The Berlin Shadow

Living with the Ghosts of the Kindertransport


By Jonathan Lichtenstein

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A deeply moving memoir that confronts the defining trauma of the twentieth century, and its effects on a father and son.

In 1939, Jonathan Lichtenstein's father Hans escaped Nazi-occupied Berlin as a child refugee on the Kindertransport. Almost every member of his family died after Kristallnacht, and, upon arriving in England to make his way in the world alone, Hans turned his back on his German Jewish culture.

Growing up in post-war rural Wales where the conflict was never spoken of, Jonathan and his siblings were at a loss to understand their father's relentless drive and sometimes eccentric behavior. As Hans enters old age, he and Jonathan set out to retrace his journey back to Berlin.

Written with tenderness and grace, The Berlin Shadow is a highly compelling story about time, trauma, family, and a father and son's attempt to emerge from the shadows of history.



I ring. He answers.

You want to go?


He falls silent. There’s a long gap.

The trip might help you sleep.

I doubt it.

How is it?


Your sleep?

He falls silent again.

It must be alarming.


Not being able to sleep.

I’ve never been able to sleep.

Perhaps the journey will help your nightmares.

Perhaps it will make my nightmares worse.

But you want to go?


And so I organise it — the trip: the dates, the ferry, the tickets, the car, the route, the passports, the hotel. Later I ring again.

We’re going to do your original journey in reverse.

In reverse?

We’re going to go backwards.


We’re going to go to Berlin from here. Then we’ll come back.

But I didn’t go back.

I know that.

Mine was a one-way ticket.

He laughs.

I want to try to find where my father’s shop was.

Of course.

And my father’s grave.


And the station?

The station too.

There. It has been agreed. I will walk the pavements with him. Together we will breathe the air of the city that ripples its past through his daily life and the corners of his children’s lives, the rivulets of its history draining into us, the gutters carrying the rain and wash of its streets, its twisted papers, its yellowed stars, its broken glass, its ash, his father’s grave. The station. The shop.


For many years I had wanted to travel with my father to Berlin in order to trace the route of his escape on one of the Kindertransports. However, the fragility of our awkward and distant relationship had made the arrangement of such a journey impossible. The thought of spending days and nights together in close proximity appealed to neither of us for we both understood that such a trip could break the small amount of fondness that had only recently arisen between us. As well as this we both knew that during such a journey my father would be forced to confront a series of darknesses he had kept, for his whole life, close to his chest. And we knew too that the illumination of these darknesses might well precipitate in him an overwhelming despair — “a despair,” he had confided to me on more than one occasion, “I might never recover from.”

Nonetheless, as an old man, and after a debilitating illness that had begun to temper his fitful spirits, he agreed to make the journey in order to confront the event that had dominated his life. Though I had only recently begun to realise it, the event had come to dominate my life too — through my endless and repetitive cycles of a brooding need to be away from all people; an occasional, vivid and saturating experience of elation; a propensity for a violent and unsettling anger; and extreme productivity followed by months of a grey, undifferentiated torpor as well as a bleakness so frightening at times I did not want to remain alive.

Initially we chose the date of the return journey in order to mark the anniversary of my father’s departure from Berlin, which he maintains was six weeks before Britain declared war upon Germany and was “one of the last Kindertransports out of Berlin.” However, due to an illness that befell him that summer we settled instead on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. This was because a photograph had been found that showed his father’s shop pictured after it had been smashed and looted during this catastrophic event. My father wanted to try to find the site of this shop, “to see what’s there, if anything.” He also wanted to visit his father’s grave located in the Jewish Weißensee cemetery. He had never visited his father’s grave, not even as a child. He had been kept away from his father’s funeral and did not know that his father’s death was by suicide until many years after the war had ended.

My father could not bring himself to tell me that his father had committed suicide until my eighteenth birthday. That day he made the announcement to me while we were driving together through the Welsh hills towards Cefnllys. The news arrived from out of the blue.

Now you’re eighteen I have something to tell you.


My father committed suicide.

Did he?

I don’t want to talk about it.


Shut up.

But — 

I said shut up.

And so we carried on driving, him at the wheel, revving the engine, tyres whining, his attention on the bends of the road, the car leaning at precarious angles as he took the corners at speed, trimming each apex, bumping over cat’s eyes, all four tyres about to lose their grip, the Welsh hills surrounding us.


Cae Hyfrydd was a dark house and full of ice in winter so that in the mornings the thin glass of the windows was crazed with frost on the inside and occasionally strange noises passed through it during the night. It had high stairs, which curved, and an attic. It was our new semidetached house on Pentrosfa, the unmade road that rose steeply from Wellington Avenue. Pentrosfa was a road that was different from any I had experienced before; bumpy and cratered and wide. It exuded space and looking out from the window of our front room the other side of the road seemed far away. When the Evanses’ son wheeled out his metallic green BSA motorbike from his parents’ garage on the opposite side of the road and, hurling his weight onto the silver lever at its side, kick-started it into life, it was as though he had emerged from an exotic land, a world of detached bungalows with lawns and trimmed hedges, of white gates, of front doors with stained glass; an architecture of permanence and reliability.

Pentrosfa was an unmade road, a bastard road of cantankerous humps and angry stones. It was as though it had been built as an act of malice, impeding progress rather than advancing it. My father’s solution to its array of broken surfaces was simple. Every morning he placed ashes and clinker, the waste from our coal-burning range, into its melancholy crevices. It was a ritual. First he would sweep up the cockroaches that ran around our black slate kitchen floor onto a steel shovel. Then he would open the top door of our coal-fired range and throw them into its dark-red interior. Before he threw them the cockroaches would desperately but noiselessly try to scrabble up the shovel’s cold steel shaft, their mute, keratin legs flailing, entangled with each other, crossed and interwoven and jerking and frantic as they slipped back down the shovel’s shaft and then further, over its scoop, as they attempted to escape the glowing flames behind them. But their struggles were futile. Although one or two dropped off the shovel and raced away, most entered hell in reverse.

Having burnt them my father would throw some more coal from the coal scuttle into the fire, close its door and then remove the stove’s tinder box. This was full of the ashes of cockroaches and the burnt coal that had kept the stove alight overnight. He would carry these ashes into the road dressed only in a towel wrapped like a sarong around his waist. This brief outfit was mandatory, regardless of the weather, and neither sun nor rain, nor even thick snow, deterred him. Often as he began to fill the hole a gust of wind would whip up so that a cloud of fine ash with its swirling flecks of pearl would momentarily envelop him as he placed the ashes into the crevices, bent and concentrated, and smoothed them with his hands. Then, for a split second, he resembled a crouching apparition, the ashes of cockroaches and coal enveloping him and brushing his skin and entering his lungs and twisting past the fine dark hairs that grew in patterns on his chest.

During times of snow he was brazen, his towel flapping around his waist, his feet shoeless. From our back door his trail of footprints led out through the unmarked white, each print with its elongated second toe outlined, so that for a while his footprints inscribed the land, clearly delineated, their route marking the topography, present alongside the crisscross prints that revealed the journeys of blackbirds and thrushes and sparrows, all outlined perfectly until the gently cascading snow covered them.

The road took many years to fill and my father’s journey naturally extended as he smoothed it. He had started at our back door and after a couple of years had successfully evened out the small road behind our house. Then he had to move further afield and so progressed into the centre of Pentrosfa where, particle by particle, he rebuilt it, filling holes, levelling bumps and crevices, easing journeys. The reparation of ashes. He was good to the road and the road, by accepting his ministrations, in turn was good to him.


I collect him from his house in Llandrindod with its rivers Ithon and nearby Wye, its surrounding hills and rocks, its hamlets Llandegley, Llanyre, Pen-y-Bont and Disserth, where the river pools darkly opposite the church of St. Cewydd’s.

He’s packed and waiting. He’s sitting on his large crimson suitcase in the kitchen wearing an ironed pale-grey checked shirt and olive-green moleskin trousers with ironed creases. My mother, Beryl, greets me and reads out a list of his pills, showing me various packets as she does so.

“These are for his eyes.”


“These are for his bowels.”


“These are for his blood pressure.”


“The pills for his eyes are important. If he doesn’t take them his retinas could detach.”


“So don’t forget.”

I won’t.

“I don’t want his retinas to detach.”

It’s not something I want either.

“You won’t forget, will you? It’s just…”


“I know what you’re like.”

My father drums the circular kitchen table with his fingers. My sister Jane’s there. She leans towards me. She says:

“I tried to do his medical insurance but they wouldn’t do it.”

He’s not insured?

“His belongings are insured.”

You’ve insured his belongings?

“He’s so old it was going to cost a fortune; they didn’t want to do it.”

But what if something goes wrong? What if it’s all too much for him?

“It’ll be fine.”

Fine? What if I lose the pills?

“You’ll manage.”

What if he dies?

“You’ll just have to drive him home.”

I won’t be able to get through customs if he dies.

“I’m sure you’ll think of something.”

Jane and my father leave the table to walk around the garden. My mother is holding one of her teacups with flowers glazed on it. She lifts it from its saucer then tilts her head at a slight angle and says:

“Sometimes your father looks…”





Does he?

“Sometimes when he falls asleep he turns slightly blue and then he can appear dead.”

Do you think he’s all right?

“Not really.”

Do you think he should be doing this trip?

“Not really.”

Why didn’t you say anything?

“He wants to go.”

You’re sure?

“He wants to see if he can find the shop as well as his father’s grave.”

My father and I leave through the dove-grey front door and walk to the car. He has no medical insurance. At times he might look dead. He drags his enormous, fully insured suitcase behind him.

“I can manage my own case, thank you very much,” he replies to my offer of help, his voice rising above the loud noise of the suitcase’s wheels as they scratch the ground.

His suitcase must have been one of those purchases where its colour in the shop looks pleasing and cheerful, but dragging it along the road and then loading it into the back of the car it looks absurdly bright and out of scale. This is the beginning of his return journey. The suitcase he should be carrying is small and brown. It should have a piece of string tied to its handle. It should have a white label attached to it. It should have a number on it written in black ink.

I walk over to a nearby hedge, pick up five stones, three small and two slightly larger, and place them in my pocket.

On the way back I’ll take the train home from London on my own, thank you very much.

Of course.

And I want to take the train from Harwich to Liverpool Street, too.

No problem.

Preferably on my own.

We get into my brother Simon’s old car. Generously I have been given it. It is a twelve-year-old bottle-green Audi estate and is, as is usually the case with my brother’s possessions, towards the top of the range. It has large comfortable seats and air-conditioning. Simon has had the engine “chipped” to increase its power. He has had special suspension installed so that it can go round corners faster, and “track in a straight line.” It is by far the nicest car I’ve ever had, this car of Simon’s, and is ideal for the drive to Berlin.

I open Google Maps on my phone. I trace the impending journey, my fingers flicking the map across the screen. First the road to Harwich where we will catch the ferry, then across the North Sea to the Hook of Holland, then the road north towards Amsterdam, then a straight line into Germany and finally due east to Berlin. I show my father the route.

Your journey in reverse.

Yes. Yes it is. My journey in reverse.

I hear his breath catch in his throat. The sound of his inner dogs. They’ve woken. They’ve scented their prey’s fragility. And they’ve waited long enough for this journey, clicking at his heels with their wingbacks, their tails and their dark coats.

There was a flower bell.


A flower bell.

A what?

A bell in the shape of a flower.


At the station.


During my early childhood my father never talked directly about his own experience of being a child, nor anything at all about his German roots. It seemed almost as though he had never been a child. He never talked about his father or his mother or his grandfathers and grandmothers. He never mentioned friends or where he played or where he lived or where he went to school, nor offered any details of any kind about his formative years. It was left to my mother to tell me one day in the kitchen of our house when I was eight years old that my father had, a few weeks after his twelfth birthday, left Berlin on his own, carrying a small suitcase. More than this she did not know herself — my father had never explained the details in full to her either. As she said, while I stood on the cold, grey slate floor in my socks, “He doesn’t like to talk about it.”

Glimmers of information about his past would emerge when an occasional relative of his who had also escaped from Germany came to stay with us in Wales, but such visits were few and fleeting, and questions I asked were always met with the phrase “Mind your own business.” Now and then, information would leak out unexpectedly at home: on one occasion he remembered the texture of his mother’s poppy-seed cake just as my mother served a sponge; on another he remarked on his mother’s ability to keep all her plates warm while she served dinner, as my mother struggled to serve out the food she had cooked onto cold ones. Once a large box of broken cutlery arrived at our house. It had the letter “L” inscribed upon its handles, a remnant of some family silver. It stayed in the garage, clearly agitating my father, though, as a child, I did not know why. There were other behaviours that I did not understand either — a hatred of Volkswagens and a loathing of Mercedes, so much so that if he saw either, which was an unusual event as there were hardly any on the roads in Wales at that time, he would exclaim, “Ghastly car!,” almost spitting out the words. He refused to let any of his children learn German at school, allowed no books about the Second World War into the house, made no reference to Hitler, never referred to the Holocaust and urged us on many occasions to “steer clear of crowds.”

My father’s mother, my grandmother, Ruth, survived the war. As my mother’s parents had both died by the time I was two years old Ruth was my only living grandparent, but as she lived in East Berlin and was not allowed “through the wall,” and as my father could not bear her and would only talk to her once a year on the phone during the winter, I only ever met her three times, once when I was thirteen when my father took me to visit her in East Berlin and then twice more in my twenties in Wales when she was allowed out of East Germany to visit my father. There I spent a couple of hours with her, though never alone. She remained quiet as she couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak German. At that time the questions I needed to ask her had not yet formulated themselves, meaning that I would not have been able to ask her any useful questions even if we had shared a language.

The consequence of my grandmother’s absence and my father’s silence about these matters was that, as a family, we unwittingly inhabited for lengths of time an unknown, inexplicable world full of silences and unspoken loss.


At its front Cae Hyfrydd had a path that was crumbling, and so Mr. Bubyage was asked to lay a new one from the garden gate to the front door. A small round Polish widower, he always brought a jar of honey to us sometime before Christmas and, if it was I who stretched up my fingers to unlatch the black-and-cream front door, it was into my hand that his jar of honey was silently delivered, its ancient colour bright in the winter light. And as he placed the jar in my hands he uttered words I did not understand, ones that were full of breath and a strange insistence. And when I then took the jar of honey and gave it to my father, he would look down on it and say, “I wish he wouldn’t bloody well do this,” before placing it in a cupboard.

Mr. Bubyage built the path beautifully. First he placed long planks of wood from the front door to the gate and carefully secured them by pushing wooden pegs into the soil, so marking out the outline of the path’s shape. This was, he told me, “the shuttering,” and was “the shape the concrete will become. Concrete is the shape of the inside of the shuttering.” Much later, when the path was finished and after the concrete had set, he pulled away this wooden shuttering and showed me the marks the wood grain had left behind, now engraved on the concrete: “The back to front of the wood’s pattern.” Although his craftsmanship was faultless, the finished result was as plain as a small, straight concrete garden path can be, constructed carefully but bound by the limits of its sullen surface. In the cold mornings he would be there, casting his trowel evenly across the grey damp cement, setting a crisscross pattern, effecting a small camber so that puddles would not collect when it rained. He worked diligently and with concentration, never asking for a cup of tea and occasionally speaking to me quickly in words that I could not understand, his mode of communication the laying of concrete.

Mr. Bubyage brought the building materials for the path, a morsel at a time, on a black, upright bicycle. A small wicker basket strapped onto the curved, rusting handlebars of his bike held the dry cement and a faded red saddlebag at the back contained his tools. This arrangement meant that he was continually covered in the cement dust as it eddied out of the wicker basket when he cycled, coating him in a fine pale grey from his trilby hat to his black polished shoes, the peculiar dryness of the cement dust drawing out, by capillary action, the surface moisture of his skin. He looked like a relic, something that had blown in from another world, something estranged, a library of grief upon his shoulders, the dullness of his grey skin exaggerating the effect of his bright, lonely eyes. It took him weeks to make the path, his transport being almost unbearably inefficient, but when it was done it was done and, much to my parents’ puzzlement, despite his labours he refused payment.


We leave the house and drive down Cefnllys Lane slowly. We move along the quiet roads of Wales, their hedges high, their near hills a balm. We turn left in Llanelwedd, following the old railway line beside the Wye, skirt round Brecon, climb through the Beacons, see Pen y Fan (where the SAS train), drive to Abergavenny and then along the Severn’s tree-lined valley. We pass the ruins of Tintern Abbey, cross the Old Severn Bridge and drive along the M4. We stop at Reading Services. There we are in a different world. LCD screens, crowds, refrigerated food. We drive to the M25 then around it to the A12, then northeast until we approach the flat land near Harwich on the coast. My father sits quietly in the front seat, his gaze forward, his neck craned.

This is the landscape you will have first seen after you got off the ship.

I suppose so.

The one you saw out of your train window on the way to London Liverpool Street station.


Is this the first time you’ve been back?

It is.

Do you recognise it?

Not really.

We’re going to visit the place where you first set foot in England.

The station? Parkeston Quay?

We drive along the twisty lanes that pass through the villages of north Essex. The houses in the village centres have thatched roofs, timber frames, leaded windows and walls made from wattle and daub limed in dusted pinks or greys. As the villages stretch out from their historical centres the houses change, now facing the road and lining it on either side. These houses are semidetached, made with hard bricks and low-pitched tiled roofs. They have garages built next to them with painted metal doors. Further out the architecture changes again. Here the houses are newbuilds, set in small cul-de-sacs, each house clad in white clapboard made from MDF or plastic. This plastic clapboard is a recent fashion and it mimics the architecture of New England, which itself was built with the memory of the long, timber-clad farm barns of this area in mind. This is where some of the very first English settlers of the Americas, the Pilgrim Fathers, came from, taking their building practices and their architectural vernacular with them.

We pass through Elmstead Market, Little Bentley, then past Horsley Cross and onto Tinker Street, the wide road that broadens into a concrete dual carriageway with control joints, small gaps in the concrete filled with bitumen.

Then we’re in Harwich. We drive through it, its Ha’penny Pier jutting out into the estuary from which fishermen cast their long rods to catch cod, past the house that Samuel Pepys stayed in while he was the MP for Harwich, past the Dockyard that Pepys was in charge of while he was chief secretary to the Admiralty, then down King’s Head Street to the house where Christopher Jones was born and lived, the captain and quarter owner of the Mayflower.

His house is in a modest terrace and is painted white. We get out of the car to read the information on the wall plaque. As we are reading it a large man leading a small black dog and eating fish and chips walks towards us. He stops and talks to my father while his dog sniffs at my father’s feet and calves.

Captain of the Mayflower lived there.

Most interesting.

See the plaque?


Says it all.

With that the man and his dog leave us. Before he is out of sight my father speaks.

He of all people shouldn’t be eating fish and chips.

Why not?

You saw the size of him. He’s overweight.

What do you think of the captain of the Mayflower’s house?


The Mayflower was built near Harwich.

Was she?

It was originally called the Mayflower of Harwich. When it sailed to America most of her crew were from Essex.

Were they?

Before it went to America it spent most of its life sailing between Alicante and Rotherhithe, bringing in Spanish wine, as that was James the first’s favourite drink.

I thought she sailed from Plymouth.

It picked up some supplies from there and met another ship, the Speedwell, which turned back. But it made the main departure from Rotherhithe.

My father walks back to the car. He turns to face me.

Ships are referred to as “she,” not “it.”

I know.

So why do you keep saying “it”?

No good reason.

You never listen, do you?

I don’t know.


  • "The Berlin Shadow is a haunting account of a journey of remembrance, discovery, and forgiveness. A beautifully written book which, once started, I found hard to put down."—Susan Ottaway, author of A Cool and Lonely Courage
  • “This is indeed a memoir, an effort to remember--and to unremember. Two damaged men—father and son—attempt to discover the origins of their own tense relationship, pockmarked by years of misunderstanding. Beginning in Wales (with a marvelous sensitivity about that province) then proceeding to Germany, from where Hans Lichtenstein, the father, had been shipped out to Great Britain for his safety in 1939, Jonathan Lichtenstein ties together delicately two of the most significant aspects of a narrative of memory: space and time. The Berlin Shadow details with an emphatic honesty the traumas visited on generations of Jews who survived the war, only to find themselves, once again, marginalized, unwanted, and despised. Hans needs to relive those last few years of freedom in Berlin and his adult son must untangle the skein of wounded feelings imprinted on him by a protective, but exigent father. Many will read The Berlin Shadow in one sitting, for the experiences of the two protagonists will demand a moral attention; an interrupted reading seems almost like a sacrilege.”—Ronald C. Rosbottom, professor at Amherst College, and author of When Paris Went Dark and Sudden Courage
  • “If you read one book this year, make it The Berlin Shadow. It is deeply moving, utterly compelling, touchingly funny and so beautifully written that at times it takes your breath away. It taught me so much about love, life, memory and time that I feel I have grown wiser and more appreciative of my own life because of it. Lichtenstein has a rare gift that I hope will be shared with readers all over the world. I cannot praise this book enough. Every adjective I come up with falls short. It’s beautiful.”—Santa Montefiore, author of The Secret Hours

On Sale
Dec 15, 2020
Page Count
320 pages
Little Brown Spark

Jonathan Lichtenstein

About the Author

Jonathan Lichtenstein is Professor of Drama in the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex. An award-winning playwright, Jonathan trained at Bretton Hall, and his work has been featured by the BBC and performed in theaters across the UK, as well as in Germany and off-Broadway. He lives in Wivenhoe, a village on the Essex Marshes, with his wife and three children.

Learn more about this author