In 1943, Paula and Martin Wolff resided at 27 Sybelstrasse in Berlin Charlottenberg.
There are letters.
There are letters from that address.
There are letters to their children in America discussing steamships, visas, agents, payments, Cuba, South America – all in vain.
27 Sybelstrasse was Paula and Martin Wolff’s last address, but it wasn’t their home. They left their town north of Berlin because they were among the millions in 1943 who suddenly no longer had a home in their country. Berlin Charlottenberg was a way station. A hiding place, one presumes. A stopover on the way to someplace far worse.
And now our journey to Paula and Martin’s last address begins on Kurfurstendamm, the grand old boulevard that snakes like Marlene Dietrich’s smoke through the heart of Berlin. We gaze at its broad elegance from the corner of Joachimstrasse.
Later that day, we will visit a synagogue hidden in a courtyard on Joachimstrasse, guarded by police and an Israeli security official. We undergo his scrutiny before entering, and ask: After all they did, you guys still need a police guard? He could take a life with one hand while still eating hummus with the other, yet he gives that very ancient, very recognizable shrug of the shoulders. A million years of trouble live in that shrug, and all he says in answer to our question is: Muslims. But this will be later.
Now we are standing at the intersection of Joachimstrasse and Kurfurstendamm. The Scientologists have set up their table, aggressively and deceptively luring people into becoming Operating Thetans.
Surely, Paula and Martin strolled this corner of Kurfurstendamm back on some summer Saturday in 1943?
Surely, they walked past representatives of another psychotic cult with a penchant for violence toward imagined enemies.
But that thought is supplanted by another as we head west on Kurfurstendamm, and that thought is: Germany has risen. It has risen from the rubble of two tyrannies, one of its own devising, and joined the branded world. Where the glass of Kristallnacht once shattered onto the broad sidewalks of Kurfurstendamm, Starbucks now sells lattes. Addidas delivers high-end sporting gear. The Hugo Boss emporium could as well be lodged in the Time Warner Center. The BMW showroom could be in Great Neck, Long Island, except that these drivers understand the writing on the engine. Even Porsche Design is there, that strange alchemy of branding that translates ultra-high performance automotive engineering into pens, briefcases, key chains and sneakers. The Porsche Design sneakers cost 300 Euros, which would be a lot for sneakers even if the dollar weren’t absurdly weak.
Finally, turning right on Leibnizstrasse, we arrive at Sybelstrasse, two blocks to the north. The first thing clear is that Sybelstrasse has not joined the branded world. An eerie calm envelops a somnabulent middle class street. Nothing stirs except a man in a ponytail working on his car. Sybelstrasse seems unchanged from the days Paula and Martin walked here, desperately trying to re-write history. It has survived the ravages of time. It has survived the bombs of plucky young boys from Liverpool and Kansas, Manchester and Mississippi whose tiny silver planes laid so much of Berlin to waste.
We stare at Number 27. We stare at its numerology as if it were a code of the universe from which, with adequate attention, you could glean the secrets of creation. Then, secretless, we walk through a dark corridor into the courtyard. There are vines growing up the white stucco walls of the apartment block. There is a huddle of garbage cans, the inevitable bicycles, but also, surreally, a bench beside a tiny pond with golden koi swimming in it.
We sit on the bench and think about Paula and Martin. They probably didn’t live in the nice, terraced flats facing the street. They probably lived back here, in one of these flats five floors up, trudging up the ancient stairs of their last address until they disappeared in a manner we will never know, to a destiny we do. We sit on the bench, seventy years too late, with only the koi moving beside us.
And that was it.
Hardly a Holocaust story.
It doesn’t even qualify as a Berlin story.
Just a grandson and great-grandson visiting two people who aren’t there.