Renting a room in Berlin this summer

<p>As I mentioned a while back, my son got a grant to do research in Germany this summer for his BA thesis. He's planning to spend the whole month of August in Berlin before he travels around to some other cities with museums and archives he needs to visit. So he's been looking for a place to live (I'm not sure exactly how; some website where he was told to look), and got an offer today from a family in Berlin -- husband and wife; the husband says he works for the Parliament and the wife is a teacher IIRC; one kid in school -- to rent him a room in their house for the month for 300 euros. Which is apparently a very reasonable price compared to other offers he got. It's located in a prewar building in the Prenzlauer Berg district (I think that might be where my grandfather had his piano store in the 1920's), conveniently located. They've been renting rooms to students for years, and have a very small website with some photos of the building, the rooms, and other parts of the house. It looks perfectly OK both to him and to me. Not new, not luxurious, but certainly livable. He'd share a bathroom with one other college student who's going to be there, a girl from Switzerland. They said they selected him over other applicants because they find it interesting to rent rooms to students from other countries.</p>

<p>I kind of like the idea, and see it as a great chance for him to speak a lot of German, since he won't actually be doing any language study while he's there. And he wouldn't be as isolated as he'd be if he did something like subletting a studio for the month. He's been emailing back and forth with them in German, so he's certainly able to communicate with them. </p>

<p>He's already said yes, and they've asked for half the money as a deposit (to be sent as a wire transfer, which he hasn't the foggiest notion of how to do, but which I can do for him), but haven't sent him the wire transfer information yet, so there's certainly time for him to change his mind. They also said they'd be sending him some German-language contract documents he'll have to sign. I guess either he'll have to translate them for me, or I'll plug them into Google translate and see what I get!</p>

<p>But since this kind of thing is all entirely new to me, and to J. -- when he was studying abroad in Vienna last fall, he lived in student housing with the other kids -- can anyone think of any questions he should be asking? They apparently said to him, "you can ask us anything"! I can think of a few, but I'd be very appreciative of any ideas anyone has.</p>


<p>PS: it's hard to believe that less than three years ago, when I went to Rome with him after his high school graduation, I was posting here about my worries about letting him go out by himself at night from our hotel room. Now he'll be on his own in Berlin for a month, not even part of a program, and then traveling around to different cities by train. (Where he's planning to stay in those cities for one or two nights each, I'm not quite sure -- he said something vague about hostels). I've really gotten to the point, though, where I very much trust him to take good care of himself, despite the fact that he's a very small person physically, just a little over 5 feet tall (my height!), and still tends sometimes to walk around with his head in the clouds and his shoelaces untied. (More than once, women stopped him in the street in Vienna, bent down, and tied his shoes for him!) But it's amazing how grown up he seems now. (Most of the time!) Plus, I do plan to go to Berlin with him for a week or so at the end of July -- we would stay in a hotel and I'd help him get settled wherever he is, hopefully this place -- so I'll presumably have the chance to meet these people.</p>

<p>Donna, I have no idea what questions your son needs to think of, so I just want to congratulate him on landing this exciting opportunity!</p>

<p>It sounds ideal, Donna. I hope it works out wonderfully for J. The only question I think I would want to know off the top of my head is whether they have any issues with him being Jewish. I know, I Know....I almost feel guilty even entertaining the question. Might his hosts themselves be Jewish? That would be good. But, if they aren't, I think I'd want to know if they have a problem with renting a room to a Jew. I know next to nothing about contemporary Germany, so my concern might be entirely without merit. I'm showing my ignorance I know, and I almost feel like I ought to apologize simply for bring this up...</p>

<p>Thanks, BunsenBurner!</p>

<p>Poetsheart, that hadn't occurred to me, but I hope not! After all, we do have a recognizably Jewish last name, although I'm not sure how many people realize things like that outside the U.S. (I've even met Americans who astonished me by saying they had no idea what was or wasn't a Jewish name, or who thought the idea that there is such a thing was preposterous!) Still, these are sophisticated people, so I'd be surprised. And he certainly didn't run into any problems like that in Vienna; most people were very positive when he mentioned that he was Jewish, especially once he explained that his grandmother and her family came from Berlin. So I would expect even more of that in Berlin itself. </p>

<p>One thing he was wondering was if he should ask if it's OK to have overnight guests in his room. Just in case he meets somebody. They did say he could "ask anything"!</p>

<p>i was trying to think of some things that came up during a foreign homestay: use of kitchen, common areas, showers after a certain time at night, not curfew but any limit on hours in/out, laundry facilities...</p>

<p>He might ask for the e-mail of a student or two who stayed with them before, and then just ask those people if there were any problems. But it sounds pretty good to me (and I remember that I was one of the people who had qualms about your son roaming around alone in Rome).</p>

<p>I agree that it might be useful for him to contact a previous renter or two. Think of it as asking for a reference. </p>

<p>We've had positive experiences at our house staying at random hostels in Europe. I'm amazed at how quickly the kids become comfortable with such things. It's a big world out there and I think it's great that they want to experience all they can!!</p>

<p>Since student has already said yes, I am guessing you are past the stage of thoroughly checking out host's references, job, house and have spoken to past renters and such, and all that checked out, right? Or perhaps a recognized, reputable agency put you in touch with this family? </p>

<p>My very best wishes. I loved visiting southern Germany, and I wish I could go back to see more. All of Scandinavia is just a short hop from Berlin.</p>

<p>Sounds like a very good arrangement (as the parent of a kid who sublet a studio for a semester in a European city and found it kind of lonely). I also did what you are doing (traveled with D in the area ahead of time, and helped her settle in). It will definitely give you some peace of mind, and it is fun to see the area they are living in. D lived right across the street from a bar with no name, just big signs with orange bats (the kind that fly) right across the street. I tease her because even though she was there for four months, she never set foot in the "bat bar".</p>

<p>You didn't say where he needs to do his research, and how the public transportion is in the area he is in. That is probably worth checking out if he hasn't. Also, what about food/cooking?</p>

<p>Congratulations! I studied in Berlin years ago before unification, but am familiar with the basic layout. Prenzlauerberg is in the former East. Public transportation is excellent, with an extensive network of buses, subways, short distance trains.</p>

<li>Will your son be doing research in the western part of the city? If so, he may want to inquire about proximity to the U- & S-bahns.</li>
<li>ask about monthly passes for public transportation. They offer significant discounts if you can provide verification of student status & an address.</li>
<li>student ID will also get discounts to concerts & museums.</li>
<li>how long will your S be there? For extended lengths of time, students need to get "Aufenthaltserlaubnis," which is basically a kind of visa. Ask if he will need one of these.</li>
<li>Get a good map. Berlin is a big city.</li>

<p>Thanks for all the great suggestions! He's already found out that he and the other student share the kitchen with the family, that there's no smoking (good!), and that he and the other student are required to clean their shared bathroom once a week. Sounds good to me. And before any money is sent, he's going to ask for the emails of a couple of people who stayed with them in the past.</p>

<p>Also, there are cats and a child. My son loves both (cats especially at this point!), so I"m sure he'll be happy.</p>

<p>In the small world category, my mother lived in the Prenzlauer Berg district until she was about 8, and the building she lived in from the ages of 3-8 (when they moved to the Grunwald section) was about 10 blocks from this place. So my son's going to mention that fact about his grandmother the next time he sends these people an email. (I looked at the building at my mother's old address on google maps street view, and it definitely looks old enough to be the same one. The Prenzlauer Berg district was apparently bombed less during the war, and has more old buildings, than just about anyplace else in Berlin.)</p>

<p>And I checked, and, yes, Prenzlauer Berg is also where my grandfather had his piano store until he changed careers and became a social worker.</p>

<p>Wow, what a great experience for him. I'm hoping you can visit?</p>

<p>Yes, I'm planning to accompany him to Berlin in late July so that we can explore it together for a week or so, and then I can help him get settled where he's going to be staying.</p>

<p>(Warning in advance for a very long post!)</p>

<p>So I’m back from my 11 days in Berlin with my son, and wanted to check in and say hi to all. </p>

<p>I’ve written before about why this was going to be an emotional trip for me, and it certainly proved to be that.</p>

<p>Even after the fact, it’s still a little hard to absorb the fact that I actually went there, the city where my mother was born and grew up and lived until she left on 1 Dec. 1938 on the first Kindertransport several weeks after Kristallnacht , and where her father’s family had lived since the 1870’s. The city where nobody in my family had returned in more than 70 years, since my mother’s parents were finally able to escape in June 1941, after somehow getting a visa to Portugal; they were among the last Jews to be able to leave Berlin before the borders were closed and the mass deportations on cattle cars, to the East and murder, began a few months later. According to what my mother told me, her parents were careful never to sleep at home for some time before their departure, because the Gestapo always came at night.</p>

<p>I have no anger anymore towards individual Germans. It isn’t like I felt the only other time I visited Germany, with my mother and father, in 1972 when I was 17, when we were in Switzerland and visited Baden for a few days (where my mother’s mother’s family came from) – it was my mother’s first and only trip back to Germany after she left at the age of 15 (she died in 1975 after we were in a car accident), so that we could meet her favorite maternal uncle and aunt (who lived in Paris) for the first time since 1939. It was obviously a lot more difficult for her than it was for me to return to the country where 11 members of her immediate family were murdered along with countless more distant relatives, but it was still very hard for me, knowing what I knew, to look at anyone over 50 without wondering what they did, and how many Jews they might have killed or denounced. It was hard to visit my maternal grandmother’s ancestral village of Sulzburg (south of Freiburg), where the family had lived for hundreds of years, and where the cemetery still stands, and to see the synagogue, which was still in the ruined condition the Nazis had left it in; it had been used as a stable. (It has since been beautifully restored, and I want to visit it someday.) It was hard to hear an elderly woman lean out of a window on the Hauptstrasse and say to my mother in German, “Jews? I remember our Jews. We were good to our Jews.”</p>

<p>It was hard to see “unser Haus,” as my mother called it, in the family for more than 200 years before it was confiscated by the Nazis when my mother’s grandparents, aged 78 and 85 respectively, were deported from Sulzburg on 22 October 1940 to French concentration camps in the Pyrenees (along with all the other Jews of Baden), where my great-grandfather survived only four months in the cold winter of 1940/41 before he starved/froze/died of typhus on 13 March, 1941 (my great-grandmother survived for 3 ½ more years in the hope of seeing her children again, surviving until a few weeks after Liberation in 1944). The West German government paid minimal compensation for the house in the 1950’s, after some 11 years of litigation, as well as 600 Deutschmarks paid to my great-grandfather’s heirs as compensation for what happened to him – calculated as 150 DM per months x 4 months (Nov. 1940 – Feb. 1941), with compensation for partial months (Oct. 1940 and March 1941) denied, and compensation entirely denied for my great-grandmother because she technically survived the camps.</p>

<p>Now, though, almost 40 years later, almost all the perpetrators have thankfully died. (I promised my son in advance that I wasn’t going to push any nonagenarians into traffic, and kept that promise!) The Holocaust education in Germany, and the acknowledgement and coming to terms
with what happened – without ever asking for forgiveness, because only the victims have the right to forgive, and they can’t do so – have been very impressive. There are reminders and memorials, some of them very effective, all over Berlin, and I do feel that for the most part it isn’t just lip service. Most young Germans (more so than Austrians, in my son’s experience in both countries) do seem to comprehend what happened. </p>

<p>So Germany isn’t like countries like Latvia and Lithuania, which are literally soaked in Jewish blood – including that of my family – but have paid (at best) lip service for their own people’s often-enthusiastic participation in the Holocaust, which still appear rife with popular anti-Semitism, and where I will never set foot unless things drastically change.</p>

<p>But Germany feels different to me. And in a sense, this was kind of a pilgrimage for me, an attempt to pay my own tribute to my mother’s childhood, and the history of my family, in Berlin. Not just during the Holocaust, but before, and not just their deaths, but their lives. So in addition to all the wonderful museums we saw (and they rival those of New York, Washington, D.C., London, and Rome, to list some of the places my son and I have been) – including the Neues Museum, the Gemäledgalerie, the Pergamon, the Bode, the Berggruen, the palace at Charlottenburg, and the Jewish Museum itself, the first two of which we visited multiple times – we visited the site of the apartment building in Prenzlauer Berg (no longer standing) where my mother was born. We visited each of the four still-standing apartment buildings where my mother and/or her ancestors lived (there are some 16 more addresses where she and/or other relatives lived, where the buildings, and sometimes the streets themselves, no longer exist). The four included the address on Jablonskistr. in Prenzlauer Berg where she lived from the age of 2 until she was about 9, the address on Landsberger Allee in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg where her father lived as a small child in the 1890’s, the address on Leuschnerdamm in Kreuzberg (formerly Elisabeth Ufer; there used to be a canal in the middle of the street) where her great-grandmother lived as a widow in the 1890’s, and the address on Niersteiner Strasse in the Grunewald where she lived from about 1936 until she left, and where her parents continued to live after her departure, until 1941.</p>

<p>At each building, we took pictures of the exterior (with me and my son standing by the door), as well as the ground floor area inside when people let us in; some have been renovated, while others clearly still have things like the original doors and light fixtures and windows. The same doors my mother and her parents and sometimes grandparents and great-grandparents touched, so long ago in what was really a vanished world.) </p>

<p>We also spent most of a day in the Weissensee Cemetery, still the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, with > 115,000 people buried beginning in 1882, which the Nazis never got around to destroying (although East Germany came close to doing so in order to build a highway, and would have if not for the international protests that ensued). It was the third major Jewish cemetery in Berlin after Jews returned there in the 1670’s. (This doesn’t count the medieval cemetery in Spandau, with many still-legible 13th and 14th century Jewish tombstones later used as building materials, since discovered accidentally and now on display – the oldest date is 1245, the same date as the earliest reference to Berlin itself. So there were Jews in Berlin at least as long ago as, and probably longer than, there were Germans, given that the name “Berlin” is of Slavic derivation and the place was once a Wendish settlement. So much for Jews as an alien cancer on the German nation, etc. The Jews who settled there were probably fleeing from the mass murders of Jews in Western German towns along the Rhine during the Crusades. Of course, there were plenty of mass burnings, dismemberments, etc., in Berlin itself later on, long before the Holocaust.)</p>

<p>Weissensee is so huge and forested (there are many photos on the Internet, and the trailer for a documentary film about the cemetery at <a href="http://archive.archivauskunft%5B/url%5D"&gt;http://archive.archivauskunft&lt;/a>.... gives some idea what the place looks like) that some Jews were able to hide there for long periods during the War, sometimes inside empty graves that had been dug and were covered with stone slabs, sometimes inside crypts. </p>

<p>In addition to spending hours wandering around in general, we were able (based on research someone did for me about 15 years ago), to find the tombstones of two of my great-grandparents and four great-great-grandparents and a number of collateral ancestors, dating back to 1882, and take pictures of them. Unfortunately, the tombstone for my mother’s paternal grandparents, from 1917, which was intact 15 years ago, has since been knocked over, hopefully just from natural causes. We were told that there’s no money to fix the thousands of stones that have toppled (or been toppled), but they gave us a list of local stonemasons in case I want to hire someone to lift it up.</p>

<p>To those familiar with Jewish tradition, we left stones on each of the family gravestones we found. Including on some of the tiny stones in the children’s section, although the inscriptions were so worn that we couldn’t find the specific stone for my grandfather’s brother Leopold, who died as a baby in 1892. </p>

<p>One of the most emotionally affecting parts of the trip for me, and my son too, was the Gleis [track] 17 memorial near the Grunewald train station, which we saw when we went to the Grunewald to visit the Niersteiner Str. address nearby. See B</a> - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia... and A</a> Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust.... It’s the place from which the Jews of Berlin were deported on cattle cars, beginning in Oct. 1941, to ghettos in Poland and Latvia, to Theresienstadt, and, eventually, directly to Auschwitz. My mother’s aunt -- my grandfather’s younger sister Lucie -- and her two children, my mother’s first cousins Ruth and Adolf, one of them 18 and the other 21 at the time, were deported from Gleis 17 on 5 Sept. 1942 to Riga in Latvia, where they were murdered several days later, on approximately 8 September. We put stones on Gleis 17, too.</p>

<p>Sorry for going on so long about this, but it’s difficult to convey the meaning it all had for me. </p>

<p>My son is now settled in the room he rented for August in an apartment in Prenzlauer Berg off Schönhauser Allee – not so far from the addresses in Prenzlauer Berg where my mother was born and spent the first nine years or so of her life – so he can do the art history research for his B.A. thesis for which he was awarded a summer travel grant. I met the woman he’s renting from, along with her 7-year old son; she seems quite nice, and the place is conveniently located to stores, and, on the subway, to the libraries where he’ll be spending most of his time. (I say this despite the sign in the bathroom saying that the toilet may only be used sitting down, together with a sign showing a little boy peeing standing up with a big red slash through it! My son was pretty annoyed, and I agreed with him that as long as he’s careful to keep everything clean – which I assume is the motive for the prohibition; I don’t think it’s part of an effort to “feminize the males of Germany”! – it’s really nobody’s business how he pees as a paying tenant, even if it’s just a room in somebody else’s apartment.) </p>

<p>It was slightly awkward when my son and I arrived and met the landlady that she pointed to me and said to my son, “this is your mama, yes?” Since, of course, I’m not exactly that. But my son said yes, since he doesn’t want to out me, and there’s no reason at all to get into that. If he ever gets to be friends with her, he’s free to explain the situation to her at that point.</p>

<p>But the strangest thing when we met her was that I slowly realized that despite our very recognizably Jewish surname – obviously not so much to the average non-Jewish person in Berlin, at least for the last 70 years or so – she had no idea at first that we were Jewish. Because when I explained to her that my mother was born in Prenzlauer Berg not far from where we stood, and lived in the neighborhood until she and her parents moved to the Grunewald district when she was 12 or 13, her first question was, “does she still live there in the Grunewald?” Ah, no. I explained that she left after Kristallnacht on the Kindertransport, and I later mentioned visiting Weissensee, so I think she eventually got the picture. As it turns out, in another small world concidence, my son tells me that she comes from Freiburg in Baden originally, and is quite familiar with Sulzburg, where, as I mentioned, my mother’s mother’s family came from.</p>

<p>I’m amazed how conversant my son has become in German despite studying it for less than a year; the term he spent in Vienna last fall helped a lot, obviously. I don’t know what I would have done without him, since I speak it not at all, really. I think living with a German family will be great for him. There isn’t much reason for him to speak English at all for the next month.</p>

<p>Oops -- I mistyped "Gem</p>

<p>Donna, welcome back. And thank you--incredible post.</p>

<p>Wow, Donna -- incredible post. Hopefully you've documented all of this along with your photographs for your son and for your extended family members.</p>

<p>I do have a really dumb question, though. I understand that your son has a mother (your ex) who physically carried / bore him, but now that your true gender identity as a female is in place, wouldn't you also consider yourself his mother rather than his father? Feel free to tell me to MYOB if you prefer, just curious.</p>

<p>Your writings of your family's story are poignant and beautiful. I hope you are writing a family history for your son. I'm sure he- and others in the future- would treasure it. I have an elderly aunt, a Christian, who was born and raised in Germany and lived there thru the War years. She swears they (the average person) did not know the Holocaust was happening. I believe she sincerely believes that to be the truth. But yet I wonder- did some of them really not know? Or did they not want to know? Those are rhetorical questions with no answers. But I think as long as we talk, and ask the hard questions, and keep the history alive, the world we be a better place. Please come back and tell us more as your son's studies in Berlin continue!</p>

<p>I loved reading your post, Donna. Thank you for sharing.</p>