Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
More less a year ago I visited one of the antique bookshops in Schöneberg, looking for basically anything about Kreuzberg I could possibly find and afford buying without selling a kidney or one of my progeny.
Here I should perhaps mention the fact that although I might not be addicted to cigarettes or display only mild interest in occasional alcohol abuse, where old books and stationary products are concerned I am, indeed, a beast. No vintage volume, no pen and no pencil are safe when I am around. Take it as a hint. And a friendly warning…
Among the bookshelves I found a small table with photos and postcards, which, as the bookshop´s owner explained to me, were not their regular offer. They simply picked them up somewhere and thought worth selling.
I did not use to be terribly interested in the so called Great War or as we know it on this side of the Channel, World War I, but this postcard caught my eye. It showed a group of young soldiers posing for the photo somewhere on the front in a forest in the middle of bleak winter and hoping their nearest and dearest would get the picture for Christmas.
I picked it up and turned it over to read the details. Alas, the details were coded. One would need another Enigma to decipher this script! It was written in what I later learnt was known as Sütterlin or Deutsche Schrift (German Handwriting), a handwritten script developed somewhere around 1911/1912 and used widely until the Nazis decided it was “too Jewish” and banned it from public life in 1941 (it was used unofficially until the 1970s).
I could not read anything on the postcard except for one bit, which was clearly added by someone later since the script comes in ink (the rest was written with a copy pencil). But it also came in Sütterlin. It said “SO36”. Instantaneously, the bells inside my head were a-chiming.
It took me several days to decipher the address and some other details. Armed with a simple Sütterlin sheet that I found on the internet and some samples of the handwriting (also old postcards, however, sent by someone with a neater handwriting and possibly not freezing in the East Prussian trenches), I finally managed to establish the following.
It was written on December 6th, 1916 by one Friedrich Menzel (Munzel?) and addressed at Familie Kunstmann, in Berlin 36, Manteuffelstrasse 53 (III floor, front of the house). Its author was a Landstürmer (an army reservist) who at the time of writing was indeed fighting in the East (East Prussia) with his regiment.
The regiment in question was named in the top right corner: 121.Inf.2.Inf.Reg.60.2.Komp. which translates to “121st Infantry Division of the Infantry Regiment 60, 2nd Company”. Quick browse through the fora for the WW1 fans and experts (some of those people are unbelievably in the know about the topic) told me that the Infanterie-Regiment Markgraf Karl (7. Brandenburgisches) Nr. 60 as it was officially known spent the beginning of December 1916 im Osten (in the East), in the area of the upper Styr, a river in the Ukraine. They were fighting there to keep their positions from November 5, 1916 until December, 12th. The day the postcard was mailed…
The Berlin Adressbuch für 1916 does indeed name one Hermann Kunstmann living in Manteuffelstrasse 53 in Berlin-Kreuzberg (today at this address you will find one of the legendary Kreuzberger Kneipen, Bier Kombinat). He was a locksmith and it is quite likely that he owned a little locksmith shop in the same house. Considering that he and his family occupied a flat at the front of the house would suggest his business was doing well at the time.
But the most important part of Herr Kunstmann´s life, at least from Fritz´s perspective, was his daughter. For, although unable to read 98% of the body of the text, I managed to decipher two words appearing in the very first line of his message: “lieben Tochter”. It was her he had in mind when writing the card and sending it over from the cold eastern land… Conclusion: romance was in the air.
I do not know whether he returned to Kreuzberg again. At least his name was not on any of the regiment´s dead lists I have found so far. But I will do my best to read the whole of the text and perhaps find him in one of the address books published for Berlin after 1918. Intuition tells me he must have either worked for Herr Kunstmann or lived nearby or both.
Was he the Friedrich Menzel, Fabrikarbeiter of Marianennplatz 22? Or did he rather live in Wrangelstrasse 26 and worked as a street-sweeper? Perhaps he was the son of Max Menzel, another locksmith registered in Lausitzerstrasse 35 in SO36?
Finding answers to those questions will not be easy, I´m afraid. But I am stubborn enough – I´m quite a pitbull where research is concerned: once my teeth are in, you´d need a wrench to get them out again – to keep me going through books, documents and archives for a long time. What I learn on the way is just as precious to me as finding out the story behind the postcard.
In a way, it feels a bit like sending greetings to Fritz. Whichever of the young men in the picture he might me.
P.S. IF ANYONE CAN READ SÜTTERLIN WELL OR KNOWS SOMEONE WHO POSSESSES THIS MAGICAL SKILL, PLEASE DO NOT HESITATE TO CONTACT ME. MAKE MY DAY:-)