What became of us

Author: André Herzberg
Translator: Johanna McCalmont

What became of us traces the lives of six narrators –  Richard, Eike, Anton, Michaela, Peter and Jakob – all children of Jewish parents who grew up in the former East Germany.  When the Berlin Wall falls and their plans crumble, each of the characters must find their own answers to the questions history has forced them to face.   This translated excerpt opens with the author’s own reflections, followed by those of Eike as he attends an event at which the GDR Dictator meets a rich American guest.


DO NOT SAY THAT WORD. Above all, never say you are one of them. There are films about them, radio programmes, there are experts, politicians who talk about them, there is the nation, there are countless jokes, there are theories. There are theologians, philosophers, and yes, there is their country now, but never, ever, say you are one of them.

And that’s not who you are anyway, you never go where they go. You never do what they do. It’s better you know nothing about them at all. Who dripped their poison into your ear, who made you doubt? Don’t dig any deeper, doubt, that’s what they work on. If you get involved, even once, your life will take a different course, and you can’t take that risk, you don’t want to, do you? You heard about them from your parents when you were a child. That must have been what happened, but you can’t remember when it was exactly. Yet it has pursued you ever since. Once you are certain, you will be excluded from society.

When they all get together for carefree merriment, for football, on a Saturday evening, after work, to relax, you are shut out of the crowd, you are no longer allowed to laugh when they laugh, rejoice when they rejoice, nor are you allowed to weep when they weep, you are no longer one of them. Everything that once was light is now infinitely heavy. But what is it that’s so dreadful?

No one likes them, no one loves them, they may be pitied occasionally, some people are careful, you aren’t allowed to say a bad word about them now, so they just raise an eyebrow in a way that says it all, you can sense the contempt, the scorn, yes, the disgust even, this disgust is genuine, and genuine feelings are what you want, just not that kind. No one wants that, no one can bear that.

So it’s best you deny it, but it’s not that easy, you become a liar, if only because you have to assume someone will still suspect you’re one of them. It drives you mad because when you admit it not only to yourself, but also to others – yes, I am one of them – then you cross the line for good, you wind up alone, and now there’s no point thinking, or hoping you’ll receive support, love or warmth, they despise you even more now because you’ve exposed what they don’t want to talk about. If you had been murdered, then you might have had their sympathy, but since you’re alive, they know you know what they’re thinking but no longer say to your face.

When they talk about it, about dirty politics, about the special role, the chosenness, they mean you, even though they no longer kill, cull, eradicate, exterminate, gas you by law, they hate you until you are out of sight, they still hate you when you are no more than a shadow, a ghost, they blame you for all their misfortunes. Or else they admire you, but this admiration is so unattainable you can never live up to it because you too are only human. You remain the other.

This sense of otherness has been with me for as long as I can remember. I feel like a cat in dog territory. A cat, but one that pretends it’s a dog like all the rest, precisely because it doesn’t say or show it’s a cat. I’m now at the point where I no longer conform to such images. I say the word cat just like I say the word human.

I say: I am not a cat, I am a person. But then my uncertainty consumes me once more. How well do I even know myself? I know about my fear, I’m afraid of God too, of his wrath because I’ve never done all my homework, haven’t obeyed his Commandments, or, above all, haven’t respected his prohibitions, I don’t even know them all. They say he punishes sins, and I am a sinner. I am afraid of myself, my weaknesses, my gluttony, my wayward sexuality, my lack of love for others. I am afraid I cannot give any more than I’m giving, that I don’t want to give any more.

In the lyrics I wrote, I prayed to God. Help me, I sang.

The poison of doubt is what torments me, I’m gone forever as far as everyone else is concerned, I can never laugh again, never freely love anyone again. The older I get, the clearer it becomes that my parents, and their forefathers, determined this for me, handed it down. Being an aware person – at least on occasion – I’m becoming ever more conscious of my absurdity, because in refusing to reveal my identity I’m behaving like a child, covering my ears, eyes and mouth, singing lalala, simply to avoid thinking about it. I fill the void in my head with life’s endless, wonderful vanities, or I focus on the world, I must save the world, not just my little life, I have a higher purpose. Yet even in founding a new family, producing offspring, I burden them with this cursed doubt of mine. They carry it forward.

There is only one option, but it is the most dangerous one: I must change, I must face it head-on, accept who I am, learn how to separate what my parents told me, what teachers told me, all the ignorance, all those half-truths, from my own opinions. It’s as though I’m constantly treading new, unknown terrain where I do not know what dangers await me or when I may have to face them. Reconciling myself with God, persisting, sensing his love, constantly discovering new commandments I still don’t keep, forever relying on his goodness anew.
I keep hoping I’ll encounter kindred spirits, similar fates, but that’s just beyond reach, no two experiences are alike. The older I get, the easier the loneliness is to bear. Only once I have the strength to embrace my fate shall I find happiness again, like the happiness I know only from my long-gone childhood, my earliest memories.



WE WOULD LIKE you and your son to attend. So, put on your suit, Harry tells Eike. Harry stands in front of the mirror, tries on the shiny new medal he received only yesterday, but then hesitates, and takes it off again. He decides they should both be smartly yet modestly turned out, so no medal. It was a real blitz, an outpouring of medals for Jews. Harry was proud, he’d been Chairman of the community for many years, always got on well with the authorities, never a word of thanks from his people. Presumably the dictator had ordered a change of course: well, Harry too had had one of his scraps of tin pinned on his chest at any rate.

I need to tell you something, Eike. Harry’s voice trembled, he had never started off that way before, how Father was groping for words, it wasn’t like him. Eike expected a lecture on Jewish history, the kind he’d patiently let wash over him his entire life, but what followed was nothing of the kind. Eike also stands in front of the mirror, watching his father fuss around him, straightening his suit, lengthening his tie because he thinks it’s too short, even checking his flies, Eike is no longer a baby, he holds his breath, he can’t stand it any longer.

Harry beats about the bush, you and your mother, along with the community, have always been the most important part of my life, it’s for you two I’ve made such an effort, then there’s a tremor in his voice, the word successor comes out, could Eike become Harry’s successor one day. Why was the old man talking like this, why was Father so agitated, Eike wondered. Mother is already by the door, signalling to Eike with her eyes. Harry stands up close to Eike again and something strange happens. Eike can still hear Father’s words, but they are slower and deeper, he can no longer understand what Father is saying. When he looks at Father’s mouth in the mirror, it has disappeared, he scans the space between Father’s chin and nose, sees nothing, the gap is perfectly smooth apart from a hint of stubble already reappearing despite a recent shave. Just a deep, muffled mumbling sound – where is his mouth, where are his lips, where are the words coming from wonders Eike desperately, searching for them.

Harry is pleased, he has finally been open with his son, said everything, he wanted to do it today before they both met The Almighty, the Dictator, in person. It is the first time Eike will him accompany his father into the presence of The Almighty. It seems as if his distant dream, his life’s work, will be fulfilled. His son has become a doctor too, just like him – but the community, no, more than that, the entire Jewish Question, survival – the boy knows too little about all that. It has not always been this easy. Getting a hearing for our cause, being awarded a medal, a Jew receiving a medal. Who could know better than I? Who had done his duty? Who had saved the community from all manner of attacks? Who had held firm in stormy seas?

They hadn’t built the road through the cemetery, the great synagogue is being rebuilt, golden dome included, as our place, as they promised him, and if Eike accompanies him today, this dream too will become reality. Eike shall be my successor, thinks Harry.

Harry and Eike’s destination is a large hotel. The city centre streets seem desolate on a Sunday morning, deserted. Men in black suits check them at the entrance. They don’t want to let them enter, he spells out his name, they finally nod in agreement. Inside, the silence is eerie too. No guests here either. Endless corridors, empty. They’re to go to the first floor, to the Room of Dreams, those are the directions they were given in the entrance hall. A spread has been prepared, Meissen porcelain, cups and saucers.

But Harry is unsure about the cake. I don’t know if the gentleman from the World Jewish Congress keeps kosher, he says to another man in black. But we brought a van over from West Berlin especially, everything is kosher, says the man, smiling. Only the coffee is from the East, he smirks. There are place cards of course. They walk around the table reading the names. Two other gentlemen from the community have also been invited, they nod at each other discreetly. The visiting guests, the rich American and his secretary for whom the event had been arranged, were already seated, should we say Guten Morgen, Shalom or Boker Tov, wonders Harry. They simply nod. May I introduce my son, Eike.

They had met for the first time the previous day at the Party’s headquarters – the Big House – he and the rich American: a medal for each of them, a strange atmosphere, everyone there was a Jew, right in the lion’s den so to speak, like a dream. And the dream continues. They all rise.

The dictator enters, accompanied by his entourage. He smiles, walks round the table, no need to stand, have you tried the cake yet? How do you like our weather today? Did you try the cake already, how do you like the weather a voice interprets from behind him, until the American interrupts, But Mr Chairman, I do speak German, my parents came from Germany. Really, all the better, Mr … all the better. It is so wonderful to speak to a representative of the World … er … Jewry in person, he said, as though Harry were not there. Then he sat down in the centre.

I am sure you would like to know why I invited you to be a guest of the government of our Republic. We are in the same boat, as it were, when it comes to fighting fascism and war, fighting racism, I am certain of it. I therefore wanted to ask you if we could reach an agreement on a loan. The American crooks his head, I’m not sure I understand. That is the sign for the interpreter, who hasn’t said anything for a while. He springs into action, translates the dictator’s proposal whilst the dictator is left smiling at his interlocutor.

The American crooks his head even further and says: I had actually hoped we were meeting to reach an agreement on reparations, Mr Chairman. The guest hesitates at this point because the dictator’s face has reddened, he interrupts the American. Our Republic is not, and never has been, the successor to the fascist regime: the torrent of words surges out over everyone now, waiting, heads bowed, as the coffee cools and the cake dries out.

The interpreter initially attempts to convey the flow of words in English, but the way in which the American shakes his head indicates he understands enough of what the dictator means. Harry gazes out the window uncomfortably, it is all so embarrassing. He had hoped for good relations for so long, there had been positive developments after so many years, and now? We’ll get the fallout, it’ll hit us hard. The rich American will go home, but we’ll be left in a right mess here, he thinks. It’ll all take a turn for the worse for us again.

A normal Jewish family is what they want, that’s what the director says on the phone, the way he says it, with a long ‘iii’. A Yiiiiiiiddish family, completely normal, do you understand, normal, a family visiting a relative’s grave, a rustling sound down the line, are you still there? They agreed to meet at the entrance.

Such a horde of men with all their equipment. The director talks at Harry relentlessly. Harry interrupts, could the men cover their heads please. But it’s summer and no one has brought a cap. Harry shrugs his shoulders in disgust, and now they’re all stumbling over the graves. Please walk this way, no, not that way, says the director from beside the camera. They all hold hands, the three of them, Mother, Father and Eike, as if they were fleeing, then they finally stand at the grave as requested, they glance furtively at the director’s gestures.

Action! Harry’s expression is frosty, Mother smiles, Eike breathes and smiles too. You need to look sadder, don’t pay any attention to us says the man, one more time. So they go back, Father, Mother and Eike, arm in arm, until they reach the grave again, followed by the camera at all times, surrounded by the hurried footsteps again, a swarm of busy technicians, such as the woman patting a brown paste onto their faces with a damp sponge.

It is fear that Harry feels, nothing has happened in their area yet, but the closer they get to the city, the nearer they get to the centre, the louder it becomes. They turn back, they can’t get any further than Schönhauser Allee, those large vehicles with screens over the driver’s window are everywhere, lined up, no one can get through, and then there are the police officers and people running in all directions. Where are they all going, Harry asks in the car, but neither his wife nor his son reply, nothing but a heavy silence, they try another street and it’s the same thing, no way through to the synagogue. They will have to make an exception this time, they turn around and drive home, they won’t make it to the service.

They see the images on television that evening, there must have been an uprising one channel reports. Harry’s mood dims, what will this mean for us, we’re always the first ones they want to see hanged, we’ll have to stay at home for the next few days, he orders, until things have calmed down. But things don’t calm down. Harry’s mood becomes even gloomier.


Excerpted from André Herzberg, Was aus uns geworden ist. Ullstein Buchverlag, 2018.

All that Glitters

Author: Marie Gamillscheg
Translator: Johanna McCalmont

Everything is asleep. Not night, but day hollows out the houses. Empty, black holes during the day. Some are burnt out. Someone has been on a rampage here. Someone has burnt the old mattresses, and now all that is left are just more bare box springs lying around. At night it’s possible to believe that people sleep here, that they get up the next morning, get into their cars and drive to work. But since the journalist was here, a lot of people have moved into the city and Susa now rents out her rooms at the low season rate all year round. People still tap the plaque on the ground in front of the church: GRANTED TOWN STATUS IN 1857, as though to check it is still there, set in the ground. The plaque remains. They can still officially call it a town. Only the cats linger when night falls. They have chosen the old tourist office; it is their territory. They lie along the shelves, curl themselves up tight into balls, vomit grass between the piles of scrap paper. They drag dead moles in through the cracked open door.

The red button in the mine museum doesn’t work anymore, and it won’t be repaired. When you push it now the blue, purple and white lights that illuminate the rockface don’t go on, the voice that recounts the Blintelmann legend doesn’t start, and the cave remains in darkness. The mayor says, “Who knows if it would be worth it. To get the red button to work again, make Blintelmann speak, and turn on all the lights again, you would need to replace all the wiring, and who knows whether it would be worth it. Just imagine,” says the mayor, “you replace all the wiring and suddenly, just then ? of course it would be at precisely that moment ? a load-bearing shaft wall is blown up, or disintegrates from the vibrations, and a shaft collapses, and another one, and then another one, and the debris from all the shaft walls causes the entire village to crack open, the houses fall down, everything goes up in a cloud of dust, just the way the journalist described it.” They remember the newspaper from back then. There had been an image on the front page showing an outline of the mountain, carved into a wooden plate, eaten away by woodworm. The way children carved potatoes at school and printed tablecloths with them: on one side there was a steep, smooth slope, on the other side the slope ran slightly further down into the valley, there were trees and houses at the foot of the mountain.

Passageways, pits everywhere. Caves. Shafts and tunnels.  Smaller tunnels are already collapsing when blasting takes place, the newspaper said. Floors are already collapsing, stones trickling down to the lower levels, and if it continues like that, the mountain will be entirely hollow one day. For centuries, shafts had been mined into the mountain at different levels and from different sides, they had simply mined deeper and deeper, following the ore. It was only later that anyone attempted to draw plans, but the network of shafts was too extensive, too intricate. Time and again new crossings were made, new caves and air pockets in the earth, and no one knew which shaft they belonged to.

Had they heard about the mining accident in Lengede?
About the gas explosion in the Donetsk mine?
Why are China’s coal mines so dangerous?
There are occasional reports on TV.

Perhaps there will be a huge bang. Or perhaps it will happen very quietly. A rushing sound, like a wave sweeping into the valley. That you hear first, and then see.
A rushing sound that you can see!

That is how they imagine it. As they stand at the holy water font in the church. As they sit at the bar in the ESPRESSO, watching Susa clean glasses, or as they stretch their hands out into the well water, or just as they take a closer look at the mouldings on the houses on the main square.

The journalist is wrong, everybody in the village agreed. The mayor knows that too. “Nevertheless,” he says. Of course they think about it. Susa’s cat once got a new hip joint, and the following week Susa found the stiff-legged cat propped against the wall of her house. Someone had run over it, and the vet was still able to use the hip replacement in another cat. Susa got some money back, but not much. Susa thinks about that.

In the past, people often met at Susa’s in the evening, in the ESPRESSO: the old folks and sometimes the younger ones, too. Back then, they sat around the small tables, not all at the bar. The journalist also joined them when he was in the area back then, ten or fifteen years ago. He came down to the bar in his slippers. The old folk didn’t think anything of it. He asked about life in the village, about plans of the shafts, about archives; he drank schnapps and beer and then more schnapps, he always drank along with everyone else and understood how it went: knew when it was time to get up and get another round for everyone at the bar. He talked about himself too, he had a daughter and he enjoyed hiking, but his daughter didn’t, so that made the summer holidays difficult, because her mother also preferred to head south or go to New York; it was complicated.

She had never liked him, Susa says.

He always left the towels on the floor of his room, every day, and he was never really drunk, always restrained, and he always pushed his plate away when he finished eating, as though it disgusted him. She had known right away, says Susa. But Susa only mentions this later.

Anyone who passes through this place knows: Something is happening here. Or rather: Something has happened here. People don’t greet each other in the street. The red button is broken. Since the journalist was here, tourists have stopped visiting, and the red button in the mine museum won’t be repaired. No one remembers what happened exactly: if the red button broke while the journalist was here, or if it had already stopped working before that and wasn’t repaired because the journalist was here. At any rate, he had something to do with it. Now, the cave remains in darkness, and you can’t see the walls glitter, how all that glitters contains so many colours, and you can no longer wonder what came first, the glittering or the colours.


How it glitters! Teresa is sitting in front of the bedroom door, her hands held up close to her face. She had moved her hand whilst painting her index finger and the silver nail polish had gone over the edge of her nail. She found herself thinking about the identical twins in the documentary, the ones who die at the same time. Who also have children or make major decisions at the same time, even though they live on different continents.

“They say there are identical twins who are both getting on well or struggling at the same time, even though they don’t know what the other one is doing, or where they live,” says Teresa aloud. To her sister Esther, to the door, through the door behind which Esther is still staring at the white ceiling, lying on her back on the bed, her hands still balled up into tight fists.

Later, hardly anyone will care how it happened exactly. Whether Martin skidded off the road at the second or third hairpin bend. Whether for a moment he felt like he was taking off, whether that moment even exists before impact. Whether the car rolled over several times, or just once. Whether he died immediately or was still briefly conscious. Whether he had seen the village ahead of him one last time, upside down. Had the sun already risen behind the mountains?

There’s one thing that the lorry driver who finds Martin’s car hears above all else: the engine of the lorry he is driving, how it gets louder when he accelerates, then quieter when he changes gear. The ventilation fan when he turns off the engine, the sound of the hand brake, how something then cracks in the car, the plastic in the dashboard perhaps. It takes him a while to realise it’s a car lying across the road in front of him.

The sound of the door opening, how the door handle on the inside snaps back, how the door slams shut, then just the birds, the wind, his footsteps on the tarmac. It is very early in the morning, so early that everything is still bathed in a bright, grey-blue light, the contours are too sharp. So early there aren’t any softer colours, so early it takes him a minute to realise that someone might still be in the car. He tries to turn the car over, but only manages to get it to rock. Then he calls the police.

He stands at the edge of the road, at an almost sheer drop down to the next hairpin bend, to the mountain terrace below. He looks down into the valley and doesn’t turn around until he hears the police arrive.

He starts by telling the policeman what he heard: the engine, the crackling, the door, the rocking of the car, the silence that followed. The firemen lift the car with a portable crane and turn it over. The windscreen is shattered, a fireman cuts the driver’s door open with metal cutters. The lorry driver gets goose bumps; the metal, the paint, the plastic interior fittings, nothing but a crackling. The roof is dented, the side has been cut away and paint scratched, yet you can still see that someone must have taken good care of the car.

Someone has cleaned the number plate and wheel rims. Someone didn’t leave anything on the back seat.

He can take the rest of the day off – that’s what the lorry driver’s boss tells him on the phone. He should take the lorry back, a colleague will cover his shift, or maybe not, who knows how long the road will be closed. He shouldn’t worry. He looks back down over the hairpin bends he has just driven up, down into the valley, he watches the school bus drive along the right-hand side of the valley beside the main road, make a stop and then drive on. He sees the hairpin bends below him, flowing down into the valley like waves, cutting a light-brown trace into the orange-red mountain, like age rings exposed in a tree trunk. To his left, a few bends further down, the road winds its way around a turquoise reservoir that has formed in a basin between the terraces. In front of him the village, hemmed in on both sides by the green slopes of the valley. From up here, it looks like the only colours are red and green; the green hills, the carmine rooftops around the main square, the orange-red stones from the slag heaps he was currently standing on, a vast expanse of vermillion at the end of the valley: the old workers’ housing. From up here, it looks like there is only a single road in the entire valley, the federal highway that leads straight out into the distance. From up here, the village looks like it always has. From up here, you can imagine that a lot of people go to a market every Sunday, that there are festivals where people hammer nails into a tree stump, and that afterwards children collect confetti from the ground and colour their tongues with it.

The lorry driver sees the light go on at the newsstand and hears the church bells. Down there, this accident on the road up here hasn’t happened yet. He thinks of all the stories about the mountain and this place. He thinks about how he will drive home and then get back into bed.

“Heavens above,” says the policeman. “It’s Martin.”

Martin is now just a limp body as they pull him out of the car where he had been trapped between the steering wheel, seat and roof.

Until that moment, the policeman had been standing with his arms folded, now he tucks his shirt further into his trousers and pulls them up. He is the only one from the area. The others ? the lorry driver, the firemen, the paramedics ? are from neighbouring villages, to them he’s just a young man in a shiny, dark blue sports jacket, zipped right up, a young man with thin, straight hair who is hanging limply and heavily in the firemen’s arms. But they hold their breath for a moment, too. He is young and looks like someone you would say has his whole life ahead of him, and they can’t understand how something like that can happen precisely to someone like him.

One of the firemen is the first to break the silence.

“He was wearing his seat belt, that’s important,” he says, “that needs to go in the report.”

They lay him on the ambulance trolley, the paramedics bend over him, as do the fireman and policeman, even though they don’t need to, but from that moment on, it’s as though they all belong together somehow, as though it is their shared task to bend over Martin and check his pulse. Then the doctor arrives. It’s not long before he pulls the blanket up over the body and gets back into his car to write the report. The paramedics remain standing. They all nod at each other.

In the valley, something is starting: a Monday.

The policeman and the lorry driver stand at the side of the road and look down into the village. The policeman remembers that last weekend he had seen Martin and Esther sitting in the car, in this same black car that now no longer has a windscreen or a driver’s door, that they had driven past as he waited for the bus so he could personally ask the driver why he was arriving later each day; there had been complaints. Esther and Martin had probably driven into the town or to the next village, the sort of thing young people do on the weekend. Young people who have a car. He knows that during puberty Martin had been the kind of child you worried about: always on his own, his jacket zipper always in his mouth. He often lay on his stomach in the street and drank out of puddles of rainwater when he was really too old for that sort of thing, he climbed trees and hid there until his parents called the police when they couldn’t find him.

And he always had that zipper in his mouth, always nodded, without saying anything, as though he was stuck, levelled out, but then Esther came along, and he stopped climbing trees, he got a job and bought himself a car, this big, black car, and drove into the town or next village with Esther at weekends.

“And what are you doing up here so early in the morning?” the policeman asked the lorry driver. Looking at him side on.

The lorry driver hesitates briefly, holds out a crushed packet of cigarettes to the policeman, “demolition work,” he replies. He lights a cigarette. The policeman doesn’t take one.

“I thought the young people were all long gone,” says the lorry driver.

The policeman shakes his head. Then the lorry driver shakes his head too.

“It’s crazy,” he says, “you always worry that the mountain will kill you, and then it actually happens, but,” he shakes his head, opens his breast pocket, closes it again, “it happens in a different way.”

The view has now cleared. The sun must have risen somewhere behind the clouds. The stones, the forest, the roofs now have their true colours.

“Well, I’d better go,” says the lorry driver, but doesn’t move. “I have to go back to the office,” he says, looks at the policeman, looks down into the village, at the car.

“If it’s okay for me to leave, that is,” he says.

“Yes, yes,” says the policeman, and the lorry driver opens the cab door. The policeman has turned around and readjusts his trousers.

“The good families, they stay,” he says.


Excerpted from Alles was Glänzt © 2018 Luchterhand Literaturverlag, München, in der Verlagsgruppe Random House.