This is dedicated to my dear friend, the late Ralph Hirsch1, who was so instrumental in helping me research my family. Ralph and I met on the Internet through the JewishGen web site. He quickly became my “go to guy” in my newfound interest in genealogy; primarily to learn about my family – the family I never knew. But that’s another story.2
But Our First Rendezvous is in Berlin
It was 2005 when my wife and I were in Berlin at the tail end of a trip that had taken us through the Italian Lakes country, and then on to Berlin to meet my cousin, Helen and her family.
They were flying in from London.
We spent a number of delightful days together, exploring the city, from the Jewish Museum to Berlin’s Hard Rock Cafe and points in-between.
After Helen and her family left to return home, I made arrangements to meet my German friend, Ralph, in Hannover, since he lived nearby in Celle.
My ideal schedule was first to spend the morning exploring where my parents lived, before they came to America. And then we would go on to meet Ralph and his wife someplace of his choosing, for afternoon tea.
I phoned him from our hotel room for instructions on how and where to meet. He suggested that we take the morning express to Hannover that leaves Berlin at 9:30am. Then we should meet at the Wilhelm Busch Museum, and have tea outdoors in their lovely garden. Ralph assured me that it should take less than two hours, since Hannover is only 180 miles or so from Berlin. We could get our tickets once we got to the station. All we had to do was go to one of the many kiosks located in the main lobby.
“Easy peasy”! Right?
First of all, growing up in Southern California, and dealing with commuter trains and train stations was quite foreign to both of us. Plus, even though my parents were German, I never really became comfortable with the language – only just enough to get in trouble.
And so began what became our nightmare adventure into the unknown. One of those travel experiences about which I could only hope that someday I’d look back and laugh. Or so I kept telling myself.
But getting to the nearby Berlin Hauptbahnhoff was easy since it was just a couple of blocks away. We arrived at 9:00am and quickly confirmed our train’s departure time from the big overhead electronic display. It was scheduled to leave from Track 33 at 9:33am. Finding a ticket kiosk was easy too. But trying to make it work was not. That’s when I realized that even with my years of computer experience, no matter what I tried, I couldn’t make the damn thing work.
But then I couldn’t find anyone to assist us either. And now we were beginning to run out of time. Trying not to panic, I finally I located a woman employee whom I could ask for help. Problem was, she spoke no English and my German sucked. Fortunately after a lot of sign language intermixed with my limited vocabulary, I was able to communicate our plight.
She offered to help and led us back at the kiosk. Then within moments she handed us our tickets. Much to my chagrin, the kiosk was a simple touch screen, and a snap to use.
Now, putting my embarrassment aside, with our precious tickets in hand, we were off to meet the Hannover Express.
Finding Track 33 was simple. All we had to do now was wait for our train to arrive, which it did almost immediately at 9:28, ready to load its passengers and leave at 9:33.
We found our seats right away, and relaxed while watching other travellers get on-board. Some brought their bicycles with them, which I considered normal for any European city. But it didn’t take long before I began to get a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, because moments after leaving the station, the train stopped and some of the bike riders got off. Then more got on.
But I quickly put it out of my mind, figuring that it’s a planned stop for the Express. Problem was our train made more stops! But by then it was too late to do anything about it. Besides, I was sure the train was still going to arrive in Hannover anyway. Just a little bit later. Right?
Our train was not the express to Hannover at all, but a local destined for the city of Dessau. Somehow we’d gotten on the wrong train. Despite my worst fears of making that kind of mistake, we’d boarded a train that had taken us south instead of west.
But now what? How do we get from Dessau to Hannover?
We don’t because we can’t. There was no train from Dessau that could take us directly to Hannover. Our only choice was to take another train to the city of Magdeburg. But that would only get us about a third of the way to Hannover.
Then to catch that train we had to run from one end of the Dessau station to the other to be able to connect with a 1:00pm train to Hannover. But by catching that train, we’d only be a little bit late meeting Ralph and his wife . . . assuming all goes well from here.
That turned out to be a BIG assumption!
Another Fine Mess!
Fortunately the train ride to Magdeburg was fairly short and uneventful. We already knew that our connection to Hannover was scheduled to leave from Track #6 at the Hauptbahnhof. But that would only give us a few minutes to spare to make our connection.
When the conductor signaled the train’s arrival in Magdeburg, we were out of our seats, heading for the nearest door, poised for a quick departure. But as we stepped off the train and onto the platform, Linda and I were all alone, which seemed strange for an arrival at the main city station.
That’s when I felt the shock – like the top of my head was going to blow off . . . because not only were we alone, BUT there were only four sets of tracks here, and we’re supposed to leave from Track #6.
As I looked around in a state of panic, I realized that we had gotten off the train in Magdeburg Nue Stadt, not Magdeburg Hauptbahnhof.
I’d been so damn eager to make our connection that now I’d gotten us into yet another fine mess . . . !
Fortunately Linda had the sense of mind to get us off the platform first, so we could find some food and I could calm down. We needed a place to relax and get our bearings. Then we could decide if we could still make it to Hannover . . . or not.
Luckily there was a little cafe down below the platform where we could get a snack and figure out what to do from here. There were a few people inside who happened to speak English and understood our plight. Their solution was simple: “Call a cab!” That would easily get us to the Hauptbahhof, the main Magdeburg station.
So, that’s what we did, and our luck began to turn.
The cab ride to the station was short and uneventful as was our train ride to Hannover. And after all we’d been through we still arrived at our final destination around 2:30 that afternoon. From the Hannover station it was another quick cab ride to the Wilhelm Busch Museum and our rendezvous with Ralph and his wife.
Miraculously we were only a few minutes late. But then I realized that I had no idea what Ralph looked like. I’d never even seen a picture of him. My only alternative was to go from table to table asking the customers, in my broken German, if they happened to be Ralph Hirsch. I got nothing but head shakes and strange looks for my trouble.
Foiled again, we went out to the front of the museum and sat on the stoop, trying to figure out what to do next.
But then, after only a few minutes, a man and two women came walking towards us from the parking lot. It was Ralph, his wife, Angelica and a friend. Once they realized who we were, they apologized profusely for being so tardy.
How ironic that after all of my mistakes, they were the ones who were late . . . after all!
But from that point on, all was well. We were able to spend a delightful few hours having our tea outdoors with our new friends, the Hirsches3, in such a lovely setting in the museum garden.
And as it turned out, Linda and I still had time to explore the neighborhoods where both my parents had grownup in Hannover.
But this time our return trip to Berlin was on the real Hannover/Berlin Express. And this time we had nary a problem.
So, what began as a nightmarish series of mistakes, turned out to be a wonderful trip after all, our Rendezvous in Hannover.
1. Ralph Hirsch was born in 1930 in Berlin, Germany. In 1940, at the age of 10, he fled with his family to Shanghai, to escape Nazi persecution. Remaining in China throughout the war, he immigrated to the United States in 1947 where he served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. After the war, Ralph continued his college education in the U.S., where he earned degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in urban transportation. Afterwards he moved back to Germany, but split his time between there and the U.S. as a Transportation Advisor. In 1993 he co-founded the international network “Council on the Jewish Exile in Shanghai” (CJES), to preserve the heritage of the wartime Jewish experience in Shanghai and encourage ongoing research into this historical wartime period of the Jewish refugees’ existence. He continued to serve as its coordinator until is passing in 2014. Ironically Ralph lived with his wife, Angelica, in the town of Celle, near Hannover, which was also the site of the notorious concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen, where Ann Frank perished.
2. I refer you to my post,”The Day I Learned I was a Jew“.
3. Although we continued to communicate by email, for many years, this lovely afternoon tea would turn out to be the one and only time we ever met in-person.