TO THIS DAY—the slimmest of Agnon’s novels–was published in Hebrew in 1951 and is only now appearing in English. We present here the first seven of its fifteen chapters, translated and with an afterword by translator Hillel Halkin. The entire volume was brought out by Toby Press in May.
During the Great War, I lived in the west of Berlin, in a room with a balcony in a small boarding house on Fasanenstrasse. The room was small, too, as was the balcony, but for someone like me whose needs were few it was a place to live. Not once during my stay there did I speak to the landlady or the other boarders. Every morning a chambermaid brought me a cup of coffee and two or three slices of bread, and once a week she brought the bill, which grew larger as the slices of bread grew smaller and the coffee lost its taste. I left the rent on the tray with a tip for her. She knew I didn’t like small talk and came and went without a word.
Once, however, she forgot herself and stayed to chat a bit about the boarding house. Its landlady, Frau Trotzmüller, was a widow whose husband had been killed in a duel, leaving her with three daughters and a son, her youngest child, who had disappeared at the front. No one knew if he had been killed or taken prisoner. Despite all the family’s efforts to trace him, nothing was known of his fate. Multitudes of soldiers were dead, captured, or missing in action; who could locate a single mother’s son, a speck of dust swept away by the winds of war? Frau Trotzmüller and her daughters didn’t impose their grief on their boarders, and their boarders didn’t inquire about young Trotzmüller. Everyone had his own troubles; no one had time for anyone else’s. It was only because I was a poor sleeper that I heard the grieving mother sobbing for her son at night.
There was another occasion, too, when the chambermaid told me about the boarding house. Its largest room, she said, was occupied by a wealthy young lady from the provinces who had come to attend finishing school. Across from her lived an official in the tax bureau, while next to him was an elderly couple who had fled the war zone. The remaining rooms belonged to lodgers who came regularly to Berlin on business. If I’m telling you things I never asked to be told about myself, it’s only to explain that I couldn’t switch to a better room because there were no vacancies.
The boarders were well behaved and quiet. Even the young lady from the provinces made hardly any noise when she had a birthday party and invited all her friends. I don’t believe this had anything to do with our landlady’s grief. It was the war itself that made everyone speak softly. While German artillery was being heard around the world, the Germans were talking in whispers.
When the war broke out, I stopped working. I even put aside my big book on the history of clothing. I couldn’t write a thing as long as the fighting went on. All I wanted was to crumple the days into as small a ball as possible until it was over. In this way, a winter went by, and then a summer, and then another winter.
When spring came again, I could feel my room getting smaller. Half of it was perpetually dark and half was perpetually cold, and neither got any sunlight. There’s a saying that not even the sun likes living in darkness, and I suppose that’s what kept it from my room. And I, who had lived in Palestine and knew what a real sun was like, had a craving for light. Yet each time I stepped out on the balcony to warm up I had to retreat inside at once, since the trees were full of dust that the breeze blew everywhere and there were no street sweepers because of the war. Trees planted to make life better were only making it worse. Man, says the Bible, is a tree of the field. That must be why the trees join in when men go to war and spread misery.
So much for my room. As for myself, I should mention that I had no summer clothes or shoes. The more war refugees there were, the more appeals there were to donate clothing. I had given away all my summer things and couldn’t buy new ones when the warm weather returned, because the tailors and shoemakers who remained in Berlin made only uniforms and army boots. Although this didn’t matter as long as I stayed indoors, my clothes weighed on me as soon as I went out. And so I spent most of my time in my room, going from its cold half to its dark half, neither of which had any air or light because the trees outside blocked the sun and scattered dust. Even the rain was more dust than water.
God knows how long I might have gone on living in the cold, dust, and darkness of Berlin had not Dr. Levy’s widow asked to consult with me about her husband’s books, which she didn’t know what to do with.
Not that travel was simple when staying in one place was so difficult. Nothing in the country was functioning normally; the smallest journey was an ordeal. The trains didn’t run on time and were infrequent and crowded. And if you managed to find a seat, you still had to show your papers to the police. I won’t bother to tell you what the police, a nasty lot in peacetime, were like in wartime.
And that wasn’t all. Everything was rationed; there were vouchers for every bit of food, and those good for one place weren’t good for another. Anyone traveling without a special ration book could die of hunger. There were excellent reasons for staying put.
And yet there was Dr. Levy’s widow, all alone with a library that was too much for a woman like her and anxious to consult with me. And so, despite the hardship of travel, my fond memories of her husband made me decide to visit her. I thought of Dr. Levy’s town, which I had last seen as his guest before the war. It was a quiet, peaceful place called Grimma, and the days spent in the two rooms of his library had been pleasant. How could I refuse a request to go there now?
I began to prepare for my trip. First, I went through my belongings to see what I needed and what I didn’t and could throw out. Then I reviewed my manuscripts. I took my book on the history of clothing and read it all, discarding every page that wasn’t crucial and even snipping off the margins to reduce its size. When I was done, I told the chambermaid I was leaving and went to the police station for a travel permit. Then I returned to my room to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. I was waiting to set out for the station when the chambermaid knocked and asked if I had a few minutes to talk to the landlady. I glanced at my watch and went to see Frau Trotzmüller.
The only time I had ever spoken to Frau Trotzmüller was on the day I rented my room, when she and her daughters came to welcome me. She was a woman of about fifty, with a blond head streaked to the top with gray hairs. When she was young she must have been pretty, perhaps even beautiful, and something of that beauty had remained, though her eyes had a washed-out look. I supposed that came from crying at night for her son.
As I say, I had met her that day with her daughters. There were three of them, each odder-looking and stranger-sounding than the next. Lotte, the eldest, was a stout brunette with a complexion the color of burned fat. Although she was the tallest, this was hidden by her girth, all the more so because she hunched her head between her shoulders and peered up at you when she spoke, interrupting her mother in a babyish lisp. Her sister Hildegard was thinner, with pitch-black hair, a narrow forehead, and prominent cheekbones, above which her eyes had to struggle to be seen; her voice had a hard edge to it, and it was she who ran the household and the boarding house. As for the youngest, Gert, she was slim like Hildegard, a freckled, coppery redhead with a nose the size of a barleycorn that sometimes vanished amid her freckles and sometimes jutted up saucily, and an unfinished slit of a mouth from which nothing ever emerged, since each time it opened to speak her sisters shushed her by saying: “Just look at her, hatched yesterday and already wanting to chirp!”
I believe I’ve said enough about the three of them—and if it surprises you that I remember them at all, it shouldn’t. In those days, I had so little contact with the world that I can recall every person I met. A mere name, face, or even smell can bring back an entire conversation.
Frau Trotzmüller was seated on a narrow divan when I entered her room, together with her daughters. Lotte was on her right and Gert was on her left, and Hildegard was watering a potted cactus with her back to me.
Frau Trotzmüller held out her hand and asked me to have a seat. Then she ran her hand through her hair, as though checking for each gray and blond strand, while Gert glanced back and forth between us. Hildegard turned to her mother, her eyes widening above her cheekbones. “I hear you’re leaving us,” Frau Trotzmüller said. “I wanted to wish you a good trip. I couldn’t decide whether to go to your room, so Hildegard suggested inviting you here. Thank you for coming.”
“I, too, wanted to say goodbye and to thank you for your kindness,” I replied. Frau Trotzmüller’s face lit up and she asked if I had enjoyed my stay.
“If I weren’t obliged to leave,” I said, “I’d gladly stay here forever.”
She let out a sigh and clasped her hands in sorrow.
I couldn’t imagine what made her so sorry. Surely, it wasn’t my moving out. There was no need to fear my room remaining empty. With every house in Berlin full of refugees, it would be snapped up in no time.
To break the silence, I pointed to the cactus that Hildegard was watering and said, “In this country, you grow a plant like that in a pot and treat it with love. Where I come from, it’s only good for plowing up.”
Lotte hunched her head between her shoulders, peered up at me, and lisped, “There must be all kinds of plants in your country that we don’t know about.” Hildegard gave Lotte a stern look and glanced encouragingly at her mother. Frau Trotzmüller, prompted by Hildegard’s glance, regarded me with a sad smile and asked if I believed in dreams. Before I could guess what was on her mind she said, “I never believed in them myself. And now that you’re leaving us, I believe in them even less.”
Not only were her words strange in themselves, they were even stranger in view of the fact that she had barely exchanged a word with me until now. I glanced at her daughters, hoping for an explanation, and saw that they were waiting for one from me.
“I, too, have dreams,” I said. “If they’re good ones I know they won’t come true, and if they’re bad ones they don’t scare me. The worst dream is no worse than real life. In any case, I never try to interpret them. I’m not Pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar, and there are no Josephs or Daniels in our age, even if their descendants are said to live in Vienna. Not that I have anything against them, but their theories aren’t for me.”
Hildegard’s eyes widened again and she said, “You must have heard that our little brother was sent to the front and hasn’t been heard from.” Frau Trotzmüller nodded and repeated, “He hasn’t been heard from. He’s disappeared.”
“So I’ve heard, meine Frau, so I’ve heard,” I answered. I couldn’t think of what else to say. I glanced at the grandfather clock on the wall and then stared at the wall itself.
Lotte hunched her head and lisped, “Are you in a hurry to get to the station?”
I took out my pocket watch. “If my train leaves on schedule,” I said, “I have time.”
“Then perhaps you’ll listen to mother’s dream,” said Hildegard. “Mother, tell him what you dreamed.”
“Are your bags packed?” asked Frau Trotzmüller.
“Packed and ready to go,” I said.
“Now that all the porters have been drafted,” she said, “you won’t find anyone to take them. And you’ll never find a cab, either. Gert, go tell the doorman that your mother would like him to bring the gentleman’s bags to the station and stay by his side until he comes for them.”
Gert’s little nose jutted up and the slit of her mouth opened as if to say, “Mother, I want to hear your dream, too.” Hildegard looked at her sternly and scolded, “What are you sitting there for? Do as your mother says.” Gert rose and went to get the doorman.
Frau Trotzmüller ran a hand through her hair and said, “I had the strangest dream. I’ve already told you that I don’t believe in dreams, and now I have even less cause to. They say they’re like soap bubbles and I agree, especially since you’re leaving us. In my dream, my son came home. And not only did he come home, he came home because of you, mein Herr. Now that you’re leaving us, I can see it’s all one big soap bubble.”
I sat trying to think of what to say to something like that. The clock chimed and I saw it was time to go. By now Gert had returned with the doorman. “You should be on your way, mein Herr,” said Frau Trotzmüller. “Have a good trip.”
I said goodbye to her and her daughters, gave my bags to the doorman, and followed him to the station.
— 2 —
I arrived at the station and fought my way onto the train. The car was packed with passengers: war provisioners, dealers in ersatz products, military nurses, officers’ mistresses, and amputees back from the front with their crutches, empty sleeves, rubber limbs, glass eyes, noses fashioned from buttocks by plastic surgeons, and terrified and terrifying faces that had lost their human features in the war. All were traveling with baggage—suitcases, duffle bags, bundles, boxes. You couldn’t find your arms and legs in the crush.
The car smelled bad. There was no ventilation, all the window straps having been stolen. Everyone had to make his own air, which some did with cigarettes and others with cigars, pipes, and ersatz tobacco. The train jerked so hard that you couldn’t tell if it was going forward or backward. The wheels rattled and shook; the pistons pounded up and down, drowning out the voices of the passengers. It took several hours to reach Leipzig.
I grabbed my bags and ran to catch the train for Grimma only to find that it had pulled out. The train from Berlin had been late and the Grimma train didn’t want to wait. Not having the patience to sit in the station for the next train, I checked my bags and looked for the exit to town.
The din in the large station was deafening. Trains came and went, hissing and clanging. Porters and conductors ran between the tracks and locomotives, vanishing in clouds of steam and reappearing among the cars. It was like being in a city of steel, with steel houses that ran on steel wheels with a clatter of steel beneath a sky of smoke. The whole station was on the run; no one stopped to catch his breath. You couldn’t make out a face amid all the faces.
An army transport was slowly unloading wounded soldiers for placement in local hospitals. The orderlies and nurses performed their jobs with aplomb; they had been through it before and knew just what to do. Only the wounded weren’t yet accustomed to their pain. Nearby stood another train that was leaving for the front. The departing soldiers’ families stood around them. Although you would have thought that by now they were used to it, they wept as though for the first time.
Suddenly I heard my name called. I turned around and saw an attractive, elegantly dressed woman holding out her hand with a bright smile. No one else had a smile like Brigitta Schimmermann’s. Before I could say hello she said, “My husband and I are lunching at one-thirty. We’d love to have you join us. You will come, darling, won’t you?”
“That,” I said, “is a perfectly unnecessary question. In my wildest dreams I would never have dreamed of anything like this. Of course I’ll come, my dear, of course I will. Without a doubt.”
“If I weren’t busy now,” Brigitta said, “I’d ask you to spend the morning with me. But there’s a fresh detachment of wounded and I have to see to their transfer to my nursing home. There are twelve cars full of them and I can barely handle one. When the historians sit down to write about this war, they’ll have to invent a new language. The word ‘man’ will be replaced by ‘invalid.’Yesterday I was brought a walking zombie who makes all the others look healthy, a perfect golem. But I’m in a hurry, darling, and I can’t tell you everything at once. We’ll talk over lunch.”
“I only wish, Brigitta,” I said, “that the hours until then would go by as quickly as I’d like them to. Give my best regards to Herr Schimmermann. I’ll be there at one-twenty-five sharp.”
Brigitta smiled her sweet smile. “Don’t be late,” she said. “I’ll see you then.”
I had to laugh. As if I might be late to a meeting with Brigitta Schimmermann! Just running into her was a joy, let alone being invited to lunch with her instead of having to look for a restaurant in this frantic wartime city in which you never knew what you were being served.
You must have heard of Brigitta Schimmermann, if only because of her decoration by the Kaiser for opening a nursing home and caring for the wounded like a true sister of mercy. I myself knew Brigitta from long before that, from the days when the world was at peace and she was an actress in a small theater company. Though her talents weren’t great, she had a charm that made the critics treat her kindly. And Brigitta, while aware that her abilities were modest, knew there was something special about her and was content to be herself without resorting to the tricks of her trade. Watching her in the theater was like being in a living room with a lovely and gracious young ingénue. Since her father was a rich banker, she had no need for patrons and never fawned on anyone.
As a rule, pretty young actresses remain on stage until they find a husband. After several years, Brigitta caught the fancy of Gerhard Schimmermann, the son of Rudolf Schimmermann, a partner in a large munitions firm. She accepted Gerhard’s proposal and they were wed.
Once Brigitta was married, she gave up her acting career. Yet her home was always open to artists and intellectuals and was known for its charity soirées. I remember how, on one such evening, she recited a tragic poem that brought tears to everyone’s eyes. When the war broke out and the wounded and maimed were everywhere, she established a nursing home to look after them.
As I’ve said, I knew Brigitta from her stage days. At the time I was already at work on my universal history of clothing, and hearing of me, she made me her costume adviser. Her dressmakers were astonished to see her consulting someone like myself, who was far from a smart dresser. They must have thought me a prince in disguise and my armoires the secret source of her wardrobe.
Having no business in Leipzig, where I was stranded because my train from Berlin had been delayed, I had time until my lunch with Brigitta Schimmermann. To help pass it, I left the train station and walked into town. After several blocks of shops and buildings I came to the Brody Synagogue, which was founded by merchants from across the Polish border who came every year to the Leipzig fair. Further on was another Polish synagogue and beyond that yet another that had broken away from the first and named itself for General von Hindenburg, perhaps in the hope of vanquishing its rivals as he had vanquished the enemies’ troops. The thought of troops made me think of all the people I knew in Leipzig. Some were now at the front and those who weren’t lived in fear for those who were.
I came to Rosental Park. Young mothers walked hand-in-hand with their children or wheeled them in carriages, making sure they got plenty of fresh air so that they could grow up to be healthy young men and go to war like their fathers.
Near the park was a neighborhood of fine homes half-hidden by trees and gardens. In my Leipzig days I had been a regular visitor in some of them. I was especially close to Dr. Mittel, a shrewd old man and first-rate scholar whose Bibliography of Oenology had made his reputation. He had even put me in a footnote in the revised second edition because of a story I once published under the title, “In Vino Veritas.” To this day I don’t know whether he mistakenly thought I had written a scholarly article about wine or was just making a friendly gesture. According to my friend Mikhl Rabinovich, he was playing a practical joke on his fellow bibliographers, knowing they would copy the reference blindly as they always did from his books. Now, having nothing better to do, I decided to drop in on him.
But before I tell you about our meeting, allow me to play the storyteller and tell you about Mittel.
Isaac Mittel, better known as Dr. Mittel, came from a small, heavily hasidic town in Poland and was raised in a hasidic family. When he grew up, he abandoned religion and became a Communist. The czar’s secret police got wind of it and he was forced to flee to Germany, where he settled in Leipzig. There he started a new life, studied for his high-school diploma, went on to the university, and obtained a doctoral degree.
In his student days, Mittel earned a living by clerking in bookstores, dealing in old books, teaching Hebrew to Christian divinity professors, proofreading Hebrew texts for publishers, and serving as a guide for the Polish merchants who came to Leipzig for the fair. Through the latter he met some local Jewish businessmen, on whom his manly bearing, wit, and sterling qualities made a good impression. Hearing that he socialized with Christian professors—that is, with real Germans of the kind that they, German citizens of the Mosaic faith, never rubbed shoulders with—they befriended him and invited him for coffee and dinner to their homes, where he became a frequent guest. In this fashion he met the daughter of a wealthy family and married her. Her large dowry made him financially independent, and he took to building a library and engaging in bibliographic research that became known for its thoroughness and reliability. Having to be reliable kept him honest and having to be thorough kept him on his toes.
Here I’ll say a word about the profession of bibliography. There are bibliographers who systematically compile lists of books, authors, and dates and places of publication, and there are those who read for their pleasure, jot down what interests them, and eventually publish their notes. “I,” Mittel liked to say, “have been both kinds. I used to catalogue books for bookstores and now I do it for myself.” I hope I’ve given you some idea of this clever man, whose greatest ambition was to sit at home with his books.
Before paying him a call, it occurred to me to bring him a gift. All I could find in the store I entered was a bottle of seltzer. Well, then, I thought, I’ll bring Mittel some seltzer. When there’s a war going on and people are hungry, seltzer, too, is a gift.
I climbed the stairs, whose carpet was threadbare, rang a rusty bell, and waited. After a while the door opened a crack and Dr. Mittel, in an old jacket, regarded me with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. All the books he had read had affected his sight and he failed to recognize me. Yet just as he was about to send me away, his curiosity got the better of his suspicion and he asked, “What can I do for you?” I reminded him who I was and said, “If you’re busy, I’ll be on my way.”
Mittel seized my arm and steered me inside. “Did you say busy?” he asked with a laugh. “Busy, you say? Don’t you know that our only business these days is doing nothing? Sit down, my friend, sit down. I suppose you’ve already ransacked every bookstore in Leipzig and left nothing even for the mice, and then remembered this old man at the last minute and decided to see if he was still alive. What’s new in the world? Anything besides killing and being killed? First men go mad and start a war and then the war goes on by itself. My only son is fighting in it, too. In case you’ve never seen him, here’s a photograph. Doesn’t he look the hero in his uniform? A world conqueror! His dear mother has good reason to be proud of him. I never thought I would be the father of a soldier.”
Mittel, who had a memory that never forgot a single title, had forgotten my visit on the day his son left for the army. I remembered the boy’s mother scrutinizing every item that he packed in his kitbag, her eyes bright with joy at the sight of her boy going off to defend the Fatherland. That same day Mittel told me one of his stories about the author and publisher Heshl Shor, which I’ll skip to avoid getting sidetracked. I’ll only say that it was then, and on the next day, that I helped the rabbi of the von Hindenburg Synagogue, Nachum Berish, prepare writs of divorce for the wives of Russian Jewish soldiers who were prisoners in Germany. They had been put to work in the coal mines and had taken up with Christian women, making their marriages null and void.
“But let’s forget about the world,” Mittel went on, “and I’ll tell you some real news. You know, Rabbi Boruch of Mezhibov was very wise when he said, ‘The only justification for wars is that they make musicians write marches that my Hasidim turn into holy melodies that are sung at my table at the end of the Sabbath.’ A week ago I received a letter from Hirsmann. What did it say? He had received a shipment of books that he thought might interest me and he wrote, ‘If your legs happen to take you to the street my store is on, do drop in.’ I read the letter and thought: as if Hirsmann doesn’t know that legs don’t go anywhere without being told! And so I dressed, slipped out of my slippers and into some shoes, and told my legs to take me to Hirsmann’s store.
“On my way I encountered Herr König. He saw me and said, ‘What good luck to run into you like this!’ I said, ‘Call it luck if you want, but what’s so good about it?’ König said, ‘All my life I’ve worked on redesigning the Hebrew letters. Now I’ve finally located a foundry to cast the type—and here you are, in the nick of time for me to show it to you.’ I asked, ‘And who is going to publish the books you set in your type face?’ ‘Publishers,’ he said, ‘I already have.’ ‘In that case, Herr König,’ I said to him, ‘you can see how unfairly I’ve been treated. I’ve been accused of being ungenerous toward the younger generation of bibliographers—but not only can they have their share of the books you print, they can have my share too, because I don’t even want to look at them.’ He said, ‘But you should!’ I said, ‘I’m afraid my eyeglasses are too accustomed to the old letters to appreciate your new ones. Still, I’m happy you’ve succeeded.’ ‘You don’t look happy,’ he said. I said, ‘Saying is the same as looking. That’s why, when God gave the Torah on Mount Sinai, the Bible tells us, “All the people saw the voices.” I’ll tell you something else, too. Once someone brought Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Ladi a new book on Hasidism. He looked at it and said, “I see the letters, but where is the book?” In your case, Herr König, I haven’t seen the letters, but I can imagine the books that will be printed with them.’
“After taking my leave of König, I kept my head down to keep from being recognized. Leipzig is a city of fairs and you never know who’ll turn up with his merchandise. One man makes ersatz letters, another ersatz food, another ersatz arms and legs, and the Reich makes ersatz men and calls them soldiers. To tell you the truth, my friend, this is turning into an ersatz story. I’d better get back to Hirsmann.
“I came to Hirsmann’s store. He had some books to show me that had arrived from conquered territory in Russia. I cleaned my glasses, reached into a pile, and pulled out some prayer books. Although they were of no importance to a bibliographer, they had been important enough to the Jews who had prayed from them. On the other hand, now that those Jews no longer had them, they had plenty of time to read war novels.”
Mittel laughed a hoarse, jagged laugh. There was anger and anguish in it. Although I was sure he was about to vent his fury on modern intellectuals, as he was wont to do at such times, he restrained himself. His story, it seemed, mattered more to him than his anger.
He said, “I reached into the next pile. This time I came up with another prayer book, a Yiddish collection of women’s devotions, and the Slavita edition of the Zohar—also no great cause for excitement. And what I found when I opened them, such as a pair of spectacles in the prayer book and some gray hairs in the Zohar, was nothing to write home about, either, even if the devotions were half washed away by tears. I put them down and went on to another pile. It wasn’t worth invading Poland for such stuff. One item was yet another little prayer book in which was stuck a piece of parchment with a handwritten plea to God to make the writer a better Torah scholar. What else was there? Ah, yes: a Jerusalem wall plaque, an illustrated Scroll of Esther, and some decorations for a Sukkah, the kind we made when we were children.
“By now I had had enough of this plunder, taken from poor Jews driven from their homes and robbed of all that was dear to them. Yet since a bibliographer can’t keep his hands to himself, I kept rummaging through pile after pile. Finally, I fished from one of them a book of dirges for the Ninth of Av in an unknown edition. That is, it was an edition I had seen when I was young and had written about, and that Steinschneider mentioned in a footnote with an exclamation point as if to say, ‘So says Mittel, and you can believe him if you care to.’ You know me well, my friend. I’ve never wished anyone ill. Still, at that moment I couldn’t help feeling sorry that Steinschneider was dead, because had he been alive, the one to feel sorry would have been him.
“But it was the next book I picked up that made me feel faint. I needn’t tell you that there are towns all over Europe, some so small you won’t even find them on the map, in which Jews were printing books when their Christian neighbors didn’t know the alphabet. If someone were to bring me a Hebrew volume older than the Gutenberg Bible, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. After all, movable type was invented in China, and the Mongols possessed printed books long before anyone in Europe had heard of them; who is to say Jews didn’t copy the technique? We know the Mongols introduced Europe to gunpowder, which the Jews left for the Germans—but books, my friend, books were something Jews had a use for.”
He broke out laughing and said:
“I’m not only a bibliographer, I’m a mind reader. And if you’d like, I’ll read your mind. You’re thinking that this old man has taken leave of his senses. Well, I may really be too old to see my theory confirmed. But you, my friend, will live to see it. Meanwhile, let me show you something you’ve never seen before.”
While taking out an old text he had found, held in place by slabs of wood like those used by the early bookbinders, he related an amusing anecdote about two bibliographers – one of whom, though a scholar, had made several embarrassing mistakes, while the other had made only one, which was to think he was a scholar. Mittel was still talking when I saw that it was time for my lunch with Brigitta Schimmermann.
I rose to go. “What’s the hurry?” he asked.
“I have a luncheon appointment,” I told him.
“With Frau Schimmermann,” he said.
“You are a mind reader,” I declared.
“As a matter of fact,” Mittel said, “she telephoned before you came.”
“But if you knew I was in Leipzig,” I said, “how come you didn’t recognize me?”
“It was precisely because I did know,” Mittel said. “I waited so long for you to come that I lost my sixth sense and didn’t realize it was you. Intuition is everything, my friend.”
I said, “But I never told Frau Schimmermann that I planned to visit you. How could she have guessed?”
“You must have told her and forgotten,” Mittel said.
“I couldn’t have,” I said, “because I didn’t know I was going to visit you, either.”
“Then you should be ashamed for not knowing,” he said. “Frau Schimmermann knows you better than you know your own self. Who else were you going to visit? Even someone like me, who never goes anywhere, would visit someone like me if he existed.”
“What exactly did Frau Schimmermann tell you?” I asked.
“She told me,” Mittel said, “that she had forgotten to tell you that she and her husband would be at the Lion’s Den.”
“Well, then,” I said, “I’ll be off to the Lion’s Den. Where is it?”
“You’re asking me?” Mittel said. “How would a stay-at-home like me know something like that? Let’s look in the phone book.”
Mittel looked in the phone book and couldn’t find it. Then he went through all the hotels, inns, restaurants, pubs, and beer cellars in the yellow pages and couldn’t find it there, either. He gave me a baffled look, said, “I know Leipzig like the back of my hand and never heard of any Lion’s Den,” and called information. No one there knew a thing about it. “Maybe,” I said, “it wasn’t the Lion’s Den. Maybe it was the Leopard’s Perch, or the Antelope’s Horns, or the Eagle’s Wings, or some other place mentioned in the Bible.”
Mittel made a wry face. “You’re making fun of me. Frau Schimmermann will think I’m just a dumb Polack who can’t be trusted with anything.”
My stomach was beginning to growl. To calm it, I took a glass and poured myself some of the seltzer I had brought. Mittel said:
“Just look what we’ve come to! A Jew has a visitor and doesn’t offer him food or drink. Soon my dear wife will come home and make us coffee. She’s so busy feeding the world in that soup kitchen she volunteers in that she forgets she has a husband to feed, too. By now I’m used to fasting, but if I live to be a hundred I’ll never get used to having a hungry guest in my home. The only reason I decided to keep a kosher kitchen was so that I could offer hospitality to every Jew. Even if it was time for prayer, we Kotzk Hasidim never asked a guest, ‘Have you prayed?’ before asking, ‘Have you eaten?’ I’ve spoiled your lunch, my friend. Wait until my wife comes home and she’ll make you a meal in place of Frau Schimmermann’s.”
“I’d better go,” I said.
“I’m on my way to Grimma.”
Mittel looked disappointed and fell silent. Then he sighed and said: “I suppose you’re going to see Levi’s widow. If I weren’t an infirm old man who hates travel and the company of women, I’d go with you. What will become of Levi’s library? Who will use it now? The dealers will sell it off piecemeal. What a man that was! He had eyes that didn’t need glasses until the day he died. They say you could see nothing wrong with him even as he lay dying and writing his will. When is the next train for Grimma? You still have two hours, don’t you? You may as well spend them with me. I’ll put on something presentable and walk you to the station, although to tell you the truth, all the soldiers and cripples in the streets make me want to stay home. Sit down, my friend. Sit and I’ll tell you a story.
“Perhaps you’ve heard of Shlomo Rubin. I knew the man and can tell you that his books were nothing compared to him. I heard many stories from him, one of which I’ll pass on to you.
“There was once a tireless shoemaker who stayed up all night making shoes—cutting the leather and shaping the soles and stitching each shoe. One night an imp appeared and stuck out its tongue at him. The shoemaker took his knife and cut off the imp’s tongue. The imp stuck out another tongue. The shoemaker cut that one off, too. To make a long story short, the imp kept it up and the shoemaker kept it up, and when morning came the shoemaker saw that every piece of leather in his shop had been slashed to pieces.
“Do you follow me? The Germans are tireless. They keep lashing out at their enemies and in the end they harm only themselves. This war won’t end so quickly. The Germans are a stubborn people. Once they start something, they see it through. They began this war and they won’t stop it until either they or their enemies are beaten. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter who beats whom. Both sides are war-crazed and victory-mad. But if you ask me, the winners will be Germany’s enemies, because they have numbers on their side.
“If I wrote fiction, I’d write a story set in the future. I’ll tell you how it would end. Germany has been vanquished and divided up by the victors. Nothing is left of it but a tiny principality, and all that remains of the Germans is a small, destitute people. They’re so poor they can only think of where their next meal will come from. Their universities and libraries are converted into tenements and all their books and works of art are burned for heating and cooking. In the end, not a page survives from all of German literature and philosophy. You say one war couldn’t do that to a great nation? But one war leads to another. After a second war and a third war, the Germans have been beaten to their knees. There’s no more talk of victory or fighting on. All anyone wants is a bit of food to eat, some clothes to wear, and a roof over his head.
“Time goes by. Little by little, the life of the mind resumes—and with it, the memory of how once there were great poets and philosophers whose work has vanished because it was used to heat ovens. From afar comes a rumor that in a land called America live Jews who came there from Germany. And since Jews are traditionalists who preserve the languages of the countries they have lived in, they still know German and read German books. Messengers are sent to America to bring these books back to Germany, just as Hebrew books are now being brought from the conquered territories. And don’t ask me why go all the way to America when German is also spoken in Switzerland and in Austria and in other places, because this isn’t a page of the Talmud whose logic has to be impeccable. If you weren’t in such a hurry, I’d flesh it all out for you. If I’m still alive when you pass through Leipzig again on your way back from Grimma, I’ll do it then. And though you may think this is pure fiction like any tale about the future, you have my word that it’s perfectly true.”
— 3 —
I returned to the station, picked up my bags, and squeezed into the Grimma train. As bad as the trip was from Berlin to Leipzig, the trip from Leipzig to Grimma was worse. Worst of all was pulling into the station. Since it was wartime and every able-bodied man was in the army, the trains were run by women. Discovering they were subject to female rule, they declared their independence. Instead of stopping in the station, this one came to a halt forty or fifty meters short of it, and the more the women tried getting it to move, cursing and swearing furiously, the more it stood there belching black smoke at them. The smoke brought tears to their eyes but no pity to its heart, which was made of steel.
We were still far from the station with no porters or anyone else to help. I took my bags, dragged myself with them to the stationhouse, and went to check my big suitcase. The baggage room was shut. I left my bags by the door and went to find the person in charge. Along came an official who scolded me for leaving my bags illegally and made me pay a fine. I moved them to another place and went to look for the baggage checker again. A man standing there said, “How can you leave your bags unguarded?” When I asked if he would mind guarding them, he shrugged and walked off. After a while, the baggage checker returned. I gave him my big suitcase, took the smaller one, went into town, and found a hotel.
The hotel owner glared at me. Either I, my suitcase, or the two of us failed to please him.
“Do you have a room?” I asked him.
“Do you have a passport?” he asked me.
I gave him my passport. Seeing that I was a foreigner he said, “I can’t let you have a room without a police permit.”
“Where is the police station?” I asked.
“Ask anyone in the street,” he said.
There was no one in the street to ask, since whoever wasn’t at the front was at home or in some factory producing war goods. The day was ending; a thick gloom rose from the earth to meet the darkness dropping from the roofs of the munitions plants. I strained to see in the fading light and spotted a man standing by a streetlamp. “Where are the police?” I asked him. At once he took to his heels. It seemed I had raised a delicate subject.
In the end, I found the police station on my own. The policemen were busy boozing and berated me for barging in on them. Drunk though he was, one of them, when handed my passport, kept his wits about him sufficiently to swear a blue streak at Germany’s enemies, who were everywhere. “But I’m an Austrian,” I said. “I’m your ally. I only need a permit for my hotel.” He took out a permit, fanned his schnapps-flushed face with it, reached for a pen, and wrote: “The bearer may reside in Grimma for three days.”
I returned to the hotel and showed the owner my permit. He led me to a room with a bed. It was an ordinary room with an ordinary bed, except that it had a stale smell and the bed was broken. Still, after a hard day’s traveling, any bed will do to rest one’s bones on.
I lit a cigarette to drive away the smell and calm my stomach, which was complaining again. When I finished the cigarette, I sipped some water and went to bed without supper. It was pointless to ask for any, because I would only have been told that it was late and there was nothing to eat.
I’ve already told you I have trouble sleeping. Being in an ornery German’s hotel didn’t help. I tried adjusting myself to the broken bed by lying in a broken line and thinking of other things, such as my room in Berlin. Then, since that was no paradise, either, I reviewed the day’s events. I pictured Brigitta Schimmerman in the crowded train station, holding out her hand with a smile and inviting me to lunch. In the end, not only did I go without lunch, I went without supper, too. What had brought me to this place? A letter from Dr. Levi’s widow, the two rooms of his library, and the vague hope of finding a room in the country for the summer.
And as if the bed beneath me and the hunger inside me weren’t enough, I now began to worry about the future ahead of me. To take my mind off it, I tried thinking of the different combinations that could be made from the letters of Hebrew roots. Since my main worry was getting through the night, I chose the letters bet-kuf-resh, which spelled boker, morning. Switch them around and they spelled rakav, rot. Switch them again and they spelled krav, battle. Switch them once more and they spelled kever, grave.
I looked for roots with more pleasant associations. Ayin-nun-gimmel gave me oneg, enjoyment, which could be turned into nega, infection. Shin-peh-ayin was shefa, abundance, which yielded pesha, crime. Shin-peh-resh produced shefer, loveliness, which became refesh, filth. And on the other hand, there was emet and tsedek and hesed, whose truth, justice, and loving-kindness never changed because you couldn’t make anything else from them. Little by little my eyes grew heavy until, thinking of halom, dream, I fell asleep and dreamed of war, milhama.
In the morning, I asked for a cup of coffee. What I was given was not only not coffee, it wasn’t a substitute for a substitute for coffee. And since Frau Trotzmüller’s dream had made me forget to ask her for a ration book, I couldn’t even buy a loaf of bread. All I could find to eat was some wormy fruit. I picked out the worms, ate a bit of the fruit, and went to see Dr. Levi’s widow.
Her home, when I reached it, was locked. The house stood on a low knoll, set apart from the houses around it, in the middle of a garden that now looked like a briar patch. For a long while I stood there wondering how a woman whose husband had left her the finest garden I ever had seen could let it go to seed. I remembered strolling through it with Dr. Levi, picking fruit and marveling at his knowledge while the birds, loath to interrupt his displays of erudition, soared in silence overhead. Now it was desolate, its flowers gone, its trees cut down, crows cawing from their stumps. Where was Frau Levi? Although I had always thought that wise men chose wise women, this woman had laid waste her husband’s inheritance.
You know I’m not a man who thinks ill of the other sex, but seeing such neglect I couldn’t help it. A dog came along and barked at me. I left it to its own devices and went to look for Dr. Levi’s widow.
No one could tell me where she was. Some of the passers-by I stopped answered questions I hadn’t asked them and others had never heard of Dr. Levi. I saw I was getting nowhere and threw up my arms in despair. The heavens took note and clouded over, raining down on me without mercy. Looking for shelter, I spied a rickety shack buffeted by the wind. Some local residents had taken refuge inside it.
“Would anyone happen to know why Dr. Levi’s house is shut down?” I asked them.
“There are all kinds of vagabonds around,” one man said. “People lock their houses to be safe.”
I drew myself up to my full height to show I wasn’t a vagabond and explained that Dr. Levi’s widow had asked to see me on urgent business.
A man was cleaning his pipe. “I’ve heard of that doctor,” he said. “What kind of medicine did he practice?”
“I wouldn’t go to him whatever kind it was,” declared a shiftless-looking fellow who had just ducked in from the rain himself. “If you need a doctor, we’ve got a young one in town who’s an ace. Everyone knows him. His mother is that blankety blank ________.”
He used two words before her name that I’m too polite to repeat.
As I was standing there, the shack began to leak. To make matters worse, although the rain was clean, the water leaking from the roof was filthy. I went to look for another shelter and found one that was occupied, too. “Do you have any idea where I might find Dr. Levi’s widow?” I asked the man inside. “No,” he said. “But there’s a Jewish grocer around here who might.” When the rain let up, he pointed the way to the grocer’s.
I inquired at the grocer’s. In reply, he broke into a lament for the late Dr. Levi. And not only was Dr. Levi dead and gone, his wife was on her way to joining him. Some of the doctors said she had a growth in her intestine and some said she had something else. God created thousands of illnesses, and the doctors learned the names of them all and left it to God to cure them. Levi’s widow was in the hospital, being tortured with all kinds of drugs. They were so expensive that she would never get out of debt even if she got out of the hospital. True, her husband had left her two rooms full of books, but meanwhile the mice would eat them. And even if they didn’t, there wasn’t a soul left who could read them.
I was getting hungry again. “I’ve forgotten my ration book,” I said, “and no one will sell me any food.”
The grocer made a wry face at the thought of a fool big enough to forget his ration book. But he said in a friendly tone:
“If you’ll excuse my simple home, you can have lunch with us. Meanwhile, take a roll from the basket.”
I helped myself to a roll and rose to go to the hospital in order to see Frau Levi. The grocer sought to dissuade me. “She’s too ill for visitors,” he said. Yet seeing that I was determined, he gave me directions for getting there.
Dr. Levi’s widow lay in bed and didn’t recognize me. Perhaps the war and its rationing had affected my looks and perhaps her illness had affected her mind. I reminded her of the letter she had written me and of my having been a guest in her home. Just as she seemed on the verge of remembering, a nurse stepped into the room and made me leave.
I walked back to the grocery store, told the grocer what had happened, and added that I was thinking of spending the summer in Grimma.
“Even if you found a room here,” he said, “you’d never find room and board. There’s no food available. The town has barely enough for itself and no one wants to share it with a stranger, especially if that stranger is a Jew.”
“Once,” I said, “Jews were disliked for no reason. Now there finally is one.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” said the grocer. “Times are hard.”
It’s easier, I thought, for a country to level the world than for it to spare a slice of bread for a stranger. But I didn’t say so. German Jews were great patriots and the grocer would have skinned me alive. “What’s it like to be a Jew here?” I asked.
The grocer laughed. “What’s it like to be a Jew? If the Christians didn’t remind us, we’d forget that that’s what we were.”
“You too, mein Herr?” I asked.
“When it comes to that,” the grocer said, “I’m a Jew like any other.”
After shutting his store for the midday break, he brought me home with him and explained to his wife that I was a traveler who had forgotten his ration book and couldn’t eat at his hotel. She greeted me warmly and said, “If you don’t expect anything fancy, I promise you won’t go hungry.”
In no time the table was set and we sat down to eat. “If you had come before the war,” the grocer’s wife said, “I would have cooked you a real meal with all the trimmings. Now we have to make do with what we find in the market.” She turned to her husband and said, “Tell him the story of Enshel.”
“What’s there to tell?” the grocer said, although he seemed eager enough to tell it. “I’m sure he’s heard it already.”
“Actually, I haven’t,” I said, although actually I had.
“I don’t believe you,” said the grocer, “but I’ll tell you anyway. There was once a town in Germany whose Jews were so well-off that they had no one to give charity to. One day a poor Jewish traveler named Enshel passed through town. It was a chance to give alms and they did so generously. When Enshel was about to depart, the Jews realized they would miss him, and so they got together and founded an organization named the Enshel Society and made him agree to return every year. Each of them kept an alms box called the Enshel Box, and once a year Enshel came to collect the proceeds.”
After telling the story of Enshel, the grocer related to his wife that I was in Grimma to see Dr. Levi’s widow. This led him to the subject of Dr. Levi—who, though a fine man, had had a temper that made him scold people for things that only he would have minded. You could blame his books for that, because he was a good person at heart and ready to do anything for others. It was the books, which filled two large rooms, that had made him so critical. The good Lord knew why he needed two rooms of them when even one room held more books than anyone had use for. Most likely he had started with a single book, and had then bought another, and hadn’t been able to stop. Now all his books belonged to his widow, who was no longer in her right mind. There was no one to read them or go through their pages except for the mice. When the mice were done with them, there would be nothing left.
Quite evidently the grocer thought that books and mice were a good match. I don’t recall how the conversation came around to Palestine. Perhaps I mentioned coming from there, since in those days I did so at every opportunity. Talking about it made my life away from it easier to bear, just as the thought of the journey’s end, when all his troubles will be over, comforts the homesick traveler.
The grocer rose from the table, returned with a thin Hebrew book, and handed it to me. “I can’t read this and I’m not a Zionist,” he said. “Still, I keep it because it comes from Palestine and is printed in the letters of the prayer book.”
I took one look at it and pushed it away. The grocer noticed and was puzzled that a Jew from Palestine should treat a Hebrew book like that. When I told him it was an anti-Zionist Hebrew book, he looked more puzzled than ever.
After our meal, my host offered me a cigar and we put Dr. Levi and Palestine aside and talked about the usual things that one talked about in those days. When my cigar had burned down to my fingers I said, “It’s time I got back to my hotel.” The grocer accompanied me. As we walked, he invited me to eat in his house for the rest of my stay in Grimma.
“Not having a ration book, I don’t have much choice,” I said. “If you didn’t invite me, I’d have to invite myself.”
He laughed and remarked, “They say nothing is as simple as it seems. Perhaps you forgot your ration book so that I could invite you.”
The hotel wasn’t far. The grocer entered it with me, gave the owner a friendly slap on the back that resounded throughout the lobby, and announced: “I want you to treat this man as if he were me. If I weren’t concerned about your making a living, I’d put him up in my own home. Don’t be a swine, old man. Feed him well and give him a decent bed.”
The owner nodded obediently. You could see it was less because the grocer inspired deference than because he was in the habit of deferring.
I slept well that night. By now my bed and I were old friends. In the morning, when I went down to the dining room, I was given a proper breakfast. That changed everything. Once again I was tempted to spend the summer in Grimma, whether in a hotel or a rented room. Food, I now saw, was no problem. With a bit of connections and money, you could always find something to eat—and besides, food wasn’t the point. It was peace and quiet I was looking for.
I left the hotel in a good mood, my body rested and satisfied and my mind made up. A man passed me in the street and growled, “Russ!” I don’t have to tell you that I come from Austrian Galicia and am not a Russian, and that although Russ is not a dirty word in my vocabulary, that lout hadn’t meant it as a compliment. Then and there I decided not to spend the summer in Grimma after all. I’d be better off in a big city like Berlin that was used to Jews.
I returned to the hospital to look in on Frau Levi. She was feeling better and was glad to see me. A day or two ago, she told me, a stranger had come to see her with some outrageous story about a letter asking to consult him about her husband’s books. Never having written it, she knew at once he was a master swindler. The odd thing was that she had meant to write it and hadn’t gotten around to doing it before falling ill. Not that she was as ill as all that. In fact, she would talk to the doctors today about curing her more quickly, since what else were doctors for? On second thought, though, it now occurred to her that she might have written a letter after all, although more probably to someone like me than to the man who had visited her yesterday. Since I was already in Grimma, why didn’t I stay a few more days? She would soon be released from the hospital and we would see to her husband’s books.
A tall, young doctor entered the room, a pleasant-looking man with a blond beard and kind face. Perhaps it was his mother who had been called an unmentionable name in the shack. He glanced at Frau Levi and gave me a commiserating look, as if I were a friend in distress. Either my winter clothes made him feel sorry for me, or he saw I felt sorry for Frau Levi, or he thought I pitied him for having such a mother. One way or another, he was trying to be sympathetic. Not wanting his sympathy, I left.
I returned to the grocer’s and told him about seeing Frau Levi. Everybody knew, he said, that she hadn’t a chance of recovering. From her illness he returned to the subject of her husband’s books, which had no financial value, and from the books to Dr. Levi’s dispute with those two eminences of German Jewry, the Reverend Rabbi Gesetztreu and the financier Hochmute, who had taken Levi to task for parading his Jewishness and being an outspoken Zionist. After a while the grocer shut his store and took me home with him for lunch.
This time, offered a cigar after the meal, I presented him with a box of cigars that I had bought for him. He glanced at it and said:
“I’ve given up smoking.”
I said, “I envy you.”
“Don’t,” he said. “You should envy me when I start again. That will be a red-letter day.”
“What will be the occasion?” I asked.
He opened his jacket, showed me three cigars tucked into its breast pocket, and said:
“Do you see these cigars? I used to be a heavy smoker. There was a time when I smoked twelve, thirteen, fourteen cigars a day. When my three sons went off to war, two of them draftees and one a volunteer, I put these cigars in my pocket and said, the next time I smoke will be when my sons come home.”
I wished them a safe and speedy return and him the resumption of his old habits.
“Amen,” he said, while his wife wiped a tear from her eye.
In bed that night I definitely concluded that Grimma was not for me. In the morning I ate my breakfast, had something to drink, paid my bill, and went to the police station. A policeman stamped my permit and I continued to the train station, picked up my suitcase, and caught a train back toward Berlin.
— 4 —
There was no direct train to Berlin and I had to change again in Leipzig. Instead of waiting in the station, I checked my luggage and walked into town.
It was a spring day. The usual stench of the city, which gave Leipzigers sneezing fits most of the year, had yielded to balmier air. You could even make out the dull blue of the sky, which was the color of the fox furs sold at the Leipzig fair. I strolled past the fancy shops, looking in their display windows at the hides and pelts of beasts come to town from the woods and fields. From there I walked to Rosental Park. I passed Mittel’s house, decided not to disturb him, and sat down on a park bench. Across from me a woman was knitting and reading. A small boy, dressed as a soldier with a wooden sword, played in the dirt at her feet. Now and then, she glanced up from the book on her knees and returned to it. The park slowly filled with women and children. After a while I rose to make room for them and walked off. “You’re a bad man!” the boy called after me.
What had I done? I had accidentally stepped on a chalk circle he had drawn on the pavement. “Believe me, little boy,” I said, “I’m not bad at all and I can draw you an even bigger circle.” But he had already forgotten both me and the circle. “Look, mama, look!” he cried, clappng his hands in glee. I followed his glance and saw a poodle in a vest standing in front of a new building. The building’s entrance was flanked by stone lions and bore a sign that said “Lion’s Den.”
I entered the Lion’s Den. It would be too perfect, I thought, if Brigitta Schimmermann were suddenly to appear—but of course she never would, since no one turned up just when you wanted them to. On the other hand, since I was so certain that she wouldn’t, perhaps she would.
A waitress came and asked, “What can I bring you, mein Herr?”
I ordered coffee and asked whether she knew Frau Schimmermann.
“Why, of course,” she said. “I do all her ironing.”
And had she come for lunch today?
“No,” the waitress said, “not today. She was last here three days ago.”
“And not only was she here three days ago,” I told her, “she was here with Herr Schimmermann, and she asked for a table for three, and the third person didn’t show up. You’re looking at him now.”
The waitress stared at me with working-class incredulity. Chagrined that I didn’t look the type to lunch with Frau Schimmermann, I left a big tip to impress her. How impressed she was, I can’t say, but it did make her think well enough of me to tell me where Frau Schimmermann might be found.
“On days when she isn’t in Leipzig,” she said, “she’s at her nursing home for soldiers in the country.”
I returned to the station, picked up my bags, and took a train to Lunenfeld, where Brigitta Schimmermann had her nursing home. The train ride took a half-hour. Another half-hour’s walk brought me to the nursing home. Before the guard at the gate could say, “Come back another time,” Brigitta spied me. “You’re a naughty man,” she said, holding out a finely shaped hand. “You made us wait and never thought we might be hungry. What wonders did you find in Leipzig to make you stand us up?”
“You don’t know the half of my naughtiness,” I said. “This is my second scolding in one day. First I was called bad by a little boy for stepping on his chalk circle and now it’s by you. But I’m not to blame if the Lion’s Den isn’t listed in the phone book.”
“This,” Brigitta said, “is not the time for your court-martial. You’ll stand trial over dinner. First, let me show you around. And before that we’ll have something to drink.”
She brought me to her office, ordered coffee, and said: “Tell me about your day in Leipzig. Whom did you see there?”
“I paid a call on Dr. Mittel,” I told her. “How on earth did you think of phoning him? And what would you have done if I hadn’t been there?”
Brigitta laughed and said, “I wouldn’t have done anything different, because you didn’t turn up anyway. As for Mittel, I phoned to speak to his wife. When he began to grumble about being a victim of her volunteer work, I changed the subject to you.”
The girl who had brought us coffee now returned with a visiting card. The head nurse, she said, had told her to give it to Frau Schimmermann. Brigitta glanced at it and said, “I have important guests and have to show them the nursing home. If I know you, you won’t want to take the tour with them. What will I do with you in the meantime?”
“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I have a cousin here in Lunenfeld. I’ll pay her a visit.”
“Just be back in time for dinner,” Brigitta said.
“If God doesn’t play another trick on me like the one he played in Leipzig, I certainly will be,” I told her.
“In that case,” said Brigitta, “you had better stay here. You can see your cousin tomorrow.”
“Brigitta,” I said, “have you no faith in God?”
“Faith in God,” she said, “I have. Faith in you is something else. Here, why don’t you take a look at this new volume of Van Gogh reproductions. It will keep you busy until dinner time.”
“All right,” I said. “I’ll look at the reproductions before dinner and see my cousin after it.”
“You must have a low opinion of yourself,” Brigitta said, “if you think you have so little to say that dinner will end that quickly.”
It felt like old times to be with Brigitta Schimmermann, even though the room we were in was not like her old place in Berlin. It was furnished in the wartime style, with faded fixtures and a photograph of the Kaiser on the wall. This was flanked by smaller photographs of Generals von Hindenburg and Mackensen, while a war map full of pins hung on another wall. On the desk was a portrait of Brigitta’s small daughter, a vase of wildflowers, and several snapshots, one of them of the two Schimmermanns, Brigitta’s husband Gerhard and his father. Next to it were some books. A recent German translation of Tolstoy’s legends was opened to a page held in place by a plaster paperweight in the shape of a cannon.
The telephone rang and Brigitta went to welcome her guests. I remained in her office, looking at the reproductions. After a while I thought of my cousin, who had been living by herself since her husband and son were drafted. I put Van Gogh down and set out for her house.
On my way, I passed a young man in a field. Although he wasn’t wounded, he had a wounded look and he regarded me in wonderment when I said hello. Not knowing that one didn’t say hello to prisoners of war, I stopped to chat with him as if he were an ordinary person. This made him feel like one and he began to talk about himself. His father was dead and he was his mother’s youngest child. When war broke out, he was drafted and sent to the front. After his battalion surrendered, he was shipped to Germany and indentured to a woman from Lunenfeld whose husband was at the front, too. The chores she made him do were like those he did for his mother, from whom he hadn’t heard a word. He didn’t know if she was alive or what was happening in the world, because no one spoke to him except to shout and give orders.
I stood there thinking of Frau Trotzmüller. If the young man hadn’t been a Russian, I might have mistaken him for her missing son. Sensing my sympathy, he asked for a cigarette. I gave him all the cigarettes I had and wished I had more.
It was getting late and I returned to the nursing home. At dinner I told Brigitta about the Russian prisoner. She frowned and said, “You shouldn’t have spoken to him. Someone might have seen you and told tales.”
“But don’t Germans realize,” I said, “that tomorrow it could be their son who is a prisoner in Russia? How would they like it if he were treated as a pariah?”
Brigitta’s frown darkened. “I’ll have to ask you not to speak that way,” she said. “War is war.”
War here, war there, war everywhere. Because of the war you weren’t allowed to pity or talk to a poor boy taken from his mother. Because of the war there were no longer human beings, just soldiers and officers and casualties and prisoners and enemies. That evening a wall rose between Brigitta Schimmermann and myself. Although we pretended not to notice it, a wall is a wall. Our conversation faltered for the first time in memory, and we parted in time for me to go to my cousin’s.
It’s hard to describe the joy of a woman who, the only Jew in her village, from which her husband and son have been taken, has a surprise visit from a cousin—and not just any cousin, but one she hasn’t run into for years and thought she never would see again. When the people you see every day are snatched from you, how can you expect to meet a distant relative whom you haven’t come across in ages? She was so excited that, despite having a thousand things to ask and to tell me, she couldn’t think of a single one of them or do anything but feast loving eyes on me. Suddenly, she exclaimed with a worried look, “But you must be hungry! I’ll wager you haven’t had your supper. Let me throw something together for you.”
“I’m not hungry at all,” I said. “I just dined with Frau Schimmermann.”
My cousin stared at me incredulously. In times like these, when all anyone could think of was his stomach, how could I not be hungry? Even if I had eaten, I couldn’t possibly have eaten enough. She rose to go to the kitchen, stopped halfway there, came back to ask me something she had just thought of, forgot what it was, returned to the kitchen, and remembered she had run out of cooking gas. She had no kerosene, either, only wood, and cooking with wood was so slow that a Jew’s worst enemies should only have to wait so long for their food. To think that a long-lost cousin was her guest and she couldn’t offer him a hot meal!
“I’m quite full,” I said. “You could set the greatest delicacies before me and I wouldn’t have room for them.”
The more I protested, the more upset she grew. The minutes went by and I had to go. She wouldn’t let me leave without making me swear to come back. “If this time I came to see you without an oath,” I assured her, “you can be sure I’ll come back now that I’ve taken one.”
And now let me tell you about my cousin.
She came from a well-to-do family. Her father, though a religiously observant, well-educated Jew, had progressive tendencies that set him apart from the rest of his family, who never swerved from the trodden path of tradition. Having no sons, he took the unusual step of hiring a private tutor for his daughter and even of teaching her Hebrew. When she reached marriageable age, he found her a husband to her liking, the son of a country estate manager who was a Hebraist and a Zionist. Although she went to live with him in the Polish countryside, their dream was to buy land in Palestine and farm it. For some reason, however, they moved to Germany instead. After trying his hand at several businesses that failed, my cousin’s husband purchased a chicken processing plant in Lunenfeld. Along came the war and he was drafted. Before leaving for the army, he moved his wife and son to a house in the country to economize. Time passed and the boy was called up, too, leaving my cousin by herself. That was her story—to which I should add that she was fifteen years older than me. I only mention this because, should you find her naïve, bear in mind that hers was a generation in which naïveté was considered nothing to be ashamed of.
The next morning I went to see her again. Even though I had promised to return, her amazement knew no bounds. It took her a while to calm down and to ply me with all the questions she had for me, most of which were about myself.
“Tell me what you want to know,” I said. “I’ll answer as best I can.”
“There are so many things,” my cousin said, “that I don’t know where to begin.”
I said, “Then begin anywhere.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” she said. “I’ll try. I’ve heard you write books. I remember you once wrote poems. There’s nothing in the world I like better than a poem, especially when it rhymes. Prose just isn’t the same.”
“That’s true if a poem is poetic,” I said.
“How can a poem not be poetic?” she asked. “If you bought a prayer book that had no prayers, would you call it a prayer book? You’ll have to explain yourself.”
“It’s hard to explain and even harder to understand,” I said. “I’m talking about subtle intellectual matters.”
“Do you think,” she asked, “that living in the country has so addled my brains that I can’t understand intellectual matters?”
“I didn’t say that,” I said. “It all depends on what you mean by intellectual.”
Although I pretended to be testing her, I wasn’t sure what I meant by it myself.
My cousin rubbed her eyelids with her thumbs and thought. After a while she said, “All right, I’ll tell you.”
“Please do,” I said.
“An intellectual,” she said, “is someone who can recite Psalms without tears.”
I couldn’t have put it any better myself.
That set her to talking. “You’re dressed modern now,” she said. “But I can remember you in Jewish clothes, with your curly earlocks bouncing up and down. I always felt sorry for your cheeks, because they couldn’t get your ear locks to lie flat. How smooth they were! Wasn’t it Jacob who said, ‘My brother Esau is a hairy man and I am a smooth man’? I never put much stock in the Hasidim who curl their earlocks and think it makes them better than other Jews, but to tell you the truth, I’d rather live with them than with Germans. It’s an odd thing. When I was in Galicia I wanted to live in Germany, and now that I’m in Germany I wish I were back in Galicia. Do you think that’s because the grass is always greener somewhere else? Don’t take it as a criticism of Zionism if I say that maybe that has something to do with it. You know I’d give my right arm to live in Palestine. Still, I sometimes can’t help wondering whether that isn’t all Zionism amounts to. I wish you’d say to me, ‘Malka, you’re wrong.’ My husband and I have agreed that if God sees us safely through this war, we’ll settle in Palestine. But you were already living there, so what made you leave? I hope it wasn’t what I just said about no one being happy where he is. You can be honest with me. But I see you’d rather not talk about it. Fine, then. Let’s talk about other things.”
Although she would have liked nothing better than to go on discussing these doubts of hers, she reluctantly changed the subject. “What do you hear from your brother?” she asked. “I’ve heard he’s in the army too. If this war doesn’t end soon, there won’t be a Jew left out of uniform. And there are Jewish soldiers on the Russian side, too, fighting their own flesh and blood. Good, decent Jews, people you would be glad to have for your neighbors, suddenly start a war with you! Do you understand it? I don’t. For whom are they fighting? For a czar who slaughtered them in his pogroms. And against whom? Against their fellow Jews who held rallies when they were being slaughtered!”
I took out my pocket watch to check the time.
“Why look at that nasty little thing?” my cousin asked.
I smiled and said, “Is it so nasty, then?”
“Yes,” she said. “Isn’t it? When is the time it tells ever a good one?”
I nodded and said, “That’s true, my dear. The times are bad. And now I’ll be on my way, because I have a train to catch.”
“Where are you going?”
“Berlin,” she repeated sadly.
I nodded again. “Yes, Malka, my dear. I’m off to Berlin.”
“What a terrible place Berlin is,” Malka said. “All the bad things come from there.”
“There are bad things everywhere,” I told her. “Not just in Berlin.”
“Do you have enough to eat there?” she asked.
“Malka,” I said, “doesn’t the Bible say man does not live by bread alone?”
“Finish the verse,” she said. “‘But from everything that is the word of God doth man live.’ Where is the word of God in Berlin?”
“I see you haven’t forgotten your Bible,” I told her.
“You can spare me your compliments,” she said. “I’ve forgotten something more important.”
“What is that?”
She looked around without answering. I could see she was looking for something to eat that I could take with me. Bustling about her kitchen, she offered me every can of food she found. I laughed and said, “What am I going to do with so many cans? I have all I need.”
All at once her face lit up. “How could I not have thought of it!” she exclaimed. “How could I not have thought of it!”
“Thought of what, Malka?” I asked.
She jumped to her feet with a youthful spryness, ran off, and came back with a goose liver. Goose livers, mind you, are not easily come by, especially in wartime. Although I had no idea what I was going to do with it, I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that I was a vegetarian, since she was giving it to me from the goodness of her heart. Thrilled to have found a suitable gift, she wrapped it in paper and said, “Enjoy it! If you weren’t in such a hurry, I’d roast it for you right now.”
“I really must go, Malka,” I said. “Please don’t bother to walk me. I’ll find the way myself.”
She ignored me and set out by my side, lavishing good wishes on me and accompanying each wish with advice on how to make it come true. We walked until Brigitta Schimmermann’s nursing home came into sight. “I’d better turn back before Frau Schimmermann sees me in my house smock,” Malka said in alarm. We turned around and I walked her part of the way back.
“You haven’t asked me what I was doing with a goose liver,” she said as we were about to part.
“No,” I said. “But I did ask myself.”
Malka said, “Well, since you asked, I’ll tell you. I had two lovely, fat geese that I was keeping for the day my son and husband came home from the war. One morning I went to feed them and found only one. ‘Where’s your partner?’ I asked the other. It flapped its wings and said, ‘Quack, quack’ as though it understood my question, but I didn’t understand its answer. In the end, I solved the riddle on my own. Frau Schimmermann had hired some musicians to play for her soldiers, and they had helped themselves to one of my geese and left the other for me. Just as I was thinking that I had better slaughter that one, too, before someone else made off with it, who turns up but Alter Lipa Elbricht, the slaughterer from Leipzig, and does the honors. I’m sending half the goose to my husband and half to my son, and the liver is for you. The German officers like to give gifts to their families from the battleground. Thank God we’re Jews and not officers, and we give the battleground gifts. That’s the story of the goose.”
There I was, a man carrying a liver he had no use for. Although any meat eater might have envied me, my situation was far from enviable, since the liver was dripping all over me. Soon dogs scented the blood and began to chase me. I threw a stone at them and they ran off.
I walked on, thinking about the liver and me. I had to admit it was strange for a man to put himself to so much trouble to hold on to something he didn’t want. Yet how much trouble was I prepared for? Driving away one pack of dogs was no guarantee there wouldn’t be others. And on the other hand, how could I throw the dogs a liver that my cousin had lovingly deprived her son, her husband, and herself of for my sake? If only I could find the Russian prisoner, I’d let him have it and make him a happy man.
The wrapping was soaked through. I looked for a large leaf, but the gardens by the roadside had only small shrubs and flowers. My clothes were spattered with blood. I took out my handkerchief, tied it around the liver, and walked on.
By now, though, I was no longer thinking about the liver. I wasn’t even thinking about my cousin Malka, or about anything that had happened since leaving Berlin. All I could think of was returning to my room in Frau Trotzmüller’s boarding house and collapsing on its bed. Although it may not have been paradise, it was a sight better than being a homeless vagrant. The knowledge that I had a room to return to came as a relief, and I headed for the nursing home to say goodbye to Brigitta Schimmermann before continuing to the train station.
Lost in thought, I must have strayed from the path. Yet I couldn’t have gone far from it, because I soon ran into a soldier from Brigitta’s nursing home. I knew at once it was the golem she had told me about. The only difference was that the famous Golem of Prague was made of clay while this golem was made of skin and bones. Moreover, the Golem of Prague did what it was told to do and this golem couldn’t be told to do anything, having lost its hearing and its other senses, so that there was no talking to it even in sign language. I took this to be a sign that the nursing home was near.
There were other indications that I was getting closer. For example, the soldiers’ voices that I heard, singing the popular jingles of the day with their verses about the stalwart sons of Germany against whom the perfidious English, the swinish Russians, the execrable French, the odious Italians, and the slovenly Slavs had gone to war and would be crushed to a pulp.
All around me were gardens with flowers and winding paths. The liver dripped and pulsed in my hand and I had to grip it tightly to keep from dropping it. As I was looking for a shortcut to the nursing home, there, blocking my way, was the golem again. “Do you like liver?” I asked him, holding out my handkerchief. “Here, here’s a goose liver. It’s still alive. Take it, my friend. It’s yours. Ask the cook to roast it and enjoy it. When did you last taste goose liver? You can’t remember? Have some and you will.”
Wishing to part on the best of terms, I declared:
“Soldier, let’s be friends. You fought in the Kaiser’s war. But we’re all soldiers in one war or another. It’s just that not all of us know which powers we’re fighting for. You, my friend, have seen war’s horrors. Now you’re recovering from them. When you’re better you’ll go home and your loved ones will rejoice—your father, your mother, your brothers and sisters, your fiancée. I’m sure she must be beautiful, with blond hair and blue eyes.”
I stood there, prattling away. Although I couldn’t tell whether he understood me, it did me good to talk to him. There’s something to be said for conversing with an idiot. You can say what you want without fear of sounding foolish.
My last words to him were:
“I’ll say goodbye now and be off. You, too, must have somewhere to go. And since we’ll never see each other again, we can part as friends and be sure we won’t get in each other’s way. Most of the world’s problems come from Herr Schiller thinking that Herr Miller wants something from him. But if Schiller goes one way and Miller goes another, there’s nothing to worry about. How do you plan to eat your liver, my friend, grilled or roasted? I wonder which you like better. Well, ye’erav lekha, yevusam lekha, as we Hebrews say in Hebrew. How do you Germans say it in German? When you see someone eating, you say schmeckt’s, don’t you? Different peoples, different customs. Different languages, different expressions. And now I’ll really say goodbye, because it’s unlikely we’ll ever meet again and you wouldn’t recognize me if we did. Once you’ve been to war and seen so much killing and being killed, what can a plain goodbye mean to you?”
— 5 —
With a load off my hands and off my mind, I reached the nursing home. Brigitta saw my blood-stained clothes and took fright, thinking I had been in an accident. When I told her what had happened, she laughed and called for a servant girl to clean my jacket. Then, without waiting, she took a sponge and soapy water and set to work herself, squinting with satisfaction at each stain she removed. As she worked, she reminisced about the days in which I had been her costume adviser. All kinds of things I had forgotten, she still remembered.
“You never told me what made you become a historian of clothing,” she said.
“If I could choose again,” I said, “I wouldn’t do it.”
“But you did do it,” Brigitta said. “Tell me why.”
“I was young then,” I said. “Before I could write about people from the past, I thought I had to picture them. And to do that I had to dress them in the clothing they wore in the times and places in which they lived. It turned out to be a hopeless task. My manuscript is so moth-eaten that all the mothballs in the world couldn’t save it.”
We talked on and on. I answered all Brigitta’s questions and went off on some tangents of my own, the way you do to keep a conversation going with someone who is dear to you.
“Do you remember the time,” asked Brigitta, “when I wanted to see that film in which I starred as the old king’s daughter? We went to a movie theater and I was recognized, and the audience began to shout like madmen: ‘She’s here, the princess is here!’”
“Brigitta, my dearest,” I said, “how could I forget? You launched a new fashion that night.”
“I did?” Brigitta said. “I can’t imagine what it was.”
“If you’ve forgotten,” I said, “I haven’t.”
“Tell me everything, darling,” said Brigitta.
Although I knew very well that Brigitta Schimmermann never forgot anything, I was happy to comply. “How can you not remember?” I asked. “Everyone in the audience wanted a keepsake from the most beautiful actress in Berlin and started to rip your outfit apart. I had to drape my overcoat around you to keep you from being stripped naked.”
She laughed her enchanting laugh and said, “I can’t believe I forgot the whole thing. If you hadn’t reminded me, I could have lived my whole life without recalling it. But you still haven’t told me what fashion I launched.”
“When everyone saw the fabulous Brigitta Schimmermann in a man’s overcoat,” I said, “men’s coats on women became the rage.”
“It’s amazing how it slipped my mind,” said Brigitta.
“That’s only because your mind knew it could depend on mine,” I said.
“Who knows what else you may know about me that I don’t,” she mused.
“In that respect,” I said, “you’re no different from the rest of us. We never know about ourselves what others do. And that’s even truer of you, Brigitta, my dear, because you’re too busy taking care of others to have time to think about yourself.”
“Me? I’m forced to think about myself all the time.”
“Because I’m too intimidated by others to think about them. And since a man has to think about something, that leaves me.”
“You must know yourself very well then,” said Brigitta.
“That’s just it,” I said. “The more a person thinks about himself, the less he knows himself. And since such a person is of no great interest to anyone, let’s talk about someone else.”
“I’m sure you’re right about him,” Brigitta said. “But since you’ve mentioned him, I’m curious.”
I said, “Such a person could never satisfy your curiosity. He might think about himself constantly, but he couldn’t tell you what he thought under pain of a whipping. And to tell you the truth, Brigitta, I’m annoyed at him for bothering you with such foolishness. I wish the telephone would ring right now with news that the entire general staff was on its way to visit your nursing home.”
“But why?” Brigitta asked.
“So that this conversation might end,” I said.
“You don’t need the general staff to end it,” said Brigitta.
Yet not only did she not end the conversation, she didn’t pick up the telephone when it rang. And when it rang a second time she said into the receiver, “I’m busy,” turned back to me with a smile, and said:
“And now tell me what you’ve learned from all your thinking.”
“If that’s an order,” I said, “I suppose I’ll have to obey it.”
She gave me a fondly intrigued look. There’s nothing like being thought intriguing to get a man like me to speak, and once I began, my words ran on by themselves. For your sakes, I’ll be brief and give you the gist of them.
The story is told of a man who was directed to go to a certain place. On his way, he encountered a mountain. If I go around it, he thought, I’ll lose time, so I had better climb over it. Yet reaching what he took to be the mountain top, he saw it was but the first of many peaks. He kept on climbing, and the more he climbed, the more peaks he reached, one after another, until there were seven in all. At the top of the last peak, he saw a huge rock. A rock like this, he thought, must be here for a reason. Something valuable is surely hidden beneath it. I’ll go no farther until I’ve moved it and seen what that is.
And so the man labored to move the rock. He worked at it one day, and a second and a third, until seven days had gone by. Yet when he finally managed to move the rock, there was another rock beneath it. He moved that one too, and beneath it was another rock, seven rocks altogether, each of which took seven days to move. When the seventh rock was rolled aside, he saw a cave. A cave concealed by so many rocks must have a great treasure in it, he thought. I had better see what that is.
The cave was barred by a door with seven locks. After breaking each lock, the man opened the door. Behind it was a second door, and then a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, and a sixth, and a seventh, each with seven more locks. He broke lock after lock and opened door after door until the last door was opened. Beyond it was an ascent with seven levels, each level taking seven days to cross. When he had crossed the last of them, he came to another cave. This one, too, had seven doors, and seven locks on each door, and seven levels taking seven days to cross. And after it came still another cave, followed by yet another.
Inside the seventh and last cave, the man found a large barrel. Certain that the treasure guarded by so many mountains, rocks, and caves must be in the barrel, he pried it open. In it was a second barrel, and in that a third, seven barrels one after the other. Prying the last of them open, he found a box sealed with seven seals. He broke all seven and found another box, followed by another and another, and each time he felt sure that this box was the last. And although the seals were made of wax, and wax is a soft substance, each seal took him seven days to break, not because his hands were weary, but because the wax was dry and crumbly, so that the more of it fell off, the more remained.
Inside the seventh box was something in a wrapper. The man tore off the wrapper and uncovered a corked flask. He uncorked it with his teeth and pulled out many scrolls, each scroll inside another flask, and each flask in another wrapper, and each wrapper tied with another ribbon. I can’t tell you whether there were seventy-seven of them or more, because he was in too much of a hurry to count. When he had untied all the ribbons, and torn off all the wrappers, and opened all the flasks, and pieced together all the scrolls, a smaller scroll fell out of them. To make a long story short, just as there had been seven mountains, one above another, and seven caves, one inside another, and seven doors and seven levels and seven barrels and seven boxes, seven tiny scrolls now fell out of the small scroll, each tinier than the one before. The man opened them all until he came to the last and tiniest of them. On it was written:
“Fool! What did you lose here that made you come back to look for it?”
Brigitta laughed. Then she laughed again. The parable was so long that she had lost track of its point, or perhaps vice-versa. “You’ve tried my patience, my dear,” she said. “For that you deserve to be punished. The worst punishment I can think of is making you spend another day here. My husband and father-in-law are arriving on the evening train. You must have heard many things about my father-in-law, not all of them complimentary. When you meet him you’ll see that being detested by the socialists doesn’t necessarily make you detestable. Not if you’re my father-in-law, anyway. I’ll let you in on a secret. I’m adding a wing to the nursing home, and Simon Gabel has drawn up the plans. I’m glad to say that that barbarian has actually listened to me and taken my wishes into account, and I have a feeling that my father-in-law will help with the financing. Stay another day and the four of us will spend a lovely evening together.”
Schimmermann senior was known to me only by hearsay and from the photographs and caricatures of him in the newspapers. That evening I was introduced to him in person. A quick mind and ready conversationalist, he was also a big eater, drinker, and smoker whose cigar never left his mouth after dinner. At first he talked about the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, which was an idyll compared to the current war. Then he proceeded to the subject of German science, whose military contributions were greater than your ordinary German philistine thought. Not only were German researchers responsible for many inventions now aiding Germany’s war effort, they had played a crucial role back in 1870, too. Their work on France in those years revealed that country’s secrets and was an invaluable guide for the German army, just as their knowledge of French history and culture helped Germany formulate the war claims to which the defeated French were forced to agree.
From the lessons of the Franco-Prussian War, old man Schimmerman went on to his own experiences. “I was a young officer then,” he related. “One day a group of us was summoned to the home of Flaubert, who had fled because of the fighting. Although he had a large collection of paintings and art objects, we left it all untouched to show our respect for him.”
He looked a bit like Flaubert himself. The good food and ready conversation caused Brigitta to glow with pleasure, as did her raconteur of a father-in-law. He was in an expansive mood—and the more expansive he was, the greater his liberality, which Brigitta was in need of. New wounded kept arriving every day; her nursing home was full, and she wished to build a separate wing for convalescents awaiting medical treatment in Berlin. Although her operating expenses were covered by her husband, only her father-in-law could afford such a project, for which Simon Gabel had drawn up the plans.
It was midnight when Gerhard Schimmermann walked me back to my room. On our way he spoke in praise of Simon Gabel, whose contemporary architecture expressed the martial spirit of his generation, so unlike the pastoral nature of the pre-war period. It was men like Gabel who would build the new world, etc., etc. As far as I could see, two things were on Schimmermann’s mind. The first was to show me that he didn’t have an anti-Semitic bone in his body, Simon Gabel being a Jew. The second was to prove that you could build the new world without socialism. He was still talking when we reached my room. After checking to see I had everything I needed, he thanked me for having made Brigitta a happy woman by visiting her nursing home. Nothing pleased her more than knowing it was appreciated.
At that time I hadn’t yet met Simon Gabel, whose reputation had spread throughout Germany. There were different opinions of him. Some considered him a great modernist who had dealt a death blow to the stultified architecture of the past by inventing a new contemporary idiom, and some thought him the evil genie of a nouveau-riche class that, lacking all confidence in its own aesthetic judgments, was in thrall to the pretentiousness of self-proclaimed masters. I had no firm view of my own. The only house of Gabel’s I had been in, designed for a couple I knew, had a coldness despite its central heating and was unlike the cozy home they had exchanged for it. And yet they professed to be delighted with it and swore by its efficient layout, in which there wasn’t an unnecessary inch of space.
That night I picked up a book of Chinese legends that was lying on the night table by my bed. In it was a story about a venerable architect much loved by the emperor for designing palaces, castles, temples, and fortresses more beautiful than any built before. One day the emperor commissioned this architect to construct a new castle. Yet years went by and nothing was done, for the architect had lost all interest in working in wood and stone. Finally, prodded to execute his commission, he took a large canvas, painted a castle on it so skillfully that it looked real, and sent the emperor a message that the task was completed. The emperor came and was ecstatic, having never seen such a magnificent castle in his life. Soon, however, word reached him that it was nothing but a painting. Furious, he summoned the architect and said: “I made you the chief builder of my realm and trusted you unconditionally. Is this how you repay me?” “But what have I done?” asked the nonplussed architect. “What have you done?” scolded the emperor. “Not only have you disobeyed my orders, you have deceived me into thinking that the mere appearance of a building is a building.” “Mere appearance, you say?” replied the architect, knocking on a door he had painted. “We shall see about that.” The door opened and the architect stepped through it and was never seen again.
This story made a great impression on the angel of dreams—who, however, got it all backwards. All night long he built house after house and took me to see every one of them. Yet whichever I sought to enter, the door slammed in my face. In the end, the houses, too, turned into doors. I opened one door and found a second behind it, and another behind that, seven doors in all, until I was exhausted and on the verge of despair. Just then an automobile drove by. In it was Simon Gabel. Although I was surprised to have recognized him, never having seen him before, I was puzzled by his failure to offer a tired man like me a ride.
I had finished eating breakfast by myself when Brigitta appeared, dressed in a traveling outfit. It seemed that Simon Gabel had arrived that morning for the opening of a new hospital designed by him near Lunenfeld and had invited Brigitta, her husband, and her father-in-law to attend. She was just returning from the event after parting from the two Schimmermanns, pleased that the new wing of her nursing home would resemble a smaller version of Gabel’s structure. It would house the wounded for whom it would be a first stop before being sent to a hospital or to the professors in Berlin, who were eager to learn about new kinds of injuries unfamiliar to them from peacetime. Indeed, a detachment of casualties was setting out for Berlin that evening and Brigitta convinced me to wait for it, since her head nurse, Bernhardina, was accompanying it and would see to all my travel arrangements.
Though she was busy preparing this detachment and selecting its members, Brigitta found time to tell me about some of the strange cases that she had seen or heard of from reliable sources. For example, there was the soldier who was so lightly wounded that it was hardly worth wasting a bandage on him. Nevertheless, a doctor took a liking to him and put him down for several days of convalescence. On his way, his train crashed into another train. Most of the passengers were killed instantly and the soldier died of his injuries.
From the physical cases, Brigitta proceeded to the mental ones. There were perfectly healthy men who ate and drank and had nothing visibly wrong with them, yet were mindless. The golem, for instance: just picture a normal body without a brain. “Since the day he arrived,” Brigitta said, “we haven’t been able to get a word out of him. He can’t remember his own name, or where he comes from, or the slightest clue to his identity. He was found in a pile of mangled bodies on the battlefield, the only survivor in his company. But I have to go now. I’m afraid I won’t see you again before you leave. Have a good trip, darling. If you’re ever in Leipzig again, do give me a ring. Now that you know where the Lion’s Den is, it will be easy to find me. But I haven’t even asked you about your trip to Grimma! Did you get to see Dr. Levi’s widow? Poor Levi is dead and his widow hasn’t long to live. What will happen to all his books? And what about Mittel? Men write books and collect them and leave them to those who have no need of them. By the way, how is your own book coming along? It must have doubled in size from all the new army uniforms. Adieu, my dear.”
As there were still a few hours left to departure time, I went to see my cousin again. She couldn’t believe her eyes. Although I had promised to come back some day, who had ever heard of promises being kept so promptly in times like these? She was so delighted she didn’t know what to do first.
We sat and talked. Or rather, she did all the talking—but since I sat and listened, it was still a conversation. She had sent the goose to the front in two packages, one to her husband and one to her son. In each was a note that said, “In case you’re wondering why this goose has no liver, I gave it to a cousin of ours who turned up like a gift from heaven.” Malka looked at me with tears of love and said, “You did a great thing, cousin, by coming to see me. And not only for me, but for my husband and son, because now I have news to write them. Until now every letter was full of the same old things. How many times can you say, ‘I haven’t found an electrician yet,’ or ‘There’s still no cooking gas,’ or ‘Whenever it rains the house is flooded,’ or ‘The workers all do such shoddy jobs’? Now my husband and son will have something to read about, all because of you.”
We talked until it was time to say goodbye.
I returned to the nursing home and waited for the soldiers to set out. There was a great commotion, as there always is when troops are on the move. The entire staff was on hand to help; wherever I turned, I was in somebody’s frantic way. Although I caught a glimpse of Brigitta, I didn’t approach her, not wanting to distract her when she needed every minute. She was truly a wonder, Brigitta. No matter how pressing her business, she never looked flustered.
A nurse came to tell me that the departure was delayed and we would be taking the night train. It was a pity I hadn’t known earlier, because then I could have spent more time at my cousin’s and let her talk to her heart’s content. My surprise visit had done her a world of good, a Jewish woman alone among Germans who made her feel like a stranger, at the very moment that her husband and son were risking their lives for Germany. Not that I still couldn’t have gone back to see her and returned in time for the night train, but I was afraid so much excitement would be bad for her.
I walked up and down the courtyard, thinking. Was there a reason that Brigitta Schimmermann had forgotten to tell me where to meet for lunch? Or that I couldn’t find the Lion’s Den when I was looking for it and found it when I wasn’t? Or that Brigitta wasn’t in Leipzig that day, causing me to take the train to Lunenfeld? Now that I was in Lunenfeld, I wanted only to return to Berlin, although all I had wanted in Berlin was to be somewhere else. Then again, I was returning to Berlin because my hopes of being elsewhere had been dashed.
To take my mind off aggravating thoughts, I tried thinking of other things. At first I concentrated on Hebrew roots again, as I had done that sleepless night in Grimma. Then I thought of Dr. Levi and of his quarrel with the Reverend Rabbi Gesetztreu and Herr Hochmute. Dr. Levi was no longer in this world and his estate was in a sorry state. What would become of his books? Were they really doomed either to fall into the hands of unscrupulous dealers or to be eaten by mice?
I put Levi and his estate aside and thought of collectors and bibliographers, like Mittel, who had a house full of Hebrew books and an only son who couldn’t read Hebrew. Now Mittel’s son was fighting against Russia, which Mittel had fled because of the police, who had become no better in Germany.
But why dwell on Mittel and his son when a man could think about himself? Once there was a Jew who lived in the land of Israel and lacked nothing. Nevertheless, the notion got into him to live abroad. And so he traveled to Germany and rented a room in its capital, where he was free to do as he pleased so long as the police had no objection. But while life in Germany may have been good before the war, there was nothing good about it now. I’ve already mentioned that my room was too small and my clothes were too heavy; it’s time I also told you about Mondays and Thursdays, on every one of which I had to report to my draft board in Tempelhof. For the time being, I had a deferment. Yet while this satisfied the draft board, it didn’t satisfy the average German, who assumed that anyone not a cripple was a draft dodger. Even though the greatest German patriot no longer wished he were at the front, plenty of Germans wished I were, as I indeed soon would be if the war went on. And since a soldier at the front could expect either to die, be wounded, or take sick, I would end up, if alive, in a hospital or a nursing home. Perhaps the nursing home would be Brigitta Schimmermann’s, in which I was now a guest.
But why worry about the distant future when there was a closer one? In an hour or two, I would be on my way to Berlin. What awaited me there? A cramped room. At the same time, however, I had to admit that no one in Berlin had ever done me the slightest harm, and that Frau Trotzmüller’s dream had made her and her daughters think well of me and regret my leaving, since as long as I boarded with them there was hope for young Trotzmüller’s return. Now that I would be back again, they would have their hope back, too.
I was still in the courtyard when Brigitta appeared, holding her handbag. As charming and beautiful as ever, she smiled at me warmly and said: “I’m sorry to have been such a poor hostess. And most of all, I’m sorry I didn’t put every minute you were here to better use. But institutions have their responsibilities. Not that I don’t have a good, dependable staff, especially our head doctor, who is one of Germany’s leading and most innovative psychiatrists. Still, nothing gets done if I don’t do it myself. And now, darling, let’s have a cup of tea. If you’d like, I’ll tell you about my soldiers and their traumas.”
Brigitta brought me to her room and tea was served. We drank and talked. Once or twice the telephone rang and was ignored by her, and when somebody knocked on the door she called, “If it’s not urgent, please don’t bother me.” The day grew dark and the electric lights came on. Had the furnishings not been so shabby, I could have sworn I was back in Brigitta’s old place in Berlin, before she married Gerhard Schimmermann and took up charity work. All my troubles since setting out for Grimma were forgotten. Even though I had accomplished nothing in the matter of Dr. Levi’s books, it was worth it all just to be with Brigitta again, as in the old days when she was the idol of Berlin.
Brigitta picked up a folder and said, “These are drawings done by soldiers in our care.” She opened the folder and showed me a drawing of a nightmare, another of a pornographic scene, and another of a little girl leading a muzzled goose by a rope. Then she took out a drawing of a strapping young man captioned “Golem.” This was a term people knew in those days because a German author had written a book about the Golem of Prague that was widely advertised by his publishers in the hope of earning back the prodigal advance paid him. As a publicity stunt, they even assembled a group of invalids, arranged them according to height, and gave them flash cards to hold that spelled “G-O-L-E-M.”
Paraded through the streets of Leipzig during the annual fair, when the city was crowded with visitors, this human billboard made “Golem” a household word. Everyone knew all about the Prague Golem, who was made of clay and brought to life by a parchment placed beneath his tongue with the sacred name of God on it. “Tonight,” Brigitta said, “I’m sending the professors a golem of flesh and blood with nothing beneath his tongue but his chin. I must have told you he was found on the battlefield in a pile of corpses. Now he’s off to Berlin with the others. The professors can’t wait to get their hands on him. Here, darling, let me pour you another cup. If you’d like, I can tell you lots more.”
But before she could pour me more tea, the telephone rang with urgent business. Brigitta bade me farewell and left the room. Not wanting to remain by myself, I left, too.
— 6 —
We set out on the night train. The station was sunk in darkness and the light in the train was dim. The benches and floor were filthy. Although it was raining heavily, the windows couldn’t be closed because of the same missing straps that had prevented them from being opened on the train to Leipzig. Opposites, so it seemed, could have the same cause. Nor did the open windows keep the train from stinking of cheap tobacco, as the rain outside formed a solid wall and the humidity inside made the dampness even damper.
If the trip back to Berlin was nonetheless better than the one leaving it, this was only because of Sister Bernhardina and her soldiers, who did their best to be helpful. Yet the closer we came to Berlin, the more anxious I grew. Not only had I not found another room, I couldn’t count on getting my old one back. Berlin was full of refugees, no new housing was under construction, and empty rooms were grabbed in no time.
The soldiers rolled dice and told dirty jokes while Bernhardina dozed off and I sat thinking. Although I’m not a man for grand notions, I couldn’t help reflecting what a jest of fate it was to make me take so many trains to get from Berlin to Berlin. Just then there was a roar of laughter. One of the soldiers had told a joke and even Bernhardina woke up and laughed. She must have known from the guffaws what joke it was. In the entire car, there were only two of us who didn’t join in.
The second man was the soldier I had given my cousin’s goose liver to. There wasn’t a flicker of life in his blank face. Brigitta should never have called him a golem. He wasn’t worthy of the name, because the Golem of Prague was more human. Imagine a long pair of arms, a long pair of legs, a face like dried mud, a dead, witless stare, and an immovable head on two sunken shoulders. What could a creature like that understand, much less do if commanded?
I felt the golem staring at me. Did he remember me and the liver? I thought of my cousin and her family, who had gone without the liver for my sake, and of the dogs that had chased me for it, and of the Russian prisoner I had wanted to have it, and of giving it to the golem instead. If I asked him whether he had enjoyed it, what answer could I hope to get?
I pictured the Russian prisoner, standing in a foreign field. It surprised me, not only that Brigitta hadn’t taken him in, but that she had felt no pity for him and had scolded me because I had. The thought of him made me forget where I was. “Young man,” I told him, “don’t count on me to help, but I’ll be glad to listen to whatever you have to say. You’ll feel better once you get it off your chest. What’s bothering you? Tell me, my friend, tell me. You needn’t be shy. If I interrupt you, it’s not from impatience but only to let you know I’m paying attention. Why are you looking at me like that? I’m speaking a language you don’t understand because I want to get you to talk. How old are you? Not even twenty, I’ll bet. How old could you have been when you went to war? Perhaps eighteen. You thought you would fight for king and country and be a great hero and mow down the enemy, but before you could harm a hair on his head you were his prisoner. Now you’ve lost all interest in killing. You only want to go home to your mother and never hear the sounds of war again, isn’t that so, my friend?”
The Russian nodded.
“And now,” I went on, “you sleep in a pigsty and wonder why you don’t hate the enemy at all. I suppose you might even love him if he let you. But don’t imagine that he hates you. It’s an abstraction that he hates. We, too, are an enemy that your people never saw or knew. Where there is war there is hatred, and we live in a world that loves to hate. Would you like to hear a story? Once upon a time there were some Jews from Galicia who came to earn a living in Leipzig because they couldn’t make ends meet at home. Their fellow Galicians offered them hospitality and advice, helped set them up in business, and welcomed them in their synagogue.
The newcomers were happy to have a Galician-style synagogue in Leipzig that relieved them of the need to pray with German Jews who looked down on them as foreigners. Although the God of Israel is one, the synagogues built in his honor are many. In short, since this isn’t the time or place for a lecture on Jewish customs, the Jews from Galicia prayed in the Galician synagogue in Leipzig and felt at home there. And while this isn’t the time for a lecture on Jewish prayer, either, the God of Israel may be One and his people may be one, but the same can’t be said of their prayers. Moreover, even though the newcomers prayed with their fellow Jews from the same prayer book all were raised on, they quarreled with them in the end. Do you think it had to do with money? Money had nothing to do with it. God gave them all their daily bread and none of them needed his neighbor’s. No, it was over matters of principle. Although God is One and his Torah is one, Jews have many principles. And so they went and founded a new synagogue and named it for von Hindenburg to let their fellow Jews know they would deal with them as von Hindenburg dealt with his foes.”
The Russian prisoner looked bewildered. He must have wondered how anyone could say so much in German when no German had spoken more than a few words to him since the day he was taken prisoner. As soon as I looked up, however, he and the field were gone. There was only the golem, staring at me. Was he still tasting the liver?
The lights of Berlin glowed on the horizon. Bernhardina brushed the sleep from her eyes, stretched, and told the soldiers to gather their gear. The soldiers put away their dice and began collecting their things while exclaiming, “Berlin, Berlin!” I felt too dejected to move. It was all I could do to take down my bags.
Bernhardina noticed this and said:
“The soldiers will bring your bags to your home.”
A home, I thought, is exactly what I need. Since I did not have one, however, the next best thing was my boarding house. Although it had no air, no light, no joy, no life, and no anything, it was the only place there was.
Berlin! The station was teeming with soldiers coming from all over and going everywhere. Germany was fighting a great war on many fronts. It was hard to say who was worse off, those coming or those going, but this wasn’t the time to decide. I had to get to a boarding house in which I didn’t know if I still was a boarder, because my room had most likely been rented and there wouldn’t be another.
“If you write down your address,” Bernhardina said to me, “I’ll have your bags delivered.”
I pulled myself together, took pencil and paper, and wrote the name of the boarding house with its street and number. Bernhardina read what I wrote, glanced at the soldiers, pointed to one of them, and said: “Take this gentleman’s bags and bring them to his residence.” The soldier took the piece of paper, read the address aloud, and reached for my bags.
It was then that a strange thing happened. The golem, who had been passive until now, snatched my bags from the soldier and blurted, “Me, me, me!” This was as worrisome as it was odd, because who knew what a golem might do with my bags or where he might bring them? Bernhardina, who had handled many troop transports without ever being challenged, was taken aback. Quickly, however, her expression changed from alarm to anger and she snapped:
“Put those bags down!”
The golem paid her no attention. “I’ll call the police and have you locked up,” she warned him. When this, too, had no effect, she tapped her head with her finger and said, “He’s not all there.”
What was to be done? Although no one could trust a golem who didn’t know up from down, neither could my bags be pried loose from him, as he was hanging on to them for dear life while threatening to lower them on the head of whoever tried taking them away. In the end, after a brief consultation, it was decided to let him carry them with the first soldier as his escort. The golem, who couldn’t have cared less whether he had an escort or not, began walking off with my bags. The soldiers sang:
in die weite Welt hinein.
I said goodbye to Bernhardina and the soldiers and went to obtain a residence permit from the police. Although I was a foreigner and the hour was late, I was asked no questions and given the permit. The only comment was the complaint of the desk sergeant, “You Austrians are never on time.” Taking my leave of him, I walked to Fasanenstrasse.
Despite its being almost midnight, Berlin was wide awake. The streets were crowded, the streetcars were running, and the taxis, which were never available when you needed them, sped back and forth between the cabarets and the taverns. For every German who had gotten rich from the war, another cabaret or tavern had opened, and if you didn’t bump into a man dressed as a woman every time you passed one of them, you bumped into a woman dressed as a man. Or else, if you managed to avoid both, you were clutched at by the lame and the blind and every species of invalid made by man or God. Between one cripple and the next, women held out their hands and asked for money or other favors.
As I neared Fasanenstrasse, the streets quieted down. All the houses were sleeping, to say nothing of the Reform temple, which slept from one Friday night to the next. You’ve timed things badly, I told myself. The boarding house has gone to bed and you’ll have to ring and wake everyone. They say every delay is good in its way, but waiting to travel with Brigitta Schimmermann’s legion of the wounded had nothing good about it. Brigitta had wanted to help and had only made things worse. Not that I would have minded so much were I the sole victim—but now the entire boarding house would suffer, especially Frau Trotzmüller and her daughters. Even if Frau Trotzmüller was awake and grieving for her son, her daughters would not be and I would rob them of their sleep when I rang.
The three Trotzmüller girls, to whom I had never given a moment’s thought while living with them under one roof, now appeared to me large as life. Stout, round Lotte, the eldest, peered up and lisped in her babyish voice, her head hunched between her shoulders. Before I could answer, there was her sister Hildegard, her wide eyes flashing sternly and a pitch-black curl I had never noticed bobbing up and down as she spoke, though the hard edge of her voice hardly needed its assistance. Next to her stood little Gert with her nose hidden in a field of red freckles above the open slit of her mouth. She must have forgotten to shut it in her annoyance at Hildegard for shushing her in the middle of a sentence.
Although I did my best to pay them no more attention than I had done when I was their boarder, they wouldn’t go away. What, I wondered, gave them the power to be seen and heard blocks from their boarding house? It could only come from my guilt at having to wake them. Yet in the middle of trying to ignore them, it occurred to me that at least one of them must have stayed awake for me, since the golem’s arrival with my bags would have warned them I was on my way. This realization caused me to slow down, there being no hurry if they knew I was coming. Which of the three sisters, I wondered, would be up? Not Hildegard. No one who could slight me for a cactus would give up a night’s sleep for me now. If it was Lotte, on the other hand, her roundness might roll her back to sleep. And if it was Gert, Hildegard might sit up in bed and say, “Just look at her! Hatched yesterday and already chirping to wake the dead!”
And which of the boarders would awaken first? Most likely it would be the official from the tax bureau, since wars cost money and money comes from taxes and the thought of all the taxes they had failed to collect kept tax officials up at night. Or perhaps it would be the couple from the war zone, who had heard the sounds of battle and were now alarmed by the slightest noise. And even if they slept through it, the servant girls would not. This would be a pity, because they worked hard to make the boarders happy and needed their sleep to get through the next day.
I should have taken to my heels and run in the other direction. But not only didn’t I run, I felt too guilty even to walk. The whole street was sound asleep, each house in its fashion. The heavy stone houses slumbered dreamlessly; the dreams of the brick ones let in and shut out the world by turns. Above them rose the Reform temple with its gilded tiles made by the Wilhelm Kaiser Royal Tile Works. Once, the joke went, the Jews made bricks for Pharaoh and now the Kaiser made tiles for the Jews. Moreover, he made them of gold while Pharaoh’s bricks were made of clay and straw.
It was midnight when I reached the boarding house. Just twenty-four hours ago Gerhard Schimmermann had walked me to my room and asked if I lacked anything. Now I was returning to a room that lacked everything. Every delay might be good in its way, but this one had nothing good about it.
— 7 —
Given the hour, I was surprised to find the lights still on in the boarding house. I’ve said I’m not one for grand notions; it was clear the lights weren’t for me. The only explanation I could think of was that one of the Trotzmüller girls had become engaged and was having a celebration—or else that Isolde Müller, the finishing-school student, had invited her friends to a birthday party that was still going on.
Isolde Müller’s parties always reminded me of a strange incident. One night I was lying in bed when Pharaoh’s policemen arrived and buried me alive in the brick wall of a house. I groaned so loudly from within the bricks that God heard me and delivered me, putting me back to bed. Yet the policemen kept trying to choke me. I thrashed about and sent them sprawling except for the official from the tax bureau who lived across from me. Having drunk too much that night at Isolde Müller’s party, he had mistaken my room for his own and crawled into bed with me, and now he was lying on top of me and crushing me.
No one answered when I rang the downstairs doorbell, so I pushed open the door and stepped inside. Although on any other night I would have been amazed to find the door unlocked after midnight, I was too pleased with my luck for amazement. Having surrendered the elevator key, I climbed the stairs. With every stair I climbed I heard the sounds of the boarding house more clearly. I was still debating how to explain my return to Frau Trotzmüller and her daughters when I reached the upstairs door. It, too, was unlocked. I had truly returned on a night of wonders: the same boarding house that went to sleep early all year long was now up and about with every door open. I was tiptoeing wearily to my room, hoping to steal off to bed unnoticed, when Hildegard barred my way, her eyes wide with tears.
“I’m back,” I said.
She looked at me through her tears, took my hand, pressed it to her heart, and said, her eyes narrowing above her cheekbones: “So is Hanschen.” And seeing that the name meant nothing to me, she added: “Ach, our poor brother! Ach, our poor brother!”
I squeezed her hand and tried to think of what to say, as you do when you know there must be something but can’t imagine what it might be. Just then Lotte appeared. Peering up from a head hunched between her shoulders, she lisped the same news I had heard from Hildegard. “You can save yourself the trouble,” Hildegard said, letting go of my hand and giving Lotte a stern look, “because I’ve already told him.”
I shook Lotte’s hand and told her how happy I was for her. She was still lisping away when Gert came to inform us that Hanschen was with their mother and that Frau Trotzmüller was crying. I shook Gert’s hand and told her I was happy for her, too. Her freckles turned redder and her slit of a mouth grew pale.
The obvious thing to do, I thought, would be to go to Frau Trotzmüller’s room and congratulate her and her son. On second thought, however, it seemed just as obvious to leave mother and son alone. It was all so obvious that I couldn’t make up my mind, and meanwhile I was ready to collapse.
Obviously, there was no point in doing that. And so I stood asking myself, “How can you say nothing to the mother you heard sobbing every night for a son who has come home,” and answering myself, “Why don’t you just go to sleep,” until Hildegard passed me in the hallway with her potted cactus and said, “This will look nice in Hanschen’s room.”
“But how did it happen?” I asked. “I mean, how did your brother come home? Did you have advance warning?”
Hildegard wiped away a tear. “How did it happen? Out of the blue. The doorbell rang and there was Hanschen. It’s a good thing I was the one who opened the door and went to tell Mother, because she would have passed out from sheer joy if it had been her.”
Her own joy had turned Hildegard into a different person from the one who had slighted me for a cactus. I can’t recall if her eyes were wide or narrow, but her voice was certainly choked. “I was sitting in my room,” she said. “I wasn’t sleepy and I went to get my knitting things. But I didn’t feel like knitting, either, and seeing that my bed wasn’t made, I put down my needles to make it. Instead, though, I went to Mother’s room. She was sitting on the couch with some photographs and she said, ‘How will I recognize my boy when he comes home? He may have grown a beard or be wounded.’ I said, ‘Why would he grow a beard? He probably has a mustache like the Kaiser’s.’
“Imagining Hanschen with a handlebar mustache made me laugh so hard that I couldn’t stop. What a ridiculous thing for a little brother to have! I was in the middle of twirling imaginary whiskers when I heard voices. There were sounds below and the doorbell rang and rang. Mother said, ‘Go open it,’ and I said, ‘Nobody has the right to disturb us at this time of night,’ and she said, ‘If you’re not quick the whole boarding house will be woken.’ By the time I realized she was right and went downstairs, the ringing had started again. Herr Schmidt from the tax bureau stuck his head out his door, and so did Isolde Müller from the big room, and so did all the other boarders. Mother started to apologize while I went to open the downstairs door in a fury. Two soldiers were standing there, one younger than the other. The first soldier asked, ‘Is this the Trotzmüller boarding house? Sister Bernhardina has sent the bags of the gentleman who was visiting Frau Schimmermann.’ I looked at them and at the bags and wished they’d go to the blazes. But they just went on standing there, so I said, ‘You have a lot of nerve! I’m going to call the police and have you both arrested.’ Just then the chambermaid saw the bags and said, ‘Why, these belong to the gentleman from the little room!’ I said, ‘That can’t be,’ but a second later, mein Herr, I realized you must have returned and I said, ‘Bring the bags inside and be off with you.’
“The soldiers brought in the bags and were about to go when Gert came downstairs and screamed, ‘Hanschen!’ We thought she had gone mad, but she kept screaming, ‘Hanschen, Hanschen!’ Then she turned to one of the soldiers and said, ‘You’re our brother Hans, tell me you’re Hanschen! Mother, it’s Hans, I swear to God!’ And Hanschen, he didn’t say a word, neither yes or no, and only stared at us. But I saw something change in his eyes, as though he was coming out of a trance—and then he whimpered and screamed, ‘Mama!’ And at that exact moment Mother screamed, ‘Son!’ I felt like screaming too, but I couldn’t get a sound out. And the soldier who had come with Hanschen wouldn’t leave him because he said he was responsible for returning him to Sister Bernhardina. Nothing could change his mind. I had to make phone calls to all kinds of high places to get him to agree.”
I was on my last legs. But though it was time to go to bed, how do you cut short a sister who is telling you, not just about a brother, but about a brother who has returned from the dead? The clock struck one. The friends and family who came to welcome Hanschen had split into two groups. Those who lived nearby had gone home, and those who lived further off had stayed to sleep in the boarding house, the streetcars having stopped running. The building was silent. Whoever was gone was gone and whoever was in bed was in bed. It was so quiet you could hear them sleeping. I felt an ear-splitting yawn but was too exhausted to open my mouth to let it out. Before I could ask Hildegard about my room, she had gone to see if all the guests were taken care of.
Gert came along, saw me standing there, and began to tell me all about Hanschen. She told me what Hanschen was doing now, and where Hanschen had stood when she recognized him, and what her mother had said when she saw Hanschen, and how Hanschen’s companion wouldn’t leave Hanschen because he thought Hanschen should return to Hanschen’s unit, so that if Hildegard hadn’t made some telephone calls he would have taken Hanschen with him and there would have been no Hanschen. “We used to have dreams like that,” she said, “in which we dreamed we saw Hanschen and woke up and Hanschen was gone.” And Hanschen had gotten taller, so that the Hanschen who came home didn’t look like the Hanschen who went to war. She, Gert, was the first to notice this; even her sisters admitted it. And Hanschen’s face had changed and so had Hanschen’s eyes. She didn’t care if Herr Schmidt said eyes never changed, anyone could see that Hanschen’s eyes were not the same.
Gert went on and on about Hanschen. You could tell how she worshiped him from the way she uttered his name. Her eyes kept filling with tears and her little nose reddened. By now I was literally falling off my feet. Not one of my five senses was still working. The only word of Gert’s I could make out was Hanschen. I don’t remember what made her stop or at what point she left me, but as soon as I saw that I was alone I headed for the little room that I had left three days before.
There was a gasp. I turned around and saw Gert staring at me in horror.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
She gasped again and said, “That’s Hanschen’s room. Hanschen has just gone to bed. He’s asleep.”
Her horror changed to entreaty. “If you step into Hanschen’s room, mein Herr,” she whispered, “you’ll wake Hanschen.”
In a word, my room was now Hanschen’s and Hanschen was not to be disturbed. After all he had been through, he deserved a good night’s sleep. Not that I deserved less after being on the road for so long, but you couldn’t expect a foreigner to vie with a long-lost son.
I stood in the hallway, midway between Hanschen’s room and the front door. At that moment the door opened and in walked an old woman, pulling an old man behind her. Gert threw her arms around them and sobbed while repeating all she had told me: how Hanschen had suddenly appeared, and how she had recognized Hanschen first, and how wonderful Hanschen was, and how good it was to have Hanschen back. Then she scolded her grandparents for traveling in the middle of the night. Hadn’t Hildegard told them on the phone, “Don’t come tonight, it’s too far and there’s no transportation”? And yet they hadn’t thought of themselves and had only wanted to see Hanschen.
Dead tired from their travels, the old couple told Gert how they had changed from train to train and from streetcar to streetcar, and how they had had to walk in the end when the conductor informed them that the last streetcar had left. Now that they had finally arrived, they were too exhausted to rejoice in their grandson’s return and wanted only to sleep.
Frau Trotzmüller appeared, saw her parents, and embraced them with more tears. Taking her father by one hand and her mother by the other, she led them to Hanschen’s room and opened the door a crack to let them glimpse him lying in bed, making snuffling sounds with his face buried in the pillow. “He’s asleep, he’s asleep,” she whispered.
The old couple nodded and said, “He’s asleep.” Frau Trotzmüller let them have her room and slipped quietly into Hanschen’s, because there wasn’t an empty bed in the boarding house. Before long everyone was asleep except me, the only one without a place to lay his head.
I stood looking at the doors of the rooms, which had dissolved into a magical tableau. The light in the hallway gleamed on the doorknobs, every one of which was locked. Twenty-four hours ago I had lain in a comfortable bed, reading a charming legend about an architect who walked through a door painted on canvas. Now I stood before the doors of real rooms and not one would open for me.
Hildegard passed by without noticing me. Before I could say a word, she had turned off the electricity except for a small night light and gone to her room. I was left all alone in the hallway. At first I felt conspicuously large. Then I felt insignificantly small. Then I stood like a golem awaiting orders. There was no one to give them.
I leaned against a wall and tried to think. What was I supposed to do now? There was still the dining room, on whose carpet I could bed down for the night. I was about to stretch out on it when the door opened and in came the chambermaid, carrying blankets and pillows. Yet not only was I too tired to feel grateful for them, I didn’t need them all, because two more servant girls soon arrived with more. Why so many? Because the dining room doubled at night as the staff’s bedroom. Now that the boarding house was asleep, the staff had to sleep, too. That left me out in the cold.
Where was I to go? It was nearly two a.m. and all the hotels were shut for the night. And even if one were open, how would I know where it was, let alone have the strength to get there, much less hope to find a vacant room in it? It was wartime, Berlin was flooded with people, and every hotel had more guests than it could handle.
The servant girls made their beds and waited for me to leave so that they could turn in for the night. Yet while leaving was clearly the thing to do, I had no idea where to go. I glanced at the chambermaid, who had been tipped by me every week without ever being asked for a favor. She felt my eyes on her and said:
“It doesn’t look like there’s any room for you, mein Herr.”
“What do you suggest I do?” I asked.
She made a sound like a hiccup and said, “I really don’t know what to tell you. The rooms are all taken. Even Herr Schmidt has had to share his room with someone, and you know, mein Herr, how difficult Herr Schmidt can be. We’ve worked extra hard tonight because of everyone who came to see Hanschen and now we have to get some sleep.”
“You do indeed,” I said. “I wouldn’t want to deprive you of it.”
The chambermaid sized me up like an undertaker measuring a corpse for its grave. What she said next, dear reader, was this:
“I suppose the bathroom won’t be needed until the morning. I’ll make a bed for you there.”
Soon she returned and said:
“Your bed is ready.”
I went to the bathroom, thinking she had set up a cot in it. She had done no such thing. In the bathtub were a folded rug, a pillow, and a blanket. Although I had heard of hotels putting guests up in bathtubs, I had never believed it was true. Now I knew better.
I was in no position to be choosy. I locked the bathroom door, undressed, and got into bed—that is, into the tub. I believe it was Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav who said that God in His goodness conducts the world’s affairs more splendidly from day to day. My own affairs were an exception. From day to day, they were conducted more squalidly.
Somehow I managed to fall asleep. The reason I know I did is that I had a dream. What did I dream? I dreamed that a great war had broken out and that I was called up to fight and took a solemn oath that if God brought me home safe and sound, I would sacrifice to Him whatever came forth from my house to greet me. I returned home safe and sound and behold, coming forth to greet me was myself.