On May 1, 1924, a Berlin policeman smashed his rubber truncheon into the back of a sixteen-year-old girl, and helped to forge a revolutionary.
For several hours, thousands of Berliners had been trooping through the city streets in the May Day parade, the annual celebration of the working classes. Their number included many communists, including a large youth delegation. These wore red carnations, carried placards declaring “Hands Off Soviet Russia,” and sang communist songs: “We are the Blacksmiths of the Red Future / Our Spirit is Strong / We Hammer out the Keys to Happiness.” The government had banned political demonstrations, and police lined the streets, watching sullenly. A handful of fascist brownshirts gathered on a corner to jeer. Scuffles broke out. A bottle sailed through the air. The communists sang louder.
At the head of the communist youth group marched a slim girl wearing a worker’s cap, two weeks short of her seventeenth birthday. This was Ursula Kuczynski’s first street demonstration, and her eyes shone with excitement as she waved her placard and belted out the anthem: “Auf, auf, zum Kampf,” rise up, rise up for the struggle. They called her “Whirl,” and, as she strode along and sang, Ursula performed a little dance of pure joy.
The parade was turning onto Mittelstrasse when the police charged. She remembered a “squeal of car brakes that drowned out the singing, screams, police whistles and shouts of protest. Young people were thrown to the ground, and dragged into trucks.” In the tumult, Ursula was sent sprawling on the pavement. She looked up to find a burly policeman towering over her. There were sweat patches under the arms of his green uniform. The man grinned, raised his truncheon, and brought it down with all his force into the small of her back.
Her first sensation was one of fury, followed by the most acute pain she had ever experienced. “It hurt so much I couldn’t breathe properly.” A young communist friend named Gabo Lewin dragged her into a doorway. “It’s all right, Whirl,” he said, as he rubbed her back where the baton had struck. “You will get through this.” Ursula’s group had dispersed. Some were under arrest. But several thousand more marchers were approaching up the wide street. Gabo pulled Ursula to her feet and handed her one of the fallen placards. “I continued with the demonstration,” she later wrote, “not knowing yet that it was a decision for life.”
Ursula’s mother was furious when her daughter staggered home that night, her clothes torn, a livid black bruise spreading across her back.
Berta Kuczynski demanded to know what Ursula was doing, “roaming the streets arm in arm with a band of drunken teenagers and yelling at the top of her voice.”
“We weren’t drunk and we weren’t yelling,” Ursula retorted.
“Who are these teenagers?” Berta demanded. “What do you mean by hanging around with these kinds of people?”
“ ‘These kinds of people’ are the local branch of the young communists. I’m a member.”
Berta sent Ursula straight to her father’s study.
“I respect every person’s right to his or her opinion,” Robert Kuczynski told his daughter. “But a seventeen-year-old girl is not mature enough to commit herself politically. I therefore ask you emphatically to return the membership card and delay your decision a few years.”
Ursula had her answer ready. “If seventeen-year-olds are old enough to work and be exploited, then they are also old enough to fight against exploitation . . . and that’s exactly why I have become a communist.”
Robert Kuczynski was a communist sympathizer, and he rather admired his daughter’s spirit, but Ursula was clearly going to be a handful. The Kuczynskis might support the struggle of the working classes, but that did not mean they wanted their daughter mixing with them.
This political radicalism was just a passing fad, Robert told Ursula. “In five years you’ll laugh about the whole thing.”
She shot back: “In five years I want to be a doubly good communist.”
The Kuczynski family was rich, influential, contented, and, like every other Jewish household in Berlin, utterly unaware that within a few years their world would be swept away by war, revolution, and systematic genocide. In 1924, Berlin contained 160,000 Jews, roughly a third of Germany’s Jewish population.
Robert René Kuczynski (a name hard to spell but easy to pronounce: ko-chin-ski) was Germany’s most distinguished demographic statistician, a pioneer in using numerical data to frame social policies. His method for calculating population statistics—the “Kuczynski rate”—is still in use today. Robert’s father, a successful banker and president of the Berlin Stock Exchange, bequeathed to his son a passion for books and the money to indulge it. A gentle, fussy scholar, the proud descendant of “six generations of intellectuals,” Kuczynski owned the largest private library in Germany.
In 1903, Robert married Berta Gradenwitz, another product of the German Jewish commercial intelligentsia, the daughter of a property developer. Berta was an artist, clever and indolent. Ursula’s earliest memories of her mother were composed of colors and textures: “Everything shimmering brown and gold. The velvet, her hair, her eyes.” Berta was not a talented painter but no one had told her, and so she happily daubed away, devoted to her husband but delegating the tiresome day-to-day business of childcare to servants. Cosmopolitan and secular, the Kuczynskis considered themselves German first and Jewish a distant second. They often spoke English or French at home.
The Kuczynskis knew everyone who was anyone in Berlin’s left-wing intellectual circles: the Marxist leader Karl Liebknecht, the artists Käthe Kollwitz and Max Liebermann, and Walther Rathenau, the German industrialist and future foreign minister. Albert Einstein was one of Robert’s closest friends. On any given evening, a cluster of artists, writers, scientists, politicians, and intellectuals, Jew and gentile alike, gathered around the Kuczynski dining table. Precisely where Robert stood in Germany’s bewildering political kaleidoscope was both debatable and variable. His views ranged from left of center to far left, but Robert was slightly too elevated a figure, in his own mind, to be tied down by mere party labels. As Rathenau waspishly observed: “Kuczynski always forms a one-man party and then situates himself on its left wing.” For sixteen years he held the post of director of the Statistical Office in the borough of Berlin-Schöneberg, a light burden that left plenty of time for producing academic papers, writing articles for left-wing newspapers, and participating in socially progressive campaigns, notably to improve living conditions in Berlin’s slums (which he may or may not have visited).
Ursula Maria was the second of Robert and Berta’s six children. The first, born three years before her in 1904, was Jürgen, the only boy of the brood. Four sisters would follow Ursula: Brigitte (1910), Barbara (1913), Sabine (1919), and Renate (1923). Brigitte was Ursula’s favorite sister, the closest to her in age and politics. There was never any doubt that the male child stood foremost in rank: Jürgen was precocious, clever, highly opinionated, spoiled rotten, and relentlessly patronizing to his younger sisters. He was Ursula’s confidant and unstated rival. Describing him as “the best and cleverest person I know,” she adored and resented Jürgen in equal measure.
In 1913, on the eve of the First World War, the Kuczynskis moved into a large villa on Schlachtensee lake in the exclusive Berlin suburb of Zehlendorf, on the edge of the Grunewald forest. The property, still standing today, was built on land bequeathed by Berta’s father. Its spacious grounds swept down to the water, with an orchard, woodland, and a hen coop. An extension was added to accommodate Robert’s library. The Kuczynskis employed a cook, a gardener, two more house servants, and, most important, a nanny.
Olga Muth, known as Ollo, was more than just a member of the family. She was its bedrock, providing dull, daily stability, strict rules, and limitless affection. The daughter of a sailor in the kaiser’s fleet, Ollo had been orphaned at the age of six and brought up in a Prussian military orphanage, a place of indescribable brutality that left her with a damaged soul, a large heart, and a firm sense of discipline. A bustling, energetic, sharp-tongued woman, Ollo was thirty in 1911 when she began work as a nursemaid in the Kuczynski household.
Ollo understood children far better than Berta, and had perfected techniques for reminding her of this: the nanny waged a quiet war against Frau Kuczynski, punctuated by furious rows during which she usually stormed out, always to return. Ursula was Ollo’s favorite. The girl feared the dark, and while the dinner parties were in full swing downstairs, Muth’s gentle lullabies soothed her to sleep. Years later, Ursula came to realize that Ollo’s love was partly motivated by a “partisanship with me against mother, in that silent, jealous struggle.”