Oldies but goodies

Some Berlin pensioners are recycling their past to inspire a new generation.

81-year-old Hans Werk's SS papers. Hans is one of around 180 Zeitzeugen (“historical eyewitnesses”) from in and around Berlin who volunteer to share their life experiences with others.
Photo by Alice HarrisonHans Werk’s SS papers. Werk is one of around 180 Zeitzeugen (“historical eyewitnesses”) from Berlin who share their experiences with others.

Some Berlin pensioners are recycling their past to inspire a new generation.

Sitting in class at Sophie Scholl High School on the last day of term is like being third party to a traffic jam. All eyes and energies are focused on the exit, the supervised silence punctuated only by frustrated sighs and the screeches of shuffling chairs. Positioned in front of row upon row of restless 15-year olds, 81-year-old Hans Werk is all that stands between them and their school holiday. Had they known what he was there to talk about, the pupils might have paid more attention to this grey-haired gentleman in their midst. They might have noticed the sadness in his eyes and the slight tremor in his hands. But Hans’ first sentence is enough to command their full attention. “When I was your age, I was working for the Nazis. I had enrolled, voluntarily, as a soldier in the SS. I’ve never felt so ashamed about anything in my life.”

Hans is one of around 180 Zeitzeugen (“historical eyewitnesses”) from in and around Berlin who volunteer to share their life experiences with others. Their visits to schools, universities and public events are arranged by the Zeitzeugenbörse, a statefunded organisation aimed at facilitating an intergenerational exchange of ideas. The elderly were once the revered centrepieces of western communities, but nowadays they are often sidelined from social activity. The Zeitzeugenbörse is one of a number of Berlin-based institutions that are trying to reverse this trajectory. It offers elderly people a chance to maintain tangible interactions with people from across the city, whilst using their skills and recollections in ways that benefit society at large.

Hans is testimony to this. He feels he has a duty to tell his story, in the hope that younger generations will never be seduced by the far right as he was. There is something distinctly cathartic about this process. As Hans recalls his assimilation to the Nazi mindset, he looks nervously at the faces around him, as though vying for forgiveness. And his story has a marked impact on its ninth-grade audience. The blanket expression of disinterest quickly gives way to reactions that range from shock to sympathy. A girl in the back row who’s been intently picking at her nail varnish comes out of her trance when Hans’ SS identity papers are handed to her. She leafs through them respectfully, pausing to look at the black-and-white passport photograph on the second page. The same, round face as at the front of the class, only 66 years younger. “Most of the people I know burned these long ago,” Hans explains. “But I wanted to remind myself not to forget.”

Ilse Wiemar dedicates much of her time to doing just that. Ilse was born in 1938 and grew up on Torstraße in Mitte. Over 70 years later, you can still find her there once a month, standing under the blue U-Bahn sign at Rosenthaler Platz as she awaits her next tour group. Today she meets three retirees from Berlin and two tourists from southern Germany. After a brief introduction, Ilse begins to map her personal biography onto the architecture around her. “That bakery,” she says, gesturing to a colourful building at the intersection of Torstraße and Brunnenstraße, “was once a book shop.” At 18, Ilse started an apprenticeship there. On arrival, she was bemused by her boss’ insistence on calling her by her first name, a marked breach of German professionalism. “That’s Miss Rottleb to you, sir,” she retorted. At which point Miss Rottleb was promptly instructed to gather up her things and leave.

Ilse is a tour guide with a difference. She is one of 16 Stadtführer mit Erfahrungswissen (“Guides with the knowledge that comes from experience”). All retirees, they are active throughout the city; a two-hour trip down memory lane costs just €3. Delivered with deliciously dry wit, Ilse’s stories animate corners of Berlin that are situated well off the conventional tourist track. Behind the hustle and bustle of street life, she guides her group through courtyards that back onto courtyards that back onto courtyards, each with their own tale to tell. Ilse herself is by no means the main protagonist of her tour. With her, we retrace the steps of the people who inhabited the city over the last century. And at each turn, their biographies are illuminated by the recollections and encounters of the Berliners amongst the group.

As Ilse reaches her final destination, the imposing Gothic church at Zionskirchplatz, she reveals her most treasured memory as a tour guide. “Are we really going to go in-side?” a woman once asked, as Ilse beckoned the group to follow her into the church. The woman went on to explain that she had married there in 1952. As a newly-wed, she had moved to the west of the city and had not been to Zionskirchplatz since the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. As Ilse recounts the tale, she falters momentarily to let out a sob. “On re-entering, she was completely overwhelmed. It was so moving. It’s moments like those that make doing these tours so special.”

For Regina Forster, every Tuesday is special. It’s what she calls “Judith Day”, the day she gets to spend with her foster granddaughter. Sixty-three-year old Regina is a Wunschoma, a granny for hire. When Regina – who had never had children of her own – learned of Berlin’s Grosselterndienst (“Grandparent agency”), she was intrigued to give grandparenting a try. The organisation has some 500 pensioners on its books; they support single-parent families throughout the city. Eight months ago, Regina was assigned to Gabi, who at 45 had just given birth to her first child Judith.

On this particular “Judith Day”, Regina has been charged with feeding the baby while Gabi runs some errands. As they dart between the kitchen and living room in rhythm with Judith’s needs, it is impressive how dynamically the two women work together. “Neither of us had any experience with children,” Regina explains, brimming with nappy-related anecdotes. “We learned together.” Whenever the conversation turns to Judith, Regina’s face instantly animates. Her pace of speech quickens and she begins to gesticulate energetically, as though invigorated by the mere thought of what she calls her “super baby”. Gabi listens in with a quiet smile. At no point does she assert her ownership of Judith; instead, she appears to have welcomed Regina as a legitimate and valuable member of the family. “It’s amazing what a difference it makes,” Gabi says. “I get so much done. Or nothing. Sometimes all I want to do is sit and watch telly.” Funnily enough, it was precisely this that Regina had sought refuge from. “My neighbour is the same age as me, and she’ll probably spend the rest of her days in front of the box,” she exclaims. “That’s no life.”

Consult any guidebook and it will tell you that Berlin is a mecca of youth culture. What is less talked about is the infrastructure that’s in place for those who have outgrown this side of things. The city has given rise to several projects which seek to channel the knowledge, energy and creativity of the elderly back into the community, recognising these social resources as advantageous to all. Hans, Ilse and Regina are all adamant that in Berlin, retirement need not signal a retreat from society. Rather, the opportunities are in place to embark on new, rewarding and exciting life chapters. “If the will is there, then anything’s possible,” says Hans, with the conviction of someone who has learned from experience.

Berlin’s intergenerational organisations

Zeitzeugenbörse | Ackerstr. 13, Mitte, U-Bhf Rosenthaler Platz, Tel 030 4404 6378, Mon, Wed, Fri 10-13, www.zeitzeugenboerse.de

Stadtführungen mit Erfahrungswissen | Bei AWO, Karl-Marx-Allee 93A, Friedrichshain, U-Bhf Weberwiese, Tel 030 4429 600, Mon, Wed 11-15, www.berlinstadttouren.de

Grosselterndienst | Ansbacher Str. 63, Schöneberg, U-Bhf Viktoria-Luise-Platz, Tel 030 2135 514, Wed, Thu 12-17 / Warschauer Str. 58, Friedrichshain, S+U-Bhf Warschauer Str., Tel 030 2920 322, Wed, Thu 12-17 / www.grosselterndienst.de