Berlin remmbers Christopher Isherwood
August 30, 2004
Berlin — A plaque on a Berlin street reveals where Christopher Isherwood
lived between 1929-33 while writing Mr. Norris Changes Trains,
his raucous, saucy, titillating account of pre-World War II life in
the German capital.
Berlin has never forgotten Isherwood – whose real name was
William Bradshaw – and he certainly never forgot Berlin which
inspired some of his finest creative work, including Goodbye
Berlin, which later served as the basis for the international
stage play and film musical Cabaret for which Liza Minelli won an
Born in Wybersleg, Cheshire, on August 26, 1904, Isherwood
arrived in exotic, free-wheeling Berlin in 1929 at a time when the
city was edging ever closer to being consumed by Hitler's
cut-throat Nazi vulgarians.
Fascinated by the city's exotic flavour, Isherwood would later
concede that initially what lured him to Berlin was less the hectic
political climate, more its sun-tanned boys. The Corpus Christi,
Cambridge, graduate was a discreet homosexual, and Berlin was
renowned beyond its borders for its array of male clubs and gay
Isherwood had felt stifled in pre-World War II England. Berlin,
on the other hand, was a pulsating, evocative city, throbbing with
film and theatre activity. It was also decadent, sexually liberal,
and enmeshed in political convulsion. Isherwood viewed it as a
Nollendorfstrasse 17, just around the corner from the bustling
Nollendorfplatz suburban (underground and overhead) station, is in
Berlin's down-town Schoeneberg district. Before the war it was an
area frequented by homosexuals, with many of its clubs catering for
The station was pasted by Allied bombs during the war. But it
has since been redesigned along former lines, topped by a
decorative tower similar to its imposing pre-war original. On a
wall a plaque describes the savage treatment meted out to Berlin's
homosexuals during the Nazi era. It reads, Totschlagen,
Totgesschwiegen (Beaten to Death, Brutally Silenced).
It recalls how the National Socialists used a sign (Rosa Winkel)
for cracking down on gay club proprietors and their clients from
January, 1933 onwards. Coordinated raids were made on clubs, and
numerous arrests made in the Nollendorf Platz area. Many of the
homosexuals died later in Nazi concentration camps.
While much has changed in Berlin since Isherwood's time, the
area around Nollendorf Platz in Schoeneberg still manages to retain
a whiff of its former saucy pre-war flavour.
True, the pension where the writer used to stay has long since
gone. So too has Fraulein Schroeder, the writer's warm-hearted
landlady who fondly called him Ishywoo. She knew about his
nocturnal activity and his liking for "Proletarianjungs". She died
more than 30 years ago.
Today the district remains a mix of antique shops, art and
porcelain outlets, bars, cheap restaurants, odd-ball hair workshops
and a Laser Skin Company.
Many of Schoenberg's once dowdy Alt-bau (old property) apartment
buildings have been handsomely restored in recent years. Where once
many elderly war widows played out lonely lives in voluminous
apartments there are now middle-class families, and retired
teachers and academics, some once at the forefront of 1968 street
demos in Berlin.
A wealth of antique shops, pubs, night clubs and eating places
are found in the nearby Motz, Massen and Eisenacher streets off the
Nollendorf Platz. Isherwood might have approved of Tom's Bar or the
In his autobiography, Christopher and his Kind, Isherwood
claimed Berlin was "the most important encounter in my life. The
trigger for all that happened in my later life. If I had not moved
to Berlin I would probably never have been a writer."
There was no other city in Europe in that period which was so
full of zest and creative spirit as Berlin.
Had Hitler not risen to power, Isherwood maintained he would
have settled in the German capital. But when the Nazis arrived he
hastily returned to Britain. In 1939 he emigrated to the United
States, later becoming an American citizen.
He settled on the West Coast in Santa Monica. Moving to America
had not been intended to cut himself off from his roots, but as a
response to some wanderlust in him, he explained. Isherwood died in
the U.S. on January 5, 1986, aged 81. – Sapa-dpa
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