Reading the deed in the Grundbuch (land registry) in East Berlin was chilling. It showed that my grandmother had purchased a property in Lichtenberg in 1932. In 1941 a swastika had been stamped on the deed because the owner had defaulted on the mortgage. How ironic. She had fled with my grandfather and uncle to the Gironde in France only to be captured in 1941 and sent with the French transports to Auschwitz. In 1953 the GDR stamped an eagle on it declaring it the property of the East German People.
This was 1990 and I had come to East Berlin.
I had grown up with stories my father had told me about the properties his family had owned in East Berlin. We never had much money and my father said that once the German money arrived, our financial troubles would be over.
He had fled to Scotland in 1939 at age 19. Some German Jews had started a kibbutz in a local farm with the intention of eventually moving to Palestine. In Glasgow he met my mother, married her in 1940 and joined the British army.
My father had been dead seven years in1989 when the Berlin wall came down and a few months later I travelled there to claim my birthright.
Berlin in 1990 was a city of Technicolor and monochrome. West Berlin was prosperous and fat; East Berlin was poor and thin. One day while driving into East Berlin I stopped at a traffic light near Checkpoint Charlie. In front of me were two cars, side by side. One, a Mercedes had an oversized driver wearing a cashmere coat and scarf. Alongside him was a gaunt man wearing a fake leather jacket and a cap. He was driving a Trabant, the East German car that sported a plastic body and a two-stroke motor. It was noisy and smoky. East Germans would often wait years before they could purchase one.
On crossing over into East Berlin (the wall was gone but there was a large stretch of no-mans land between the two sides) the contrasts were immediate. The streets had potholes, buildings were crumbling and roofs were repaired using any material at hand. The sidewalks were worn out and the people in the streets looked hungry.
I had a list of names of the properties and wanted to visit them one by one. As a record, I decided to take a photo of the street sign, then the building. The street signs at that time were mounted on lampposts and fairly close to the ground. As I took a photo of Linienstrasse, a thin angry looking man turned the corner and got captured in the frame. He saw my camera and got very agitated and approached me screaming. I had grown up with horror stories about Germans before World War 11 and being accosted on my first visit was chilling. He came right up to me and looked me in the eye. From somewhere deep inside me came this primal roar, “Fuck off”. To my surprise; he stopped and fled. I think I scared the bejesus out of him.
As I walked around Mitte, the area where my family and many Jews lived pre Hitler, I felt that I was being watched. Every so often I would catch someone peeking out from behind a curtain. Everyone was nervous about unification and its ramifications. They had good reason for this as carpetbaggers, like me, sniffing around, were obviously up to something.
My grandfather’s brother had owned a 38,000 square meter poultry farm in East Berlin called the Weisse Taube (White Dove). It raised kosher poultry for the German and Czech market. They even supplied KA DA WE the exclusive department store in the center of West Berlin. It is similar to Bloomingdales in New York but with a food hall more akin to the one in Harrods, London.
The East German State had appropriated the farm but instead of building something permanent they turned it into a large nursery. Legally this was important as the greenhouses were ‘temporary buildings’ and therefore did not cloud the issue of ownership.
Through a relative in Frankfurt I obtained the name of a lawyer in Berlin who specialized in reparations law. His name was Dieter Jacob and he was a charming elderly man with a goatee beard and an infectious laugh. He liked to eat and drink so we hit it off immediately. I called him and he invited me to his office at closing time, 6pm. He told me that every night, after work, he opened a bottle of bubbly and I should come and join him. After the formalities he showed me a book of photos of the Jewish area of East Berlin taken in the 20s and 30s. It presented views of a very vibrant community. I kept looking for my grandparents but didn’t see them. He then passed me a book of photographs of Berlin taken at the end of the war. It showed the utter devastation of the city. He told me that when he returned from the Russian front at the end of the war, he didn’t think Berlin could ever recover.
My father had spent years collecting proof of ownership and rights of inheritance so the paperwork I presented certainly eased the way.
Herr Jacob had cleverly employed an East German paralegal to assist. He knew his way around the system and speedily found the deeds to the properties. I was one of the first people to lodge claims so the process went relatively quickly. The family acquired the deed to the Weisse Taube and as there were about 15 different family members with different percentages of ownership, (and keeping it under these circumstances would have been complicated) we decided to sell it. The German government had announced plans to move the seat of government from Bonn to the (soon to be rebuilt) Reichstag in Berlin, so real estate speculation was high.
A relation through marriage, Dr. Schiff, owned 50% of the property (I owned 3.5%); he was a survivor of the war and before moving to Palestine he was in a displaced persons camp in Germany. While there he befriended another Polish survivor called Artur Brauner. Herr Brauner is a world famous producer of films in Germany. At that time he had just released “Europa, Europa”, the true account of a Jewish boy in Hitler’s Germany, who successfully eluded capture by pretending to be Arian. It won a golden globe in the US.
Dr. Schiff had recently bumped into Herr Brauner and told him that he was in Berlin to sell some property. Brauner was immediately interested and after some weeks of negotiation, he agreed to buy the property.
Herr Jacob (lawyer)
Herr Wolter (notary. In Germany a notary is like an escrow agent. He looks after all the funds and disburses them per the contract)
Herr Wolter’s daughter (she was studying law and had come to observe the transaction. She looked like Michelle Pfeiffer)
Frau Jablonski (secretary)
Artur Brauner (wearing a cape and sporting dyed eyebrows and a moustache)
Artur Brauner’s Architect (resplendent in a black Armani suit)
I had flown in that morning from New York and was feeling fresh as a daisy.
We assembled in Herr Jacob’s office and began reading the contract. German real estate law allows for no ambiguity. Basically it’s a series of steps. You start at the first step and can’t proceed to the next one until everyone has agreed to the prior one. The contract was 86 pages long. Despite that it moved along fairly quickly. At times conversations broke out in several languages. German, English and when Dr. Schiff and I wanted to discuss things privately, Hebrew. During the day, in addition to her secretarial duties, Frau Jablonski was regularly dispensing coffee and soft drinks. What was odd about this was that she was wearing a very short, extremely low cut black evening dress. She had decided that as a famous film producer was there she would try and impress him. Whenever she served us drinks, she put her hand over her chest but when serving Artur Brauner she shamelessly exposed herself to him. This amused me but not him.
Towards the end of the day one of the clauses in the contract concerned payment of initial funds. Dr. Schiff suggested we move on and leave that to the end. This surprised me but we all agreed and continued. Around 6p.m we reached the end of the contract and Herr Brauner was ready to sign. At this moment, Dr. Schiff said, “No!” We all looked at him in amazement.
“I want a check just now for 30% of the sale.”
We were all stunned and Artur Brauner got up to leave. I rushed over to him and his architect and ushered them into an adjacent room. I told him I did not know what was going on but please sit down and I will find out. He said he was dining that evening with the Israeli ambassador and had to soon leave. I rushed next door to see what was going on. Schiff was adamant about the check.
I asked my Lawyer, Herr Jacob, what was the normal procedure in deals like this. He explained that usually a binder was paid at the time of the signing and that the deposit would be paid a few weeks later. Usually the binder would be paid the next day. I asked if this could be cashed on receipt? He said no problem, as he could write a check to cover it.
I explained this to Schiff and said that tomorrow we could get the binder and he could get a check for 50% of it. When he heard this, he brightened up. Apparently, having a check of any amount was important to him. I went next door, just in time to stop Herr Brauner from leaving. I said that we had a deal and he came back in, took out a beautiful fountain pen and with a flourish, signed his name to the contract. He then left. Interestingly he never brought his own lawyer and his architect said nary a word.
When they had gone we started to celebrate. Herr Jacob produced a bottle of champagne and I opened a bottle of whisky I had purchased in anticipation. Herr Jacob told me that if he were the buyer, he would never have signed that contract. Why, I asked? He explained that this contract was ironclad and could not be broken. He was proven correct a few weeks later when two top judges called him to congratulate him on the contract. Herr Brauner had twice tried to break it with no success.
We decided to go out and continue our celebration but Dr. Schiff demurred, as he was kosher etc. The next day we met up in the office to collect his check. Frau Jablonski was in attendance wearing normal clothes. As she served Dr. Schiff his coffee, he suddenly tugged on the hem of her dress and she blushed. I surmised from this interchange that the night before he did celebrate the deal and his meal, like mine, wasn’t kosher.
A year later, the deal was finished and the funds were disbursed. The day they arrived, I went out and bought myself a brand new Jaguar XJ6.