David stood before number 168, and stared up astonished at three stories of intact building with a fourth floor partially habitable as well. With a jolt, he noticed that on the ground floor to the right of the door — right where Uncle Otto had had his optician’s office — a pair of glasses was childishly painted on the wooden plasterboard that replaced the glass. The words “Dr Dietmar Schlaer, Ophthalmologist” were painted under them.
What hutzpah! David thought furiously.
Angrily he pushed open the improvised door and looked around the cave-like room. With the windows boarded up, the only light came from the sparse lightbulbs. Still, he could see that there were a few old desks with chairs on both sides so people could be fitted with glasses. There were also stands with a handful of eye-glass frames displayed. An internal door led back to a second room — his uncle’s examination room.
Even as he looked at it, it opened and a frail, young man wearing thick glasses under a shock of unkempt, reddish-brown hair emerged. “How can I help you, sir?” He asked cheerfully.
David’s words stuck in his throat. This young man didn’t look like one of the SA thugs that had smashed the shop windows on the so-called “Kristallnacht” of November 1938. Nor did he remind him of the Hitler Youth who had taunted and tormented him in his youth. He found himself asking in a wary but not overtly hostile tone, “Are you Dr Dietmar Schlaer?”
“Yes, are you looking for glasses, sir?” The young man sounded hopeful. Business couldn’t be very good, David thought. Who could afford glasses in Berlin nowadays? David’s perfect High German gave no hint that he now held a Canadian passport.
“No, I was looking for… How long have you had an office here?”
“Almost a year now. I got the lease in March last year.”
“From whom?” David demanded indignantly, registering that this young man was merely a tenant. He had no issues with a tenant, it was the landlord who had stolen the property from his uncle and was now cashing in the rent.
“The City Administration. The Rental Office in Rathaus Charlottenburg. Are you new to Berlin?”
“Yes, I arrived Friday. What does the City have to do with renting private property?” David demanded.
“I presume the owners are dead or missing. Were you looking for someone? I used to live nearby. Maybe I can help you.”
“You lived nearby? Where? When?
“In the Nestorstrasse. I was born there and lived there until I went to university. This was where I came to get my glasses when I was growing up. There was a wonderful ophthalmologist who had his offices here.”
David caught his breath. “You remember Dr Otto Kuczynski?”
“Of course! I was extremely short-sighted from childhood. I had measles at ten months and was practically blind. It made me a timid and solemn child, but Dr Kuczynski made me feel special. He had a magical way with children. He had different noses — you know, the kind people put on for carnival, Pinocchio noses and noses with moustaches, things like that. He had me try them on with different glasses. It became a game, so much so that I looked forward to my visits to his office. It was because of him that I wanted to study ophthalmology.”
“Did you decide that before or after they smashed the windows and wrecked everything inside? Or did you help yourself to the stock, the furnishings, the noses...” Even as he lashed out, David was ashamed of himself. He sounded far too bitter and emotional.
The young doctor did not become indignant or defensive; he simply gazed back at David sadly. At length, he said, “Whether you believe me or not, I was not here. I was at university. My parents were here, but they were very frightened of the SA. While the SA rampaged through the streets, they hid inside their apartment. They couldn’t understand why the police didn’t intervene. They were relieved to hear that no one was hurt.”
Maybe it would have been easier on David if he’d thought Dr Schlaer was lying, but he didn’t. Nor could David ignore what he’d said about Uncle Otto inspiring him to take up his profession. His uncle would have been pleased about that. Then again, an interest in ophthalmology didn’t wipe the slate clean, he argued with himself. “The war,” he burst out. “What did you do in the war?”
“I was in pre-medical studies when the war broke out. I was conscripted in the Wehrmacht. With my terrible eyesight, I was assigned to clerical duties, but as the situation deteriorated and they needed more medics, they allowed me to continue medical studies during the semester while serving on the front as a medic in between. It wasn’t until after the war that I could finish my speciality studies. In Amsterdam. As soon as I had my qualifications, I came back here to set up my practice.”
“Why here?” David demanded.
“Berlin is home. I had nowhere else to go.”
“No, I meant, why did you set up a shop here — on the Kurfeurstendamm 168?”
“Because it seemed right. Because I had such good memories of this office. I thought it might bring me luck.”
“Luck? Do you know what happened to Dr Kuczynski?” David shot back.
“Not specifically,” Dr Schlaer waffled. “I hope he got out in time.”
“No. He didn’t. He and his entire family were gassed — because they loved Germany too much to leave when they could have.” The anger and bitterness were raw in his voice.
Dr Schlaer did not look entirely shocked. He wasn’t one of those who insisted he had “no idea” what was going on. He had the decency not to deny it. Instead, he simply said softly, “I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry. I don’t know what I could have done, but I wish I had done it. Anything. I’m sorry.” He paused and added, “I presume you are related to Dr Kuczynski, and I can understand if you are offended by me being here. But I would like you to know that I intended it as a tribute. I wanted to remember him and thought that being here, opening up a new optician’s shop where his had been, was a way to keep his memory alive. It was meant to be an honour.”
He sounded so sincere, that David believed him. He held out his hand to the young doctor. “I’m David Goldman. Dr Otto Kuczynski was my uncle.”
“I’m glad to meet you, sir. I’m very pleased that you survived.”
“Frau Dr Kuczynski was my father’s sister. My father emigrated to Canada with his immediate family at end of 1933, so we all survived. However, I’ve been named sole heir to any family property still in Germany.”
“I see, and you’d like me to vacate the premises.” Dr Schlaer sounded sad but resigned to his eviction.
“No. While I plan to request restitution of this property from the Berlin city government, I have no immediate use for it personally. I live in the UK. No, I don’t mind you remaining here — on one condition.”
“Yes?” Dr Schlaer was tense, unsure if he should hope or fear the condition.
“That you name the shop for my uncle — as if he were your senior partner. You will be the sole proprietor, of course, but I want his name on the door and the window.”
The young man nodded solemnly. “Yes, I could do that.” Then he corrected himself. “I’d be happy to do that. It’s the least I can do.”
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