behind the front lines of this story
“As you are no doubt aware, as of 2014 the works of Israel Joshua Singer–the older brother of Nobel Prize Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer–enter the public domain. Our press is planning a select edition of the Yiddish writings of this author, in order to make his work available to Italian readers for the first time. We would thus like to entrust to you the task of choosing from Singer’s extensive corpus those stories you feel to be most interesting. We would also entrust you with the translation and editing of the works selected. We are aware of your love for Yiddish literature, and of your translation of the final chapter of The Family Muskat, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. If you decide to accept our proposal, we’ll send you photocopies of the Yiddish stories of Israel Joshua Singer…”
This letter could be sent to very few people, and I’m one. I’ve learned Yiddish, a language once spoken by eleven million Jews in Eastern Europe, fallen silent in their destruction. The infrastructure of its grammar is German; it is written in Hebrew characters, and read from right to left.
I managed to find a Yiddish textbook as well as a pair of Yiddish-English dictionaries. Of the languages I’ve come close to, I’ve learned to read Yiddish most quickly. And so I find myself leafing through the pages of a literature that is now nearly unknown, and almost never translated.
Yiddish is similar to my own Neapolitan–both are the tongues of crowds in tight quarters. That’s why they’re fast, their words cut short, good for clearing paths through the shouting. They have the same numbers of beggars and superstitions, and both are practiced in poverty, emigration, and theater. Their proverbs are similarly sarcastic: “It’s good learning to shave on someone else’s face.”
Of progress, they say, “A kick in the butt can still be a step ahead.”
I translated the final chapter of The Family Muskat (yes, with a “u”) because it’s left out of the Italian edition. The novel was published serially, in Yiddish, by the New York paper Forverts. I translated the final chapter, found only in the original edition. Back in the ’50s, following a request from his editors abroad, the author decided to simplify the official English edition, which he supervised. And so The Family Moskat has two endings, one for its Yiddish readers, and another for all the others. Interestingly, the two are opposites. I’ll summarize. It’s September 1939, in Warsaw. Only days ago, with the German invasion of Poland, World War II has begun. The Nazi army hasn’t yet occupied the city; the aerial bombardment targets in particular the Jewish neighborhoods. On the deserted city streets, the protagonist meets an acquaintance, an elderly man who wanders desperately, trying and failing to find a doctor for his wife. In this brief exchange, the old man takes his leave by saying, “The Messiah will come soon.” The protagonist is astonished, and asks what is meant by the remark. His acquaintance responds, “Death is the Messiah. That’s the real truth.”
The English edition of the novel ends like that. The Messiah–the final stop of world history for both Jews and Christians–is here simply death, with no pay-off or redemption. I have never read a book with a more merciless conclusion. Put into the mouth of a meek soul, its blasphemy resonates all the more strongly.
In the Yiddish original, there’s a long additional chapter showing the Jewish New Year in Warsaw during the bombing. The celebration takes place each year in September. Under the siege, the novel shows the Jewish community carrying out its rites more strictly and with more fervor than ever. After this section, the chapter concludes with a group of young Jews marching through the woods, towards the east and Russia, fleeing from Warsaw. In its final lines, the author intervenes directly. He writes, addressing himself to them: “The final victory will be yours. For you the Messiah will come.”
For Yiddish readers, then, there’s this open ending, a flight toward hope and prophecy. It still isn’t well known. In the other version, for non-Jewish readers, Singer intentionally leaves a dismal conclusion. The Family Muskat is a work written in the immediate postwar, after the destruction of the European Jews–and it is theirs. In his abbreviated version, Singer wanted a bitter taste to linger in the world’s mouth, in its tongue.
This information is intended to serve as preface, and to explain why, a summer not long ago, during one of my mountain-climbing excursions I had with me a hefty packet of photocopies covered with writing in Hebrew characters. I’d agreed to the publishers’ proposal and was making good progress. From those pages I’d already chosen one perfect story, set in 1919-20. It tells the railway disadventures of a young Polish Jew caught up in the Russian revolution. The story could stand up even against the greatest literary achievement ever set during those revolutionary times: Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry. Under another name, Babel, a Jewish writer from Odessa, took part in battles where Cossacks were deployed with the Bolsheviks. Out of this experience, Babel wrote the finest pages I know of depicting Russia in the twentieth century.
A person who spends his days among rocks, poking around on all fours, has heaps of time to tell himself tales. It does him good at night to take a seat and listen to the stories in some well-made book. I keep myself company with my own writing as well, but when I start to read my eyes grow wider and I return to Naples, to my room in Montedidio.
Isaac Babel without fail puts me back in an old green armchair, with its broken springs. I curl up and with my eyes follow the piper. Babel was executed by firing squad in Moscow on January 27, 1940, and left in a mass grave. He was forty-five years old. What he’d written suffices for me to value him as the best of the twentieth-century Russians. And I don’t miss everything he was never able to write. What weighs on me is the desperation of the man, his well of ink ready to dip into, sealed with slug of lead to his brain.
I don’t generally visit the tombs of the writers I love. Yet I do beat my fist on the table of my century for not letting a passerby rest one moment before the stone of Isaac Babel.
Evenings, after my climb and a shower, I go to an inn to recharge my batteries; the papers covered in another alphabet keep me company.
My Yiddish came from obstinacy. I first wanted to learn it after returning from the ceremonies marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Warsaw uprising: April 1943, April 1993. At age forty-three I took some vacation time from my job at a construction site and went to Warsaw.
Reading I’d done as a boy had left some sort of map imprinted under my skin. I knew the layout of the ghetto, where the Germans piled together more than four hundred thousand lives. Wohnung bezirk, or “housing district”–that’s what they called the stockyard for bodies awaiting the shredder. The dispatch of armored trains to extermination camps they called an Aussiedlung, a “transfer.” Passing off fake vocabulary for cover. It’s what the powerful do; the duty of writers is to return things to their proper names.
I remember books from my childhood, but no toys. I’m sure there were toys, but they’re gone now. Toy soldiers and trains, model houses and animals: toys are the world in miniature; they help children to feel like giants. They help them to grow, and to put up with inferiority.
I rarely played, preferring to read. In books it wasn’t possible to imagine yourself grown. The stories were vast and my reading small in comparison. Many things I didn’t even understand; books reinforced my minute stature. Yet something was growing within. The doctor said it was my liver, and in those days we got treated with cod liver oil.
To me it felt as if my lungs were increasing their capacity for air. Reading Stevenson swelled me with ocean air. My tongue melted with Neapolitan poetry. Jack London taught me about snow. The bloodshed of war stories throbbed through the veins in my forehead.
When I first reached the age of independent awareness, I made Marek Edelman–a leader of the uprising–my hero. Before I’d ever heard of Che Guevara, I knew about him. After the war, Edelman became a cardiologist: he wanted to save as many hearts as he possibly could. For me, he’s the perfect hero. Equally noble, Guevara took the opposite route–a doctor who fought as a revolutionary.
I didn’t make it from Warsaw to Treblinka, where the freight cars loaded in the ghetto’s collection area (the Umschlagplatz) ended up. Instead I went to Auschwitz (Oświęcim in Polish) and Birkenau/Brzezinka, the most extensive of the extermination camps. I entered through the large gate that opened up for the trains. I wandered through open barracks, still damp from earth and terror. I sat down on a wooden bunk that once hosted bodies undone by work and by hunger. I closed my eyes, and fell asleep for a moment, because I’m not able to pray.
In this twentieth-century site, what occurred beyond repair is immense. No form of justice after the fact, no rout of the responsible powers, could match that cursed waste. There are limits to criminality where justice isn’t worth shit.
I don’t remember any other visitors. If they were there, I avoided them. The plains of Upper Silesia were motionless, the air disturbed only slightly, by some black butterflies. The land was deaf and dumb. I walked from the barbed-wire enclosure for gypsies to the area for women, gathering to mind each of the stories I’d read about this place that matched them perfectly.
“Give Mama the baby!” The phrase–cried out by a Hungarian Jew during the summer of 1944–saved her sister’s life. With her daughter in her arms, the sister had gotten off the armored convoy and was headed for the selection at the end of the station platform. The woman–who for months had been locked up in the women’s quarters watching the arrivals–knew that the elderly and infants were put in a line that led straight to the gas chambers. Through a silence broken only by orders and the barking of dogs, the woman’s voice reached her sister, who mechanically obeyed. She handed the baby over to their mother and, by doing so, made it through the selection, her alone. They both survived, she and her sister. I know of no cry more merciless, or more saintly.
I walked down the broad steps that once led to large rooms decorated with fake showers; like the crematoriums, the retreating Germans had demolished them. I was able to go back up!–the very thought made me dizzy. I had to sit down on a stair halfway back. Descendants who’d come to visit this place had left messages on iron rebar, sticking out from the broken blocks of cement. I stayed until closing time.
Before leaving I committed an act of theft and sacrilege. In the middle of the abandoned rails leading to the camp, I leaned down and picked up a bent, dented bolt from one of the railroad ties. Today it sits on my table, next to a window that looks out onto the shade cast by trees I’ve planted over the years. If you’re going to work as a writer, you should give the world back some of the wood used to print your books.
That bolt mimicks the form of a Hebrew character, the yodh: the first letter of the divinity’s unpronounceable name. The first letter of the Tetragrammaton–which some read Yahweh and others Jehovah, but which ought to remain unsayable in Hebrew. For this twentieth-century man, the letter was found in the form of a bolt once knocked into a railroad tie from Birkenau/Brzezinka, and later pulled out and left to rust. I cleaned it off.
In Hebrew there are no capital letters, not even for the sacred name of the Tetragrammaton, which is repeated six thousand six hundred and thirty-nine times in the Old Testament. A secret form of upper-case remains in the prohibition to pronounce it. It is permitted to write the Tetragrammaton, but not to say it, because the mouth isn’t worthy. That name of the divinity should stay wrapped in silence.
Naked: in the suffocation chambers or standing in front of mass graves before they were shot, they were first forced to take off their clothes.
We have on our books a ridiculous crime, “offense against public decency.” Yet in this case, confronted with those defenseless, naked bodies, the offense against their decency makes my face red, as if it were slapped. I never saw my father naked.
In Warsaw I walked through the ghetto. Following the uprising the Germans demolished it to the ground, flattening it to rubble. After the war the Poles meticulously rebuilt the area, according to the original layout. They reinstated the names of city squares, and of streets, but without Jews. Today no Jews live on Zamenhof Street, the street named after the inventor of Esperanto, where, on the Jewish Easter in April, 1943, the German tanks rode in to crush the resistance. They received an armed response. “Die Juden haben Waffen,” the Jews have weapons. “Die Juden schießen,” the Jews are shooting back. The Germans first learned this in January, when they were initially attacked and pushed back. From January until April, they didn’t dare go into the ghetto.
The rebellion was undertaken by those who chance had left behind. Not all were young, and not all had thrown to the nettles their ancient faith in the divinity of Sinai. In the ghetto, there were no nettles: hunger put every sort of green in the pot, so there wasn’t time for them to grow.
One of the last rabbis gave full license to armed rebellion. In a secret meeting on January 14, 1943, he said: “During religious persecutions in the past, Halakha (Jewish law) has asked us to sacrifice our lives in order to maintain observance of even the most minor tenets of our faith. Today, as we face the greatest enemy, without limits or likeness in his program of total annihilation, Halakha asks us to sanctify the Divine Name by fighting and resisting to the end, with valor and unparalleled determination.” The rabbi’s name was Menachem Ziemba; he was sixty years old.
During that period Warsaw’s Catholic authorities offered to save the last three rabbis. Menachem Ziemba refused and decreed that flight from the ghetto would be unlawful. He faced martyrdom, which, strictly speaking, is an act of witnessing. Ziemba removed himself from the rolls of victims and reached a higher level–that of the witness who stands up, who willingly swears an oath before the court. The honor of a people is founded, not on its heroes, but on its witnesses.
Details of this sort may not actually belong in my account, since people who take on the roll of writer usually take a bit of license around the facts. I add them here only because, without the name of Menachem Ziemba, the Warsaw uprising would be unable to claim an entirely other sort of will, beyond its own.
The insurgents in Warsaw’s ghetto fought for a month before they were beaten.
I wandered through the ghetto’s streets, remade just as they were, but without Jews. I passed through Mila Street, where the kesl or cauldron took place, in September of 1942–thousands raked up and forced through the sieve.
I passed through Krochmalna Street, where the Singers once lived, as well as Sliska Street, where an orphanage was run by Janusz Korczak until he, with his one hundred ninety-two children, lined up and set off for the open freight cars of the Umschlagplatz.
To my mind, whenever a number refers to people the sum should be written out in letters. Writing with numbers is fine for any other sort of accounting, but not human lives. For them you need letters: one hundred ninety-two children. With his small, silent and disciplined troops, Korczak went naked into the three successive enclosures of Treblinka, straight to the camp’s suffocation chambers.
My Yiddish came from obstinacy, the response of wrath. No language is dead if it still moves between even one set of teeth, one palate; if one person reads it, mumbling, or strums a set of strings to its song.
From Yiddish I translated Itzhak Katzenelson’s Song of the Murdered Jewish People. It was written, and hidden under tree roots, in the concentration camp at Vittel, a name famous in France for bottled water. Katzenelson poured his Song into those glass bottles, more than eight hundred lines.
He was in Vittel because combatants had gotten him out of the Warsaw ghetto with falsified papers. Which didn’t work for long, in France Katzenelson was again arrested.
The ghetto rebels tried to get their poets and writers to safety. Like trees surrounded by fire, they scattered their seeds. They saw writers and poets as the seeds of their plant, able to raise up the act of witnessing in song.
When the Nazi leaders were tried for war crimes in Nuremberg, a Jewish poet from Vilnius raised up his voice in an official deposition. Avrom Sutzkever, a combatant in the resistance, wrote poetry in Yiddish, but gave his testimony in Russian. In the halls of Nuremberg not a single syllable of Yiddish was uttered.
After the war, a woman–herself an ex-prisoner–dug up and recovered the bottled-up poems of Katzenelson from the Vittel camp. Books too sometimes live through persecution, in prison or in hiding.
I translated those lines because, of literature on the destruction of the European Jews, they are the summit.
Each July I move to the Dolomites. I climb mountains, say hello (or not) a handful of times, and write if I’ve a reason to. For me writing is still recreation, not a duty.
On a cliff face, a body moves along shifting its four points of contact, passing over the open page of rock. Though bodies don’t write, and don’t leave traces across its surface, I say “page” because the rock is empty and open.
Climbing is the slowest possible movement of the human body. At each hold, weight is a carefully considered syllable, gaining inches.
The skin of stone changes with the winds, with temperature. It changes when a cloud crouches over the mountain and crumbles into a powder of rain. It changes with the sound of thunder as it approaches, and warns from afar.
Sometimes I repeat routes I’ve already climbed; I retrace them knowing where your steps become lighter and where the moves get tight. With your hands, you open the way, you test whether the holds are solid, and then call on the body to follow.
At the end of a day climbing, I look down at these hands which have guided me. They’re deaf, blind, and mute, I think to myself, and yet they keep going forward. For them, touch is enough; the body has no more extensive system for communication.
Standing at the bottom of a sheer wall of rock you can’t see where it ends. Outcroppings bar your gaze above.
At the bottom of a sheer wall of rock I never feel the distress I once did, as a boy on a fishing boat, looking up at an ocean liner’s dark walls. The giant wedged its way into the canal between Procida and Ischia; at day’s first light, our boats were anchored there between the islands, lines in the water.
We saw them emerge from behind the isle of Vivara, and a race began to pull up the anchors and lines, so we could turn our bow into the enormous wake. We could have been capsized, and, in those days, fishermen didn’t know how to swim. Lost in the hustle and stir, I saw the ship late, the colossal black bow rising toward the sky and furrowing the waters like a deep-tilling plow. Its submerged depths displaced a mountain of water.
As it passed, the ship came within fifty meters of us, and we stood under its vertical bulwarks. It was there, not at the base of a mountain, that I felt distressed and inferior.
Beneath a rock crag that rises high and straight, farther than you can see, I know I can climb up, slow as a snail. Beneath the great ship breaking through the sea, I was an ant floating on a straw.
The waves came in tight rows, charging forward. Our small boats would rear up, their bows vertical, then fall back sterns in the air, leaping wave after wave. A rodeo of men trying not to be unsaddled by their boats, horses suddenly gone wild.
High up on the ship’s bastions someone waved, laughing.
Because I’m fixated, I see writing everywhere. I identify letters from different alphabets in conifers, their roots poking out of the ground and anchoring the tree in a fistful of soil. Our species used to be able to identify such letters. Now I learn different alphabets, and grammars, but I cross the woods unable to read it.
On the other hand, I don’t see writing in faces. I admire those able to read fingernails, irises, or palms. The diverse babble of features in my fellow humans distracts me. I find myself staring intently at faces; they respond with annoyance. As if they know I can’t read them. As if, like a dog, I tilt my head and stare.
I’m no physiognomist, I’m not good with likenesses. But I do better with stones; they remind me of mountains in miniature. The last one I found had the exact profile of the Matterhorn: I can see the summit route from the Italian side, I recognize the north face and Bonatti’s solitary trail. I think I’m a physiognomist of mountains.
One evening in July I arrived at the inn–the hour when the last sun hits Cima Scotoni’s western wall. There were few other customers. The owner nodded to me in greeting.
At a corner table between two windows a woman was sitting. Roughly forty years old. The scene was inviting. A curve of her back leaned her body toward the table. The wind had brushed blithely against her face. A few light wrinkles at the edge of her eyes suggested where the wind had been. Her lips were slightly open, to sample the air. She looked at me and smiled–a sudden breeze that opens the window. I’m not used to kindness from strangers; mouth closed, my lips stretched a bit in answer.
If I were a carny, and she a child climbing onto a carousel pony, that smile would have won her an extra ride. My flimsy response deserves such an offhand comment.
There were two open tables; I went to the one next to hers, though not for the obvious reason. I didn’t want to offend her by choosing the other. So I sat down, and put my photocopies of the Yiddish stories on the paper tablecloth. A woman set my table; I pointed to the blackboard, to order their special. “And a beer, as usual?” she asked. I nodded. After a day of silence, my voice likes to stay offstage. And then I began reading the characters of an alphabet which won’t leave my lips in peace. Whenever I read Yiddish, at a minimum I have to let my mouth suggest its syllables. The language has been locked up, suffocated; it needs some air. Under my eyes, its letters come alive again; on my lips, they need to stretch out. They need their freedom. The letters remind me of what my father and mother used to do. Sundays in Naples, we’d go to the market, along with a young nephew. Among the merchandise for sale there were always sparrows in cages. They’d buy one, wrapped up in newspaper, and then at home on our balcony they’d set it free. The little boy officiated this affair; applauding, he’d cry, “Feedom!” Yiddish leaves my lips with the rustle of those sparrows given back to the air.
Two beers arrived for the woman at the next table. All the better, I thought. Hers was a smile without further implications. A tall, elderly man came to join her, at least twice her age. Out of curiosity, I lifted my eyes from the page. Mine isn’t a friendly face: I tend to seem tense, my expression left over from some out-of-place thought. The man looked at me quickly, then abruptly averted his eyes. They began to drink their beers; she had been waiting for him. They spoke in German, with an Austrian accent–father and daughter.
The two fritters I’d ordered arrived, filled with spinach and ricotta. In the local dialect they’re given an English name, “turtles.”
The aroma woke up my nose, that holy protector of memories. Mamma’s fried pizzelle--in dialect we call it pasta crisciuta, “mature pasta.” For guests she’d fry mozzarella, baccalà, and zucchini flowers: a hit every time.
One August many years ago, when everyone was still here, we rented a couple of rooms in Tyrol. She managed to find eggplant, even there, for an Alpine parmigiana. But I’ve never tried to duplicate her fried foods. My table will have to do without them: when a nose has something imprinted in its membranes like a sponge, you don’t want to disturb the celebration. They’re eaten piping hot, with your fingers.
I began eating the first fritter, holding it between my middle finger and thumb, keeping the sheet of paper in my other hand.
As I read the photocopies, I came again across the Hebrew word emet, “truth”–the word that Singer uses to end the short, bitter version of The Family Muskat. “Death is the Messiah. That’s the real truth.”
The Italian translation reads “pura verità,“ the “pure truth”; personally though, I don’t think truth is about purity at all. I see truth in cases where denial gets exposed, for example, when the Soviet troops entered the extermination camps of Treblinka. No discovery, just the uncovering of depravity. I see truth when falsehood decomposes. Hence its fertility. I see truth in the mold that taught Fleming about penicillin.
In Hebrew emet is feminine, but in Yiddish it becomes masculine and loses substance. In Hebrew the word is absolute, and in Yiddish relative. That’s why when Singer’s old man speaks, he uses the phrase “real” or “pure” truth–it needs to be reinforced by an adjective. In Hebrew truth stands alone, sufficient. Some words have to be feminine, and truth is one of them.
As I puzzle over all this, I’m a bit bewildered by my thoughts. Emet is also the word written on the forehead of the Golem, the man of clay that the written word transforms into a living automaton. This Jewish legend from Prague later inspired the character of Frankenstein.
Absorbed and distracted, the word emet comes to my lips and slips out of my mouth. As in dreams, sometimes a sound cuts through and wakes you up. Suddenly alert, I found myself still holding the fritter between my fingers, the photocopies in my other hand.
At the next table there was some sort of disturbance.
He had suddenly stiffened. I realized this without needing to turn around. Perhaps he was offended by my table manners–but this was an inn, with paper tablecloths, not a restaurant with all the trimmings. After some more hushed commentary, I heard the forced voice of the man asking to pay, zahlen; then he sprung up, like a much younger man.
The inn’s owner came toward their table, but the man was already on his feet. He snatched money from his pocket, spilling the rest of the beer from his mug. I turned at the clatter; the man stared at me, and his daughter too, embarrassed by the accident. I gave them a look in return: o.k., fine, let’s look each other over a bit. Then she got up as well. The way she stood made me realize that she was tall too, thin, and secretive.
In a bay on the lee side, the sea can still be rough, even though it’s kept in check, without whitecaps. Though sheltered, the water is still in the path of the wind. After long hours at night in the open, wearied by the waves, a sailor yearns for that sort of sea. The woman passed by my table, her shadow darkening my papers, and when I glanced up, that’s how she seemed. My eyes followed her to the door. They got into a large white car, with him behind the wheel. At top speed, they headed for the mountain pass. He used the accelerator to rid himself of the frustration I’d caused.
I finished my dinner. A pile of papers read, and plenty of underlined words I’d need to look up later.
After seeing so many Hebrew letters, I also begin to find them off the page. On the next table, quickly abandoned by the two strangers, the paper tablecloth had a stain with the form of an alef. A fallen letter, I thought to myself, not the beginning of an alphabet. Then the owner came to clean up, wadding it in a ball.
My check didn’t amount to much. I paid and went outside, into the last light of day.
Around us, the mountains had grown nearer. In setting, the sun’s rays inspected them, entering into their vertical lines and lowering itself to their height. I felt an urge to be up there, where the light shuffled slowly along the rock. A time of intimacy between air and matter. The sun spreads like butter, and rubs over you.
I’ve been there many times, returning from a long climb. But then I would focus on my weary steps, keeping in check the emptiness that tempts a body to go back down, to the valley. I’ve been a transient over those heights, at that last hour of light, with a thought of getting out fast.
And yet from a distance, from below, I felt the urge to be up there, to stretch myself out on a ledge and become part of the mineral world. I decided to walk, to rid myself of this foolish whim from a time of plenty.
The photocopies covered in Hebrew characters, wedged between my elbow and ribs, fit perfectly, temporarily filling in for the arm of a woman. I walked along with them, their warmth like a body beside me. My feet tasted the chill through my sandals, my hands rested in my pockets.
I thought back on the smile I’d received. I don’t look at women when they’re with someone, and yet I did look at her. She reminded me of a foreign actress I’d admired as a boy. With a sharp nose, spiced up with freckles, a real Southern feature.
While climbing slowly, I looked for her name in the stones of a dry stream bed. My sandals brushed over some pebbles that formed an “s.” There must be one in her name.
Later I drove my car up toward the pass. After less than ten kilometers the road was blocked. A line of traffic, motors off, with people getting out of their vehicles, sticking their heads out. Even I got out to see what it was–a white, smoking shell down at the bottom of the bank. I didn’t want to know if it was theirs. I turned my car around, and took another road instead.
* * *
I’ve decided to write about what has happened to me. It may do some good–for someone who understands all this better than me. I’m even hoping one day some reader will explain to me what it means. You see, when you’re part of a story, you’re tangled up inside, and you need an outside hand to straighten it all out.
I’m committed to getting this right. If you want readers, that’s where you have to start. I’m not asking for a vote of confidence: it suits me better just to have my story heard. From my own experience as a reader, I know that at best a story can make us suspend disbelief.
For me writing is like wearing high heels: I walk slowly, and unsteadily, and I tire quickly. There will be frequent interruptions, I’m sure.
My father spent most of his life looking over his shoulder. Even after the war crime trials had ended, he kept on the move, like a wanted man. After Germany’s defeat he lived in Italy for two years. He never told me a thing about his life as a fugitive. And as for me, I ruled out asking him.
The transition from victor to vanquished, from occupier to occupied, was the shared experience of his generation. For me, insignificant details from his past–as I listened to him in the rare moments where he did speak up–took over, filling in for his reticence. For example, in ’46 in Gadertal (Val Badia), he’d ridden on the first chair lift ever built in Italy. In Ischia in ’47, he saw a fist fight between a local fisherman and a U.S. marine. In Naples, he climbed a volcano while it was still smoking.
He set off for Argentina, and settled in the South. He lived in Patagonia, near the Chilean border, and the lower Andes. With its houses of wood and stone, the countryside there seemed familiar to him. He had a St. Bernard named Barry. After Barry, he didn’t want another dog.
The small lakeshore city where he lived was new, founded less than fifty years earlier. Germans and Italians split it up and didn’t mix. During the postwar years, it was a warehouse for Germans fleeing from defeat, then tourists heading for ski slopes claimed it.
South America was carefree and inviting. Down there the war, and Europe itself, barely buzzed in one’s ears.
After Eichmann was abducted, my father decided to go back to Europe. Born in Vienna, he returned there, with a changed name and appearance. It’s common knowledge that the best hiding place is your own backyard.
Of his years in the South all he remembered were a few sentiments incomprehensible to me: disgust for the fetid sunsets of Buenos Aires, with its decaying sun infecting the sky. The statements of an ungrateful guest. His retort: “I wasn’t a guest of the South. I’m a defeated soldier, and they’re hunting me down. My only crime is to have lost. That’s the real truth.” I didn’t respond to him. No comment at all.
He met my mother in Vienna, and they gave birth to me in ’67. She was twenty years younger than him.
During the whole of my childhood and adolescence I was made to believe that he was my grandfather, and that my father was a good-for-nothing, gone without a trace. That’s what he wanted. For him, the grim family story was a useful cover.
When I would wake at night and find myself alone, my mother gone, she’d explain to me that she needed to keep grandfather company, that he had trouble sleeping. I had trouble sleeping too, but for mother his insomnia outranked mine. Men’s sleep was worth more than women’s. Mother sacrificed her own, she said, because he was the breadwinner of the family.
Later I learned that nothing disturbed his sleep. In sleep we become animals again, without a thought of the past, our conscience, or guilt.
He hated dandruff and used to brush his hair over the sink for ages, letting the dander fall like snow. Then he’d use a fine-toothed comb until he was satisfied that he’d swept it all out. He’d gesture often, as if he were brushing it off his shoulder. For him, a starry night was a black head of hair, covered with dandruff. On summer nights he’d see them fall in flecks to the earth. He would’ve liked to shake it all, and make them tumble.
From my mother I received a Catholic education. I went to catechism; eager and inquisitive, I read straight through all the tales of the sacred texts, starting with Adam and Eve. I loved the Song of Songs, where earthly love is declared without once mentioning heaven. Reading the rage-filled chapters of Revelations irritated me. God doesn’t frighten me; I lack the imagination for that. I’ve thought about this carefully, and that’s the right way to say it. My imagination hasn’t the form or size it takes to grasp infinity.
My memories of my Viennese childhood are all metallic: the iron wheels of the tram over the rails that took me to school; the church bell near our flat, as it hammered out time.
In those days I thought that the hours were like nails: some went easily in, whereas for others repeated blows were needed, up to twelve. We lived on the top floor. In good weather, the electric cries of swallows came in from the open window. And then there was my father’s alarm clock. He would take a full hour to put on his postman’s uniform. It shined, from his cap to his shoes.
He worked as a mail carrier until the day he retired. We lived in a working-class neighborhood, but we always had money. I don’t know where it came from; my mother was poor, a war orphan. I always went on wonderful vacations: summers in Ischia, winters in the Dolomites, in South Tyrol.
On the island of Ischia I learned to swim from a deaf-mute boy, the son of a fisherman. He first taught me to float, holding his left hand under my head and the other below my back. The touch of his fingers made my weight disappear. I learned to lie back and relax in a state of suspension.
They call it the dead man’s float, but for me it was leaning back to rest upon the sea. You need to give up even the slightest movement; your breath should hardly make your chest rise. From him I learned to swim on my back, watching the sky between the strokes of my arms.
He taught me to eat fresh sea urchins, the ones with dark, red-tipped spines. He’d hold them in the palm of his hand and open them with a penknife. I couldn’t understand how he didn’t get pricked. Inside their shells, sea urchins have a small stock of fresh water; it quenched my thirst.
He let the orange pulp of the sea urchin eggs drip down the penknife’s blade onto my finger. I’d roll it around in my mouth, between roof and tongue, then swallow. From one life to another: offered by him, it was a gift, not theft.
He had accepted silence and no longer struggled to utter a sound. He kept absolutely quiet, his mouth closed even when smiling. An open silence, that of someone who listens. Not the hostile silence imposed on me by parental discipline. As my punishment they didn’t speak, and they ordered me not to either. From that deaf-mute boy, I learned another kind of silence, one that smiles.
So I liked it when mothers down South screeched at their children–even their anger was a song. There the bawling of babies was a racket meant to be heard. In my family’s case, mutism was an order, a self-willed sort of deafness.
The boy hadn’t renounced entirely the give and take of speech; he’d just entrusted it to his sense of touch. His hand would brush discretely against me and wherever it went down there the pores would open and a spark would pass between us. His fingers were fireflies in the dark–wherever they touched, they also lit up.
For him the wind was a system for communicating; he’d bathe to feel his body more acutely. Everyone knows you can moisten a finger to feel the wind’s direction. He would sprinkle seawater on his skin in order to gather knowledge that ran through the air.
It was on the island that I first learned the wind doesn’t travel like a river, with its steady current; instead, like the sea, it moves in waves. In that Southern land, the wind breathes, even hiccups, and sneezes. It fills shirts, leaves sheets flapping, and chews up flags.
In the South wind is given laundry to keep it company, and sails are its hitchhikers. The deaf-mute boy listened to the wind with his pores.
Ischia was a place where Germans had always come; the islanders knew the language, and spoke it with a heavy, grinding accent. My father would say that the German language couldn’t possibly go any lower than that. For me hearing it in their mouths was funny; I would watch their teeth bring it forth, spitting a bit from the effort. It was better heard from a distance.
In exchange for my swimming lessons I would speak German to the boy; he would watch my lips, which formed more consonants than vowels. He was curious about this language of ours, where the mouth hardly gets opened. He liked how the “w” came out, curling the lower lip and slipping in under the incisors. He’d ask me to say the alphabet, and when I got to the “w” he’d smile. I apologize for the digression.
In recent years we’ve been going to the South Tyrol also during the summer. My father refuses to put up any longer with places where German is spoken badly, or not at all.
From those years of watching his back, he’s grown eyes behind his head. He would make note of every license plate in the neighborhood. He’d take pictures of strangers walking past. At home there are drawers with notebooks full of numbers and dates, and an archive of passersby.
My mother left us, weary of the neverending public fiction that she had no husband. That was how I came to know about my father. It happened in a single day, a matter of hours. I came home from the university, and my mother’s two suitcases were by the front door. In half an hour she explained our lives to me. There was another man waiting at the gate. I also found out that she had a different last name, that she would be using it again from then on.
Amid this avalanche, I was suddenly calm, greeting the news as one does any inevitable situation. She left me her address–I would be able to join her whenever I wanted. I immediately said I wouldn’t, and I haven’t seen or heard from her since.
In the space of a single day I found a father and lost my mother. They hadn’t asked for my opinion. Their performance closed, after twenty years on stage, as if they ran a theater company. Since for them it was beyond repair, they must have been long prepared for this day. I had to be ready at once.
I carried her suitcases out, went back up to the house, and realized who I was: the daughter of a war criminal. That was my lot. I could have deserted–and left the man I’d believed my grandfather to his ruin. I didn’t do it. I wanted to find out from him, to hear him confirm the story and say “papa” for the first time. In my mouth, it felt awkward to say, so I practised it while waiting for his arrival.
He came back after work and saw the empty room. He left his postman’s uniform on. The bodies of some men need uniforms more than alcohol. I waited for him to come and sit in the kitchen. I said, “Papa?” He answered, “Yes.” He came and sat down in front of me, and we looked at each other. “I confirm what your mother has said.”
He waited for my reaction. I had none. We stayed there sitting opposite each other until it began to get dark. I stared at his face, without letting my gaze wander down to his hands. My father’s hands. After that evening I’ve never touched them again.
We stayed there, face to face: a postman in uniform and a twenty-year-old girl who had a father for the first time, a man wanted for war crimes. How many? What sort? I’ve wanted to stay ignorant. I don’t believe details are useful; they’re necessary for a trial, but not for a daughter. Even horrendous circumstances become mitigating insofar as they narrow the crime to specific events. Without the particulars, in contrast, the crime has no limits.
“I’m a defeated soldier. If you want the real truth, that’s my offense.” He gestured, as if brushing dander off his shoulder. “The crime of a soldier is defeat. Victory justifies everything. The crimes the Allies committed against Germany were absolved by their triumph.”
However he would define his service in the war, however he’d reduce it to the results of defeat, for me his guilt remains certain and beyond appeal. By not wanting any explanation, I willfully opposed him.
If things are as he says, the crime of a soldier is obedience.
Yet I think that, during the rest of our life together, he misunderstood me. My taking care of him depended on that misunderstanding: revealing my feelings would have cast us against each other. My mother was not only his companion, she was his accomplice. She loved him, knowing who he was; she had accepted the full contract, clauses and consequences included. I accepted my position of daughter without signing up as his accomplice. If he believed otherwise, as both fact and principle, it was precisely that misunderstanding which allowed us to live together.
In the kitchen, when it became so dark that we no longer saw each other’s eyes, I got up, turned on the light, and asked what he wanted for dinner. He answered me, then went to take his uniform off.
After my mother’s departure, we moved out of our rooms in the working-class neighborhood. We found lodging near the city center, within the area he covered in his deliveries.
We lived quite near to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, named for the famous pursuer of Nazis. Our flat was located in a pedestrian mall, with only a single store, a place owned by one of them, selling secondhand goods. I’d go there to buy ornaments for our Christmas trees.
His duties as postman often involved knocking on doors in those office buildings. He did his work in silence, not letting his voice be heard. The military had a policy of ordering their prisoners to keep their eyes on the ground; it was prohibited to look a German soldier in the face. The voices, on the other hand, they had to hear–so they might remember his. Cases are known where an identification was made through recognition of a voice. Hearing is more implacable in its certainty than sight. Whenever he was in a public place, my father took the precaution of speaking in a dull, timbreless voice.
His whole life he felt hunted–not by the Austrian authorities, by them. That’s how I refer to them, out of respect. I think my mouth isn’t authorized to use their name as a people.
Somewhere inside the offices of the Wiesenthal Center was his name. Indelible for them and unknown to me. He went there for deliveries, and delivered himself, nearly every day. As time passed, the tribunals had closed their proceedings in war crimes cases, but they hadn’t. Their hunt would continue to the bitter end.
Then one day, he found himself walking up the Wiesenthal Center steps for the final time, just before his retirement. And at the end of his service the unthinkable happened.
An elderly man carrying a book–one of them–asked my father for a favor. The old man wasn’t strong enough to climb the stairs, so could he please bring this book to the Center? Thanking him, the man added, “In here is the whole secret of our people.” It was a book on the Cabala. My father made the delivery, though he also made note of the title and sent me to buy it. And so began his interest in that subject, made of letters and numbers. At first he was merely curious, then he began serious study. In the end, it rose to the level of obsession.
He sent me to find volume after volume. Even I came to know those ancient authors with obscure names: Eleazar of Worms, Abraham Abulafia, Moses Cordovero. He convinced himself that Judaism was holed up inside the Cabala’s labyrinth. It would have taken a Theseus to reach the center of that burrow. According to him, the Minotaur’s shelter could be found in those books. For him, Judaism was a tapeworm with its head stuck safely in the guts of the world, thanks to the Cabala. Not the Bible, not the Talmud: those were red herrings, meant as distractions.
He wanted to make sense of the fall of Nazism: it had committed itself to the destruction of a people, and focused determinedly on bodies. It didn’t concentrate on the center of the target.
For official history anti-Semitism is an aberration. But for twentieth-century Germans it was an obsession, their principal damnation. The Germans had declared them to be a lesser sort of human–so why then annihilate them? The opposite was true: Nazism considered them much more important and dangerous than what it officially taught.
After the Warsaw uprising Himmler ordered the whole area demolished and leveled. After Stalingrad, at the height of the war effort, when the tides at the Russian Front were beginning to turn, Nazism wasted an enormous amount of resources and energy for a futile symbolic effect. Anti-Semitism was the German damnation.
Razing the Warsaw ghetto to the ground was this Nazi obsession’s most superficial effect. The Nazis considered that people a blight on the face of the earth; after their elimination, they delighted in calling the grounds “rein,” pure. Himmler wanted that land where their population had been most numerous and concentrated scoured and sown with lime. His was the madness of a hygienist.
With the Cabala, my father began to be convinced that such superficial persecutions were an error.
Nazism dedicated itself fully to destroying harmless souls. I avoid using the word “innocent,” a concept which is unverifiable in the case of humans. Even children? They aren’t harmless–they torment animals and imitate adults. The elderly are harmless, except for those sitting in positions of power. I apologize for the digression.
My father caught the fever for calculations from the Cabala–where, by switching sides, letters and numbers point out predictions. In Abulafia, he found that the permutation of Hebrew characters in a single word would produce prophecy. In Orchard of Pomegranates, the book of Cordovero, he lost himself within the arcade’s thirty-two divisions. From its description of relations between letters and numbers, he came out exhausted, like a bloodhound bewildered by a mess of trails.
In the Cabala, everything was already written and predisposed to occur. For the last ten years he’s been dogged in his research. He would explain to me–unsuccessfully, due to my skepticism, the numeric values of Hebrew letters. Every word was thus additionally the sum of its single components. In this matter, different words that shared the same total became related in meaning. They were associated by a numeric rhyme. Such combinations contained deep wells of mystery. This wasn’t an occult practice, it was science, and called gematria, notarikon.
I don’t know if he figured it out for himself, or whether he found it written somewhere: hashoah, the Hebrew name for destruction, has the same number as ha’aretz hatova, the holy land. According to him, this coincidence revealed how in the Cabala everything was already explained in advance. The equality of the two numeric values connected the birth of the Israeli state to the destruction of the Jews. To offset the latter, the birth, in the holy land, of a nation solely for them had already been written. The Biblical homeland, ha’aretz hatova, would be given back to them following the destruction, hashoa.
He believed his obsession proved: the core ignored by Nazism was the Cabala. He would tell me this repeatedly, with an agitated tone he allowed himself only with me. I was happy that, at his age, he’d become interested in this rather harmless subject, but I continued to be unmoved in the face of his elucidations.
My skepticism annoyed him: “For you every correspondence is due to chance, because you wish neither to see or know. And yet, everything is written in those equal values.” I remained unconvinced, and refused to humor him.
Being hunted forces you to scrutinize signs to an unhealthy degree–any clue becomes potentially useful in your defense. He was trained to look for parallels and take from them precautionary measures. I have never had to develop my attention for details. I will admit to being inattentive; he would never permit himself such a privilege.
So even if things were written clearly, and not in code, what good would it do to know this? “It allows you to protect yourself, to plan in advance your response. It keeps you from being caught unawares.”
Unlike me, he detested any sort of surprise. He wanted to know his Christmas present ahead of time, and these were the only sort of gifts he accepted. He didn’t celebrate his birthdays, and we both knew that the date on his papers was false. I never learned the real one.
Out of curiosity at his research, I thought I’d take a quick look at the Hebrew alphabet. I couldn’t manage to read a single word: following the lines from right to left made me seasick. The same thing happens to me in England, where you drive on the side opposite from ours.
I stopped at the first letter. The alef is drawn with symbolic elegance. To me its stylized figure looks like a dance move in rock ‘n’ roll. Or the undulations of a belly dancer, her movements beginning from the center of her stomach.
I didn’t continue. To me, the next letter, bet, seemed shaped like an iron, a tool for housework. In contrast, the alef is opened wide to the air, the start of a game that quickly ends. It let me intuit the fascination captivating the Cabalists. If a single letter was able to summon in me such wandering thoughts, for them the whole alphabet surely glistened with prospects.
After my mother disappeared, I found myself a job to pay for my studies. I answered a want ad; they needed models at the Academy of Fine Arts. My figure was judged to be suitable and I began a trial period. I wasn’t embarrassed to strip down and let them look at me. From me, unlike strippers, immobility was demanded. I undressed in a changing room and came out wearing a robe–a real benefit, since taking off your clothes in front of fully-clothed men is humiliating.
The most difficult part is keeping the required pose long enough. The women before me failed or quit for that reason. The eyes fixed onto a nude body weigh on it.
To succeed I would shut myself off inside my thoughts: I was on Ischia, still a child, I was stretched out, floating, aided a bit by the fingers of the deaf-mute boy. Or else I was a stone, my body frozen in imitation of a rigid form, and this gave me relief. Another thought made me into an animal at the zoo. Visitors were hoping that I’d move, but, from inside the enclosure, I made a stand against them.
I was suited for the profession of statue. The lines of my body were said to be perfect, and they still are, more or less. They follow an order which I don’t see.
The students would ask me out, and I would refuse–allowing myself a bit of spite by saying no with my hand. They’d seen me nude, but they didn’t know my voice. I kept something covered.
There were a few offers to model fashions on a catwalk. I turned them down. An immobile pose reassured me–with the studied, seductive movements of models, I would have been selling myself through more collaboration on my part. I also turned down offers to pose for photographs. My nudity had to stay silent, closed up inside a room at the Academy.
I didn’t want to look at the results of my hours of posing, at my body as they’d drawn it. I felt dread and disgust at the prospect of seeing it transfigured like the works of Egon Schiele, bent into one of his contortions. I imagined the sobbing of Wally Neuzil, the girl who was Schiele’s model, when she saw herself wilted under the painter’s obscene gaze. It’s not pornography when a man on the street imagines you naked; pornography is when someone spies in you something already spoiled.
Schiele had studied in those same rooms at the Academy. Perhaps there was another like him there, ready to corrupt the freshness of a young girl’s skin. I didn’t want to find out by looking at their work. Schiele had ground the vanity out of me. He did me a favor, and made me allergic to it.
Before Schiele, another painter, an Englishman, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painted his model Lizzy Siddal as if she were dead, leaving her beauty unharmed. Better his result than Schiele’s.
A gaze either caresses or corrodes you. During the hours of posing my skin would sense the tickle and the burn.
On the other hand, I loved the painting of our own Rudolf Wacker, who studied in Vienna and then, in 1914, left to fight on the Eastern front. He returned in 1920, after five year in a Siberian prison, his sentence ending with the Russian revolution. I wrote my master’s thesis on Wacker; its most successful chapter is on the presence of dolls–the feminine divinities–in his work.
He died of a broken heart, in 1939, after a series of searches from the Gestapo. I also loved his life: when the artist’s biography coincides with a work of art, the knot is tied to perfection.
I was hired when the trial period ended, so I decided to tell my father about it. The look he gave me went suddenly neutral, like some kinds of soap on the skin.
Strictly speaking “neutral” is something that’s not one thing or the other, the result of two negations. The German language allows this: the neuter is one of its resources, taken from Latinate languages, where it has been dropped.
My father looked at me like someone who would put on a pair of gloves before making contact. He reacted as if he were waking from anesthesia, with odd questions. He asked if someone were ordering me to undress, if I first took off my shoes, or whether I started with my top, if I undressed in front of everyone or off somewhere else, and whether I stood nude before a line of people. He seemed relieved when I answered that I stood in the middle of a circle.
While he asked me these things, he was thinking of something else; he may have been hiding his embarrassment. He didn’t ask what I was paid.
In the Cabala, my father had recently stumbled across another correspondence of numeric values. The Hebrew word ketz, endpoint or edge, had the same value, 190, as the verb for revenge. This, to his mind, made visible a prophecy concerning him. The end of his life would arrive in the form of revenge. I didn’t try to dissuade him. Sometimes we grow fond of our terrors.
I’d already heard him say, “They won’t take me alive. They’ve captured thousands of us, but I’m not about to give up, like some leaf in autumn.” He wasn’t afraid of prison; old age is a form of confinement already. What he rejected was the idea of a trial. He saw himself as a soldier and couldn’t let a civil tribunal judge him:
“On his own a soldier only answers to orders. Receiving orders is his honor and his duty.”
“An order must not only be followed, it must be created from nothing. Often orders are mere outlines, and the soldier must find the means to carry them out.”
“I don’t excuse myself by saying that I was compelled to follow orders. I heard about my superiors, before the Tribunal, declaring that they were under befehlsnotstand, superior orders, that they were compelled to act as they did. We took apart those orders and reassembled them again like weapons. We greased and oiled them so they wouldn’t jam. We carried them out, and our enthusiasm made us efficient. Our guilt is elsewhere, and more unforgiveable: it is our defeat.”
In order to exclude me, he would rehearse his military slogans: “You walk by our flag and you don’t even look up. For a soldier, the flag is the root; it doesn’t lie in the ground below our feet, it waves through the air above.”
I didn’t respond. For me, the flag is strip of cloth; ours has the colors of a road sign. Born after their war, I have an allergy to any sort of fanfare or flagwaving.
I couldn’t understand the weight of certain words which were for him decisive. Nor the weight of a uniform. I understood the opposite, the weight of nakedness.
Rather than the fatherland or flag, I love Vienna–her sidewalk stalls steaming with potatoes and meat, mouthfuls of warmth to be eaten on the go, even in winter. I love my haughty city, that doesn’t let even the gallant Danube brush up against her–that river of half the courts of Europe, and of its gypsies, camping along its banks from the Black Forest to the Black Sea.
My Vienna stands back from the river bed, you can’t even see it from the top of the Ferris wheel in the Prater. She barely rinses herself in one of its canals. Nowhere else in Europe does the Danube, the river of five names, seem so small. The amends made in music by Johann Strauss–who imagined it blue and celebrated it in a waltz–is an act of charity, given at her doorstep.
My father learned of a mystery: a single Hebrew letter, set before a verb in the future, transforms it into past. Apparently no other grammar in the world has that gift. Ancient Hebrew deals with time like a knitting needle with a ball of yarn. Its letter vav hooks a strand and brings it back again.
I knit wherever I go, so that’s why I can see how the letter vav works. I make gloves with boiled wool and socks from stockinette–I like to do pairs, even if they never come out equal.
The body too is like that–its pair of arms and legs are never identical. They’re symmetrical, they look good together, but they’re not perfect reflections. During one lesson at the Fine Arts Academy, Loïs, a Ladin villager from South Tyrol and a sculpture student, made an observation. In his comic, backwoods accent, he noted that my beauty came from the slight differences between paired parts, even in profile. “Perhaps beauty consists of variations?” he deduced. “For people who are cross-eyed,” replied the professor, troubled by the question. The students laughed.
For me, the observation was precise: that laughter was the applause truth receives when it appears the first time. Beauty doesn’t mirror itself, it creates variants. I apologize for the digression.
On the subject of the mysterious vav, my father decided that what had happened to the Third Reich was exactly the same–the curse of a Hebrew letter had turned its future into a past due date. With the Jewish Cabala, he claimed, he had resolved his inquiry into the fall of Nazism. He wouldn’t admit that the military had simply been beaten. Forces had been marshalled from deep below to overturn destinies.
Through the ancient science which had assigned numbers to letters, the Cabala was a system for detecting the future. Correspondences made it possible to discover coming events, better than the Saracenic towers lining the Italian coast.
The Cabala manufactured prophecies, opposing the persecutions with formulas for escape. The ten spheres of higher worlds were walls of a military bastion. My father claimed to have penetrated it, but the Zohar–the so-called Book of Radiance–dazzled him. Every line of it would have required a guide; left to himself, he couldn’t stay afloat.
And so he had to fail, just as Nazism itself failed, from that presumed superiority. My guess is that the exact opposite premise is required: an extreme devotion to that system connecting heaven and earth.
Here, I’ve realized, it’s hard for me to keep to my promise of precision. On this matter, I’m just not able to do better–it’s like mercury, wriggling out from a broken thermometer.
Out of curiosity, I too paged through that ancient book. Zohar might also be translated “illumination”: in my case, I didn’t get that far, though I did feel a few sparks. In Hebrew, the significance of one the names of the divinity is “That which suffices.” An affectionate and humble epithet. I don’t follow any faith, yet I still feel the possibility of addressing “That which suffices” would be a good resource.
Farther on in the book I read about the seven asses with a single drover: the days of the weeks prodded forward by the sabbath. Only crumbs were left in my hands from the Zohar. But they were warm.
The name Cabala is derived from a verb that means “to receive.” It is neither permitted nor possible to take it on by yourself, to be self-taught. My father wasn’t able to sign up for a course, or follow the masters of that discipline. Someone might have recognized him, from his voice perhaps. For that reason he never answered the telephone.
Human voices leave an acoustic imprint–marks more distinct than fingerprints. Particular circumstances can also heighten the capacity we have for recognizing them. An exact record of prison guards’ voices is driven into the insomnia of the incarcerated.
Our sense of hearing is truly prodigious: we hear through walls, in the dark, behind our backs. In comparison with sight, hearing is like a kind of radar set against a pair of glasses. As a result, silence keeps a person secret, more than invisibility. I apologize for the digression.
My father wished to believe he’d received a delivery. That package he’d gotten at the Wiesenthal Center on his last day of work didn’t count, since it was given to him because of his uniform and duties.
Instead the delivery came to him on the ship bound for Argentina. One night, during a nasty storm over the Atlantic, an elderly man in a wheelchair asked him to throw a parchment scroll into the sea. Delirious from the danger, the man believed that the storm was caused by this object, which he’d stolen. During storms at sea, people think strange thoughts; they are looking for blame, and believe in luck.
My father wasn’t willing to go along with this superstitious gesture. The old man insisted, and begged him at least to take the scroll. My father could do whatever he wanted with it. Feeling implicated–from within as well as without–in all the commotion, he accepted. The man told him, “Now it’s yours. Remember: I gave it to you, and you took it.” Taking the scroll in his arms, my father too felt an urge to rid himself of it. He went out into the bedlam of waves and lightning. Staggering, grabbing onto a lifeboat to hold himself up, he flung the scroll into the storm. He saw it come undone, its paper stream out. The forces unleashed that night shook both nerves and beliefs.
Storms pass, and even that one ended. In the days that followed, calm seas lessened the shocks suffered, and the composure lost, until they seemed the morning-after memories of a drunkard. My father forgot the incident entirely, recalling it only when he searched his past for a moment that singled him out for a delivery. And then he remembered the elderly man, his wheelchair, the scroll, and the oceanic tempest. There and then, he tried to convince himself, a transmission had occurred.
Someone who has spent thirty years carrying the mail understands something about deliveries that become events in the lives of recipients. On a scroll that night, he had received the Cabala. Because he’d happened upon the verb “to receive”–essential for any sort of entrance–its way in was made possible.
I asked him a few times if flinging away the scroll had served to calm the storm. Knowing that I was a skeptic about such signs, he didn’t answer, suspecting that I was making fun of him. I would never have allowed myself such insolence. A doomed man is invulnerable to irony.
His fervor for the Cabala continued. He searched through it for moves where prey strikes back at its attacker, believing that in this manner he could outflank the hunters. Hence an apartment near the Wiesenthal Center: they were tracking him across the world, yet all they needed to do was recognize him in their doorway, in a postman’s uniform.
None of this changed his condition: he was on the list of the damned. “Sooner or later they’ll catch up to me. My defeat is certain.” I heard him say it, undiscouraged. I believed him–it could have happened any day, and on that day I would learn every detail, even the name that he had thrown out, along with his uniform.
But what good was it to think of all this ahead of time? If it happened, I knew I was ready. He acted against the inevitable, devoting himself each day to delay it further.
We never had arguments. We knew how to silence ourselves before we got close to colliding. My ideas about art were a matter of real contention. Tasked with the representation of reality, the artist must be humble, even in defacing it. An artist stands in for reality. For my father, in contrast, the artist has always been a servant in the house of power.
I love American movies, he hated them. Instead, he admired Russian films, in black and white, with their wide, panoramic shots, with thousands of extras reenacting epic battles. The Nazis were compelled to learn respect for the Russians; they knew the war had first been lost with them–and only later, and less, with the Americans.
No great surprise when two citizens of Vienna argue about art; we consider it our inherited right to do so. What’s surprising is when a Nazi war criminal, with his fossilized ideas about “degenerate art,” suddenly snorts and stops contradicting his daughter. For him, Bach, Shakespeare, Mozart, and Velázquez were gifted courtesans, serving their lords without a second thought. Yet behind the privileges and royal audiences reserved for these few, there must have been entire ranks of others that served art without such advantages. They remained anonymous, without fame, yet were freed from servitude. Offended, I countered that was easy to invent unknown artists, ghosts who had never lived.
I criticized him for never wanting to read my thesis, for purposefully ignoring a major Austrian artist–one who had also served well as a soldier during World War I. He immediately fell silent. A vow to renounce scholastic disputes is admirable, but not in his case. He didn’t fume or grumble; instead he’d quiet himself, drawing a long, noisy breath through his nostrils to signal his retreat. He played up his role of vanquished soldier, his only crime that earlier defeat, once and forever. He couldn’t allow himself to clash with his daughter, and so he retreated. And it would have happened, I admit it. After even this sort of trivial argument, I could have broken it off; the subject was delicate for me, and capable of provoking offense.
He walled himself up inside his own cursed life, knowing that there I wouldn’t follow him.
This past year he continued to rehearse for me all the details of the abduction. Eichmann’s eldest boy had fallen in love with a girl, and she was Jewish, although even she didn’t know this. Her family name, Hermann, wasn’t Jewish. She lived with her father; during the war, he had spent six months in Dachau and then managed to reach Argentina. He found a home in same neighborhood where Eichmann and family would later move, using a false name, one which is common in Alto Adige.
The street, calle Garibaldi, was chosen well: its few, spaced-out houses made it easy to watch for outsiders. The girl’s father hadn’t told her his story–he too was on the run. And so, the two young people spent time in each other’s homes. From time to time, the boy would utter violent anti-Semitic rants. The girl would listen to his words, and without giving them any particular weight, repeat them to others. Overly enthusiastic, one day Eichmann’s son revealed to her his true family name. The girl told her father, and the father informed the Israeli secret service.
Two families living close together, a love story that becomes a trap, Eichmann not realizing he’d welcomed a Jewish girl into his home: all these signs didn’t say anything to me? “Could be the makings of a novel,” I answered.
“And instead this work was already written, in the Cabala. The trusting son demonstrates a healthy disgust, his love for the girl turns into an ambush, and she betrays him, subtle as a serpent.”
He rehearsed for me his calculations: “Love, ahava, has the same numeric value as One, ehad, which is one of their names for the divinity. Because love is a trick of their monotheism. The serpent, nahash, has the same numeric value as messiah, mashiah, the gravedigger for their version of history, he must arrive to bury it.” For him, the evidence was that “Eichmann, who had loaded millions of them into stock cars, must have been blinded if he couldn’t see that their serpent messiah had insinuated itself in his home, disguised as love. That is the real truth, pure and simple.”
I reacted to his use of this expression by pressing my hands to my mouth. Pureness, purity, these were names for the Nazi divinity, their goalpost of perfection. Their race, their land, had to be reclaimed from the contagion of inferior peoples. And so purity had dug mass graves and choked the crematoria. The adjective “pure” in my father’s mouth forced me out of the room.
The Cabala had upset him deeply. He would see correspondences and arrive at explanations that seemed to me like the solutions to puzzles. Though he could have convinced me on the relationship between the words “love” and “one”–love seeks one person alone. But I couldn’t believe in a logical tie–even if sanctioned by the Cabala–between “messiah” and “serpent.” To me this proved only that the book was conjecture, not science.
The girl in that story concerned me. She too must have learned the truth, in an hour similar to mine. In order to be a daughter, she too would have had to accept this truth, and learn how to pretend.
After the abduction, she had to change names and continents, in order to be safe from Nazi reprisals. To her too fell the falsehood of a second identity, she too was assigned a fictive birthday. For this alone, being a daughter must have weighed on her more than me. Who knows if she ever found someone, in the middle of some unknown sea, able to take that weight from her.
In that last year, he managed to establish that in Nazism, there had been no espionage focused on the Jewish soul. They had failed because they favored butchery over inquiry. So he would carry the inquiries out for them, after the fact. He no longer attended meetings with the other retired mailmen. He was tired of their ceremonies, their empty nostalgia. And they mistrusted his studies, feeling him contaminated by Judaism.
And after all, it could be said that is how it went: the habit of going up and down those stairs, of bringing their mail, of getting receipts signed had effected in him a slow form of contagion. For him the Cabala had been an intellectual illness, something he’d caught at work.
In the end he set out to study the Prague legend of the Golem, the statue that became infused with life when the word emet, “truth,” was placed on its forehead. And then, when the word’s first letter, an alef, fell away, its life did as well; without the alef, the word signified “death.” For my father, the Golem–the work of a rabbi–was an incarnation of the Jewish people, an automaton from the divinity that had created them from clay. “Destroying all the alefs, that would have sufficed. That’s the real truth.”
I didn’t share in his research about the past, or bother with his reasons for the defeat. History annoys me. Things that happened before I was born don’t concern me, and don’t interest me. History is a police archive, one long sequence of crimes. At school I studied the subject, though it irritated me. What was there to learn from that snarl of chance events, demonstrably stupid and violent even while they were occurring? History is a registery of failures. Everyone can extract their own version, equally unfit for use.
I didn’t want to go back any farther than the date of my birth. I don’t feel a bond with other children of war criminals. Each of us manages with whatever amount of poison there is in our veins. I’ve been lucky in not dragging around a cursed name, like the chains of a ghost. Instead I’ve had a fake name which for me was real. I’ve been selling it as my own, knowing its money was counterfeit.
I’m trying to hold my feelings back, to keep my account free of contamination. The relief my false name afforded me, in protecting me from my father’s identity, shouldn’t be a factor here. If they captured him, on that day I would be forced to accept his name. Having that name of his would have been a mark on my skin, a brand on my forehead.
My inheritance from that earlier time was a father–I got him at the age a woman is ready for a child. That night in the kitchen, the name I called him–Papa–established a contract. I accepted that I was his daughter. So I too received a delivery, on a day that for me was tempestuous. With it, I accepted the risk that one day I would have to bear his true name.
I believe I’ve been a good daughter. I took care of an elderly father. I respected his secret life, and didn’t disturb it with a wedding. I haven’t been a nun; I didn’t practice chastity. In men I looked for hands like those that, as a child, took away my weight on a bed of fingers and water. Not one satisfied me. They penetrated in thrusts, with me sinking beneath them. I swam on my back, carrying the ballast of their bodies.
Men like it when their weight is felt. They don’t know how to see a woman. They stop at the first impression–making Adam’s mistake when he first sees Eve, saying that she is “bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” Naturally the opposite is true, men are the flesh and bone of women, just with more weight and clutter.
I ruled out receiving their seed–in order not to risk bearing a child with my father’s genes. To be certain I had myself sterilized. And no, I didn’t tell him. I apologize for the digression. I hope that it may help explain what happened one evening last July, at an inn in the Gadertal.
My father and I went out for a beer, to an inn next to the main road. That day we’d been hiking through the woods; we’d found raspberries on the side of a bank and strawberries in a clearing. It’s a real feast when you find a gift of fresh food. Truly free–I didn’t put in the least effort, neither seeding nor raising. Freedom is entrusting your sustenance to chance, with no guarantee you’ll find it. Our species learned to gather before it learned to sow.
My father found my enthusiasm too romantic. For him nature is a force we put to work, not a divinity to venerate. I didn’t worship nature, though I did welcome it with my mouth open. The raspberries’ pink skin, and strawberries the color of a wound, melted between palate and tongue without chewing, like the host. My happiness was wild, not romantic.
It was during the final days of our vacation; we always take the first half of July. While I was waiting for the beers, and my father was in the bathroom, a man came in. He was tall, rather gaunt, and silent, his age uncertain. Blood rushed to my face. That man was a continuation of the image I had already envisaged so many times–the deaf-mute boy who taught me to float weightlessly and then to swim. My stomach contracted, just as it had for that fruit gathered in the woods, from gratitude and tenderness, and caused me to open my mouth and smile.
I knew immediately that it couldn’t have been him, and yet it was him, the precise variant, factoring in time and distance. Meeting him in the mountains added to my surprise. I love to be astonished–it puts a taste of vanilla on your tongue. He smiled back at me: even the closed shape of his lips reinforced my claim to recognize him. I was about to ask if he was from Ischia, and then he turned to the inn’s owner and pointed to the day’s special, written on a blackboard. She asked if he wanted his usual beer; he nodded yes with his head. He might not have been mute–simply a man of few words per day, as well as a regular customer who always ordered the same things. But his gestures carried the silence of someone who can’t hear, of someone who, for that reason, avoids producing sounds he is unable to register.
Feeling suddenly shy, I kept my silly question to myself. The man came and sat down at the next table. It wasn’t that I was attracted to him. I felt a physical thrill: I had again found the girl whose back was brushed by the fingers of a deaf-mute boy, come down from the altar of a village church in order to take weight away from her body, leaving her stretched flat like a leaf on the sea. Those fingers had come back, and they were at my side, darkened by the sun, thick with knots, like eyes made from wood. They were holding up sheets of paper, and they held me too, absorbing my attention.
On my tongue once again I felt that bit of pulp from sea urchin eggs, and my eyes saw the tip of his penknife. A pair of senses alone sufficed to transport my body back into the vast world of the child. I began again to mouth the German alphabet, stopping at the letter “w.” I might have said that more loudly. The man turned in my direction, gazing at me without focusing, like looking at a landscape. Then his lips–parted slightly–closed, and he returned to his reading.
When he turned back to his papers, I felt an urge to touch him. I was about to reformulate the question I’d repressed–“You’re from Ischia?”–when the two beers arrived at my table.
Behind them my father was coming to join me. The man lifted his head from the pages and looked up over his glasses; their two gazes met, at attention. My father was annoyed with himself for giving in to curiosity and looking someone else in the face. Better to avoid such things; he diverted his gaze with a quick burst of irritation. He sat down. Breathing out a sigh, he leaned on the table, tired from the long day. I noticed his age. Sometimes we grow old all at once.
I felt separated from him, the way it had been as a child on Ischia. I would distance myself from my parents. They were intent on discussing their fates with their compatriots, other Germans the age of my father. Those men were disabled, arthritic, defaced with scars. In the summer Ischia became a health spa for ex-soldiers from Germany. Unscathed, my father stood out from this crowd. After dinner I would leave them and go down in the darkness where the sand was smoothed by waves.
The night sea was scattered with lights, gas lamps used to attract totani and other squid. Among them was also the deaf-mute boy’s boat. With his lantern he would rummage through the dark below, just as I would rummage through the heavens. I felt sorry he couldn’t hear the waves slipping over the sand, filling your ears and then emptying them. Ears are the part of the body most like shells.
Who knows if in his dreams the boy heard noises, and voices? I apologize for the digression.
Inside the inn, time expanded, the minutes mixing their present with the summers of my childhood. The only masculine figures ever to have importance for me were at my table and at my side. I swallowed a mouthful of beer and my head began to spin.
No boy, or man, had ever met me at the surface, where my pulse is found. They’d sunk their body into my entrails, hollowed me out with their embraces. But my life lies on my skin, and my master sense is touch, its center everywhere between head and feet. That boy, he had come to me on his fingertips and, with them, taught me balance. Not on earth or in the air, but on the bed of the sea.
“Let his left hand be under my head”: this phrase from the Song of Songs describes what happened to me as I floated. He touched me, and made my childhood senses come to the surface.
I once found it said–in a book by our Viennese writer Hofmannsthal–that depth is hidden on the surface. As I read this, the past came back to me in the smile of a deaf-mute boy.
For him too, the deepest experience was concentrated at the surface. His skin wasn’t a holiday makeover, dyed for fashion in the sun and then fading under wraps in the winter, it was his way to connect with the world. He spoke with it through his pores. His downy blonde hair was in contact with news from the air, and pollen, and insects–natural frequencies. Bees would alight on him, and ants travel over him; he let them be.
He would wash his face in seawater in order to tune in.
Once he sat me down suddenly on the shore and placed my hands, palm-down, on the sand. I felt the ground vibrate and the earth shook my arms: he smiled at the fright in my eyes and put his index finger to his lips. He transformed my fear at the first earthquake I ever knew into a new experience–a massage.
The man at the next table wiped his hand across his face. Though there was no water, I saw again the gesture of the deaf-mute boy, wetting his face in order to hear. Those fingers of his were close now, if I had stretched out my arm, I could have touched them. They were dark and bony as well, with an expert grip. I held mine tight around my mug, and my head spun through a childhood carousel.
For the feast day of the island’s patron saint, they used to build a merry-go-round with rocking horses. I’d climb up on it, and he would stand in a corner of the square with his white shirt and beret. Each time around I’d look his way, and his eyes would give me a push on the back. It was a mix of pure innocence and wedding celebration. The aroma of toasted almonds from the street vendors was its church incense. My father and mother were off somewhere, drinking beer with the other Germans.
I don’t know if that boy was attracted to a girl only ten years old; he certainly didn’t let it be seen. And so, at that table in the inn, it was up to me–a woman already fading, and still untouched–to return at this late hour his mix of desire and grace.
In the meantime, the man was also drinking his beer, as he read the pages clasped in his hand. The hour that had brought us together again separated us as well. An urge to be in this place without my father filled my throat, like the rush of a wave over the beach. As I let the breath out, it washed back again.
Freedom is what I found on the island, far from my parents, as they pretended to be father and daughter. On a rocky point I waited for the sea urchins that the boy would bring, emptying them into my hand. For me the South is raw food licked up from my salty palm. And the North is a girl speaking in German to thank a boy that can’t hear her, though he reads thanks on her lips, and takes it from her like a salty kiss, up to his eyes.
The night of ferragosto was celebrated with a picnic on the beach. I took my distance from the bonfires; they rose high like the voices of the crowd. As a child, I was happy to find a bit of space for myself.
Above me the Milky Way split the sky in two. Its vastness was a great speckled animal skin, and I rolled over it, along with all the earth. My bare feet trembled and tickled from its touch.
At that age I searched the night sky for a constellation matching the pattern of moles on my arm. I found it in the Swan, which crossed the Milky Way. It was a sign I came from there.
Would a telescope have made me more happy? No, a more closely defined universe wouldn’t have increased my wonder. And yet I imitated the astronomers, leaving behind the folk and fires in order to make my way in the dark. They too would climb up on roofs, or on the crown of some hill, to better isolate themselves. I add these thoughts now to explain certain of my eccentricities as a child enthralled in detailed fantasies.
Stretched out on the sand, my face in the air, I would roll over, pushing myself with my feet, and the sky would roll with me. I could feel its touch on my exposed skin, a cool caress with the back of its hand.
I focused on a small light inside the cross of the Swan, and as I chose it, I was chosen. It happened in a single breath. I longed for union, and was instantly fulfilled.
My parents realized that I was gone and got help to look for me. The deaf-mute boy first tracked me down, after wetting his face to find out where I was. He came and brought me back. Crossing between the bonfires and coals stopped the sky from tickling my feet. As usual, my parents said nothing–the start of another silent treatment to punish me.
My mother wanted to give a tip to the boy; rather than take it, he withdrew his hand and ran off. I asked him why he didn’t take their money, and he answered me by making comic gestures, like someone about to get burned. He’d never once touched money, and he was more than twenty years old. He hadn’t gone to school, and didn’t know numbers or letters. The Cabala wouldn’t have worked with him.
Even today on summer nights I like to lie outside naked, with my arms open. My pores open up and absorb the air falling from above. I apologize for the digression.
Out of the corner of his eye, my father was watching the man, adjusting his chair so as to check on him without being conspicuous. I was used to his precautions. A mixed hum of Italian and German came from a pair of other tables in the room. We kept quiet.
Two fritters came to the man’s table. He took one in his fingers without pausing in his reading. He ate it slowly; on the back of his hand, his tendons moved up and down.
When the mind is otherwise occupied, the body entertains or busies itself elsewhere. That’s how it was when I posed for the students. Under my skin a solitary muscle would tremble, a tendon would contract involuntarily, a superficial vein would throb. As it held the pose, I would observe the moves my body made. A professor once asked me how I managed it for so long. For a reason opposing your own: you’re here to study me, for me the purpose is to ignore your presence. Slightly offended, he told me, “You ought to keep a truth like that to yourself.” “My job is to put it on display,” came out in reply.
In the meanwhile my father had frozen in position. He watched the man, his beer glued to his lips. I tried to distract him–I know it’s better to shake off the fixed ideas that rivet him. I alluded to our successes during that fine day, to the small mountain lake where I’d gone wading. A crowd of small fish had come close, in curiosity; one had even managed to nibble off a cuticle. Nothing doing: he watched as the man continued to read.
In a low voice, the tone used for our public conversations, he said to me: “They’ve found me. They’re here.”
I was prepared for that news hanging over us, but not there. In that place I wasn’t ready. I saw nothing capable of explaining his alarm. I looked quickly around the room, then turned to him in surprise.
“Those papers are in Yiddish,” he told me, and I turned again toward the hand holding them up. It was a narrow fist, waiting to be opened by another hand.
“He’s one of them, sent here to give me notice.” If my father had suddenly begun dancing across the room, I would have been less surprised. His voice was calm–he wasn’t asking for confirmation. In that room he was once again alone: a man convinced he was surrounded. In that moment I wasn’t there with him. My deaf-mute boy–now an ageless man–just couldn’t be here for that. How could that handful of loose papers matter, with their Hebrew letters?
My father looked out the window behind my back. Then he added, “Sheets of paper spread out, clearly in sight. If it had been a book, I’d never have noticed. And he moved his lips when he read, to make himself even more conspicuous.”
But why would they have tipped him off, and given up the element of surprise? I didn’t have a chance to ask him. The man at the next table said something under his breath, not more than a word, still focused on his papers.
“Pay”–my father’s voice came out clearly, without his precautionary hush. I don’t remember ever hearing it clear and distinct in a public place. I realized I was trembling. We were about to go and for the first time in my life I thought of leaving him.
The owner came to our table, my father paid the bill but, in his hurry, didn’t take the change–and he never left tips. He bumped his mug and spilled the beer. The man at the next table turned toward the two of us, already on our feet. First he looked intently at my father, and then at me. Between these crossings, he closed his eyes. I understand now that he was separating us. But I wasn’t ready.
We set off for the door, I followed my father, passing in front of the man’s table. He had put his papers down, and I felt his eyes give my back a push, like at the rocking-horse carousel. Deaf-mute boy that lightened the still-closed body of a girl, goodbye.
My father was in the car already. He backed up quickly and pulled away, picking me up as he passed. If I’d hesitated, he would have gone without me. Yet in that moment, if the choice to not get in even existed, I wasn’t aware of it.
“Emet, he said emet, ‘truth’–that must be the code name for their mission. He must have had a transmitter. I knocked over the beer on purpose. I wanted to see the reaction of the other people at the inn.”
I didn’t ask him why. There was nothing to add to his decision.
We were rushing, but not back toward the hotel. We were climbing towards a mountain pass and the Austrian border, about an hour away, less at that speed. He was indifferent to the fact that I was with him in that moment; he had nothing to say to me. I was there with him as always, that’s it.
I was never really part of that life in hiding; I’d just cared for it. The long-awaited hour of capture was coming unexpectedly, and it wasn’t bringing us together. I wanted to believe he was making a mistake, that the escape was one of his needless precautions, caused by some faint sign, without real importance.
An automobile must have come up behind us, despite our speed. I didn’t turn around, but he was constantly looking at the rear-view mirror. The road climbed through curves and switchbacks, with no room for passing, even though at that hour there was no traffic. Friction caused the tires to make a racket with every turn of the wheel.
The final, residual daylight emphasized the rusty soil of those mountains, reddening them, letting it show the way blood rushes to your face. My tension about the speed–which I hate–was growing, so I wanted their immobile beauty to distract me. I tried to be, on the surface, as they were. I tried to freeze in a model’s pose, but failed because I wasn’t nude.
As a straightaway appeared, my father revved the engine until it shuddered, still fixing his eyes on the mirror. I looked at the dashboard, and the speedometer said “one hundred ninety.” As I’d said it aloud, I realized what I’d announced: the numeric value in Hebrew for endpoint and revenge.
“I know,” he answered, as our automobile broke through the barrier and leaped toward the pastures below.
As I flew I found I was weightless. The fingers of a deaf-mute boy carried my young body. In the urge to let myself go, supported by those fingers, I loosened my seatbelt. At the first impact I shot out across the fields, before the automobile, with my father inside, ended up on the rocks.
The long hospital stay gave me time to sort myself out. My daughter’s contract had been dissolved by my flight through the air. When they took out the last stitches from my operations, I was no longer bound to him.
He hadn’t counted on bringing me during that final crossing of his more than half-century long flight. He didn’t imitate the Goebbels, who first killed their children and then themselves, in that bunker at the Berlin Chancellery. They didn’t want anything to be left to the victors.
My father–I have to believe–brought me with him only because at that moment I happened to be with him. He hadn’t planned we would die together. But it wasn’t my duty to take that leap into his void.
I’m not angry with him. I put the blame on a misunderstanding that I never wished to clear up. As the daughter of a war criminal, I wanted to be an effect without cause.
The true identity of my father was never found out. On his tombstone is the false name still found on all my official documents. I’m in the process of changing it to my mother’s. I can throw that counterfeit money away.
I still haven’t found out if someone was following us that night, or if the man from the inn was one of them.
Next summer, in July, I’ll go back there and sit at the same table, at seven in the evening.
And I’ll drink a beer, and wait.