Home > Fiction > A Berlin Story
Published: Tue Apr 15 2008
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destruccion por un remolino del aire Xocomeel del Lago Atitlán / Destruction from a Vortex of the Xocomil Winds around Lake Atitlán (detail), 2014, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
A Berlin Story


Lunch—at least the food part of it—was what Traudis said it was going to be: “a little soup.” There were also bakery bread and defrosted raspberries with cream whipped up in a metal cylinder. White-haired Traudis did the whipping while expressing mild contempt for so vulgar a procedure. Except for the white hair, she looked as she did half a century ago.

The service was as elaborate as the menu was simple, and I’m not speaking of the server’s expressions. There were plates enough for eight, discus-like, blue and white Meissen ware under gold-rimmed, dark-blue salad plates, which were under—I guess—dessert plates; a sort of porcelain solar system. (The solar center was a blue and gold soup bowl.) The system was escorted, at least flanked, by platoons of silver knives, forks, and spoons, promises of unprepared dishes. I felt a bit cheated, which may have been part of the serving plan. (I’m griping in what my son, Billy, used to call my “extreme self mode.” After all, Traudis had offered this hospitality only yesterday.)

I’d wondered what was behind it. Like most reporters, I have the esprit talleyrandique and question the motive behind every act. What did he mean by dying? Why did Traudis invite me? Curiosity? Boredom? Plus a modicum of what’s called here in Germany Ver-gangenheitsbewältigung—the effort to manage the past—the apparently essential component of an adult German’s mental armamentarium, especially when dealing with Jews.

Too much?

Traudis was not the sort to be manacled by group habits. She clearly didn’t go along with her husband’s contempt for, anger at, even hatred of the governments which successively refused his claim to his family property. Any decent society required some acknowledgment of, if not deference to, tradition, though socialist Wilhelm would never say “Tradition means the sacredness of property.”

I probably wasn’t reading this right either. Motive-reading is a maze. Easier to think of people as rodents falling into the path of least resistance.

After all, I had but the slightest claim on Traudis, and none at all on Wilhelm. As for my self-interest, was it more than countering the boredom of being in a place where I knew no one?

My porcelain IQ is zero, but the silver was impressive, especially the fifteen-inch-long ladle Traudis used to transfer the homemade (Hausgemacht) vegetable soup to the deep, blue and gold bowls. It was incised—the incisions depicted nymphs. “What a gorgeous Suppelöffel,” I said.

Wilhelm pointed to a lithograph on the wall behind me. It showed a large palace. “I dug the spoon from the woods in back of that. Buried for forty years.”

“Like me,” I said, in English.

A pause, then, “Ah, yes, I see.”

“It’s forty-seven years since I was in Berlin with my first wife. Do you remember Jean, Traudis?”

“I think so. She was a very pretty girl?”

“She was very pregnant with our son. We decided to come to Berlin for Christmas, 1950. You had to get visas from the four occupying powers and travel in sealed cars through the East Zone to Berlin. It’s almost fifty years since we’ve seen each other, Traudis.”

“I won’t believe it.”

“I did have a letter from you forty-odd years ago. You’d just moved—or were about to move here and had just married or were about to marry Wilhelm.”

“She worked for UNESCO in Bonn,” Wilhelm said. “I was finishing my degree. We had a small apartment—smaller even than this one—in Charlottenberg.”

Traudis’s letter came six months after I’d published a piece about Germany in The Atlantic. I wrote about people I’d known ten years earlier. One was Traudis, the ebullient, charming, impassioned socialist, black-haired, black-eyed, gap-toothed, very attractive twenty-four-year-old from Stettin, an ex–Nazi Youth Mädel whose world had shattered in 1945 when she’d seen German soldiers running wildly away from the Russians. “I’d never seen German soldiers run before,” I’d quoted her. “A lieutenant fired his revolver in the air, trying to stop them. Two days later, Mutti and I were running too, carrying whatever we could carry in our valises.”

Traudis’s letter said that she’d been surprised at my use of her story. “Particularly my name. Not that you’d said anything that wasn’t so, but I wished you’d spoken or written to me before you published it.” (It was not the first time I’d heard such a complaint.) She added, “But I don’t care. [Es ist mir egal.] I have just gotten engaged to Wilhelm zu Erbach, a student of Jaspers, Adorno, and Alfred Weber. Old Swabian nobility, but his politics are mine. We will live in Berlin and defend the West against the barbarians.”

The letter was surprising in many ways, the first being that Traudis had seen the article. She was even worse at languages than I and knew next to no English. Perhaps Wilhelm had read it to her. As for “the defense of the West,” pitched in its heavy German—die Verteidigung der Abendland—was this devotee of the fiery socialist Kurt Schumacher mocking contemporary slogans, or had love for her noble fiancé turned her into a parrot of them? How could the sportive, black-haired girl with the beautiful breasts (which I’d seen once, the day she, Francis, her American boyfriend, Jean, and I had swum in our underwear in the Rhine) have become a parrot?

I’d thought about Traudis fifty or sixty times over the decades, almost always erotically. I remembered her standing bare-legged—she had strong, long legs—on a rock in her underpants and brassiere, diving into the cold, green Rhine, dog-paddling around while her lovely breasts bobbed in and out of her bra.

I’d never had anything sexual or romantic to do with her—though my memory of those days is that there were very few women between fifteen and fifty with whom I didn’t have something sexual or romantic to do. I never kissed her on the lips. In fact, I remember that I found her mouth, with its jagged gap and squirrel overbite, unattractive. That day in the river, though, Jean and Francis drying off on the bank, eating sausage and drinking schäumende Assmanshausen—why do I remember the name of that bubbly wine?—I found Traudis beautiful and lusted for her. (That must be why I remember.)

This January then, a month before I left for Europe, I wrote Gräfin Traudis zu Erbach. I’d searched for an address on the Net. No result there, and so I sent the letter to the address given me in her forty-year-old one. No answer. I gave up the idea of seeing her, but after walking and busing around Berlin gathering material for a piece on its reconstruction, I asked the concierge to get a number for a Graf zu Erbach, and rang it. The woman who answered the phone responded to my German request in English. “I’m sorry, but there is no Traudis zu Erbach here, only a Barbara. If you will hold one moment, I will pass you to my husband.” The passage music was Für Elise, the one piece my son Billy could play, and after a bit of it, a baritone said, in English, “This is Sigmund zu Erbach. May I be of help?”

“I’m trying to find my old friend Traudis Bretzka, who many years ago married Graf Wilhelm zu Erbach.”

“Yes, Traudis is the wife of my great-uncle Wilhelm.”

Jesus, I thought, can I be two generations out of it? Usually I don’t mind my age, am even slightly—foolishly?—proud of my six and a half decades when offered senior discounts. It’s only when I want to make love with young women at whom I don’t even risk smiling, or when I want to do something I know will be too physically taxing, that the sheer number of my days darkens my spirit. (That number I calculated at about twenty-five thousand. Which does depress me: is that all there’ve been? How few there are to go.)

“If you will excuse me one moment, I will find you the number.” Für Elise resumed until the great-nephew told me his uncle’s number. (When did commerce decide that silence was too troublesome to be borne, that music would settle the troubled souls of those who wait?)

The woman who answered my German request to speak to Traudis zu Erbach asked who wanted her. “An old friend,” I said, and then, enjoying the German elaboration, “Eine Stimme der Vergangenheit.” (A voice from the past.)

“Should that frighten me?”

I was delighted that she spoke in and that I understood her German.

“I certainly hope not. It’s Eddy Dortmund.”

“‘Dortmund,’ you say?”

Sinking. “Dortmund, yes.”

“I’m sorry. The name is unfamiliar.”

“From Heidelberg. 1950, 1951. I was Lektor in the Anglistiksab-teilung[English department], a friend of Francis Wylie. Then I lived in Frankfurt for eighteen months, and we saw each other there, you and Francis, Jean and—”

“Ahhh. It’s coming to me—out of the darkness.”

“It’s clear as glass to me.” As I said “glass”—Kristal—the word Kristalnacht surfaced, but what did this black-eyed, beautiful-breasted Nazi Mädel and passionate socialist have to do with that? “Years ago, I wrote an article—I’m a journalist—in which I quoted things you had told me about your life. You wrote me about it.”

“Lieber Gott. Of course I remember. You and your pretty wife. With a baby, no?”

“The baby would be almost fifty. And I haven’t been married to her for twenty-five years.”

“Should I say ‘I’m sorry’? No, you will tell me everything.” She used the intimate du, which thrilled me. “How long are you here?”

“One or two more days.”

“Can you come tomorrow? I will give you soup. A light lunch.”

“Can’t I take you and your husband out?”

“Certainly not. Where are you staying?”

“In Alexanderplatz. Hotel Forum. Do you know it?”

“Gott, ja. It’s awful. [Es ist hässlich.] Look, let me tell you what bus to take so you will see a few things. The Number 100 to Berlin Zoo.”

I’d already taken the bus and seen a few things, some of which I remembered in the skeletal, ghostly, be-rubbled Berlin of 1950, when blocks and blocks of the city were still rubble and the Tiergarten treeless. Yesterday, when I went by it—on the l00 bus—it was softly green and white, snow powder glittering on the trees and statues. A beautiful princess dusted with jewels was the phrase that came to mind. Oddly enough, fifty-two years after WWII, there was also plenty of rubble—not the rubble of de- but of con-struction. Tractors, bulldozers, and cranes were digging trenches and foundations, laying tubes, heaving stone. Post-Wall Berlin was to be the glamorous capital of the new Germany, as, a century ago, it had been of the old. To me, the city seemed suspended between pomposity and detritus, wasteland and sea, sloth and frenzy. Steel jaws had ripped earth from the ancient bog on which the early city had risen, and there were filthy ponds all over. There were also great spaces which, when you looked closer, were filled with tin shacks out of which smoke rose and from which peddlers sold sausages. Wild dogs roamed, and cats appeared with rats in their teeth. Signs boasted huge projects. In this building madness, mimes performed on makeshift stages, tramps slept on rubble pillows. Forty-seven years ago, Jean and I had walked, astonished and sometimes—when we heard an explosion or saw police or Russian tanks—terrified, through miles of rubble. Now in the huge construction pond in Potsdamer Platz, I saw seal-suited divers steering enormous concrete blocks through the water. Pipes the color of baby clothes, pink and light blue, were draining it into sludge. Behind the tree-lined Unter den Linden, on a low platform, costumed men and women in Roman togas recited lines I couldn’t follow. Behind them, a metal garden of shapes had been generated like a new, geometrical language of rubble. It was a cemetery of totaled cars, some up to their hoods in muck. An old fellow—probably ten years younger than I—in a green overcoat and dusty fedora said, in a German I could just make out, that in a small mountain of bunkers was the one in which Hitler had shot Eva Braun and himself. “Eine Fehlgeburt,” he added. An abortion? Did he mean Hitler in life or the suicide? “Jawohl,” I said, and moved toward an upright bunker from which rock music clattered. Forty-seven years ago, Jean and I had walked here after a nervous lunch in what was called the dining room of the Adlon Hotel. Now a new Adlon gleamed within a huge lot where an American Embassy was to rise as soon as Congress appropriated funds for it. The skyscraper looked like a bride realizing that she’d been deserted at the altar.

That night, in Nach den Satiren, a book of poems by Durs Grünbein which I’d bought the day before, I read a Berlin poem about the Landeswehrkanal, where, amid iron glitter and a brood of murdered cats, the poet remembers the brilliant communist Rosa Luxemburg who was murdered here: “Jeanne d’Arc die Jüdin, die den Aufstand singt.” (The Jewish Joan of Arc, who sings revolt.) Rosa Luxemburg had been the heroine of Hannah Arendt, the Jewish philosopher whom the stubby genius Heidegger had slept with, then dumped, until, years later, as denazification threatened to sweep him aside, he used her as a credential to reestablish the reputation befouled by his endorsement of Hitler as the incarnation of historical progress.


Dig enough, and any place will surprise you, but Germany, the villain country of the first half of the just-completed century, struck me as the capital of contradiction. Three days earlier, I’d been for the first time in Weimar. A lovely, sunny morning. A handful of tourists drank coffee and wrote postcards in the marketplace. A few others, like me, went through the house where “the greatest of all Germans” had lived for most of the almost sixty years he’d spent transforming the provincial duchy into the cultural center of Europe. Inside the yellow stone house were formal rooms and an elegant winding stairway. Goethe’s collections—books, rocks, minerals: a one-man museum—were separated by copies of classical sculpture and lithographs of classical temples. In a tiny bedroom—no room for Frau G. here—265 years earlier, he’d asked for the shades to be opened, then died. A house as revealing of personality as Jefferson’s Monticello. These two poly-gifted men of genius died six years apart, each in his eighty-third year. Which, I wondered, had meant more, then and since, to his country?

Fifty yards down the street was the house of Goethe’s platonically loved friend, Frau von Stein; twenty yards in the other direction, the house where Schiller had lived during the two Weimer years when Goethe ignored him. (Only when Schiller moved the few miles away to Jena did they become the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of German culture.) The statue of them down the way was the single best-known piece of German sculpture. Weimar had also sheltered Bach, Lucas Cranach, Liszt, Gropius, Albert Schweitzer, Nietzsche, Herder, Richard Strauss, and Germany’s first democratic government. It had just been designated the official cultural capital of the new Europe.

While I drank bean soup and beer in the cellar restaurant of the Weimar Rathaus, I read a pamphlet about the town. Then, a surprise, oddly embarrassing to me: on the pamphlet’s last page was a picture of a monument at Buchenwald, the concentration camp established on the Ettersberg Hill in 1937, “site of unimaginable suffering, and the death of over 65,000 people. After 1945, it was used as a Soviet internment camp.”

I paid the bill and went out. It had gotten gray and chilly, and as I walked around confused and even angry about my ignorance that Buchenwald was so close to Weimar, it started to drizzle. I jogged to a taxi stand and asked the driver of the first cab how long it would take to drive to the camp site.

“Fünf Minuten.”

“How much to take me there, wait for me, then get me back to my hotel?”

He thought a bit, a thirtyish man with a walrus mustache. “A hundred marks.”

I got in the front seat next to him. “I had no idea the place was so close to Weimar.”

To my surprise, he said, “It was on purpose. They wanted to spit in Goethe’s face.”

We drove through rain and traffic, then hit a wood of beautiful trees. Beech trees. Buchen. “They were spitting in Goethe’s eye,” I repeated. “To say that the world no longer needs the falsity of enlightenment.”

It was raining hard now, and tourist buses were leaving the parking lot. The driver gave me an old umbrella, and we walked in the rain to the rows of cells, each about the size of Goethe’s bedroom. The driver said Goethe had planted an oak tree in the middle of the vast space now empty of the long bunkhouses, which had been packed with “human filth.” There were three immense, circular pits on the edge of the hill, where, said the driver, on a clear day you could see as far as Erfurt. On the metal gate was the camp’s slogan, “To each his own”(Jeden das Seinen). Nearby, a little hill of rocks, where, he said, brown bears used to cavort for the guards’ amusement.

I could not get it into my head that I could have spent the last months of my life here. I had no idea if this had been the fate of any of my blood relations.

I could not work myself up into what I wanted to feel.


The luncheon with Traudis and Wilhelm died in the sand of uneasiness and inability to truly understand each other’s language. If ease had been there, the language would have been as well. Or if Traudis and I had been alone. But I felt the weight of Wilhelm’s feeling that I, an American, indeed an American Jew, went around with the ease that that and little else had earned, whereas he, the end term—he and Traudis had no children—of Swabian nobility whose name had been known for five or six hundred years, lived in a tiny, anonymous apartment, perhaps the penalty for somehow not preventing a piece of illegitimate Austrian filth from mesmerizing and finally murdering the German nation. Hitler, our common foe, was not, all these years after his suicide, sufficient to bridge the complexities of our division.

Am I over-reading our little luncheon? Or reading it in the light of what, five years later, followed? Probably. But it was clear, Wilhelm and white-haired Traudis were as happy to get rid of me as I was to leave. The moment I said something about going to see the pictures at Dahlem, Wilhelm said, “You won’t have much time,” and told me which U-bahn to take. Did he get up first or did I? Whichever, it was clear we’d both had enough. “The museums close early,” he threw in. And I was in the street with nothing said about meeting again.


I have software called StoryLine that follows up online the names, places, and themes I’ve designated. (I don’t designate “Berlusconi” or “Gulf War” because I’d be drowned in follow-ups.) Five years almost to the week after my lunch with Traudis and Wilhelm, StoryLine churned up the following, translated from the Berliner Tageblatt:

Wilhelm and Traudis zu Erbach of Uhlandstrasse 9, Berlin, have been arrested in connection with the exposure of an Al Qaeda terrorist cell which allegedly used the Erbach ancestral castle as a warehouse for explosive materials and devices. Plans of the Berlin Unterbahn and the Dresden sewage system were found on a computer left beneath an old harpsichord in the castle’s sixty-foot-long music room. An attorney for the Erbach family declared that the elderly count and countess were totally unaware of what the group of young Middle Easterners was doing, or “that they even constituted a group.” “We believed them to be students of German literature,” said the white-haired countess. The Erbachs are being held until investigators determine what, if any, are their connections to the alleged terrorists. Erbach, a retired assistant manager of a music store on Auguststrasse, said in a statement issued by his lawyer, “I have no idea how they got hold of the old key. We didn’t realize that it actually opened a door. The castle has been out of our hands since it was seized by the Russians in 1945. Our attempts to get it back, indeed to buy it back and turn it into a paying tourist hotel, have been rejected by four successive Thuringian governments, the East German government, and now the government of reunified Germany. Perhaps if our claims had not been rejected, these murderers might have been discovered sooner.”

My initial reaction to this was that it was absurd. How could this browbeaten ex-count, who’d—worse than I’d thought—spent God knows how many thousand hours selling rap and rock CDs to acne-bitten adolescents, have been involved in anything so far-out? The second reaction, remembering the haste with which I’d been shown out of their apartment, was, “Serves you right, you arrogant bastard.” German has the famous word for our enjoyment of other people’s troubles (as long as the troubles don’t mean trouble for us) Schadenfreude. The excitement of excitement, the thrill within the horror and misery of, say, the Twin Towers disintegrating in front of one’s eyes, and then, a week later, the unspoken hope that another catastrophe which doesn’t directly affect one or the few one loves will bring the shiver of excitement into one’s days. We know a bit about the divided—i.e., rotten—human soul: Book 8 of Plato’s Republic, Hobbes, Freud, Thomas Bernhard, to name but a few of its anatomists. A clear-sighted look into our own souls before we sink back into sanctimonious piety, and there it is. Why wouldn’t Wilhelm, and for that matter hospitable Traudis, have dipped into their own schadenfreude and offered the ancestral key to the young murderers?

I did follow up the story, checking with a Reuters friend—”nothing new”—and then, by phone, Graf Sigmund zu Erbach, with whom I’d talked for minutes five years ago. “A distressful event,” he said. “Perhaps as an old friend of my uncle and aunt, you would be good enough to write some sort of corrective story. You know how totally impossible it would be for them to collaborate in anything like this. The world is ever more insane, but not this insane.”

I didn’t say that I did not believe in the impossibility of Wilhelm’s collaboration: after all, socialist or no, he hated the governments that wouldn’t return his ancestral property.

I even thought—briefly—of flying to Berlin. A New York Times Magazine editorhad asked if I’d doa piece on Angela Merkel and Ségolène Royal, the “European prelude,” as he put it in November 2006, “to the Hillary regime,” but in the years since that last visit to Berlin, I’d come to hate travel. The usual litany: flight delays, lost luggage, endless walks in Heathrow, Kennedy, Charles de Gaulle, even Amsterdam and Dublin, security Dummheiten with its new layer of bureaucracy, even the antisepsis veneering the essential danger of air travel. All this, unimportant, unnoticed, or nonexistent most of my professional life but now pounded into me by the weariness of age. I’ve been on fewer than a dozen overseas trips since 2000. StoryLine, Google, and Interfax have nailed me to my desk. So, much of the little I’ve learned about Berlin these last years has come by such electronic routes. Sub-political, most of it—politics I get from newspapers, magazines, television, friends—the changing look of the city, its buildings and architects, its trends and debates, its diverting competitions (like the opera wars: one company staging The Bartered Bride in a Laundromat, its rival putting the chorus of Fidelio into Osama bin Laden, Nasrullah, and Saddam Hussein masks). The city I’d seen abuilding was now more or less built; it seethed with theater and dance companies, literary magazines, galleries full of Hirst, Kiefer, and other multimillionaire painters. The imposed decency of postwar democracy did not extirpate what had been described since Tacitus’s Germania as German—outbreaks of young-male viciousness, the Red Army Faction, the Baader-Meinhof gang, all sorts of political Schweinerei reported in Die Zeit, The Economist, Le Monde.

Of course my professional life is aimed at making incident-based generality and highfalutin’ gossip irrelevant. Hit real turf, you dig up very different matter. Even if it’s more you than itself, it has a higher truth quotient. As for the little affaire Erbach, even though I had some of my own turf there, I stayed put, watching the electronic reports and wondering if Wilhelm, innocent, guilty, or both, had added his baronial ressentiment on the fires of the incendiary, don’t-give-a- fuck, Qur’an-wielding, revolutionary killers.


You don’t need to be a reporter to know that one of life’s key ingredients is surprise, another being its opposite, predictability. Ten days after its first report, StoryLine quoted the following from the Berliner Tageblatt:

District Attorney [Staatsanwalt] Helmut announced today that no charges will be filed against Wilhelm zu Erbach of Uhlandstrasse 9, Berlin. “Herr Erbach was led to believe that a group consisting of German and foreign adults interested in German culture wished to hold a few lectures in one of our classic palaces in order to make more memorable the impressions. They offered Erbach, whom they had encountered in the Schubert–Dylan Music Store on Auguststrasse, a thousand euros for the four meetings they wished to hold there. Herr Erbach agreed to the terms and gave them an old key to the long-empty family castle—no longer his property—which he reclaimed after the fourth meeting was supposedly held there.” Although he could have been held on the charge of taking money under false circumstances (the property was not his to rent), the Staatsanwalt decided not to proceed with the case, judging that Erbach, whose own mental and physical condition is somewhat fragile, was guilty of nothing more than petty greed. “He knew nothing of the sinister plans of this group, nor indeed of the sorts of terrorist groups plaguing Europe and America.”

“But not this insane,” said Sigmund zu Erbach. No, not insane at all. Just a greedy little senior citizen selling whatever he had—or, in this case, didn’t have—for a few shekels, something the old socialist assistant manager of the Schubert–Dylan Music Store might in bitter mode have accused Jews of doing. This was the kind of behavior which made the occupiers of Germany in 1945 feel superior to the impoverished Germans scrounging a living in den Ruinen von Berlin.

The final note of this little Berlin story came from Sigmund, whom I called after reading about the dismissal of charges.

“I’m delighted that it all worked out for your uncle.”

“Thank you. Very kind of you, though you can imagine the episode leaves a stain as dark in some ways as collusion with these murderers would have left. My other Erbach uncle, Otto, actually the real owner of the property, if there is a legitimate individual claimant, is going to publicly disown his brother. They have not been in touch for years. Despite his terrible handicap—Otto is acromegalic—he is considered by most Erbachs the true nobleman of our family. He has lived a reclusive life in Pomerania. I myself haven’t seen him since I was a little boy. Barbara said to me the other day, ‘High-minded Otto is the tiny icon of the Erbachs.’ There’s no place for the likes of us—high-minded or greedy—in the new Germany except in the sideshow with Kafka’s poor hunger artist.”


I haven’t cancelled Erbach in my StoryLine account. Who knows what oddities will emerge from that old closet?

For that matter, isn’t my memory of Traudis’s breasts bobbing up and down in the Rhine, and my desire, fifty years later, to use it as a bridge to the new Berlin, as odd and greedy as poor Wilhelm’s selling the key to the baronial manse that hadn’t ever really been his?

See what's inside AGNI 67

Richard Stern (1928–2013) was an American writer and educator. His novels include Pacific Tremors (2001), Europe, or Up and Down with Baggish and Schreiber (1961), Golk (1960), Stitch (1965), and Natural Shocks (1978). His collected stories, Almonds to Zhoof, appeared in 2005. In 1985, he received the Medal of Merit for the Novel, awarded every six years by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Back to top