These events and those in the memoirs that follow have, before now, not been related to anyone.
With the 20th anniversary celebration of the toppling of the Berlin Wall, I reminisced twenty years even further back upon an earlier visit to Berlin in November of 1969, only to discover that I had misunderstood how that visit actually ended.
On arrival in West Berlin, I found a room not far from the train station at Onkel Tom’s Hutte. My landlady was friendly but spoke no English, leaving us at the mercy of what little German I knew.
One day she asked me to buy her a bottle of wine at a nearby shop; I complied. She proceeded to polish it off and make a tipsy revelation that her uncle had been an industrialist who had somehow earned the favor of the Third Reich. She was clearly proud of him, but the source of that pride, his relationship to the Nazi regime put me ill at ease.
I also wondered if I had done the right thing in buying her wine. Perhaps her influential family had told the wine shop owner not to sell to her and she had sent me to get around the prohibition. So I told her that I wished to ask him a question.
Days later I made a remarkable discovery. I had been in West Berlin for a few weeks but, as a foreigner, could have gotten on the U-Bahn (subway) and taken it right into East Berlin. So I did just that and proceeded to spend a day there. It was different: surrealistic.
While in Europe, I had sought immersion into communities by breaking up sightseeing with study visits at local mathematics libraries. I took in W. Berlin’s Technological Institute but balked before E. Berlin’s Max Plank Institute. Perhaps it had threatened me with more immersion than I wanted.
At the train station, I met a man from Japan who informed me that, rather than flying to Istanbul, I could catch a train in E. Berlin and link up with the Orient Express to Turkey. Within a day or two we would both be doing just that.
The visit finished up at the Bertolt Brecht Theater’s performance of Man Equals Man. I was warned at the box office that my German wouldn’t get me through, but went in for the basic experience. Oddly, considering the title, I don’t remember the male actors: only young women bounding around the stage. Still she had been right; I couldn’t follow any of it and left before the end.
Leaving E. Berlin was a bit trickier than getting in. The E. German border guards let others through while holding me back. Had they imagined that I was trying to escape? Had my pronunciation been too good? Should I even have spoken to them in German? It was very late and this was just my head wanting to move on to a real dream. Finally the novelty had worn off, and I was allowed to board the train back to W. Berlin and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The next day my landlady handed me the phone, telling me to ask him. It was her uncle. Being excited about E. Berlin, I had forgotten that I wanted to ask him anything and proceeded to fumble through a conversation whose subject defies my recollection. All that I carried away from it was that he had been supportive of his niece and cordial to me.
Within a day or two, I was on my way to Prague along with the Japanese man whom I had met but whose company I had not expected.
Twenty years later the Berlin Wall fell, and now twenty years further on I began recollecting details of my stay there. At last I came to that forty-year-old conversation about really nothing. Over the years I had thought of him as offering a different, rarer perspective to those horrible years under Germany’s Third Reich. Those brutalized had clear motives to speak up; those who brutalized, had none; nor had the butchers, the bakers, the gear and ball bearing makers.
He had been of the latter and now his name flashed back to me A[lfred] Friedrich Flender and now I could and did go to the Internet to find out more about him. From its bombed out ashes, he had rebuilt the company that bore his and his father’s name and had, even before our speaking together, brought it into an extraordinary relationship with its employees and the community of Bocholts. He had done everything right; the last criteria, the product itself, was absolutely impeccable anywhere at anytime except Germany under Adolph Hitler, but it was also of that time and place that Flender gears and ball bearings had turned.
I read further that he had died and, as I rearranged the European date numbers, I heard an inner moan. Here was a man who had supplied to the Third Reich that without which it may very well have been the Second and a Half Reich, who had done so much to come back from all that; and here I was saddened. He had been killed in an automobile accident on November 17, 1969: soon after we spoke.
In hindsight: When leaving my lodging for the East Berlin train station, I had come upon my landlady weeping profusely over her cousin. It appeared as over the death of someone about whom I knew nothing, so I nodded goodbye and continued. Even as toward a stranger, she deserved my, pro-forma sympathy; but surely that cousin had been Herr Flender, described to me earlier in terms which mentioned a connecting uncle.