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Displaced Persons

Author: Natascha Wodin
Translator: Mandy Wight

Translator’s Note: Natascha Wodin was born at the end of the war in 1944, when her family was living for a few years in a shed on the premises of a factory owner near Nuremberg. Sie kam aus Mariupol, based on Wodin’s memories of her early childhood, is a memoir of the author’s mother, a Ukrainian born in 1920 in Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, and deported with her Russian husband in 1943 to Nazi Germany to work as a slave labourer in a Flick factory in Leipzig.

 

The Zyganenkos, who live with us, have the sense to realise they’ve got no chance of a visa for America. They put in an immigration application for Brazil and receive their visa shortly afterwards. I remember feeling overwhelmed with a wild, uncontrollable grief when the rattling Goliath leaves the factory yard with the Zyganenkos and their possessions, and I have to face up to the fact that what I’ve been thinking of as a game has become serious. Someone who belongs to me, someone who’s been part of my familiar and unchangeable world can go, can leave me forever, whether I want it or not. I want to die, and I squeeze myself into the dark gap between our shed and the factory where the rats are, where I can feel everything vibrating, though it’s just the pounding of the machines. For hours my mother runs around the yard looking for me. It’s only in the evening, by which time she’s thinking of calling the German police, that she shines a torch into the gap and finds me. Though she’s thin, she’s not thin enough to force herself into the gap. There’s just enough room for a child’s body. She has to beg me, to implore me, to come out by myself. And I’ve hardly been out for a minute, dirty, smeared with tears and stiff with cold, when the blows from my father start raining down on me. My mother tears at his jacket and shouts at him to stop, but he hits me till I’m lying on the ground with warm blood dripping from my nose. My mother throws herself on top of me and screams. She’s still screaming when my father’s sitting back in the shed drinking. He’s doing that more and more these days.

The Zyganenkos have promised to write to us, but we never hear from them again. This seems to confirm all my mother’s premonitions of disaster: the ship, which was to bring them, her fellow sufferers, to Brazil, must have sunk. Later we hear from somewhere that they died in an even more dreadful manner – that Brazilian cannibals killed them and devoured their flesh. This was probably a product of the violent fantasies, induced by fear, which the Russians dreamed up and which I was to come across so often later.

My mother stays behind, alone with her husband and child in the shed. She’s lost the only people who were a refuge for her in this foreign country, her little Ukraine in Germany. Perhaps there was a moment of dreadful awakening for her when she suddenly grasped, deep down inside her, that she really was forever separated from Ukraine; that the only place in the world for her now was this shed, and she only had this thanks to the kindness of the German factory owner; that she was forever damned to live in a country where she’d always be a foreigner, always be ostracised and at the mercy of a husband who seemed to hate her. I was probably aware even then that she couldn’t take much more, that she was hovering on the verge of leaving me, of slipping away from me. By then we’d probably already swapped roles. I was probably carrying her on my shoulders even as a four-year-old, in the constant fear that I’d lose her, a fear I’d had since birth.

I spend most of my time outside in the factory yard. I play with scrap iron or sit on the step of our hut and watch the trains go by, trying to imagine where they’ve come from and where they’re going. My mother suffers from homesickness and I’m sick with longing for the world out there. The whole time I’m thinking about what the world is like beyond the factory yard, which I’m not allowed to leave because the dangerous main road, the Leyher Straße, begins right behind it. Whenever someone walks across the yard, I take the opportunity to show off a few of the German words I know. I say, “Grüß Gott” and “auf Wiedersehen,” one straight after the other: “Grüß Gott” to greet people, “auf Wiedersehen” to say goodbye, and I don’t understand why the Germans laugh.

Sometimes I can’t stand it any longer and I run out onto the main highway, which I reach via a narrow, unpaved road. I stand there and I look. I look at the German houses: proper, big houses made of stone, marvelling at them as if they were palaces. The Germans have white curtains at the windows and behind the window panes there are leathery green plants in plant pots. I look longingly at the sugary foreign cakes in the window of the baker’s, where my mother buys dark German bread when we’ve got the money, bread that tastes quite different from the airy white American bread. I look at the German faces, their glasses, their hair, their bags, their umbrellas, their hats. What most surprises me is the fact there are also German children. They draw squares with chalk on the pavement and jump from square to square. Greedily I listen in to the foreign language, to the different, incomprehensible sounds that I guess are the key to the German world – the world of taps and electricity.

Usually I pay a high price for my outings. When my mother catches me on one of my adventures, which she usually does, I get ten strokes of the strap on my bare bottom. It’s a deal between her and me. I’ve got the choice between pain and abstinence. My mother doesn’t tell me off, she’s not angry, she’s just carrying out her part of the deal. I’ve opted for the pain and I get it. The strokes of the strap burn like fire, but even though I may have screamed the place down as a baby, I’ve learned in the meantime to play dead. I never give as much as one twitch or gasp of pain. I never show my mother that her punishment has got to me, that she can hurt me.

One day I discover a little girl behind the green bushes in front of the factory owner’s house –the first living being my age in the factory yard. I’ve been strictly forbidden to go near the German factory owner’s house, but the stranger standing behind the garden gate, waving to me to come over, exerts a powerful pull on me which I can’t resist. We stand facing one another, each scrutinizing the other. The girl is wearing a brightly coloured dress with cap sleeves and has a mop of curly brown hair. She smiles and opens the garden gate for me. For the first time I walk into the terra incognita behind the fence, the realm belonging to our lord and master on whom our very existence depends. The girl shows me a doll, a living doll, one that can open and close her eyes and say ‘Mama’ too. When she lets me take the doll and hold it, I get dizzy with excitement. The girl also has a scooter. She shows me how to ride it and asks if I want to try that out as well. But I don’t get as far as that. My mother grabs me by the collar and pulls me out of the garden. I can’t keep pace with her. I fall over and am dragged right across the factory yard, over scrap iron and glass shards. My knees oozed pus for weeks after. I never see that other girl from behind the fence again, however much I look out for her, but I do have a scar on my right knee which reminds me of her to this day.

Finally the day comes which we’d anticipated, the day my mother has dreaded from the start. We don’t know how it’s come about, but the German authorities order us to be transferred to the Valka camp. The factory owner can’t do anything for us. He’s tried every avenue. As a farewell present he gives my mother a valuable antique brooch: a golden salamander with tiny emeralds flashing green on its back.

For some reason or other my parents never converted this piece of jewellery into cash, despite the very hard times we went through, and I wore it myself for a long time after the death of my mother, until at some point I lost it. But even today I still wonder who that brave German factory owner was, who broke the law by letting us live on his premises for almost five years. It was as if the precious brooch he gave my mother represented the compensation which should have been given by Friedrich Flick to the forced labourers who’d slaved away in his factories. I’ve forgotten the name of our mysterious benefactor if I ever knew it. When I set off on one occasion to search for clues and went to the place on the city boundary between Nuremberg and Fürth where our shed must once have stood, I found nothing left. The factory had disappeared. I saw only wholesale markets and dual carriageways, though the railway embankment from those days was still there, with trains rushing over it as they’d done back then.

The Valka camp was situated in the Nuremberg suburb of Langwasser and its barracks were used until 1938 as accommodation for participants at the Nazi party rallies with their great parades and flag consecration ceremonies. Later on, Soviet prisoners of war were also temporarily housed there. When we move in, the huts make up a small town with four thousand Displaced Persons, or DP’s, from thirty nations packed into it. Most of them have been there since the end of the war – four thousand people who don’t know what to do with their lives now that they’ve been saved. A few dozen languages are buzzing around, all mixed up together, and hardly anyone can speak German. There’s only one thing which everyone has in common here: their experience of forced labour in Hitler’s empire. The slave labourers, who’d been once so in demand, are now unemployed, the tiresome remnants of a war that’s been lost.

The American camp is named after Valka, the town on the border between Latvia and Estonia, but the Russians put an ‘S’ in front of the name and called it Svalka; in German: Müllhalde, rubbish tip. Like the Baltic Valka, the camp was divided in two until shortly before we arrived: up to 1949 important officials of the NSDAP, the Nazi Party, were interned in the eastern half, while the western half was used for DP’s. Victims and perpetrators lived almost next door to each other, in the shadow of the Nazi party rally grounds, now falling into disrepair, and like us, no longer needed. In the stone wasteland, beneath the gigantic tribune where Hitler had once held his speeches, American GI’s play rugby.

The Allies expected the freed slave labourers to be grateful and obedient, but that turned out to be a mistake. The work camp has robbed the DP’s of any belief in law and order in Germany, so they’re demoralised and still seen as aggressive and hard to control. The Valka camp is widely known and feared for its levels of anarchy and crime. It’s a melting pot of allied and enemy nations, a Sodom and Gomorrah, and has probably the worst reputation in the world. Everyone is on the hunt for a job, for some earnings, for a living. Every business you can think of, and some you may not want to think of, goes on there. Some comb through rubbish tips looking for scrap iron and other usable waste material, others smuggle duty free cigarettes, deal in pornographic pictures, in insulin or other medicines, break into sales kiosks at night, earn money as card sharps, make a living from theft and deception. There are constant arguments and fights, there are stabbings, murders, and suicides. All the German prejudices about the Slavs as savages are confirmed. The Nazi propaganda machine represented them as dangerous wild animals, sometimes with horns and tails. The Germans still fear that they’ll take revenge, though such acts rarely happen. The camp dwellers keep themselves to themselves in their own world, cut off from the Germans, apart from the police who are on 24-hour standby and carry out raids on an almost daily basis. Even my father is involved in some murky business which we’re not allowed to talk about. My mother lives in permanent fear of the police coming for us.

The DP’s receive three meals a day, which are served up in individual bowls and have to be collected from one of the distribution points. On top of that they receive a monthly sum of 12.50 DM as camp pocket money. They have electricity every two days, alternating between the wooden and stone huts. Each hut houses approximately thirty people and is fitted out with one toilet and one tap.

We live in one of the wooden huts together with mice and bedbugs, which torment us all night long. Whenever it rains, the water comes in through the leaking roof and we have to rush to find all the containers we can lay our hands on and put them beneath the leak. The window frame is warped so the window won’t shut properly, the oven doesn’t draw and gives off clouds of smoke. We’re cold and we cough all winter. I come down with most of my childhood illnesses during this time, from measles to mumps, chicken pox, and whooping cough.

One image I have from the spotlight shining onto those days is that of my mother, pregnant. She’s not much more than thirty, but in my memory she seems old, faded and ill, with her hair parted in the middle and scraped back into a bun. She wears a green and white patterned dress, its uneven hem rising up in the front, raised up by her domed belly which looks like an outsized ball stuck on to her thin body. When I ask why she’s got such a big belly, I see her exchange a tiny conspiratorial smile with my father – a moment of intimacy between my parents and just about the only one that’s stayed in my memory. I’m not aware of ever having seen them put their arms round each other or exchange a kiss or any other show of affection. Since I slept in the same room with them throughout my childhood, I must usually have been there when they made what can hardly be called love in their case. But either they did it in such a way that I saw and heard nothing, or I found the goings on in the darkness of my parents’ bed so unnerving that my child’s brain immediately repressed it.

The noise in the Valka Camp is a daily torture for my mother. She can’t get used to it. In the work camp where my parents first lived on their arrival in Germany, the acoustics were probably kinder since everyone fell onto their bunks after an exhausting day’s work and went to sleep. In our Valka huts the people whose noisy lives we hear are those who have nothing to do all day and for the most part are suffering from what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: insomnia, nightmares, anxiety attacks, irritability, depression, delusions, uncontrolled aggression, and many other things including all kinds of physical ailments, which quite a few DP’s died from even after the liberation. The small rooms in the huts hum with tension. There’s no such thing as speaking quietly: everyone has to shout in order to be heard above the pervasive, crashing waves of noise. There are constant arguments, loud wailing gives way to raucous laughter, you hear every word, every sneeze and sigh from your neighbour, the noises merge together into one huge, never-ending cacophony. Especially in winter and bad weather the long dark corridor is a children’s playground. They’re always being shooed away by someone on their way to the toilet or someone who has to fight their way through with their bucket to the only tap at the end of the corridor.

The noise makes my mother feel the lack of home even more deeply than she already does. She puts her hands over her ears, jumps up and runs out of the hut, where on top of the tortuous noise she’s assaulted by a constant stream of superstitious insults in Russian from a paranoid neighbour, an old Estonian woman shouting through the thin partition wall. For some reason this confused woman has projected all her images of the enemy on to my mother of all people, calling her a Communist, a Jewish whore, an American spy, a Nazi tart. My mother can’t stand up for herself, sometimes she cries all day, in fact she’s always crying. Her most serious illness is homesickness. It’s a constant torment, it seems to be like a thirst which never lets up but gets worse and worse, until one day you die of it.

For me the Valka camp is, above all, the place where I start German school. A photo of the first day at school marks the occasion: twenty–nine children standing in three rows with the shabby huts in the background. Two rows of girls, a row of boys in front, sitting cross legged in front of the girls. The children each have a Schultüte, a large card cone filled with sweets and given to German children on their first day at school – except for four of us, that is. One of them is me. The blondest of all, beaming in spite of the missing Schultüte.

It’s a camp school for camp children whose very first priority is to learn German. Because I was taught by my mother in the shed in the factory yard, I can read and write Russian when I start German school. I know the fables of Iwan Krylow and Samuil Marshak’s enchanting stories for children. I can recite at least a dozen poems by Alexander Pushkin and Alexei Tolstoy, but German is still a kind of background noise for me. That changes overnight when I start German school. The German words start lighting up for me, like sheet lightning – as if all these words had been slumbering somewhere inside me just waiting for the moment of awakening. The German language becomes a strong rope, which I grasp straightaway in order to swing myself onto the other side, into the German world. It’s out of my reach for the moment, but I know that it’s waiting for me, that one day I’ll be a part of it.

A language war breaks out between me and my parents. They refuse to understand my German. My father really doesn’t understand it, he’ll spend the rest of his days not understanding it, and my mother, who speaks German better than anyone else around me, doesn’t want to understand it. And I don’t want to understand her Russian, I want to have nothing more to do with her. There are constant arguments, she tries to hit me, but I get away and anyway her hands are much too feeble to hurt me. She has no power over me because I’m not afraid of her, I’m only afraid of my father’s hands. He rarely hits me and only does so as a last resort, when my mother hands me over to him. It’s the only weapon she’s got, the one threat which puts fear into me: I’ll tell your father. Sometimes she grants me a reprieve, if I ask in Russian, weeping, for my bad behaviour and lies to be pardoned, but usually the sentence is carried out in the evening when my father comes home – drunk as usual, after his clandestine activities. He’s a person who gets aggressive after drinking alcohol, so he’s happy to act on my mother’s grievance. He calls me cholera, parasitka, kretinka, and holds me fast with one hand while the other comes down on me like an axe. My mother is the judge and he is the executioner, the enforcer of the law.

Excerpted from Natasha Wodin,  Sie kam aus Mariupol.   Reinbek Verlag, Reinbek/Hamburg/Berlin, 2017.

 

Mothers

Author: Clemens J. Setz
Translator: Mandy Wight

 

They stand in a dark side street, behind a fish restaurant that recently went bankrupt: the mothers, usually six or seven older ladies in long raincoats from the 1950s. Some wear those hats shaped like inverted flower pots, a special favourite with the customers, while others go for curlers which hang in their hair like frozen tinsel. Their hands are in diaphanous lace gloves, decorated with tiny ornaments like those worn by the dead when they lie in state all day. It’s November, the weather is wet, cold, and miserable, and police checks have become less frequent. A few minutes ago a patrol car drove past and the officers wound down their window to talk to the women. One of them even gave out a few chocolate bars. Then the bearded men drove on. They certainly won’t be seen again within the next four hours. Maybe they won’t come back at all.

The ladies walk up and down here all night. To attract customers they fumble around with their raincoat buttons, round and colourful like cough sweets, push their oversized reading glasses back on their heads, or search their fake leather handbags for moisturising hand cream. Occasionally they even raise an index finger and wag it as if telling someone off. This gesture is universal and nearly always brings results.

A young man of about twenty approaches the ladies. He’s left his bike a short distance away and is walking down the dark side street, trying his hardest not to draw attention to himself. His hair hasn’t been washed for at least a week, his glasses are smeared with grease and fingerprints, and when he stops for a moment to tie his shoelace, a small diamond shaped tear can be seen in the back of his jacket. Before addressing one of the mothers, he turns off his mobile phone. He even waits until the display goes dark and only then continues walking. It clearly doesn’t bother him that his vest is hanging out of his trousers and his upper lip and left cheek are smeared with chocolate. His mouth doesn’t look like it’s getting much use. He’s quite possibly not spoken to anyone at all in the last few weeks. The general impression he gives is of someone pleasant enough, but also rather bewildered. Which exactly describes the kind of men who often come wandering into the narrow side street behind the former fish restaurant.

Irma is the first to approach him.

Hello,” she says.

His first reaction is to move out of her way, as if he’s not at all interested, then he stops and looks at her more closely from the side.

Philipp,” he says, and holds out his hand.

Mother Irma,” says Irma.

She’s the oldest of the mothers. Usually the others leave the first customer to her, as they all owe Irma some kind of favour. But you can tell from the look on the young man’s face he’s not interested in Irma. Maybe it’s the headscarf she’s wearing. It’s come to be her trademark, but it doesn’t make her look maternal, just pinched, like a hard-up market trader.

Agathe gets wind of an opportunity and approaches the young man. Ulrike follows her.

What a surprise, the vultures are coming,” says Irma quietly, taking her wide-rimmed glasses in her hand. “Well, what is it?”

Hello,” says the young man to Agathe and Ulrike. “Good evening.”

Doesn’t he look sweet?” says Irma, pointing to his worried face with her glasses. “But he’s made a real mess on his face.”

She takes a handkerchief out of her coat, licks it, and uses it to wipe the young man’s cheek.

There you are…… that’s better.”

I don’t think he looks sweet,” Agathe chimes in. “He’s just putting it on. He’s really a loser, one of those who only visits or phones his parents once in a blue moon. Isn’t that right?”

His reaction tells her that she’s hit the nail on the head. The young man smiles at her. He needs it, Agatha can tell, he needs it urgently.

I’m Philipp,” says the young man. “How much is it for…….”

For?”

For one night.”

The whole night?” Agathe asks in reply.

Yes.”

Three hundred.”

The young man looks at the ground and puts a hand to the back of his head.

Can we say two hundred?” he asks shyly.

Listen, you little good-for-nothing ,” says Agathe, “you might be able to get away with that with Ulrike here, but not with me. It’s three hundred or nothing.”

Oh,” says the young man. “Please. I …”

Two hundred and seventy,” says Agathe after thinking a bit. “Anything less would be an insult.”

Can I, can I possibly pay by card?” asks the young man.

The three mothers laugh, Agathe the loudest. “Yes, of course, love,” she says. “I think we can manage that. We’ll go to a cash machine on the way, promise.”

The young man’s face brightens up.

Okay then, let’s go.”

You daft thing,” says Agathe and puts her arm through his.

They walk away. The other mothers look after them, then return to their slow walking up and down. When it begins to rain a few minutes later, Irma puts up her old- fashioned umbrella with the laughing moon face and the other mothers squeeze up together so they don’t get wet.

That Agathe,” says Ulrike. “There’s not a night goes by when she doesn’t get a son.”

It’s a question of experience. Just be patient, you’re nearly there.”

If only. This here is all I’ve got. Where else can I go? I don’t want to do daughters, although they say you can at least wait in a house and not out on the street in all weathers.”

Come on now, it’ll all come right,” says Irma, who doesn’t like it when the others complain. “Look, now it’s stopped raining again. It was just a quick shower.”

The mothers spread out again. Somewhere a church clock chimes the quarter hour and a little later a car horn shrieks out in its sleep. Otherwise all is quiet. The evening marches on and a few single stars appear.

When the young man laughs, he holds his fist in front of his mouth as if he’s coughing. Agathe thinks it’s cute. To test how helpful he is, she pretends she’s having great difficulties climbing the stairs. Philipp stops and looks at her, then it occurs to him he should help her, and he does the best he can. He’s all fingers and thumbs, thinks Agathe, but still, at least he’s trying. The name plate by the bell says: Uhlheim. A name that sounds familiar to Agathe. Maybe a previous customer? There are so many of them after all ‒ so many children, she thinks.

In the flat he takes her raincoat and hangs it up on the coat stand. Agathe takes a look around. A typical student pad, a den with a musty smell like teenagers’ bedclothes. An ironing board, with its legs askew, lies across the sofa.

Well,” he says. “This is where I live.”

I knew you’d make something of yourself,” says Agathe.

Philipp laughs. It’s not a proper laugh, more of a facial reflex he couldn’t suppress in time. Maybe he finds it difficult to relax before the financial side has been arranged, thinks Agathe. She decides to make it easier for him and just holds out her hand. He looks at her, takes one, then two seconds, then understands and goes into another room. He comes back with two hundreds and one fifty which he presses into her hand. Then he sets about trying to find a twenty and starts to get annoyed because he can’t find one. It occurs to Agathe that he didn’t stop at a cash machine on the way home after all.

Don’t worry about it,” she says, “Shall I cook something for you? Like in the old days?”

His relief at this suggestion helps her relax, too. He runs his hand through his hair, grins, looks away, looks back at her. Then he says:

Yes, yes. That would be great.”

Agathe goes into the kitchen, finds an apron which she puts on, and inspects the fridge. It’s almost empty. She’d been expecting as much, but the fact that there isn’t even any butter annoys her a little. She decides to make him an omelette. From experience she knows that customers enjoy their food more when she doesn’t say what they’re going to have, but just starts cooking as a matter of course. It gives them a feeling of security. Philipp sits down on a kitchen chair.

Well, then,” says Agathe, as she cracks open an egg, letting the thick yolk drop into a large measuring jug, “tell me a bit about what you’re up to these days.”

Jobwise?”

His tone of voice is cheerful, unnervingly so, almost as if he can hardly believe it’s all going so smoothly. As if he’d been convinced he’d suffer greater difficulties or humiliations.

Yes.”

I’m still a student.”
“What are you studying?”

Oh, I’ve been studying forever. Physics and Chemistry.”

Physics. And Chemistry,” repeats Agatha, to show how impressive that is, while wiping her hands on her apron.

It’s a fine line to tread – she has to concentrate to stop her gestures from being too obvious, too clichéd. But Philipp doesn’t seem to notice such things.

Well, you were always good at technical stuff,” she says.

Well, maybe,” says Philipp, “but I’m still not sure it’s the right thing for me. And uni can be pretty stressful, too.”

In what way?”

All these deadlines you’ve got to keep to. And they’re always changing things, so suddenly something no longer counts towards your marks and you have to go to the dean’s office to argue with the idiots there. Really stressful.”

But you’re nearly finished?”

Yes, thank God. Another year or so.”

Agathe’s omelettes have turned out well. Just the right golden yellow to give him an appetite. Philipp eats with his eyes closed. He’s doing it all for the first time, Agathe guesses, he doesn’t know yet how to behave.

Well, you’ve been a student for long enough. It’s about time you finished,” says Agathe, tartly.

Philipp opens his eyes and looks at her, taken aback. Then he smiles, picks up the pepper grinder and shakes it over his plate, which is almost empty.

Eat up,” she tells him. “You’re much too thin.”

He looks down at himself.

Or d’you want to end up looking like all those stick-thin no-hopers wandering around the place, who’ve got nothing better than books to spend their money on?”

After the meal she tidies up the flat a bit. There’s dust everywhere and she tells him off for being lazy. She knows that a constant, good-natured stream of grumbling burbling away in the background has a calming effect on young men. She picks socks up from the floor, bending down slowly and laboriously, apportioning blame so successfully in each individual movement that Philipp has to avert his eyes. His dirty washing is lying scattered about on chairs and on the bed. She stuffs it into the washing machine, telling him how much washing powder to use so that his clothes get clean but don’t have that penetrating chemical smell. After creating a bit of order she sits down in front of the television.

She finds a television guide on a side table, leafs through it, and starts underlining various programmes with a highlighter pen that Irma gave her a month ago.

Come and sit down next to me,” she says.

Philipp obeys her.

Well? Have you got a girlfriend?”

Me?”

Philipp has to laugh. Agatha pushes her reading glasses back on her head and looks at him as if to say: I do have a right to know. But she doesn’t get the expression quite right. The look on her face startles him and Philipp suddenly becomes serious.

No, not at the moment,” he says looking at his knees. “She moved out….three weeks ago.”

She wasn’t good enough for you anyway.”

Oh, I don’t know. It wasn’t really that.”

Yes, it was. She wasn’t the right one for you. Much too pushy.”

Philipp’s face freezes. He’s no longer playing along and is probably irritated at her well- intentioned shots in the dark. Agathe knows she went a bit too far. But it’s difficult to put the brake on when you realise you’re on the right track. She changes the subject and questions him a bit about his future plans. Where does he see himself in five years’ time? What will he write about in his Finals paper? When does he think he’ll be giving her the grandchild she’s hoped for all this time? Philipp responds politely to every question, but every so often looks at his watch. Agathe knows she’s got be tougher with him now, in order not to lose him.

Are you even listening to me? Hey Philipp, I’m talking to you!”

Yes, of course,” he says and gets up from the sofa.

Sit back down. Here I am visiting you for just one single day and all you’re giving me is a monosyllabic commentary. I’m sorry that your life is so uninteresting. I’m sorry you haven’t got anything to tell me. But that’s not my fault. That’s not how I brought you up.”

Philipp sits down. He looks lost.

Are you angry with me?” he asks.

Thank God,” thinks Agathe. He’s melting.

No, of course I’m not angry with you.”

It’s getting late. Philipp’s sitting next to her on the sofa and watching television with her. But Agathe’s getting tired and decides to send him to bed. He obeys and even lets her tuck him in. She draws the quilt right up to his chin. She watches him enjoying a good stretch under the cool covers. He breathes in deeply and rolls over to one side.

Sleep well,” she whispers.

After she’s turned off the light in the children’s room and shut the door very quietly behind her, she knows what’s expected of her next. She sits down in the room next door and carries on watching television. Many customers love seeing the bluish flicker of the television screen coming under the door. The flickering means: Someone is there, someone is still awake and keeping an eye on the flat. She switches through the channels and finds a few programmes that interest her. The repeat of an old Colombo series, a comedy with Christiane Hörbiger. She wonders if Philipp might lend her his bike in the morning. Some of her colleagues would now be rummaging through the flat looking for money, but there’s not much hope of that here. And anyway it’s often happened that a customer gets up again late at night and goes to mother in the room next door, to lay his head in her lap. For most of them this service, which is an extra, is really the thing they want most. The best thing to do, thinks Agathe as she puts her headphones on, is to act like a beacon of reliability by just sitting here quietly till the next morning. That’s the work of a real professional.

And Philipp does indeed come out of his room at around 2 o’clock, with his left pyjama leg all gathered up above his knee so that he has to shake it to go back down.

I can’t sleep,” he complains.

Agathe looks at him kindly and pats the sofa cushion next to her. Philipp sits down next to her.

What’s the matter?”

Oh, things going round and round in my head,” he explains, shrugging his shoulders. “Complicated things.”

Then he leans over, his head brushing Agathe’s shoulder and dropping down towards her lap.

That costs extra,” she whispers.

She makes an effort to be as considerate and motherly as possible when giving him this information as if it’s all part of the show. It works, and Philipp just nods.

Thirty,” whispers Agathe.

Philipp lets his weary head sink into her lap. He shuts his eyes and murmurs

Thirty, forty, fifty…”

He goes on counting in tens. When he gets to ninety he stops, licks his lips, and seems to fall asleep. But Agathe knows that in all probability he’s still awake. She has some experience with young men who pretend to be asleep. She can tell by the rhythm of his breathing, by the lively twitching of his eyelids and, of course, by the movement of his Adam’s apple. When people are asleep they swallow less frequently. He seems to like it all the same. And it doesn’t matter to him that this service will cost him more. So he has done it before, thinks Agathe. He knows the ropes, it’s not his first time. She thinks of his innocent face when he was looking for the notes, and smiles. On previous occasions Agathe sometimes turned a blind eye and let the customer sleep on her lap for free. Most of them were very grateful and as a result became regular customers, so the investment was worth it, so to speak, Agathe thinks. It just varies from case to case. Some young men look as if they need it more urgently than others, they’ve got an odd side parting, and trousers that are much too big, and all they talk about is some film or other which Agathe has never heard of, or about the fact that they never see their brothers and sisters because they live in another town. You just can’t be angry with them. You’d almost give it them for free, the whole works. Almost, that is, of course.

Agathe sighs and looks at the satisfied human being whose ear is lying between her legs. He’s definitely not one of those men to whom she’d almost give it for free. He’s got to pay. If he refuses, she knows who she can call. But still, with him there’s something else, something she can’t explain, despite her experience of many years. It’s strange, but she feels an urge to tell him not to spend his money on her services in the future. To take more care of himself and not let himself go. And he should finish his studies and get his life on track. Agathe lays her hand on the back of his head and begins to talk to him softly, even though she knows by now he has really gone to sleep. Her tone is still professional as she does so; she’s got herself under control.

You know,” she whispers, “I don’t think you should do this again. You shouldn’t go out in the cold each time you… you should really try to finish your studies, I mean really, seriously. Instead of, for nights on end………”

After an hour she lifts Philipp’s sleeping head from her lap and lays it on the sofa. She needs the toilet urgently. As she’s there, she cleans up a bit in his bathroom too. The mirror is so dirty she can barely recognise herself.

In the early hours of the morning she wakes the customer and gets the additional thirty euros from him. It didn’t take him long to find it. He says goodbye to her at the door.

Let’s have one last hug,” she says and puts her arms around him.

Really?” he says, flattered. “Stop it, you’ll break my – “

Then the breath is squeezed out of him as Agathe really hugs him as hard as she can. His breath smells sharp and sour, typical of lonely men who have to spend the whole night wrestling with dreams that they’ll never tell to a soul.

Six o’clock in the morning. When she walks alone through the empty streets of the outer suburbs at this time of day she’s often beset by strange thoughts. She thinks about the time she has left on this earth, wondering how long her last customer will keep going to the street mothers at night while the dark gold city trains go on gliding away from the station, untroubled by the world’s problems, as if they didn’t exist. And how long will it be till the sun rises again in an absolutely cloudless sky, untrammelled by the wavy silken veil the European capitals produce each morning to shield their populations? The question of time has always concerned her. It’s closely connected to the question of hope. Over time Agathe has become acquainted with just about every kind of hope that you have to satisfy these days if you want to survive. Not all her colleagues have grasped this. Irma knows it, of course ‒ better, perhaps, than she’s willing to admit. Agathe is sure Irma found a place to stay last night. She’s nearly always the last one to return to the side street, looking happy and content and telling funny stories from the life she’s shared for that one night. Agathe finds herself thinking of the time Irma showed them something a customer had made for her: a small wooden space ship. If a nuclear war broke out, this space ship would take all the mothers on earth (or was it all the happy families? Agathe can’t quite remember) to safety on another, faraway planet. Irma described the strange crayon drawings that could be seen all over the client’s flat: drawings of a small green ball, floating peacefully off into space.

When Agathe goes past the fish restaurant, its shop front boarded over with brown planks, she looks up and finds the pallid moon of early morning over the roofs, a grave metallic face behind clouds. A wooden space ship, she thinks, and has to smile at such a silly idea. How childish. A space ship for everybody – was that it?

 

Die Liebe zur Zeit des Mahlstädter Kindes, Suhrkamp, 2011.

Apfelstrudel in Shanghai

Author: Ursula Krechel
Translator: Mandy Wight

Translator’s Note: The novel Shanghai fern von wo is an account of the experiences of a group of German and Austrian Jewish refugees who have fled Nazi Germany for Shanghai, where they spend the war years. They are from a range of backgrounds, mostly professional middle class, sophisticated Europeans who find themselves in an utterly alien milieu: an unrelentingly hot and humid climate, a city whose inhabitants sell everything and anything to survive, and where their humanist values can find no purchase. The first shock and humiliation for many is that their professional qualifications are useless. This is the case for Herr Tausig, a lawyer. However Frau Tausig, a middle class Viennese housewife, finds that she does have some skills which are in demand ‒ as we see in this extract.


When Herr and Frau Tausig arrived in Shanghai, low in spirits, they had a stroke of luck in the midst of their misery. After the pilot and the immigration officials, a great throng of Europeans and Chinese came on board, well dressed people, some of whom had even brought their own interpreters with them. They pointed to some names and job titles on the list of immigrants, had these people called out and asked them again about their skills. They had jobs to give away. Their certainty that they had something to offer which was much sought after made them come across as saviours and patrons, serious and important, and the passengers, who had been led into a waiting room, immediately stood to attention. Barmaids were much in demand, but Frau Tausig was not a barmaid and had no wish to be one, either. Craftsmen were also needed, especially shoemakers or, better still, made to measure shoemakers. That was a noble profession and it would have remained a noble profession in Vienna as well, if it weren’t for the fact that the person practising it was a Jew. A lawyer: now he’d been dealt a poor hand, an especially poor hand if he was no longer young and was hard of hearing. Even Lazarus never tired of saying that the lawyers were basically as good as done for, because what good was the German or Austrian law in China? He knew of one or two who’d been admitted to the Chinese courts, and a lawyer who’d been a judge in Breslau was hired by the Jewish community in Shanghai to appear before the arbitration tribunal, but that wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Herr Tausig had prepared for emigrating by taking a course on using a knitting machine. A knitting machine with lots of little teeth clattering away, not just two needles, but a whole set of teeth: it was all the rage. And he’d even brought something with him which was the product of his newly acquired skill ̶ a scarf that he’d knitted for his wife. He twisted it and turned it in his hand, but no one was interested in his product. If only he’d brought a knitting machine from Europe with him! Exporter of knitting machines to the Far East, maybe that would have been the thing, but then he’d have needed a business partner in Austria, and who’d have wanted to go into business with a Jew? Who’d have dared to? And in Vienna towards the end he hadn’t even been in a position to buy a knitting machine. The sea crossing had eaten up every last penny.

Cooking and baking – that covered a lot of ground. Franziska Tausig didn’t look like a cook or a baker, but Austrian cooking had a good reputation. A man called her name, she stepped forward, intending to put her hand out in greeting ‒ a habit she quickly had to forget in Shanghai ‒ but first he wanted just to look at her. He looked her up and down: her hair dishevelled from the sea, her well cut but crumpled navy blue suit with some mother of pearl buttons between the breast and the waist, and he looked at her hands, piano playing hands, and her wedding ring. His eyes swept down to her skirt and the stockings which were much too hot in the sweltering heat of Shanghai ‒ in Vienna a lady wore stockings ‒ then his gaze slid down to her shoes with their little buckles. Frau Tausig felt as if she were being looked over like a horse, she had never been looked at like that before, but she could do nothing about it so she put up with it. Suddenly the man had seen enough and asked her straight to her face: “Can you bake Apfelstrudel? I heard you come from Vienna.” Frau Tausig affirmed first the one question, then the other, and she affirmed energetically. “Come to my restaurant tomorrow,” said the man. “If you can bake Apfelstrudel, a decent Viennese Apfelstrudel, then I’ll give you a job as a cook.”

She had baked apple strudel before, some had turned out well, others not so good, that’s apple strudels for you, fickle young lads with a mind of their own ̶ in a head filled with raisins. Buried deep in the warm belly of the oven they have a fine old time, while the baker, sweating away, goes down on his or her knees before them. Anyone who bakes apple strudel knows this. Can you bake Apfelstrudel? There was nothing for it, Frau Tausig wanted to and had to answer yes one more time. And later, thinking it over, writing about it, she believed she’d confirmed with pleasure, pushing her doubts to the back of her mind. ………….

The restaurant owner kept his word and came to collect Frau Tausig in the early afternoon. The fog had scarcely lifted and she now had to unearth her hazy memories of baking apple strudel. The restaurant where she was taken was a solid, two storey building. He showed her the dining room and then slipped with her into the scorching hot kitchen.

When the future didn’t arrive, the present grew longer. The present meant: tying a large apron round her waist, picking up a blunt knife ‒ there was obviously no sharp one to hand or it was being used for other purposes ‒ bending over a basket of apples, and peeling them in a hasty spiral. The blade carved up the quartered apples and sawed them into thin slices, cut them up so quickly that the apples had no time to turn brown. Frau Tausig had baked cakes for family gatherings, but she hadn’t brought the cookery book with her to Shanghai. Why would she need a cookery book when her entire middle class existence had been shipwrecked? Family recipes were no help there. How many eggs for what quantity of flour, and how much lukewarm water was to be kneaded together with salt and fat‒ all that had slipped into the furthest recesses of her memory. “Have you got cinnamon and raisins and unbleached flour?” Frau Tausig asked the restaurant owner. “We have everything you need,” he answered. Knowing words, and yet unsatisfactory. And her question a delaying tactic, in the hope that she could put the test off to some future point, when it would not all come down to her skills, a future where the inadequacy of the ingredients would conceal her inadequate qualifications. She sieved the flour into a large bowl, made a hollow in the flour, broke the egg into it, sprinkled salt over the top and poured water into the hollow. She did it slowly, carefully, she was aware they were watching her hands. She felt self-conscious, but at the same time rather proud of having an audience. She had to make herself put her hands into the whitish grey mush and rub the flour with her fingers into a crumbly mixture. The mixture stuck between her fingers like flippers, and she had to dust her fingers with flour. She kneaded and kneaded, she kneaded for her life. Frau Tausig shaped the mixture into a ball of dough and suddenly remembered that it had to be left to rest, and so she raised her hands in a calming gesture for all the onlookers, at the same time pointing to the ball of dough. She got the impression that they understood and so the dough rested while she sweated. She sweated even more when she preheated the oven. She sorted through the raisins, picked off the stalks, found little stones between the fruits, remembered how as a child she’d watched her mother baking and begged to be given some raisins (something her son had never done), saw suddenly the greedy child’s hand which had been her own hand, thought of her mother, pleaded with her as if her mother could protect her now, left behind, a helpless old woman, in Vienna, and knew she had to punch the dough, punch it till it made air bubbles, over and over again she picked it up and slammed it down against the edge of the bowl. Flour stuck to her hands and hair. It was a hard job, working the lump of dough, the balls of her thumbs thumping and pounding it over and over again till it became supple, serviceable, a mass which was putty in her hands. She took the dough out of the bowl and laid it on the baking tray. The next step was to roll the lump of dough, now the size of a child’s head, into a paper thin layer without breaking it. First she used the rolling pin, rolling back and forth, till it became a flat sheet as big as a dinner plate, then she lifted it up, feeling her way underneath till her finger tips reached the middle. She stretched the dough, pulled it and evened out the edges, coaxing it to grow and at the same time to thin out ‒ and it all had to be done quickly so the heat didn’t make the dough too sticky. Like a conjuror she stood in the restaurant kitchen, her hands hidden beneath the dough sheet, tugging, pulling, stippling ‒ the imprints of her finger tips visible on the dough’s surface ‒ the dough getting thinner and thinner and the sheet getting bigger and bigger. Paper thin it had to be, so you could read a newspaper through the dough, that’s what she’d learned from her mother. You couldn’t really see what she was doing there in the cavern beneath the dough, she tweaked it, tousled and tugged it from the centre to the edges so that it stretched, she seduced it into growing. It could have broken in any place she touched it, but it didn’t tear, much to her astonishment. It grew and grew: not beneath her hands but in the tent that the dough was forming over her agile hands. She was indeed performing magic. The restaurant owner was watching, and some of the Chinese cooks, who just a minute earlier had been busy with the meat and root ginger, were watching. The rice cook Rudi, an emigrant from Breslau who had been a factory owner before (she found that out later), gave her a wink. A huge cooking pot was steaming and bubbling away while Franziska Tausig worked. The pot washing women had stopped washing up, the foreign baker woman was carefully pulling the dough apart, stretching it, testing it gingerly to see if any holes were appearing but miraculously it stayed in one piece. That was a stroke of luck (or perhaps just chance?). One last check, she could have done with a ruler now, but still she feared it would probably have units of measurement she was totally unfamiliar with: feet or hands or inches or a Chinese measurement which would have baffled her, so she stretched out her sweaty naked arm (she had an idea of the length of her hand and arm up to the elbow and how this would look in the round): yes, that could be the right sort of size for a strudel, she was happy. She asked for butter and was brought a small pot that looked more like a pot for dripping, which made her guess that butter in Shanghai was costly and scarce, which indeed it was. She warmed up the butter to spread a thin layer over the dough; she’d asked for a brush for this. She didn’t know how to say ‘brush’ in English, but she tried by making a brushing movement with her right hand in the palm of her left, calligraphy strokes on a dry surface. The soup cook, twirling his thin, dangling beard, had understood what she wanted straightaway and brought her a small brush, which she sniffed, just to be on the safe side. It smelt a little spicy, but not unpleasant (she didn’t yet know what soya sauce smelt and tasted like, or how it could ruin an innocent dish), so she brushed the surface of the dough, which now looked to her like a pale full moon, with the melted butter. She asked for a cloth and they brought her something which looked like a nappy; she sniffed at that as well and couldn’t smell anything in particular, so she was happy.

She laid the dough out over the cloth, spread the sugared apple slices, the raisins and a pinch of cinnamon over the top ‒ that was the easiest and most satisfying part of the job ‒ and then using the cloth she folded one side of the dough over the other (there you are, no different from putting a nappy on a baby), flipped the ends of the dough parcel over so they were nice and even and the apple juice couldn’t seep out. (The memory of a baby’s body came back to her vividly at that moment: the memory of wrapping a nappy round her son, whom she missed so much, but couldn’t show it without thinking of her husband, and without imagining him being even sadder, stuck in the home on the Ward Road, in one of the men’s dormitories, stuffed full of things ‒ carpets, lamps, photo albums and cutlery canteens ‒ which were now totally useless). And the energetic wrapping and folding of the apple parcel had another purpose, too, which wasn’t exactly hidden, yet no one except maybe Rudi the rice cook was aware of it: I’m getting my husband out. I’m baking so that he doesn’t finish up a wreck like those other wrecks in the men’s dorm. The fact that she, too, was washed up did not occur to her at that moment.

Hands covered in flour are a good preventative measure against the feeling of being washed up, she noticed to her relief, yet on the other hand this kind of relief didn’t relieve her husband, but rather weighed him down and worried him.

She placed her creation on the greased baking tray and pushed it into the oven. Now all she could do was wait and pray that the heat in the oven corresponded to the temperature shown on the switch; the strudel needed just 200 degrees centigrade and 30 to 40 minutes. She looked at her watch and waited with trembling knees. Someone offered her a cup of tea, she sipped at the tea, which tasted bitter. She watched the cooks washing vegetables and boiling rice in a large pan; the knife she’d used to peel the apples was still lying on the table. She offered to help wash the vegetables, crunch, crunch, crunch went the knife into the cabbage stalks and chopped them up small. The restaurant owner looked on, pleased to see the woman could work and saw what had to be done, a plus point for her. Frau Tausig’s nerves calmed down a little as she worked, and the Chinese cook smiled at her, revealing his crooked teeth and his pink tongue squeezing out between them. Rudi, the rice cook said: “On the home stretch now.” And Frau Tausig answered sceptically, “It could still go wrong.” But Rudi came back with “ Even an outsider can go for gold.”

Then an enticing aroma began wafting through the kitchen: a good sign. Frau Tausig took the strudel out of the oven, the cooks gathered round her and the strudel while the owner, who had been drinking in the restaurant with guests in the meantime, was called into the kitchen. Frau Tausig cut the first slice, then portioned the strudel out onto plates, and everyone in the kitchen ate some, while looking at the pastry cook with respect. It was quite a ceremony. She didn’t know what was happening to her, her first Chinese apple strudel was a success and was praised to the skies. Frau Tausig later insisted it was the best apple strudel she’d ever baked in her life. The apple strudel was a lifesaver, a miracle, it seemed to her. She was taken on as a cook straightaway, as the new ‘Missi’ as they said in pidgin English. Franziska Tausig had hit the jackpot, and in no time at all she’d got a job.

From Shanghai fern von wo. Jung und Jung Verlag 2008.

The Disappearance of Philip S.

Author: Ulrike Edschmid

Translator: Mandy Wight

They come on the 14th of August at around midday. They’re coming for H. He had lent someone his car the evening before. That same night a so-called pipe bomb was thrown from this car under a police car. He had been warned that night. When his picture appears the next day on television, he gives himself up to the police. The photo appears in the Bild newspaper as well. The landlord gives us notice to quit again when he sees it. Again, Philip S. spends hours with him in his dark office, staring together out of the window at the rubbish bins outside gradually blurring, until they drink to friendship and he cancels the notice. Then we tidy up.

Philip S. and I are now alone. We put a few things back in their places. Then we go to see the lawyer to testify that at the time the bomb flew under the police car we were working with H. upstairs on the layout for the next edition of the paper, not suspecting for a moment that this very alibi might land us in prison. We had put together articles on Vietnam, American imperialism and the Black Panther movement, and stuck garish comic strips, with the word ‘pig’ all over them, in between.

I’m pleased that my son doesn’t have to see what happens next. He’s on holiday with his best friend and family. It’s quite a long trip with a tent—we also got him a sleeping bag, a camping mat, a small rucksack for hikes, hiking boots, a pocket knife and a torch. For a long time we talked over with him whether he should take his piece of knitted blanket on the trip—a frayed remnant of the blanket which has kept him warm since he was a baby. He holds it between his fingers when he goes to sleep and rubs it gently over his eyelids once they’re closed. He decides against it and takes my favourite T-shirt with him, still smelling of Arpège. He’s still holding the T-shirt, even when sitting ready to go in the back seat next to his friend, but at the last minute, when the car doors are shut, he plucks up the courage to wind down the window and give it back to me. Then they set off. Philip S. and I stand on the corner and look after the small hand waving at us, until the car turns off at the next junction and heads south.

On the 20th of August we leave the house in the morning. When we return at midday we meet our neighbours at the entrance and hear that at least 30 policemen have stormed into our block at the rear of the courtyard. We find that both floors of the flat have been ransacked. The video recorders are out on loan at the time and so are spared the greasy black powder which is spread over the whole studio for finger prints. We think about disappearing, hiding out with friends and lying low till things get sorted out, but we feel paralysed and stay, despite the feeling that something is tightening its hold around us.

In my memory, that night is the last one we spent together in the beautiful airy space of the factory flat, though that was not in fact the case. We lie together in the centre of the bed, closer than we ever did again, as if clinging to each other for mutual support. When we hear the bangs on the door at 5 in the morning, we quietly disentangle ourselves. I get dressed without speaking under the eyes of a female police officer: trousers, shirt and jacket, all made of black velvet. It’s the height of summer and I grab my winter boots. I pack skin cream, toothbrush, perfume and underwear. I don’t know which books to take so don’t put any in my bag. No longer aware of what’s going on around me, I don’t know whether Philip S. is packing anything at all.

The people in the house are still asleep as we’re led through the courtyard. Philip S. sits on the bench opposite me in the police van, which takes us three streets along to the police station in the Gothauer Straße. He’s wearing a denim jacket and takes my hand in his. Handcuffs peer out from his sleeves. “You mustn’t be scared,” he says softly, “they’re only trying to intimidate us.” I remember to this day that the word ‘intimidate’ seemed to me too grandiose—as if we had some great thing to hide, a historical deed, and at that moment I was aware that words like that are important for him, that he needs them to hang onto. But the rest of what he says calms me, gives me confidence and makes me feel protected—like he’s always been able to do. Then we’re led off into the basement, him into one cell, me into another, a long way apart.

It’s the stone, I think to myself in the cell, the cobble stone which was meant for the Amerikahaus but fell into the hedge in front. Or it’s the windows of the Senatsgebäude, I think. Or the words ‘Power to the workers’ in red spray paint over the white American limo. Or it’s the dark green suede coat I’d lent my friend C., and then wore again myself without knowing that she’d used it for her dangerous secret activities. Or it’s the underground newspaper, lying on the table upstairs with the layout still not finished—yet another edition that will later be banned because it describes the American president as a criminal and a murderer and calls on the soldiers stationed in Berlin to disobey orders.

Philip S. and I are taken separately to the police station at Tempelhof Damm. My fingers are pressed one by one into a brown mass, then twisted and turned right round. A policeman guides my hand as if teaching me to write. Delicate patterns are left imprinted on a plate, patterns which might convict me. You can smell coffee in the corridors.

The judge pauses for a moment when he hears me sigh with relief at the reading of the arrest warrant. It’s not the criminal damage, not the arson, not my suede coat—it’s not the incitement to violence against the Allied Command in Berlin and the insulting of the American president. It’s something which Philip S. and I have nothing whatsoever to do with. It’s the pipe bomb, which on the night of the 14th of August, outside a police station, had been thrown from H.’s recently bought car under a police patrol car. It was pure chance that no one was hurt by the flying splinters. Philip S. and I had been arrested on charges of attempted murder of a policeman and explosives offences. They’d added two further bomb attacks, one on the same building we were in, hearing the arrest warrant being read out, and another on a private American car. The bombs, according to the police, are supposed to have been manufactured in the workshop beneath our flat.

I’m driven across town again. In the prison van I sit in a kind of cupboard with an observation slit. It’s still morning. I’m in a completely separate world from the life in the streets slowly waking up. The van goes along Kantstraße, crosses Windscheidstraße, where my brother lives, and stops in front of a house with a late 19th century façade behind which the women’s prison is concealed. Three months ago I brought a crate of books here for the library. I’d been seen by the prison governor. She’d complained that she had no money for books and thanked me. The van drives me inside the prison: three paved courtyards, surrounded by cell wings and high walls of dark red brick. The courtyards extend to a wall covered with ivy on Pestalozzistraße, each one closed off by heavy iron doors. In the first yard I get out of the van and am handed over to someone at a counter. The property room is just along the way. Pale green walls throughout, washable. In the property room I put my belongings on the table. A wardress stirs a needle round in my pot of Helena Rubenstein skin cream. After she’s failed to find a file or any object that I can use to kill myself, I’m allowed to keep it. The perfume too. She takes me to the basement. I shower and wash my hair with delousing lotion. Next to me a young girl is showering. The wardress watches her. It’s a prison for young women on the streets. The governor is upset to see me here.

The cell is cold and narrow. If I stretch out my arms to the side I can touch both walls. Prison rules on the door. It’s forbidden to look out of the window, set so high into the end wall that you can’t reach it, with a slanting windowsill like a light shaft. It’s forbidden to call through the window or to wave. It’s forbidden to lie on the bed during the day or to sit on it. I haven’t got a book. I could borrow my own books but they’ve been put on the shelves in the meantime and the library is only open on Wednesdays. Today is Friday. The day is too long, too empty and my thoughts are tormenting me. I fold swabs for the sick-bay. I fold gauze triangles, one after another, repeatedly. I put the folded swabs in a box. It’s soon full. Repeating the same hand movements keeps me calm. The repetitiveness of these tasks helps to contain the feelings that well up in me when I think of my child and of my mother who’s become so small and frail, so sick.

When night comes I creep under the blue and white checked cover. I’m freezing. The next remand hearing will take place in one week. I’ve still got time. My son won’t be back for another three weeks. I picture him with his friend in the tent and try to go to sleep.

The next morning I hear a woman’s voice calling my name from the yard. I push the table over to the light shaft, put a chair on the table and make out a slim figure with fine blond hair doing circuits of the yard far below. I’ve no idea how she knows so soon that I’m here. She indicates to me that she’d like to get a cigarette to me somehow or other and hides the cigarette in the ivy wall. Then she puts her hand to her forehead and remembers that I’ve given up smoking. I can’t remember why she was in prison at that time. Like my friend C., she too had been in Jordan in a camp for Palestinians and had assisted with medical treatment. When she came back she moved in circles working on setting up clandestine groups on a South American model and, constantly under suspicion, there were always activities which led to arrests. Like my friend C., she had also borrowed clothes from me for various actions. She took something with her which suited the occasion, disappeared, turned up again, gave it back and disappeared again. The last time I saw her, she said something which Philip S. would say soon afterwards: that we must be ready to separate from our own children if we wanted to create a better world for all. She will live up to her principles, leaving her son with her parents and going on her way, which leads her between longer or shorter prison terms back to the Middle East, where she’ll be killed years later in an Israeli air attack on a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. The next day she doesn’t appear again in the yard. Because she called out to me, she’s taken to another prison. I’m sent to the remand prison at Moabit because I answered her with a gesture of my hand.

The cell is in a tower. The tower is built on to the old prison. M.’s cell opposite. Soft and regular, the beats of her typewriter keys penetrate through the wall. Then silence. I try to imagine what she does in the silence. Perhaps she’s knitting. The previous week I’d got hold of some wool for her. I don’t call out. Our windows aren’t next to one another. Hers looks onto the street. Mine onto the yard and a church tower. I am locked in to silence. My own voice startles me. I meet her only once, when she’s coming back from her recreation hour and I’m being taken to the yard. Before we’re able to hug each other we’re pulled apart. The cell is bigger than the one at Kantstraße, but just as cold, even though it’s summer outside. The window lets in more light. Standing on tiptoes I can see outside. Sometimes, looking down from high above, I can see M. She walks, like I do, alone, always in a circle, for half an hour. We’re the only women, isolated from the men—they stay locked up in their cells when we’re led through the corridors. Behind one of the countless doors is Philip S. But I never see him, not once. Now and then he sends me his love via a lawyer, but otherwise nothing. I hear that he’s begun a hunger strike, that he’s incited prisoners during the recreation period and has spent two days chained up in a detention cell. Here, within these walls, he leads a different life from me, a man’s life. He’s testing his role. Seeking out confrontation. He wants to see how far he can go. I’m in a different place. I’m looking inwards and I want to survive, whichever way it turns out for us. My thoughts go only as far as my little boy. No further. Focusing only on getting out before he returns from holiday, I drift off in daydreams and escapist fantasies for hours on end. But all the escapist fantasies end up sometime or other in the dreary life ahead, the game of hide and seek in a string of different apartments with false papers, the constant fear of being found and the lies I’d have to tell my child.

The judge doesn’t release me. It’s the 26th of August. The intervals are getting longer. Two weeks to the next remand hearing. I write letters, make plans for where my child could stay if they still don’t let me out then. There are too many letters and they’re too long. I must be briefer and more to the point, say the prison management, who check every word. I must adjust to staying here for longer, structure the hours, remember what happens each day, take note of what I see when I crane my neck up to the window, when I catch sight of a church roof, framed in the window, wet in the rain, I must not think of Verlaine’s poems, which I can’t get out of my head for trying, poems he wrote in prison, full of regret and lamentation for his misspent youth. Perhaps I should learn Spanish and take up gymnastics. Follow a routine. No coasting, no killing time. Make use of the time. Don’t just wait. No despair. Sometimes the thought of betrayal comes over me. I know who borrowed the car on the night of the 14th of August. The key was hanging ready next to the front door. But how will I be able to carry on, if I’m a traitor and shunned by everyone?

Friends have sorted out some clothes from my wardrobe and they hand them over at the entrance gate. The wardress pulls a transparent chiffon blouse out of the bag, a long velvet skirt, a shirt, into which a secret message is embroidered, which she’s not noticed, and a white fox fur. Apart from the shirt with the message I can’t wear any of the clothes here. Only the fox, which I roll up nose to tail, and place on my pillow to help me get to sleep.

On the 4th of September, my lawyer reports, a piece of our front door is removed and replaced by a different one, at the spot where Philip S. had welded on the bolt. Welding seams, he says, are as legible as handwriting. The piece of welding seam which has been removed is being examined to see if it was made by the same hand as the bombs we’ve been charged with. In the workshop beneath our flat, Otto and Ernst produce 12 pipe bombs under police supervision. The bombs will be exploded at a detonation site. Their explosive force is to be compared with that of the bombs under the police car.

On the 5th of September I hear on the radio—which is on for a limited time during the day and then turned off—the news that Salvador Allende has been elected as the President of Chile. It’s Saturday. On Sunday the radio in my cell reports live from a rock concert on the island of Fehmarn. I have no idea that at that very moment my son, already back from his trip, is sitting in a field in Fehmarn with his father and listening to the music of Jimi Hendrix. In the afternoon it’s warm and sunny in the yard. I lean against a wall in the recreation hour.

On the 8th of September the judge decides for the third time that I won’t be let out. I’m a flight risk, he says. I have no property that could stop me disappearing and no ties as I’m separated from my husband. My child doesn’t count. Nor does the bail money my brother has raised. It’s 4 weeks now till the next remand hearing. I’ve borrowed Kafka’s Schloss from the prison library. In the nights I’m tormented by the thought that the judge will never let me go.

On the 13th of September I’m fetched from my cell. The wardress accompanies me along the long corridor. Barred doors every few metres, which she opens with a jangling noise in front of me and locks, jangling, behind me. As if between 2 mirrors, the row of identical bars stretches out to infinity. From somewhere in the far distance I hear a rumbling noise. Then I see my son on roller skates coming towards me through the bars. He’s wearing a red helmet and his long thick hair is poking out beneath it. He skates round the wardress and his father, who has Musil’s Mann ohne Eigenschaften for me under his arm, turns again, skates on one leg, backwards, then forwards, turns his head, sees me, rushes over to the last set of bars separating us, thunders against them and reaches his hands through. Before I can grasp them, I’m pushed sideways into the visitor’s cell. Then he rolls into the tiny room and into my arms. I’m allowed to hug him once under supervision, but then I have to let him go again. So he carries on wheeling around the table where I’m sitting. He rolls past me very close, just brushing against me, and every time he goes round we touch each other’s hands secretly under the table. For fifteen minutes the rumbling noise can be heard in the visitor’s cell—then our time is up. At the door he turns around again. Why is he wearing a helmet, asks the wardress. “You never know,” my son calls out, already being carried by his skates straight ahead towards the exit and at every barred door, which opens in front of him and closes behind him, he gives another wave. The red of his helmet gets smaller and smaller, the bars merge together and he’s gone, with his father, who goes back with him to our factory flat because it’s there my son wants to wait for us, for Philip S. and me, nowhere else.

Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften is still lying on the table in the visitor’s cell. When I reach out for the book, the wardress picks it up to confiscate it. I can’t have it because it’s not new, because it’s not in the original packaging. A message could be hidden in it, she says, made by pinpricks over individual letters. For the first time I lose control. For the first time I shout and bang on the cell door until the wardress comes and brings me another random book to read. But I don’t want just any old book. I want the Mann ohne Eigenschaften for the duration of my imprisonment, which is stretching ahead of me without me seeing any end to it—for the sake of its 1600 pages.

I don’t know yet that this night will be my last in the cell, my wall adjoining M.’s, listening in silence to her quiet industry. I might have stayed next to her in prison, waiting even longer for experts to decipher the welder’s handwriting on the lid of the pipe bomb and the welding seam on our front door lock, for them to report that they were not identical, were it not for a young female drug addict. One of the chicks, as they call them, one who’s always at the centre of the group, the so-called Hash Rebels, who roam the streets attacking people at night. Hardly more than a girl, she becomes my guardian angel. She gives in to the pressure of the Chief State Prosecutor, who makes her promises and questions her while she, seriously ill, is trying to get off drugs. She says everything she knows, everything she’s seen, heard and taken part in herself. I’m not sure whether, being at risk and unstable as she was, she was telling the truth or only remembering the hours she’d spent at my sewing machine making the top to go with a summer skirt with my help. Her evidence sends others to prison or drives them underground, fleeing the clutches of the justice system. Her evidence releases us, however, into freedom.

The wardress arrives in the late afternoon. I am to pack my things. It all happens very quickly. Outside it’s sunny and warm. For an hour our friends have been sitting outside the 12a Alt-Moabit exit on a flight of steps. My son wheels up and down the pavement and asks for a Coke. I come through the door with a plastic bag containing the white fox fur, my clothes and Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften from the Property Room, the bookmark in the same place I’d left it, at the beginning, describing the meteorological conditions of a fine August day in 1913 with low humidity. My son jumps up the low entrance steps in his roller skates. The first thing we do is go to a kiosk for his drink. Then we sit next to each other in front of the big iron door in the sun and wait. H. is the second one to come out, light-footed, pushing his long hair out of his face in surprise when he sees us. Then Philip S. With a box under his arm he stands still on the top step, blinks in the sun and laughs with the confidence of victory. In spite of the hunger strike he’s filled out, his hair is shorter and instead of the wispy goatee he has a full beard that hides his soft mouth. I don’t run towards him like the others who’ve been waiting; I stay sitting on the bottom step.

 

From Das Verschwinden des Philip S.  © Suhrkamp Verlag 2013

 

 

 

Translator’s Note

I chose this extract to translate because it depicts a turning point in the relationship of the narrator and Philip S. and the beginning of their divergent paths in relation to political activism. For the narrator, it is her son and her concerns for him which preoccupy her during her stay in prison and which lead to the distancing from Philip S. suggested at the end of this passage. Her experience of arrest and imprisonment is movingly conveyed in short, present tense sentences and a frequent use of the passive to suggest her feelings of helplessness and passivity.

One challenge of translating this passage was the change of tense: while the narration is mostly in the historic present the imperfect tenses and pluperfect tenses are also used. I decided to maintain these changes between tenses, as I felt it was not at odds with the informal, almost conversational tone of the account. Another challenge was understanding and representing accurately the historical context of the text, which is set at the end of the 1960s in a milieu of political protests and activism. For example, I hadn’t heard of the ‘Hash Rebels’ and so didn’t know whether they were a fictional gang or had really existed. So I had to do some research on this to have a more confident grasp of the character of the ‘chick’ whose testimony in the end frees the narrator and Philip S.

The Long Breath (excerpt)

Author: Nina Jäckle
Translator: Mandy Wight

Those who were laughing or silent.

It was the eleventh of March and the sea breathed out, right over the land it breathed out and then it breathed in again, deeply. The sea sucked up those who were sitting, those who were playing, those who were sleeping, those who were laughing or silent, those who were still young or already old, lively, lonely or in an embrace. The sea left a border behind. A border that from now on forever marks the place where luck was alive on that eleventh of March at two forty-six in the afternoon and the place where, at that moment, luck had deserted.
The sea’s breath is long, says my wife, you too will have to show how long your breath can be, that you can endure.

The constant scratching of pencil tips on paper.

I have a new filing cabinet where I keep the photos of the tsunami victims who have not yet been identified. There are many photos, there are photos which it’s better not to see. I’m the only person who looks into the filing cabinet; not even my boss wants to look at them.
It’s too much to ask of anyone to look at those photos, it’s too much to ask of those left behind to point to one of those photos and to say yes, yes that’s her, yes that’s him.
At first the numbering and the filing of the photos, that keeping order, that administration of the disfigured dead was unbearable. With time it has become routine. I am an identikit artist. People used to praise my identikit sketches, now they praise the sketches I make of tsunami victims. I reconstruct the faces of those who have been found, I sketch the faces without their horrific injuries, to make it easier for those left behind to identify their relatives. In this way it is not too much, in this way they can point to my sketches, to the intact faces I have sketched, yes, they can then say, yes, that’s her, yes that’s him.
I think of them as individual anatomical cases. I avoid thinking about all the drawers of my filing cabinet at once; my gaze focuses on the one photo coming next, which serves as a template for the one sketch coming next, but despite this the serial numbering of the photos is an undeniable reminder of how many people remain to be identified, of how few of the faces I have sketched and how many remain.
From that day on, one or other of the TV channels has shown over and over again the snow-white ribbon, the broad trim of white foam moving towards the coast. Relentlessly, the wave moves over the sea, relentlessly towards the coast. We have always known how to make a deal with nature, how to tame its destructive strength, we have always lived with the dangerous powers of nature, we have no other choice. Molten rock, unstable ground, the sea all around, we know how to ask protection from spirits and gods, but on that day our experience was that this doesn’t always work. We were trained for evacuation, we were trained not to wait for an alarm, we were trained to help others, but on that day our experience was that this doesn’t always work either. On that day we experienced how important it is that the worst thing that could happen doesn’t happen, and equally we experienced that the worst thing that could happen can really happen. We experienced what relentlessness means; now we are experiencing what it means to let life return in spite of everything, what it’s like to open shops again, to send children back to school, to go fishing again, in spite of everything to trust and to eat the fish, the rice and the algae.
They’re sure to be writing songs soon about the butterflies with their deformed wings, too small for their bodies, and their strange eyes. We haven’t seen the last of those butterflies, says my wife.
When my wife turns the light off at bedtime, I usually lie awake for a long time in the peace and quiet and I have the feeling that my face is glowing in the dark, as if my skin is still reflecting the light from the illuminated layout table, which I bend over day after day for many hours. And in my head I hear the noise of the pencil, the constant scratching of pencil tips on paper. And in front of me the faces appear, the eyes, the nose, the lines of the cheekbones. Again and again I ask myself whether I can sketch the hint of a smile into the faces, whether it is permissible to think of a smile, of laughter lines, to presume an expression of happiness in the faces I am reproducing, the faces of nameless tsunami victims.
We saw a boy on television. Our family, he said, was my mother and my father and my brother and me. Now, it’s my brother and the dog they’ve let us keep, that’s my family. The dog was found in the disaster area like us, he was dirty and lonely, one of his legs was broken. He’s trying not to be sad, he’s a good dog, he’s trying his hardest, he’s brave, said the boy on the television, as if talking about himself.
All day long, as I’m sketching the faces, I hold an eraser in my hand. I get to know the faces as they emerge stroke by stroke. Anatomy helps me to understand logically how they ought to look; I know without hesitation which ill judged pencil stroke to remove right away with my eraser. I always draw the eyes last. I feel nervous about sketching the eyes, as they convey most intensely the assumptions I am making: it is the eyes, the gaze, that give the faces their humour or their severity, their boldness, their disappointment or even their secretiveness. Once I have sketched the eyes, and therefore the gaze, into the faces, then the faces are ready to be identified by those left behind, by those whom the Pacific did not take because they were in the place where luck was alive, by those who escaped the long breath of the sea. My sketches of faces will stay on public display for as long as it takes for someone to point to them, for someone to look them in the eye and pronounce a name and say yes, that’s her, yes that’s him.
Our ideal mountain, says my wife, our most beautiful volcano, for so long such a favourite with artists, isn’t perfect. Over the years more and more ugly little hummocks have appeared on its slopes, but no one ever draws those hummocks. You should draw them, says my wife reproachfully, to represent the truth. I think she doesn’t like it that I draw the faces without injuries, because my drawings don’t represent the truth.
Every evening I sweep up the black eraser rubbings on my desk. I keep this evidence in a tea caddy: evidence of my misrepresentations, of my aesthetic assumptions, which the numbered faces with the logic of their anatomy managed to resist. I can’t bring myself to get rid of the eraser rubbings, they are part of the process of recreation, even if all they are documenting is my botched pencil strokes and shadings, my inadequacies.
When the sea is lying calm and gentle before me, when there are no single waves to be seen, so that the sea is one harmless, swaying whole, then I feel as if I am being taken in, as if the monster is purring like a domesticated cat, before it yanks open its jaws and shows its true colours. Since that day I haven’t often been down to the sea. We all mean the same when we say ‘since that day’.
What am I to think about, asks my wife sometimes, before going to sleep.
Since that day I’ve often thought of the big aquarium. My wife and I spent a whole day there. We stood in a large tunnel made of glass. We were surrounded by the current, the movements of fish, of plants; everything belonged together, we were the only ones in the glass tunnel, left out in the cold.
The blue and green and shimmering sea is black or brown or grey on land. Several cars floated in a car park turned swimming pool, cars banged against a house wall, a voice calling from a loudspeaker was inaudible, a family house with a sea view collapsed, people were standing on high ground, their hands clamped to their mouths. White cloths dangled out of upper storey windows to signal survivors.
I think often of our neighbours, who are no longer our neighbours, of Aoko, of the little girl Aoko.

Bottles of water like ghost catchers.

I turn anonymous unknown people back into human beings, with a family, with a past they can talk about, I tell my wife as soon as I see that she’s worrying about me. Once I brought one of the sketches home for her; she had asked me to do so. I had also brought one of the photos which went with it. I talked about human anatomy, about there being no ambiguity with bones, about them providing clear guidelines which help to reproduce faces with almost complete accuracy. I’m mostly working from faces which have been destroyed, but they become more and more familiar to me as I draw, like the faces of acquaintances or neighbours, I told my wife. The one I had with me was number 32; the next day I was going to hang it up alongside the other finished sketches. So that the dead can be identified, so that they can have back their names, so that they can be buried, so that all can find peace, I told my wife. On the photo that I’d brought home, there was no longer a face to recognise, the tsunami victim on the photo no longer had a past, it was only through my sketch that his past would perhaps be restored to him, his family too. I hoped that the drawing would comfort my wife, would relieve the distress caused by the photo. My wife said nothing.
When you see something under the water, it’s not actually in the place you think you are seeing it. That’s true too when you’re looking out of the water into the air beyond. As a boy I was fascinated by this reaching out for something and missing it, or the fact that my foot under water was not where I saw it. Recently I dreamed that I was trying over and over again to pull something out of the water, but was again and again reaching out into nothingness. The water was light green and clear, the rocks and coral had sharp edges, my blood could hardly be seen in the waves. I think often about looking out of the water into the air beyond, and I also think of Aoko – for her nothing up here is where it should be when she sees it from down there. I think too of reaching out and missing, of no one holding on to Aoko.
First bones, then muscles, then skin. With skin comes shading. Once the eyes are sketched, the face soon becomes more than just a number, I told my wife. She nodded quietly. Since she saw the photo and the sketch I made from it, she has asked hardly any more questions. I think she doesn’t like what I do, sketching the faces.
Before, I sketched pictures for forensic purposes, of criminals and crime scenes. At home after work, I would sketch landscapes, birds and plants. Since I’ve been sketching the tsunami victims I’ve no longer touched my pencils or sketch block at home. It wouldn’t seem right to draw landscapes or birds or plants. The scratching of pencil tips on paper is now the sound of faces.
The sea women have always worn white suits and white headscarves; the white protects them from sharks and from bad luck, they say. I’m not sure if they’ve been allowed back, since that day, near the coast and on the sea bed, gathering snails, mussels, sea urchins, algae, especially ormer. Their protective suits probably don’t protect enough since that day. There are only a few of the white sea women left. Yesterday, in my lunch break, I drew Aoko in a white suit, with a white headscarf. That’ll help against the sharks and a little against bad luck, I whispered, then I threw the drawing into the waste paper basket.
Brown algae is harvested on the sea bed, sea urchins are found in coral reefs, eels, carp and pike-perch are fish which live on the ocean floor. Normally there is no caesium in the body, not even on the sea bed. You always used to see cleaned octopus hanging up on washing lines to dry, whole villages had cleaned octopus hanging up to dry in the garden behind the house. Octopus is found near the coast and since that day the usual method of cleaning has not been good enough – everything coming from the sea bed has taken on a different meaning. Inedible fish is thrown back in the sea and the fishermen receive compensation based on the weight of their catch. Children learn new words, they learn fast. The words iodine, caesium and plutonium will probably make up their counting rhymes in future. Mothers are lining up water bottles like ghost catchers. It’s supposed to help against radioactive particles, says my wife. Two-litre plastic water bottles bordering children’s playgrounds, I’ve seen it on a photo, it looks like they’re playing Defenders, she says.
When my wife is asked what I do, she says that I sketch portraits. That was a good portrait, she said to me recently. She was probably thinking of sketch number 32 and I guess she was trying to forget the photo on which this 32nd sketch was based. My wife may well have been thinking about the hint of a smile sketched into the face, and was then able to call it a portrait.
What I absolutely must forget, says my wife, is the sight of a lampshade in the dirt, the sight of an iron between rocks, the sight of splintered planks of wood next to a toy bear, the sight of a shattered bowl, of a broken picture frame containing a torn photo, the sight of a bicycle with no seat, of a child’s shoe in the mud, a door handle, a dirty cushion, I absolutely must forget the sight of plastic sheeting between the rubble, human sized plastic sheeting it was and soldiers everywhere.
Since that day you can no longer gaze over the water admiringly, you can no longer look at the horizon, observe the waves or the mirror images of clouds or the reflections of sunlight or of moonshine. You can’t imagine that this sea could ever again appear on a postcard. When you look out over the ocean, you see before you the children, the fathers and mothers, the houses, passports, school reports, fences, dogs, cattle, chicken, cats, desks, radios, saucepans. There are postcards of the sea, written and sent off before that day, which are meaningless now; the Pacific these postcards show no longer exists for us. Everyone here knows what it means when we use the phrase ‘since that day’. It means life and everything to do with life and also everything which used to be to do with life, it means everything we don’t talk about and also everything which is yet to come. It also means the postcards which are meaningless, which were sent from here to the city, which people now no longer want to read or look at, it means the many urns which are yet to be filled, it means our memories of whole families, of factories, of farms, of whole neighbourhoods, of whole woodlands, of playgrounds.
Draw me some spiders, Aoko had called out, a sheet of paper in her hand. Two spiders and a lovely wooden box to go with it, with flowers on it, and then draw me a spiders’ web so that we can have a story about them, just us two, said Aoko.
There are children who will be born into the cramped world of the containers, the too-small temporary accommodation. They will be told that people haven’t always lived crammed in side by side like this, that people will not always live like this crammed in side by side, that there will be bigger rooms and more of them, one day. They will be told that there was a wave, shortly before they were born, a wave which managed to sweep away a whole village in less than a minute. Despite the levee, despite the flood barriers, people will add. The children born into containers will be told that water can flatten cars, that the rubble from one thousand six hundred houses can fit into a baseball stadium.

Not from the memory held in the bones.

Everything else depends on the favour of the moment, depends on being looked on favourably in one single moment. Since that day this favour resides in none of the earth’s plates having moved. In the evening when we go to bed and my wife turns the light out, another day has gone by with no serious earth tremor, another day when the sea has not come to fetch us.
Because they don’t know what to do, says my wife, they tell us things aren’t too bad. Difficult, but not hopeless, they call the situation. This is no comfort to people, who are getting restless. Many people are talking, some are quarrelling, some just sit there saying nothing, others want to get away and just sit there saying nothing, many people spend all day wanting to get away and just sitting there, says my wife.
A few weeks ago I was working on a sketch and only when I was working on the mouth did I recognise the face. It was the face of my aunt. I had drawn a portrait of my mother’s sister. I had messed up the nose; I rubbed it out, I drew the nose again, now from my memory, not from the memory held in the bones. I didn’t sweep the eraser rubbings into the tea caddy with the other eraser rubbings. I left them on the desk – I didn’t know what to do with them. My aunt had been a tiny old woman; it wouldn’t have taken much to carry her off. There were quite a few photos of my aunt at the seaside. My aunt loved the Pacific, her father, my grandfather, had been a fisherman. In the summer he caught octopus and eel, in the autumn, salmon and in winter, cod. My grandmother was always scared that my grandfather wouldn’t come back, that he would go missing with his fishing boat and the other fishermen. My grandmother feared the Pacific but my aunt loved it. I wrote my aunt’s name after the number she’d been allocated.
People say that the fishermen returned from sea one day and found the harbour completely devastated. They had felt no hint of the gigantic wave, nor had they seen anything when out at sea. The fishermen called the wave tsu-nami, the wave in the harbour.
I heard a boy telling stories. They’re all doing fine down there. You see, they’ve got what they need down there, he said. Their houses, their cars and motorbikes, their bikes and dogs, loads of toys, trees to climb, a lot of space, even shade and mountains and valleys, they’ve got it all down there, said the boy and no one contradicted him. Down there, that’s what the boy called it – that phrase still rings in my ears. Down there. When he uttered the phrase it sounded like the name of some fantastical place, our very own Atlantis, you might think. The boy picked up his unicycle and rode off, his arms outstretched, pleased with his story.
And again and again on one or other of the TV channels, the snow-white ribbon, the broad trim of white foam moves towards the coast.
They say that the earth has been turning a little more quickly since that day, the earthquake lowered the moment of inertia and in this way the fatal blow dealt to us shortened the length of a day on this earth by almost two microseconds. I told my wife this and I know she was thinking about all those people for whom the earth no longer turns at all. You never cry, she says.

From Nina Jäckle, Der lange Atem © Klöpfer & Meyer Verlag Tübingen 2014
Translated by Mandy Wight

The Children Have Been Found

Author: Ursula Krechel
Translator: Mandy Wight

The children have been found. Claire telegraphed her husband in Mainz right away, the children, the children have been found. The news threw her into a state of agitation, of longing, of expectation, some great thing was happening to her for which she had no name, it was momentous and at the same time humble. She wrote a letter to the Red Cross and someone in the dairy helped her to write a letter in English to Georg and Selma, all done in a mad rush. She combed the dictionary, compiled lists – home, please, come home, parents, foster parents – groped her way through all the possible questions she wanted to ask the children. So many years were lost, wiped out. She had worried so often whether they had done the ‘right thing’ in sending the children to England. She had hoped to be able to follow her husband to Cuba and to send for the children after that, it was all one big AFTER THAT, one hope was that they could perhaps travel from Cuba to the USA. The years in England would benefit the children if that happened. But the outbreak of war had dashed all these hopes, made them dreams of a bygone era. In the attic in Bettnang her husband had made this terse comment about his emigration: I pre-empted my murder. And she really couldn’t disagree.

Claire took a train to England. She didn’t really see the coast, she barely noticed the sea, she was one taut sinew, she didn’t know herself how she did it (as if sleepwalking?), changing trains in London, finding her way from one station to another across half the city, she didn’t notice the huge escalators leading up to the platforms where the crowds huddled together like a great pied animal in their coats of different colours, the monstrous luggage trolleys, she didn’t see the English sky, a sky the colour of light blue petals with the distinct shapes of treetops standing out against it, she didn’t see the swallows zigzagging overhead. Some flew straight as an arrow at the train window and only at the last minute turned away. She didn’t see the cornfields stretching as far as the horizon, the heads of corn waving like horses’ manes in the wind behind the tiny railway stations. The light was illuminating real things. In Ipswich – they had written it down on a piece of paper for her – she had to change again, into a train with only two carriages. Hedges flew by, fences, rose beds at the stations. Claire was an exotic traveller who didn’t really belong in a British Rail compartment, that much was obvious. And she was aware of this, while being aware of practically nothing else on the journey. She had let them know her time of arrival, from this arrival everything else would follow; she would see the children again. The arrival was bathed in a magical light.

There they stood on the platform like a young couple, leaning closely together, welded into one position: no one can separate us. Georg had fine features, brown eyes and hair and a shadow of soft down above his upper lip. He looked at Claire calmly, withholding judgement, and picked up her luggage as if he were shouldering a sack of chicken feed. And she thought: that’s George, my son, and he doesn’t see me as his mother, but, with my luggage, as goods to be transported. And her first feeling was: he’s a decent boy, my son. Perhaps he gets it from his father. And there stood Selma next to her brother, feet firmly on the ground, red cheeked and well built, with a tartan blouse and rolled up sleeves. The small, dark child’s head which Claire had stroked so often had got lighter, ash blond, she had her mother’s green eyes and a full mouth with lovely, regular mother-of-pearl teeth. Claire had one more thought before she gave in altogether: like a horse, she thought. Or rather: like a young horse that can kick. And then she actually wanted not to think anything more, and not even to trust her feelings any longer. She was aware of how exhausted she was after the long journey, which had only this as its destination, standing here, standing here facing the children.

Mr Hales, the farmer, was waiting outside the station, a friendly man with a smile and big bear’s paws, who simply embraced her, the woman who was visiting her children, the children whom he and his wife wanted to adopt. It did her good. He said nothing. His English was not required and Claire was equally silent, speechless without a dictionary; you couldn’t leaf through one and look a stranger in the eye at the same time. It was a tense situation, which became easier in the farmhouse.

Claire was led into the kitchen. It was a long spacious room with dark wooden beams across the ceiling. It was dominated by a table with turned legs – it reminded her of a billiard table – and a huge stove, bigger than a bed. Claire saw some gas burners but the larger section was heated with wood, a container in which water was heated up and then let out directly via a tap into pots and pans, most practical. A cotton tablecloth with a delicate floral pattern covered the table; the plates were of stoneware, with spiralling tendrils around the edges. A door led to the dairy and behind it you could hear the chomping and stamping of cows – you could smell them in the kitchen too. Fat house-flies circled the lamp, knocked against the windowpane and buzzed back towards the warmth. Claire had to sit down on a sagging sofa; a cushion was passed to her so that she could sit a bit higher at the table. On the wall facing her she saw a picture of cattle in a pasture.

Mrs Hales had cooked. A bunch of teenagers and young adults sat there, her own children, farmhands and farming apprentices. It was a big farm and organised more like an estate, quite different from the farms above the Bodensee. Georg and Selma seemed to be on friendly terms with everyone. There was a lot of joking at the table, someone or other was constantly snorting with laughter, nudging or leaning towards their neighbour warm heartedly; indeed at times they seemed to be rather overdoing the friendliness. And a large dog lay down between the table and the stove like a woollen rug, so that Mrs Hales and the girls who were helping her had to go round him when they were serving out the food. Sometimes the dog growled, as though he wanted to contribute to the entertainment, and then he lay his chin flat on the floor, utterly content. His eyes closed. In Bettnang the village dogs stayed in the yard; no one there would think of treating a dog as a member of the family. Perhaps the whole thing was a performance by the family, a performance in preparation for a future adoption, to make clear to her, the German, the foreign mother, it’s all fine here, everything here is as it should be. You’re the one who’s upsetting things, just get lost.

Later on in the evening she realised of course that they were not just directing their talk and behaviour at her as she sat there comfortably. She understood ‘German bombs’, ‘destruction’ as if the squadrons had flown with her personal consent. She understood the conflict: shortly after the last phase of the war, in the face of growing poverty and rationing, the family had taken on German children, who had been scared stiff of German bombing raids just like all the English. Everything German was hated, harmful, hostile, dangerous. And as Germany was the enemy, to be beaten back by the English with all their might, the German children could not count on all too much sympathy. The fact that they were Jews, that they were enemies of their enemies, was a sort of specialist knowledge, perhaps known in London but not in every corner of Great Britain. They would have had to stick their necks out, the children would have had to pluck up the courage to say, loud and clear, in the situation in which they were living then, that they were Jews, they didn’t want to go to church and that they weren’t to be bothered with this and that. But they couldn’t do it: they were not Jewish, because they didn’t feel themselves to be Jewish. In reality they were NOTHING. But being children, they didn’t want to stand out,they didn’t want to be NOTHING. It was a difficult balancing act. Nothing was really NOTHING, being NOTHING hardly sent out an inviting message to others, but rather felt like a wholesale rejection of any fellow feeling. Whenever they were different, whenever they had to stand out from the others, they were absolutely mortified. So, better to be just like the English children, and to speak English without an accent and with no mistakes. And then she, Claire, came along and raked up a story from the past and wanted to take the children back to Germany, frightened and traumatised as they were. But actually they were no longer children; they had turned out splendidly, taking pleasure in sitting after work at the table made from walnut wood in the yard. Back to Germany?

The next day Georg, who was the quietest at table amidst the giggling and cackling, the teasing, showed her his school reports and while he was showing them to her, and Mrs Hales was smiling in an exceptionally friendly manner over her porridge, she realised: these were good reports, which Georg was proud of, and Mr and Mrs Hales too. Soon he would take his school leaving exams and then he wanted to go to university. Without making a great deal of it, he explained this and Claire needed few words to understand his commitment to this plan. She indicated to him that perhaps Selma, who had avoided her mother by slipping away, might have something to show her. Georg pretended at first that he didn’t understand his mother, but then he fetched Selma, who came in from outside with dirty, bare feet, much to Claire’s horror (was it cow dung?). A bit of pointing, from the reports to the girl, from the brother to the sister, from the room to the stairs, short orders, requests, so it seemed to Claire, and then Selma must have finally understood what her brother wanted from her, ‘something personal’. (Or did he have to persuade her to show anything at all to her mother, regardless of what it was ? To make contact with her?) She took a long time and was embarrassed when she returned. What she had in her hand were not reports but something in a larger format, watercolours of landscapes, pictures of horses, rural scenes, and she pointed with an innocent but grubby hand to herself. It was tactful of Mr and Mrs Hales to leave Claire on her own later in the evening, in a room which was cold but brightly lit, with fluttering curtains and a window looking out over the meadow, in a sublime rural peace and quiet, only broken by the buzzing of flies. Yes, it was really good, a calming influence on her inner turmoil. But Selma wrote late in the evening in her diary: ‘It was an immense shock to be confronted with a strange woman and told that she was my mother. I didn’t recognise her at all. Georg and I went to the station to meet her off the train. What on earth had this big fat woman to do with me?! She couldn’t speak a word of English, I couldn’t speak German and I didn’t want to talk to her. She wanted to pull me to her and hug me but I couldn’t bear her touching me.’ And that was something which her mother was never to know, but which she felt straight away.

Days full of tension, full of misunderstandings, days with no language, or always the wrong one. She felt the question emanating from Mr and Mrs Hales: why did you leave it so long before coming? The children are nearly grown up now and they feel at home here. Claire had no answer to this silent reproach. The fact that she had not received a travel permit from the French occupying forces which would have enabled her to look for the children herself, the fact that the Jewish committees dealt first of all with those children who were living in institutions and had lost their  parents, the fact that she had a slight suspicion that her children, with only a Jewish father and no Jewish mother, would be treated by the committees as second class refugees – what did that matter to these friendly people? Shortly after the end of the war Claire had read that the military authorities in the British Zone, the Control Commission for Germany under General Brian Robertson, had quite definitely ruled out taking on any responsibility for returning ‘refugees’ as long as the problem of Displaced Persons had not been dealt with. It was said that the supply situation would not allow for it. And the administration in the French Zone did not even consider making provision for returning Germans, as no refugees could have returned from France. The Pétain government had been collaborating fully with Hitler’s Germany since 1940 to make the lives of German refugees hell, imprisoning them in camps or handing them over to Germany, with the result that the remaining refugees escaped via hiding places in Marseille or without papers over the Pyrenees. Nor could the Hales know that the British publisher and socialist Victor Gollancz, himself a Jew, had made the following public declaration in 1948: To force German Jewish refugees to return to Germany would be an act of such cold-hearted cruelty that Britain’s good name and its proud reputation as a place of asylum for the persecuted could never recover from it.

The Hales would not understand all this; even if they understood the language they would not understand it emotionally. In their own way they did understand, but it was something quite different: that Claire and Richard had not really wanted the children, otherwise they would have come for them sooner. But what did ‘really’ mean?

Claire tried to make herself useful in the kitchen, but Mrs Hales waved her away. She had it all under control, the milking pails, the ladles, the sieves. And even Selma knew what had to be done, putting the harnesses on and off the horses, feeding the chickens, fetching the eggs from the nesting boxes, rubbing the chicken droppings off carefully, then sorting the eggs according to size. Claire would go walking over the fields to avoid just sitting in the house, feeling out of place. She saw flocks of pheasants pattering along in front of her with the utmost solemnity, not shy at all – she could have touched them. She heard the chaffinches’ shrill song, saw tiny, thin wild rabbits, hordes of rabbits, fearless of the pheasants, hopping into the hedgerows, the laughter of wrens lording it above them. She saw wide wheat fields, ears heavy on the stalk, lush meadows, banks in bloom. The wind went right through her; she was walking in her smart town shoes, she didn’t have any others – no, she didn’t belong here. When she got back to the farm and asked for Selma, they told her she was in the stables. Claire went into the stables and knew she wasn’t really welcome there; no stranger is welcome in a stable, she had noticed that in Bettnang too. Most agricultural work was still done with horses, tractors were a rarity. There she saw Selma hugging a big brown mare and the mare nuzzling up to her. Selma’s arm was flung around the mare’s neck so passionately that Claire felt a stab of pain, as if her daughter was expecting all the motherly love she had gone without from this workhorse, this puller of heavy carts. It was a relief that Selma didn’t see her mother watching her. Upstairs she found Georg sitting at his desk. In front of him he had several small boxes with screws and metal plates. He was working with a metal saw and some tiny screwdrivers, quickly reaching into the pile of screws. He knew what he needed. He looked up briefly and nodded to her when he became aware that someone had come through the door, then he went back to his work.

Claire’s departure was quiet, numb; it seemed to her as if a sigh of relief went through the house. As if the cows were snorting, the horses pawing. ‘Things haven’t been dealt with’, this thought came into her sad, empty head. No, you couldn’t say ‘people not dealt with’ – she and her husband had been ‘dealt with’ and judged and unlike in a real trial, she had had no chance to defend herself. Claire went straight to Mainz. Once she arrived at the county court, she asked for directions and there she was: in the offices for civil proceedings, where her husband was at that moment dictating. It was not much comfort to her, telling him about the trip which had come to nothing. He chewed his inner cheek to disguise his upset. A messenger came and brought some papers, which he unloaded fussily from a trolley, looking out of the corner of his eye at the woman who didn’t belong here. The man stared at her eagerly, as if he were expecting the county court judge to introduce her, this woman who had blown in at an obviously quite inconvenient moment, to him, a clerk at the Ministry of Justice. The telephone was ringing at the same time. At last Richard took his wife to a cafe near the cathedral. When she began to sob uncontrollably he behaved like a gentleman, paying quickly at the counter to save her embarrassment, then walked to the Rhine promenade with her, walked up and down with her. She didn’t even seem to see the river, she could hardly put one foot in front of the other. He was almost leading her along while she told him falteringly what had happened.

Excerpted from Ursula Krechel, Landgericht © Jung und Jung, 2012
Translation © Mandy Wight