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