectless towards my mother. I deeply resented it.

On the other hand, I became unsure whether my mother’s religion or my father’s atheism was the right thing to follow. By the time I was 13, there was turmoil in my soul about religion and there was the teenager’s inner drive for independence.

I was reluctant to take church instructions for the required two years before confirmation, a milestone in a Protestant teenager’s life. My sister wanted to be confirmed. My mother told me that to be confirmed was the right thing to do for a decent Christian kid. My father went along with mother’s wishes.

Mother told us that there was a new, young pastor at our church and that he was nothing like the old musty pastors we had heard so far. After many attempts to persuade me, I agreed to listen to one of the new pastor’s sermons and then make up my mind.

The next Sunday we went to our church, the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche on Kurfürstendamm, and listened to Pastor Gerhard Jacobi. My young soul was deeply impressed by his sermon and his serious voice ringing out in the large church. The mighty organ did the rest to my soul and mind. Once a week, together with a small group of other girls of my age, I went to study for the Confirmation.

Judging from the manner in which he had delivered the sermon, I thought that Jacobi would be some kind of hard prophetic character and I came to the first class with trepidation. As it turned out, this former lieutenant of the Kaiser’s Guard was easy-going and didn’t take theology as deadly serious as I had thought. He smiled a lot, made jokes and moved around easily.

Jacobi declared immediately that it was not necessary to study for the confirmation for two years: one year of concentrated education would be enough. We loved it. Next he said that he would not treat us as children but as adults. We loved it. He immediately proceeded to prove what he meant by treating us as adults: he offered us a cigarette to smoke.

None of us had ever had a cigarette. Our mothers did not smoke. Smoking was a man’s privilege. It was an accepted life style: “Die deutsche Frau raucht nicht” (The German woman does not smoke). Jacobi made it clear: When women smoke they make a political statement against prevailing prejudice. Naturally, we loved it: we wanted to be progressive.

I remember the effect the first cigarette had on me: my mind became engulfed in a delicious cloud of something indescribable and I felt close to fainting. But I loved it. And so did the other girls. Jacobi did not have to tell us – and he did not – that we should not report the cigarette smoking to our parents. We bought a roll of lifesaver mints to freshen our breath.

We all looked forward to our next lesson. But no more smoking took place.

What else did Pastor Jacobi teach us? He taught us a simplified version of the theological vogue of the time, DIALECTIC THEOLOGY. Pastor Jacobi opened up to us the wonderful world of the master of dialectic theology, Professor Karl Barth. I began to read Karl Barth’s writings and the more of his books I read, the more impressed I became. By the time I was 16 or 17, it was clear in my mind that I wanted to study theology under Master Karl Barth.

I was very serious about my goal. However, I spent no time thinking about what I would do after I had absorbed all this wisdom from Karl Barth. Furthermore, financially it was out of the question to study away from Berlin in Bonn where Karl Barth was professor at the university.

My feelings really took a deep dive when I learned that my father was vehemently opposed to my plans. He said that for a woman to study theology was the most useless and senseless thing to do. Nobody, he said, wanted to see a woman on a church pulpit. Nobody wanted to listen to a woman giving sermons.

He insisted that as soon as I graduated from high school, I would go to a business college and learn shorthand and typing “because when you know that, you can always earn a living.” As life turned out only a few months later after my father’s sudden death — that’s how l had to make a living for many years: as a secretary, using shorthand and typing.

A few months before graduating from high school, the students had to fill out a form with questions about their future plans. My father happened to be around when I was just about to write down that I intended to study theology. My father protested and said that the teachers will think that I am crazy and then will not let me graduate. Instead, I should write down that I wanted to become a teacher for underprivileged children, a “Hilfschullehrerin” — “because you always want to do things for the underdogs.” Under the weight of the paternal pressure, and because I thought that it really did not matter what future plans students indicated on that form, I wrote down that I wanted to become a “Hilfsschullehrerin.

Table of Contents  Next Chapter

Leave a Reply