My mother, Lilli Marlene
The daughter of the German singer who made Lilli everybody's sweetheart in World War II now lives in Winnipeg. Here she sifts fact from fable and tells how a song conquered the soldiers of both sides
WHEN I WAS A CHILD in Zurich, Switzerland, in the 1930s, a frequent visitor to our house was a lovely, vivacious blond lady who spread gaiety and charm wherever she went.
Her name was Liese-Lotte and she was an actress. I called her Lilotte. She was almost like a child herself and there was fun and laughter whenever she came. I always knew when she was expected because it was then that we prepared her favorite dessert, kaiserreis, a rich, delicious dish of strawberries, rice and whipped cream.
The first visits I can remember came when I was about five. In later years I was sometimes taken to the theatre, where she was pointed out to me in the chorus line of a musical, or as a bit player in a drama. 1 thought how wonderful it was to know somebody on the stage.
When I was nine, I was told that Lilotte was my real mother, and that her real name was Liese-Lotte Wilke. Later, she became famous in Germany under her stage name of Lale Andersen, but it was by the name of another girl that she became a world figure. For mother created the image of probably the only woman ever to become the darling of two opposing wartime camps — Lilli Marlene. She was better known to British troops than Canadian, perhaps, but by coincidence her first contact with the Allied forces came when a Canadian sergeant found her, at the end of the war, on a German island in the North Sea.
When mother visited me in Winnipeg in 1954, we considered making an attempt to track down the sergeant, but characteristically she had never learned his name.
It was the woman I loved and worshipped as my mother, Aunt Theda, who told me that Lilotte was my real mother. Aunt Theda is my mother's elder sister, and I called her mutti, which is German for mother. She's loving and kind and we've always been very close.
When my school chums learned about Lilotte they thought it sad that I should suddenly have to change mothers. But I wasn’t disturbed; I was rather proud. I boasted to my friends that I was better off
than they were because I had two mothers.
But I never became a daughter to Lilotte; she always denied the existence of my two brothers and me, and kept us forever in the background. Yet I accept her reasons ungrudgingly. In a letter to me a few years ago she wrote: “I have always believed it best for an actress to keep her family and career separate.”
It is important to her, now more than ever, for my mother is a living legend. The wistful melody she made famous can still arouse poignant memories of blackouts and marching soldiers.
A failure to begin with, it became famous only by accident, and it was probably the first song in history to become the favorite of both sides in war. Soldiers of Germany’s Afrika Korps were the first to adopt Lilli, but Allied soldiers quickly took her to their hearts.
The notion of Lilli alone in the lamplight stirred the longings of men separated from sweethearts by war and thousands of miles, and she became a part of their lives. Even after so many years, I am sure that for most people who lived through those desperate times, Lilli Marlene brings back memories that are pleasantly nostalgic — or tragic, because they recall the loss of someone they loved.
To millions of Germans and other Europeans, my mother is Lilli Marlene. It is her song and she has lived with it for twentytwo years. It has brought her fame, happiness, fortune and terror. And she still sings it, now to a new generation in the cabarets of Europe.
Mother’s original German recording, dusty and forgotten for three years before it found world fame, has sold three million copies. The song has been recorded in forty-eight languages. Perhaps the most famous translation is in Hebrew.
Yet mother did not know until the end of the war that Lilli Marlene was the war’s most popular song with the Allies as well as the Germans. The news delighted her, though she didn’t make a cent in royalties from copies pressed from her original by companies in England and America.
Mother is now fifty - five, though she would be the last person in the world to admit it. She was born Liese-Lotte Helene Berta Bunnenberg on March 23, 1905. Her birthplace was a Norwegian ship in the German port of Bremerhaven. She may have used it to claim Norwegian nationality, and British papers have called her the Norwegian songstress. But she is German. Her parents were Hinrich Bunnenberg, a German ship’s steward, and Berta Czerwinsky, daughter ot a Polish landowner. Grandfather died in 1937 and grandmother two years ago. Their other children are Aunt Theda, now sixty-three and living at Garmisch, in Bavaria, and Uncle Helmut, a shipping executive at Bremen.
The family lived in Bremen and it was there, when she had just turned seventeen, that mother was married to Paul - Ernst Wilke, an artist of twenty-eight. His only interest was in painting; he refused to work at anything else. Their home was a top-floor garret with a skylight and they lived as carefree bohemians, always happy to see the struggling artists and stage people who dropped in at all hours.
They had three children. Bjorn was born in 1924. I came
CONTINUED ON PAGE 38
My mother, Lilli Marlene continued from page 27
She never told anyone why she chose her stage name of Andersen; perhaps it was for a lover
along in 1927. and Michael in 1929.
Father’s paintings did not sell and mother trudged around the streets with his canvases, trying to interest the galleries, her friends, even strangers she encountered on her rounds. If it had not been for help from Aunt Theda, who was married to the rich industrialist Fritz Ullrich, we would have gone hungry many times.
Some of the canvases my father painted in those days hang in my house in Winnipeg. They are landscapes and seascapes and I think they arc beautiful. And father was eventually recognized; he lives today in Bremerhaven and his paintings are quite famous in North
Germany. But his success came far too late to save the marriage.
Her association with actors and actresses had attracted mother to the stage and in 1930. tired and dispirited at last and determined to make her own way in life, she left my father for the stage. They were divorced in March 1931. And so she made her choice between family and career and she never looked hack; she has never tried to alienate the affections of her children from other people they came to love in her place. She placed Bjorn in a Zurich boarding school and left little Michael with grandmother until he was old enough to join Bjorn at school. And Aunt Theda took me to live
with her in Zurich as her daughter.
It wasn’t until the summer of 1938 that our family actually lived together. Mother had a singing engagement on the resort island of Norderney in the North Sea and my brothers and 1 stayed with her for two weeks. But we saw little of her; she worked at night and slept most of the day.
By then mother had adopted the name Ltile (pronounced Lairler) Andersen after changing it frequently over the years from Liese-Lotte Wilke to Liselotte Wilkc-Anderscn, Laie Wilke-Andersen. Liselotte Andersen and other combinations. She settled on Andersen against the wishes of her agent. She never told
anyone why she chose it. But it has been suggested that it was the name of someone she once loved. It might be so, for she had many men friends among her theatre crowd and the Zurich drama students. One who toured with her at that time was Walter Slezak, the stage and screen star we see now on television.
Mother had always wanted to be a serious actress, and in 1933 she did appear in Tovarisch; but the same year she had her own show, which included songs from The 'Fhreepenny Opera. And soon people demanded that she sing only, and so sing she did. Her repertoire included many sailors’ songs she learned in Marseille in 1932 and she appeared on stage in a jaunty French sailor suit. By 1935, she was a full-time cabaret singer. She was hilled as The Girl With the Dream in Her Voice. Audiences began to be drawn to mother by this curious quality in her voice.
Late in 1938, while I was still with Theda in Zurich, mother was singing at the Kabarett der Komiker in Berlin, where many popular songs were launched in those days. One night a composer, Norbert Schultze, asked her to sing a melody he had written.
It was called Lilli Marlene, and the lyrics had been written by a German poet in 1915. ft was the true story of his two loves of the First War, for in the beginning Lilli Marlene was really two people. Lilli and Marlene were girls who used to wait, at different times, outside barracks for a fusilier named Hans Leip. Hans fell in love with both of them, at different times, and both left him for soldiers of higher rank. He wrote a few disillusioned verses, linking their names together, and these later appeared in a collection of his work. The anthology did not sell very well, and Lilli Marlene might have been forgotten altogether if Schultze hadn’t bought a copy one day at a second-hand bookstall.
Lilli caught his fancy. He was amused at the cynical way she had set out to woo her way through the ranks to meet a senior officer. Most of all he was touched by the rather pathetic figure she made with her slim body and long blond hair as she waited with her eyes on the barracks gate.
One day, with the volume opened before him on his music stand, Schultze ran his fingers over the piano keys to the words “Vor Der Kaserne, Vor Dem Grossen Tor . . .” And the melody came to him—a melody, like the words, full of sadness and disappointment. But before a music publisher rather dubiously agreed to print the song, thirty had turned him down, and the sheet music sold only sparingly.
The haunting ballad was well suited to mother’s husky, seductive voice and she sang it for Schultze in the cabaret. The audience applauded politely but it wasn’t a hit, and she sang it there only a few more times. However, mother had a feeling that it was to be her song. She persuaded the Electrola company to let her record it. Because her popular Drei Rote Rosen (Three Red Roses) was on the A side, the record did sell. But it was soon shelved, and at no time was the B side played on the air.
It took a war to bring Lilli Marlene to life. As the Germans occupied Europe, radio stations were established in vari-
ous countries to broadcast to the troops at the front. One of these was the station in Belgrade, which broadcast to Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the Western Desert.
On August 18, 1941, Lilli Marlene was finally played over the air. It was an accident. The disc jockey had a request for Drei Rote Rosen and he put on the other side by mistake. He let it run. Within a week the Afrika Korps had sent in more than a thousand requests for it.
Broadcast every night after that, Lilli Marlene was on her way to becoming
the war’s most popular lady of song, and mother, until then known only in cabarets, became famous throughout Germany. People flocked to the Kabarett der Komiker just to take a look at the slim blond singer whom the Afrika Korps was calling Lilli Marlene.
At this time Aunt Theda, her husband and 1 were living in Munich. We had moved there from Zurich in 1940 because currency restrictions prevented my uncle from getting his money out of Germany. I was thirteen when I went back to Germany, a stranger in my own coun-
try. I’d never even heard of the Hitler Youth. At school, some of the children tried to get me to join it, but I never did. Within a month, Aunt Theda transferred me to a private school. There was no apparent Nazi propaganda, and I was happy.
My classmates knew Lale Andersen was my mother and they all asked me to get them her autograph. Mother sang for the troops in Munich in 1941, and that summer she took Michael and me on a concert tour of Baltic cities. She always had large audiences. I couldn’t
see why they made such a fuss; I liked Lilli Marlene, but to me it was just another song my mother sang.
She was very gracious and never impatient with the people who crowded outside her dressing room each night. At times, I felt at a loss, not knowing whether to claim my privilege as her daughter and barge through. I never did. I waited outside until she was free of her admirers.
By now Lilli Marlene had been “captured” by the British Eighth Army in the Western Desert. The Tommies began putting their own words to the tune.
British newspapers have said that Allied authorities didn’t take kindly to Lilli at first. They wondered if it was a good thing to let an enemy song become the favorite of British troops.
I’m told that Tommy Trinder, the British comedian, introduced Lilli to the British public. He had heard it on one of his visits to the Eighth Army and he sang it during a talk he gave over the BBC. As a result, a British version of the song became a hit on broadcasts to the forces.
In the early days of 1942 I sensed that something was wrong with mother. At the time she said only that her nerves were bad and she’d have to do less work. I didn’t bother to find out what the trouble was; there was so much about Germany I didn’t understand.
A tangle with Goebbels
It wasn’t till after the war that mother told me of her troubles with the authorities. It started in December 1941, when Josef Goebbels, Germany’s club-footed propaganda minister, summoned mother to appear before him. Mother told me he was very brusque, though she did not take him very seriously at first.
“Who are you?” he asked. “You have become famous overnight, and I haven’t the slightest idea who Laie Andersen is.”
Mother’s dossier, opened before him, showed she had left Germany in 1935 to study dramatics in Zurich, and that among her theatrical friends were many Jews who had fled Germany.
“Wasn’t it distasteful for you to be among those intellectual degenerates — those Jews?” Goebbels asked her.
“We discussed only our work, Mother answered. "We didn’t talk about other things.”
Goebbels dismissed her from this interview with a courtly, exaggerated bow. Mother left, hoping there would be no more questioning, and while on tour in Italy she continued to write to her Jewish friends in Zurich.
The Nazi authorities, unlike the men at the front, had not fallen for Lilli Marlene. They saw something decadent and defeatist about her, it seems. They could not understand why the Afrika Korps asked for the song.
Goebbels soon realized he could not control Lilli’s growing popularity. He decided to use the song for propaganda against Allied troops, and he had it rewritten into a sarcastic English version. I’m told it was intended to make the Eighth Army resentful of the Americans stationed in Britain. He ordered mother to Belgrade to sing the song in person.
Mother has never in her life been to Belgrade. Another girl impersonated her over the radio. Mother had refused to go. Lilli Marlene was her song, she told the propaganda people, and she didn't want it tampered with. Nor would she sing another version of the song for propaganda purposes.
Goebbels was furious. Early in 1942
A Gestapo doctor left her for dead; then word got to the BBC, which reported Lilli’s “suicide”
he again ordered mother to his office. There, spread out on his big mahogany desk, were the letters she had written from Italy to her Jewish friends.
“Aren't you ashamed?" he shouted. “You. a German woman, writing this kind of thing to Jews and German traitors!“
There was nothing mother could say. Rather than weep or lose her temper,
she left the room and walked home. She has often told me she was no heroine, and didn't at this time realize how dangerous it was to defy Goebbels. When she was back in her apartment, the phone rang. She was ordered to report at once to the Chancellery.
Mother was taken before an SS colonel, who told her that when she left Goebbels she had made the unpardonable
error of forgetting to heil Hitler. For punishment she was ordered to make ten lieils to the Fiihrer's painting above the colonel’s desk. Mother burst into tears and denounced the whole business. When she left she was told a member of the Gestapo would call at her apartment that night. The official charge was that she had corresponded with Jews. The warning was a trick of the Nazis that some-
times drove the victim to suicide and thus saved them a lot of trouble.
At home, mother was visited by a doctor friend who offered a solution. He gave her pills that would knock her out and give her the appearance of being near death. This, she was told, had been done with other people wanted by the Gestapo. Their pulse would be so weak that the Gestapo doctor would confidently pronounce them close to death and the police would leave. The drugged person could be revived later and whisked away by the underground.
Mother waited. By midnight, no one had come. Her overwrought nerves could take no more. She gulped the tablets. Two days later she came to. Her cook told her what had happened. At 3 a.m. four men had come and found her unconscious. One, a Gestapo doctor, said it was certain mother would be dead in a couple of hours. The men left.
When mother didn't appear in public the next night, the German underground heard she was a suicide and the news was radioed to British intelligence. The BBC broadcast at once to the Afrika Korps: “Your favorite, Lale Andersen, your beloved Lilli Marlene, has committed suicide."
A mistake saved her life
Goebbels' ministry heard the broadcast and the Gestapo was ordered to mother's apartment. They found her in a drugged sleep, and a watch was placed on her flat. Goebbels took full advantage of the British error. To discredit their propaganda, he announced to the world at every opportunity that Lale Andersen was alive and well in Berlin, and that the British reports were unreliable. He let mother resume limited singing engagements so.she could be seen by the German public and soldiers on leave.
Mother, though, was always thankful for the British mistake. When she appeared on the BBC's In Town Tonight program while touring British music halls in 1950, she told them: “You saved my life with that broadcast, because they had to keep me alive to prove you wrong."
Mother had little income outside some old record royalties. One of her few opportunities to make money came in the winter of 1942-43. An old friend, Thea Frenssen, a skating instructor, hired mother as her assistant in making a film in Austria. I moved into mother's Berlin flat to look after my brother Michael. Bjorn, who had been serving on the Russian front, was invalided home with frostbite. Later he was sent to the Italian front.
Mother wrote us amusing letters. Once she wrote: “Thanks for your concern and friendly words about my nervous breakdown. It has not knocked me out; 1 am still able to do something.” She never mentioned the war or Lilli Marlene.
In Berlin, I looked after mother’s correspondence; soldiers sent letters and requests for autographed pictures, and 1 answered them, using her signature stamp on photographs. I was a typical teenager, crazy about film and stage stars, and I wanted to be an actress. When mother returned from Austria in March 1943. I told her of this, and she said: "If that's what you want, Litta, we'll see what we can do." She coached me in a role meant for a woman of thirty, and in the part of Gretchcn in Faust. Then she persuaded a producer
friend to give me an audition. The poolman must have had an awful time keeping a straight face; even 1 realized how foolish I sounded in those terribly miscast roles. I was turned down, of course, just as mother had planned. It was her way of saving me from a precarious stage career. She once told me: "To become a great artist, you must experience a tragic love affair.”
After this period in 1943. mother and I went our own ways and I lost track of her until after the war.
I found out later that mother ended ihc war on Langeoog in the Frisian Islands, an officers' leave centre where she was on show on Nazi orders. It was one more way for the Nazis to prove that she was alive and well.
When Allied troops occupied the islands. a Canadian sergeant discovered mother. He was marching some men past the hut mother lived in and she ran out and called him over.
"I am Lilli Marlene.” she told him. She looked worn out and pale without make-up.
She recalls he made a remark like: "Yeah, and I’m the Queen of Sheba.” She finally convinced him and he was elated. He was the first Allied soldier to meet the woman whose song he and his friends had sung so many times. When she visited Winnipeg in 1954. mother told me: "I wish I could meet the sergeant who found me on Langeoog." But she had never got his name.
The hut she lived in on Langeoog is now part of a hotel mother built for people who like quiet holiday retreats. It's a lovely place. I stayed there for two weeks in 1949.
Mother has changed very little; one would never suspect that she is only a few years from sixty. People are confused about her age and her past. Most of what has been written about her is fable. She is Lilli Marlene: it’s her stock in trade, and she must appear to her audiences as a slim blond girl underneath the lantern.
My brothers and I go along with the deception that she is much younger than she is and childless. In public we have always called her Lale. We were mother and daughter in public for the first time in 1954 when she visited me in Winnipeg. where I’ve lived since 1952. She introduces my brother Bjorn, now' a press
photographer in Munich, as her agent: whatever motherly feelings she has are directed more to Michael, who is a Munich music publisher.
She is still slim and blond, her greenbrowm eyes sparkle with a love of life, and her charm captivates a room as she makes her studied entrance. And she's a good sport: my friends at the Winnipeg Press Club told me this during her 1954 visit u'hen she sang Lilli Marlene to a packed room without a microphone —always a must with her—and she made fun of her disadvantage.
Mother is now a Swiss by virtue of her second marriage in 1949 to Artur Beul. the composer who wrote, among other hits. Underneath the Linden Tree. He is ten years younger than she and they were married just when The Wedding of Lilli Marlene was being released. The British composers actually got the idea for that song from my own wedding and it just happened to come out at the time she became Mrs. Beul.
Today she keeps busy with radio, television and cabaret engagements in Germany and Switzerland. She writes
fairly often and casually asks about my four children. They are her only grandchildren and 1 suspect that she would like to give them the motherly love she might have shown for her own children if her life had been different. We have no true mother-and-daughter relationship: nevertheless, we like each other. The only real mother to me today, as always, is Aunt Theda.
I have Lale’s original recording of Lilli Marlene. The song has great appeal for me. but I never play it unless someone asks me to. ★