I enjoy creating a biography for the person I am pretending to be in our little roleplay world called “The 1920s Berlin Project”
Just so I can give my character some background information, some luggage.
It is not necessary to do this if you want to roleplay, but it helps and is just a lot of fun, for me anyway.
So here is the biography I wrote for my character.
Loosely based on some real events in my life and the life of my ancestors.
As you may notice I care little for romanticizing the past, I have always been more interested in the lives of the common people, the working classes, those who had it tough, then in the lives of the rich and famous.
My life story isn’t all fun and adventure.
You can find most of this out by talking to me in Der Keller.
So if you do not want to know what I didn’t tell you myself, don’t read this.
Around 1890 a baby girl was born in Scheveningen, a fishing town by the Dutch coast. She grew up in a working class family that was mostly involved in the fishing industry but her father borrowed money to take his wife and child away from this harsh life and managed to start a tobacco shop in the neighbouring city of The Hague.
Jo was taken out of school when she was 12 to help her father behind the counter.
She enjoyed the job but was frustrated that she was not allowed to educate herself more. Every spare minute was spend reading newspapers and chatting to the sailors, fishermen and tourists who came to the shop. She had a talent for languages and soon picked up English, German and a few words of French.
In 1910 a sailor entered the shop, his name was Karl Yardley, his great-grandfather was a Englishman who moved to Germany decades ago, thus the unusual last name.
Karl appeared to be a heavy smoker, he visited the shop almost every day to buy more cigarettes. Jo loved chatting to him to improve her German but soon she looked forward to his visits for another reason, she was falling for the charming handsome young man in his fancy uniform. Karl soon confessed that he didn’t smoke at all but just kept buying cigarettes so he could see the pretty Dutch girl again.
Jo her father was not very happy with Karl, he wanted a better life for his daughter then be the wife of a foreign sailors. He knew the reputation sailors have and was suspicious of Karl, would Jo become one of those famous ‘girl in each harbour’?
It took Karl a lot of effort and long evenings of talking to get Jo’s father his permission to take her out to a dance, escorted by some other people of course.
Karl courted Jo and it didn’t take long for the two to really fall in love with each other.
When Jo’s father heard that Karl actually missed his ship and thus lost his job because of this romance, he realised that the two young people were serious.
Still he wouldn’t let him get engaged with her until he found another job, his daughter would not marry a man without a job.
Luckily the next ship back to Germany needed a sailor and before his ship left he asked Jo to marry him.
When Karl went back to Germany he kept his word, he managed to find a steady job and send money to Jo so she could follow him. She said goodbye to her family and town, probably for ever and in the year 1912 she went to join her fiancee in a foreign country.
She had never even left the town she lived in and the nearby city.
Karl found a new job and little apartment in Berlin and when Jo came after him they soon got married. Life was not easy, Karl worked a lot and Jo was alone a lot, she needed to improve her German quickly and it took some time for her neighbours to accept her. But eventually the couple settled down and feel at home in the backstreets.
When Karl, with some help of his Dutch in-laws, managed to get his hands on cheap but good Dutch import tobacco and the two opened a tobacco shop.
With the Dutch connection and Jo’s experience, business starts to go well.
9 months after they got married they have one baby, a boy they decided to call Heinrich, sadly the little child died after a few weeks. A traumatic event only helped by the fact that this was a common thing, many children died young and most of the women in their street had experienced this and were able to support Jo and share her grief.
No other children are born.
In 1914 war breaks out and Karl is forced to join the army regardless of his experience at sea.
He is part of the 2. Armee Oberkommando (2nd Army), the 99Regiment.
This unit fought on the Western Front and took part in the Schlieffen Plan offensive against France and Belgium in August 1914. Commanded by General Karl von Bülow, the 2nd Army’s mission was to support the 1st Army (Germany)’s sweep around the left flank of the French Army and encircle Paris, bringing a rapid conclusion to the war. The 2nd Army laid siege to, and took the Belgian fortresses around Namur, and fought General Charles Lanrezac’s French 5th Army at the Battle of Charleroi on August 23-24, 1914 and again at St. Quentin on August 29-30, 1914.
A large proportion of this regiment would be wiped out during the joint Anglo-French offensive on the Somme.
Karl was one of the men who died.
Jo didn’t find out for months.
When she finally heard about his death she had a total breakdown and had to be taken to hospital for several weeks.
By the time she left there, the house, the shop and the tobacco stock was all gone.
The war made it very difficult for her family to send her anything from Neutral Holland and she was truly alone.
For a while it was very hard to survive, a few dark years followed. Jo had no income and could not pay the rent, she was depressed, homeless and heart broken. She got lost, did whatever it took to make money and find a place to sleep. A time she has tried to forget and does not want to be remembered of.
Salomon Levi, a lonely old man, living in the Jewish neighbourhood near Friedrichstrsasse bumped into Jo a few times and felt sorry for her and offered her a job in his sweatshop where women spend day and night making cheap clothing. The workshop is in a basement under the apartment where the man lives.
Jo has to work hard but is glad to be off the street, the man lets her sleep there as well.
It soon becomes clear that the man has certain intentions with Jo, when he one day tells her how he feels, Jo tells explains to him that she is still in love with her husband and could not be with Salomon. She is scared and expects the man to fire her or even assault her there and then. Luckily the old man is a gentleman and accepts that Jo is not interested. Happy and relieved she is allowed to stay there.
Once this delicate matter is taken care off and both Jo and the old man realise that there never will be any kind of romantic relationship, they actually become better friends.
They spend more time together, Jo cooks for him now and then and after work is done they often spend hours chatting and drinking schnapps. Of course everyone in the neighbourhood gossips about the old man and the Dutch young war widow but nothing ever happens. The old man now sees Jo more like a daughter.
Then the depression strikes.Hyperinflation, destruction of economy, riots in the streets, and even more poverty. The old man becomes very sick and Jo looks after him, her only friend, till he dies. She is already packing her bags, expecting to be out on the streets again when she is told that the old man left her his sweatshop and apartment. Sadly the bad state of the economy has destroyed the clothing industry and Jo has no idea how to manage such a workshop anyway.
But nobody is interested in buying the business either.
Then she has a plan.
She decides to trade the sewing machines, fabric and clothing with the people in her neighbourhood in exchange for their work. People bring her chairs, tables, artists paint on the walls, a stage is build by a carpenter who needs a new sewing machine for his wife, etc.
As most of these men are out of work and/or war veterans, they are happy to help out.
And of course the neighbourhood is desperate for a place to go drink, dance and chat.
Most places that offer such escape from reality near where they live are on Unter den Linden and not meant for their class of people.
They help her turn the old workshop into a Tanzlokal and against all odds it succeeds.
And while Berlin is feeling the depression, shops are closing and people are totally running out of money, Jo manages to open up a bar.
‘Der Keller’ opens.
And there she is, in her late 30s but with a old scarred and damaged soul.
She is older then most people who come to the bar, the place has become the spot where hip, modern and bohemian artists, chorus girls, prostitutes and sailors hang out.
This modern world is too modern for Jo, she doesn’t get the freedom, the short skirts, the girls being like boys, the men being like girls, the negro jazz music, it is all too much for her.
She enjoys watching this exciting new world from the sidelines though.
But secretly she dreams of the village by the sea where she grew up, the son she never had and the man she just can’t forget.