Since this month heralds the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Berlin Airlift (more on that below), the hero has to be Colonel Gail Halvorsen of the US Army Air Forces. On approach to Tempelhof Airport, Halvorsen’s signal of dipped wings was the alert for young Berliners to watch out for handmade parachutes stuffed with candy to appear from the sky! Other pilots soon joined in, and it’s estimated that ‘Operation Little Vittles’ would deliver 23 tons of sweets by air, via 250,000 mini-parachutes to the citizens of beleagured West Berlin. Halvorsen also orchestrated ‘candy-drops’ in Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and more. Born in 1920, he lives today in Utah.
A few months ago, I had a fascinating wander through the Haus des Rundfunks, the world’s oldest broadcasting unit, active since 1929!
Several of you recommended this title to me in the last few months, so I am especially pleased to suggest our book of the month for June as Philippe Sand’s ‘East West Street’ (2017). A mixture of family memoir with a compelling legal history, the book examines the intertwining destinies of the Jewish lawyers (particularly Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin) who would prepare material for the trial of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg which gave rise to the modern system of justice.
A detail of a statue at the German Resistance Memorial Centre, formerly the site of the Bendlerblock in Berlin.
Otto Weidt (born on May 2nd, 1883) and his wife Else operated a factory employing blind and deaf craftspeople, many of whom were Jewish, in the Hackescher quarter of central Berlin. As a young man, Otto Weidt’s eyesight declined, though he would serve as a medical orderly during WWI. After becoming blind, he established his broom-making workshop, counting among his clients the German Army (Wehrmacht) itself! Otto’s connections allowed his business to be classed as ‘indispensable to the war effort’ and he used his status to bribe the Gestapo, obtain false documents for and provide safehouses to his Jewish workers, some of whom lived in hiding in the factory. Although the Nazis did eventually murder many of the workers, the Weidts did assist the survival of several, including Alice Licht (who subsequently emigrated to Israel) and Inge Deutschkron (a prominent Berlin-based speaker to this day!) After Otto’s death of natural causes in 1947, Else Weidt continued to run the workshop until 1952.
This month, I wholeheartedly recommend Thomas Harding’s Hanns and Rudolf. In a unique double-biographical style, Harding contrasts the decisions and destinies of Hanns Alexander, a German Jew who had fled to England and served as a Lieutenant in the British Army, and the man he would track down in 1945: Rudolf Höss, the Commandant of Auschwitz. A truly astonishing read which is gripping from first to last page.
Did you know Berlin tried to build and open a new airport a few years ago? Well, it’s still not opened, and is now already way too small! I spotted this discarded bit of the ill-fated Berlin-Brandenburg Airport looking rather forlorn in the Friedenau neighbourhood…far from its intended location next to Schönefeld.
Georg Elster was a master craftsman living in the village of Königsbronn, who travelled to Munich in 1938 in order to attend the annual commemoration of the ‘Beerhall Putsch’ uprising of November 8th, 1923. There he confirmed his notion that concealing a bomb in a pillar behind the speaker’s podium would be the surefire means to assassinate the leadership of the Nazi Party. The carpenter and clockmaker returned to the city in August 1939, and spent over 30 nights concealed inside the Bürgerbräukeller tavern before he was satisfied with the concealment of his time bomb, set to detonate at 9.20pm on November 8th. Unbeknownst to Elser, Hitler had decided to cancel his appearance at the tavern, since war with Poland had already broken out – he relented, but instead on the planned two-hour ceremony beginning at 8.30, he determined to be present from 8 until 9. Bad weather necessitated that Hitler would return to Berlin by train inside of by plane, and he hurriedly completed his address at 9.07, departing alongside his entourage: Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, Rudolf Hess, and other high-ranking Nazis. Almost all of the audience had left the building by the time the bomb exploded, thirteen minutes after Hitler left the podium. Elser was taken into custody that evening, transferred to the Gestapo HQ in Berlin and later to the Sachsenhausen and Dachau Concentration Camps. He was murdered by the Nazis on April 9th, 1945.
Berlin is a very flat city, but did you know that Berlin has a hill? And there’s an artificial waterfall running down it, which gets turned off in winter to stop the pipes freezing! But in the summer, it’s on and the sight and sound of running water from the top of Viktoriapark in the middle of the city is something to be savoured.