The year is 1932 and Michael Renner is en route from Halifax to Berlin to oversee the affairs of his ailing grandmother. Reluctantly abandoning his unrequited adoration of the boy next door, Michael has given in to familial pressure and boarded the General von Steuben, where he meets his first Berliner, an odd little man named Tristan who instantly pronounces Michael a dear sweet country boy whom Berlin will eat alive.
Staying with his faltering grandmother who has been reduced to letting rooms in her once grand home, Michael is witness to the crumbling edifice of Berlin aristocracy. The house is home to a rag-tag assemblage, including Dr. Linder and his niece Hélène, both Jews. The beguiling Hélène takes Michael under her wing and introduces him to Berlin’s high society, as well as its many lows. Upon his grandmother’s death, Michael’s cousin and her husband quickly move in, dispatched to protect the family assets. When they discover that Michael is engaged to Hélène, they break up the union, expose her as a Jew and summarily send her to Austria as the fascists tighten their stranglehold on Berlin. Michael is strategically married off to the dutifully pious Lonä, and before he knows it he is a father, working for his father-in-law auctioning the property of persecuted Jews.
Years pass as Michael leads a double life, once again enthralled in unrequited love for a young man, the beautiful and mercurial Jan. From the relative safety of his respectable lifestyle, Michael despairs at Jan’s unconcealed promiscuity. After Jan is nearly killed during a stint in prison under the Nazi-revised Paragraph 175 targeting sexual deviancy, Michael risks everything to become Jan’s caregiver, siphoning money from his father-in-law’s business to cover Jan’s expenses in hiding. When their secret is exposed, Michael in turn is rescued by Peter, a dashing SS officer who has a habit of assisting Michael in desperate times, though not without expectation of returned favours.
Through it all, Michael continues his peculiar friendship with Tristan, who as it turns out is the wizard behind the mind-blowing displays of debauchery at the most decadent of the legendary Berlin cabarets. Miraculously protected in a disused factory complex and underground abattoir, Tristan’s club cranks out nihilistic amusements for Berlin society, including many Nazi officers, a fun-house mirror of the horrors above.
As madness swirls about them, Michael and Jan come to rely on each other for comfort and safety. But Michael is haunted by the removal from his life of his son Billy, the only part of that “respectable” life that he loves. When Peter provides Michael with an escape route from the ruin that inevitably will snare him and all who remain in Berlin, Michael finds he cannot abandon Jan and Billy. Because of his love for them, he must walk back into the doom of the holocaust, marked by horrors never before imagined on earth.
Exhaustively researched and ablaze with searing detail, I Still Have a Suitcase in Berlin is a literary monument of unflinching compassion, glittering with the decadence of Berlin cabaret society, resonant with the horrors of the holocaust, and giving form and voice to the ghosts of the tens of thousands of people murdered because of their sexual orientation. This important book carries a warning for all generations to come, of the deadly stealth of fascism in whatever form it may take.
I Still Have a Suitcase in Berlin: The Historical Backdrop
When they come for you, who will be left to speak?
Between 1919 and 1933, as Germany reeled from its wartime losses, the nation’s new political configuration was wide open and flirting with its first-ever democracy in a system later coined the Weimar Republic. Berlin was Germany’s intellectual and artistic hub, boasting a thrilling and frantic convergence of extraordinarily significant intellectuals and artists, to a degree rarely seen in history.
The burgeoning intellectual and cultural freedom enjoyed in Weimar Germany included more opportunities for people of all sexual preferences to step out of hiding into the relative safety of the anything-goes cabaret world, with the state temporarily too distracted to quash the nighttime revelries. Songs like Kurt Schwabach’s “Das Lila Lied” (The Lavender Song) became anthems for Berlin’s queer community, with defiant lyrics proclaiming “The crime is when love must hide / From now on we’ll love with pride.”
But beneath it all lurked the expectation that that these heady days and nights were numbered. As the fascists moved into power, denouncing the artists and intellectuals as degenerates, one by one the bright lights of Berlin culture dimmed and disappeared, whether through escape or capture. The once flourishing Institute for Sexual Science, with its important library, was torched. Police closed bars and clubs including the legendary Eldorado. Anyone with the appearance of being gay once again became a favourite target of storm troopers and marauding youth gangs. Lists were kept by the Gestapo, of all men declared to criminals under the newly strengthened Paragraph 175 which made any “indecent activities between men,” whether a touch or the wrong sort of glance, a criminal act punishable by imprisonment. Neighbours and family members were turned in. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,
“The Nazi campaign against homosexuality targeted the more than one million German men who, the state asserted, carried a ‘degeneracy’ that threatened the ‘disciplined masculinity’ of Germany. Denounced as ‘antisocial parasites’ and as ‘enemies of the state,’ more than 100,000 men were arrested under a broadly interpreted law against homosexuality. Approximately 50,000 men served prison terms as convicted homosexuals, while an unknown number were institutionalized in mental hospitals. Others–perhaps hundreds–were castrated under court order or coercion. Analyses of fragmentary records suggest that between 5,000 and 15,000 homosexual men were imprisoned in concentration camps, where many died from starvation, disease, exhaustion, beatings, and murder.” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945”, available at http://www.ushmm.org
Paragraph 175 was not repealed by Germany until 1969, and it was only in 1999 that gay victims of the holocaust were officially recognized for the first time at a memorial service held at the site of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The first Berlin monument to the LGBT people persecuted and killed under the Nazis will be unveiled sometime in 2008, in Tiergarten Park near the site of the Jewish memorial.
Says Stephens Gerard Malone:
“Shortly after I began working on I Still Have a Suitcase in Berlin in 1999, I almost abandoned the project. Miss Elva, set in the 1920s, was for me historical and after that novel I felt I should be writing about my own time. Then came 9/11. In the aftermath followed the arrests, imprisonment in offshore camps, and torture. Secret courts. Racial profiling. Minority and civil rights legislated away with barely a whisper of objection. Damn it, I was writing about my own time. More so, on a global scale, history was repeating. I Still Have a Suitcase in Berlin was suddenly more than a love story. That’s when the novel became disturbing to write, and I expect, haunting to read. If you take one thing from this cautionary tale, hopefully it’s to consider the sentiment of Martin Niemöller, himself imprisoned by the Nazis in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp–when they come for you, who will be left to speak?”