A break from Nazis and Stasi for this month, to recommend you a book which I devoured in two sittings during my recent trip to Belgrade: John Waller’s ‘A Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518‘. During the stiflingly hot summer of that year in Strasbourg (in the region of Alsace, now French territory, at the time part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nations) what can be perhaps described as the world’s longest rave would take place. Over 400 would become entranced, many dancing themselves to death. Waller examines this and other seemingly-spontaneous instances of ‘choreomania’ to produce a truly fascinating account of a most intriguing phenomenon!
I feel so lucky to live in such a beautiful area of Berlin! Rathaus Schöneberg is just beautiful.
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.