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That a Jew living in Nazi Berlin survived the Holocaust at all is surprising. That he was a homosexual and a teenage leader in the resistance and yet survived is amazing. But that he endured the ongoing horror with an open heart, with love and without vitriol, and has written about it so beautifully is truly miraculous. This is Gad Beck’s story.
Once upon a time there were five sisters. I could begin like that, since there was a clear surplus of women in my mother's family. She did have one brother, but he had already set off into the wide world as a young man. He got as far as Thuringia, a good two hundred miles away. In the early twentieth century Hedwig Kretschmar moved with her mother and four sisters from the Oder marshlands to Berlin to look for work. The father had gambled his money away.
Around the turn of the century, absolutely ugly apartment houses were built all over Berlin. Intended to take in the masses attracted to the boom of the capital, they were put up fast and apathetically. The Kretschmars moved into a medium-sized, gray apartment near Gesundbrunnen, in the north of the city. Some of the sisters had to sleep in the hall because there wasn't enough room. The family slaved away in the lower middle class.
In 1913 Hedwig turned eighteen and applied for a job at the Heinrich Beck & Company mail-order firm. Everything imaginable could be ordered wholesale from its catalogue. She worked at the telephone exchange. A switchboard operator was something special in those days, something new, and in a company like that one, it was a really influential position.
It didn't take Hedwig long to start playing the modern woman. She smoked heavily, dressed in the newest fashions, and fell in love with her young boss in no time. Her sisters never managed what she did. They all looked like boring goody-goodies. But she was dazzling—rural freshness refined with big-city elegance. She learned thechic styles from Jewish girlfriends at the company, with their fashionable hats and caps, coats and suits. Thus it was not surprising that Heinrich Beck, nine years her senior, fell victim to her charms.
This liaison was frowned upon in the Protestant Kretschmar household. One sister, Anna, was very religious and didn't have anything at all to do with Jews. The rest of the relatives, who lived in the countryside, were blatantly anti-Semitic. They were constantly pressuring Hedwig: "Why don't you marry Cousin So-and-So? He's a decent Christian." But she didn't listen. She wanted the Jew.
When Heinrich Beck was drafted and fought for Austria-Hungary on the Italian Isonzo front, she sent him letters and packages. He reciprocated with photographs showing him posing proudly with his buddies. A sturdy, mustachioed man he was, with alert eyes and a jovial smile. After the war, from which he returned with several small medals, it was clear to both of them that they wanted to raise a family.
If it had been up to Heinrich Beck, he would have kept the marriage "secular," without any religion. He was part of the upwardly mobile German bourgeoisie—you could call them "liberal conservatives"—and he was not overly religious. But then his family, "the Vienna contingent," put in their two cents' worth.
He did in fact come from Vienna, and although he felt German, he never had German citizenship. His family, originally from Galicia, still spoke Yiddish to each other, and they even wrote it—with Hebrew letters. The family was a typical clan of the Hapsburg empire. The fact that Heinrich "defected" to those Prussians in Berlin after completing business training in Vienna was not cause for much enthusiasm from his father. And now he wanted to marry a goy? The case was clear: the new family should have one religion, and at the time it was not even up for debate whether he would convert to Christianity.
So Hedwig was a good girl and learned all there was to learn, then converted to Judaism. They married in 1920. They had a ketubah, or marriage contract, made, a common practice among Jews. It was authenticated in the highly orthodox Adass Yisrael synagogue, but actually that was only because another, more progressive rabbi happened to be on vacation at the time.
The freshly married couple was evidently not averse to matters of the flesh, since they had two children in the first two years of marriage, one right after the other. Both were sons, which was nothing short of a breakthrough for my mother's family. Finally there were some boys. But both died as infants, the first after only a few weeks—he hadn't even left the Jewish Hospital. The other died after a few months at home on Prenzlauer Strasse, where my parents lived above the family business. The doctors urged them not to try again, since the health risk posed by another pregnancy was too great. But Heinrich Beck would hear nothing of the sort, and soon it was that time again.
In 1923 inflation had just about reached its peak. Still, Heinrich was not in the worst shape financially. He supplied the organizers of large social events with party supplies, favors, and decorations and had excellent connections to people in the fairs and carnivals business. This relative prosperity allowed him to enlist the services of an experienced doctor for his wife, to make sure that nothing went wrong this time. He had known Dr. Neumann for a long time. Neumann later joined the SS, but he remained unwavering in his friendship with us. On the day of the birth, he said to my father: "Dear Heinrich, it would be best if you could give me the money around lunchtime, so my wife can buy some butter with it. It'll be too late if we wait till evening." And so that evening the Neumanns had their butter and my parents had us, Margot and Gerhard.
The whole family was bursting with pride: two such sweet babies—things had gone so well after the two lost children! It was really a shame that the Viennese side of the family had turned their backs on Heinrich. Although my mother had converted to Judaism, they didn't want to have anything to do with Heinrich and his goyishe mishpokhe. But my father wouldn't stand for that. One day he pulled himself together, packed his wife and offspring along with the nanny onto the train, and took the whole family off to Vienna.
The Becks' beautiful, spacious apartment was in the predominantly Jewish second district on Obere Donaustrasse. My grandfather was a furrier and earned a good living, thank God, since he had nine children, five of them daughters for whom he would have to supply a dowry.
My father stood facing the heavy door. He lifted the knocker and, after a slight hesitation, let it fall with a bang. A moment later his mother was standing before him. "Heinrich!" she yelled out and flung her arms around his neck. No matter what happens, a mother is always happy when she gets to see her son again. "Come in!"
"No," he responded resolutely, "I can't. I am not here alone. My family is here with me." Hedwig was wearing a white fur coat, especially to impress her furrier father-in-law. She looked like a movie star. Despite the pregnancies, she still had a wonderful figure.
A Jew is by nature a curious being, and old Reuwen Beck was no exception. He was standing back in the hallway, trying to peek around both the corner and his wife to catch a glimpse of his daughter-in-law. The venture was a total success. "Come to me, my children!" he called out as he saw the young woman. From that moment on, he and the whole Vienna family cherished my mother. She was a beautiful daughter-in-law, and on top of that they had twins as grandchildren; that was more than enough to convince them.
They visited us regularly in Berlin, and for their part they impressed the Christian side of the family beyond measure. These elegant, genteel, distinguished Jews from grandiose old Vienna were simply fascinating. It enhanced my father's status tremendously. My Uncle Wolken was the representative for Kodak for all of the Balkans, and he often had business in Berlin. Back then, photography was up and coming, and he later had a large photography business in Vienna until it was no longer allowed. I totally admired this uncle. He was well over six feet tall, wore expensive clothes, and while in Berlin always stayed at the Hotel Fürstenhof near the Anhalter train station. We met him there for coffee and cake or ice cream, just for a few hours, since he never had much more time. But we felt ... well, that kind of life was my dream. I wanted to be like him someday—not necessarily over six feet tall, but cosmopolitan and self-assured and comfortable living a life of luxury. Staying in a first-class hotel and letting the family come there to meet me—fabulous. In the 1970s I once wrote in a letter to my mother that I was going from one fancy hotel to the next, just like Uncle Wolken. He was still our standard.
My parents kept up an active social life. A friend of my mother's was married to a pastry-cook named Hauke, who put my parents on the guest list for the annual Pastry-Cooks' Ball. In return, my father arranged invitations to the highly elegant Ball of the Austrians. On festive occasions, Heinrich Beck was the life and soul of the party. A sturdy, sandy-haired, good-natured man, he would discreetly but definitely down quite a few and start belting out his Viennese couplets. My mother was always on the alert for the right moment to pump black coffee into him—a diabolical combination at that level of blood alcohol. If things got out of hand, he would excuse himself for fifteen minutes or so, retreat to the men's room, and heave it all up. Then he'd continue happily as though nothing had happened. He felt at ease among the Prussians but could call up his sentimental Vienna soul at any time. After we got our first radio, he often sat in front of it when Viennese songs were played and howled his head off. My father's style of living and cheerful nature were the perfect complement to my mother's Protestant dryness.
Social climbing required the appropriate neighborhood, of course. In 1920, as soon as my parents got married, optimists that they were, they had themselves put on the waiting list for a newly built apartment in Weissensee, a far better neighborhood. By 1927 our three-and-a-half-room apartment on Buschallee was finally ready for us to move in. It had two balconies and overlooked a garden colony. There were tennis courts and a lake for swimming nearby, and the monthly rent was seventy-one marks.
Our new home became a gathering place for all our Berlin relatives, none of whom lived so well. We met to play cards, eat, drink coffee, listen to the radio, or sit on the balcony. Aunt Trude, my mother's youngest sister, moved nearby with Grandma Wilhelmine Loch (her name, which means "hole," was a great source of laughter for us kids).
Margot and I were terribly spoiled and grew up like two little princesses. She was called Puppe, the little doll, and I was Männe, the little man. This distinction, however, seems more like an assertion than a description if you look at our baby pictures.
Our family took our religious education very seriously, and that meant both our religions. Grandma had gotten used to honoring the traditions and customs of the Jews just as much as her own Christian ones.
Wearing a long, black skirt and a bonnet typical for a widow, the elderly lady walked with us little nippers, one holding her left hand and one her right, to the village church in Weissensee for Christmas, and we all bellowed out, "Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her"—From heaven on high I come to thee.
At the Passover seder, Grandma made sure that everything was done according to the rituals she had just studied up on. When my father started breaking the matzoh, the unleavened bread we eat at Passover to commemorate the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt (since our ancestors had to leave quickly, before the bread could rise), Grandma interrupted him: "Heinrich, you're supposed to wash your hands first! And where are the bitter herbs?"
Jewish rituals are just filled with concrete symbols, and at Passover the story of slavery and the exodus from Egypt is read aloud each year. Especially for children, it is all very impressive. What does the horseradish, the bitter herbs, symbolize? "The Egyptians made life bitter for the Jewish slaves, forcing them to perform hard work with clay and bricks, and all kinds of work in the fields and other tasks." Grandma knew the story from the Old Testament anyway. In order to welcome "the messenger who heralds the coming of the Messiah," a glass of wine is placed in the middle of the table. Then my mother had to open the door so that Eliahu Hanavi—the prophet and liberator—could come in. Right before that, the glass shook. He had taken a sip! We kids were newly inspired every time. Of course, we hadn't noticed that my father had banged the table from underneath.
Grandma Wilhelmine was not the only one in the family who had abandoned her original skepticism toward Jews, trading it in for a serious interest based on our real coexistence. My religious Aunt Anna and her husband, Uncle Paul, represented a kind of original Christianity, which was not all that far removed from Judaism. They too were willing to demonstrate this closeness.
A few years later, in 1936 at my bar mitzvah, something unheard-of happened. A male relative, usually an uncle, has to recite a blessing during the ceremony. No one from Vienna could make the trip—at the time, the Vienna Becks were already having financial troubles—so someone else had to do it. Who volunteered but Uncle Paul, the Christian who loved his Jewish nephew! He let himself be called to read from the Torah, and he stepped to the front. Could he read Hebrew? Not a word. But neither could we. For people like us there was someone to recite the text. Paul had the Torah passage for that week read to him. Of course, he had carefully studied the appropriate section beforehand—it was about Jacob and his sons. When he embraced me, he cried. Many years later he was still very moved when speaking about the event and said it was one of the most significant moments in his religious life. In order to make sure the family was well represented, all of my mother's sisters and their spouses sat in the synagogue—women on one side, men on the other, as is right and proper—and my father was the only Jew! Don't forget that this was 1936. That can truly be seen as a profession of love and acceptance.
My upbringing was marked by this unobtrusive, never explicitly uttered tolerance. Such a devoted, open, and serene form of Christian-Jewish ecumenism, full of good-heartedness, could have forged new directions for Central European culture if Hitler had not destroyed it all.
My second-oldest aunt was my favorite. Martha. She too was an attractive woman, but in a crude, almost disreputable way. She spoke to everything undignified in me.
Her first marriage was to an actor, Herr Pape. She dreamed of being in the theater herself one day. She traveled with this man, living in a trailer. Back then that was part of being "on tour." Right away he gave her a son, but the baby died not long after its birth. A short time later came a daughter, Inge, who was later to become my favorite cousin. Martha and Pape beat each other. Actually, she beat him—so hard, in fact, that they got divorced before I was even born.
But Martha stayed in the theater. Because her husband had not earned tremendous wages as a traveling actor, she had been forced to learn a job in the trade. She became a prompter and is supposed to have been quite talented. In Berlin she was hired by the Komische Oper, the Comic Opera.
In the late 1920s she moved from her small apartment in the Charlottenburg district to Weissensee. Martha was a fantastic aunt. Her life was pretty adventurous for the times. She had a number of lovers—actors, of course; she wore extravagant clothing and rings that mysterious men had given her.
Martha spoiled us twins with children's costumes she got from the opera. Once I was Napoleon! And she gave us cloth to play with, silk and silver brocade that we would drape around ourselves. I made the most delightful skirts and dresses and developed the theatrical airs and graces of a diva. It was the only time in my life that something like that was so much fun for me. I am convinced that my sister learned it all from me: crossing my legs, laying my hand on the low-cut neckline of my dress, making eyes, throwing back my head....
My parents were not particularly impressed, especially when I ran around in my fantasy robes for days. "Son, you just aren't supposed to run around like that," my father once said. And my fresh response: "But you loved it when Mommy wore this type of thing!" There was never any pressure or preaching, though, and I was never very shy.
When I was six, in the winter of 1929, thanks to wonderful Aunt Martha I got a tiny role at the Comic Opera. My debut was in Die goldene Meisterin (The Golden Master Craftswoman), and I even got to sing an especially sophisticated little song: "Please give me a little dolly, whose eyes do peekaboo; the sweetest little dolly, who's charming just like you." It later became a hit. I also performed in Peterchens Mondfahrt (Little Peter's Trip to the Moon) and, well, that was it. A born star.
It was my first encounter with the arts, and it really got everyone going: "The boy has to learn something artistic." I was given a violin, and a violinist came to our home twice a week; my aunt paid for my lessons. This teacher was very clever. He always accompanied me so that it sounded really good to my mother listening in the kitchen. "The boy is really making progress!" No chance! I was the most untalented violinist that the world has ever heard. Once I performed a solo at a family gathering. It was a traditional folk song, "Grandma, Grandma," and the audience almost peed in their pants from laughing so hard. My competition was Cousin Gerda. She was almost worse than me. When she finished playing "Ave Maria" there was an awkward silence. The tension was finally broken when she asked how everyone liked it and they all broke out laughing. No one even had the slightest notion what she had played.
Things started going downhill financially for my father in 1930. He simply was not a very clever businessman. When the company went into a spin and he had to give it up, for some reason his partner ended up in a much better position than he did. At least he was able to continue the mail-order business on a smaller, independent scale. He took a lot of customers with him and ran it all under my mother's name. That involved updating the catalogue each year on his own and sending it out. When orders came in, he would pick up the merchandise from the manufacturers and ship the orders directly to the customers. That might sound unbelievably labor-intensive, and it was. My father almost worked himself to death.
It was not enough for us to live on. His regular orders were also far too uncertain. So he organized another source of income with the help of some Jewish friends. It was a wholesale business in tobacco, cigars, and cigarettes that he operated from our apartment. He had to build up a clientele of tobacco shops and kiosks. He would pick up the merchandise in the morning and deliver it in the afternoons. In the winter he used a sled. Margot and I helped him sometimes. We would take the bus that stopped right in front of our house and deliver the packages.
One customer had a cigarette kiosk at the end of the bus line in Ahrensfelde, east of Berlin. His name was Herr Erich Möller, and he would later become the notorious Gestapo Möller. Every time Margot and I went there, either he or his wife would give us a lollipop and some kisses and send us on our way. I never could have imagined the circumstances under which I would meet Möller again fifteen years later.
Margot and I started school in Weissensee in 1929, when we were six years old. The cutoff date was the end of June, so we were the youngest and smallest. Except for a few recently built streets, Weissensee was still very much like a village; in the summer the fields sprayed with manure around the corner stank to high heaven. Our elementary school was just as countrified.
There were two Gypsies in my class who became good friends of mine. They lived fifteen minutes from our home in Berlin's largest Gypsy tent and caravan camp. The two Herzbergs had been left back a couple of times and were correspondingly older and stronger than I was. They did not attend school with much regularity; sometimes they traveled around with their family and didn't even live in Berlin.
My two "big friends" protected me, and I admired them. With them, I developed my first feelings of devotion and a need to snuggle up, since I saw them as the very epitome of masculinity. They were extremely physical with each other, which was new for me. They touched each other a lot, clumsily and lovingly with rough, knobby hands.
I had another friend in my class, Klaus Schulze. His father was a secondary school teacher in math and biology. We visited each other in the afternoons, on birthdays, for picnics. On one of those visits, the father advised my parents: "Why don't you let Gerhard skip a year? I am sending my son to the gymnasium already, and his grades are good enough!" And so at nine years old I started at a gymnasium, a prestigious, college-track secondary school.
My parents were pleased but rather surprised. They could definitely not be considered intellectuals. They had brought a tremendous library, all of three books, to their marriage and displayed them in a glass case between chocolate bars, knickknacks, and other ornaments. The books were Faust, a Tragedy—Part One, which my mother was given when she finished school, The Frog with the Mask by Edgar Wallace, and finally Der Bürger (The Bourgeois) by Leonhard Frank, a left-wing book. Someone must have palmed it off on my parents at some time. That was it. By now, my sister and I had collected some books of our own: Nesthäkchen (The Baby of the Family) by Else Ury, a Jewish author who was later killed in Auschwitz, Quo Vadis, and such. I was already a bookworm as a child.
Whenever I felt sad or depressed about something I withdrew. I'd lie down quietly in my bed and cuddle with my dolls until I felt better. I really did have dolls, especially one boy doll! When I was eight or nine my parents gave me a typically Bavarian-looking Seppl doll—strange educational methods. Margot was insulted. She had all these stupid dolls with porcelain heads, babies with crooked legs, goggly eyes, and red cheeks, and then I get this magnificent guy! He had long, powerful legs, a handsome face, and a smart-looking Bavarian hat. I guess he was my first love.
Margot was jealous. No wonder! There we'd be, lying in our beds, and I'd be acting out scenes—"So, now I have Seppl in the car and, bang, I slam the door shut!" Then I would put my arms around him, hold up the pillow to block her view, and cuddle with him. She lay there all alone with her dumb, bowlegged baby dolls. For sure she would have loved to have this "man" in bed. Of course, she couldn't tell any of that to our parents. And I was selfish enough to parade my "lucky love" brazenly in front of her.
It did not take long for Seppl to be replaced by a flesh-and-blood candidate—not in my bed, of course, but in the elaborate fantasies I unfolded in front of Margot. It happened like this. In 1932 we joined a German-Jewish youth group. It's important to emphasize what kind it was since at the time there were a number of different youth groups, ranging from the nationalist Free Youth Movement to Zionist groups. All of them resembled the Boy and Girl Scouts to some extent, lots of sports and field trips and so on. Our first group was a real example of German-Jewish assimilation. These were the first groups to be put under pressure, as the mixing of "Aryan" and Jewish was a particular thorn in the side of the Nazis. Until the German-Jewish Youth Ring was forced to disband in 1935, Margot and I remained members along with four girls from the neighborhood.
Of course I had a big crush on one of the boys there. He didn't know anything about it, but I concocted the most elaborate romantic adventure fantasies. Again, poor Margot had to listen to all of it. He was attacked by the other boys and had to run away. Since he didn't know where to go, he came to me for protection. I took care of him and comforted him. He slept in my bed with me. We were bosom buddies and stuck together.
One evening Margot had had enough of it and started crying. "What's the matter?" I asked, totally surprised. "Can't he sleep with me for once?" Poor thing! I was always making her life difficult, yet she always remained loyal.
Besides my father, Uncle Paul was the most important male adult of my childhood. Paul Krüger lived and worked in the district of Wedding, a pretty rundown area back then. An electrician, he was part of the economic boom brought on by technological progress; in fact, he was responsible for bringing electricity to the apartments that were changing over from gas, and he was very busy. Sometimes, if the people couldn't pay for the modernization, he did the work for nothing. Uncle Paul was a good man.
The Krügers had had a small son whom Paul absolutely adored, but he died when he was five. Then they had a girl, my cousin Gerda, whom Paul didn't like at all. His longing was clearly directed toward a son.
This family was hard for him—girls were skipping around all over, skirts and frills everywhere. But then there was me! This was one more reason for Uncle Paul to come visit us a lot. He really grew fond of me, and I thought he was wonderful. He gave the impression of having a simple disposition, but that wasn't the case at all. He was shy and reserved, and in truth he really needed tenderness. His wife, Anna, was prudish in a Protestant way, and his own daughter didn't mean all that much to him. But on his visits with us he was a warm-hearted uncle who gave us playful pats, strokes, and cuddles. Of course he couldn't snuggle with me and ignore Margot, so she benefited as well. But I was the only one who got to sit on his lap.
When the whole family would sit on the balcony, he would often say, "Annie"—he always addressed his wife, even when he meant someone else—"I have to write a few bills." He'd say it, take his things, and withdraw to the children's room. There he would sit at the big table, and he really would write bills. He only had time to do it on Sundays. All of his work hours were written in a big book, and he would transfer them to invoice forms.
And then it happened for the first time. I must have been about nine years old, and he was in his mid-fifties. I went into the children's room too. Maybe I wanted to get something, I don't remember. As I walked in, he put his pen down immediately and looked at me. I entered and threw a curious glance toward the bills on the table. He put me on his lap and kissed me on both cheeks. It tickled so, because he had a big Kaiser Wilhelm mustache. And suddenly I felt that I was sitting on something! It was warm and firm and felt ... well ... nice. He put his arms around me and squeezed me. I cherished every second. Nothing else happened. Not until later did I pay any attention to what was happening in his pants. But he never tried to go any further. He liked it, I liked it. There was an unspoken agreement between us, and we never talked about it. Why should we? He smiled at me in a special way, mischievous and at the same time loving, which is why I tried to provoke these situations.
Such touching was new for me. For the first time, I had erotic feelings in that bottom of mine that had been slapped to get some life into me. The fact that it didn't leave him cold either only served to encourage me. And so we both experienced the fulfillment of our secret desires.
Posted October 21, 2012
I didn't expect there to be so much sex in a story about a Jewish boy living in Nazi Germany. I suppose something had to be done to lighten the mood, but Gad Beck seems to have seduced or been seduced by every man and boy in Berlin. Lucky him. He also found himself being, not only gay and Jewish under the thumb of Hitler's regime, but also part of the very resistance that saved a number of lives and even entire families on the better days. Not among those saved was Manfred Lewin, Beck's love, who chose his family over Beck and paid for it with his life at Auschwitz.
Beck's story is undeniably tragic, especially considering Beck's own recent death in June 2012, which means that he had to live for seventy years after losing almost everyone important to him. The point of the book is how he's managed this by treating every memory as a positive event, every gain and loss of friends and lovers as somehow worth it. It's improbable that anyone reading this book will ever have to endure similar trials, but if the time ever comes, Beck has left us with valuable lessons for dealing with the worst of human nature: spend as much time as possible with the people you love, fight evil however and whenever you can, and never miss a chance to have sex.
Posted November 29, 2009
No text was provided for this review.
Posted November 29, 2009
No text was provided for this review.
Posted June 7, 2009
No text was provided for this review.