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Memoirs of a Moralist

by Hans Sahl
 


 

O

h, how familiar, these encouragements, these appeals to the conscience, that you should write something you no longer wish to write; the flattering comment intended to persuade, dropped between the appetizer and the main course, in which you stretch and luxuriate as in a champagne bath: If you don’t, who will?  Yes, if not you, who else is still alive who can report how Brecht spat and Thomas Mann cleared his throat?  If not you, who, then, can claim he was present before Nineveh fell and Berlin was not yet a legend, but a city?   If not you, who, then, could be more qualified to tell the young ones who their fathers were -- not so different from themselves, only a little older and not yet so adept in handling freedom as the sons who enjoy it as they might wish their fathers could have.  You only appreciates freedom once you’ve has lost it, and then it’s usually too late.  Granted.  And yet, who is not tired of having to hear that this past, as they say, no longer has a future – which, by the way, applies to every past – and that one ought just to get over it? 

If not me, then who?

No, I have no wish to write my memoirs.  I am no retired general to shed an iron tear over battles lost, no ageing actress who, for lack of work, recalls the time when dramatic performances took place principally in the bedroom.  Moreover, I have already written  “a novel of its time,” which containing, scrambled, the facts of my life and the events that they determined, was about me, yet not about me alone: an “I-novel,” and at the same time a “You-” and a “He-novel”; I used the autobiographical as raw material only.  I wished to show, as Arthur Koestler would have it, the avalanche and, too, the individual crystals of which it is composed.  I had it in mind to take an inventory of that time while it still hung freshly about our clothing.  It did not occur to me to name names and make identifiable; the example stood for many: only compounded in the avalanche is the crystal’s destiny fulfilled.

Now, as many of the people whom I have encountered are no longer living, their names forgotten or reduced to footnotes in some daunting and unwieldy reference work of the dead and the missing, an opposite longing compels me to free them from their pastness, to return to them their identities, to bring them back intact out of the agglomeration.  In the past, when many of them were still alive, I believed my self permitted – in view of the willfulness of the creative process – to borrow the head of one, another’s hand gesture or particular way of speaking.  Some characters were wholly invented, some were drawn from life, still others were cobbled together from disparate elements.  The woman who accompanies the man Kobbe into exile comprised many women whom the writer had encountered in his life; the communist Krana was a contraction of various official types.  Of course, the reader was free to recognize this or that personage, just as, with a caricature, from behind all the flourishes, the original shines through.

What had seemed important to me was to represent the behavior of certain persons in certain situations, victims of History, which erased their proper features and cast their names to the four winds.

Today, so it seems to me, each of them has the right to be addressed by name, and to be revealed in his uniqueness and his unrepeatable singularity.  Thus, I shall name names, as many as possible.  They shall escort me through this book.  The great and the small.  The battle elephants of Literature and Art, as well as the literary foot soldiers who marched off with them into exile.  Many fell by the wayside.  Others survived.  I am one of them.

 

I

A city map of Dresden on which there sits a fly.  He sits precisely there, where I was born.  Waisenhausstrasse.  He has the entire city map at his disposal, but he sits on Waisenhausstrasse, and waits for me to brush him off.  I close my eyes.  Green shoots are growing through a sack.  Someone had left a sack of oats in the garden over night, and it had rained, and the oats were growing through the sack. There was a swing in the garden, and green butterflies were fluttering around the swing.  The doctor opines, I must have an operation.  Green butterflies before the eyes betokens nothing good. “Since when have you been seeing green butterflies?” he asks, and sharpens his pencil.  I explain to him that green is my favorite color; perhaps because, by chance, I happened to be born in Dresden.  My eyes are green.  Green were the oats that grew through the sack; green was the patina of the arches and domes of the city; green were the faces of the mass murderers in the wax museum on the Vogelwiese ; green was the velvet dress of the dressmaker who came to our house twice a week and did sewing for my mother. 

The dressmaker came twice a week to our house on Waisenhausstrasse, where a fly is currently sitting, and sewed a dress for my mother. The talk was all of patterns, hems, frills and dress shields.  My mother and the dressmaker had their mouths full of straight pins when they spoke, and from the dressmaker emanated a peculiar odor, which excited me.  She sat, with lips compressed, her mouth full of straight pins, in a dress of green -- already somewhat shabby -- velour, and worked the sewing machine.  I crouched in the next room, on the floor, and watched the dressmaker through the open door pedal the sewing machine, first slowly, then faster, and I saw how the cast iron treadle, which she worked, moved back and forth, the long leg of the dressmaker moving with it up to the hip, under the dress of green velour.  She had  hitched up her skirts like a cyclist, and pedaled, pedaled, pedaled the sewing machine in place. Finally, she stood up, came over to me and gave me a kiss on the mouth.  She was breathing hard, and I saw dark, moist stains under her armpits in the green velour. 

I had an operation once. The doctor in North Carolina was a German.  He leaned over me and said: “The operation went well, but we’re neither of us happy.” Then I was discharged, and the butterflies began again to flutter.

On hot summer evenings, we often sat on the Bruehlschen Terrace, where waiters dismembered a goose with servile deftness, and distributed the pieces among the various plates like votive offerings.  Wine from delicate, tall glasses; starched, snow-white table linens that smelled of chlorine; a violin playing to the chestnut puree.

We belonged to the propertied classes. But more than the opulence that already at this early date I sensed would not last, and which I would not be entitled to enjoy; more even than the heavy silver-plated restaurant cutlery and the exaggerated dispatch and officiousness of the waiters; what interested me were the mosquitos which, above my head, circled the lanterns and incinerated themselves. The milk-white globes of the arc lamps were almost halfway filled with dead mosquitos, generations of dead mosquitos.

Somehow, this had a connection with the sewing machine-pedaling dressmaker.

The mystery of death, and the mystery of sex.

I was five years old when we moved to Berlin.  I see before me the quiet street, through which came no horse-drawn conveyances.  It was a cul-de-sac. It was called Friedrich-Willhelm-Privatstrasse.  One could play ball and ride a bicycle without the risk of being run over by a hackney-coach or a horse-drawn omnibus. At that time, the first automobiles were making their appearance on the streets of Berlin, and I recollect how the inhabitants of the cul-de-sac came out of their houses when, one day, before our door, an automobile stood, which my father had hired, along with chauffeur, for an excursion in the Grunewald.

For the Sunday drive, my father wore a checkered motoring-cap and blue goggles; and my mother, heavily veiled in the open car, and otherwise covered up to the point of indistinguishability, cried out at frequent intervals: “Hold on tight, children! We’re coming to a curve!”

The memory of my parents stands under the sign of Corpulence, which they both suffered from, and against which they struggled in vain.  They watched each other suspiciously at meals, checked their weights with furrowed brows, and greeted each register of weight loss with jubilation.  They stuffed their mouths full when the other wasn’t looking, and forwent, with ostentation, their beloved potatoes.  The psychological background was only made known to me many years later, after the death of my father, when my mother confessed to me that her husband hadn’t touched her again after I was born.  The consumption of food had to compensate for the dearth of love.

With my mother I associate the notion that, as a child, I had to scale her like an Alpine landscape, like a mountain rich in rocky outcroppings by which one could clamber up, and in mounds and elevations, which offered shelter to the whimpering child when he had a fever, and the lamp on the night table, like a blazing red head with a glowing wire, shone down upon him.  The mountain held and enclosed me and lay an ice bag on my infected ear drum and stroked my damp hair and used me as a pawn vis-a-vis the man who was my father, and who loved my sister, and bought her clothing and sweets and items of jewelry, and regarded her with laughing eyes; and wrinkled his brow when he looked at me.  Indeed the transition, by the turn of the head, from utmost confidentiality with her, to noninvolvement, even apathy toward me, from partisan love to rank indifference, often kept me up whole nights.  What use was it if the mountain, my mother, protected me from the storm, hid me perforce in her hollows where it was warm and smelled sourish at the same time. I didn’t want her love; it was only a substitute for that love which my father gave to her daughter and withheld from her.  I wanted my father, I wanted his love, I fought for it, I wanted to throw my arms around his neck, while the mountain, with mighty mother-arms, held me back; I wanted to convince him, I wanted to have him all for myself alone, and I think sometimes that my relationships with women have been determined by this early experience. It was often the case that I ignored, was even bored by  someone who loved me, while I fought for the love of another who loved me not.  Love was for me a missionary enterprise, a struggle against indifference, against coldness, against lovelessness.  Love that was offered me had something self-evident about it; I didn’t have to struggle for it; it was simply given to me, as the ice bag once would be placed on my forehead when I had a fever. I am reminded of the time that my mother, at the table, said to my father: “Why don’t talk to your son? What do you have against him? Come here, my darling boy, give me a kiss.”  How she further distanced me from my father with this kiss! How she made the unattainable that much more unattainable!  I didn’t want to be loved out of pity, I didn’t want to be kissed because the other one, whom I loved, cared nothing for me, didn’t speak to me, shoved me aside, smiling on my sister but not on me.         

Friends maintain that I was always falling in love with the wrong women; they believed they detected something masochistic in me.  But this is incorrect.

Something in me bristled at the domestication of love.  Love is the continuation of poetry by other means.  Trepidation would overcome me at the sight of heavy oaken marriage-beds so dominating the chambers in which they stand, and would have done so even if there were no elaborated theory of neurosis, or if such a site of secret lusts and vices could produce a piece of furniture just like any other.  What indeed might be unfolding under yon floral comforter? Endless love or endless hate?  How can one, I have often asked myself, make, from the attempt to realize a dream of youth, an institution, a life insurance policy, an old age pension, insurance against fire and theft, when actually all is so doubtful, so fragile, so naked under the floral comforter. One false word, and the bed of oak goes up in flames.

If I had not a genius of a guardian angel, a flying domestic altar at which I could pray even at 10,000 meters above the Atlantic, a Mistress of the Grotesque who parodied my moves and laughed off my sufferings at the hands of man- and womankind, I would have despaired of the Love of Heaven.

The festivities of Earthly Love now past, I live with L.G. in a happy telephonic union that bridges over oceans, wars and civil insurrections, and through the medium of the sudden laughter at her irresistible humor, irrepressible even in these circumstances, which will forever convulse me, .

My father had a weakness for antiques, which he would bring home from his business trips: Baroque cabinets, Baroque chests, Baroque angels, Baroque chairs. Beefy men lugged them up, shoved them here and there, until the proper corner could be found. Outcries from the mother over the “unnecessary expenditure.”  Patient lecture by the father on the utility of certain capital investments.  Reconciliation behind closed doors in the but-seldom-used Biedermeier Room, which was completely fitted out with a spinet, from which two strings were missing, so that the two corresponding keys would be struck in vain, giving us children particular joy; and with a quantity of useless lace doilies dispersed over chairs and tables; pearl-studded boxes, pearl-studded evening bags, even a pearl-studded bell-pull on the wall.  The salon, done up in the Empire style, contained the Bechstein grand piano on which my mother accompanied herself when she would sing Schubert’s “Wanderer” or the “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde.”  Copies of old masters which only connoisseurs could tell from the originals, invited verification, as befitted a businessman who knows what is owed to his visitors.  On an old chest, in a state of conspicuously authentic dilapidation, stood a suit of armor, only half a meter high, mounted on a pedestal.  “Nuremberg.  Late Middle Ages,” my father took care to explain to the visitor. “The gift of a knight to his little son.  Every detail accurately modeled after the original.  The visor can be opened up.  See for yourself.”  One did so.

The way to school ran along the Tiergarten, past the monument of the marble, yellow-veined, almost always leaf-bedecked Queen Luise; past the noble horsemen, and the less saddle-sure bank directors, out for their morning ride before the board meeting; past the villas and government houses with immaculately washed glass doors and window panes which mirrored back, faultlessly, the morning sun; up to the Royal Wilhelm Gymnasium, which my father had appointed for me.  For a man of his stamp, who was proud to be known as a member of  “The Society of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith.”

It was simply a given that his children be vouchsafed the best education that his circumstances made possible.  Baron von Bleichroeder was the model for an already almost fully-assimilated Jewish patriciate, which thought in German and prayed in German, and with a powerfully-monied devotion to the Kaiser, strove to rise in Society, and endowed hospitals and maternity wards, museums, libraries, public baths.  There was no limit set to beneficence, the more so as one reciprocated at the highest level; for example, with the bestowal of the title of Councillor of Commerce, or of the Order of the Crown, Fourth Class, which latter was, one day at the Royal Palace in Berlin, appended to my father’s breast. 

Among my classmates was the son of August Scherl, the powerful newspaper publisher, who put out the Lokal-Anzeiger and Die Woche, and who, every morning, my father maintained, allowed himself to be instructed as to publishing policy by his barber while he lathered him up.  The Lokal-Anzeiger was the Voice of the People, and lay out in all the barbershops and served their clientele with patriotic sentiment and miscellaneous news of traffic accidents, break-ins, fires, and the latest Court gossip.  My father made me promise to invite young Scherl to dinner; I believe he wanted to enter into a business alliance with the father; but young Scherl evinced no inclination toward befriending me; Probably the father considered a rapprochement between the right-wing Lokal-Anziger and the liberal Berliner Tageblatt to be inopportune.   Allegedly, Kurt Tucholsky was supposed to be at our school.  I expect he felt out of place, the same as I, at a “lacquer-boot” gymnasium, as they were called at the time. In any event, I was happy when, after three years, my father took me out of the school.  We had moved.  The migration from the old west end to the new had begun, from the Tiergarten and Luetzow-Ufer to the Kurfuerstendamm, thenceforth the grand boulevard of the exalted middle class of two denominations, whose landmarks were then, as in the Middle Ages, Church and Synagogue.

The Kaiser Friedrich School, where I would spend the next years, was situated on the Savigny-Plaz.  A lifetime later, in a house on the other side of the Savigny-Plaz, opposite the Kaiser Friedrich School, one of the greatest artists of our time, George Grosz, would be found dead one morning in the entry hall.  Four weeks earlier, in New York, we had brought him to the ship.  He stood lurching, champagne glass in hand, at the railing, holding tight to the rigging.  We made a date to meet again in Berlin.  He’ll soon be dead, the thought hit me, as I came down the gangplank toward land.  I must actually have said out loud, for the woman in front turned around toward me in shock.  Where did I get this?  I don’t have second-sight.  I couldn’t have told the police where the murderer had buried the corpse.  But sometimes I have presentiments.  Four weeks after I had bade farewell to George Grosz on the Hanseatic, I read in the New York Times that he was dead.

In 1956, I was in Berlin with Thornton Wilder for the German premiere of his “Matchmaker” at the Theater am Kurfuerstendamm.  I was walking with Thornton Wilder toward the Savigny-Platz.  “Here’s where I used to go to school,” I said.  “I must have been nine or ten years old.”  He stood still.  “You don’t say!” he said, amazed.  The school had been converted into a government building.  It was just quitting time: clerks with brief cases and the hurried bearing of people wanting to get home fast, came out of the entry gate.

“So here is where you began to learn English,” Thornton Wilder said.  “And now you are translating my plays and writing books and showing me your school.  Meanwhile, there were two world wars, several revolutions, millions of dead.  Not to forget your escape from Berlin and from occupied France to America.  How do you feel about it?”

“We escaped by the skin of our teeth,” I said.  “There, in the house on Savigny-Platz, corner of Carmerstrasse, George Grosz died.  They found him lying in the stairwell early one morning around seven. He must have died while they were carrying him upstairs.  Some days ago, I photographed the spot on the floor where he must have lain.  There was a star composed of little mosaic tiles, washed out and colorless though the action of time and cleaning agents, a fleck which feet have passed back and forth upon, a fleck in the entry hall of a house somewhere in Berlin...”

I had first gotten to know Grosz in New York.  I did not belong to the friends of his dadaistic combat period; I was much younger than he.  But we had something in common: Exile.  He was a wonderful friend. We understood each other so well; we had fun together; we resonated with each other.  He had a house in Huntington and taught every Tuesday at the Art Students League on 57th Street, after which he’d meet up with friends at the Carnegie Tavern and stand them rounds. Sometimes we went to a movie theater in Yorkville where they played German films. “The Girl from Niederrhein,” or “The Head Forester’s Daughter” and “Annegret, Come Up to My Schloss,” and we wept buckets. We wiped the tears from our eyes and staggered, arm in arm, through the streets of Manhattan, and went and “had another.”  Grosz was a drinker, and drank his quota with a kind of drunken-sober desperation.  He died from alcohol, and knew, as Joseph Roth knew, that he would die from alcohol.  Only thus could one endure Hitler. 

At an annual event of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, they presented George Grosz with their gold medal.  He was expected to give a speech in acknowledgment, and unsteadily mounted the podium.  He was totally drunk, and he greeted the illustrious members of the Academy with his hands raised like a boxer who had just delivered the k.o. punch to his adversary. He had to hold on tight to the lectern, and he stammered some incomprehensible words.  This was taken as a surrealistic demonstration, and applauded ironically.  Afterwards there was a reception under a tent, and punch made of gin, whisky and peaches was served, and tasted like glowing fire-water.  It was very hot out.  Grosz took off his jacket, and let Marilyn Monroe, who was also present, autograph his exposed forearm with her lipstick. As a result, I found myself pressed up against the helpless sex symbol by a surging crowd of Nobel Prize winners, bearers of honorary doctorates, recipients of gold and silver medals, all seeking her autograph. I felt her body, which the world admired and desired, under her thin satin dress, as she braced herself against me to avoid getting squashed.  And I thought: Millions of men and women all over the world would envy me at this instant. But I wanted out; I didn’t wish to be squashed, not even with Marilyn Monroe, although that might make it a wilder, more beautiful death. 

Before his return to Germany, I wrote some verses for George Grosz in a book, which I gave him as a farewell present:

Boss ups and goes, we’re left alone
On Fifty Seventh Street;
He packs up the entire shop
As he’s moving to Berlin. 

Who now will buy us drinks
On Fifty Seventh Street.
Boss says, I can’t paint here
So I’m moving to Berlin.

George, we’ll sorely miss you
On Fifty Seventh Street;
Write us soon and let us know
When you’re moving to New York. 

The Kaiser Friedrich School was a red brick building, and the schoolyard abutted the municipal railway wall.  When it was spring, we would open the windows and hear the trains clattering by and the hissing sound of the wheels. Then the teacher closed the windows, because otherwise nobody could hear what he was saying.  And besides, he didn’t like the Spring.

We loved the spring because one could wear knee-socks again, and the first one who wore knee-socks was the envy of all the others. “Spring’s Beginning” was the title of a school composition that we had to write then.  I will try to reconstruct mine from memory:

“The tender trees in the school yard are planted far apart from one another.  They give scarcely any shade, which anyway is not needed at this time, for it is the first spring day of the year.  Lissner is the first to wear kneesocks, and we avoid him, and envy him, and let him win at schlag-ball.  Lissner’s parents are entirely different from other parents.  They let him wear kneesocks even though it looks like it might rain in the afternoon.  They don’t threaten to revoke permission to ride the train or his bicycle if he wears kneesocks after they have forbidden them.  They knew it would give him pleasure to wear kneesocks, so they didn’t actually forbid them.  Lissner’s parents don’t pamper him, don’t call the family doctor, if has the sniffles or he coughs, and they don’t take his temperature every other hour.  They only stick him in bed and give him an aspirin or two. That’s all.  Lissner’s mother suffers quite a lot from migraines or insomnia, and prefers to stay at home instead of going out into society with Lissner’s father.  Lissner’s father doesn’t bring his son right up to the school entrance because he knows that Lissner doesn’t like it when the others see that he was brought to school.  Incidently, Lissner does not do at all well at school, but Lissner’s parents act as if they don’t notice, and when Lissner brings home a bad report card, he isn’t sent to his room to eat by himself; rather, his father lays his hand on his shoulder and says: ‘Don’t take so hard, Son. Sunshine follows the rain.’  Or: ‘It’s not the end of the world.’ Or something similar. Lissner’s parents don’t worry about what other parents do or say.  They leave it up to their son to decide when he can and when he can’t wear knee-socks, even if it looks like rain on this first Spring day of the year.”

I wanted to remain at the Kaiser Friedrich School.  I liked it, if one could actually like a school.  But my father had other plans.  He was a practical person, and practical people believed, in those days, that Latin and Greek were out of date. One should learn physics and chemistry, for the future belonged to technology.  I would be sent to a school that better answered to my father’s notions, namely the Leibniz School, which seems worth mentioning insofar as there was a teacher there, Herr Bleich, who characterized Heine’s lyrics as “chamber pot poetry.” 

One of my school mates was Hermann Budzislawski, who later in exile, would publish the Neue Weltbuehne, and in America worked as secretary to the journalist Dorothy Thompson.  After the war, he went back to East Berlin.  Budzislawski wore scholarly rimless glasses which he looked over the top of, as if he had no more need of them, knowing everything already without them.  He was what we then called a “grind,” and he was always the first to pipe up, and read books we didn’t know, for example, Marx and Engels, whose names meant nothing to us.  But the way he enunciated them with raised index finger, made us prick up our ears.  I liked Budzislawski: he seemed already at the time an old man who through some mistake had remained young, and he distinguished himself, especially vis-a-vis the teachers, by a precocious superiority which impressed me. I myself was not a good student, but  I also did not push myself to the fore. Strange to say, I always got a D in German, probably because I said things unexpected from a boy my age, which Herr Bleich would therefore annotate in the margin with a “Why?” or “How so?” or even “Incomprehensible.” I recall, for example, that once in a school essay I wrote: “...and so as Poor Heinrich was redeemed by a pure virgin...”  Herr Bleich placed a question mark after the word “virgin.”  What Herr Bleich had taken me to mean, remains unclear to me to this day.

I was twelve years old when the war broke out, and the memory of the war reflects itself principally in two experiences which awakened in me something of a social conscience, a feeling which I now sought to rationalize, a premonition already adumbrated on the Bruehlschen Terrace in relation to the darting waiters and the dead mosquitoes.

My father sat on the board of a company, which, during the war, manufactured grenades.  He once took me with him when he paid a visit to a factory.  We were lead into a vast hall where workers, naked to the waist and covered with sweat, their faces smeared with soot and carbon as in a carnival procession, stood before blazing fires and poked around in the blast furnaces with long iron rods.  One of the foremen approached my father, pulled off his cap, and explained what all was going on.  My father, in fur coat and silk hat, drew out his gold cigarette case and offered him a cigarette. “Kindly take one, or two,” he said, “Just grab away, don’t be embarrassed!”  I saw how two black fingers reached clumsily into the gold cigarette case and pulled out one cigarette.  “Thank you, Herr Direktor! Very kind of you, Herr Direktor! Many thanks!”  I was ashamed of my father, and I was ashamed of the worker, and I thought that something wasn’t right, and I saw how my father, satisfied, snapped shut the gold cigarette case and gave the worker a parting pat on the shoulder.  Certainly, there was in me by no means yet any question of revolution or even conscious social critique, just simply unease and shame and the fear that ‘they’ – but who were “they”? God? or Herr Bleich, who had called Heine a chamber pot poet? – that “they” would someday discover this something and avenge themselves on my father and me.  This same fear as one would feel before the Last Judgment, that the smallest offenses -- for example, if one had lied at school -- would be, on the Day of Reckoning, trumpeted in the truest sense of the word; the scarcely-describable feeling of guilt, born on the day of one’s birth that enmeshed one, helplessly, in things one is not accountable for; the feeling of being responsible for the sins of others  -- for example, for my father, or for the war that killed so many people; these feelings ripened into agonizing certainty when I was sent to work as an orderly in a department of the War Ministry that issued the casualty lists.  My assignment consisted of looking up the soldiers whose names and regiments were written on a slip of paper and handing over the slip of paper, annotated with a “fallen,” “missing” or “wounded,” to the family member who will have been waiting anxiously on the other side of the counter. I will never forget the face of the woman who stared at me, open mouthed, after her eyes fell on the death report I had handed to her over the counter.  She grabbed my hand, and nearly pulled me over, so heavy was she as she fell.

I felt a kind of guilt – the strange guilt just of being alive.      

In the camp at Nevers, while German planes were already circling Paris, Walter Benjamin lectured behind barbed wire me on the concept of guilt, which he rejected.

We had instituted a literary matinee, to show the commandant who we were, and among others, I had recited two poems of mine “Elegy on the Year 39" and “The Wooden Crosses.”  At the close of “The Wooden Crosses,” viewing a soldier’s cemetery from the First World War, I speak of the guilt of those who had failed to use the brief interval, for which these soldiers had died, to prevent a second World War.  Benjamin, rocking his head to and fro, as he had a mind to, when he paced and lectured, remarked that since Freud, one could no longer speak of guilt.  I objected that he would invalidate an entire literature from the Bible down to Kafka. Anyway, I had only meant it metaphorically.  Does not one feel automatically guilty when someone near to one dies?  Why him and not me?  Couldn’t I have done something to prevent his death?  I recounted to Benjamin an experience from my youth.  Was I guilty that my friend Otto C. had died?  No, of course not. But when suddenly he was no longer there, I asked myself why I had deserved to outlive him.  “Look here,” said Benjamin, “this is what I think,” and he vigorously rocked his head.  “We have to jettison the theological ballast of innocence in order to reclaim our freedom.  You’re in over your head.”

Otto C. had died of pneumonia.  His father, proprietor of a blouse shop for elegant women, had given him a motor bike, and while I hung onto him, we drove through the already autumnal landscape toward Potsdam and the lakes of the Brandenburg Mark until Summer was ended and the days grew colder; and we felt innocent and free.  His father had advised him to dress warmly, but Otto C. put on his beret, and drove the motorbike through the Winter without a windshield. While I held him around the waist, and could feel on my hands how cold it must have been for him out front, Otto C. started coughing.  Then they brought him to the hospital, where he slowly coughed himself to death.  Of course it was not my fault that he had died, but I had sat there behind him, and he had shielded me.  Why had I allowed his carelessness, which we had both enjoyed?  Why had I allowed him to protect me with his body, and not protect himself?

The same year that he died, we had both reported for agricultural war service, and the summer we had spent on the land belonging to Herr Baechler near Schneidemuehl was the last before his death.  Otto C. and I labored in the fields and learned, supposedly, to make hay, while Herr Baechler and his farm hands – not without furtive sneers and open derision – kept an eye on us.  Allusions to our big city -- not to say Hebraic -- origins, which Herr Baechler made an effort to make with a smile, were couched in the customary hushed manner of the time. It was meant to be jocular, but at bottom, it was hostile.

Herr Baechler was a powerful man with a full beard, Loden jacket, hunting hat and a shotgun: the model of a German giant. Even his spouse Lieselotte so denominated him, and the unqualified “Ja” which he expected, she would instead complete as “Ja, my giant.” 

Sometimes Otto C. and I would sneak into the stable and let Jankel, the Polish prisoner of war who worked as stableman on the land of Herr Baechler, enlighten us concerning the love life of the horses.  We were at that age when one is about to uncover a mystery, and nature is full of naked mysteries, naked and exciting, like the breasts of the Polish maid with whom we rolled around in the hay like puppies who do not really know what they should do next.

I love horses.  They ennoble him who rides them, and make him better than he is; and I confess that even today, I take my hat off, mentally, before an equestrian statue whether it be of a Gneisenau or a Buffalo Bill or some general from the American civil war.

My father made it a point to ride every morning in the Tiergarten before he went to the office.  He had served a year as a volunteer first in the Hussars and then in the Dragoons, as witness the ornately framed photograph on my mother’s night table.  But the horse did not ennoble him; it suited him not.  Generals may ride, Indians, policemen, jockeys; but a businessman does not belong on a horse.  He belongs in a hackney cab; all the more so a man of my father’s build: rather too small, rather too short in the legs, rather too corpulent. One can’t expect the animal to carry a man whose mind is on the stock market and the letters to be dictated to his secretary at the office, all the while riding a Mystery, one of the noblest of creatures, a living Myth which stretches back to the time when man and beast were one as in the centaur.  A horse without a rider is like an empty chair.  Pegasus was a winged horse, and sealed for all time the marriage of Spirit and Body under the sign of Poetry.  I love the sculptures of the Italian Marino Marini, whose images of mounted naked youths restore a long-lost unity.  Certainly, one can ride elephants, donkeys, dromedaries, and so reduce them to mere modes of transportation. A man on a camel, a donkey or an elephant has for me something unnatural about it; it offends my sense of proportion; the animal is either too small or too big for the human.  Since the Creation, there has appeared an accord between man and horse. Tame me, says the horse, I am yours.  I will raise you above all other animals.  You will be greater than you are.  You will look down upon them, and with you face, you will graze the branches of trees, which now you cannot reach.  You will be faster than the others and mightier, and on my back, you will leap over graves and walls. You will enter into cities which I will conquer for you.

My grandfather was the director of a brewery in north Berlin, a neighborhood we but seldom frequented, and then only to visit our grandparents.  In the room where my sister and I slept, hung a poster that frightened us when the light of a passing truck would reveal a grinning billy goat toasting us with glass of bock beer.                                                                                                     

The brewery smelled of beer and malt and horse urine.  We climbed all over the hand carts which stood in the courtyard of the brewery, and watched the thick, shaggy brewery horses with their wild manes, charging up the steep entry ramp under the crack of the whip, foaming at the naked bit, striking sparks as they bounced the now-empty barrels over the cobblestones. I could not bear to wait until the tussling, mighty beasts were unharnessed, dried off and lead into the stables.  I would lift myself up onto one of the nags and imagine, while the coachman poured oats into the trough, that I was the last of the Mohicans riding silently over the prairie, or Leatherstocking, or Don Quixote on his Rosinante.

The horses in Herr Baechler’s stables resembled my grandfathers’:  They pulled plows and heavy farm equipment behind them, and in the evening stood tired in their stalls.  Some slept standing, and aroused our curiosity, especially the mares. We touched them, and were afraid, and spoke long about it in the hay until, still restive, we fell asleep.  From time to time, Herr Baechler drove, with hunting hat and shotgun, to Schneidemuehl to purchase grain or a garden hose, or whatever else he needed.  He stayed away usually two or three days, and Frau Lieselotte would sit musing at the window, sighing “Ach, my giant,” while she grabbed for her knitting, or took the pants of the absentee into her lap for mending and lovingly stroked them. Something seemed to be oppressing her, and Otto C. and I thought we knew what it was.  Lieselotte, the voluptuous, high-bosomed Brunhilde of Upper Silesia, was addicted to her husband, who was betraying her.  She was his slave, the giant’s, who crushed her with his weight and mounted her like the stallion who we saw in the stall mounting a mare. Life was rough in the country, the farmers in the tavern were rough, rough was the grip of the giant to whom she only all too willingly submitted.  And it seemed to us a confirmation of our theory when she drew us to her and with hot breath whispered in our ears: “Ach, you still have so much in front of you.  Take advantage! The world is full of prospects, Soon you will be men. Men!”  Then she looked again out the window and waited for the giant.

There were stags and deer in the surrounding woods, and Herr Baechler insisted that we should accompany him on a hunt.  “You’re not allowed to shoot,” he said, “we’ll take care of that.  But you can watch.”   When the time came, Liselotte attacked the preparations with housewifely diligence. Provisions were crammed into knapsacks; guns were cleaned; hunting knives honed.  At ten in the evening we were off.  Before the door stood three men in heavy hunting gear, farmers from the surrounding area.

We went in a long line over the fields towards the woods.  The giant smoked a stogie and smelled hungry for action and thirsty for blood.  When we had reached the woods, the men split off in different directions.  The giant ordered us to follow him.  We climbed over boulders and the roots of trees, jumped over a brook, where the giant nearly fell in the water, and came, finally, to a clearing.  “You wait here until it’s all over,” said the giant. “Don’t budge from this spot!”  Then he disappeared.  We lay on the forest floor and waited.  After we had waited about an hour, Otto C. said: “I never imagined a hunt to be so boring.  I’m tired.  I’m going to lie down and get some sleep.  Wake me when something happens.”  Nothing happened.  From far and wide, no stag stepped majestically out of the forest, no deer, not even a rabbit.  I didn’t dare stand up because I was afraid I’d be mistaken for a wild boar or a rabbit.  Gradually, it grew lighter.  “I’m hungry,” said Otto C. who had woken up in the meantime.  “Eat something,” I said.  “We certainly have enough.”  “I believe fishing is even more boring,” said Otto C.  Suddenly we heard a shot -- many shots, accompanied by the sound of men calling to one another.  Bellowing, shooting, cursing issued from the underbrush, but we didn’t see anything. It was as if we had bad seats at the theater, behind a column where one could see nothing;  but one could hear.  Cries. The cracking of twigs underfoot. The dull fall of heavy bodies.  When it was over, three bleeding animals lay on the ground: two stags and a wild boar. 

The giant stuck a stogie in his mouth and puffed away; the farmers drew their hunting knives, cut the animals in various places, got themselves long thin tree trunks out of the forest and bound the animals securely to them.  Then we formed up for the way back.  Otto C. and I carried a pole on which the wild boar hung.  I walked behind Otto C., and saw how the blood dropped from the animal’s snout to the ground.  I was revolted.  I wanted to become a vegetarian, never to eat meat again -- unless it arrived in a form that did not recall the living animal.  Nothing brings me closer to retching than the sight of a roasted pig’s head with a lemon stuck in its mouth.

Shortly afterwards, something happened that would cause me to reflect on my otherness.  A Jewish holiday was approaching, and Jankel, the Polish prisoner of war who worked in Herr Baechler’s stables, had asked if he could go to Krojanke where there was a synagogue and a rabbi who had invited him to share a meal.  For Herr Baechler, this was a welcome opportunity to display his generosity toward the man of foreign origin.  We received the assignment to accompany Jankel to Krojanke and to stand surety with our persons that he would return again and not attempt, in the course of the journey, to escape.  Each of us received a rifle, which however was not loaded, as well as a white armband and an officially authenticated identification card.

And so we went with Jankel to Krojanke.  It was a merry trip.  We laughed and sang the whole time, and Otto C. and I conjured him not to get us in trouble.  “No,” said Jankel , and slapped us on the knee.  “I not escape, I not escape.”  In Krojanke, we delivered him directly to the synagogue, where the services had already begun.  I entered a world for which I was not prepared.  Too many people in a far too little space; too much mystery about a  God, who hadn’t called for this mystery.  I felt like interrupting, but this was just a fancy, of course.  What alienated me the most was the fact that people came in and went out while the service was going on, or formed little groups and conversed loudly, while others, in particular those in the front rows, were deep in prayer, rocking their heads, in accordance with the ancient Jewish ritual.  We told Jankel that we’d be back in an hour, and went out into the fresh air.  We walked through the streets of the little town, while we attempted to conceal our weapons.  We sat by a wayside and ate the provisions Frau Liselotte had given us to take along.  When, an hour later, we went back, the synagogue was empty.  An employee of the community, who was in the process of rearranging the chairs, gave us the address of the rabbi, where we would probably find Jankel.  As a matter of fact, there he sat, happily banqueting in festive company, a believer among believers.  “Kindly come back in an hour,” said the rabbi after we had identified ourselves,  “the meal is not yet ended.”   “I not escape!  I not escape!” Jankel called out laughing and he raised his wine glass in salute.  He was happy; he had been taken in by his own; he was being fed and fortified; while us they showed the door.  Us, the apostates; we who carried rifles on our shoulders, who did not honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, and who understood not a word of Hebrew.

When we sat again with Jankel in the train, darkness had already fallen over the landscape.  I stared out.  I heard the glasses clinking in the rabbi’s house and the lively conversation of the guests while they broke bread with one another, and the clapping of hands as they danced around the laden table.  Where did I belong?  Neither with the wild boar hunters nor with the worthy patriarchs who rocked their heads in prayer.  I believed in God, but in which language was I supposed to pray to Him?


Translated by
Jeffrey Craig Miller and Karina von Tippelskirch.

 


Logos 4.2 - spring 2005
© Logosonline 2005