by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)
Whenever I think of Olivaer Platz, I remember the old man and his tortoise. A picture of him remains in my mind and brings up a complete memory of a time and a place.
Olivaer Platz was a small public park in the midst of Berlin when I was growing up in the 1930s. It was located near the major artery of Kurfuerstendamm, and it attracted many people. All around the park were shops popular with customers of all ages.
I remember my favorite, Café Heil, where I was occasionally treated to the small meat pastry I loved whenever one of my parents had coffee and cake there, met friends, or just read the assorted newspapers and magazines available to the patrons. There was an ice cream parlor in the same block, too, whose various flavors of ice cream sandwiches were in enormous demand in warmer weather.
In the afternoons I remember seeing older adults reading their newspapers on the benches in Olivaer Platz. It was only a few squares from our home in Mommsenstrasse 66, and I was occasionally taken there to play in the children’s section.
I went primarily to shoot marbles. The object of the game was to propel the marble with one’s thumb in order to hit an opponent’s marble. If the hit was successful, the other child’s marble became yours. I had a collection of colorful glass balls on which I prided myself. Not being very skillful, however, I was often unsuccessful at the game, lost my own marbles, and came home crying.
One day my mother and I arrived at Olivaer Platz and found that one of its park benches had been painted yellow with an orange-colored letter J drawn on it. The bench clearly stood out from the others. Nearby was a sign proclaiming that due to a new ordinance Jews were no longer allowed to sit on the regular benches and were subject to arrest if they disregarded the law. The yellow bench was now the Jews’ bench.
After that my mother, whom I called “Mimi,” no longer took me to the park, except for walking through it en route to the Kurfuerstendamm. She would not sit on the yellow bench. And she could not—and would not—stand around waiting for me to finish my marble game.
I still remember that bench, primarily because of one old man. I saw him only twice. Each time he fascinated me, not because he sat on a bench that had changed its color, but because of what he did when he sat on the bench.
I watched him closely as he carried a shabby leather briefcase to the bench, sat himself down, and opened the briefcase. Out came a large, dark-brownish tortoise. The old man gently placed it on the ground in front of him, presumably to give the tortoise a little air.
I assumed the tortoise was his beloved pet, possibly his only family. It was certainly a sad time for all of us. How pathetic that lonely old man was I could not fathom then. I only knew I felt sorry for him.
But in years to come, the memory of the old man sitting on the yellow park bench with his tortoise became a symbol to me.
In my mind all of the degradation and isolation heaped upon the Jewish people by the Nazi regime crystallized into the figure of that solitary old gentleman, with his reptile friend, sitting alone on a yellow bench.
(Author’s Note: It was not until September 1, 1941 that a new Nazis law required all Jews over the age of ten to wear a yellow star affixed to their clothing identifying them as Jews. The yellow star was intended to humiliate Jews, as well as make them visible targets vulnerable to attack. Not wearing the insignia carried the death penalty.)
Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.