This starts well before I was born: Three friends in a small Upper Silesian market town, Gleiwitz: Lothar Bolz, Rudolf Herrnstadt and my uncle Friedrich Weissenberg. All three had become members of the Social Democratic party. Worrying times: Hitler’s Nazi Party was making ever greater gains. How best to counteract them….to stop them getting into power? Should one join the fervently anti-Nazi KPD – the Communist Party of Germany? Was that the most effective way of stopping them?
Friedrich decided against it and – so far as he knew – his two friends had come to the same conclusion.
In 1933 the Nazis became the ruling party. Friedrich, then a lawyer at the Breslau lawcourts, was attacked on the court premises, by a gang of brown-shirted Nazis. They were guided by a court-messenger who pointed out Jewish lawyers and ‘lefties’ to them. Friedrich suffered some blows and fled the building. He never collected his files. He announced to his family that he was emigrating. Germany was no longer a country he wanted the live in. The family thought he was madly overreacting: All this Nazi bullying would blow over in a week or two.
Friedrich and his wife Gerda, my mother’s sister, emigrated to South Africa where he struggled to make a living as a small manufacturer of soaps and perfumes.
Not until after the end of World War II did he come back to Europe on vacation. He had, by then. discovered that his two friends Bolz and Herrnstadt had spent the missing years in the Soviet Union and had come back to Berlin in one of the first planes that brought back the Communist leadership. Friedrich realised that, back in ’30 or ’31, they must have joined the KPD but had been ordered to do it secretly. In Berlin Bolz announced himself head of a peasant party in coalition with the Communists. It was a fictitious party in a fictitious coalition.
Bolz and Friedrich exchanged news of their families and Friedrich mentioned that his nephew Peter (that’s me!) was head of the BBC’s European Services.
“Formidable adversaries of ours,” said Bolz. “Does he ever come to Berlin? If he does, tell him to come and have a cup of coffee. I like to size up my adversaries.”
And that was how I came to take the underground to East Berlin. I passed through the barrier of the Wall that divided East and West Berlin. He had told me on the phone that his house was immediately opposite a certain underground station. I emerged and looked puzzled. I was facing a complex of military barracks surrounded by a wall. I stopped a passing lady.
“Bolz? Bolz?” she wondered. “Is that the one who came with the Russians?”
“Yes,” I said, “I think he did.”
She pointed to a guardhouse in the wall around the barracks.
“Identity papers?” demanded a man of the Volkspolizei. I handed over my passport. He glanced at a clipboard. “You’re expected; sir” and pointed me on. It was, I think, the first time a “VoPo” had spoken to me so politely.
A passage led to a large villa, three stories high or, perhaps, four. A young lady greeted me: “Father is expecting you.”
A very grand villa. Bolz explained later, that back in the Kaiser’s days this had been the residence of the garrison commander. After 1945 it must have been considered well-protected lodgings for a Communist “Bonze” in hostile German lands.
A portly man of perhaps 70 greeted me and introduced his wife. She spoke German fluently but with an accent I could not place. He explained to me later she came from a German community who had settled on the Volga in an earlier century. She was a pleasant lady who served coffee and jam filled biscuits. She reminded me of my grandmother and so did her biscuits.
I complimented her: “My grandmother back in Johannesburg bakes similar biscuits. They’re good – but yours are even better.”
I had made a friend. When I left an hour-and-a-half later she gave me a bag of biscuits to take home to my family.
My hours’ conversation with her husband left me puzzled. He raged against the aggressive tactics of the Americans. They were preparing to attack the Soviet Union and East Germany.
I protested the Americans were not mad. Nobody wanted another world war.
He insisted America did have aggressive intentions. An attack on the East might happen any moment. I thought his views crazy, though later as I got to know some American generals, I was no longer quite so certain. They did talk about pre-emptive strikes.
Wiser councils prevailed, thank God.
When I got back West I was much in demand to report on my conversations. Few ventured East in those days. Frau Bolz’ biscuits were widely appreciated. Surprise, surprise, they were not poisoned!
When my uncle Friedrich died Bolz sent a letter of condolence to the widow, Gerda. She showed it to me. One phrase remains in my memory: “With Friedrich you could have gone into the deepest jungle but know that with him you were safe.” To understand this strange phrase one has to remember that these old commies had been through the Stalinist purges and waves of lesser trials and purges. To save one’s own skin many had denounced friends. Bolz probably had personal experience of this.
When, after 1945, Friedrich had first resumed contact with him in Berlin, he did, of course, ask after the third of the friends from Gleiwitz.
“Herrnstadt?” Bolz had replied “He was in serious trouble. He might have been shot. I intervened. I helped to save him.”
I have since had the chance to discuss this with Herrnstadt’s daughters. “A lie!” they said. “He did nothing to save our father.
And yet, you know, he owed his career to our father. When, after 1939, they were all in exile in the Soviet Union, Bolz had been largely forgotten. He had lapsed into obscurity…posted to some remote town in Siberia. I think he ran a library. Our father had him tracked down and brought back to Berlin where he was soon reinstalled in the party’s Politburo… Herrnstadt, however, and one other member of the Politburo, stood for a different, more liberal kind of communism. More humane. Moscow, dithered, for a while. They toyed with the idea of backing the liberal reformers. Just then, however, some riots broke out in East Germany. Moscow panicked. Liberal experiments were abandoned abruptly. Herrnstadt was banished to a small coal mining town — very polluted … very unhealthy for a man who was already suffering from TB and spitting blood. No doubt they hoped they would not need to have him shot. And indeed, he did die of ‘natural causes’ not long after.