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A Space Bounded by Shadows

Author: Emine Sevgi Özdamar
Translator: Yana Ellis

 

PROLOGUE

Suddenly, I was awake. Noises behind the wall, as if a truck was constantly trying to burst through the walls. Animals scuttling in the loft; animals next door tapping their feet against the wall. Someone weeping—maybe the blind woman who stands by her open door listening to the wind around 4 o’clock every morning. At those moments, she looks as if she could see. Every night the light stays on in her room. She sits on her bed; sometimes she sleeps sitting up with her eyes open and when she sleeps like that she looks as if she can see. When she dreams, she can see again because she had her eyesight until she was twelve. The images she saw for twelve years didn’t fade with her eyesight; they’ve just moved from the alleyways and rooms — now black and empty — into the blind woman’s dreams. Now all the noises were back as if a truck stood behind the wall, constantly edging forwards trying to push through the wall. After each noise, dust and scraps of decaying wood came down from the old ceiling where the beams had rotted with time and come loose.

I went down to the kitchen.

The first rays of dawn, one foot still in the night, had already sneaked through the window and settled on the table and chairs, their sad shadows separating the kitchen from this world, so they could return the place to the dead who had once lived here. Now small stones and sand trickled down from the fireplace, hitting the lids of the big pots, dispersing all around the kitchen with mechanical noises. Up in the chimney a pair of doves was cooing and perhaps beating their wings against the narrow chimney walls.

The sad light now crept from the chairs to the floor, enveloping the scattered sand and small stones that dispersed all around the kitchen from the chimney to reunite, in this half-night-half-day hour, with the hands of the dead who had once built this fireplace. The whole island was still asleep and only the blind woman stood awake by her open door and listened to the wind.

I walked towards the front door where the noises were coming from, as if a truck kept trying to burst through the wall. I opened the door; the narrow alleyway — too narrow for a car to drive through — stood empty, but a couple of heavy stones fell from the low broken wall opposite. A donkey stood there with a long rope around his neck, tied to the only tree in the overgrown garden. The donkey tried to escape from the rope, running again and again as far as the rope could reach, bashing at the low wall with his whole body and hooves. Behind the donkey lay the ruins of a Greek chapel and behind it, the Greek Orthodox church.

While I was straining my neck looking at the Orthodox church, the donkey too turned towards it and stood like this — quietly — straining his neck. Had the church whispered something to the donkey while I was still asleep and made it so restless, or had the church talked to itself and the donkey overheard it? Had the Orthodox church always talked to itself, or did it talk only last night to the donkey; both abandoned by their people, both tied firmly to a place they couldn’t run away from. The feet of all the people who walk down this alleyway to get to the harbour and then back up to their houses had vanished hours ago. These feet were now lying behind the doors of the houses in the form of shoes and had to wait for the morning. It won’t be for another hour that the shoes of the fishermen who go out to sea will be turned again towards the front door and put on again; some of the fishermen’s wives will feel strange in their nightgowns while lying in bed, their gaze fixed upon their departing husbands. When the men, with hurried steps, begin to walk through the dark, narrow, stone-paved alleyways towards the harbour, some will even knock on windows in passing, without interrupting their stride: ‘Memet, Memet, get up! It’s five o’clock – kayık kalkıyor, the boat is leaving.’ The water they quickly splash onto their faces will cling to their deep wrinkles and only hit the ground halfway to the harbour.

When these fishermen go to sea in their little boats, they’ll keep silent because it’s still night. But their boat motors, not built for boats but for field irrigation systems, get louder and louder until the whole hull starts trembling and some of the fishermen’s noses start to tickle because of it. Takatakatakatakatakatakatakatakatakataka. These noises, like sky-sized knives, will tear the night into pieces. When the pieces of night night’s pieces start to fall into the sea, thousands of crows will sit on the housetops or on the island’s telegraph posts and caw in chorus until the imam starts chanting the call to morning prayer in the distant mosque. Two loudspeakers are attached to the dome of the Orthodox church. From the church dome the imam’s voice will sneak through the closed windows and start tiptoeing around the rooms. The voice will stroke the hand towels, quietly hanging in the dark, turn the light switches on and off, ruffle the bedsheets and make every dog with half-opened eyes bark. Then next door’s cockerel will start crowing üüürürürü. Then it will fall quiet again until the light chased by shadows starts caressing the trees. At that moment a few peaches will fall from the tree.

But there is still time.

Just for now though, the donkey, the Orthodox church, the blind woman sitting outside her open front door, and I are alone.

The night has pulled something from the darkest corners of its memory and has quietly shared this something between the Orthodox church, the donkey, the blind woman, and me.

 

THE ORTHODOX CHURCH SPEAKS

ISLAND

All houses on this island were related. The people too resembled each other. You could almost believe that behind their front doors, similar masks hung on doornails that they put on before leaving the house; even their hands looked as if they had put on the same hand-masks. Some were fishermen, others olive pickers.

This Turkish Island lies exactly opposite the Greek island of Lesbos.

The island people here had three winds: Imbat, Poyraz, Lodos. There was the Y?ld?z wind too, but it didn’t come by that often. Imbat, on the other hand, was a frequent visitor; Imbat blew from opposite, from Lesbos — first enveloping the houses of Lesbos in fog and haze, then galloping in on the backs of the flying horses across the Aegean that connected these two islands, blowing all the laundry that hung on the balconies or in the gardens backwards; incessantly punching the bellies of bedsheets, trousers, underpants, pillowcases, petticoats, and nylon stockings, flap-flap-flap. Imbat swept everything backwards: the fishermen’s hair, the fishermen’s wives’ hair, the children’s hair, the horses’ manes, and the donkeys’ ears. When Imbat blew, sheets of paper lying on the steep cobblestones flew backwards, away from the sea and up the alleyways. Imbat glued the women’s clothes to their bodies, outlining their breasts, bellies, and thighs, and what was between those thighs. Back in the days of the Ottoman Empire mothers went to the Turkish baths to look for a well-built girl for their sons: a bridal show in the Turkish bath. Imbat offered the same spectacle.

On the days when Imbat stopped blowing, Poyraz replaced it, doing the opposite. Poyraz blew from the mountains, sweeping everything forward towards the sea. The fishermen’s hair flew from back to front, and the fishermen’s wives’ clothes clung to their bodies, so that their bottoms and legs — as if sculpted by artists — could be seen in the alleyways. And so, visits from both winds — Imbat and Poyraz — immediately transformed this island into a Salon de Louvre where you could observe the statues of Venus now from the front, now from the back. Poyraz, which blew from the Turkish Kaz Mountains towards Lesbos, didn’t envelop Lesbos in haze and fog as Imbat did, but instead made the houses on Lesbos visible from afar.

The third important wind was Lodos, the hot southern wind. When it came, the first thing it did was slap all the islanders in the face. On Lodos days the women, men, children, donkeys, and goats looked sorrowfully at the ground like trolls from Peer Gynt, trudging along the steep narrow alleyways or around the harbour as though in a slow-motion film. Even the flies flew slowly, saying vee-vee-vee rather than wheeze-veez-wheeze-veez. On Lodos days, the sea looked like an impotent sky that had fallen to Earth. Amidst the heat, the windowpanes seemed to expand, breathing heavily as if about to burst. One of the older fishermen once said that when Hitler bombed Lesbos, the windowpanes had burst on this Turkish island, and the numerous shards of glass in the sunny alleyways stabbed the eye like a sharp knife, and the Greeks of Lesbos fled here in boats from Hitler.

Just like the winds Imbat, Poyraz, and Lodos, the animals also claim that it is they who live here on this island, rather than humans. Let the countless seagulls living on the twenty-five uninhabited islands surrounding this one teach their baby seagulls to fly whenever and however it suits them, the adult seagull choir encouraging the youngsters into flight scream with loud seagull voices sounding like a never-ending laugh, propelling the baby seagulls for hours from the rocks to the sky, from the sky to the sea, then back up into the sky. Let them use all the rocks on the low or high cliffs as their seagull toilet. Let them fly behind the fishing boats in groups, like a dragon’s tail, hovering motionless in the sky until the fishermen throw small unsaleable fish from their nets back into the sea. As soon as the small half-dead fish hit the water, then the seagulls, before carrying the fish off into the sky in their beaks snapping open and shut, screaming loudly again in chorus as only seagulls can, without tearing the sky into pieces, summon all the gulls from the twenty-five uninhabited islands to the feast. And come they do. But let’s leave the seagulls on their twenty-five islands still uninhabited by humans eating, shitting, and teaching their chicks to fly. Here, on our islands inhabited by humans, you might say that together with the winds Imbat, Poyraz and Lodos, it was the cats and crickets that occupied all the trees and gardens, roofs, and alleys. z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?-z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?.

Whenever the fishermen’s wives, feeling strange in their clothes, walked down the steep narrow alleyways towards the harbour, z?z?z?z?z?z? resounded above their heads, and down between their feet, meow, meow, meow, meow. Whenever the women tired of hearing these voices from the trees above and the earth below, they threatened the crickets, craning their necks with a ‘sus yeter giver — enough, be silent, die,’ and bowing their heads, they threatened to banish the cats to one of the twenty-five uninhabited islands.

I’ll take you to Naked Island.
I’ll take you to Melina Island.
I’ll take you to Fig Island.

Fig Island, one of the twenty-five uninhabited islands, once had four fig trees with really juicy figs. But six years ago, one of the fishermen hacked them down to burn in his winter stove. And all the other fishermen have been scolding him for six years because they could no longer find shade when they cast their nets in the bay of Fig Island and wanted to smoke a cigarette under a tree. The fishermen loved those trees because they were always on rocking boats and above them, whenever they raised their heads, they saw the sky also tossing like the sea with clouds always on the move — appearing at first like an animal, then like alleys in the sky transforming the animal into disembodied cotton wool. And from these sky-alleys seagulls fly, suddenly and purposefully, straight towards the fishing nets. Curses were hurled at the seagulls, but the seagulls carried only the fish into the sky and the fishermen’s curses fell into the water. The fishermen always had seagull stories; they gave the seagulls a female name: Aziza. ‘Aziza geldi, Aziza geldi, Aziza gitti. I just pulled in the net, what did I see? Aziza’s come and gone.’

The fishermen’s wives had no Aziza stories to tell; they didn’t scold the Azizas, they almost never saw them. But they had goats or horses and cats.

Ayşe hanım, for example. She lived at the top of the island’s hill. She had stopped going down to the harbour thirty years ago, she said. Ayşe was newlywed back then; she had come from a mountain village. Her husband wanted to take her to the harbour. They drank tea in one of the tea houses; the husband had a horse back at home and said to Ayşe , ‘Wait here, I’ll go to the restaurant to get some stale bread for the horse.’

Ayşe waited for a couple of hours, then walked the steep alleyway on her own, wanting to get home; the houses all looked alike though, and she couldn’t find her house at first. When she finally found it, she saw her husband feeding the horse and talking to him. She swore that she would never again go to the harbour. ‘Go and drink tea at the harbour with your horse,’ she’d said; she has upheld her oath for thirty years and still curses the horse.

One of the neighbours who never married had a sister who was also a spinster. She poked holes in the cats’ ears and adorned them with earrings made of silver threads. She did that when the cats started yowling for the tomcats’ attention. And she put walnut shells on the cats’ paws, for them to pull on as slippers when they entered the house.

Another fisherman’s wife kept a goat, but the goat wouldn’t let her near because, according to the woman, the goat was in love with her husband. Whenever he walked over to the goat, she would lick his hand. If the wife was there, the goat would kick her in the shins and embrace the fisherman with her front legs on his shoulders. Another fisherman’s wife ran away with a shepherd and his herd of goats. Her husband stole the billy goat from the herd and hid it — the shepherd went crazy, ‘Where’s my billy-goat?’ It was autumn, mating season. ‘Give me my wife back, and I’ll give you your goat,’ said the husband. Three weeks later they exchanged woman for goat.

Everyone here has some sort of animal story. No one knows whether they are true or not. The men don’t talk about their wives, but about Azizas; and the women don’t talk about their husbands, but about goats and horses.

The neighbours’ voices can be heard until 9 o’clock at night. Amidst their voices the cats, sheep and birds are also conversing. Whenever two elderly neighbours talk to each other, it sounds like parrots chattering: half Greek, half Turkish. Ela bre Hasan. Kala bre pedakimu. At 9 o’clock people change into nice clothes and call to each other ‘Ela Hasan,’ ‘Ela Sevim’ and go to the coffee houses on the harbour. After 9 o’clock the houses empty of human voices. Only the animals next door tap their feet against the walls. All the feet that go down to the harbour must pass the Orthodox Church.

The first time I walked from the harbour to the Orthodox Church, a long time ago now, the sky still looked undecided after the heavy rain: should it reveal the moon or should it hide it, together with the stars, from the eyes of the world? The path to the church was dark; a few streetlamps flickered dimly; some were not on. The wind blew half-drawn curtains into the rooms, then sucked them back out into the street and showed me the rooms. In one room, a little old woman stood motionless, a cloth in her hand. In the next house, a man in pyjamas was sitting in an armchair, then a small child sat down with him. In the next one, the room was lit, but no one was inside. I saw a large, framed photo hanging on the wall: a man and a woman. From time to time people walked up the cobblestone alleyway in pairs, or a man and a woman walked down the alleyway towards the harbour. Everything — their bodies, their feet, their hair — knew every step of these paths. They were their childhood alleyways: up, down, down to the port, then up and back home.

‘Mama, I’m here.’

‘Son, go and buy salt and don’t forget the kerosene.’

‘Mama, I lost the money, had it in my hand but Poyraz took it away from me.’

‘When your father comes home, he’ll show you Poyraz!’ ‘Mama, I want to die before you.’

‘What are you saying, daughter?’

‘I love you very much, I cannot live without you, let me die before you.’ ‘And what am I to do then, daughter?’

‘Mama, I saw a white snake in the garden.’

‘What would a snake be doing there? You must’ve seen something else.’

‘Mama, I swear it was a snake. May I go blind if I’m lying.’

All these words surely had been spoken in the houses I saw on my way to the Orthodox Church. And like all childhood words they had been living for years with the now grown-up people — under the pillows or the beds or behind the picture frames. Some of those words also surely lived in the wells that endured their loneliness with dignity in the dark gardens of these houses and allowed people to lower buckets for water. And surely, every time, they found their childhood words in the water drawn from these wells.

‘Mama, the bucket fell into the well.’

‘You clumsy fool.’

‘Mama, the rain is coming into the house under the door.’

‘Mama, I have my period.’

And surely in these houses lived not only these Turkish sentences, but in the depths of the wells or in the foundations or in the ceilings or under the wooden stairs, far below, there were also Greek sentences — voices from back then, because from the time of Homer until 1922, Turkish Greeks had lived here on this island. The Ottoman Empire had collapsed after the First World War, the Germans allied with the Ottomans lost the war against the English, Italians, Greeks, and French, who divided the Ottoman Empire among themselves. Atatürk and his followers continued to fight the occupiers, won that war, and called the new republic the Republic of Turkey. And what did it mean to be a Turk back then? A Turk was a concept of the future. The demise of the Ottoman Empire had left behind fear, trauma, and uncertainty. All Turks were to gather under the umbrella of one nation so they would no longer be afraid, and those who were not Turks were a problem for the new nation. And so the Turkish Greeks had to leave Turkey and the remaining Turks were to gather under this one-nation-umbrella and had to practice becoming-one-nation again and again in order to give birth to this nation.

In 1923 the Turkish Greeks were transported from here to Lesbos and Crete and the Greek Turks, who had lived for centuries in Greece, on Lesbos and Crete, were brought here to this island. They called this the population exchange. But the dead in the graves could not be exchanged, the cemeteries remained, and the languages could not be exchanged. The Greek Turks, who were brought here from Lesbos and Crete, have spoken Greek as well as Turkish for generations, and the Turkish Greeks who were chased from here to Greece — on Lesbos and Crete — have continued to speak Turkish, as well as Greek amongst themselves for generations.

And from both coasts, every evening people see the lights on the other shore where their grandparents lived, and when a Greek drowns off Lesbos the corpse appears here on this Turkish island, and when a Turk drowns here, the corpse washes up on the shores of Lesbos. The winds and the sea exchange the dead and return them to their places of origin. The Orthodox church, which had to stay behind on this island, has been an orphan since 1923: no candles, no mass, no Greeks opening and closing the door. What did the church see back then when the people fled? A wicker chair overturned by the wind, pegs left behind on the clotheslines, leftovers in the cooking pots, a departing person dragging behind a branch of ripe lemons to the ship, a person who regrets not having seen all the corners of the island he has to leave, people apologizing to their dead in the cemeteries before they go, hairs from the skins of the slaughtered animals that accompany the people gliding over the sea, jasmine scent in the air, thousands of unpicked tomatoes in the fields, three pairs of broken glasses in an abandoned house, pillows, mattresses, armchairs — with sleeping abandoned cats and dogs — in the alleyways, a pigeon with a hanging head, cigarette smoke over the Aegean, a padlock on the door of a house to which no-one is ever going to return, the olive trees covered with dust rustling in the wind, the waiting of bewildered, unpicked olives, water still flowing from a tap left on, a glass tea cup left untouched on a table, the table wobbling in the wind, tea trickling into the saucer, figs unpicked, burst or half-eaten by birds on the trees, pomegranates split open on the trees, an abandoned truck full of picked cotton, tufts of cotton blown by the wind into the railing of the loading bay and sticking there, a ladder leaning against a garden wall, a lost left shoe lying on the road, the priest’s fishing equipment forgotten in the church, telegraph poles on the main road, the telegraph’s incessant ticking filling the air; clay jugs for olive oil buried in the soil, without lids, unharvested grapes swarmed with flies, blood from slaughtered animals, two stray horses swimming behind the ships on which their owners sail.
They’re going on a long journey
Looking back at those who stay
From the ship’s upper deck
They won’t come back
They won’t return
They stand as if rooted
As if rooted they stand side by side
Casting a knowing look
at every single one who stayed behind
You cannot stop them
Even if you fall to your knees
Stay, stay here
Would anyone ever stay
The ship sets sail
The journey begins
The ship sets sail, unerring
And then, at some point, deep inside you
Your heart opens — bleeding
The dead will enter
A place they know
From now on you are the burden bearer for the dead.

The Greeks who lit the candles in the Orthodox Church board the ship; the candles are still burning; the dogs wander around the cemetery; fluttering tablecloths in a coffee house by the sea, decapitated heads in the well, the lonesome dog sees his owner’s head and howls. In which phase of the moon and by what wind — Poyraz, Imbat, Lodos or Meltem — did they leave? If ships carried the Turkish Greeks from here to Lesbos and, then the Greek Turks from Lesbos to this island on the same day, the hairs of one would have fluttered backwards and the hairs of the other forwards. Wells full of words. Whispering houses empty of people.

 

From Emine Sevgi Özdamar,  Ein von Schatten begrenzter Raum, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2021

Everything We Don’t Recall

Author: Christiane Hoffmann
Translator: Jo Heinrich

Translator’s Preface
Christiane Hoffmann’s creative non-fiction narrative retraces the journey her father Walter had to take as a nine-year-old boy during the Second World War, when the Russians were closing in on the Germans. Like almost a fifth of all Germans by the end of the War, they became refugees: he and his family left their homes and travelled 550km west to a town now at the far western border of the Czech Republic. Hoffmann retraces the entire route on foot and the result is this book; this excerpt is from the opening pages.

I set off at eight in the morning. After just a few steps, the village is behind me, the grey houses and the colourful ones, the abandoned houses and the ones where only an old woman still lives, the houses with young families, the barns with their sagging roofs, and the pale church tower. The village is left behind, as it’s so often been left behind, silent, loyal and full of compassion for all those who have no choice but to leave and go here or there.

The stone angel gives me its blessing and the two-legged village sign nods to me, grinning with its crooked red mouth, the name Różyna crossed through from bottom left to top right. Then I’m alone on the country road, and the wind rolls over me.

The clouds lie over the wide landscape like a grey quilt, and only on the horizon, where the crests of the Riesengebirge mountains reach the sky, is there a shimmering stripe of blue. The ash trees along the road lean south; mistletoe hangs in their bare branches, black like charred Christmas baubles.

It’s mild for the end of January.

When you set out all those years ago, the road to Lossen was deep in snow, the air was icy, a good twenty degrees colder. It must have already been dark at five in the afternoon. You could hear the Soviet artillery shooting over the river Oder behind you: the Russians, as you always called them.

The rumbling beyond the Oder had begun days earlier. The war was approaching the village as a noise, as an ever-louder thunder beyond the river, like a large beast or a dragon, only held back by the thin line of the Oder, rampaging and raging on the opposite bank. The Wehrmacht had blown up the bridges the day before.

‘When we heard the Russians shooting over the Oder’: those were the words you used. Other than that, you could barely remember a thing.

I began asking when I was young and still a child, but even then, over thirty years had passed since that day, and your memory had congealed, like blood over an old wound. A hard crust that always covered what had happened with the same sentences. I asked and asked, but you only ever told the same story: how in the rush to leave you’d forgotten the top half of your sailor suit, the white shirt with the navy collar: Sunday best in a Silesian farming village.It was new, you were nine, you’d been given it for Christmas and you’d never worn it. It was, you said, in the front room under the Christmas tree.

The sailor suit, the Russians, the Oder: you never told me any more than that, but since then I’ve read and spoken to others, I’ve gathered together snippets and formed a picture of that day, 22 January 1945. It was a Monday.

I now know more than you; I know that just two days before, on the Saturday evening, Wehrmacht soldiers had entered the village in a motorised column, and they were billeted in the farmhouses along the main street. You boys had been tobogganing on the Kirchberg and then you came running along to pull the soldiers’ heavy packs to their quarters with your sledges.

On the Sunday the rumbling grew louder; after church the adults stood around in small groups on the snowy village street, talking anxiously: would they have to flee? Fear crept into the farmhouses, where at night the women wept over their fallen husbands and prayed for their missing sons.

On the Monday morning, the Wehrmacht column hastily left the village and everyone became restless. The Scholz family had already packed the day before and wanted to set off at once, but Schütz, the mayor and a party member, stood at the end of the village, pistol at the ready, and refused to let anyone leave. Only at four in the afternoon did the order come to vacate the village within the hour. Schütz was now running from farmhouse to farmhouse spreading the message.

Your mother had scarcely begun to pack the bare essentials; there was too much to do. She stuffed laundry and bedding into corn sacks and filled a crate with oats for the horses. People grabbed whatever was in sight: the smoked ham from the last pig slaughtered, some tools, what little jewellery they owned. People with no transport begged the farmers to let them add their belongings to one of the carts.

Your mother took the horses out of the stable. Your father had been conscripted into the Volkssturm a few weeks earlier, along with the brown horse. Two horses were still left on the farm, you used to tell me: one lame, and one so young it had never pulled a cart. Harnessing the horses proved too difficult for your mother. The sailor suit, the Russians, the Oder, the horses.

The artillery’s thunder grew louder. The dragon reared up over the village, spitting fire and sending people scrambling around feverishly; the air was ringing, the earth was quaking, shells were landing left and right of the houses and tearing craters in the frozen-hard fields. Even the animals were seized by the panic of having to leave: the cows were bellowing, and the dogs were barking and pulling on their chains. The servant girls went round the barns one last time and filled the troughs with feed, scattered three days’ worth of grain for the chickens: you wouldn’t be gone for longer than that, you’d been told, you’d only need to be out of the firing line for a while.

Dusk fell. Your neighbour helped your family harness the horses. Your mother got her mother-in-law onto the cart, as well as your uncle, who was as lame as the horse. Lame uncle, lame horse: you used the same word for both. You yourself would be walking.

And it was in this haste, in the scramble to gather everything amid artillery thunder and fire breath, that only half of your sailor suit came with you in flight. The top was left behind and fell into the hands of the Russians, or maybe it was worn by a Polish boy later. As far as you were concerned, it was lost forever.

The sailor suit, the Russians, the Oder, the horses. It wasn’t you I heard but others in your never-changing words; they were strange, dead words that my questions could never penetrate.  All the same, I wanted to hear the story from you again and again, the story of that moment of departure, the moment that changed everything and defined everything: our family history’s primal scene. The sailor suit, the Russians, the Oder, the horses. Now I will remember in your place. I now know more than you, but I still want to ask you, even now that it’s no longer possible.

I had to put on protective clothing when I was visiting you. It was on a shelf at the entrance to the ward, between tubes and syringes, pale yellow, the colour of liquid snot. The nurse helped me tie the gown at the neck and back, like something you’d wear for an operation. It was disposable clothing. When we left your room, we had to throw it away in the big bin in the corner. Once I forgot to throw away the gown; straight away a nurse in the corridor asked me to take more care.

The facemasks had elastic that went around my head, and they covered my nose; wire attached at the top edge could be bent to the shape of my nose to ensure a good fit. At that time, a year and a half before the pandemic, I hadn’t seen them before. The rubber gloves were the worst. It was good to talk to you, but I’d come to hold your hand.

That first day, I respected the rules. It was what you’d taught me. I now regret so many hours when I could have been touching you. Another oversight.

When my grandmother was still alive, the adults would sometimes sit around her kitchen table in the evenings: you and Mother, your brother Manfred and his wife, Grandmother, her brothers and their sons who often visited. Cigarette smoke mingled with the cheesy smell of the open sandwiches; the lamp, a wire frame that Mother had covered in floral fabric with a brown background, gave out a dim light.

It was almost completely dark under the table. We children would play under there. Half fascinated, half appalled, we’d compare the hairiness of the adults’ legs peeking out between the top of their socks and their trouser hems: your occasional strands of hair and your brother Manfred’s thick fur. Grandmother’s feet were bare in her slippers, her shins gnarled and covered with scars and bruises that never seemed to go away.  We’d pull your socks up and down, rolling their cuffs into soft little sausages. We’d never have dared do that to Manfred’s.

They were cosy, dark evenings. Everything in Grandmother’s apartment, from the curtains down to her slippers, was in nondescript, sombre colours, even the simple furniture she and Grandfather could afford at the end of the 1950s when they finally got their own flat from the housing corporation Neue Heimat.

Skat and political debate were the order of the day. Conversations usually began with the politics of the moment, taxes and Willy Brandt, then they’d move on to the Nazi times, the War and all the things they could only say amongst themselves. That not everything had been bad after all. Motorways and jobs for everyone. That Hitler’s Germany, whether they liked it or not, had ultimately saved Europe from communism. And that destroying Dresden had really been quite unnecessary. And once they’d put the world to rights, when they’d gone through all the wrongs they’d suffered, the conversation’s fervour would subside, passion would slowly give way to melancholy, and thoughts would turn to home.

Above the table, there were sighs. Under the table, we’d try to keep quiet: it was precisely in mournful moments like these that your brother Manfred could fly into a temper. A loud laugh or a stolen slipper could make him lash out unexpectedly and painfully. You’d usually sit there in silence. Above the table, they’d remember the homeland and the reminiscing sounded like a deep, sustained melody, like the prisoners’ chorus from Nabucco, which I knew had been my grandfather’s, your father’s, favourite music, while your mother preferred The Blue Danube.

For me, home was the sound of Wir lagen vor Madagaskar, the old seafaring song: ‘Ahoy, Comrades,’ the section when the gloomy reality, the plague and the putrid water gives way to the refrain and its sustained, almost cheerful melody: ‘Yes, when we hear the accordion on board.’ And when the sailors go quiet, there’s something comforting about their homesickness, in spite of all the desolation on the world’s oceans, because everyone’s longing for the homeland they’d like to see again one day. That’s exactly how it was.

I inherited my sentimental side from you.

Above the table, there were sighs. Underneath, we’d play prisoners or sailors.  And that’s how we picked up the idea of home being something that had always been lost, something that only our ancestors knew, but that we ourselves had never had and never would have. Home was a land of longing, a paradise that we’d been driven out of forever. Its name suited it. Home had a name that could have come from a fairy tale. We imagined it as a beautiful, enchanted place by a river, in a hollow between rolling hills and broad fields, with roses all around. Home’s name was Rosenthal: literally, ‘Rose Valley’.

I’m travelling to Rosenthal in the summer after your death, to the village on the Oder that’s now called Różyna.

‘What are you going to do there?’ my Polish teacher asks, ‘It’s a very small village.’

Before I set off, I google some Polish vocabulary; who knows when I’ll next have Wi-Fi? Urszula’s concern has become infectious: ‘Where are you going to sleep?’ I hadn’t even given it a thought. In Rosenthal.

‘Take a sleeping bag,’ Urszula says. I put a tent and a roll mat in the boot as well; maybe I can camp out back in the cemetery. And some loo roll. Hire: nająć, bathroom: łazienka and power socket: gniazdo (it’s actually a nest, I’ll find out later, they say ‘gniazdko’, little nest). Then there’s the zloty exchange rate, around one to four, and the weather app. It’s going to be very hot. All week.

‘Take some food with you,’ a girlfriend suggests. But I’m certain that won’t be necessary. I’m familiar enough with the East to know that.

I set off. Where am I going? I’m going to Poland, I’m going to Silesia, but what even is Silesia? A province, a landscape, a fallen empire; I’m going to my father’s country. My father came from a country that no longer exists. I’m a Silesian; am I a Silesian? My ancestors were Silesians.

I grew up in Wedel, a town on the outskirts of Hamburg; I lived there for nearly two decades, the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere, but Wedel was never home. Rosenthal was home; home didn’t exist. Rosenthal remained my West German life’s distant vanishing point. And whenever people asked me where I came from and I answered ‘Wedel’, it only ever felt like half the truth.

I’m driving east. After Cottbus, the distance signs on the motorway only mention one place: there’s nothing for a long time, and then at some point Wrocław. There’s very little traffic; every so often I overtake a green Flixbus, Berlin-Wrocław 21 euros, but otherwise I’m more or less alone on the route through the forest. Mile after mile, nothing but forest; the East begins here, a gigantic no man’s land, a precursor of Siberia.

Speed limits don’t mean anything in Poland. Everyone drives as fast as they can. That comes in handy; I race towards Rosenthal. Race over the border where we used to wait for hours on end to be allowed through: quiet as mice, mustn’t laugh, keep our mouths shut, don’t attract attention, taciturn people in uniforms, terse commands, wind the window down, hurry up, apologise if the window’s stuck, stern looks into the car, strange stamps in my children’s passport, my mother nervous, anxious to get everything right, a feeling of subordinacy.

Now I drive on without stopping; on the contrary, I step on the accelerator and race past the border guards’ buildings with their peeling paint; I only notice I’m in Poland when the smooth German asphalt gives way to concrete slabs with wide cracks in between: da-dack, da-dack, da-dack. Headache.

The interview for my first editor’s job, a large office not far from Frankfurt’s main railway station, the publisher in a dark green woollen jumper. ‘Have you been to the USA?’

I’d never been to the USA. A West German, nearing my late 20s, never been to New York. I’d been to Leningrad and Moscow, Kiev and Lviv, Riga, Tallinn and Tartu. I’d been to Altai and to Bishkek and to Crimea. I’d been to Barnaul. Ever heard of Barnaul? It’s in western Siberia; back then there were a few Volga Germans in the area, tidy villages, one-street villages like Rosenthal.

I’d never been to New York, and I didn’t feel I’d missed out. The United States could wait; they carried on as they were, they had no secrets. That’s what I thought back then. But then, in front of the big desk in Frankfurt, it suddenly seemed a mistake. How could I become a foreign affairs editor if I’d never been to the USA?

‘So you,’ the publisher said, ‘are an easterner.’

An easterner. None of my ancestors, on either my mother’s or my father’s side, were born significantly west of the Oder; both parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, all of them easterners. Danzig (Gdansk), Elbing (Elbląg), Königsberg (Kaliningrad), Heubude (Stogi), Trunz (Milejewo) and somewhere in Pomerania: that was my mother’s line, and my father’s: Rosenthal, just one and a half kilometres west of the Oder. Not one place in my family history still belongs to Germany. Where should my gaze fall, if not to the east?

There was only Poland that I left out for a long time. I did go to New York at some point. And I kept moving east, to the Volga and the Amur, to Minsk and Kaluga, Irkutsk and Khabarovsk, to the White Sea, the Black Sea and Lake Baikal, to the Urals, to the Tian Shan mountains and to the Caucasus, to Chechnya, to one-street villages there as well. There was only Poland that I missed out.

The three visits to Rosenthal didn’t count: that wasn’t Poland, that was home: the village beyond the seven mountains, a place with no geography.

The convoy sets off at five o’clock, around fifty drawn carts, three pulled by oxen; maybe 300 inhabitants, the eldest almost ninety, the youngest a newborn, just a few days old. A handful of old people stay behind: people who would rather die at home than flee. 300 inhabitants, around half the Rosenthalers; the other half – men and boys between sixteen and sixty – are at war, including Manfred and Gotthard, your two elder brothers, and your father.

Manfred, born in 1925, went to school in the nearest town of Brieg, took his school-leaving exam early, in the summer of 1943, was briefly given the role of Hitler Youth leader for the villages of Lossen, Jeschen, Jägerndorf, Koppen, Schwanowitz, Schönau, Pramsen, Frohnau and Rosenthal and then voluntarily signed up for the Navy. He last visited Rosenthal in April, his first and only leave. At Fuhrmann’s guesthouse, they put long planks on top of barrels and showed the film Riding for Germany with Willy Birgel. That was nine months before.

Manfred’s now in Gotenhafen (Gdynia). And as they’re looking for volunteers for the small arms combat unit, he takes a step forward on the parade ground, because he’s had enough of parading and he can’t bear the thought of his younger brother already being at the front. Manfred is then trained to plant explosive devices on enemy ships in a one-man submarine: an assignment impossible to survive, a suicide mission deep down in the sea.

Your father, born in 1898, was conscripted into the Volkssturm in mid-January; he fought on the Western Front in the First World War, but that was different: he was very young back then, just seventeen, and the war never reached Silesia.

That Monday, 22 January 1945, as the Red Army’s advancing to the Oder at Rosenthal and your mother’s trying in vain to harness the horses to leave, your father’s sitting in a guard room in Breslau (Wrocław), writing you a letter. Sender: Volkssturm Private Herbert Hoffmann, Fortress Battery 3049, Leuthen Barracks, Breslau. To: Frau Olga Hoffmann, Rosenthal, Brieg District.

‘Dear Mother, dear Adolf,’

Adolf: that’s you.

It’s a long letter, especially for a farmer: like a sailor’s letter, it’s full of longing for home and for the life that’s slipping away from him.

‘I must say it’s impossible for me to talk of things going well: there’s no place like home. The military is just no fun for an old man.’

At almost fifty, your father actually feels like an old man; he’s worked from dawn to past nightfall for over thirty years, he’s paid off the farm’s debts and rented extra land. He’s looking forward to handing over the farm to Gotthard, his middle son, turned seventeen in August and the farmer of the three brothers. But Gotthard’s now been in the Volkssturm since the autumn, defending the Oder line.

It’s a letter full of concern for his sons at the front.

‘My thoughts are constantly with you and the boys.’

Full of concern for the farmhouse and his wife, a letter full of dark forebodings.

‘I keep thinking you won’t have to leave home. But if needs must, it will just have to be.’

The regional leader, Gauleiter Karl Hanke, declared Breslau a stronghold the day before: hundreds of thousands of women and children have to leave the city and are forced out into the snowstorm. The war hasn’t reached Breslau yet, but as Herbert’s sitting in the guard room at three o’clock in the morning writing his letter, the dragon’s already raised its claws. The dragon will take hold of Herbert; it will wreck his life and only let him out of its grasp years later, half dead and at the other end of Germany.

Your father will lose control of his life; he’ll obey orders, both German and Soviet; for many years, war and captivity will determine his fate. He’ll never go back to Rosenthal and he’ll never set foot on his farm again. His mother, brother and one of his sons won’t survive the war, and he’ll only see his wife again years later, after he’s lost everything and nothing’s ever as it was before.

Your father knows none of that, but he can sense an impending disaster, he can sense that what meant a lot eight days ago is now fading into the background.

‘We must not despair but trust in God, then even the greatest of hardships can be endured.’

The most tender lines are for you, dear Adolf.
‘I always have an image of him, doing his schoolwork, playing around outside until he’s ripped his trousers, and hiding in Papa’s bed in the evenings. Has he finished reading the sailor book yet?’

It’s a quiet letter, reaching out for the familiar and clinging to the minutiae: hoping for post, maybe even a visit (she should take a 2 or a 12 to the final stop, he tells his wife), sending regards to friends and relatives in the village, hoping things won’t turn out as badly as he suspects.

‘One day everything will turn around and we can go about our work peacefully.’

And to finish, these words: ‘All done, all good.’

It sounds like an incantation, as clearly it’s not all good, or it could be a secret message to his wife: maybe they whispered it to each other as they sank into bed back in Rosenthal after sixteen, eighteen hours of work on the farm: all done, all good.

That Monday, 22 January 1945, changes everything. For a long time it will define our fate, for decades and generations; it will change your life, your family’s lives, mine, and my children’s. After that, for a very long time, there’s no firm footing for our family anymore.

Under my childhood, too, there will be dark, boggy ground, like a moor into which I could easily sink. I have to take good care to stay on the marked paths, always be home before nightfall and not look too deeply into the dark; it can drag me down. It’s the knowledge that you can lose everything from one day to the next, from one hour to the next, from four to five o’clock, house and farm, sons, brothers and parents, home, and even memory.

Excerpted from Christiane Hoffmann, Alles, was wir nicht erinnern. Zu Fuß auf dem Fluchtweg meines Vaters, © Verlag C.H.Beck oHG, München 2022.

Transitions

Author: Maja Haderlap
Translator: Aaron Carpenter

 

Mountain locales have a mysterious effect on me. They start a mechanism of remembering in me and at the same time awake my instinct to take flight.

In each mountain village, I automatically keep an eye out for streets and paths leading out of the area into the valley or elsewhere. Mountain villages make me uneasy, because they remind me of my childhood and of how much I am searching for a location, for a point of departure in my texts, so I can leave it immediately, because going away and coming back retraces the movement of my writing, in a manner not always known to me.

I know that the mountain locales I have conjured up exist only very rarely, that by now many mountain villages have transformed into summer and tourist communities, that they have discarded their histories and memories. And yet it is exactly the mountain locations with their exposed topographies that represent walking, traversing passes, chasms, and crossings; wandering in impassable terrain between languages and borders, which in turn dictate my existence as an author. The mountain locations with their references to tradition also sharpen one’s sense of change, of transformation, of the character of memory.

The instant I arrive in a mountain village, I remember the childhood smells that I carry in my memories, stories that I believed were forgotten and that I find again rolled into bundles in my pocket. During my explorations of locations and memories, the histories of discarding an old culture, an old language, of words left behind gain contours. In a depopulated mountain village, you unintentionally reproduce cultural change. How else could you explain the desire to want to morph into something else after a trek through the mountains? As soon as you climb down from the mountain, you want to exchange the mountain face for something urban, put on more comfortable shoes, like when you quickly applied mascara to your eyelashes as a schoolgirl or put on different pants before getting on the bus that went into the city.

At this point, I want to take up a narrative thread from my novel Angel of Oblivion that at first glance is not recognizable. It is a tale of the loss of one language and gliding into another that was always there, even if it wasn’t spoken in my immediate family. It is the story of a transition, a metamorphosis, perhaps of a loss, that doesn’t concern just me but should fundamentally make us consider whether the changing of a culture, the leaving of a language, makes us richer or poorer. Where do the transitions lead, to cultural richness or to spiritual impoverishment, desertification?

The example of the Slovenes can make this change visible. The Slovenian language is spoken or understood by around 12,000 people in Carinthia. This language has been struggling to survive for decades. It is struggling for its function in everyday society and for recognition as the second official language. It is struggling to be a self-evident part of public life and to not have to first draw attention through loud protests. It asserts itself in families and in village communities, but leads the life of an outsider in the political and cultural institutions of this country. It is still a political issue, which means that it must be subordinate to a principle of allegiance: you can be for or against it, you make a statement with it. In recent decades, it has suffered the loss of lissomness and liveliness. But it also gained empowerment through bilingual educational institutions. Carinthian Slovenes defend themselves tenaciously against the daily erosion of their language, against the silencing of communication in Slovenian. They protect themselves, but don’t have the financial, economic, and political means to assert themselves as a socially influential group. They are on the defensive.

I have been a witness to the loss of the Slovenian language in Carinthia for as long as I can remember. Slovenian always seemed to be against the spirit of time and on the cusp of erosion in political and societal contexts. It was always the persistent ones who held onto it, and the ones who were insecure who gave it up. Those concerned have long suspected that a language lives only when it is used, but it will disappear if treated as a jewel in a museum. A language cannot just struggle with the past; to insist on its rights, it must insist on its presence in daily life. Because memory is not hereditary. The language of the collective and its memory do not simply proliferate. They must always be acquired, imparted, established, and kept alive with purposeful practices and measures.

People’s command of Slovenian in Carinthia is visibly shifting to a passive competence, with gratifying exceptions, but as we know, the exceptions are not the rule.

With this background, for many years there has been something of a conjuring about the language of Carinthian Slovene literature. In literary texts, the Slovenian language is imagined and celebrated. Authors claim that Slovenian is a kind of embossed seal that has been unalterably burned into their cultural memory and must therefore define writing. I too thought this way more than ten years ago. I too wanted to set a political example through my writing in Slovenian and fight against the disappearance of the Slovenian language in Carinthia. But what has happened in the meantime? What shifts have occurred in my writing?

With my departure from my home enclaves, I apparently began to peel off the Slovenian words, to put on the clothes of a new language, to see myself in new stories and contexts. I kept a lookout for another written language that is not entirely foreign to me and that allows me the greatest possible freedom of thought. The German language grew on me, it helped me. I felt freer and less bound in it than in Slovenian, since Slovenian was burdened with the guilty consciences of those who had left.

However, I have never migrated from the inner core of Slovenian history. I still see myself as anchored in it. Which brings me back to a sense of place, to a sense of individual belonging. In Angel of Oblivion I attempted to transfer the collective experiences of the Slovenes inherent in the memories native to the Slovenian language into the German language. A transfer of experience took place, which may also have contributed to the feeling many people had that the text spoke to them, in a special way to those too who still carry remnants of Slovenian cultural memory, but due to assimilation and the repression of the Slovene language had lost the living connection with it.

I too was only able to approach these painful memories through the German language; I regained my body’s memories and returned to the smells of childhood. Through language, a new nerve cord grew in me, which was able to overcome and outsmart all burying and encrusting of emotion.

I see the great advantage of lively bilingualism in the fact that when you switch from one language to the other, you don’t feel any rupture or foreignness, and that one’s personal starting point is also doubled through the lively exchange between the languages. So, I see myself standing with both feet in two languages, although I must admit that my Slovenian leg wobbles a bit every now and then. In Carinthia, it is difficult to maintain the playful balance between the languages because the relationship between the two languages is not balanced.

Sometimes when I walk through my mountain places, the words run after me like playful puppies who have left their nest in high spirits. They wag their tails and lick my feet so that I will pick them up and nuzzle them. Sometimes the words collide in my head, or they combine, overlap, form a new word animal, cast shadows in the other language.

Writing is a process that keeps going, that is full of promises but also loaded with fears. For me it is a process of rewriting, a transition, a border crossing, a departure. In the movement of my writing, I keep commemorating my first language, Slovenian, like in the following poem:

memory, forget-me-not, monument
what the torn-up field before which
I stand has sown. the autumn sun
is already throwing magnificent colors at
the clouds. even with my eyelids closed,
its flaming complexion blazes.
near the farms that I circle,
i look for words that have been
discarded, like scrapped implements,
scooping them up like one picks up dry twigs
from the forest paths and piles them
by the wayside. from the valleys
the mountain ridges grow up to higher peaks.
the old language crystallizes in
my voice and memorizes the ciphers of
memory: spomin, spominčica, spomenik.
memory, forget-me-not, monument.

 

 Maja Haderlap, “Übergänge” in “Kakanien – Neue Heimaten,”  burgtheater.at, 2014.

 

Babushka

Author: Schutti McMahon
Translator: Deirdre McMahon

 

Just begin, Maja said, so many first sentences.

 

She’s not called Babushka; she’s Matryoshka, said my great aunt, my father’s only aunt, although she didn’t know any Russian. She was right, but I simply did not believe her. I had always called mine Babushka, shaken her carefully, taken her apart, and put her together again. I would examine the smallest one very carefully to see if I could open her like the others, searching for a hidden mechanism, and I simply could not believe I had reached the last one.

I would often lie awake and let my eyes wander around the room, and I would tell the biggest Babushka what the house looked like from the outside: about the garden, sprawling outwards, and the shade that lay over most of the houses for more than half the year. I would tell her about the valley with its wooded hillsides, about the night sky stretching tightly over it. It frightened me that no one could tell me what lay behind it. But perhaps you just needed to ask the right questions to get an answer. The Babushka would look at me with her big eyes and I would open her up, take the smallest doll out, lay her tenderly in my hand, rocking her to and fro, amazed at how grown up she looked.

My Babushka had gone missing, or so they led me to believe, but that was impossible. I had never taken her outside. Perhaps my aunt decided that I was too big for dolls and hid her in the attic or threw her away. Maybe she had found the nightly murmuring from my room disturbing. I never asked.

I told Marek about the Babushka and he stroked the hair behind my ears and kissed me on the forehead.

Moje kochanie, he whispered, and I knew what that meant even though I knew no Polish and had lost the Belarussian of my first years, along with Babushka.

Marek had a little wooden house with an unkempt garden. He offered old Walter money for gardening, but Walter did little more than get rid of a few branches. He said mowing was impossible because there were too many scrubby bushes along the fence and around the house. He left the bushes standing and bought himself schnapps.

Marek didn’t drink schnapps; he never drank. Nevertheless, his eyes were sometimes red when he sat at the window looking out.

They hadn’t died one after the other, as local gossip suggested. Marek once told me that his uncle went first, then his grandmother. Then Micha, his favourite nephew, died. He hung himself from a tree, from the tree that his grandfather had planted for the uncle. He didn’t speak about his mother and father. Everyone knew what had happened, but nobody could explain why Marek had moved to this particular village as a young man and why he hadn’t returned home after the war.

Forget all that again, Marek had said, wiping his eyes, forget it. However, I never forgot, and I asked my aunt if she could tell me anything about Marek. The shadow side is bad, she answered, going on to ask me why that was any of my business. I asked why there were houses here anyway, when the shadow side is so bad, but I got no answer.

The snow arrived early and stayed a long time. Even in high summer you needed a woollen jacket by four in the afternoon if you wanted to play outside. Only mint and chamomile, dill and garlic, grew in the garden. When you ran barefoot on the grass it stabbed the soles of your feet. I just could not imagine soft grass, or not anymore. As a small child I must have run over soft grass, at least once. Years later my aunt gave me a photo showing my mother and myself in a park. I was wearing a short little white dress embroidered with flowers, with a hand-crocheted border on the collar. My mother was holding my hand, laughing at the camera, not staying still for the photo; her arm and face were out of focus. We were standing barefoot on the grass and I looked uncertain. My eyes were wide open, my lips an open slit.

My aunt didn’t want me to visit Marek. She thought I’d be better off playing with other children. I often acted as if I had spent the whole afternoon playing tag and French skipping. I would kneel in the meadow on the way home and stroke the palm of my hand over damp earth. Sometimes, if I had enough time, I would lie down in the grass and look up at the clouds as they took on a rosy red tinge and, when the light was fading, I could observe countless tiny insects populating the skies and turning the air restless.

It was not that I wanted to turn myself into an insect and flee from there; I had not thought that far ahead. And I didn’t want to be an animal either, though having a favourite animal and knowing everything about it came with the territory back then. After school Fini asked me what kind of animal I would like to be, continuing in the same breath to say that I didn’t need to answer as she already knew – definitely a bird – or an angel  –  so that I could follow my mother to heaven. I didn’t want to fly to my mother because it was cramped and cold beneath the earth –  or so my aunt had told me – and I believed her.

There are various Babushkas. Some resemble each other down to the finest details and some have different pictures on their fronts. A different picture on every front and you know immediately which story belongs to it. And the big Babushka holds all the stories together like the cover of a book of fairy-tales. The smallest picture needs to be examined particularly carefully because, if you are lucky, even this tiny expanse has a background showing a forest or a stream or flowers. I was lucky. My Babushka had been particularly beautiful. I can remember every picture and I still know the stories that went with the pictures; they translated themselves without me noticing.

Marek often asked me to tell him these stories. I thought that maybe they reminded him of the stories of his childhood because they were similar, but perhaps he only wanted to prevent them dropping from my memory.

Marek would give me presents of sweets or colourful stones which I would store under a loose board in my room. Whenever I was out with my aunt and we met him by chance, he would just give us a curt hello, hardly looking at me, as if he were indifferent to me. But in the afternoons when I went to him, he would stroke my cheeks and sit down opposite me at the heavy wooden table, drinking black tea with milk and sugar from a glass printed with flowers. Because of me, he always had a choice of drinks in his larder that I never got otherwise. I loved the sparkling yellow or red drinks. I would sit on Marek’s lap letting him read books aloud or tell me stories, hanging on his every word. There was an unevenness about his voice that only I could hear, or so I thought back then, something in his tone that reminded me of something from the past, from way back in my early days.

When I got big enough to take the bus into the next town my aunt would send me shopping once a week. She gave me two cloth bags, and for weeks she would make me recite the bus stops and the departure times before I left the house. I never forgot anything and occasionally I was permitted to buy some little thing for myself. As time went on, I knew all the shops and got much quicker at completing my errands, so that I had time to wander the streets and look at the shop windows. That was when I began to think about my mother more often. I would stand in front of the shop windows trying to superimpose my reflection onto the clothes on display. Sometimes it worked but in other shops the clothes were hanging just too high. I would imagine what it would be like if my mother’s face were reflected beside mine, how beside her  I could smile in at the displays and we would hold each other’s hands.

Sometimes I asked myself what it would be like to hold a young man’s hand, to go with him, as Fini called it. I tried to walk tall as I wandered up and down the street. According to Fini, pulling in my tummy was really important, like wiggling my hips so that it looked like I was wearing high heels. I used to imagine how it would be if a young man called me from the sunny side of the street. He would ask my mother if she would allow him to take away her beloved only daughter  –  yes, that was just what he would say  –  and my mother would smile and nod, catch me by the shoulder and nudge me towards the young man, folding her hands across her chest, waiting until he had given me a kiss and taken me in his arms. And then she would wave until we had vanished around a corner.

Fini sometimes took me by the hand when we were wandering through the woods. If it got dark on the way home, she would clutch me so tightly that the prints of her fingers were visible on my hands for a long time afterwards. I never told her that she was hurting me. On long summer afternoons when we had had enough of each other’s company and I wasn’t with Marek, we would sit down at the stream, dangling our feet in the water until they turned red. Then we would lie down on the flat sun-warmed banks and pull up our shirts to tan our stomachs. Fini told me stories, not fairy tales. She would tell me what she knew about the other girls and their families, about her older brothers and their friends and girlfriends and plenty about what she had observed through keyholes. She explained what it would be like in a couple of years when we became young women, and the men would be interested in our brown legs and stomachs. I loved listening to her; her sentences flowed on like the stream, almost a calming murmur, and although there were no ogres like Baba Jaga and bewitched kings’ daughters, I hung on her every word. Her family would become mine for an afternoon. I used to take Fini’s stories home with me, feeling that I had escaped out of the shadows and undergone an experience. One evening I wrote a sentence, a phrase that had struck me on the way home, “if a person could keep all these stories like a shield over their body, wrapping strange sentences around the body like a camouflage coat”. I read the sentence aloud to Fini the next time we met but she just looked down on me and began to laugh. I crumpled up the paper, put it away and threw it in the stream on the way home, knowing that it would soon become a tiny scrap, that it would dissolve completely in the cold water. I never again composed such a sentence and would never again write anything like that. But I remember this one.

You always just have to start over again, said my aunt when I gathered my courage and asked her about before, although I felt that she wouldn’t answer this time either, and would make me feel that she was irked by my question. The past I had experienced with my mother pushed against the past I had with my aunt; I had no idea of the fault line, no memory of how I had come out of the city to the village.

I still know that I didn’t understand my aunt. She talked at me in an unfamiliar language. I was supposed to say Papa to the strange man who had collected me. First, I saw him only at weekends and then less and less because he took my aunt’s advice to heart and made a new beginning. I was allowed to stay with my aunt; she was glad of company in the big house.

Your mother was too good for us here, said my aunt, and when I was just a few weeks old she left the village and my father behind; but she didn’t want a divorce, and to this day, I don’t know why.

And now that you are here, be satisfied. I knew I had to be satisfied.

When Marek died, I no longer lived in the village. The photo on his death notice shows him as a fifty-year-old; I know this for certain because that had been his nicest birthday. That photo stood on a narrow shelf beside the house door, his best birthday as he used to say back then. Fifty-fifty, someone had written on the lower edge in white touch-up pen. His life had not lasted a hundred years, but who can say how much life a person gets. My aunt died before him. She reached the age of eighty-three; nobody needs to worry about her grave. She had ordered and paid for a stone tablet years before her death, and anyone who wants to can place a candle on it or lay a bunch of flowers to be dried by the sun and blown off the gravestone by the wind. She knew I would never come back.

I did not come back; I couldn’t. I got a Matryoshka that looks so like my old one, my hidden or thrown-away Matryoshka. I took it apart and set all the dolls out in a row. There are scenes from fairy-tales on the dolls’ fronts, but they make me sad now, when I remember them. I lost my language along with my mother: the falling-asleep phrases, the comfort phrases, this cradle-rocking of words, our language island where there was just room enough for the two of us, on which we wandered through the city to the playground or the bakery. Latrine, shovel, and bread roll – I can’t remember what German words I had when I came to my aunt’s.  And now: encouraging phrases out of the dictionary, encouraging sentences spoken on tape but the lullaby does not want to reappear; those sentences remain forgotten. 

Moj bednyj anjol, my mother must have said, moj bednyi anjol.

I turn the dolls around and let them look out the window. From behind, they all look the same  –  light blue flowers on a red background. Where have my first sentences gone, I ask myself –  I only ask now that I have flourished in a complete language for a few years and withered on the shadow side again. Those phrases haven’t even remained in memory, at least not in mine.

 

Excerpted from Carolina Schutti, einmal muss ich über weiches Gras gelaufen sein.  Otto Müller Verlag, Salzburg-Wien, 2015.

The Woman from the East

Author: Katja Oskamp
Translator: Jo Heinrich

 

She does what she feels she has to, she is in charge of her own fate and she never plays the victim. The most powerful thing the GDR brought to the table was its feminine side. A portrait.

21:30, Fulda Station, platform 3: shift begins. Sabrina stands at the deserted platform edge, on her back a rucksack with the company logo. She chews some gum while she waits. A stocky woman with wavy blonde hair, she is forty years old; she wears sturdy trainers, three-quarter length jeans and a t-shirt with the bold inscription in English ‘Total Life Forever’. The train draws in and comes to a halt. Sabrina grabs the bars by the door with both hands, and quickly climbs up the three steps into the train’s cab, as if she were emerging from a swimming pool to dry off. In the cab with its smell of heat and metal, she turns to slam the iron door shut behind her. She throws off her rucksack and swings up into her seat behind the enormous control panel. This is the Taurus, a bull amongst engines, and Sabrina’s favourite. When it starts up it makes a little ascending tune, a scale in C-major: surprisingly dainty for this booming, quivering beast. Sabrina hums along. ‘Goes like hell,’ she says to herself, enthroned in her executive seat with its headrest and its fancy suspension, which sways and rocks her body. Her gold earrings flash as they catch the light.

Sabrina is a train driver, and today she needs to take an empty train to Regensburg. She’s alone for the journey. She zigzags across Germany for ten days in a row, every day a different engine, every night a different hotel, or vice versa, depending on her shift. She presides over nearly 10,000 horsepower and a 641-metre train, gliding out into the greenish-blue summer evening.

Sabrina was born in the Weissensee area of Berlin. She is the product of a mishap between an ageing cook and a seventeen-year-old unskilled cook’s assistant. The cook had family elsewhere, and soon disappeared from the scene. Her mother beat, bullied, and neglected her unwanted child. Her grandfather threatened to go to court and demanded custody. From then on, Sabrina grew up with her grandparents. It was, in fact, her granddad who had chosen her name and written her a poem when she was born. He took his granddaughter to swim training, and celebrated her victories. When Sabrina was nine, he sent her to advanced Russian classes. He worked as an engineer in a tyre factory, and when he came home late, Sabrina would be waiting for him so that he could wish her a good night. When she was twelve, her granddad died. She could see the ambulance in front of the house when she came home from school. After that, Sabrina was alone with her overburdened grandma and she began to look after herself. To this day, she’s never visited her granddad’s grave, and she’s no longer in contact with her mother.

At fourteen, Sabrina started at a residential school for prospective Russian teachers. Out of 150 students, 140 were girls, brought together from all over the GDR. The days at the elite school were severely regimented: up at six, ‘political information’ three times a week in Russian, supervised homework, countless obligatory sessions and strictly regulated results. Sabrina’s grades were very good, and it was only for conduct that she was consistently getting average marks. Her hair was dyed red at that point, and looked like a broom. When the head instructed her to kindly get a proper haircut, she turned up the next morning with a shaved head, and was expelled from the school. That was at the end of the tenth year. She got on a train and went back to Berlin. When she got there, her old friend Mirco was at the station.

In the summer holidays, Sabrina went to the careers advice centre. The woman working there said she’d come much too late: all the apprenticeships had been allocated long before. Sabrina didn’t give up: ‘I’ll do anything but cooking,’ she said. That September, she started an apprenticeship with Deutsche Reichsbahn, on the railways. 500 trainees, one girl. In the summer of 1988, she finished the apprenticeship and began shunting. In the spring of 1989, she became pregnant by Mirco. In the autumn of 1989, the Wall came down.

23:15, 119 kilometres, approaching Ochsenfurt. It’s dark now. Sabrina isn’t using a computer, nor does she need full beam. She could almost drive this stretch blindfolded. It’s as dark in the cab as it is outside. Only the drone of the engine cuts through the silence. Familiarity with the track is crucial in her line of work, she says. It takes time, and you can lose it over time, too. In the distance, flashes of lightning are twitching, snatching desolate cloudy visions out of the darkness for split seconds. There’s no thunder to be heard. Fat drops of rain burst noiselessly on the windscreen. Mute midsummer storms.

With the water on the tracks, the train begins to lurch. Sabrina imitates the faltering noise and drops sand onto the rails to maintain the traction between wheels and track. Then she gets her food out of the fridge. Mirco made her sandwiches for her. Mirco is a trained chef, just like the father Sabrina never got to know.

Although tiredness encroaches after midnight, Sabrina doesn’t drink coffee; in fact, she drinks very little during her shift, to avoid needing to go to the loo – there isn’t one. There are eighty train drivers working for Sabrina’s company, but only three are women. Sabrina operates in a man’s world, but she seems not to notice. It goes without saying, to her mind. The men can pee in a paper cup or out of the door while the train’s moving; she’d have to radio the signaller to ask if she could stop. But for Sabrina, every stop is a small setback. She wants to keep moving and clock off on time, if she can.

After she’s eaten, she lights a cigarette: a Marlboro Light, the long variety. It glows in her fingers. The Taurus has an ashtray on the wall with a hinged lid. The rain has eased off. A goods train comes towards her and turns up its headlights, like a three-eyed creature. Sabrina flashes her lights and raises a hand. When people working through the night see each other, they always give a friendly wave. It’s something the masses of people asleep right now have no idea about. Then once again, trees with empty nests sweep past, bleak stations, signals, lights.

Soon after the Wall came down, Sabrina gave birth to her son. She was twenty years old. After a year with the baby, when she wanted to go back to work, Deutsche Reichsbahn was about to merge with Deutsche Bundesbahn. She was offered a security job in Hanover, but she didn’t want to be a security guard, and she didn’t want to go to Hanover. She took severance pay and started training as a bilingual secretary, a career that the job centre suggested.

In their free time, Sabrina and Mirco trained in a gym that belonged to a Russian. Sabrina got just as obsessive about it as she had with her swim training as a child. Mirco became self-employed and set up a small haulage company. He took out a loan. Sabrina signed the agreement as guarantor. Work did not materialise, and Mirco was left without a job, but with plenty of debt. Instead of looking for work, Mirco lay around on the sofa all day. Sabrina had no idea how she could feed three people. She took her son and moved out, but then found she couldn’t bear the thought of breaking up her family, and she went back to Mirco. She sent him to see the Russian, who owned a nightclub as well as a gym. Mirco started working as a bouncer there. A door opened into a different world.

At some point, Mirco came home and suggested that Sabrina should go on the game. She agreed. Mirco didn’t force her into it: the fact that it was her decision is close to her heart. They had debts to pay and something had to be done. Sabrina abandoned her bilingual secretary training and took her ID and AIDS test results to the police station. She paid 150 marks in ‘lamppost rent’ every shift to the pimp she nicknamed ‘Ponce’. On the first night she didn’t earn a single penny.

More experienced colleagues taught her how to hustle, and how to pretend to give a blowjob while actually using a hand and a cheek. She secretly tried it out on Mirco. The extra-thick condom helped, and the long-haired wig hid Sabrina’s face. Mirco didn’t suspect a thing.

After that, the couple started their shifts once their son had gone to sleep. Sabrina would stand under the streetlight dressed as a Barbie doll, in high-heeled white boots, nude leggings, a wide belt done up tight, her face hidden under the wig of fake blonde hair. On a good day, she’d get fifteen customers in a shift. She went after her punters in their cars. Professional honour entailed driving her prices higher, and every little extra had its fee. Stripping off in a campervan: fifty marks for each item of clothing. Intimate shaving: a thousand marks. When a punter drove up with his car full of balloons for Sabrina to burst one by one with her stiletto heels, that was a month’s pay. On Mondays and Thursdays her regulars brought her something from McDonald’s. Mirco and his pals would sit in a car with binoculars and a notebook, writing down registration numbers and keeping an eye on the clock.

04:00, Regensburg Station. Her shift should have finished at 3:30. Sabrina waits for the green light, or a message over the radio, she clears up her things, pulls out a packet of wipes and cleans the control panel. ‘Hookers aren’t victims. They know exactly what they’re doing. It’s the punters who are the fools.’ It doesn’t even occur to Sabrina to regard herself as a victim, although it would be easy to, with everything that’s happened. She quickly learned to take her fate in her own hands instead, and never to let go of it again.

She drives the empty train into the siding, heaves the door open, climbs down the steps and uncouples it. She takes the engine to the marshalling yard, goes to the cab at the other end and parks the Taurus behind another engine. She sorts out the logbooks in their compartment and checks if the sand levels are OK, then turns off the electronic display. Sabrina puts her rucksack on her shoulder. She locks the engine up with a large key and, dawn breaking, she walks over gravel and timbers to the station, and then on towards her hotel.

On the day when all the debts had been paid, Sabrina stopped working on the streets. Mirco, now used to so much money, wanted her to carry on but Sabrina refused and got an admin job with the local authority, in the maintenance payments department. Every day she’d sort out papers, label them, and file them for a full eight hours. Mirco was back on the sofa again, but she never gave him a penny, not even for cigarettes. After a year he pulled himself together, registered at the benefits office and eventually started working behind the bar at a restaurant. In 1999, Sabrina got pregnant for a second time. She stayed at home for three years with her daughter. In 2003 she completed further training to become a train driver. She was nostalgic for her first job, which she’d loved and had never been able to do for long. Six years ago she started working for the company she’s still with: a rail transport business dealing exclusively with freight.

13:30, Regensburg Station, Burger King. After a sleep, Sabrina has a late breakfast of a Whopper meal. She’s feeling good. Her shift starts at 14:30. Sabrina puts on her hi-vis vest, heaves her rucksack over her broad shoulders and trudges to the marshalling yard under the hot midday sun. She unlocks the twenty-metre-long engine, this time a 189, which has a narrow corridor. The steel floor panels clatter with every step she takes. She gets a dustpan and brush to clear out the gravel walked in by the drivers before her. The train is loaded with cars: 23 wagons, 1090 tonnes. Sabrina uses the wagon list to fill out the brake data sheet, calculate the brake weight and the braked weight percentage, and she inputs all the data into the computer. She reports that the train is ready to leave. 16:54 departure, on schedule. As soon as the train leaves the depot Sabrina can let rip, back to Fulda again. She ensconces herself in her seat, her gold earrings flashing in the light, pirate-style. You would never believe that this strapping train driver once stood under a lamppost in a Barbie outfit. She’s just done what she felt she had to. Keeping afloat comes naturally to her.

Sometimes she’s asked if she’s ashamed of her past as a sex worker. But she’s not. ‘If I hadn’t done it, we’d probably still be in debt now. We made a fortune! For me, it’s also part of being an adult: you look in the mirror and think to yourself, “This is me, that’s it.” I always wanted a normal family. And I wanted it with Mirco. For one thing, I really fancy him, and then he’s also my best friend. And the father of my children. And my housewife.’

When she gets to Würzburg, she rings Mirco, who’s had a dentist’s appointment today. After that, she helps her daughter with her homework as she operates the vigilance system and the driver’s brake valve. Fragments of Bavarian and northern German voices waft through the cab from the radio, and there’s a croaking sound whenever the last wagon leaves a tunnel. ‘Sifa! Sifa!’ a recorded woman’s voice pipes out at regular intervals, which means Sabrina has to step on the driver safety switch pedal under her controls to let the system know that she is still conscious, or else the engine will automatically come to an emergency stop. It might have been nice if there had been someone in Sabrina’s life to ask if she was coping every now and then, to keep the plates spinning for her if necessary. But there wasn’t.

21:15, arriving into ‘fucking Fulda’, as railway workers affectionately call the junction. She clears up; her replacement is already standing on the platform. In the evening sun, Sabrina climbs down out of the engine backwards as if she were getting into a swimming pool.

Her granddad, in his time, made sure she was able to swim. These days she can even dive. She did a diving course with her family on her last holiday in Egypt. Only her son stayed at home – he’s twenty-one, and lives with his girlfriend in a flat of their own. The girlfriend is pregnant. Sabrina will be a grandma by Christmas.

 

Originally published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 25 September 2010, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of German reunification.