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What became of us

Author: André Herzberg
Translator: Johanna McCalmont

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Above the Curie Temperature
God’s Picture Book
Power Drills Sing

Author: Karin Fellner
Translator: Zane Johnson


Above the Curie Temperature

With a lightning rod from your hair,
you go on ahead,
measure by measure over the field
beside your Parallel
through the elm forest. With
each of your steps the country
is laid bare before you, violet.

The coils on the horizon are
humming up to your mark.
Rings rustle the grasses in the
Tesla wind, the bundled charge
weighing steadily
on your shoulders. Maybe

the switchboard is there.
Maybe someone just inches
the regulator up. As
your line fades,
you pause at the turn
and go cross country.

 

God’s Picture Book

Only a blink from the fern forest to the stilt house to the labyrinth
within the church wall: the spiral system faded, or rather
put aside for later, nooses of hope and fear.
The monks are supporting beams in the emperor’s hall.
Their goosequills arrange water and sky.
They banish the abyss in minium, in thorny ink,
and the serpents squint and flee.
Carolingian miniscule flutters out of the leaves.
“We, too,” proclaimed the dove, “are only messengers
of our misunderstanding.”
An aeon passes over. Who has kept the prayer?
Midday demons, glutted, turn over the page
to seaquakes, stilt houses, fern.

 

Power drills sing

from the swelling of new blisters
in dim hands, and as
in the general twisting
and trembling, occasionally
a breach of the controls succeeds
Their rotations partner is
catacombic silence:
The coil thrusts to
a higher casing through
fetishes and bulging:
Let us create the sound base,
let us be the slipping-through!

 

 

They say there’s several types of love
Why does someone like me go running in this kind of weather?
The fog
The Guiness parable
One more thing
The miracle of the crocuses

Author: Matthias Politycki
Translator: Christophe Fricker

 

They say there’s several types of love

: a scream at night
: a poem on paper
: some cake and Darjeeling
: a snowy white feeling

Us lot, however, we’re down by the beach,
we stare at the ocean, expecting to see – today! –
this island emerge
in the distance – keep looking, long reconciled
with this century, still thudding in us, gone wild.

: island and city! Yes, of course –
: island and hamlet! Why, what else –
: island and chamber! Pray tell –
: where a tale with pig-tails will dwell!

Island with pig-tailed tale, you know,
and the casket of coral, remember,
in which it has hidden the magical spell
as written in delicate icing letters
with pink and pearly powder on top. –
My mind is enthralled, you must stop!

But us lot – the sea breeze is gentle –
we stare at the sea and the sea and the sea,
we don’t know the scream or the snow or the night,
we sit here and stare. The blue sea in sight.

 

Why does someone like me go running in this kind of weather?
Some cheering on for a Thursday

Running, running, always running
through the park, through tree-lined streets –
running, running, running, running
like an animal and … never stop!

Just keep going through the puddles,
cleansed by mud and tried by wind,
run until the trees around you
sing and lights begin to spin,

run until not just the dogs and
some forgotten older guys
stare at you with piercing eyes,
run until you are all numb,
what are days and what are hours,

running, running, till beside you
palm trees wave their flappy top
and some gorgeous orchids sop
you with their enticing scent –

but you will not be undone,
you will run as though it’s Tuesday,
spring in step you run right past them,
running, running, always running
like an animal and … never stop!

 

The fog
That would love to be friends with you

Or like one of these little
Korean islands
No more than
A craggy exertion of rock
Way out in the ocean
Which might, at best,
Have a pine tree on top
That typhoons have shaken
And warped into submission
And bent deep down to the ground
And you

With no skies atop
Let alone a bird
Above around behind and in front of it
Nothing but miles and miles of
Towering, spreading
Fog that would love
To be friends with you
But the same is
Probably true
For the pine tree too.

 

The Guiness parable
Barman’s Lesson, Given at the Brazen Head in Dublin

I
Stop! said the barman, hold your horses. Jesus Christ!
I held the glass already in my hand which he
had casually put down in front of me: a Guiness
is never to be rushed, it’s still alive when you
extract it from the keg, just look at it, how gray
and wan and terrified it looks, it’s coming to,
it needs to come into its own. Another three,
four minutes till it’s settled down, all black,
into its pint glass – foam so white, head half the height
of your old priest’s dog collar, firm though, any mouse
which ran across it wouldn’t leave a trace.
But then – and only then! – is this beer ready,
a great beer ready for you to enjoy. Until then:
think!

II
I looked around in awe: eighthundred years of thirst
encased in somber wooden panels; when my time
had come, the barman drew the outline of a harp
onto the head – the emblem of his brewery.
But wait! He beckoned me to stop when, once again,
I reached out for my pint because he recognised
at once that I was just a foreigner and dumb:
Oh why so greedy, man! Enjoy your every sip
and your reward will be to see within your glass
how foamy gulp rings form the formula of your
own drinking, giving you a parable. Of what?
And how? He did not specifiy. Oh well –
enjoy!

III
So there I was. My glass in front of me, with all
of Ireland within it waiting for me: smoke
and mist and eau de peat and joy of song …
the barman over at the other end
informed each drinker how he nearly put
this moron off his drink – the one back there,
the foreigner! Who, carefully, now dared to pick
his glass up and who, far from drinking, has just
sipped at it.

 

One more thing

Not to be greedy any more,
no more hope, no more fear,
to just go ahead and sit
at the intersection of past and future,
turning into a given,
friendly yet not a fool,
quiet, not harmless,
relaxed, but not bored,

To taste a handful of strawberries
just by looking at it in the end,
to smell a freshly-mowed lawn
just by thinking of it with great pleasure,

And then, after a few years of practice,
with or without fasting,
to focus once more
and drink up the entire
Kleinhesseloher See
in one go – that would be it!

 

The miracle of the crocuses
St James’s Park, as entered from Queen Anne’s Gate one 24 February

I had fifteen minutes to kill, you know,
and walking over to the park
seemed an idea as good as any –
it was one of those badass spring days,
thirteen degrees, at least, if not fourteen,
and everybody was just descending on the park
to get their share of the sunshine and
take a few quick pictures of Buckingham Palace
from the bridge,
and so there was this chatting and chirping
in all the world’s accents.

But it wasn’t the magnificence of the sky,
mirrored in the lake underneath me,
it was those crocuses that I suddenly,
at the back of all the shouting and screaming,
all shiny and white and shimmering purple
against a subtle green background –
it was those crocuses and also, I swear to God,
maybe also some daffodils here and there –
it was this crazy audacious all-out blossoming
that almost made me lose my balance
I was so in awe!

When was the last time I was
so dearly amazed?
I stopped in my tracks and
took a deep breath –
I would have just loved to show you,
would have loved to be ardently silent before it
together with you for a while, I swear.

But then, you know,
I only had fifteen minutes and
I really needed to go, exhale,
go back.
And you weren’t there
anyway.

 

From Sämtliche Gedichte 2017-1987.  Hoffmann und Campe, 2018.

 

To the Previously Most Common Bird in the World
The Extinct
Second Creation
Dodo

Author: Silke Scheuermann
Translator: Robert Lemon

 

To the Previously Most Common Bird in the World

To be the last of one’s kind
what a strange mission
When you once had different notions
of confinement and wide open spaces Very different
from the senior suite at the Cincinnati Zoo
Martha the last passenger pigeon in the world
what a dilemma that you were all so tasty
A single deli-wholesaler
sold in 1855 eighteen thousand
of you to hungry New Yorkers
When in your aviary
you miss real flying
remember your flocks
thousands of meters wide
or the breeding colonies
measuring fifty by six kilometers How you
darkened the sky as the first
European immigrants came to America How you
made them stand for hours
in the dark and make astounded calculations
Remember the time before
the extermination methods and railroad network
You were endangered
by a few wild animals

 

The Extinct

They are the plants in the headlines, not those in the meadows,
the forests and swamps, gardens and parks.
They are the plants that have been drawn into the subjunctive,
because we repotted them in imaginary parks,
a chapter in Earth history. Those that made way
for new developments, beltways, and power plants,
in the parallel universe they smell wonderful,
but in this one they just smell of paper and lists,
a bad conscience, and high profits.
We find ourselves deep in the thicket of guilt,
which grows up over lost jewelry, discarded rings,
ankle bracelets made of tarnished silver. In vain we trade
old feelings, search for images that move in dreams.
In my rib cage my heart glints like a hidden seed
of cress, a little leaf of dandelion.
Dim light falls on something drawn on the wall,
and I see they are pictures of the extinct plants.
For one moment all their names whisper at the same time,
And their colors shine forth again,
shine and shine, and together add up to a spring
like hardly any before,
like hardy any that ever existed in oil or on glossy paper,
like nothing ever produced in factories or industrial parks,
built on a pocket of land that was once theirs,
now so wildly overgrown with something new.

 

Second Creation

How we do it is not important.
Since last summer our research had been close
to its goal. Only the last step was missing.
I trembled as I said: A miniature mammoth
will carry our son around, Siberian tigers will
protect our daughters. One day will be like the other,
when we crack open the brains of large mammals:
ecstatic, dreamy, full of loss. Two hundred billion
nerve cells, dispersed, tied up in each other like
boats on the open sea. Brain, soul, and senses
set sail together, a fleet in formation.
Call it war, call it madness: this is
the freedom of love: to create new beings,
to set them aside for ourselves. This is the freedom
of our species, to create other species.
God gave us the gift of a construction kit.

 

Dodo

It is true, you can be too dreamy
to survive. There were always several
heavens strolling beside you. All the other
species were friendly. Well, until we came.
God gave us rage, that strong feeling
without direction or utility, and an appetite. You, Dodo,
then vanished quickly into that other world,
in which Alice is forever trying to learn Wonderland games
from you. But that’s not enough for us, we want
you back. Cute, naïve, with your trusting, dumb nests
on the ground. We think of you as a harmless companion
for our children. Believe me: we’re almost there.
Dodo, you will be reborn like the sunlight
at the break of day. I promise you:
You will be among the first that we make.

 

From: Silke Scheuermann, A Sketch of Grass. Poems. © Schöffling and Co., Frankfurt am Main, 2014.
Aus: Silke Scheuermann, Skizze vom Gras. Gedichte    © Schöffling & Co. Verlagsbuchhandlung GmbH, Frankfurt am Main 2014

Treves, Easter 1041
Calvary, Little Birds
Adamitic
Underwood
Predators
Check for Yourself

Author: Heinrich Detering
Translator: Paul-Henri Campbell

 

Treves, Easter 1041

no they have not come for the procession
not to venerate the holy man
not at all have they come for they lie
here as always

they do not desire his blessing or his
robes blankets gems they don’t give a damn
about the money that he holds out to them as
they raise their heads

when they whack the bishop and his minions
out of their saddles toss the coins aside
assault the horses jumping at them with fists
the horses

strangled torn chewing their flesh drinking
their blood the raw sacrament of beasts
the only ones who still do not understand
bleeding to death

 

Calvary, Little Birds

of dust and mud he had made little birds
that flew across the road upon his command
all had seen it (a generation ago)

his footfall was so gentle that as he stepped out
from the shore onto the lake he did not leave
the slightest trace on the water everyone saw it

when a friend died he called him up
out of the earth upon that command he returned as though
gravity itself pulled him upwards some saw it

like now when all see him there on the road
caving under the weight of a wooden beam
forcing him down on the ground sweating and bleeding

a beam upon which he soon will be hung to die
and all of them see birds coming the birds
the hungry little birds

 

Adamitic

when Adam named each creature
he ruled the world escaped fear
and forgot his own expiration

when Adam named each creature
none of them understood a word indeed
it seemed they were not even listening

when Adam named each creature
he banished himself with each word
into a language that was of no concern to them

when Adam named each creature
they barked bellowed warbled on
and simply trudged darted sailed away

to dark mysteries and to
mute depths to
mute depths

 

Underwood

the border ran right through our car
in the woods between Sweden and Norway
when we had lost our way when we
came to a halt at the border post in the underwood

ruckus hooting on the backseat
in the woods between Sweden and Norway
the joy that a line ran between us

an utterly invisible line

 

Predators

when they chase doves around

in the parking lot in the schoolyard
at the bus stop

when their shouting sounds as if
they were mimicking gunshots

when they grow in strength because the
doves are fleeing from them

then they are evil



Check for Yourself

after I was born mother counted
each one of my toes and fingers
and then calmly leaned back into the pillows

after she had told me that again
yesterday on the phone I sat still for a moment
then I counted and checked one more time and

leaned back into my arm chair everything
indeed was still there

 

From Heinrich Detering, Wundertiere. Gedichte.  (Of Beasts and Miracles.  Poems.)  Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen, 2015.

Educator
The Heart-Lung Machine Answers
Le petit garcon, platonique
Semana Santa
Versions
Lycanthropy

Author: Nora Gomringer
Translator: Annie Rutherford

 

Educator 

I am the virus which like every virus
teaches you. Understand me well: 

I am obeisance, open doors, hold
them open for all kinds of visitors.
The informer is the guest
who with tender interlocking
makes you blush until you leave,
caught out by our night.
The stains then bear a name,
as I bore many, when I was still
just noise and made of smoke
which drifted upwards out of bars.
I kiss the man who kisses men.
I come in the false blood that saves.
I am in every drop, am two-faced,
split-tongued, you have my word.
So I kiss Dallas cowboys, lovely angels
and the smallest, youngest from the sleep
w
hich they dreamt nine moons long.
And you dose acronyms
into the veins of my beloveds,
poison them in quite another way.
I am the virus which like every virus
teaches you. See the other, the other,
the always other as your wolf.
See clearly. Hear me. What I say
does not stem from me.

Place your finger
upon this mouth
when you have heard me out. 

 

The heart-lung-machine answers 

Since I can think
love has been my motor.
Of course I know an Off,
which is followed by an Over,
but when you ask like that, 

then I am love no matter who the person.

 I am so real that I am
beyond doubt.
Should your heart no longer love,
my motor then will love you.
And if no kisses breathe anymore
then I will kiss you without pause.

I am love from demi-gods in white.

 But I digress. You asked
if I could allow death. And I say: 

I am that great automated loveenforcementmachine.
And I smile, and I duplicate like Brecht must,
as laconic as he was just.
And my smiles are never seen.

 

Le petit garçon, platonique

This little boy,
we would have wanted to brood him longer
in the four motherwalls, the stomachyurt,
una volta mas.
When he came, the sun was dark,
the brain eclipsed and half in shadow
the comprehension of all involved.
w
ho was involved?
This little boy
is an alwaysaway,
halfwayhere,
overampedanalogue,
ubiquus.
The simultaneity person of the world.
Doctorspeaksostrange.
Through him is clear how unbearable
this world for those who feel.
Searching hard we also found a word
in the thicket, under leaves and shrubs:
written savant, meaning sauvage.

The little boy,
he speaks no French. To him
the Eiffel tower is mere steel and construction.
He’s helped by keyboards
and screaming, screaming, stroke
for stroke. It is as if
someone recognised us
by that cave fire, the arching inside wall:
a shadow.
Lines ago did I not write eclipse?

 For Birger Sellin, language giant

  

Semana Santa

 When the girl vanished,
she vanished completely.
Day 1 and everybody asked someone:
Where is she? they asked, and
Where did she so completely go?
Day 2 and a few crept
awkwardly in and out of the houses.
Day 3 and cats sat in the windows.
This was no sign.
Everyone knows the Felidae
hate humans.
Day 4 and in the distance a relation
said a prayer, whispered behind her hand.
Very quietly, at night, in the bathroom
under a very harsh light.
Day 5 and two or three cases harboured
things of the disappeared. Who was she again?
Day 6 and a replacement stood,
so suddenly it shocked, in the garden under a tree.
Day 7 and it was a woman.
And as is common for women she wore a skirt.
And as is common for women she wore her hair long.
And as is common for women she wore a ring.
B
eneath her veil
– as is common for women –
she became invisible.

 

Versions

and
a boat moors
Böcklin paints a boat which moors
enshadowed
compelling
a boatman nameless
all too willing to give himself away
Hitler possessed one version
Utoya became one
island
enshadowed
compelling
a boat moors
on board a death
an advocate for the crossover
B
öcklin paints a boat which moors
a boatman nameless
versions of Breivik
on board a death
peaceless
compelled
enshadowing
unshadowed
an island
and

 

Lycanthropy 

you too a wee pelt
you too a wee dog
y
ou too a wee murderer
you too a wee claw
you too a wee tooth
you too a good eater
you too a wee spring
you too a wee bullet

you too a silverling 

you too a wolf

 

 

From:
“Versions,” Lycanthropy”: Monster Poems, Voland & Quist and Co., Berlin, 2014.
“The Heart-Lung Machine Answers,” “Le petit garcon, platonique,” “Educator”: Morbus, Voland & Quist and Co., Berlin, 2016.
“Semana Santa”: Moden, Voland & Quist and Co. Berlin, 2018.
 

Aus:
“Variationen,” Lycanthropie”: Monster Poems, Verlag Voland & Quist GmbH, Berlin..
“Die Herz-Lungen-Maschine antwortet,” “Le petit garcon, platonique,” “Erzieher”: Morbus, Verlag Voland & Quist GmbH, Berlin, 2016.
“Semana Santa”: Moden, Verlag Voland & Quist GmbH, Berlin, 2018.

 

A Strasbourg Sukkot

Author: Barbara Honigmann
Translator: Margaret May

 

Our whole quarter had turned more and more into a “second ghetto,” with many young Jewish families moving in and setting up their “Shearim” house of prayer and instruction in a nearby street. Our local district mayor, who is very concerned with peaceful inter-faith relations, even made a little speech at its dedication ceremony. So Peter felt that the time had come to erect a “sukkah,” a tabernacle or booth, in our courtyard. This would mean we’d no longer have to make our way through the streets every year during the eight-day Sukkot festival lugging bags of pots and bowls full of ready-prepared meals to eat in communal sukkahs. Nor would we constantly have to be invited to the tables of others who had no problem getting permission to build sukkahs in their courtyards or on their balconies. Peter suggested we put up a sukkah in one of the furthest corners of the courtyard next to the bike stands, small and unobtrusive of course, so that the neighbours wouldn’t take offence. Because I’m afraid of confrontation with the neighbours and by nature or upbringing try to avoid any conflict – in other words, I’m a coward – I didn’t really believe in his project or provide any effective support. But I didn’t oppose it either.

This all came from my bad memories of the first Sukkot we celebrated in Strasbourg, thirty years earlier. Just as we had sat down to eat in the sukkah, the neighbours from the upper floors pelted its canopy – open-weave, of course, as prescribed – with rotten tomatoes and other rubbish. We were actually in a courtyard surrounded by rather grand upper-class apartments dating from the late nineteenth century, in the vicinity of the European Parliament – in other words, one of the “better quarters” of the city. Our host at that time owned the biggest and most long-established kosher butcher’s shop in Strasbourg. So perhaps it was this symbolic figure who was the target of the rotten tomatoes, which gave us all a fright when they thudded down with a noise that reverberated round the courtyard. Most of the people who had gathered in the sukkah came from the “Etz Chaim” community, which was still mainly German-speaking, and they would often invite us when we first moved to Strasbourg and were learning French.

In New York, by contrast, there was even at that time a whole Sukkah City in Union Square, as I read in the paper. Young architects took part in a competition to build sukkahs in all conceivable materials and shapes, and these remained there during the seven-day festival (which lasts eight days in the diaspora). They were not just for show, either: people were allowed to sit inside them to consume their festive meals.

Here in Strasbourg everything is much more discreet, but immediately after Yom Kippur, four days before Sukkot, you can see a crop of sukkahs suddenly sprouting out of the ground, as it were, dotted around on balconies and in courtyards. Moreover, the Jewish community and the whole panoply of synagogues and other informal places of prayer and instruction will put up sukkahs to which you can bring your pre-prepared meals. There you meet other families and share a table with them, either eating together or at different sittings. You unpack your food and pack it up again while the children go off to play and then have to be told to calm down, so it’s like a campsite. That’s how we’ve been doing it for years.

But Peter was quite convinced that it was time to build our own sukkah. He went from door to door in our apartment block, explaining Project Sukkah at great length to all our neighbours, assuring them that we wouldn’t be creating any disturbance or mess, saying the whole thing only lasted eight days, and asking them to agree. Eventually he had 29 signatures of consent from neighbours, out of a total of at least five stairwells opening onto the block’s inner courtyard, a communal space housing the refuse bins, a few garages, and a growing number of bikes. He came back and said that most of the neighbours had seen no problem, some were even enthusiastic, others had been in favour, and some had agreed only with reservations. It had to be said that one, an emeritus professor, believed he had to draw Peter into a religious dispute. He argued that the Jews really should not be clinging to such outward signs and medieval regulations but ought by now to be moving with the times. Peter explained to him that these regulations were not in the least bit medieval but in fact dated from ancient times, when the Jews were already living among the most modern peoples and cultures – which, by the by, had long since collapsed – and the whole thing about outward signs was another old canard, which even St Paul had gone on about, to no avail. At which point Peter politely wished him a nice day.

Next Peter took up arms in the bureaucratic battle and sent a letter to the house management requesting a vote at the general meeting of apartment owners on whether permission for the temporary erection of a sukkah in the courtyard should be granted. For Peter, punctiliousYekke that he is, had decided to pursue the legal route. There followed a short war over formalities, in which we even took on a lawyer – a friend of ours, of course. And this was followed by a back and forth of letters, warnings, and reprimands, until finally the house management decided that our Project Sukkah contravened the house rules and some regulation or other, but it didn’t impose anything like a ban as a result of this decision. It simply didn’t put the issue on the agenda for a vote. So since there had been no pronouncement, neither permission nor prohibition, we interpreted the undefined legal position to our advantage, according to the principle that whatever has not been expressly forbidden is allowed, and we ordered a sukkah online from the American Sukka Depot Center. Delivery was prompt, and all the appropriate accessories were included, according to the rabbinical directives and dimensions, no smaller and no bigger, all cleverly put together in a kit that could be conveniently stored in your cellar for reuse the following year. The materials for sukkahs have developed in parallel with the general equipment for camping, hiking, climbing, trekking, and other outdoor activities. They are light yet sturdy, water-repellent, quick-drying, and require absolutely no tools for their construction, everything just slots together. The kit also contains the S’chach, the canopy. Ours is made of bamboo, though some people just lay branches across the walls. According to regulations the canopy has to be made so that it is not really secure but lets in light and sun, and wind and rain too, and you have to be able to see through it. In this way it is meant to remind us how unsheltered and unprotected we are in this world and how full of holes our lives are. Yet also, because the festival always falls on the 15th of the Hebrew month, if it’s not cloudy you can gaze admiringly at the full moon shining from afar in the starry sky.

On the Sabbath, which inevitably occurs during the festival, the words of Solomon the Preacher from Ecclesiastes are read out: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity … there is a time to get and a time to lose, a time to keep and a time to cast away.” Jews need to be reminded of this when they are sitting in these makeshift, unstable, and draughty huts – reminded of the fragility and uncertainty of their existence. And they must compensate for this with tenacity and adaptability, just as they did after the exodus out of Egypt, when they lived in tents in the wilderness – that empty, uncertain place where their newly won freedom consisted primarily in not knowing where to go next, what to do, or how things would turn out.

So for several years now, for about a week in autumn, our sukkah has its place, unobtrusive but impossible to ignore, in a corner of the courtyard next to the bicycles. It has two windows, and we always leave these open so that people can look in and observe us and see that we’re not slaughtering Christian children or engaging in any other unseemly activity. Moreover, we’ve fixed a note to it, protected by a plastic pocket in case it should rain, which says in large type: “Dear Neighbours, this little structure is only temporary and serves as the tabernacle for the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, which ends this year on …. If you have any questions or comments, please ring at the Honigmann door. Many thanks for your understanding.”

Then for eight days, at least twice a day, we move down from our second-floor flat into the courtyard, carrying food and drink, pots, plates, and glasses. Sometimes it’s quite chilly and we have to put on warm socks and a coat – after all, it is already autumn, and we’re living in exile in a northern land – and we sit squashed together rather uncomfortably, a bit like true nomads.

So far there has been only one incident, when some students in a neighbouring flat were having a noisy party. Around midnight they started throwing bottles and burning cigarette butts out of the window, and some of these fell onto the sukkah. But the bamboo canopy managed to withstand this, because even though bamboo does burn, it’s hard to ignite. Other neighbours had already called the police because of the noise, and the party was brought to an end by the guardians of law and order.

When the eight days of Sukkot are over, and with it the whole Jewish season of festivals, which begins a good three weeks earlier with Rosh Hashana – some people call this flood of feast days the “tunnel” – we emerge in a state of some spatial and temporal confusion, feeling a bit jet-lagged. Now we tell one another about our experiences with friendly or unfriendly neighbours. The biggest conflicts, apart from those with dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semites, are with anti-religious Jews, who just can’t see why the city tolerates such religious practices and call the police to enforce what they see as the secular order of the French republic. Sometimes they even saddle their neighbours and fellow Jews with lawsuits. Of all the anecdotes told about Sukkot experiences, the favourite is always the one about the policemen who are called out and actually do hand out a formal warning, stipulating that this construction, this tabernacle, must be removed – and indeed within no more than eight days. And this always provokes great mirth and roars of laughter among all those observing this eight-day-long festival.

 

Excerpted from Chronik meiner Straße (A Chronicle of my Street).  Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 2015.

 

 

 

Relocation
… but
Sisyphus
There
On the big wheel
Five lines

Author: Kurt Drawert
Translator: Steph Morris

 

Relocation

I understand my friends
in the East
less and less. Here between
the Hamme and Weser rivers

I know no-one.
Sometimes the deaf-mute
farmer from over the way
greets me, or an official

arrives as decreed
to deliver just what
I’d feared
with a casual gesture.

I was settled
nowhere and nowhere
was I at home, I confirm
without sadness. So what

should I seek out
if I stay.
What should stay
where it is?

The smell of wet
mildewed wood,
of rotten floorboards
clings in my memory,

the night-time discussions
were worthless
and have been sold
to the four

winds. Voyeurs
who knew better,
with the safe stasis
of the long winter

for support, with fine lines
broken apart
on a desk
in some sorry office.

Their silence
on that score,
my friends from yesterday,
is deafening, gone today

because yet again
it’s about missing
the wrong word
at the right moment, the kickoff,

the next stop down the hill.
I’ll get to the point now:
You lied to me. I
was someone else

at the heart of those soiled years.
But when, for a second,
I forget my name,
I totally understand

that foxhole of language
and feel regret
and view the rot
of conscience in its entirety

with leniency,
just as the autumn light
melts into the meadows
at dusk

and it all sinks
into the mist like tired
maltreated animals. But
I don’t understand it.

Yet my muscles
have relaxed and
the ostracised farmer
greets me.

Kurt Drawert, 1992

 

…but

there must be some legacy
with which the history of the body
– which, as silence will win
over remembrance,
I sometimes draw on too,
like an album of snapped sensations –
as well history itself
– given that the country within will crumble
like a ruined fortress
its name lost,
which you enter as a stranger
speaking another language –
can be elucidated.

Kurt Drawert, 1993

 

Sisyphus

Those were the days,
when there was a thing
you had to shift.

A mission bound
to fail at that gradient,
each time knocked back

and sent plummeting,
a punishment
only in an underworld

run by charlatans
with no feeling for the joys
of repetition

at least while matter
was part of the equation,
with no laws

to concern you unduly.
Since your acquittal
you’ve been drifting around

gazing at the void
in your hands,
repeatedly.

Kurt Drawert, 1996

 

There

I’d forgotten how we would meet
then, in those towns now full of
orphaned anthems

in search of a fatherland. In the ruins
of the last war a peaceful,
fatherless calm could be found.

I came here as a child, disturbed.
Here we had it good. Here language
stayed out of the body.

Later, at a tricky stage in life,
just as some of our voices
broke, with others it was

the spine, you recall.
I was gifted with
silence, there.

There, the grass is shooting up
already. The dip in the ground,
surely the place I dreamt of love,
is filled with grit, puddled algae
and oil, squashed tin cans,

a scorched patch. Even the earth here seeks
to deny its past. It had long gone dark
but I stood there still. Everything I heard
was alien. What I thought.
And it was day.

 

On the big wheel

When the axis of the turning wheel
links the rising cars
and the falling cars
along an even plane
there is a neutral instant
in which each are at
eye level.
Then the inevitable happens.
Pride is pride again, and a fall, a fall.

 

Five lines

I want to be like that again,
in love with a sense of love,
like a ship darting into the ocean,
blindly proud. And hearts are hearts
and stone will be stone, until the sails rip.

 

 

From:  Poetry of the German Democratic Republic.  S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2009.

Aus:  “Ortswechsel,” “… doch,” “Wo es war,” “Im Riesenrad,” “Fünf Zeilen,” “Sisyphos.”  Lyrik der DDR.  S. Fisher Verlage, Frankfurt am Main, 2009.

Fabulous

Author: Michael Amon
Translator: Edward Larkin, Thomas Ahrens

 

Please allow me to introduce myself

I park my newly acquired Ferrari Testarossa in one of the parking spots reserved for members of the board of directors. Well, speaking of the devil! The chief financial officer, my immediate supervisor, swooshes in at the same moment in a luxury sedan. Of course, he isn’t driving. He is being chauffeured, seated in the rear. I get out and act as if I don’t notice him. The chauffeur pulls up right behind my Ferrari and motions for me to move. I give him the finger – first assuring myself that the CFO has also seen my gesture – and leave the parking garage in an upbeat mood. I just love living clichés to the fullest, with grandezza.

I am not an impolite or vulgar person. Not at all irascible or hotheaded. But I get a great deal of pleasure out of defying the rules of a venerable banking institution, all the while knowing that they can’t do anything about it. They hate me. They despise me. They would terminate me immediately, without notice. But, unfortunately for them, I am one of those people who bring in the big bucks, the really big bucks, that pay not only for my Ferrari but also for the many other, less fabulous limousines available to the board of directors. So while they curse me in private, they let me park where I want. They ignore my extreme hand gestures and do not dare set foot in my department. We are wild guys through and through – we who work here. And I am the wildest. To be precise: the coolest. And I’m not the only one who says so. Everybody does.

My immediate boss has not been an active trader for some time; nowadays he only supervises the traders. But even he can’t tell if I am about to make a killing or take a bath on a contract. I always maintain the same calm demeanor when I’m looking at my computer screen, no matter how the supposed markets around the globe are behaving and no matter how volatile the graphs reflecting those events become. Even when the graph lines are horizontal, which only rarely occurs, no one is able to detect my boredom. A horizontal performance line (I’m talking about a line that looks like it’s been drawn with a ruler) offers very little opportunity for speculation – unless you can find some greedy bastard who is willing to make a deal that is just ridiculous – one that only the eggheads in our math department can understand. What they cook up is great. For the bank, that is, not for the client. They generate mathematical formulas to ensure that we always come out on top. It can get wacky when two banks are involved, but we avoid that. What do we have clients for! The more the markets heat up and the more eagerly people drool over profits, the more we can spread this mathematical manure among our profit-craving clients. And some days we are up to our eyeballs in drool, figuratively speaking. But that is not really my area.

I live on variances and timing. I keep an attentive eye on the screens, and as soon as Tokyo advances and Chicago retreats a little, I buy the shares in Chicago with the phone on my left and, even before I have the contract in hand, I sell it in Tokyo with the phone on my right. That’s all there is to it. Nothing more than that. But I do it a hundred times a day. Sometimes in seconds. Profits and losses. The trick is: you have to win more than you lose, at least once more. As long as I do that, I can drive the Ferrari, take the boss’s parking spot (which is tolerated even if amid expletives), and nonchalantly flip him the bird when he insists on parking in his reserved spot.

To be a trader, you really need to have excellent powers of concentration and a first-class memory. A one-day-memory. Contracts do not stay open overnight, at least not under normal circumstances. So you need to have all of the day’s open contracts in your head, and you are always afraid that you might forget one. That can cost the bank millions. Then the Ferrari is gone. And you can quickly become someone’s slave in an irrelevant trading department, pushing a couple of boring government bonds back and forth, and strictly avoiding the boss’s parking spot. Fortunately, my concentration is exceptional, and my memory is outstanding. I can hardly imagine having Alzheimer’s. I don’t even want to think about it. I love my invulnerability. In the trading room I am immortal. At least while I’m the better gambler.
No one in the trading room is as calm as I am. No one can tell when I am engaged in combat. That is my strength. That makes me invulnerable in the war of the marketplace, a marketplace that in truth doesn’t really exist, that in our business is only a fiction, nothing more. I really don’t care whether wheat is too expensive or too cheap. I am only interested in what I believe is happening: is the price rising or falling?

That determines whether I will buy or sell the contracts. In the end, I don’t have to eat the wheat. And I couldn’t anyway, given the amount that I speculate with. Neither the wheat nor the pork bellies. Even the currency that I push around the world is something that I don’t need. I don’t give a hoot about the value of the stuff that I trade. I am only interested in the difference between what the price is now and what it will be a second or a month from now. In a real market you have to understand true value. But for me it is only a question of guessing the difference between two prices at two different points in time. It is a guessing game, or at best a wager. What we are playing is “Old Maid;” it has nothing at all to do with a marketplace. We tell people about the “marketplace” just so that they will have something to believe in – because God is long gone. He is a fugitive on the road to nowhere, where He can tinker with a different, perhaps better universe, in the hope that He might get it right this time. Every day we create the market anew, as our God, just so that we can then point to something that is responsible for all the money that we lose for our investors. It is the market that punishes and rewards. The market, my ass! People believe this nonsense because we constantly pound it into them. But these markets don’t really exist. I am the market. I determine the price. I look for the price differential. A telephone on my left, a telephone on my right, and between them is my head, and that’s where the market is. That’s the simple truth. The market is in my head, going in one ear and coming out the other.

I don’t believe in anything anymore. And certainly not in markets! I might as well believe in this ephemeral God. For me it is enough to know that I won. I only need to keep my eyes on the screen, pick up the right telephone – I am repeating myself here – and get the better of whoever is on the other end of the line. I love the instability of the short-term graphs as compared to the smug calmness and serenity of the two-hundred-day moving average, which carries the performance of the share prices like a good bass player carries a walking blues tune, like Bill Wyman for the Stones. Just as Charlie Watts carries the Stones today. Maybe I’ll join the Stones when I have fifty winners and fifty-one losers, that is, if the Stones are still able to get on stage by themselves, or at least be rolled onto the stage in wheelchairs. And if the Stones are still alive at that point. And if they need a bass player for the moving average line. Keith Richards, with his piercing riffs, better represents instantaneous trading, the fluctuating ups and downs of nervous markets. Richards is second to none when he plays his riffs. I can only get that feeling when I’m out on the trading floor. He gets it on the guitar. Charlie Watts would be a good trader, but Bill Wyman would be better. In the old films of their concerts, Wyman is always seen playing off to the side, as if he’s not part of the group. That is exactly how I feel when I’m sitting in the trading room. I’m the Bill Wyman of traders. As if I didn’t belong with the rest of them.

Nothing bad can happen to me here. Whatever happens out there in these imaginary markets has no effect on me. I’m like a fish in a stream: I take whatever I can get. To be a trader is to keep your mouth wide open and swim into a school of fish. Perhaps I’m even the Mick Jagger of traders. Just one more time. That’s all I live for.

               I am a man of wealth and taste

Truth be told, I’m well off, even rich. I would never tell anyone that, but I am. Getting richer by the day. Effortlessly. Unintentionally. But purposefully. Sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t. It can certainly be debated whether I have good taste. That doesn’t bother me. The tie tack crowd on the top floor with their own dining room and their own chef think that my Ferrari is tasteless and nouveau riche; I think the same of their tie tacks. They think it’s disgusting that I’m moving ahead of them: on the freeway, with my salary, in life. I’m just faster. What’s zipping by, my friend, that is life. The guys upstairs taking the slow train will never get that. You can’t make money taking the slow train. True living only begins at 250 kilometers per hour. Anything slower than that is just standing still. They despise me, but they are happy to take the profits that I earn for them with our clients’ money. And before the clients get their money back, we all take a piece of it. In acting out their greed, the guys upstairs are almost as fast as we are. Almost. Although, I’m not greedy. I just take what I can get my hands on. And I certainly make a point to grab as much as I can. Taking, too, is a talent. Perhaps an even a greater talent than giving. In fact, it definitely is. Much greater.

I’m perfectly healthy. Fit as a fiddle, as they say here. You can’t be any healthier than I am. My heartbeat remains calm and steady as the share prices flicker across my computer screen. As the graph lines jump fitfully about, they create sharp peaks formed by the nervously fluctuating price variations and by the rapid alternation of highs and lows. I hold the phone calmly, and I place my orders dispassionately. No one can see whether I’m agitated or relaxed. There is nothing to be seen. I am unemotional, just a cool dude. The coolest dude in the trading room. In my mind’s eye I imagine the floor of the stock exchange in earlier times. The chaotic shouts, the traders’ spastic movements, and the feverish atmosphere. A seething mass of activity. But here and now everything is calm, in the room of the cool dudes. Grab what you can, and let the devil take the hindmost. Fortunately, I’m always first. The best. Perfectly healthy. And get even healthier the worse the trades unfold. Don’t even know what cholesterol is, spread it on my sandwich. A liver? I don’t have one. My brain functions precisely and is unaffected by external circumstances. Like a well-oiled machine. One cog turns another, no bucks or jams. No doctor could make a living off of me. People like me will be the downfall of medicine, the death of the pharmaceutical corporations (whose stock shares bore me to death). Can someone like me even die? How might that happen? Given my overall health? Cool dudes live forever. Forever and a day. Death is not worth the money that the insurance companies pay out. But I’m not so stupid as to bet on my death, though I bet on everything else, all the time. But betting on my death? No way! I’m not an idiot. As healthy as I am. I avoid bad deals. And that would be one. Count me out. I’ve got better things to do, namely, make money. You have to be out front. The truth is everywhere and nowhere, because it has no price. So it can’t be traded; it has no value to someone like me. I avoid getting too close to a so-called truth. Who likes staring into the abyss! An abyss is not tradable. Every once in a while, if we get too wild or carry on for too long, we fall into an abyss. But we pull ourselves out of trouble by skillful trades; I’m very good at that sort of thing. I have ice water in my veins. Nothing can unsettle me. I’m the master of the universe. It is my universe. God is sitting in a universe near ours, botching up the one beyond that. But I’m no God; people just think I am. I won’t fall into that trap. When the gods make love, they create devils. All of us here, the traders, we are gods. Immortal. Eternally healthy. There is no afterlife. No trade remains open. That is what I call eternity. After us – closed markets.

               I’ve been around for a long, long year

My year has forty months, or fifty, or one. Whatever is needed. Everything is one big gently flowing stream. My brain flattens out the spikes on the computer screen; they become signals to buy or to sell, or to do nothing. The charts – that’s what we call the graphs – are our bible. We see things in them that no one else sees, that no one else can see. Our whole life is one long, long year. It moves along. Always forward, never backward. I tell you: life truly begins at 250 kilometers per hour, as does true peace. I don’t need a rear view mirror, or even a headlight. What’s ahead of me is of no more interest than what’s behind me. Truth is only what is found on the right and left. Einstein knows that. Does he know that? Does his brain know that? What we call his brain today are those 240 ashlar-shaped blocks, each one only a cubic centimeter in size, world travelers smelling of formalin, kept in countless laboratories all around the world. Is it possible that 240 individual parts know more than a whole brain? Are they interconnected, like those quanta that Einstein’s brain even today does not believe in? That is, his brain no longer can believe in them because it is only senseless tissue now. No more thoughts circulate there. Neither interconnected, nor disparate. Forget Einstein! Energy equals mass times velocity squared. Time is an illusion. We have all the time in the world. I have all the time in the world. But traders don’t. An individual transaction. There’s only a few seconds for it, if that. The trader’s world is a world of seconds. Just short seconds, independent of one another. The smallest unit of the endless year. Assimilating all the isolated seconds, the brain constructs the film we call life, which flows so easily by us. All the years look the same. One year is just like another. The graphs point up and then come crashing down again.
I leave my apartment and drive to the office. There are still a few places to park. None of the bosses is in sight. They’re still asleep, or already at work. It doesn’t matter to me. Today I’ll take the spot that belongs to the board member who oversees retail banking. A particularly unlikable and arrogant guy in a department that only incurs losses. One floor below us. We earn the big bucks, one floor above them. Among the piles of big bucks, mine is the biggest. Retail banking? I never even think about it. It’s like being buried alive. You are not alive, ever. Dead. Dead. Dead. Oh, Death, here is your sting! Dickering about overdraft conditions. Begging for credit. Painstakingly adding up the points on a loan application and then turning it down. Retail banking. It’s peanuts, if that. It isn’t true that a penny saved is a penny earned, that even small cattle make manure. They create shit. And I have to clean it up with my profits, which I piss down to the floor below us, so that the shit there doesn’t stink to high heaven. So that the stench doesn’t drift up to me.

I’ve got good reason to park my Ferrari here today. The spot is not mine, but I’m entitled to it. I cheerfully raise my middle finger, but no one sees it. You can’t have fun anymore. They don’t want you to. As if I could live from their bonuses. Money isn’t everything. It’s more than everything. Too much money and a little fun, that’s the ticket, throughout the whole eternally long year, this interminable year, for as long as we are alive. A lifetime is a sentence. A couple of pleasures, and a car in the parking spot, which is not mine. Computer screens and graphs. And so it goes.

               Stole many a man’s soul and faith

You can feel sorry for them. Or, you could feel sorry for them. But you don’t. I don’t. None of us does. Our customers, our clients. Passing through the expansive atrium, I take the glass elevator up to our floor. Everything is transparent with us: the elevator, the atrium, the conference rooms. But not the trades, or the algorithms of our math rats, or the virtually unreadable small print of the contracts. Don’t speak evil of rats. Intelligent animals. Can you understand a rat? See! Neither can I. But I have absolute faith in them. They develop their models in such a way that from the very beginning everyone knows who will win and who will lose, except the losers. These are clever rats, with far-reaching tails. Stepping out of the elevator, which runs silently through the ridiculously tall atrium, I look down at all the hopeful customers, a restlessly seething mass; some of them (one can call them people, but we refer to them as our customer base) approach the information desks, while others, the well-heeled clients, hurry off to the elevators; still others look nervously about, craving guidance – clueless and hesitant, they steel themselves against the bustling throng, standing in place, in apparent shock. They call that banking. Enticing new customers. Attention: “Platform Euro-Bank, the train to one-hundred-per-cent profit is pulling in.” Great slogan. My girlfriend created it. Her desk is five floors above me in the marketing department. Minimalist design. Three marble slabs, two for the side tables and the third serves as a workspace. Too cold for work.

The ridiculously high atrium. One can debate the use of the word “ridiculously.” Let’s just call it a cathedral of money. What is the purpose of the cupola at St. Peter’s? The glorification of God and the display of His earthly splendor, a symbol of the power of those who are the administrators of God’s legacy on earth. Nowadays baroque splendor has given way to the more austere simplicity of expensive marble walls, smooth and unadorned, yet still intimidating. Capitalism is not baroque; it is goal-oriented. Ornamentation is foreign to it. Its only curves are those of the performance of the share prices on the 200-day moving average. It knows only the coolness of the cubically remodeled room, its cold columns dominant like the increasing assets of the wealthy. It avoids the illusion of transcendence and knows only that everyone can become rich – the glorification of money and the display of pecuniary splendor, a symbol of the arrogance of power. It has no legacy to manage here on earth other than our money, which it dearly embraces in order to create its own. The battle for an investor’s capital is the modern equivalent of the collection basket, which unburdens the believers of their charitable donations, so that they might enter heaven more easily. The discreet consultations in rooms with soundproofed floors are the present-day equivalent of the sale of indulgences. Every payment puts capital in a favorable mood and brings it closer to its own downfall. A god still reigns in these cathedrals of madness, a madness that craves rational explanations; a god who has forgotten about Abraham, who has not founded a religion that emerged from the desert, but rather one that leads into the desert. Nowadays you are not only allowed to make an image of your god, it is absolutely required. But it has to be depicted small on numbered bills: five, ten, a hundred, a thousand, whatever. Bank statements, too, represent God’s presence and accurately demonstrate His greatness: a hundred thousand, millions, billions. Stock options are our purgatory. While the soul may continue to suffer in the eternal hell of losses, it can still feel anxiety in the mere seven heavens of profit. For nothing is certain, nothing persists, everything is in motion. Like the elevators here. They are always in motion. They stop only briefly to spit out people going up and coming down, or to suck in new riders. Everything is transparent here. Except for the balance sheets. And the algorithms. And everything that is behind the atrium, the ridiculously high atrium, which is eight or ten stories tall. I’m not sure.

The atrium reaches ever higher. That’s not the case with the Vatican. You can’t take an elevator to the cupola of St. Peter’s Cathedral. Its cupola is just a cupola, nothing more. By contrast, the interior of our cupola is ringed with offices for our rats and traders, those on the way up and those on the way down, the board members, and all the others who move through the building and thus represent its pulse. The constant, ceaseless pulsing of the flow of people and money. And I am in the middle of it all. As the elevator races upward, my thoughts seem to come to a halt: the cupola of St. Peter’s Cathedral unwittingly gives birth to the Reformation. But what is to be born in our cupola? Capitalism knows nothing of reformation. It does fine without one. But perhaps capitalism is in fact on its last legs. Or it is moving toward its demise. Maybe the Reformation is hiding from it, standing outside on the street looking up in wonder at the façade of the towers of money, where the masters of that money reside. The masters of the universe. The Reformation turns around, disappears into the tumult, and breaks down because it does not know where to nail its smart theses. No posting. Donations welcome. Make an image of your god.

Excerpted from Michael Amon,  Panikroman. Klever Verlag, Vienna, 2014.

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.