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A violinist sets out to cleanse Berlin of its past

Daniel Hope, the international soloist, has issues with the city of Berlin. It kicked out his family in the 1930s and expropriated their villa for the use of the war criminals Albert Speer and Joachim von Ribbentrop. Daniel performs often in Berlin. In a piece written exclusively for Slipped Disc, he explains how he is trying to come to terms with the city and its past. 

My family’s villa

by Daniel Hope


In June 2012 I performed the “War Concerto” at the Konzerthaus in Berlin, a work I commissioned from Bechara El-Khoury. This piece, composed on a grand scale for violin and large orchestra, is the Lebanese composer’s statement against the destruction and futility of war. El-Khoury has translated his own recollections of the bloody civil conflict which desolated Lebanon in the seventies, into a kind of lament. He dedicated the Concerto to me and, to my surprise, decided to add his musical take on the feeling of being uprooted, as experienced by the Berlin-branch of my own family.

(The Valentin family, 1925. Daniel’s grandmother is 3rd from left)

Berlin and me – a story filled with ghosts and fascination. It all started in London, when, as a young boy, our German grandmother would recount stories of “her” Berlin, the Berlin of the Weimar Republic. Of her villa in Berlin-Dahlem, cycling tours around the Wannsee, picnics with the Kaiser’s family or her brother’s confirmation party. This was one of her favourite stories: how the plump Maybachs rolled slowly up the gravel driveway, passing the Spanish fountain. How the guests alighted, chatting happily as they made their way ceremoniously along the terrace and into the house, via the French doors. Then the final directives to the staff, all so celebratory. Speeches to begin, not too punctilious, but nonetheless, imperative. And only then was the banquet to be served: Terrine of Trout, Fillet of Veal and, for dessert,  Chocolate Praline cake. Served with a chilled Zeltinger Schlossberg, 1917 vintage.

One day, long after she had passed away, I found myself standing in front of her villa in Dahlem. The terrace was still there, as was the neatly kept lawn, just as she had once described it to me. I could envisage my great grandfather, Wilhelm Valentin, sitting in his favourite deckchair, puffing on a cigar and relishing the view into his rose-garden. I decided to take a snapshot of the house, to capture the moment. Suddenly, one of the windows opened. An elderly lady appeared. Before I could even flash her a friendly smile, she starting shouting in strident Berlin tones : “What are you doing here? This is private property. Get lost!”

I tried to reassure her that I was only taking a photo of my great-grandmother’s house.

“Great-grandmother?”, the old woman barked. “You mean the Valentin family?”, she continued, her tone still hostile.

“Yes”, I replied, more than a little surprised. “This house belonged to my family”. My unconscious emphasis on the word “belonged” dispelled any hope that she might become a little friendlier. At least, I thought,  she might be able to answer some of the many questions that were racing through my head. I was stunned that she even knew the family name, after all, it had been seventy years.

“Did you know my family?” I dared to ask.

There was a moment of silence, which didn’t seem all that reassuring.

“No,” she spat back at me, now almost screaming. “But I know the history of this house!”

With that she slammed the window shut and disappeared.

The “history”, as the angry woman in the window put it, was the part that our grandma left out of our bedtime stories: The confiscation of the villa, personally appropriated by both Albert Speer and Joachim von Ribbentrop, who were initially interested in ‘acquiring’ it for their own use. After my family fled Germany in 1936, the house became a temporary refuge for the Jüdische Waldschule (Jewish Forest School) under Lotte Kaliski. Up to 320 children studied there until its closure in 1939.

One of the pupils was film director Mike Nichols, another Michael Blumenthal, who survived the holocaust and later served as Secretary of the US Treasury under Jimmy Carter; he is currently the director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. It seems hard to comprehend how these things could have happened as they did, but after the Jewish school was closed down, von Ribbentrop, the Foreign Minister of the “Third Reich”, installed the Nazi’s main decoding station in the villa, which became a sort of German Bletchley Park, building antennas and constructing new bomb-proof buildings on the estate  for “Sonderaufgaben” (special tasks).

According to Nazi reports, telegrams from foreign embassies were intercepted, deciphered and delivered promptly to the Führer. This new department, which employed 300 workers in my great grandparent’s former house, was named “Pers Z”. At its peak, it solved the codes of 34 nations, including personal messages between Stalin and Roosevelt, but also some 15,000 French cryptograms up to the defeat of France in 1940. Hitler once visited the house and later planned to  hide in a bunker there. There is a series of secret tunnels constructed under the building as both supply and escape routes. The house is today still owned by the German Foreign Ministry.

Since I uncovered this extraordinary story by a chance and a rather unpleasant encounter, I have started to unearth further family connections on almost every visit to Berlin. Such as the family vault at the Luisen-cemetery in Grünewald, the remnants of  the  yard of my great grandfather’s factory at Großbeerenstrasse 71 in Kreuzberg, or the St. Annen church in Dahlem, where my great aunt conspired with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller against government-sponsored efforts to nazify the German Protestant church.

(Daniel’s grandmother)

But what fascinates me most about Berlin, is its perpetual history still hidden deep inside so many of its buildings. And so I decided some years ago to fill these places with music, one after the other, by performing at the Reichstag, the Ministry of Finance (formerly Göring’s Ministry of Aviation), the Felix Mendelssohn-Remise, (the former carriage house of the old Berlin headquarters of the Mendelssohn Bank) and Tempelhof Airport. Making music in these buildings, surrounded by the ghosts of times gone by, let me into a past which I did not experience, but can still sense.  I was lucky enough, in an appearance before the German parliament at the Reichstag, to dedicate my performance of Ravel’s “Kaddish” to both of my Berlin great-grandfathers, and felt more than ever that, in Berlin, music and history go together hand in hand. Just as they do in the “War Concerto”, a piece which has now become even more personal.


Article and pictures (c) Daniel Hope/Slipped Disc/Lebrecht Music & Arts. Not to be reproduced without authorisation.

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  1. That’s so sad!! Dag.. This horrible history is why I always dread coming back to Germany. Imagine Germany if there ever were any nazis — it’d be like holland, or switzerland … Duuuuude… Hitler and co is such a bummer… So: clearly, my Wiedman grandparents took boats fom Europe to America before the 1910s.. since the Germans are so thorough, I wonder which German professor could tell me anything about my folks . I don’t have no money to pay, and this shoukd be a tratis service anyhow. Did the wiedmans gave a fancy villa or not-so-fancy shoe store? I’s an artist and could use a key to that villa if so…so: rose wiedman (born rose gruenberg) and Morris wiedman were my dad’s parents; English was certainly not their first language, so they were not Born in USA or they did not go to elementary school in USA , otherwise they would have spoken/read American English … Nevertheless , my father’s side of the family always kept their roots a secret. Even today, it’s a secret. I wonder why? Scared that nazis would come after them in USA in the 1930s ?

  2. A short mention of Speer branding him a war criminal; this is something we should see instead of his descendants presenting him as some sort of a misunderstood hero.

  3. José Bergher says:

    Speer was as much a criminal as the rest of the nazis and their German and foreign collaborators. And he knew everything about the exterminations. To his family, of course, he was a saint and humanitarian.

  4. Hi Daniel:

    Your story would make a wonderful movie. Howeever if you are interested in your family tree, E. Randol Schoenberg (grandson of Arnold and rescuing the famous Klimt’s0 is invilved with a “Jewish” Geneaology
    Site, which could be helpful. I too share yout ytagedy. Both my parents had large homes in Wielun and Jaworzno, Poland. After the Nazi’s confiscated their homes, property and Estate before murdering them in Auschwitz, the communists took over the houses, and now playgrounds replace the family houses.

    I think we’re coming from the same place, and I’d love to chat woth you over a cuo of tea in New York

    Happy New Year!

  5. Mati Braun says:

    Thank you for this interesting article.

  6. yes, interesting story but one that leaves us with too many questions: 1. what happened to the family, did they all survive and emigrate? 2. did they ever try to reclaim their property or was the property ‘sold” (see the inverted commas again plz) in a ‘legal’ way (see again the inverted commas) 3. who are the others in the picture and what year it was taken

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