Monday, January 5, 2015

Berlin Childhood around 1900 by Walter Benjamin first published in 1950; this edition translated into English by Howard Eiland – 2006

"Berlin Childhood around 1900 is perhaps an even more important book today than when it was written." from commentary by Jeffrey Lewis as part of the You Must Read This series on National Public Radio website, May 28 2012

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) wrote the pieces included in this volume in the 1930’s when he was no longer living in Germany. Published in 1950, ten years after his death, Berlin Childhood around 1900 includes some pieces first published in German newspapers, but during his lifetime the manuscript as a whole was rejected by several publishers.
Before exile, Benjamin had lived in Berlin, the place of his birth, having been raised in the West End in a prosperous, assimilated German Jewish family. He was a part of the vigorous intellectual life in Germany that was destroyed by Hitler.

In these pieces Benjamin  re-examines his childhood from a sensual, impressionistic point of view, a literary style much like Marcel Proust employs in his autobiographical fiction. Benjamin was, in fact, a translator of Proust. Benjamin realizes his home, his city, his native country, have been taken from him, so he sets out to re-create many aspects of his childhood so that he can hold on to them. In transferring memory to paper, he leaves behind an eye-witness account, a poetic inventory, of a home and a city that were soon to be destroyed.

The poignancy of his account resides in the innocence of the protected, privileged child he had been whose perspective and experience he re-inhabits in order to write these vignettes. For example, in a section entitled Society, he discusses in some detail a large oval piece of jewelry his mother owned and the pleasure he got out of watching her take it out of the jewelry box and her wearing it on the nights she and his father had social engagements. He remembers it not only as a gem, but as a talisman that he believed kept both him and his mother safe.

As he is writing in the 1930’s about times and places that he treasured, he is aware of the external threat of Hitler’s rule, and we come away with a pervading sense of loss. We know the tragic outcome. -

This volume also includes an introductory essay by the translator, Howard Eiland.

To read a review of a biography of Walter Benjamin published in 2014, click here.
To see a photo of Benjamin's headstone in Portbou, Spain click here.
To read account of his death, click here.

Georg Benjamin – brother of Walter
Walter Benjamin
Dora Benjamin – sister of Walter

Berlin, Germany