Growing up in the Buchenstrasse
On June 13, 1928 my father, Wolfgang Schaper, announced to his family my entering this world in this rather novel manner, stating that “I am present!” in the apartment in Berlin, near the family home built by my grandfather. It was just a few months after this event that we moved to the Buchenstrasse where I was to spend the first ten years of my life – one of the happiest times. I do not remember the apartment, of course, or the first two years, and therefore I really have no recollections of my father other than a short movie taken by my aunt, Eva Schaper Noelle. This film and verbal descriptions of those times by my mother made it clear that I must have been one very happy boy, well on my way to become one “spoiled” individual with no knowledge of the problems going on outside of the large villa which I sort of ruled without cares.
After the death of my grandmother, the house which was built for the family of a great sculptor, Fritz Schaper, had to be converted to a sort of boarding house, with the a part of the ground floor being converted to a separate apartment with a separate entrance for its residents. The big yard remained as part of the Schaper family residence and the large gravel area outside of the former studio, where once large statues, like the Bison Hunt, were rolled out for inspection by visitors, including the former German emperor, Wilhelm, now became the sight of my large sandbox and a fancy set of swings for my entertainment.
The sandbox was the site of the picture of my father and I, taken in 1930, the year of his death.
Although I now know that 1930 marked the end of an idyllic era for my mother, it did not seem to have that effect on me, personally. My mother and the immediate family members as well as the denizens residing in the house in the Buchenstrasse made sure that my life did not change. I roamed the many large rooms of the house at my pleasure, I had many toys in my large bedroom, I sat on the kitchen table when our cook was making cakes, waiting to “lick the pan” when the dough was baking. I was included in the yearly summer trips to the beaches of the Baltic Sea, a tradition my mother had started for my cousins on the Bieber side and some friends. – Life was so good; there are no specific memories at this time, only photographs in my mother’s papers.
My actual memories began around 1934 in a “snap shot fashion”: I remember the famous Zeppelin, Hindenburg, flying majestically over our house, the slightly frightening noise of a German airliner making its way out of Templehof over our house on a nightly basis, a trip to Templehof when it was just a grass field and wanting to go on a ride in the single engine Junkers plane offering rides over Berlin (which I wanted to take, but was not granted). It was about at the same time in my life that my mother and I visited her friends, the Held family, in Starnberg. All I remember of that visit is seeing – and hearing – the German Flying Boat DoX, a twelve engine passenger sea plane, taking off on the lake. Many years later I had an occasion to see this monster in a museum (described elsewhere). Even at this early age, I was fascinated by airplanes, a passion that never died!
Then my memories become more connected, beginning with my entry into grade school about a block away from our house. This resulted in having more friends to play with after school, in particular Horst and Christa Hilpert – a friendship which endured until World War II started. My mother insisted that all special yearly occasions be celebrated in a formal manner. My birthdays started with a special breakfast in the “Erker”, a small room on the first floor of the house facing the garden, where the “Birthday Table” was set up with candles and presents. In the morning my Aunt Eva would come by in her BMW to bring a special present and take me out to a pastry shop at the Nollendorfplatz for strawberries and whipped cream, my favorite. In the afternoon there would be a party for family and friends in the garden under the apricot tree – I don’t ever remembering it raining ever to spoil the party.
The other special occasion occurred every Christmas Eve. The Christmas tree – 6 to 7 feet tall, decorated with real wax candles, tinsel, the Schaper Christmas angel and a few ornaments – would be set up in the upstairs hall. This was a large room above the big stairway on the lower floors. Against one wall there stood the “Mäuse Shrank”, a cabinet which today still stands in the living room of the Glendora house, in which my mother stored my presents (referred to as “mäuse” (mice) by my Aunt Dorothea). Gift tables would be arranged around the room by my mother for all the house guests. After these preparations were done, my mother would close up the room for everyone and arrange the presents on the tables. Meanwhile I would memorize the Christmas poem or story I had to recite by the tree for the festive moment in the evening. When she was finished we would get dressed for the “Bescherung” (handing out of presents), my mother usually donning her black formal dress with white ermine trimmings and I wearing my latest formal outfit. I would then go to the piano and play “Silent Night”, performed better every year, and then all would enter the hall in a sort of procession and I would stand by the crèche and recite my Christmas poem. After everyone had opened their gifts, there would be a late supper in a quite formal style.
In true German tradition my mother strictly observed the ceremony of putting your shoes by the chimney the evening before December 6, Saint Nicholas Day. On the next morning I would expect sweets, if I had been a good boy all year, or a lump of coal or a rod if I had behaved badly. My mother added to this an orange or two – a special treat in Germany at that time. She must not have been a good accountant in this area because my shoes mostly had sweets in them with maybe a rod as a warning sign. I remember one particular Saint Nicholas Day when there was a great noise by the front door and when I came to the stairway to investigate, Saint Nicholas actually appeared in a brown coat with a large hood and his long white beard hiding most of his face. He was carrying a large sack and holding a huge rod in one hand. I was petrified and for once speechless when asked, in a very gruff loud voice, whether I had been good all year. My mother convinced the saint that I had been generally good and so there appeared out of the sack some chocolates and a few oranges rolled out on the floor as Saint Nicholas went to the door grumbling that he had to go to see many more kids. I kept my distance from him until he shut the door. It was almost a year later that my mother told me that the gruff saint actually was Mrs. Hecht of the family who rented the ground floor apartment.
Another, more pleasant experience for me, occurred around this time, when my mother overheard me during my bedtime prayers asking God to please convert to real money the play-money I had in a metal box (left over coins from Germany’s super inflation days in the Weimar Republic days). As my mother was walking to the grocer the next morning, she stopped to exchange greetings with a lady who lived in the next house. She told her about my prayers and the lady wanted me to come and visit her that afternoon. When I arrived at her house she asked me to join her in the living room for some hot chocolate and then told me that God had told her to get some money ready and give it to me. She said that God really did not want the “cheap coins” back. I was flabbergasted and don’t remember much else she said. When I came home I breathlessly told my mother what had happened. She told me – and this was not really like her – to always remember this!
Other festivities which impressed me as an observer were preparations for masked balls attendance by my older cousins and friends of my mother during the Mardi Gras observances. Each year half a dozen party goers would assemble at our house and change into costumes, usually coordinated to display scenes from 1001 Nights or the like. Usually these “dress rehearsals” would be accompanied by consumption of champagne and much merriment. These were definitely “adults only” occasions, but still linger as happy memories. At other times, especially when some or all of my three half-brothers would be in the Buchenstrasse on visits, My Uncle Friedel and my mother would enthusiastically join in long duration card parties playing the popular German game of Skat. This usually involved consumption of beer and invariably resulted in my friends and I being dispatched to the close by “Kneipe” (tavern) to get refills of large bottles. Quite apparently my uncle was well known in the tavern and we were trusted in not having to pay!
One thing I did not like very much were occasions when my mother would go out in the evening to attend shows like the operetta “Die Fledermaus” and associated outings to a cabaret, which always included champagne parties and lasted late into the night. It was then that I appreciated and found solace in my pet, Wichtel, a black dachshund who had been in the Schaper household long before my grandmother died. When Wichtel died of old age,I desperately needed a new dog friend. It happened that at that time the renters of the ground floor apartment, The Hecht family, moved out. The new renters were the Lazaar family; Mr. Lazaar was an attaché to the Rumanian embassy and the proud owner of a Doberman Pincher named Zorro. My mother was kind enough to allow Zorro in our yard and I developed a great friendship with him. When the Lazaar family mysteriously had to depart Berlin in the late 1930ies, we adopted Zorro, much to my delight.
In 1937 there occurred another not so pleasant episode in my life in my own world of happiness. My mother and Aunt Mieze were called to Paris to help my half-brother Fernand who had attempted suicide over some girl friend. Fernand had a pretty wild love life in France. For a short time, like two weeks or so, the Buchenstrasse needed an administrator and I needed a guardian. My Uncle Friedel and his wife Gertrude were staying temporarily in the very small rooms on the ground floor, originally intended for a concierge. Aunt Gertrude was put in charge of running the household and me. I took advantage of her good nature and talked her into letting me explore the attic, where my Aunt Dorothea had stored some toys from her time in the Buchenstrasse. I knew it was a no-no, but I did take out some of her fine collection of tin soldiers and played with them in my room, promising Aunt Gertrude to put them carefully back as I found them after I got done. I also talked her into letting our maid take Dorothea’s rocking horse – a splendid furry animal – into the yard to play with it. Unfortunately for us, she took a picture of me on the horse. Although we replaced it before my mother’s return, she did see the photo and my bad deeds became an open secret and my mother levied some punishment on me, a very rare occasion. I believe I was punished only about twice, another time when she slapped me for lying to her. That resulted in my taping my mouth shut with a large bandage as penitence.
I experienced little of the unpleasant events going on in the outside world. Since our house was converted to a boarding house, we had generally two or more guests at dinner, served in formal style in the dining room or, in the summer, on the veranda. There the conversation would include items like Mussolini’s visit to Berlin, Nazi rallies in the Berlin Sports arena, and torch light parades by the Brown Shirts and similar events. No mention of political unrest, however. Reality came a bit closer when in 1936 our school was commandeered by a detachment of Hitler’s SS troops during the Olympic Games. The school children would gather outside the gates of the school to run errands for the soldiers, resulting in tip for them, and we would then stand and watch them march off to the Sport Stadium, singing bawdy songs which we picked up very quickly. I remember my friends and I singing them lustily as we walked back to our house, where my two brothers were visiting to cover the Olympics for the French news, as photographers. Fernand and Henri were highly amused at the off-color lyrics they heard, but I had a “cleaned up version” for them, which I sang when they asked me to repeat the marching song.
My “life in a bubble” ended fairly abruptly in 1939. My mother had succeeded very nicely in hiding her and the Schaper family’s financial problems in running the large villa. She had also succeeded in shielding me from learning about the fact that being considered of Jewish descent created problems in addition to financial worries. By this time I had been enrolled in the French Gymnasium, an elite high school in Berlin which was still not much influenced by Nazi propaganda. It was, therefore a complete surprise and a terrible shock to me when she sat down and explained to me that she and my aunts Eva and Dorothea, owners of the villa, had decided that it had to be sold and my mother and I were going to move in with my Aunt Mieze in her apartment in the Bieber house. A good friend of my uncle Friedel Bieber, Wolf Lieschke, and his family – including his son Gerhard who was my age – were going to invite me to go with them on a two week auto tour of southern Germany. In this way I would not have to suffer through the agony of leaving the family home. Although the auto tour created a few pleasant memories – renewed a few years ago via email with Gerhard – for me the curtain had fallen on a most delightful 10 years of my life. A very spoiled 10 year old boy was thrown into a new reality for almost a decade of hard facts of life in Nazi Germany.Share