Chapter XIV - Berlin Germany - November 2011
"The Fog Has Lifted"
This chapter is dedicated to my daughter, Elizabeth, who in a time of crisis grabbed the first available transportation to Berlin to see her father, perhaps for the last time, and provide some much needed support to Rolf's wife Patricia.
It was during the spring of 2011 that Rolf made the decision that he needed to go back to Berlin. He felt that there were many gaps to fill on his website covering his life story and that he was ready to confront part of his past that he had pushed to the back of his mind for so many years.
He now realized that the city of his birth would always hold a special place in his heart. Rolf carefully made his plans to do all those things he had shied away from during those times he had returned to Berlin after his migration.
He knows that the terror of his early life can never be erased; and that the nightmares about those years will never go away. However, his search for a better understanding of what has happened must continue for the rest of his life.
As fate would have it, his visit turned out to be somewhat different from the plans he had made.
Rolf fell ill on the flight to Berlin and got progressively worse; ending up in a coma in the hospital three days after his arrival.
The following story covers those two weeks and lays the foundation for his return.
"Herr Schmidt, you are in a class all by yourself"
Rolf's station doctor paying a beautiful compliment to him on the day she told him that he would be discharged the following day.
At The Wall Memorial
"Rolf had a very hard time to control his emotions. Elizabeth would post a message on Facebook that it was the only time she had seen her dad cry. "That was really the only thing I wanted to see him do when coming to Berlin" she said."
With Sister Theresa Maria, a Franciscan Nun at the Hospital
A kind and lovely woman, she had a way of being warm and sincere without even once injecting religions into what she said. Just before Rolf left the hospital she came to say good bye to him, Patricia and Elizabeth.
Rolf at the Schlachtensee
On the tree stump, November 1, 2011, he sat on the night of September 11, 1960 along with his German Shepherd "Cingo". He was trying to come to terms with himself and decide if to cancel his plans to leave the country for the US.
He was unable to abandon the goals he had set for himself and left a few hours later.
Rolf at the Noah's Ark Cafe on the Roof of the Hospital
On his first trip to the roof, Rolf had not been able to get dressed yet as his suitcase was in storage. He proceeded to have juice and two huge pieces of Berlin pastry.
Rolf woke up after being in a coma for two days, his wife sitting next to him in the ICU of a major teaching hospital in Berlin, Germany. He looked at her and said "What the hell has happened here?". She told him.
"You became ill on the plane over, did not feel like eating and progressively got worse. On the third day you started to show signs of dehydration and exhaustion. I took you to the emergency room at the hospital where they took blood tests and gave you IV fluids. We walked back to the hotel, you seemed to start feeling better and got a good night's sleep.
The next morning we took trains and buses to the cemetery and you began to become exhausted again. We had dinner across from the cemetery but you had only two bites of an omelet. We went back to the hotel and you crashed on the bed at 6:30 PM. At 2 AM you woke disoriented, did not know who I was and I ran to the front desk for them to call an ambulance. They came within ten minutes and took you to the hospital, which was close by.
You slept restlessly through the night and by morning your ammonia level had spiked. You deteriorated through the day and at 7:30 PM you were taken to the ICU, where I thought they took you to die. The doctors told me your liver was failing and there was nothing they could do. I was devastated, felt alone in a country where I did not know the language and thought that I brought you home to Berlin to die. I literally had no hope. I reached out to friends and family on Facebook to help me deal with everything. Your daughter, Lizz, called and asked me if she should come to Berlin. I told her that I cannot make that decision for her, but I don't think Dad is going to make it. The next morning the doctor told me that he felt you were going to make it, as your numbers were coming down and your heart & kidneys were fine. I had a little glimmer of hope! I found out that Lizz had booked a flight to Berlin to arrive Monday morning. She actually had to take 3 separate flights to get there. I kept praying for Rolf to not die before Lizz got there.
When I saw you on Sunday, I would hold your hand, stroke your face, tell you that I love you and please don't die. I also told you that Lizz was flying over to see you. I looked at the monitors and your respirations went up!!! The doctor & nurses told me this was a good sign as somewhere deep inside you heard me. Monday morning I woke up and the nurses told me you were doing better. I said 'that's great!'. Then they said 'you need to go help him eat.' I said, 'he's awake? He's eating?' I couldn't believe it.
I went downstairs to the ICU and you were sitting up in a chair. You had a blank look on your face. I asked you what your name was and you said Rolf; then I asked you if you knew who I was and you said Patricia. Then you said, without my prompting you, 'I love you'! That was the best thing I could've heard from you. You couldn't hold a cup at that point so I tried getting you to drink some tea and some soup. I said I had to go to the airport to pick up Lizz and you sort of smiled. Lizz & I arrived at the ICU a couple hours later. Lizz ran in the room yelling 'Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!' and you replied 'Daddy, Daddy, Daddy'' You still were kind of fuzzy on things but when I asked you if you know who that was, you replied 'Patricia'. I said that I was Patricia and asked you again who that was; you looked at her and said Elizabeth. Then you told her you loved her. You still needed help eating and drinking. You didn't know how to hold a fork but you could hold the cup in your hand, you just didn't know what to do with it. We spent a couple hours with you until we went for lunch. We came back around dinner time when you could hold the cup and put it up to your ear! Again, we spent some more time with you and then Lizz & I went to dinner.
We came back around 9PM and you were still sitting up in the chair. You were able to drink out of a cup and seemed to be more with it. You asked the nurse if you could get back in bed. You got up from the chair and into bed by yourself. That's when you asked me 'what the hell happened?'
I asked you what you thought about all of this and you said "That is very interesting", to which I replied "If you think this is interesting, I want DULL from now on".
"That may actually prove to be almost impossible. There never really has been any 'dull' period in Rolf's life. From the time of his birth there has always been some sort of excitement, starting with the war years; through his teens, the personal upheavals in his life; and the unrelenting search for himself"
Rolf remembered that after his arrival he had taken Patricia to the family plot in the cemetery in Schlachtensee; and that he had gone with her to the lake and shown her the tree stump he had sat on the night of September 11, 1960, trying to decide if to cancel his plans to leave the country the next morning and return to Karin. The emotional turmoil he had faced that night returned as if this had just happened.
He also had shown her the house that his uncle Franz had owned by the lake during the war.
The only other memory was to have gone to the new Hauptbahnhof (the high speed train station) to make reservations for a sleeping cabin on the overnight express to Basel, Switzerland.
Otherwise Rolf's mind was pretty much a total blank.
His condition started to improve and the next morning, still in the ICU, he woke up and was extremely hungry. Rolf rang for the nurse and asked for something to eat. She brought him some Berlin rolls with butter and jams and some yoghurt. He ate all of it.
Two hours later breakfast came with more rolls, butter and jams; boiled egg and cold cuts. Rolf cleared the plate.
That afternoon he was moved to a holding room, off all life support monitors, around the clock IV's and cleared to get dressed and go to the roof garden and the cafeteria, where you could eat all kinds of things, such as steak tartar, bratwurst and a variety of those famous Berlin pastries and cakes. One could also have a beer. Rolf did not.
He took a long shower, shaved and stared at his arms, which looked like he had been in a bad fight. They were bruised up to the elbows from the IV's and blood tests.
The next morning, Wednesday, November 9, Rolf woke up early, looked out of the window and saw a heavy fog. The visibility was less than 10 feet. His mind was racing. He felt like he wanted to conquer the world. A little later the lead doctor, the department doctor, who was a beautiful woman, and the head nurse came in to ask Rolf how he felt. He told them that he felt good, which was an understatement, and that he was always hungry.
They told him that he would be able to leave the hospital the next morning. Rolf was in seventh heaven. He hoped that Patricia and Elizabeth would not stop at the desk, so he could tell them. He would have a precious day to show Elizabeth the city he was born in and that he loved. It never had left him. It was the twenty-second anniversary of the fall of The Wall. Rolf wanted to show her the remnants of those terrible cold war years when Berlin for a period of forty-four years had been the flash point for all out nuclear war.
Rolf went to the window and looked out - there was no fog, it was a brilliantly clear day. He cried.
When Patricia and Elizabeth came, he told them. It was a moment of sheer happiness.
Rolf, with a smile coined the phrase "The fog has lifted".
In the afternoon the department doctor came back and told him that she wanted to say good bye and convey best wishes from all the floor nurses. She told him that they all had a crush on him.
"Herr Schmidt", she said, "You are in a class all by yourself"
It was the most beautiful compliment he had gotten in a long time.
They took one more blood test to check his ammonia level. At the high of the crisis it had been 240, for the past few years his average had been around 60. He expected the results to be marginal, at best.
That night the nurse came in with a piece of paper and told him that he thought Rolf wanted to see the results. He looked at the number, stunned, it was 50. They hugged each other.
Reflections - The German Medical System
Just before flying to Munich three years ago, Rolf's doctor at Dartmouth Hitchcock had said to him, if there are any problems, Germany is the best place to be. The medical system is the best in the world.
That certainly proved to be true in Berlin in November 2011. Part of the reason for his rapid recovery is most likely due to the administration of an ammonia fighting drug that has been available in the EU for years, but is still being tested in the US. As most of the giant pharmaceutical companies are either German or Swiss; the availability of new drugs is far more rapid.
In addition, the cost of care is a fraction of what it would have been in the US.
After being moved to an observation room, patients are encouraged to take care of themselves, get dressed and roam around the hospital, where there are many living rooms, and they can go to the roof garden, with a cafeteria that serves all kinds of food, pastries, drinks and even beer and wine. Smoking is permitted only in designated open sections on the roof.
Served meals are ample and good and are ordered daily every morning from a menu.
Medical services, such a blood tests and IV's are unobtrusive and provided early in the morning to not interfere with the daily routine.
At the family grave site, where Rolf's mother is buried. It was the last time he ventured out before starting to slip away.
Terassen Strasse - Schlachtensee
The second house in was where Franz lived from 1940 on. Behind the house is the Park to the lake. The house in the front was built only a few years ago. After the war the property was taken over by the US military for officer housing. It was returned to Franz in 1952, when he sold it, as he had just build his house in Bad Wiessee, where he would spend the rest of his life.
Below Rolf in the hospital bed with Elizabeth hugging him. He started to feel much better.
The 'Wanderlust'; or the yearning for the distant shores has always been in the German blood. It certainly has always been part of Rolf. He was fortunate in that for a good part of his life he had been able to go to the furthest corners of the earth. In his later years he would show Patricia many of the places he had learned to love. That was the time she started to get to know Rolf fully and understand his life in a way that that she had never known.
Without the ability to do this, Rolf would be like a flower in the desert, whose roots could not reach the nourishing water. He would wilt and fade away.
Facing History - A part of Rolf's life that will never leave him
A day in Berlin with Elizabeth
Patricia, Elizabeth and Rolf walked out of the hospital, went to the hotel, where Rolf shaved, took a long shower and got dressed. Out they went to see the city. They stopped at a Gourmet McDonald's with comfortable sofas, flowers and candles on the tables and had some home made pastries and tea.
Taking the subway to Checkpoint Charley, they followed the brick lane circling what used to be West Berlin, outlining where the wall had stood. They walked through the Wall Memorial, where a 100 meter section of the wall has been preserved. There is a memorial garden for the the many that had died trying to escape from the hell they were living in by crossing the death strip. Very few made it. Guard towers, landmines, automated machine guns and dogs trained to kill made sure that it was almost impossible to do so.
Rolf had a very hard time to control his emotions. Elizabeth would post a message on Facebook that it was the only time she had seen her dad cry. "That was really the only thing I wanted to see him do when coming to Berlin" she said.
They followed the line along the Spree River to the Brandenburg Gate, now the fully restored symbol of Berlin and the Pariser Platz where all the main embassies are. Brilliantly lit up at night it is a beautiful sight. The huge avenue starting from the gate leads a couple of miles down to the Kaiserdamm where the apartment building stands that Rolf and his grandfather had been sheltered from late 1943 to the end of the war in May 1945 in the bunker.
After returning to the Ku-Damm, Rolf showed her the corner where he had stood with his mother that fateful night of November 22, 1943, when the bombs started to fall during one of the biggest raids of the war and his mother had hustled with him to a huge air raid shelter a couple of blocks away by the Zoo to find cover. When they emerged two days later the famous church Rolf had been baptized in was burning, wild animals from the Zoo were roaming the streets and most of central Berlin had been laid to waste. Thousands of Berliners died and over 200,000 were rendered homeless.Those days represent Rolfs first sustained memories of his life.
Dinner was at an old fashioned Berlin Beer Hall where they serve huge portions of great food around the clock every day of the year.
Early the next morning Rolf took Elizabeth to Tegel airport to see her off.
On the way back Rolf stopped at one of the many flower stalls, bought a long stemmed beautiful rose and put it by Patricia's bed. It lasted until the morning they left, when it wilted.
On Friday morning Rolf took Elizabeth to the Airport and saw her off. Rolf's little girl had turned into a woman he was very proud of.
He now had almost 4 days in Berlin with Patricia. They decided to take it easy but would spend a lot of time walking, going to parks and do some serious eating.
Every afternoon they walked to the KaDeWe, went to the Gourmet food floor and picked up a bunch of pastries.
The mosaic inlaid sidewalks of Berlin would sometimes break open and pose a threat to stumble over. Rolf tried to guide Patricia around them and quipped
"Just another hole in the walk" (Vintage Pink Floyd "The Wall")
"For Rolf the so very powerful love for his wife is reflected in the pain he feels for having put her through those days of fear and despair during his illness in Berlin."
The Days of a new Closeness
Rolf was happy, He had four days to do things he liked. Not enough to do all the things he had planned for Berlin, but at least he could walk through some of the memories. He would have been very upset, if they would have left immediately. He felt great, was full of energy, his mind was racing and he tried to convince Patricia that these feelings were real.
They talked a lot, trying to put into perspective what had happened. Rolf had never liked to dwell on things that could not be changed. He had always tried to learn from them. His Professor in Business School in Berlin had taught him the power of positive thinking. I can do this, yes I will, of course. Never perhaps, maybe, I'll try.
When he set his goals, they were almost unrealistic under the prevailing circumstances in Berlin at the time. His classmates snickered when he presented them. At graduation time the Professor told Rolf "I think you will get everything you want". Rolf did. He fought every step of the way and always won.
So Rolf now has filed away the experience in Berlin as a another chapter in a life that has always been exciting, sometimes turbulent; but always rewarding.
His deep concern was the effect this all had on Patricia, who is a very strong woman. She was sorely tested, almost to the breaking point.
Rolf was cautious, he was trying to find ways to alleviate her fears and help her understand what had happened. They decided to take it very easy and went to the Zoo, which still is in central Berlin and part of the Tiergarten; a major park, which is surrounded by the embassies and diplomatic sectors.
The next day Rolf decided that he wanted to go to the Treptower park, where the largest of the Russian war memorials is located. It is the final resting place for over 8,000 of the estimated 300,000 Russian soldiers who died during the final battle of Berlin. They remain nameless and unidentified. It is a moving tribute to the sacrifices made by their country. All in all the Soviet Union as it was then called, lost over 26 Million of their citizens during the war.
The Panels of the Republics
There are 16 such panels, one for each of the Republics of the former Soviet Union. Most of them are now independent countries
Honering a Soviet Hero
Towering over the Park it is the focal point of the cemetery. The focus of the ensemble is a monument by Soviet sculptor Yevgeny Vuchetich a 12-m tall statue of a Soviet soldier with a sword holding a German child, standing over a broken swastika. According to Marshal of the Soviet Union Vasily Chuikov, the Vuchetich statue commemorates the deeds of Sergeant of Guards Nikolai Masalov, who during the final storm on the center of Berlin risked his life under heavy German machine-gun fire to rescue a three year old German girl whose mother had apparently disappeared.