After her mother’s death, Gabrielle Robinson found diaries her grandfather had kept while serving as doctor in Berlin 1945—only to discover that her beloved Api had been a Nazi. Api’s Berlin Diaries offers a first hand and personal perspective on the far reaching aftershocks of the Third Reich and the author’s own inconvenient past. Moving and provocative, Robinson’s award winning memoir shows her grandfather’s work as doctor in the devastated Berlin of 1945. But his diary also reveals that her beloved Api had been a member of the Nazi party. Confronting her family’s past, she reflects on German guilt as well as all our political responsibility. Her memoir also is a tribute to Api with who gave her the first stable home. Readers come away with compassion for Api’s struggles and a renewed awareness of our common humanity. Perhaps it’s a sign of having found a home at last that Gabrielle has won a number of local and statewide awards for her writing and community engagement. The lingering questions her story raises: Can it happen now? What would we do if it did — how could we demonstrate resistance? What about the disheartening events of our own pasts? You’ll hear it here with Gabrielle Robinson on Dropping In.
Born in Berlin, Gabrielle grew up in Germany and Austria. After a PhD from the University of London, she taught Literature and Drama at US universities and abroad. She is now Professor Emerita, at home in South Bend, Indiana. Gabrielle has published eight books and dozens of articles on history, literature, and popular culture. Gabrielle tells stories about people that reveal their personal situation within its historical context. One reason for her fascination with the intersection of the personal and historical stems from her own experience. Born in Berlin in 1942, her father’s fighter plane was shot down in 1943. After her family was bombed out twice, they fled Berlin in 1945 and became refugees in a North German village. This was the beginning of a string of migrations, from a village in Northern Germany to an Ursuline boarding school in Vienna, another on the Baltic Sea, then several years in Darmstadt where she earned a Baccalaurate. In 1962 she moved to Urbana, Illinois with her mother and stepfather. After a 1964 BA, she won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and got an MA at Columbia University in 1965. She then she moved to London with her Scottish husband and earned a PhD from the University of London in 1968. Gabrielle taught at the University of Illinois, where her only son was born, at Indiana University South Bend, and abroad. Gabrielle now is settled in South Bend, Indiana with her husband Mike, a sociologist turned sustainable neighborhood developerLeave a comment for radio show guests
What’s the story behind the story? We’ll find out on Dropping In. Our guests are today’s original thinkers. Conversations that spark new ways of seeing what’s going on. We bring it all to the table. Diverse perspectives, controversy, loving and singular voices. Magically stories reveal the common threads that link us. Experience the joys, the fist pumps, the detours and the hard-won truths of those who blaze the trail so that we might do the same and now here’s your host Diane Dewey.
Diane: Welcome to Dropping In everyone. It’s Halloween weekend, a spooky time enough. Now we’ll look into the ghosts of our pasts, ghosts that speak to us of our own shared humanity. Wherever our ancestors came from and how we cope with their choices. We try to understand their times and here to talk about it is Gabrielle Robinson author of Api’s Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather’s Nazi Past. Welcome Gabrielle. Great to have you with us.
Gabrielle: Thank you Diane. I’ve been looking forward to this.
Diane: I’m going to give listeners a little bit of background on your book which is a sweeping look at the history and various viewpoints explaining the history. It leaves the reader the ability to draw their own conclusions. After your mother’s death Gabrielle Robinson found diaries that her grandfather had kept while serving as a doctor in Berlin 1945 only to discover that her beloved Api had been a Nazi. Api’s Berlin Diaries offers a first-hand and personal perspective on the far-reaching aftershocks of the Third Reich and the author’s own inconvenient past.
It was published by She Writes Press. Congratulations Gabrielle that you were able to write this book and break a silence on your own past. It’s actually your grandfather’s past. I wonder if you would just in that very brief paragraph only to discover that you’re beloved Api had been a Nazi. Okay let’s tease this out because I think there’s a lot to be said for understanding that there were many different kinds of roles. There were people who actually participated. There were people who actually were inflammatory. There were people who actually carried things out. I wonder if you just give listeners an idea of what your grandfather Api was doing during the Second World War.
Gabrielle: I mean your introduction really shows the kind of two cornerstones of my book. One he’s serving as doctor in Berlin in 1945 and what that was like. I’m sure we’ll get to some of those details as well but the other one was his membership in the Nazi Party which had never been mentioned in my family. In Germany all together at that time there was in the 50s when I grew up, there was a complete silence about the Nazi past. Believe it or not in the Darmstadt where I got a terrific education our history classes ended with the end of World War One as if nothing had happened after that.
There was the silence and the silence was also in my family. It came as a complete shock to me when I found the diaries which in themselves were hidden. I found them only after my mother’s death and kept seeing these two letters P and G. At first I was so overwhelmed by what I read about the conditions in Berlin, the constant bombing, the ruins everywhere, the fires. The little they could do for the wounded and dying in the medical cellars and all these details but I didn’t pay enough attention to it but suddenly at one point it hit me. Oh god PG means protagonist, a member of the party. That’s what stopped me in my tracks at first. I did not go on with the telling the story of the diaries as I had intended at first but I did what my mother did. I hid them again and I didn’t tell anyone not even my husband.
What got me to write the two things. One, I started to read about the Nazi period which I’d never done before. My field is I’m an English professor but my field is more on drama. That’s what my bookshelves were lined with but now I started to read about that time. Historians kept saying these kind of personal documents are important because history is not just made or not even mainly probably made by the leaders, the big people but it’s also the ordinary citizens. I was beginning to think about doing it but what pushed me to write was Edward Balls’ Slaves in the Family. I was working on a book on African-American housing segregation at the time. When I read the introduction to that book where he says when he talked to his family about writing the slaves his grandfather had kept they were going at him as strongly as they could saying you’re going to dig up our grandfather and hang him. You cannot do this. You can’t expose our family like that.
He, like me stopped at first but then he thought as he recorded in that intro there that no, he may not be responsible for what his grandfather did but he is accountable. That was as if he was speaking to me. We are accountable for our past. I am accountable for the silence that had reigned in the past that I sort of evaded all my life.
Diane: Well I think okay, what happened to me when I was reading because I think this is an excellent point that you’re making. Let’s define accountability. I looked it up. Accountability, okay being accountable of a person organization or institution required or expected to justify actions or decisions. Responsible parents could be held accountable for their children’s actions. If we’re to be accountable for previous generations we need to break it down. What you’ve done I think by writing the book is bringing it to light. You’ve accepted I think by virtue of writing the book your own accountability. I mean do you feel that way? Do you feel that you kind of came out of the closet by writing the book?
Gabrielle: Yes, in a certain way because my grandfather was really the one who had given me the happiest years of my childhood and my only stable home. I did not want to expose him but I felt we need to talk about this, to talk about the limits of accountability but also that there is a political responsibility for all of us. One quote that kept haunting me on this was Martin Luther King, I think a letter from Birmingham Jail where he says something. I’m paraphrasing wildly here but that we don’t only have to repent the vicious actions of the bad people but the terrible silence of the good people. He sees accountability even for keeping silent if something horrendous is done in your country’s name.
Diane: I want to also talk about again Api. Here he is. He is in Berlin and he’s an ophthalmologist. His role was as the doctor. He did not participate in party activities. He did not necessarily and he certainly maintained a practice, a medical practice that included treating Jewish people. He did not discriminate against them. I just want to read a tiny passage from Api about the period of 1945 Berlin which many of us don’t understand at all being totally. It was occupied by the Russians, the Americans, the British and the French. These various sectors were basically one more hostile than the other particularly the Soviet, the Russian and the Americans were quite antagonistic but I’m going to read your words. I think it comes out of Api’s diary.
“Amidst the tortured, tired, starved and fearful faces of almost everyone. One sees groups laden with parcels dressed in tatters, deathly exhausted, not daring to raise their eyes above the ground, devoid of any hope because they recognize that even with the best of will no one can help them in any way.” I mean it’s a level of desperation that we have not thankfully experienced. I want to just ask you in terms of telling these individuals stories it reveals how individual circumstances are that it varies so much from person to person. This is not to defend Api either but perhaps in reply to Martin Luther King I want to ask you because you are a historian and you’ve written magnificently about this period. Do you think that standing by and the incrimination of silence is better understood now because of the Holocaust?
Gabrielle: I am not sure because of the situation at the time. I think maybe my book can in that way help that first of all readers might ask themselves well what would I have done in a situation like this when even listening to the BBC could bring the death sentence. There were the spies everywhere, the denouncers. Many of them not even party members but who just worked for the Nazis in a fervent and devoted way.
I kept certainly asking myself that what would I have done in that situation. One likes to think one would have been brave enough to stand up against the Nazis and Hitler and what they were doing but I think I would have done what my grandfather has done that is concentrate on his family and his practice and surviving and keeping silent. It’s often called there was sort of a post-war term for that in Germany they called it inner emigration that you sort of emigrated from the present and just kept your head down. I think probably many of us would have acted that way. I would think I would have and that certainly gave me pause too with what Martin Luther King says.
Also the thing why I could not assess a definitive measure of guilt so to speak on my grandfather is because I did not know what he precisely did between 1933 and 1945 in terms of small acts of cowardice or small acts of bravery and courage. Things I sort of asked myself was say I’m seeing a demonstration in the streets as I’m walking. Everybody is raising their hands in the Hitler salute would I’ve just gone by, kept my hand down or would I have been afraid that would expose me to the Gestapo, to the secret police and get me imprisoned and so on. Would I have given the Hitler salute? I mean these sort of small everyday things.
I do not know those. Those only he can know himself what he did and what he didn’t do. He keeps saying in his diary the times that he addresses that which aren’t that many that he never did anything to hurt anyone. That none of his what he achieved or so had come at the cost of someone else. I took that as sort of a thing that he did not do anything to hurt Jewish colleagues. In fact I have a letter from a Jewish colleague who had gone to somewhere in Latin America and to thank my grandfather but he wasn’t specific but he said he’s one of the few people he’s still writing to. What did he do? How did he navigate that situation? I do not know.
Diane: Well this soul-searching that you did, this very honest soul-searching Gabrielle is reflected in this book and also the breadth of your intellect by seeking out all of these different points of view by writers of history of the period. I really think that this idea of guilt and shame and taking on this burden, the shame aspect is helplessness is a big component. When you do feel helpless because your neighbors are being carted off, because the Gestapo realized that they were listening to the BBC at night or they were not saluting.
We really have to examine I think also human nature. I think this idea of what you touched on judgment. Judgment is the ultimate conceit because it cannot be proven. We don’t know what we would have done in similar circumstances and it is human nature to want to survive, to one to protect your family. I think about of course we think about Schindler. We think about people who had activism on their part but those acts it can’t necessarily be blamed for ordinary citizens to not be able to jeopardize the safety of themselves and their family. I think it opens us up in a way to compassion that I didn’t expect to feel but that you actually did bring out in in the book.
This idea of shame. Shame for one’s country runs deep. You were obviously born in Germany. You went to Gymnasium. Your mother was working. She was a single parent because your father was shot down early. I mean you were an infant. You were with Api and Nusi, his wife. They were basically your family, your active, daily family. I wondered about this idea of shame. You sort of dropped, you dropped that sort of hint that Germans do feel shame. You felt ashamed once you had come to America about being even German.
Gabrielle: Yes, very much so.
Diane: How do you dissect that in retrospect and with the knowledge that you gained by writing this book. Has it changed?
Gabrielle: I mean you really bring up very good and crucial point at the heart of this. Yes, I think I’m typical for my generation to feel ashamed of being German but even now I think for many people when Germany comes up everybody thinks of Hitler and the Holocaust. We keep having parallels between Hitler and uh people here and so on. It’s just still very much present in that way. Germany is sort of identified with that but the other point you make is really I would hope is at the heart of my book and many reviewers have actually said that they never expected to feel compassion for a Nazi or a member of the party.
I think this compassion and empathy is would I would really like it to be one of the takeaways that to see first of all the profound impact history has made on my grandfather’s life. He served in two world wars. He lost his only son, his home and his livelihood. The writer Stephan Wright calls it the volcanic eruptions of the 20th century. He lived through them all. To have some compassion and empathy for someone no matter how different he or she is from us and to see that there is really more that binds us together as humans than separates us. I would love that to be one of the takeaways.
The other one would be maybe for people to reflect the power of history on their own life because all our lives intersect with history and are very much influenced by it. To reflect on what role the past plays in our lives or that the lives of our family. I would like people to think about that as well.
Diane: It’s tremendously challenging material. I do think that it invites us to go into our darkest corners and ask very honest questions about our individual responsibilities and our individual sense of powerlessness at times when governments are enacting policies that fly in the face of our human values. We are going to take a commercial break now but when we come back we’ll continue this penetrating conversation with Gabrielle Robinson author of Api’s Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather’s Nazi Past. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back on Dropping In.
Become our friend on Facebook. Post your thoughts about our shows and network on our timeline. Visit facebook.com/VoiceAmerica.
She Writes Press is an independent publishing company founded for women writers everywhere. Together with sister company Spark Press serving men and women, it is both mission driven and community oriented. The aim is to serve writers who wish to maintain greater ownership and control of their projects while getting the highest quality editorial help possible, traditional distribution and an in-house marketing and publicity team. In 2019 She Writes Press was named Indie Publisher of the Year. You can find out more on shewritespress.com
Stimulating talk, it gets those synapses in the brains firing really fast all the time. The number one internet talk station where your opinion counts voiceamerica.com
You are listening to Dropping In with Diane Dewey. We’d love to hear from you if you have a question or comment about the show. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s the letter email@example.com. Now back to Dropping In.
Diane: Welcome back everyone. We’re privileged this morning to be talking with Gabrielle Robinson author of Api’s Berlin Diaries. I will give a little background about Gabrielle. Gabrielle tells stories about people that reveal their personal situation within its historical context. One reason for her fascination with the intersection of personal and historical stems from her own experience. Born in Berlin in 1942, her father’s fighter plane was shot down in 1943. After her family was bombed out twice they fled berlin in 1945 but not Api, the grandfather and became refugees in a north German village. This was the beginning of a string of migrations from a village in northern Germany to an Ursuline boarding school in Vienna, another on the Baltic Sea and then several years in Darmstadt where she earned the baccalaureate.
In 1962 Gabrielle moved to Urbana, Illinois with her mother and stepfather. In 1964 won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and got an MA at Columbia University. She then moved to London with her Scottish husband and earned a PhD from the University of London in 1968. She’s taught at the University of Illinois. This is literature, English literature. Your son was born there in South Bend, Indiana. Now you’re settled in South Bend Gabrielle with your husband Mike, a sociologist and your cat Max and your son Benedict is an English professor at SUNY Stony Brook.
You say that perhaps it’s a sign of having found a home that you’ve won a number of local and statewide awards for your writing and community engagement. You’ve written actually seven other books. I start with the idea of telling stories that you say at the very beginning of your intro that you tell stories that reveal their personal situation within a historical context. There are many. You make it your business to encourage others to tell their stories, finding it to be therapeutic and expansive. How best would someone contact you if they wanted to exchange information with you or to enable people to tell their own stories?
Gabrielle: Oh I’m so glad you’re bringing this up because this is really one of my passions. Maybe the old teacher in me or just seeing how important it is for people to come to terms and understand their own past and even the very fact of writing, starting to write. No matter whether you’re writing to write a book for publication or just a little thing for your children and grandchildren. The very process of writing will bring up memories and will bring up things that you hadn’t thought about.
Just a quick example. I’m probably getting away from things here. When I was writing about my grandfather’s death I first wrote about all the typical things how I would never see him again and so on. Just reflecting on it from my own self of what it was like but it wasn’t anything really genuine. It was a little clichéd. As I was writing more of this suddenly what came to me was that even he died in the night. The next morning what I saw were his gloves lying at the bottom of the stairs with the fingers still bent from his hand. He had thrown them away quickly because he wanted to reach his bed before collapsing.
Diane: The surgical gloves.
Gabrielle: The physical gloves. The gloves with the bent fingers just became, they stayed there for days. Nobody took them away became a sort of image of his death that I dreamt about. That was very much part of me. I mean that was sort of what his death meant to me but I had forgotten that for 50 years. It was the process of writing that brought that memory back to life but there would be others too. It is really important. Also if you don’t get to it sooner rather than later all the people who could tell you about the past your grandparents or uncles and aunts may no longer be with us. That part of life would so totally disappear.
As for contacting me either through my website or through my email. Are you going to? Do you want me to just spell it out?
Diane: Yes, please.
Gabrielle: My name is Gabrielle Robinson so it’s G-R-O-B-I-N-S-O but there’s no N in it. It’s firstname.lastname@example.org. Please contact me because I’m talking either on the phone or via email to people all across the country about this, about how to get started. What are the challenges? What are the rewards? How do you get stuck? What’s the role of research because research is important? You need to do some extra research in order to fill in details and fill in background but you mustn’t get bogged down by research. I have known so many people who did research, research and then had huge numbers of notes and references but it was overwhelming that that didn’t help. Always do writing and research together. Write and do some research and incorporate it. Eventually you will know what to leave out and what is useful background material.
Diane: Well I have to say I think you would be a great guide to that because this book interweaves the personal and historic in a really beautiful way. I want to just also touch on something that you mentioned about the US and people in this country. I had come across another example of what I think we’re talking about. That is the individual within their historic context how we feel powerless at times too. I think we can resonate with this from our recent history. Even the history of the Afghanistan exodus and many other situations where we feel entirely helpless.
One perfect I think example is racism. There’s a book also by Peggy Wallace Kennedy about her father who was George Wallace, one of the most ardent advocates of segregation and basically proponents of racism in our history. He was governor of Alabama. The murders of African Americans occurred in Selma, Alabama. She wrote a book called The Broken Road: A Daughter’s Journey to Reconciliation. She chooses to actively make amends not just by writing her book about how it completely threw their family apart because she grew up with an entirely different view of humanity, joined forces with a lot of civil liberties leaders including the Kings. Actually walked across that bridge with advocates of African-American rights, civil rights.
I felt that in some ways writing the book is a way of crossing that divide between individual helplessness and governmental policies that you can make a story and make a statement by introducing us to the lives of people that you’re very close to and trying to understand them. Do you think that your overall themes resonate with the US history of repression in the past as well?
Gabrielle: Thank you. I have made a note of The Broken Road. I did not know that book but I will certainly read it because also the reconciliation aspect not just to condemn people. That’s one important thing about all this is that we don’t just want to condemn people who think differently and believe things that we think make no sense because they also have their own history where they are coming from. We need to understand them rather than to condemn them. I think reconciliation is important here.
Yes and I’m not sure whether that would fit there but says Cass Sunstein I think is his name. He is a Harvard professor. He has written a book or edited the book which was called Can It Happen Here? Clearly a reference to Hitler’s takeover and what he did and so on. I think the way to avoid this and the way maybe to reconciliation is to honestly remember the past. Try to get to as much as we can to what actually happened not in order to blame and I think you’re so right about blame is not getting us anywhere. It just aggravates the situation. Not in order to blame but in order to understand. Even to have what we talked about in the previous section in order to have empathy and understanding and compassion for others but we do need to face the past honestly.
Diane: Yes and with a clear eye. I think that the fact that you wrote this book with such a balance of research, factual understanding because taking our own prejudices and our own biases which are built on a fantasy of what we think we would do which there’s no substantiation for. It’s a judgment that we inflict on the context and times of other people that we cannot hope to understand. I think Hannah Arendt with the writer that you delved into extensively as well. Understanding another person’s life, the physical impossibility of it, their psychic life.
I think it’s interesting you also brought, Joachim Fest wrote a memoir about his father. Joachim Fest is a fervent anti-Nazi and then talking about the Nazi persecution of the Jews. He writes, “I did not want to talk about it then and I don’t want to talk about it now. It reminds me that there was absolutely nothing I could do with my knowledge. Not even talk about it.” this strikes me as a powerlessness that you have crossed the threshold over this powerlessness. You have confronted this past. I wonder how it makes you feel. Has it been healing? Does it make you feel more whole? How is it for you and how has it been for responders, readers of your book?
Diane: I have been very of course delighted but also humbled by the responses of how people understood the situation better and did not just see the stereotype of Germany aka Hitler aka Holocaust being just all the same and everyone being a Nazi and what that meant. This complete black and white picture. I think that that has been really a very much a positive outcome that I had not expected and I’m very grateful for because I still feel that there is in some ways we all act politically no matter if even if we don’t do anything. It’s a political act in a way. To even be aware of that for all of us is I think a good thing.
In terms of that can it happen here situation there clearly are a lot of parallels where we are a bit endangered these days but I think the major difference is and one which maybe has not been brought out quite enough is that the Weimar Republic to which then Hitler has just shoved away with the hand was Germany’s first democracy. They never had a democracy before. Bismarck united the country in the 19th century because it was just little fiefdoms before where every duke or noble person who owned that part had total say over everything. There was no other law and order and so on but what the leader of each state or each little area had to say.
He united Germany which was a good thing and he brought in a parliament but he did not believe in parliament or democracy. He believed in strong people ruling under Prussian leadership for Germany so there was no real democracy there. Weimar was the real first attempt to have a democratic system and they just could not assert themselves. A little example is they reinstituted the flag of the revolutionaries of 1848 who wanted united Germany and law and order and a democratic system. The black, red and gold. That is still the flag of Germany now.
That was the Weimar flag but you don’t see it anywhere. What you see in Germany at that time is either still the black and white flag of the emperor who had long gone in 1919 or the Nazi flag. Those were the perspectives from the Weimar Republic. They kept holding elections and they were all inclusive. They just couldn’t do anything. There were assassinations and there was turmoil. There was violence. There was of course that huge inflation. Germany was in really bad shape at the time. There had been that humiliating peace treaty after World War One that Germany lost a third of its territory, had to pay huge reparations and had to buy the whole guilt of the war, the First World War. Many Germans just rebelled against that. Hitler spoke to that too that he wanted to restore national pride. He was the only one who could do that and so on.
Diane: That’s the slippery slope.
Gabrielle: There’s a huge difference between that and where we are today but we do have a centuries-old democracy and a legal system. I’m taking reassurance from that.
Diane: I would love to do that completely wholeheartedly. I must recall that in Charlottesville there was a Nazi flag. I do want to mention we’re going to take a break now. It’s very compelling conversation with Gabrielle Robinson. I do want to mention when you’re talking about the unassuming way that Hitler assumed power. He was also condoned by none other than Winston Churchill, world leaders around the world were very supportive of Hitler not knowing his hidden agenda. There was very little known about him. Then suddenly as Api documents in his diary people started disappearing. He replaced important people. No one knew what was going on. Yes, you can try to find out. You can do so at your own peril. You can be killed. Your family can be killed. These are very slippery slopes.
We’ll continue the very subtle and nuanced conversation with Gabrielle Robinson when we come back after a commercial break. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back on Dropping In.
Voice America is on your favorite smart speaker. If you have Alexa or Google Home go ahead and give us a try. Hey Alexa play Finding Your Frequency Podcast on TuneIn.
Books Forward exemplifies excellence in book marketing and promotion representing New York Times bestsellers, national award winning books and books that catch fire on social media and in the digital realm. Books Forward creates ambitious campaigns with unlimited possibilities for sparking buds while creatively cutting through the noise. Your book deserves to launch with experts who have set the bar in the industry. To learn more visit booksforward.com or send us an email at email@example.com, a JKS communications company.
Streaming live, the leader in internet talk radio voiceamerica.com.
You are listening to Dropping In with Diane Dewey. We’d love to hear from you if you have a question or comment about the show. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s the letter email@example.com. Now back to Dropping In.
Diane: Welcome back everyone. We are here with Gabrielle Robinson who’s written a memoir ostensibly but it’s also his sweeping historical survey of the history of Germany basically between the wars as represented by her grandfather Api, Api’s Berlin Diaries. We were talking before the break a little bit about the perversion of what started out as kind of solid ideals for Germany. I wondered if you’d give us a flavor for the book Api’s Berlin Diaries Gabrielle by reading a certain passage from it whichever one you choose.
Gabrielle: Thank you. Yes, my grandfather was a very good writer and he wrote stories but mainly poems all his life for every major event in our family New Year’s, Christmas, birthdays. He had wrote a poem that I would recite and that was sort of our secret before the event. I learned it by heart that nobody else knew it. I want to read just one passage that gives a bit of the flavor of what it was like in berlin in 1945. This is before the soviets came in just during the day and night bombing but Berlin was just about to fall.
“He says, towards evening the sky to the east is a ghastly sea of smoke. I creep out at 10 o’clock at night to the clinic under whistling grenades and bombs, a wilderness of fire and dust behind it although already high in the sky the blood red moon.” he will also give us scenes that sort of haunting scenes of as he’s walking seeing a little group of people cutting up a dead horse even while the bombs were falling. They have no way of cooking the meat and he answers with God have pity.
Diane: Let’s talk about the spiritual aspect. Let’s talk about the role of religion. I want to just sort of backslash art, beauty, the role of writing. What is the role of these let’s say more ethereal concepts in terms of helping us cope with such disastrous calamity? Api is also writing. He’s also documenting and he’s also taking himself like both into the moment and then out of the moment with beautiful scenes from nature. What was the role of spirituality and God in terms of having Api cope and actually even endure what he endured in Berlin?
Gabrielle: Thank you for asking that question. Certainly nature was hugely important. There really was no more nature left. He was right in the center of Berlin but there were only ruins. All the trees were burnt sticks and there was just no nature but what there still was were the clouds and the birds. Every free moment that he had he would sit by his window and look at the clouds and describe what the sky looked like. If he saw some birds who had also become homeless describe their flight. That was one of the real consolations that he had. One of the major ones.
The other one was what you also alluded to was his faith. He was a very religious. He was brought up a protestant. He was a very religious person. In fact a prayer sort of begins and ends each entry. A prayer largely that he hoped that we had survived because after we left in February of 45 he had no more contact. Berlin was completely cut off. There was no contact with us. He couldn’t even be sure that we were still alive and we of course didn’t know whether he had survived. This diaries is in the form of letters to us. Both his faith and just the act of writing, it also says something about the importance of writing helped him through this because no matter how exhausted he was at the end of the day he would always sit down, end the day with writing in his diary.
Diane: It kept him sane at a certain, really there were so many moments when he was untethered due to walking through the streets and seeing exactly what you just read, that description. Mind you this is only 1945. This is not even 100 years ago. It is something that the poetry and the kind of way that you cope not just the internal immigration which I thought was a fascinating concept. The way that sometimes tipping it even further numb ourselves or escape in a kind of in a passive, apathetic way. I don’t get that he felt apathy. In fact he was moved deeply by what he saw and to almost to the verge of having a mental collapse. He was a sensitive soul. Maybe the writing in that way also kept his hopes alive that you were alive but also gave him as you say a kind of an outlet eventually.
Before we leave that point there isn’t also a passage. I’ll tell you the one that’s sang for me. You were with Api and you were eventually reunited. Thank goodness after this absolutely apocalyptic experience of Berlin. API did make his way back to you. You had a scene in the book that I thought was the epitome of a metaphor where you make a kite with your grandfather. He’s been a very close educator with you. He takes you to cultural events. He takes you to opera. He always gives you a choice whether you’d rather work or play. Both were honored as activities.
Gabrielle: I never made those choice. He would have preferred to do work first and play second but he went along with it. We played.
Diane: Yes which I think is great I mean it does tell you also the psyche, it needs, we need that. The metaphor of flying this kite together tell us about it. You go out. You’re flying this kite. Next thing you know Api gets distracted and he falls into a ditch but the kite is still flying very, very high. That moment it was so powerful to me that he in your eyes maybe through the diaries. Maybe he did fall in a certain way fall from grace in your eyes but what you created together still flew. It was still strong. I wondered if that resonated with you in that way.
Gabrielle: I am so delighted. I don’t think anybody has ever pointed out the scene and yet it is very close to my heart. We had just finished. We would every fall. We would make a kite. He would be very careful in that making the balance of the crossbows. I would do the tail because with us in Germany a kite is Drache which means a dragon. It had a dragon’s tail. We had just finished. It was a windy day and we took it outside. There were sort of meadows outside in that little German village. He reigned with it because I was too small I could not hold on to it. It just throwed up and then a patient of his walk by. He greeted her and didn’t look where he was going and the medals in this ever waterlogged part of northern Germany. The meadows were intersected by lots of little ditches. He fell into one of these ditches.
I suddenly didn’t see him anymore. I hadn’t seen how he had fallen but I ran to the spot. I jumped in with him. We both were laughing. He was laughing. The kite was flying high above us. It was just a wonderful moment for me. It’s really one of the sort of, one of the best moments of that childhood. It’s kind of encapsulated in that. I’m just delighted you pointed that out.
Diane: Well I sensed it from your beautiful description.
Gabrielle: It shows his joy in things. When we did play he believed in doing things wholeheartedly whether it’s work or play. He did play wholeheartedly too.
Diane: I think he came within a hair’s breath of losing his mind several times. The diaries document that but eventually when it came to review the party’s status, the participant’s status, your Api was exonerated because he did continue to treat Jews. There was nothing to say that he had as you say caused harm to anyone but he survived in the way that he did. We are going to have to close now. I’m very sad to see this conversation end but Api’s Berlin Diaries is the book and our guest is Gabrielle Robinson who has taken us through this very beautiful personal and historical story, memoir and really enlightening journey. Thank you so much for being with us Gabrielle.
Gabrielle: Thank you. This was an amazing interview. I’m very grateful.
Diane: Well, we’re very grateful for your candor and your courage. There is so much more in the book that you’ll want to investigate. All kinds of quotes about collective guilt and how it connects us to one another’s experience which is after all the point of all of it. We will be able to contact and follow Gabrielle Robinson through social media. Gabriellerobinson97 is the Instagram handle, Facebook Gabrielle Robinson Author and of course her website gabriellerobinson.com.
I just want to close with our flawed nature is what binds us together as in our humanity. That is worth bearing in mind as we go on. The cowardice stories that we could all tell and just hope that we are wedged open certainly by this book. I was. Thank you Gabrielle Robinson. Thank you to our engineers Matt Weidner and Aaron Keller, to our executive producer Robert Giolino and most of all to you our listeners. Remember to stay safe and find your truth. Till next week thank you for dropping in.
Thank you so much for dropping in. Please join Diane Dewey again next Friday at 8 AM Pacific Time and 11 AM Eastern Time on the Voice America Variety Channel. We’ll see you then.