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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 Oscar.

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 haunts.

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 writers paradise.

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 gays.

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 Caf´┐Ż Beri.

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


Related links stories
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