Escape From Berlin by Catherine Klein

A tense and personal portrait of a Berlin torn apart by war…


As anyone who has ever visited or lived in Berlin knows, it’s impossible not to stumble across World War Two at some point. Its ghostly aura seeps through the city like an invisible fog, filling empty concrete bunkers, haunting memorials, cleaving to certain architecture. It’s especially apparent, of course, in the spaces where the places used to be.

While we tend to be well acquainted with the facts of the war (the dates, the death statistics, the names of those responsible), the more nuanced details remain hazy. Mostly because—well, we weren’t there. Which is precisely why so many eyewitness accounts are so compelling: their recording of war’s daily minutiae makes this dark and tragic episode in human history somehow more real.

Certainly it makes Catherine Klein’s Escape From Berlin a potent read. Her tale begins on the 1st August 1939, “exactly 25 years after the outbreak of the great world war.” She’s at Berlin Zoo station, bidding an anxious adieu to her husband who is heading for England without her, since they could only raise enough funds, via friends abroad, for one ticket.

“Once in England he will be able to ask for me as his wife, on a domestic permit if need be, even without a guarantee… in six weeks I’ll be here again, with my trunks packed, ready to set out on the road to freedom.”

She’s not, of course, and what follows is a gripping and frequently disturbing account of her life in war-battered Berlin as international hostilities intensify and the gruesome noose of Nazism tightens around her and the city.

Communications to the outside world are soon cut off and travel brutally restricted. Given the choice between a concentration camp and working for the Nazis, Klein reluctantly begins her new life as a factory employee. Her detailed day-to-day narration, written in diary form, reveals how she has to wake at 4.15am (without an alarm clock—they’re Verboten) and cross the city with her overalls, sandwiches, soap substitute and malt coffee (“real coffee is only to be had in the black market, at the risk of one’s life”) to arrive at the factory gates at 5.30am, “not half a minute later”.

Jewish emigrants in front of a travel agency, 1939. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-E01073 / Unknown author / CC-BY-SA 3.0

We hear about the government’s constant, cruel new laws. Non-Aryans are banned from reading newspapers, using telephones, even eating fruit (“half a pound of tomatoes is enough to send a non-Aryan into a concentration camp for life”).

Later, referring to the law decreeing all Jews must visibly wear the Judah star, she writes: “During the night before that fearful first morning I sew the sign onto my coat, as the law commands. I feel as if every stitch were burning a wound into my flesh.”

Klein attracts a guardian angel, an American journalist called Mr. Harriman, who pledges to facilitate her escape. He hunts down rare train tickets via his connections and offers her cash loans to purchase them. The bureaucratic hoops the pair have to jump through are formidable and life-threatening, and their mission oscillates violently between hope and frustration

The pressure grows so unbearable that Klein suffers “severe heart strain” and is moved to the countryside to convalesce. Finding the rural atmosphere a refreshing change from the fear and propaganda of Berlin, she’s nonetheless shocked that ‘in such a different part of Germany, the population accept everything quietly without daring to utter an opinion, or criticism, against the regime. Where Hitler reigns, silence reigns.’

Back in Berlin, both the war and the book work towards a final climax. As Goebbels orchestrates the notorious Fabrikaktion (the rounding up of the city’s remaining Jews in time for Hitler’s birthday) one final escape opportunity presents itself. Before attempting it, Klein takes a final look around the city.

“Berlin has changed her face again. What once used to be such a spotlessly clean city is now disfigured by heaps of dirty snow lying everywhere. Since I was last in this neighbourhood, many of the shops have been closed down completely; usually there is a little note at the door saying: ‘Closed for the duration, owner called up’. While a few months ago there was still occasionally the chance of buying some little thing, now there is nothing to be had. The cinemas are sold out. The cafes have been deprived of their orchestras.”

Though it’s a true story, Escape From Berlin has all the tension and pacing of a fictive thriller. Klein herself was aware of this.

“If now and then the reader should stop and reflect: ‘No, this cannot be true, it reads like a detective story'”, she notes in her brief introduction, “he will do well to remember that life as many of us have to live it these days, is stranger and more erratic than a mere writer’s brain would dare conceive…”

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