Day 2: Soundless in Weißensee

Day 2: Soundless in Weißensee

I went for most of the day to Wießensee, the suburban district in Pankow, a northern section of the city. The highlights were my exploration of the Jewish cemetery (including having to scale the wall to get out after failing to observe the early closing time on Shabbat eve); locating the apartment building where the Ringels lived in during the first five years of Helga’s life; and taking an au naturel dip in the Weißer See, the resort lake that gives the district its name.

On the down side, I had the audio settings screwed up on the many videos that I shot, so my narration was not captured in most cases. The attached is one short clip with narration that I shot with the iPhone, not the iPad which is my main camera. Either I will dub over my videos later, or else go back next week for a reshoot. No big loss, since my ad-libbed commentary was not super articulate anyway. I’ll probably write a l0script for the next time. 

First a bit a good news. On my way in the morning to the S-Bahn station at Hohenzollerndamm in Wilmersdorf, I passed by an art and collectibles auction house called Dannenberg, and thought to get an idea of the value of our Julius Assmann pocket watch in the country where it originated. Before leaving on the trip, I had it informally appraised at several Bay Area auctioneers, with somewhat disappointing results. It seemed the most it might bring in the U.S. market was about $1000. 

I did not bring the watch with me to Germany, since the U.S. experts all agreed that with worldwide auction markets connected by Internet there would be little difference in value based on the location of the auction house. However, I do have some excellent photos of the watch and stopped inside to show them to an appraiser. He said he could not give a true estimate without seeing the physical watch, but was quite impressed with the brand and quality of the merchandise. He said they would set a minimum price of €1500, and that it could sell for as much as €5000 or more. He said they would be pleased to include it at any of their four auctions per year if I would bring it with me on a future trip. So it does seem there would be a significant difference in the sales price to offer the watch in its home market. 

So on to Weißensee. The first thing I learned approaching the cemetery on Herbert Baum Straße is that the street obtained that name in the 1950s, named for a martyred Jewish hero who organized a student anti-Nazi resistance movement. Thus, the cemetery cheat sheet showing our family grave locations that I have in my collection at home, and that gives Herbert Baum Straße as the cemetery address, could not have been among the items Elly took with her in 1938. I now conclude from reexamining my photo of the document that Elly must have visited the cemetery, then in East Berlin, sometime in the 1970s. I still don’t know if Helga ever went there. 

The cemetery was very much as I pictured it—grand, immense, overgrown, and suffused with solemnity. The cheat sheet gave me the cemetery field number and row for our two family grave sites. However, as Joanne had warned me in advance, locating the graves was something like finding a needle in a haystack. In field O7, where Hermann’s grave is located, there are about 400 graves tightly packed in. There was no indication of row numbers, and in most of the area no footpaths between the rows. You have to climb through the dense ivy, stumbling over hidden stones marking the graves, to make your way through the field, scanning every headstone for Hermann’s name. It took me at least 30 minutes before I found it. (For future visitors, Row 1 is at the near, western, end of the field. Hermann is in Row 17, roughly halfway down the width of the field. The headstone inscriptions are on the east-facing side of the graves, which might lead you to think, as it did me, that the row numbering begins on that side of the field). Though I was quite familiar with photos of the headstone, it was quite another thing to be there in person and feel a connection with our ancestor lying there. I took my time paying respects and shooting videos with different lenses and camera angles. As I mentionsd, I unfortunately failed to capture my audio commentary. 

Then I proceeded to Field H5 alongside the cemetery’s eastern wall, near the now-closed Rosa Luxemburg gate, where Isaac and Betty Wohlgemuth are buried. As thick with overgrowth as Hermann’s field is, this one is considerably thicker. In much of the field, you would have to hack through lush vegetation to make your way down a row. Even though I knew I was looking for Row 19, at first I thought I would never find our grave. And then I instantly spotted it, about three rows in and visible from the path on the east side of the field. Here again, I shot soundless video and spent 30 minutes in silent communion with our ancestors. To think that they came from common roots, prospered during the golden age of German-Jewish culture and ended their days in this grand monument to the lost heritage of that culture!

Isaac was buried there in 1929 at the height of the good times for Jews in Berlin. Betty was added to the grave 13 years later, at the lowest point in German-Jewish history as the Jewish citizens of Berlin were being deported by the tens of thousands to concentration camps for so-called resettlement. One of the questions I am investigating here is whether Betty’s death at age 67 may have been a suicide in the face of her coming deportation. I got one clue from the gravestone that might lead to further information. We already knew the grave identification number for Isaac but did not have that information for Betty. But there were the two numbers engraved on one side face of the stone. When I finally succeed in locating and inspecting the cemetery records, this number will be useful in finding the details of Betty’s interment, including hopefully a cause of death. 

I took my time leaving the cemetery grounds and found with dismay that the heavy iron gates were locked and there was not a soul around who could help me get out. It was just 3 pm, but there was a sign that I had neglected to read on the way in informing visitors that the cemetery closes at 2:30 on Fridays in observance of the Jewish sabbath. With a sinking feeling, I contemplated the possibility of spending the night and following day alone on the inside. My phone was not set up for roaming, so there was no way to make an emergency call. Finally, I decided I would have to climb over the imposing metal-spiked gates or high brick wall to get out. I inspected all along the front perimeter and found a place I thought I could scale. Trouble was, I couldn’t see the other side to determine if I could get down from the top of the wall. Finally, I decided I had no choice and pulled myself up to the top of the wall, carefully holding on to my shoulder pack to make sure my equipment, money and ID came with me. There were two-foot-high was metal spikes topping the brick wall. I thought I could step over those, and I did, but I managed to catch my shirt on a point, which left a six-inch rip in the sleeve. No matter. From the top I saw a foothold on the other side of the wall and realized with relief that I would be able to get down. I dropped my bag to the ground and then carefully descended to safety. Whew!

With that adventure behind me, I next set off looking for a residential address that I had found for my grandfather in a 1923 directory. We knew that later on the family resided in a luxury apartment building in Charlottenburg, but this address promised to reveal to us for the first time where the Ringels lived before that, during the first five years of my mother’s life. Along the way I passed by the main avenue in Weißensee, Berliner Allee, and stopped in a shop for a restorative lemon ice. The heat wave is still on and lots of others had the same idea, so I had to wait in line for my refreshment. 

Now I was feeling well again and proceeded across the boulevard to the address of Woelkpromenade that I had previously pinned on my downloaded map. The promenade was a short two-block frontage alongside a small lake and park built up on one side with seven connected four-story brick apartment buildings. They were well-kept, apparently upscale residences. At number 5, the Ringel address in the 1920s, there was a historic plaque at the entrance identifying the building as the residence during the 1960s of a prominent (though not known to me) Jewish literary critic. I hung around for a while, shooting more soundless video and hoping that someone I could talk with might come in or out, but nobody did. 

I then set out to a cathedral-sized building in the park across the street. It turned out to be a gymnasium, the Primo Levi Gymnasium no less, but it did not appear to be in use. However, one can imagine the sports-minded Hermann Ringel going there for his workouts and recreation. There were plenty of dog-walkers on leash going around the small lake. I proceeded across the park and stopped in a shop for another ice, this time the Erdbeere (strawberry). 

As I strolled farther along, expecting to get back to the Berliner Alle by another route, I entered another, much larger park and could hear sounds of merriment below. I saw some girls in bathing suits and though at first there must be a pool. Even better, I turned into a path and saw a glistening lake below, with several official beach areas on the other side and laying out in the sun along the entire perimeter of the lake. This turned out to be the Weißer See, for which the town is named and which was opened in the 1880s as a resort meant to be Berlin’s Tivoli Gardens. It is not as elaborate as my childhood memory of that landmark in Copenhagen, but it sure drew a lot of locals looking for a cool dip on a sweltering day. 

I had no swimming suit and was hungry anyway so I availed myself of a lovely lakeside beer garden and ordered a Pilsener and chefs salad. I got just a small glass of beer and finished it far sooner than the salad plate piled high with meat, fish and cheese. Feeling s=well-satisfied, I tried out a small joke on the waiter. “Ich sollte einen kleiner Salat und einen grosser Bier bestellen.” I should have ordered a smaller salad and a larger beer, I’m not sure if I got all the grammar right, but I earned a chuckle from the waiter.

By now, I had reached the decision to go for a swim in my short pants, figuring they would dry quickly enough. But walking along I saw more than a few men and women who were going without any suits at all. Nobody seemed to pay them much mind, this being a different culture on matters of nudity and sexuality. Guess what? I joined them, modestly stripping down behind some hanging branches and joyfully slipping into the cold lake water. 

It was a fine finish to my eventful day in Weißensee. I didn’t mean to go on at such great length about I, but I wanted to paint a full picture.