Stephens, Gerard Malone. “I Still Have a Suitcase in Berlin”, Vintage Canada, 2009.
Gay in Nazi Germany
In 1932 Michael Renner was on his way from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Berlin to visit his ailing grandmother, Even though he had settled into a routine life in Halifax, familial pressure brought him to Germany and away from the romance he was hoping for with his next door neighbor and he reluctantly set sail for Germany, unaware of what was waiting for him and the rest of the world. On the boat over he met his first person from Berlin, Tristan who tells him that he will be devoured by Berlin. When he reaches Berlin, he finds that his grandmother’s financial situation is very poor—to the point that she is renting out rooms in her home and he quickly sees the old aristocratic class beginning to crumble.
The house is filled with a motley crew which includes Dr. Linder and his niece Hélène, both Jews. Hélène takes Michael under her wing and introduces him to Berlin’s high society, as well as to its many lows. When his grandmother dies, Michael’s cousin and her husband quickly move in—they have come to keep an eye on the family’s assets. When they discover that Michael is engaged to Hélène, they break up the union, expose her as a Jew and summarily send her to Austria while the fascists are tightening their hold on Berlin. Michael is strategically married off to the dutifully pious Lonä, and before he knows it he is a father, working for his father-in-law and auctioning the property of persecuted Jews.
Michael leads a double life as he has several affairs with young men and finds himself very much in love with a young man, Jan, does not return the affection or share the emotion. He watches Jan’s promiscuity and Jan is sent to prison as a result of Paragraph 175 that provides for the arrests of “sexual deviants” and he faces near death at the hands of the Nazi regime. Michael tries to become his caregiver and even takes money out of his father-in-law’s business so that he can pay for Jan to hide. This discovered and then Michael finds himself saved by Peter, an SS officer but Michael is obligated to return the favors in kind.
Michael had established a friendship with Tristan who is responsible for much of the debauchery found in the cabarets of Berlin at that time. Berlin seems to be losing itself as the Nazi party gains more and more power and Michael and Jan have to depend upon each other for safety and comfort. As a result of his marriage, Michael had a son, Billy, who has been taken out of his life because of his homosexuality and Michael feels that Billy is the only responsible thing that he has ever done. Peter offers him a chance to escape but he does not feel that he can leave Jan and Billy. He ultimately becomes part of the Holocaust and the horrors of it.
It is possible to feel the research that the author did to write this book. This is a story of compassion and decadence as the most horrible period in world history takes place. We most certainly become more aware of the plights of homosexuals during that time and in effect it is a warning against fascism.
The story is told in a year by year method and we see what was happening in Germany. It is extremely well written and it seduces the reader into paying attention to every word.