What became of us

By André Herzberg

Translation Johanna McCalmont

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

EIKE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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