Goodbye to Berlin

Käsebier was not a heart-breaker; he was “short, blond, fat, and flabby, with a snout, almost a mug”. He performed in suburban cabarets and beer halls and his songs had titles like “If You Wanna Come with Me, Come with Me, and If You Don’t, Go Your Way Alone”, “Boy, Isn’t Love Swell” and “How Can He Sleep with That Thin Wall”. In the winter of 1929, in Weimar Germany, a journalist with the equally fictional Berliner Rundschau writes a piece about him. Those pages sit around the busy editorial office for weeks until early spring when the text is assaulted into shape by the editor, typeset and printed. The article makes Käsebier into a sensation. He is suddenly popular with audiences and a suitable subject for other newspaper and magazine articles and photo supplements. A literary opportunist establishes his own career by writing a book about the singer. Phonograph records are sold, films are planned, products bearing his name are mass-produced. Käsebier has arrived. In English his name means “cheese-beer”. He is as successful as Bruce Pascoe.


The novel which tells this tale is Käsebier Takes Berlin by Gabrielle Tergit. In 1931 her book was a German publishing success, and then it slept. Though its author was both Jewish and a left-wing journalist it was not even noticed when the books were burnt in 1933: Tergit herself had fled Germany before the first bonfires. Republished in 1977, it brought German fame to an eighty-three-year-old author living in England. The first English translation was published in 2019. 

Käsebier Takes Berlin is a glorious and thoughtful mess. Its author has the eye of a historian, the pen of a journalist and much wit. At the centre of the novel is the newsroom of the Berliner Rundschau, based on the liberal newspaper where she worked, the Berliner Tageblatt, known by anti-Semites as the Judenblatt—“Jewish paper”.

Georg Käsebier gives his name to the book but scarcely appears in it. Instead, the pages offer a lively, entertaining and confusing portrait of Weimar Berlin in 1929 and 1930. With great political changes happening, the novel is not overly concerned with politics, which take place in the background. Lively conversations are taking place in the foreground but it is often impossible to place the speaker or location—as if a dozen iPhones are being used at once. However, the reader gets the idea and floats along supported by flashes of humour and attention-making observations. A fleeting reference to restaurant owners is an image with photographic clarity: “Young plucky things who stuck a pickled herring in the window”; “the piglet complexion of redheads”; a Berlin café draws a literary clientele of the aspiring and the successful who Tergit divides with an aquatic division:

The Romanisches Café is across from the Gedächtniskirche [Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church], and consists of a swimmers and non-swimmers section. The swimmers sit to the left of the revolving door, the non-swimmers to the right. The Romanisches Café is filthy.

Tergit, born Elise Hirschmann, was a journalist and novelist influenced by “New Objectivity”, a writing technique which melds slang, advertising slogans, newspaper headlines and flashes of factual observation. It can be precise, breathless and confusing for a modern reader. The translator, Sophie Duvernoy, has worked to make an English reading less confusing, as when she takes a Tergit sentence which literally means “Vertically excellent, so horizontally crossed-out letter”. This description of her love life by Käte Herzfeld becomes “Vertically excellent, so not taking bids on the horizontal”. The “crossed-out letter” in the original is a reference to the stock exchange and, as Duvernoy explains, “financial shorthand for an exchange rate that has been cancelled because there are only offers and no demand”. Clear?

At the opening of the novel two plaster statues of Minerva and Mercury stand atop the building which houses the Berliner Rundschau editorial office. The workplace with its journalists and their literary visitors is the fixed point from which the world of the novel radiates. The newspaper itself will be restaffed and remade into a more populist and trivial enterprise as the narrative progresses. Perhaps some things in journalism have not too greatly changed over the years. A crime reporter prepares his expenses claim:

Meise had prepared his expense report for investigating a murder. One murder investigated = 9 marks. Car to corpse = 3 marks. Car back from corpse = 3 marks. Several glasses of schnapps, due to nausea upon viewing corpse = 3 marks.

Käsebier’s rise has been rapid and Tergit is careful to make readers aware of the specific period in which her novel is taking place. When a Miss Kohler unexpectedly drops into the novelist’s text she tells us about herself and the year: “It’s 1929. In 1929, it’s ridiculous not to have a boyfriend, especially when you’re thirty.” As the months pass and seasons change, shops are advertising “No Christmas without Käsebier”. His name has been given to shoes, dusters, fountain pens, cigarettes, dolls and toys. In three pages there are three repetitions of advertising for a rubber doll: “Käsebier, something for the kids so they laugh and don’t cry, you can squeeze it to your chest, put it in your bath.” 

Tergit’s Käsebier is fiction, but in Joachim C. Fest’s Hitler the historian relates a similar craze which arose between the time of the appointment of the new Chancellor in January 1933 and the November parliamentary election:

Closely related to such literary rubbish [a marvellously bad National Socialist drama] was the broad and polluted stream of kitsch culture. Everyone jumped in, trying to cash in on the mood of the moment. A brand of canned herring was called “Good Adolf”. Coin banks were made in the form of SA caps. Pictures of Hitler appeared on ties, handkerchiefs, hand mirrors, and the swastika decorated ashtrays and beer mugs. Some Nazi officials warned that the Führer’s picture was being exploited and profaned by a money-grubbing band of pseudo-artists.

Berlin, in the background, is largely familiar to English readers through the stories of Christopher Isherwood. He was a foreigner exploring the exotic and erotic; Tergit has the knowledge of a local, and Berlin may be the real subject of her storytelling:

She took the train to the Tiergarten. Crocuses, strollers, and buds on the bushes, colorful woolen dwarves with scooters and teddy bears under their arms. They were unloading barges at the northeast corner of the Tiergarten. The herring had arrived. Tons of it—young, delectable, fatty, soused spring herring. Oilskin jackets, blubber, sea wind and salt spray, from the coast to the Alexanderufer at the Lehrter train station. There this democratic animal was unloaded, along with the bricks for the new homes they carried out of the barge’s hold on their backs.

When Isherwood published, he knew what was waiting just ahead. Tergit and her characters have no idea. She writes of a property developer dealing with an unpleasant man who offered the cheapest proposition, “a smart, modern Nazi who did business with a swastika in his buttonhole”. The developer does not hold back his politics, Social Democrat, and asks his uncomfortable associate, “Please leave your brass outfit at the coat check.”

“An opinion is an opinion,” said Staberow [wearing the swastika pin]. 

“And an asshole is an asshole,” said Schulz. I can get away with that, he thought, with a contract worth ninety thousand marks.

With 1929 comes economic collapse. The fate of the property market in just a few months has profiteering investors suddenly seeking state intervention:

Muschler [a developer building shoddy apartments] looked at Kurfürstendamm. Signs on house after house. A dead city—cholera had passed through. Or was it like an American gold mining town where the gold had run out? To let, to let, to let, house after house. All the shops were closed. House after house. The liberal, laissez-faire, laissez-passer, suddenly cried for the state.

The newspapers were caught in the downturn. Editor Miermann, a Jewish intellectual, is threatened with losing his job. For years he has been a writer popular with readers. He goes on strike and stops writing his columns. No one notices. Depressed, he goes out walking with his wife:

They encountered two Galician Jews on Motzstrasse. They wore silken caftans and soft black hats. One of them had a long black beard, the other a long red one. “Have we become that much more beautiful, you with your blonde hair and blue eyes, and I with my books on romanticism and classicism? People don’t know what beauty is anymore.”

He loses his job. He dies. He “had left Judaism behind long ago” and expressed a desire to be buried in the Waldfriedhof cemetery, where the plots are popular with writers and actors. At the funeral service the hypocrites make speeches and his colleagues observe:

“The only people who spoke were the kind he couldn’t stand,” Gohlisch said.

“As always, you’re completely right,” Miss Kohler said.

As the economy collapses, the fashion for Käsebier collapses: “Everything began with Käsebier; now it’s ending with Käsebier.” The journalist who made his name with a book on the singer now wants to disown it. Everything associated with the singer flops. Kaliski, a crass and pushy individual, is divorced by his wealthy wife and loses his job selling apartments. He “sank back into the mass of small-time Jewish agents and brokers”. Seeking help, “He went to Mr Klass who gave him rubber Mickey Mouses to sell.” The time of Käsebier has ended; the era of Mickey Mouse has begun.

The untidy novel ends tidily. The newspaper remakes itself into something trivial and shoddy as in the background the Nazi party has become the second-largest political group in the Reichstag elections of 1930. The statues of Mercury and Minerva, encountered on the opening page above the newspaper office, lie toppled onto the pavement as the building is demolished. Gohlisch, who wrote the story that ignited Käsebier’s fame, picks up a shattered plaster rose and one of Minerva’s broken hands to use as paperweights. (The journalist who inspired this character would later work for Nazi newspapers and become the editor of Signal, the very professional German propaganda magazine published for readers in neutral, allied and occupied countries.) Käsebier himself turns up in a provincial cabaret where a waiter, when asked, can’t remember the performer’s name.

Tergit’s life is a postscript to her novel. Her own Berlin world fell apart in just thirty-three days. Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany at about 11.15 a.m. on January 30, 1933. That afternoon a benefit was held for Jewish handicrafts at Café Leon on the Kurfürstendamm. The news was known but only one speaker referred to the event and according to a later historian it “made no impression. The entire audience considered it panic-mongering. There was no response.” On Sunday March 5 new Reichstag elections were held and, as Germany voted, Tergit was on a plane for Czechoslovakia. The day before, stormtroopers had made an early morning visit to her house. She had not opened the door and now took the opportunity to flee. It was probably her journalism critical of the new government which had offended. In her exile she lived in Czechoslovakia and Palestine and then in 1938 moved to London (above during her final years), where she died in 1982. Her later novel, a vast Jewish family saga, The Effingers, has been published in German and French but not yet in English.

Tergit was writing before everything changed. The hatreds of anti-Semitism are referenced briefly. In these 275 pages there is less anti-Semitism than we would find in thirty minutes’ internet browsing—or less than was observed outside federal parliament on January 26, 2024—and none of the anti-white racism we notice every day.

Käsebier Takes Berlin
by Gabriele Tergit

(translated by Sophie Duvernoy)
New York Review of Books, 2019, 275 pages, US$16.95

2 thoughts on “Goodbye to Berlin

  • David Isaac says:

    Which of the two is more important to you Mr Connor? Before you answer, consider this. Jewish schools can and do still teach the wonder of being born Jewish and the evil of the Anti-Semite. Strangely enough the formerly White schools which our children now share also teach something similar alongside a litany of calumnies against our White ancestors. The only thing special about being White is that you are to be singled out as an oppressor, and you deserve it.
    Weimar-era Berlin beset by cultural Bolshevism, was anti-traditional, pro-degeneracy, awash with child and youth prostitution and every kind of depravity. These things were destroying the fabric of society. A few years later they were gone, however boring some of the new dramatic works may have been.

  • Louise says:

    I have just started reading the Effingers and will see how I get on before trying Käsebier. Many of Tergit’s court reports of minor cases in Berlin from the 1920s and early 1930s have been collected into a book and are worth reading too. I doubt if any of them have been translated though.


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