Berlin in the fall of 1997 is a peaceful city. Women shop, children return to school, men who look like they could be my father or brother go to work. My husband, on the way to synagogue from our hotel, studies the food stands people are buying breakfast from on their way to their lives. A look of shock, pure and somewhat comical, crosses his face. “Look at the size of those frankfurters,” he laughs, “and for breakfast yet!” “Probably bratwurst,” I correct him, being proficient, from my upbringing, in the names of the different German “wursts” of my father’s Berlin childhood. We giggle, somewhat maniacally. This is Berlin, Germany, remember. Where my family’s kingdom began, and ended. Anything can happen. And very soon, it does.
We round the corner onto Kurfürstendamm, the main luxury street of Berlin. There, before my eyes, is an enormous store. Theoretically, I knew it would appear. I knew what the sign above it would say, that it would be humongous, that everywhere I went in Berlin, a similar store and logo would appear. But I still wasn’t prepared for the goose bumps, the jolt I felt upon seeing the first sign, lit up in neon red. It was only a name, a name of a store. However, its history was, in a nutshell, that of many of the wealthier Jews of Berlin who fled for their lives before or during the Hitler years. Still, the store name stood out, so visible, so representative of good and evil at the same time, that I felt my heart pounding in pride and anger. It was, after all, my name on that store. My Name.
We stood and gasped; my husband planted me in front of the store for picture taking. Then we both stared some more. The last time something held our attention like that was when I took him sightseeing in New York for the first time, and like all good tourists he craned his neck constantly to see where the skyscrapers ended. This building, home to the “Leiser” shoe store, and 27 other branches like it around Berlin, plus 80 more around Germany, and others around the rest of Europe, was not a skyscraper in terms of length. But it was a monument, even greater in size, to a family, to many Jewish lives, to the destruction and rebuilding of a business so successful that after the war it was fully re-constructed and enlarged. By its new owners, of course. Those that had nothing to do with its creation, who were granted wealth and luxury due to the simple fact that they were not Jewish and could take over the lives of my father and his family, without pretense, under the regime of Hitler.
I move around the building and see the name repeated, on each side. The red lettering represents blood to me, clear and simple, the blood of my family. I recount the store history to my husband.
In 1891, Hermann Leiser and his nephew, Julius, created the Leiser enterprise, starting with one shoe store in Berlin. “Leiser” means “quietly” in German. Later, a competing store named “Stiller,” which means “silent,” opened, and this was a big joke at the time. Hermann was my great-grandfather and my father is named after him. My middle name is Julia after uncle Julius. These were bold men, Hermann and Julius. Hermann originally had an egg business, but when his nephew Julius showed up from Tarnow in Poland, he convinced him to abandon eggs for footwear in the swinging Berlin of the early 1900s. The stories of a business built to glory from nothing are all there – how Julius persuaded his uncle to invest in shoes instead of eggs; how he almost bankrupted the fledgling company in a year; how the new stores he built distinguished themselves because they were based on the American idea of fixed prices. Julius eventually took over as President of the expanding branches, as Hermann’s sons were too young. He was ahead of his time, this Julius. The employees were urged to eat what today would be termed “organic” foods and exhorted to exercise every day.
By the beginning of the 1930s, “Leiser” shoes became the largest chain in Berlin with 23 branches. They also manufactured shoes, in a factory which employed 2000 people. Julius, though not the wealthiest Jew, was the largest taxpayer in Berlin. And here, of course, was where all the trouble began. On April 1, 1933, the German Gestapo stood outside the door of the factory and yelled, along with many who had been employees for 10 or 20 years, “Juden, raus.” (“Jews, out”). Julius, in shock at the idea that what he built up might all be lost, was still savvy enough to start selling off parts of the business. The Nazis, however, wanted it all, the 23 branches in Berlin, the factory, and 7 abroad.
My father, born in 1921, spent his childhood amid luxury, in a house off the main street my husband and I presently stood on, named Fasanenstrasse. We walked towards what once was his home in the most elegant part of Berlin and stood in front of what today is a hotel called the Savoy. Not far from here was the reform synagogue his family prayed in, which today is a community center.
My father had little awareness of his Judaism. Whatever he knew came mainly through the observance of the High Holidays where, with their tall hats and tallis folded over their shoulders, the family took up an entire pew. They were well known for their charitable endeavors, with the poor lining up outside Julius’s house on Fridays for charity. The other holiday celebrated in a fashion was Passover, where about 100 members of the family attended. But in truth, my father was a true product of the assimilated German Jewish community which had abandoned the orthodox ways of their parents. When asked “why is this night different from all others?,” the famous Jewish “ma nishtana,” he answered “because it is Easter!”
Prior to 1933, my father led an idyllic life filled with playful times at the local zoo with friends, a place full of blond boys with blue eyes like himself, a safe haven before the storm. He never thought twice about being Jewish until times changed and he was made fun of in school, and paradoxically, even once asked to join the S.S., being mistaken for a Nazi. The Berlin of his childhood was one where wealth bought privilege. The butler was summoned to the table by a bell, a governess took him to school, his family summered in Belgium by the sea, skied winters in Switzerland. Ironically, the family even fled to Switzerland for a while in 1933, but unfortunately decided to return to Berlin, because, after all, that was home. They decided that the “Hitler phase” would pass.
Something so pleasant lingered in his memory that 40 years later, while I was growing up in New York, Berlin remained a puzzle in my mind. After all, he still wanted to sue the German government for various different reasons, until my mother, worried about his health, put a stop to that. “Genug, Herman,” I heard her say, “Lebe in der Zukunft und nicht in der Vergangenheit,” meaning “live in the future, not the past.”
There was, however, a deep melancholy attached to his teenage years, when Kristallnacht shattered the glass windows of the stores, along with the fabric of their lives. All he knew effectively ended. He often recalled when, having already fled Berlin to Amsterdam, in 1941, Hitler’s army stayed one step behind them still. His family was forced to the docks where they climbed aboard a fishing boat and lowered their 80-year-old grandparents by rope alongside them to try to make it across the English Channel, full of mines, to a new life, for the second time.
Yet as he paid his bills, and ran his own successful textile business with my own mother in New York in the 1970s, shades of those halcyon days in the zoo always reappeared. German music played in the background, sometimes loud operas, sometimes love songs. He told jokes about Hitler – did I know that Hitler had a flatulence problem – watched German war movies, and reiterated with satisfaction that Hitler was dead, but he had survived. This was the true victory. Memories, especially of Julius and his mother, shone through. I recall a German poem he always repeated about reaching heaven and being asked what one has accomplished, the greatest achievement being able to proudly answer, “that I stood up to challenges, that I was always a man.” He quoted Julius who had urged on his employees (the same ones who, like hungry dogs, stood at the gates of the doors to throw him out) with the battle cry “each day, say to yourselves, I am getting better and better and better.”
By 1936, Julius had already sold three-quarters of the “Leiser” enterprise, but the Nazis would not relent. It was brave, it was ludicrous to try, it was perhaps suicidal, but Julius refused to turn over the last 25 percent of “Leiser” to the S.S. men who demanded it in a meeting. He was told that after a break it was suggested that he “accepts the suggestion of giving in,” and finally, when his opponents returned with two S.S. leaders, he knew with certainty that the gig was up. His business days in Berlin were over.
It was grandmother Rosie, whom my sister is named after, who ultimately saved the life of her own and Julius’s family. Can we, the next generation, my sister wonders, ever fit into her shoes? In front of the Savoy, where my father has instructed me that they lived where the entire second floor would be today, I imagined Grossmutter Rosie, panicked, but determined to save her family. Which she did, literally, by hearing from a friend, who happened to be in the Gestapo, a few months later that Julius was about to be arrested. I imagine her running, running in the Berlin night over to the Klausner villa a few blocks away to give them the foreboding message. It served its purpose; Julius and family fled the same day to Switzerland, then Holland, and eventually settled in Buenos Aires. My father, then 17, his parents and brothers went through a lengthy immigration process, through Holland, England, and Canada. Rosie neglected the symptoms of developing cancer in order to get the family through the immigration process, and died of cancer at age 46 in New York. She left behind a bereft husband with three sons to start new lives.
Julius had sold Leiser under coercion to a man named Mr. Bahner. After the war, he received 50% of the worth back. When he died in 1950, his daughters sold the remaining 50% to the Bahners, who still own it today.
Once I asked my father, “When you went into a Leiser store and said you were the original owner’s grandson, did anyone notice?” “Ach,” he answered, “forget it. Nobody cared.”