Because an earlier posting (on 3/1/2016) by my guest blogger Jo Schulze — Thanking the Hippies, a German writing on postwar Germany — garnered so much interest, it seemed a good idea for another German to tell another story. From an interview done with Benno Meyer-Wehlack for Fiet’s Vase and Other Stories of Survival, 1939-1945. Sadly Benno is no longer alive.
THE SURVIVAL OF THEATER
Theater did withstand the conflagration: When Benno Meyer-Wehlack was sixteen, he was called to Arbeitsdienst – the duty to work. This was not exactly forced labor, assigned to prisoners and foreigners; it was something for German youth before they could enter the military. Here they could learn discipline and how to work-duty and work. It was the end of 1944. The red glow of fires from Allied bombings of Berlin could be seen on the horizon at night. Sulfur-colored dust was always in the air that smelled of smoke. Benno could hear bombs exploding even while he was below ground in shelters or in cellars and bombed-out, skeletal remains of buildings that pocked his neighborhood.
Benno had been living with his parents in Berlin. The schools were shut. There were lines in front of shops because food, even though rationed, was becoming scarce. In 1940, he had been evacuated to the city of Zokapane in Poland on a mobbed train filled with his entire school and other people. His parents wanted him back and he’d come back to Berlin in 1943- His father was a Nazi, wrote for a Nazi newspaper. By the time he returned, all schools were closed. He spent much time on his own except to help man flak guns with other boys his age. It was at that time that he got called up for Arbeitsdienst, received an induction letter into the military Earlier in the war, before the Jews in the neighborhood had all disappeared, Benno remembers a Jewish boy blasphemously telling him that the war was going to be lost and that democracy would one day come to Germany He didn’t know what democracy was, so couldn’t think about it one way or another. And- since all he really remembered was Hitler’s times and the radio promising victory- he didn’t imagine any other way When times got harder and harder in Berlin, he wasn’t concerned about winning or losing the war; he became concerned only about enduring.
Benno bid his parents goodbye and went as instructed to the induction center with a small pack on his back. He and other boys were sent on a very slow train to Sylt, an island in the North Sea. He was put into a barracks there. Because of the deteriorating condition of the war, Arbeitsdienst was no longer just for work but was suddenly for premilitary training. The idea was to get all young boys fit to fight. They trained with wooden guns. They were ordered to crawl across floors and to climb up and over difficult ob- stacles. Times were bad, he was hungry all the time. Some of the boys got packages from their parents filled with things purchased on the black market. But Benno’s parents couldn’t send him much. One of the boys had a copy of Thomas Mann’s Budenbrooks, which had been censored and was forbidden. One boy would read it aloud and the others would gather to listen. It was exciting because he’d never before encountered anything that was blacklisted. His father’s newspaper had once been sent to Sweden, and a forbidden newspaper had been sent back with an article about a book by Klaus Mann, Thomas’s son, who was also blacklisted. Clearly, there was a large world that had been shut off to Benno. The Thomas Mann reading seemed like news from another planet.
There were no uniforms available, so the boys wore ordinary clothes. Benno and the other boys had signed a pledge to defend the Führer to the last drop of blood. After signing, each of them was given a waistband decorated with Nazi insignia. A group of thirty or forty boys his age were then taken to a military base where there was a small military airport. It was next to the harbor at Rostock near Warnemünde. Here Benno was given a pair of pants by a mechanic at the airport. These pants were like knickerbockers, with the legs drawn tight at the bottom. They were mechanic’s trousers, gray At this base, although there was some discipline, no one took care of him. Benno felt inadequate to all that was expected of him. One day he came down with a terrible sore throat and could no longer swallow. He was hungry but he couldn’t eat and began to get very thin. He felt completely shut off from the world and didn’t have any idea what was happening in the war. One day he noticed that some of the military officers were moving out. He didn’t know where or why. Large antitank guns were left behind. An officer gave these powerful weapons to the boys before he left and told them that they were theirs for their defense. Then he left too. At this point Benno realized that everyone had gone, that he was alone on the air base with a few other teenaged boys.
Benno saw two Russian tanks moving in a meadow, so he went into the woods and took off his military boots and put on civilian shoes that he’d kept, in their place. He got rid of his waist- band and everything else that seemed military and then walked to Warnemünde. He crossed a river and came upon a forced labor camp, fenced in with barbed wire, just at the moment when the guards had disappeared. Benno met one of the laborers there who was dressed in white, a Hungarian. Benno thought he must be a baker, The man was undernourished and weak, hadn’t eaten a thing in days, Benno decided to continue on and walked away from the camp, As he walked, he saw people coming in the other direction, trying to escape the Russians, He came to a market square in Warnemünde where a Russian soldier stood prohibiting people from entering, Benno told him, “I want to go home,” As he stood facing the Russian soldier, trying to communicate, German Stuka airplanes began strafing the area, On the ground were Russians, in the air, Germans, Benno didn’t know if the Russians would put him into a camp. They didn’t interfere with him at all and let him pass the market square and go toward the ferry that crossed the River Warne.
Near the square he saw a small shop. He entered but no one was inside, Going farther inside, into the apartment attached to the shop in back, he saw food on the table, ready to eat, It appeared as if the people had just left, He didn’t know where they’d gone. They’d even left their small dog, who nipped at him, There were edibles on the shelves of the shop, things he hadn’t seen in ten years, like cherries. He was so hungry but – because of his throat – couldn’t swallow. Instinctively he knew that he should take food with him. He found a shirt and a jacket and took them also. From a bookshelf he took a volume of poems.
He knew that he had to cross the River Warne near Warnemünde to be on his way to Berlin, He reached the ferry and saw that it was still operated by Germans but was now under Russian control It was filled with Russians who had swords. They had small horses – ponies with long hair, Shetland ponies – that were pulling carts. The Russians looked impoverished, not like a conquering army to him, but like he imagined Cossacks might
look. He saw three cows coming on the ferry that approached his side of the river. He thought, Maybe these Russians will kill me! But he had to cross the river to get home, so he stood and waited for the ferry to arrive. When it did, he courageously got on and rode across. At the other side he asked the direction to Berlin. Someone pointed the way. A Russian soldier offered him a stolen bicycle. The Russians were cruising around him, having fun; one took away his coat, another his wristwatch. Today, a mature man in his seventies, Benno Meyer-Wehlack, respected German writer, doesn’t remember anymore whether the wristwatch was his or whether he’d stolen it from the small shop. He recalls that the Russians offered him schnapps and vodka to drink, which he refused because of his throat.
He described to me how, farther along in his journey, he met a young German soldier in uniform who joined him. They walked together, speaking in German. That first night, they encountered more Russians, who took the German officer away, so the next morning Benno continued on alone. Because the Russians had given the foreign forced laborers permission to take whatever food they wanted, Benno sometimes at night joined the groups that gathered together in farmhouses, sleeping in hay. These former forced laborers shared whatever stolen food they had. For the first time he saw and tasted corn. He tried to avoid the main roads because these were clogged with traffic. Most of the traffic was going away from Berlin- west, toward the Americans- because people were afraid of the wrath of the Russians. Once Benno went to a house owned by an elderly couple and they offered him a bed for the night. To this day the memory of the ecstatic feel of a real bed elicits a look of deep pleasure on Benno’s face. Benno remembers that the Germans he encountered along the way were anxious and terrified of what would become of them, People shared whatever they had with each other and with him, It was springtime, May 1945.
Along the way he saw that the Nazis of a particular village were being used as forced labor to remove barricades, After passing through that village he made a new friend who walked with him, The man was shabby, a German, He pulled a wooden cart, He was a sergeant, Around his neck, on a string, hung an alarm clock It was his joke directed at the Russians, who were so fond of wristwatches. When Benno and the man would meet Russians, the man would laugh. The Russians would laugh back. The man was going to Leipzig. He told Benno that in his cart was his capital, he was going to start a factory. Benno saw that in the cart were uniforms. The man embarrassed Benno. They walked together for many days.
When they entered Berlin – at Wedding – Benno felt that he should invite the man home and offer him a night’s lodging, But he didn’t. At a street corner he told him, “I have to go this way,” and abruptly left the man with the cart on the street. “For the next ten years,” he confessed to me, “I felt guilty for not offering hospitality to this man.” He saw that though hedges of forsythia blossomed in the parks, the city of Berlin was completely destroyed. It was a shock. Most of the shops and buildings were smashed into rubble, trams had been turned on their sides and were filled with stones. Sandbags were piled along the wide avenues. Everything smelled of gas. Some buildings still standing seemed to be on the verge of collapse, and whole streets had been cordoned off with signs: ACHTUNG! MINEN! Attention! Mines! Benno thought, This will never be a city again. He passed cooking stations run by the Russians in which they cooked goulash. Goulash was a kind of stew that was new to him. The Russians were distributing it to the hungry people waiting with outstretched hands and empty stomachs. They were wearing shabby clothes, the looks on their faces were like that of people in a fog.
Because his parents had been bombed out during the war, Benno went to look for them in the place where they’d told him in their letters that they’d been assigned. But they were not there. He learned that they were alive but had been evacuated to Bavaria by bus near the end of the war. He wasn’t unhappy that they were absent because he’d gotten used to being on his own and was looking forward to continuing his independence. It was an adventure now. He was invited to stay one night but no more in their former rooms among things that he recognized as theirs.
In the morning he went back to his old neighborhood – Charlottenburg – because he had to get a ration card, without which he wouldn’t be able to get food. His throat was starting to heal and he longed for a potato. At the end of his street was a theater in which he’d attended plays with his parents. It was damaged but wasn’t in ruins. Someone with a piece of cardboard was trying to clean some of the rubbish strewn at the front of the theater. He recognized this man as an actor from the theater. Benno offered to help clean up the rubbish and, side-by-side, they swept and scooped, lugged and cleared up debris. After the big debris was collected into a pile, Benno found two pieces of cardboard and began cleaning the smaller bits. He hoped the actor would see how useful he could be and would need him. He worked very hard, or, as he described it, “like a dog.” Finally the actor laughed and told him, “You can be a part of the theater.” From that day Benno lived in the semi-ruin and helped to make repairs. He was happy to be under the roof – or part roof – of a real theater, because he’d always wanted to be an actor. Other actors began to turn up and joined in cleaning and repairing. As a reward for supporting the Resistance, the conquering Russians gave this theater to Viktor de Kowa. He was to be its director. They also told him that he could open it.
Sitting in the living room, we drank strong coffee and stuffed ourselves on chocolate and cookies in the sprawling painting-and-book-lined apartment in Charlottenburg. This was the same building where Benno and his parents lived before the war, and where his parents would commit suicide together shortly after they returned to Berlin because his father couldn’t find work and his mother had broken down. The apartment is on Mommsenstrasse. He described how, a few months after the German surrender, in the first raw winter of peace, his father had asked him to come up for a talk. He had gone, and his father had told him not to visit for a few days, that he’d decided to commit suicide with his wife, and didn’t want Benno to be the one to find them. Benno said that he bade his parents goodbye that day and – as instructed – didn’t return to the apartment. Benno speaks rapidly, always with thrusts of words and with wit. He shares this apartment with his wife of thirty years, Irena Vrkljan, an eminent Croatian poet and writer. Irena and Benno work together doing translations, writing radio and television plays. Benno insists that even if official history always says that the Tribune Theater was the first to open after the end of the war, it was really his theater that opened first and gave the first performance.
He proudly recalls his recitation of a poem by Erich Kästner during the first performance. The first line was:
We were seventeen and we were scared.
Benno describes opening night: “The theater was dark. There was a piano playing. I came on stage. As soon as I began to declaim, I thought I heard the audience coughing but they were really crying. In the audience were women who’d lost their husbands and sons who were my age, who sobbed as I recited. When I realized this, I made them cry more, manipulated them with my recitation because I enjoyed the fact that I was acting. I hoped then that I could act and maybe write too, and live as an artist from then on, that it was the route to moving others and being moved.” Benno was the only serious note in this performance. All were tired of war and misery, they wanted to forget the past years, so the show was mainly cabaret. After the performance, one of the more seasoned actors took him aside and said, “You made it into a soap opera, an overdone thing. Please refrain from melodrama.”
Benno lived in the theater for two years and took care of it as well as he could.