Helmut and I were born on the same day in 1920. Our two families lived next to each other in the same building on Blumenthalstrase 17. Our apartment faced the front with a bay window and Helmut’s faced the rear into the courtyard. My parents, like his, were educated, my father a gynecologist, his father a manager of a large department store on Kurfürstendamm, the Champs Elysees of Berlin. My mother taught German Literature, Helmut’s mother didn’t work.
Since we started school, we were in the same class, we played the same games, we slept in each other's bedrooms, ate lunches and dinners in each other homes. Our parents were friends and we spend many vacations together. We were practically one family except for a few days a year when his parents, the Werners, went to church on Christmas, New Years and Easter and mine, the Lehmans, went to Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the two most important days for Jews and of course, Chanukah.
Neither of our families was religious but did it just for form’s sake. Of course, Helmut’s family, celebrated Christmas with all their trimmings, a huge Christmas tree, a train set around it, gifts galore and us a Chanukah Menorah on the mantle in the living room under a portrait of my grandfather, as a Captain in the 2 Guard Uhlan Regiment. He was killed during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 at Sedan, a battle that earned him the coveted Pour le Mérite, the highest medal for valor in the Prussian army. The Kaiser himself gave it to my grandmother at his burial.
The 1920s, weren’t the best of times for Germany, after all, we lost the war and many people were out of work. Most stood on long lines for food, and bread cost about 200 million Marks. Money was worthless then. It wasn’t too bad for us, because our parents were always working. Certainly my father and my mother and Herr Werner who ran the department store. We always had food on the table and by 1930 when we were ten, things looked much better for the country.
There had been some strikes and shootings between some political parties, we had at least a dozen of them during the twenties. All hated each other. The most prominent ones were the communists and a new party that called themselves the National Socialist German Workers' Party, which wore some fancy brown uniforms which Helmut and I admired because we wanted to be soldiers and win medals like my grandfather.
One day we saw an American film at the cinema, about Cowboys and Indians, which had a great impact on us. All that yelling and shooting and riding we tried to imitate with hopping all over the back yard under a broomstick, with a cardboard made horse’s head, pointing our pistols we made out of a piece of lumber and screaming. Bang! Bang! Bang!
Then, one night we decided to make a pact-like we saw, between the cowboy and the Indian chief. I was the Cowboy, with a checkered red and black shirt which we saw cowboys wear, and Helmut was the Chief with a goose wing feather in his blond hair.
That night Helmut took out a small pocket knife and told me to stand and hold out my finger. To my amazement, he cut his own finger and then made a cut in mine and we put the fingers together and let our blood mix, just like the cowboy and an Indian in the movies. It had hurt like hell but we didn’t cry.
“Now we are blood-brothers…” Helmut had said, and we embraced and swore allegiance to each other for life. We were twelve years old that day.
But things in Germany started to change. That new party, now known mostly as the Nazis, made themselves the leaders in the Reichstag, our government, and democracy, if we even had one, disappeared. Helmut and I, now in our teens still didn’t quite understand it, but our parents certainly did. The Werners became a bit aloof from the Lehmans. Our parents didn’t hang around much anymore. No dinners or vacations or going to concerts or cinemas. There was a different air in Germany now and it didn’t bode well for people like us, though no one believed that it would get worse. “Things will work themselves out,” my father said. “We have lost a war. Our government had betrayed us and to get better, things will get a little worse. But Germany, the greatest country in the world, in inventions, science and music, literature, will come back to its greatness.” That’s what my parents and others thought too, after all, my father was a doctor and he himself, a veteran of the Great War with an Iron Cross, First class, my mother a teacher in a university with many prizes for writing about our proud German history. No one like that would be harmed, and besides, our family had lived in Germany for hundreds of years. We were as German as anyone else. Yes, that’s what we all thought.
Then one day, near our fourteenths birthday, Helmut rang our doorbell with his special ring of three fast ones and two long ones. I ran to the door because I haven’t seen him in a few weeks and his parents didn’t tell me where he went. I opened the door and to my surprise, he wore a brown uniform with a leather belt, a black kerchief around his neck and a red armband with a Hakenkreuz on his left arm. He stood there for a moment and with a stern face, I have never seen on him before, raised his right arm into the air and cried out a loud, Heil Hitler. Then he clicked his heals and turned towards his doorway never looking back.
It was ridiculous. So I went after him and rang the bell with my own signal but no one came to the door.
At first, I thought it was a joke. Of course, we’ve seen these boys before, marching with their red banners and singing the Horst Vessel Lied, the Nazi party anthem. We made fun of them because we belonged to the Boy Scouts and they were named after a funny little man with a mustache, but then, things changed, and all the youth, including girls, had to belong to the Hitler Youth.
I myself tried to join but of course Helmut laughed at me. “You can’t join the HJ you idiot, you’re a Jew…” This was the first time he ever pointed this out to me. I was a Jew and therefore different from everyone else. And so, our friendship melted away. I hardly ever saw him again.
1935 came so fast we didn’t even realize it because things were happening we never imagined could. That year new laws came into being. They called them the Nurenberg Laws. In short, there were five articles, which forbid Jews from just about everything, from owning businesses to not intermarry with Aryans nor work in civil service. Nor can a Jewish doctor treat Aryan patients.
In other words, they took our German citizenship and livelihood away.
All this time I hardly saw my blood brother Helmut, and when we by chance passed in the hallway he didn’t even concede that I was there. The only reason we still lived in our apartment was that another neighbor from downstairs, who was now the Block Leader, a Nazi party official, wanted my father to be around to care for his sick wife just in case she had a relapse. As an official, he could do anything. Who would report him. But eventually somebody did say something to someone.
On November 9th, 1938, was the straw that broke our backs. It was called Kristallnacht, or The Night of Broken Glass. There was so much shattered glass laying in the streets that it reflected the fires of Jewish homes and Synagogues like crystals.
They came for us a few days later. Our protector, from downstairs, couldn’t protect us anymore. It was rumored that Helmut had betrayed us, but who knows.
Once we had no protection, the soldiers in black uniforms, the dreaded SS, arrived at six in the morning and gave us two hours to pack two suitcases each. That’s two hours to pack a lifetime into two suitcases. My father pointed to that painting of my grandfather with that highest medal a German could get but to no avail. The SS Officer took it off and threw it into a corner. We had to leave all our other possession behind and just take whatever we could carry.
“Das ist alles,” the SS leader screamed at us. “Loss!” Let’s go, and into a truck we were shoved with other families that apparently were arrested like us, each with a despondent look on their faces.
All this time, my life-long friend stood there watching us in his brown Hitler Youth uniform, I could see by his collar insignia, that he was now a high ranking member in the Hitler Youth. He didn’t say a word to us, not a word to his comrade whose blood flowed in his own veins. If that was known, he himself would be in the truck with us, maybe that’s why he stood there to make sure I wouldn’t say anything.
As I sat in the truck, I looked back before they dropped the tarp cover and saw Helmut stare at me. He had no expression on his face, it was as devoid of sympathy as a window manikin. He stood there with his feet apart with one hand on his little HJ dagger and the other with his thumb in his leather belt, like pictures of his Führer. Just then the sun had come out and there was a glimmer in his eyes and I thought perhaps it was a tear, but he just stood there without a word.
We were sent to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, in the middle of Germany, where I was separated from my parents and never saw them again, but I survived the war because I was young and strong so I was put to work making buttons for uniforms, of all things.
After I was liberated by the Americans, I went back to Berlin and our house. I wanted to see if anyone of my parents or family survived. Survivors tack scraps of paper on the walls of their homes which still stood or even on the ruins to say where they could be found in case others looked for them. When I arrived on our block I saw mostly skeletons of houses, but ours, by some miracle, was still standing there, like a beacon, perhaps so I can find it. But there were no scraps anywhere from my family.
I went up the stairs to our floor, the back was a ruin. That was the Werners apartment, a bomb must have landed in the yard, they must have been killed, I thought, but our apartment seemed in tact.
I wondered who was living there now as I knocked on the door. To my surprise, Frau Werner opened it and behind her, a frightened Herr Werner. They didn’t recognize me at first, I had lost so much weight that I looked more like a skeleton.
But as they kept looking at me, they turned pale. At first, they feared me as if I was the avenging angel but once they felt I wasn’t going to do anything to them, they couldn’t be friendlier, they sat me down at our own dinner table, probably not realizing the irony of it. They gave me some ersatz tea and something that looked like black bread with something resembling margarine and tried to apologize for everything that happened. It wasn’t their fault of course, “Es war nicht unsere Schuld” they said. It was Hitler and his cronies. The Nazis. That’s what they all said. It seemed no German I met was ever a Nazi or has even seen one.
I asked them about my blood brother Helmut, which made Frau Werner cry. He was missing on the Eastern Front since Stalingrad, Herr Werner told me holding her hand. “We never heard from him again.” I saw a picture of him in his winter uniform on the table, they must have been looking at it before I came in. I didn’t know if I should feel anything. They didn’t ask anything about my parents, their old friends.
I looked around our old living room and saw all our furniture, our paintings, our drapes all still hanging on the walls, my mother had great taste in all things, I remembered. Then I saw an outline of the picture that hung right over the mantle of our fireplace, of my grandfather, the German Hero. It wasn’t there, of course, that’s probably where they hung Hitler’s picture, in this honored place over the mantle, during the war, now hidden or thrown out somewhere.
I couldn’t stand it anymore, I saw a little silver dish that belonged to my grandmother in a bookcase that once held my father’s books which were burned on that fateful November day. I picked it up and put it in my coat pocket and dared them to say something, then I left without a word.