Thursday 5 November 2009

City-Lit Berlin: Inge Deutschkron, Outcast

Today's the day that you - yes, you! resident of the British isles - can wander into a bookshop and buy a copy of City-Lit Berlin. "This wonderful anthology" (The Guardian) contains all manner of writing about Berlin, edited by Heather Reyes and myself. The excerpts are from books written in English and in German, covering various historical eras and aspects of the city.

One of the most impressive books on the historical side, for me, was Inge Deutschkron's memoir Ich trug den gelben Stern, published in England as Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin, tr. Jean Steinberg. Unfortunately, although I have a copy, the English version is rather difficult to get hold of, as were the rights. So the extracts in City-Lit Berlin are my own translations.

As the name suggests, Deutschkron is a Jewish woman who survived the Nazis in Berlin. She worked as a secretary at Otto Weidt's Workshop for the Blind, recently helping to set the former premises up as a very moving museum. When the Jews began to be rounded up for "deportation" she and her mother assumed false identities, helped by Otto Weidt and other friends. Her book tells this story, presenting a girl's view of the persecution and the war in Berlin.

It is simply written, presenting young Inge's amazement at the horrors of the time in straightforward language that nevertheless cuts to the quick. The Deutschkrons were socialists and not religious, and in fact the book opens with Inge's mother telling her in 1933 that she is a Jew, something she fails to understand. The author presents a varied picture of Jewish life across Berlin's social classes before the persecution began in earnest, and the misery and fear once it set in. She is not uncritical of those who stuck their heads in the sand and those who initially profitted from Nazi persecution in small ways, yet she is never judgemental.

But this is a book of hope. Through her own story, Inge Deutschkron shows that there was such a thing as the "good German". From the police officers in Mitte who warned Jewish people of their impending arrest to the many people who helped her and her mother, and above all Otto Weidt, who saved countless lives.

The passages in the anthology are Deutschkron's memories of key events in Berlin: a child's eye view of the November 1938 pogrom known as Kristallnacht, and her later horror when all her "legal" Jewish workmates are arrested and sent to their death. In their honesty and simplicity - the book is often used as teaching material at German schools - they are both great pieces of writing from an unusual perspective.

Ich trug den gelben Stern has never gone out of print in German. Perhaps now would be the right moment to resurrect the English version, possibly in a slightly fresher translation.

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