The Knitted Tank

When Kristina Kroemer decided to combine her training as a political scientist with her work as a fashion designer, she did not realize that her idea would infuriate left and right-wing groups throughout Germany, that old suited men would grumble that she was being disrespectful. She also did not realize that she would, on the other hand, unite young and old not only in Germany, but also in Israel and Russia. And the garment? A brightly colored, patchwork-knitted pullover for an army tank.

Even more remarkable was that she and her colleague, Barbara Niklas, managed to convince the Bundeswehr (The Federal Defense Forces of Germany) to let them use one of their battle tanks. Kroemer likes to make a statement with her work. Behind her, on a mannequin, is a tutu made from a workman’s overalls, replete with paint and oil stains.

“I like to take a garment out of its usual context,” she says, smiling. “To create something new and to make people aware of where their clothes come from.”

Kroemer studied political science at Marburg University, but in 2008 moved to Dresden where she opened a fashion design shop. She talks passionately about her work and the role fashion plays to change how people see themselves and the world. She is unassuming, despite her bright red hair, eclectic collection of GDR up-cycled dresses (retro-communist chic), success in bridging communities, and her new notoriety. She doesn’t talk about herself so much as what happens around her, as if she were a spectator rather than an instigator.

“The fashion industry is pretty cut-throat,” she says. “Cooperation is rare, whereas conflict is not. So, I wanted to create an environment of solidarity within the fashion industry.” Her idea: open her shop as a meeting point for local elderly women to knit a pullover for a tank, and perhaps, to talk about their experiences during World War II. “They talked openly,” Kreomer says. “They talked about rape.”

Kroemer knows that especially on February 13th, the anniversary of the Dresden bombing, the emotional consequences are severe. In 1945, over one thousand British and American bomber aircrafts dropped 3900 tons of high explosive and incendiary devices on Dresden. After the bombing, there were 25,000 dead and the city previously known as “Florence on the Elbe” lay in fire and ruins. Debate still rages over whether the bombing was a war crime.

“The women in the group said that nobody had ever asked them about the war. It has always been that you just accepted that we should be thankful that the Soviet Army liberated us from Fascism. Nobody ever talks about the emotional consequences of war.”

I asked Traudel, one of the women who helped knit patches for the tank pullover, about her memories. Seven-year-old Traudel took shelter with her mother and three-week-old sister in the basement of their apartment in Altstadt. When they emerged, her sister was dead. “Some got out alive, others didn’t.” She waved her hand in front of her face and lowered her head so that I would not see her eyes.

And then, in 1945, when Germans learned the full extent of the atrocities committed by their country, they felt as if they could not talk, even amongst themselves, of their experiences.

“After the Russians came,” Traudel says, “I tried to talk about the war with my mother, but she would cry and so I did not ask her again. And then later, I could not talk about my experiences with my husband because the war had affected him so badly, physically and mentally.” This knitted tank project was the first time since Traudel emerged from her basement in Altstadt that she could talk about the day her sister died, and her home and city were destroyed.

“We experienced the war exactly as you [the Allies] did,” Kroemer says. “But we Germans were not allowed to talk about it. We have a term for this in German, Verdrängen, which means something like ‘a repression of memory’. In Germany, even today, there is an implicit agreement that we should not talk about the war, that we should not analyze it, that we should not look back, but that we should instead only look forward.” Kroemer pauses as a customer enters her shop. “But, when you don’t discuss people’s experiences of war, how they feel, the void is filled by extremist groups.”

Every year, Dresdeners formed a human chain around central Dresden to keep neo-Nazis out and to keep their memories unsullied. And so, from Neustadt, across the Elbe River and weaving around the rebuilt Frauenkirche and back across the Elbe, Dresdeners join hands to keep the extremists at bay. New laws in Germany have also made it more difficult for neo-Nazis to gather and protest.

“So, I wanted to combine my ideas about politics and war with my work as a designer. Knitting a woolen pullover for a tank…yes, it was a political statement, an anti-war statement. It made the tank look ridiculous. By covering the tank in a brightly coloured pullover it was as if we had destroyed it, rendered it harmless. But the most important idea was that this project would bring people together.” Kroemer paused to let another customer into the shop.

“But you see, war,” she continued, “is transferred from one generation to the next by remaining silent, by not talking. The tank knitting project was designed to end this.”

In almost any other country, the idea of covering a tank in knit work would never have been realised. But in Dresden, perhaps because of the suffering it experienced, perhaps even because of exasperation with Verdrängen, such an idea is possible.

You know there’s something different about Dresden’s Military History Museum when you catch sight of the building — thrust through its historic middle like some surfacing leviathan, a metal wedge the same shape as the destroyed area of Dresden points across the river Elbe to the place where Allied aircraft dropped flares to mark the approach route for the following bombers. The focus of this museum is on the victims of war. And this is all the more astounding because the museum is owned and run by the Bundeswehr.

“When Kristina and Barbara first approached the museum…I thought it was a great idea,” the Director of Exhibitions, Collections and Research, Dr. Gorch Pieken said. “We thought it was inspirational from a philosophical point of view. We are a museum of history with an eye on the present and the future. We invite alternative ideas. We want people to discuss history, to discuss war, even if we do not like their ideas. And, you know, even other European military museums do not like this. But the knitted tank was very controversial. Some of the older officers in the Bundeswehr did not like the idea.”

Kroemer’s preference was to use a Russian tank, a tank that had liberated Dresden from Fascism and which had also participated in putting down the 1968 Prague uprising. “But we had a lot of opposition from left-wing groups in Germany,” she says. “These groups thought that knitting a pullover for a Russian tank would be a type of revenge on the Russian army. I was called a neo-Nazi, which in Germany is the worst thing you can call someone.”

Using a Bundeswehr tank was also problematic. But it was, in the end, a Leopard II, Germany’s most successful tank export, which was the tank chosen for the knitted pullover. “Some of the older officers in the Bundeswehr were quite unhappy because for them the tank was a heroic object,” Dr. Pieken said.

Survivors of the bombing of Dresden, and their children and grandchildren knitted woolen patches, sewn together and fitted to the tank for an exhibition in 2013. “We received offers of help from all over Germany and knitted woolen gifts from Russia and Tel Aviv. And people had an opportunity to express how they felt,” Kroemer says.

The knitted tank was supposed to be on display at the Dresden Military History Museum for four weeks, but was exhibited for three months due to popular demand. It is now being treated so that it can form part of the museum’s permanent display when a new space is created.

“I hope the knitted tank goes on permanent display,” Kroemer says, “so that it can sit like an alien from outer space among the machines of war.”

Other countries can request the knitted tank on loan for their military museums. But I wonder which country, which city other than Dresden would be so brave as to cover an object of war with a knitted pullover, so that people may speak of their trauma and the costs of war.

“There is no good and bad,” she says. “In a war, there are only victims.”

A Guide to Literary Berlin

nerysTempted by The Reader Berlin‘s intensive writing workshops this summer? Berlin resident and literary advisor Nerys Hudson shares the city’s literary highlights, from walking tours and literature houses to festivals, bookshops and cafes.

Berlin occupies an odd space in the history of literary cities: less prestigious than London, less romantic than Paris, less visceral than Dublin, less frenetic than New York. Yet despite a decidedly underdog reputation, Berlin endures amongst writers, even if only for a brief moment in time.

Because it is the idea of a moment in time that makes Berlin special in literary terms. Berlin is a backdrop on which to paint a historical picture, observed as the world keeps spinning around you, but it will also force you to stop and look again. For this reason, Berlin is the ultimate of literary cities. It is a story that conspicuously evolves, and a story waiting to be explored. But where to begin?

Find the locations mentioned below on our map. Or view A Guide to Literary Berlin in a larger map.

Sightseeing Highlights

The Isherwood Walking Tour
Berlin, Bar "Eldorado"
Expat writers steadily flocked to Berlin in the early 20th century – from Robert Walser to Franz Kafka and Vladimir Nabakov. But for most English speakers, Berlin’s most famous adopted son is Christopher Isherwood. Observing the sordid, splendid absurdities of the final days of decadence in Berlin, Isherwood’s diaries and Berlin novels are still a fine guide to the city, and the subject of Brendan Nash’s expertly led Isherwood Walking Tour. A circular one-hour walk around the Nollendorfplatz area, it’s a great introduction to the writer and the city he was so intertwined with. Click here for more information on the tour and booking.


Works by Alfred Döblin, Sigmund Freud and Ernest Hemmingway were among over 25,000 books committed to the flames at Bebelplatz, on the night the German Student Association of Nazi Germany ransacked libraries and burned literature deemed “un-german”. Peer down Micha Ullman’s glass plate in the middle of the square’s cobbles, and you’ll see only empty bookshelves. Nearby, engraved on a separate plaque is a line from Heinrich Heine’s play Almansor – “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen”: “Where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.” Bebelplatz, 10117 Berlin

Dorotheenstädtischen Friedhof

Cemeteries are not top of everyone’s sightseeing list, and it may not be as sprawling or epic as the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, but the Doroteenstädtischen Friedhof is the resting place for some of Berlin’s greatest minds. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Heiner Muller, Heinrich Mann, Herbert Marcuse, Christa Wolf and Bertolt Brecht (whose old residence over looks the Dorotheenstädtischen Friedhof) are among the many residents of the cemetery, located in the Mitte district. Dorotheenstädtischen Friedhof, Chausseestraße 126-127, 10115 Berlin. Open: 8am until sunset

The Grimm Zentrum Library
Although intended for use by the students at Humboldt University, the Grimm Zentrum library is open to the public, although you will have to check your bag in first. The library is –no surprises – named after the famous Grimm Brothers, who spent their final years in Berlin, labouring over a project that would go on to become Germany’s first official dictionary many years later.

At first glance, the Grimm Zentrum does look like some sort of knowledgeable prison thanks to a very angular and thoroughly modern façade. But whilst it may not evoke Prussian opulence, the library is not without it’s own charms. Once inside you’ll find around 2 million books bolstering the edges of the building. In the middle of the library is what looks like a futuristic nerve centre, a tiered, multi-platform reading area. The Grimm Zentrum collection pales in significance when compared to the Staatsbibliothek’s 11 million strong titles – but you would definitely trade all those books to get a table in the centre here (and if you want that table, make sure you go early). Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm Zentrum, Geschwister-Scholl-Strasse, 10117 Berlin. Opening hours: Mon-Fri 8am-12am. Sat-Sun: 10am-6pm

Literary Events

German language events can be found in the many literature houses dotted about the city, appealing to audiences on a distinctly non-commercial level. Often run as a not-for-profit, they focus is less on selling books and more on hosting readings and discussion forums. Berlin now has five literature houses, including LiteraturWERKstatt, the suitably imposing Literatisches Colloquium Berlin, Brecht Haus, Lettretage and The Literaturhaus, which is famed for its café as much as its cultural programme. Note – German readings are known for their length – events at bookshops like Dussmann’s colossal Kulturkaufhaus on Friedrichstrasse are resplendent with marathon 45-minute author readings.

Then there are the festivals. Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin offers up plenty of big names across the world for numerous panel discussions and readings. Mainly based in the auditoriums of the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, it’s hard to find a suitable competitor for the ILB programme. Past authors include Tahar Ben Jelloun, David Mitchell, Isabel Allende and DBC Pierre. Poetry fans have a similar, sprawling event in the PoesieFestival, held mainly at the Academy of the Arts and offering 10 days of some 200 poets. English language events are at both festivals.

For other English language events, alongside the likely suspect of the British Council, the American Academy in Berlin run a programme of events, incorporating their resident fellows. Past alumni of the annual programme include Jonathan Safran Foer, Karen Russell, Katherine Boo and Jeffrey Eugenides.

Bookshops & Journals

Inevitably though, the main champions of literary events in English are the bookshops and local journals. Notable mentions go to SAND Journal and No Mans Land who have been known to throw legendary launches and some thought provoking discussions, cementing their reputation as true supporters of fine writing and translation.

The journals work closely with Berlin’s numerous English-language bookshops, where there is plenty of shelf fodder alongside the readings. Dialogue Books recently closed it’s physical bookshop doors, but there is still an online bookshop, a diverse range of events in the plush surroundings of Soho House and their new office at The Wye, with Tom McCarthy, A.M. Homes, Ned Beauman and Clare Messud all previous guests in their regular Literary Lounge.

Relative newcomer Shakespeare and Sons has all the hallmarks of your new favourite bookshop. A café with homemade bagels; a beautiful stock selection with second hand and new books on the shelves and an open attitude to programming that encompasses books, music and more. No surprise then that the Prenzlauer Berg outpost of the original Prague bookshop has quickly endeared itself to the city.

Another Prenzlauer Berg resident is Saint George’s English Bookshop. A Berlin bookshop stalwart, Saint George’ s boasts an eclectic line-up of events and a huge range of second hand books, alongside an enviable selection of works from smaller, independent presses. Expect Melville House, Dalkey Archive and tons of other treasures. Their collection of English translations of German authors is also one of the best in the city.

Over in Kreuzberg, Another Country has been a mainstay of literary nomads for some seven years, with the often eccentric and chaotic stock reflecting the deeply passionate tastes of owner Sophia Raphaeline. Books are generally for loan rather than sale, tying into Another Country’s community ethos. If you come later on Fridays and make it downstairs to their cellar, Sophie will nourish you with home-cooked food in an informal group of book lovers and writers, all for a very reasonable price.

Other shops worth a visit include the legendary Marga Schoeller bookshop, a venerable 80-year old institution with a very decent English language section and Ocelot, Not Just Another Bookstore, which lives up to it’s name thanks to it’s enlightened booksellers and beautiful café. Magazine lovers will find their heart’s desire at Do You Read Me?!, and their side project The Reading Room is the place to go for most international magazine launches. Finally, for politics, art and design, Motto, Pro-Qm and Gestalten Space offer three very different but equally brilliant takes on publications that you couldn’t leave confined to the coffee table.

Writer Resources

Established and aspiring writers regularly flow in and out of the city, enabled by grants and stipends or emboldened by numerous proclamations of cheap rents (a promise that considerably blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction).

As a result, workshops and creative writing courses are in abundance in the city, even amongst English speakers. If you are staying longer, online forums and the excellent Literary List email will alert you to the main courses (sign up by emailing Fiona at fiona_mclellan [at] yahoo [dot] com).

Author services can be found via The Reader Berlin, with editing, mentoring and much more all covered. Weekly evening creative writing classes are always booked up and deservedly so, with tutors covering poetry, screenwriting, non-fiction and fiction. And if you are looking for an excuse to escape to Berlin, their summertime intensive workshops will do the trick.

You’ll also want to find yourself a cafe to work from or read at, and with the legendary Romanisches Café (a sort of Berlin equivalent of Café de Flore) now reincarnated at the newly opened Waldorf Astoria, you may have to settle for less salubrious surroundings. St Gaudy Café and Café Hilde will do the job very well, and boast strong literary links alongside the perquisite caffeine supplies.

And if you are staying a while, be sure to check up on the blogs – from the mighty triumverate of Readux, Transfiction and Love German Books for recommendations and news through to Slow Travel Berlin, Sugarhigh and Berlin Stories for NPR for a complementary bigger cultural picture.

A Berlin Reading List

Finally, no guide to the city would be complete without a list of books about it. The following are highly recommended Berlin reading.

Going to the Dogs by Erich KaestnerGoing to the Dogs by Erich Kaestner
If you’ve read Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, the other great fable of the fall of Weimar is Erich Kaestner’s Going to the Dogs. Just as sharply observed as Isherwood, and yet seemingly more tragic due to Kaestner’s genuine despair as the city he called home begins to collapse.

The Wall Jumper by Peter SchneiderThe Wall Jumper by Peter Schneider
Definitely one of the best books ever written about the Berlin Wall, which features as a main character in a fiction that reads like history.

Roads to Berlin by Cees NooteboomRoads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom
Featuring numerous travelogues and reports on the way to constructing unified Berlin, the journalist Cees Nooteboom offers up a deeply personal account of the problems faced after the wall came down.

Alone in Berlin Hans FalladaAlone in Berlin by Hans Fallada
Hans Fallada was one of the more troubled German writers, and his life story in general makes fascinating reading. Written in just 24 days, Alone in Berlin stands out as a truly remarkable story of resistance and courage in the face of terror.

Berlin Stories by Robert WalserBerlin Stories by Robert Walser
Turn of the century Berlin seen through Walser’s roaming, outsider eye. Arriving in Berlin in 1905, his observations on his meanderings through the city and its various inhabitants are bitingly funny, with beautiful, impressionistic descriptions of a metropolis in the making.

Berlin Blues by Sven RegenerBerlin Blues by Sven Regener
For Herr Lehrmann, the somewhat anti-hero of Berlin Blues, the responsibilities of life are there to be ignored, including the fall of the wall. There are some great descriptions of the Kreuzberg of West Berlin in this book, and the deadpan tone of Lehrmann is pitch perfect.

What I Saw by Joseph RothWhat I Saw by Joseph Roth
A precursor to Isherwood’s Berlin, Roth’s journalistic dispatches of the underbelly of 1920’s Berlin are both acutely observed and politically charged, anticipating the downfall of a fragile Republic.

Stasiland by Anna FunderStasiland by Anna Funder
Another blend of investigative journalism and sometimes not so subtle narrative, Anna Funder’s Stasiland still remains as one of the definitive books on life behind the Iron Curtain.

Book of Clouds by Chloe AridjisBook of Clouds by Chloe Aridjis
Less about Berlin geographically, Book of Clouds still manages to capture a very Berlin conflict between the eternal, and the fleeting. The unknowable, the obscure, the feeling of drifting, the creation of identity are all explored – although like the characters, it comes heavily shrouded in mystery.

Berlin Facts for the Bookish

Current population: 3.4 million

Selected Previous Residents: Erich Maria Remarque, Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Döblin, The Brothers Grimm, Heinrich Heine, Christopher Isherwood, Erich Kaestner, Franz Kafka, Irmgard Keun, Heinrich Mann, Vladimir Nabakov, Joseph Roth, Kurt Tucholsky, Robert Walser, Billy Wilder.

Selected Current Berliners: Priya Basil, Greg Baxter, Jenny Erpenbeck, Günter Grass, Ida Hattemer-Higgins, CJ Hopkins, Daniel Kehlmann, Herta Müller, Thomas Pletzinger, Judith Schalansky, Bernhard Schlink, Kathrin Schmidt, Ingo Schulze, Donna Stonecipher, Clare Wigfall, Anna Winger, Tod Wodicka.

reader_berlinThe Reader Berlin are running a programme of intensive writing workshops in Berlin this summer – immerse yourself in the Travel Writing/Memoir workshop with Kimberly Bradley and Rory Maclean (July 1st-5th), Writing Outside the Box: Exploiting your Imagination to Create Fiction with Clare Wigfall and Tod Wodicka (July 15th-19th) and the Screenwriting Lab: 2013 with Donna Sharpe and CJ HopkinsAugust 12th-16th. More details here.

Podcast: Tatort, a German Pop-Culture Phenomenon

Listen to this episode using the player below or subscribe on iTunes — search “litro lab”.

The Mädels With a Microphone investigate a German pop culture phenomenon, the TV cop show Tatort (meaning crime scene), which has been running on German TV for over 30 years.

Every Sunday evening at 8:15 pm, Germans love nothing better than to gather in their local bar to watch various fictional detectives solve fictional crimes in a different German, Swiss or Austrian city each week. The show can often be cheesy (that theme music!) but it’s always entertaining.

The Mädels head down to a local bar to find out what makes people want to watch this hugely popular TV show with a bunch of strangers and wonder whether it’s a uniquely German phenomenon.

You can find Mädels with a Microphone online, or on Twitter, Soundcloud or Facebook, or on itunes. In their podcast series, Jennifer and Tam strive to create informative and quirky long and short podcasts about the hidden side of Berlin. Their podcasts are entirely self-produced using Audacity free software and trusty little zoom H2 recorders.

The Art of the Translator

Paul Klee Du gris de la nuit surgit soudainPeter Lewis shares some of the pleasures and pitfalls of translating from German, from imponderable subclauses and outlandish compound nouns to the translator’s bête noire, the innuendo.

Every time I embark on a new translating adventure, I’m mindful of a famous dictum by Robert Frost, alerting me to the duty of care I owe to the creator of the original. “Poetry,” said the American writer, “is what gets lost in translation.”

At root, Frost was right, of course: nothing can ever replicate the music of the primary text. Yet if we take “poetry” in its widest sense, to mean not just “verse” but the rhythm and elegance of a piece of writing, his words may at least serve as a salutary reminder to us translators that our task must always be to try and capture as much as we can of its essential character.

 All in a Good Subclause

I’ve worked on a wide variety of texts over the years, and each different genre poses its own particular challenges. For example, I’m currently translating a major work on mediaeval European culture and history by an eminent German historian. Aside from the occasional problems I encounter with specialized terminology (regular liaison with the author helps me overcome these), the greater difficulty is to express the often complex ideas under discussion and maintain the rhetorical flow without letting the English grow stilted or opaque.

There’s a syntactical rigour to academic German that brings the language’s Latinate origins to the fore, as it meticulously assembles subclause after subclause and holds off unveiling the main verb until very late in the day. The writings of Immanuel Kant are the most extreme instance of this; at university in Freiburg, a German friend reading philosophy told me that he and his fellow students used to refer to an English translation of the Critique of Pure Reason in order to “unpack” the writer’s notoriously convoluted paragraphs and make sense of them. Mercifully, my author’s style is not remotely as rebarbative as Kant’s, but I’ll still sometimes find myself breaking up a single sentence into two, or even three, to better convey the meaning.

Grappling With Grammatical Monsters

Turning to the nuts and bolts of grammar, there’s a peculiar feature of German that has become something of an amusing cliché to English readers – its propensity for the compound noun. In fact, a forthcoming title by the excellent Ben Schott, called Schottenfreude: German Words for the Human Condition, will showcase some of the more outlandish of these terms. This aspect of the language, yoking together different components into one large, unwieldy unit, is much beloved of bureaucrats; legal German abounds in such compounds. Translating strategies vary where these monsters are concerned. Sometimes, it’s permissible just to use an abbreviation – thus, ‘Mehrwertsteuer’ (literally ‘excessive value tax’) can simply be rendered as ‘VAT’. German itself, indeed, frequently uses this ploy, but it can have the unfortunate side-effect of generating a slew of acronyms even more baffling to the non-native reader, who won’t necessarily even recognize what they stand for.

But on other occasions – and this is a good general tip – it’s worth bearing in mind that German is much more nominal in its mode of expression than English (British English, anyway). So, to avoid some horrific motorway-pile-up of nouns that sounds like Pentagon-speak, a translator would be well advised to recast the compound as a verbal phrase. To cite a random example, a note commonly seen pinned to student-union notice boards offering a quid-pro-quo deal of car travel in exchange for petrol money, ‘Mitfahrgelegenheit nach…’ (lit: ‘ride-with-opportunity to…’), would ideally emerge as ‘Anyone want a lift to…?’

As a postscript to this subject, it should not be forgotten that German compound nouns also harbour great creative potential, enabling writers to craft completely new terms. The winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature, Herta Müller, is a case in point. Her novel of that same year, which fictionalizes the harrowing incarceration in a Soviet forced-labour camp of her fellow German-Romanian writer, the poet Oskar Pastior, is hallmarked by its dense, highly allusive language: even its compound-noun title Atemschaukel (‘Breath-swing’) is invented.

Müller is fond of such neologisms; an earlier novel of hers is entitled Herztier (‘Heart-beast’). The respective translators of these works, Philip Boehm and Michael Hoffmann, wisely elected not to tackle these titles head-on, opting instead for ‘The Hunger Angel’, and ‘The Land of Green Plums’.  I am full of admiration for these translators who (along with the late doyen of German poetry translators, Michael Hamburger, before them) are able to inhabit the alien linguistic landscapes of, say, Müller, Kafka, Celan, and Enzensberger and transpose them with signal success into another language.

 event_71Roman Elegy

By comparison, my first foray into literary translation, Roman Elegy (Haus Publishing, 2013) has been plain sailing. The original novel, Stillbach by Sabine Gruber (C.H. Beck Verlag, Munich, 2011) is a superbly modulated piece of prose which blends fiction with real historical event. Embedded within a framework narrative set in 2009, the core of Gruber’s book comprises the interlinked stories of two women, Emma and Ines, both German-speaking Italians from the fictional South Tyrolean village of the title (a speaking-name – “quiet brook” – which would have been lost on English readers). At different times, the women come to work in Rome as chambermaids and end up spending their entire lives there. The two eras covered by the heart of the novel are the Fascist period (including, after the fall of Mussolini’s regime, the German occupation of Rome) and the so-called Anni di Piombo (“Years of Lead”), the long phase of political unrest that culminated in 1978 in the death of Pope Paul VI and the kidnap and assassination of former prime minister Aldo Moro.

The sheer storytelling drive of Stillbach and the clarity of the author’s language made it relatively straightforward for me to translate its narrative passages.  But I still had to be alive to linguistic anachronisms: a perspicacious proofreader who kindly reviewed my draft translation rightly pointed out that my rendition of a pejorative German phrase for a good-time girl as “some dippy bimbo” just didn’t ring true for the late 1970s; I changed it to “some scatterbrained bed-hopper”. Incidentally, given the novel’s Roman setting, my rudimentary Italian was put to the test as well; just before the book went to press, I fortunately realized that “Triestina” was not a proper name at all, but meant “the woman from Trieste”.


But where I was really out of my comfort-zone, not having dealt with fiction before, was in the dialogue. Getting each character to talk naturally did not come easily, at least at first. I found the most effective way of road-testing what I had written was to read the exchanges aloud to myself and listen for whether any of the interjections or the rhythm of the characters’ speech jarred. I also learnt to ring the changes on such formulae as “he said”, “she replied”, “he responded”, “she answered”, etc., but not so insistently as to make it seem as though I’d swallowed a thesaurus.

Lost in Translation

And finally to the bêtes noires of the translator: idioms, puns, and slang. There were only a handful of these in Stillbach/Roman Elegy, but even so some had to be dropped as they were untranslatable. One extended anecdote, however, called for a little more ingenuity on my part. It concerned a servant colleague of Emma’s in 1930s Rome who skivvied in the kitchens of the German Embassy. For a banquet there in honour of Mussolini, a dish involving dozens of boiled eggs had to be made especially for the Duce. The servant woman was set to work preparing the eggs, but finding that one or two had tougher shells than the rest, resorted to cracking them open with her teeth. She subsequently retells this story in mixed company, and a German soldier who overhears it calls out ‘What’s that? You had the Duce’s eggs in your mouth?’, which provokes a chorus of ribald laughter from his comrades.  The double-entendre turns on the fact that in German, “eggs” (Eier) is a slang expression for the testicles. Clearly, this doesn’t work in English. Then again, I could hardly leave out such a long passage, so what was I to do? The answer I came up with was to substitute walnuts for eggs, and at the point where the soldier’s risqué comment occurred, simply say ‘the Duce’s nuts’. My translator’s pride was thereby upheld, and the off-colour joke preserved. Job done…Phew!

Read our review of Sabine Gruber’s Roman Elegy.

11 German Books You Should Read

Despite an apparent fascination with the subject in Britain, not all German writing is about the country’s history. When it is, though, it’s often very well done. Translator and blogger Katy Derbyshire has a list of 11 contemporary German books you ought to read. Please excuse her shameless self-promotion – she’s quite passionate about the books she works on.

Berlin Tales

Berlin Tales
Ed. Helen Constantine (trans. Lyn Marven)

A great selection of contemporary and 20th century pieces about Berlin from some fine writers including Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Annett Gröschner and Ulrike Draesner.


Jenny Erpenbeck (trans. Susan Bernofsky)

The story of a house outside Berlin, its characters experiencing the 20th century at first hand. Beautiful writing, clever storytelling.

funeralforadogFuneral for a Dog

Thomas Pletzinger (trans. Ross Benjamin)

A journalist and a writer meet up for an interview in Italy. An amazing structure held together by subtle observations about love and life and fact and fiction, featuring a dog with a fully rounded character.


All the Lights
Clemens Meyer (trans. Katy Derbyshire)

My favourite of all the books I’ve translated. Short stories that will blow your mind, about artists, addicts, teachers, criminals and losers in general. No happy endings, just the kind of writing that sucks you in.


Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman
F.C. Delius (trans. Jamie Bulloch)

117 pages in one sentence by one of Germany’s most respected writers. The author’s mother is pregnant in fascist Rome in 1943, and Delius imagines her naïve thoughts as she wanders the city one afternoon.


Axolotl Roadkill
Helene Hegemann (trans. Katy Derbyshire)

Berghain, heroin, bondage, truancy and a dash of plagiarism-as-an-aesthetic-manifesto. Hegemann wrote her debut novel at 17 and it made a huge splash in Germany. Read it to find out what it’s like to be a fucked-up kid in Berlin.


The Hunger Angel
Herta Müller (trans. Philip Boehm)

There was once a large community of German-speakers in Romania, including Nobel prizewinner Müller. In this novel she moves away from her previous territory of life under Ceaușescu to tell the story of a man put into a Soviet labour camp. Harrowing and beautiful.


Charlotte Roche (trans. Tim Mohr)

I hated this book with a passion. Roche follows up the equally controversial Wetlands with a semi-autobiographical look at sex, married life and family loss. But she knows how to get her readers hooked, with a useful opening passage describing how to give the perfect blow-job.


Plan D
Simon Urban (trans. Katy Derbyshire)

Out on 20th June, this is a beautifully imagined crime novel set in communist East Germany in 2011. Think Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union with Stasi officers. Oh, and don’t expect any simple solutions.


In Times of Fading Light
Eugen Ruge (trans. Anthea Bell)

Out in July from one of our finest translators, this is another look at German history, flitting from exiled Communists in Mexico and Soviet gulags to East Germany to the present day, held together by some wonderful characters and writing.

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The Village Indian
Abbas Khider (trans. Donal McLaughlin)

This one isn’t out until September, but it’s worth waiting for. Khider is an amazing storyteller, and here he shares his own experiences as a refugee crossing the Middle East and Europe. Protagonist Rasul Hamid describes the eight different ways he fled his home in Iraq and the eight different ways he has failed to find himself a new way home.

Germany and the Burden of History

For our Germany theme, Michael Spring inspects three works of fiction that explore the amazing change between the country of the past and present, and forces us to consider whether we too could be culpable of such atrocities.

The world of 80 years ago – in Europe at least – now seems weirdly odd in so many ways as to make the scene seem almost mediaeval. It is hard to think about a world in which Italy should invade Ethiopia, a bitter civil war break out in Spain, France and Germany to be continually confronting a precipice of conflict, and in which, crucially, dictators bestrode the earth. For as coherent a view as you’re likely to find of the events and the history of the time, Elisabeth Wiskeman’s Europe of the Dictators is required reading – a personal narrative of a uniquely dysfunctional period of history, which leaves many readers open-mouthed in astonishment.*

Characteristically, her unsentimental prose allows us not only to see – but also to understand – a period that gives room on its stage to Mussolini, King Alexander and King Zog, and of course, Adolf Hitler.

“In his propaganda, Hitler promised everything to everyone,” she explains. “Now that it is easy to see what he intended, the credulity of his audiences seems difficult to explain.” His strange fascination as an orator, his appeal to primitive mass emotions, “in a country where national arrogance had been followed by humiliation,” were all factors, as was his promise of salvation from decadence.

Some more familiar elements of the view however – financial crisis in Germany, unrest in the Balkans – help to bring us closer to today, but the profound sense of confusion about those times, particularly in Germany, remains. It is all very well after all, for those of us on the “correct” side of the Second World War, to make self-satisfied speculations about ‘character’ or the ‘spirit of the nation’ that enabled us to avoid fascism, but few writers have confronted the issue of whether – and why – Nazi atrocities could have happened here.

The Aerodrome, Rex Warner’s symbolist masterpiece (published in 1941) stands almost alone in trying to get to grips with the lure of fascism, as a thoroughly degenerate and un-English village confronts the air base established on its outskirts.

“Your purpose,” the Air Vice Marshal explains to his recruits, is “to escape the bondage of time, to obtain mastery of yourselves…We in this force are in the process of becoming, a new and more adequate race of men.” It is the promise of Hitler and all the dictators.

But seen from a German perspective, there are more profound and deeper questions to be answered. Coloured by collective guilt, overshadowed by the vast atrocities, how should individuals respond to both the rise of fascism, and the success of the post-war German economic miracle?

Abish’s How German Is It, a strange but very readable work of fiction, attempts to do just that. Never quite answering all the questions it raises in terms of plot and character, it (in a surprisingly  gentle manner) forces us on every page to consider the real question at the heart of the book, was the Holocaust and the Nazi experience something that could only have happened in Germany?

Part mystery thriller, part comedy tour of German society, How German Is It centres around two brothers. Ulrich Hargenau is a writer and the estranged husband of a former urban terrorist. His brother Helmut is a successful architect, building stylish but rickety backdrops for the rich and famous to pose against, as well as statement public buildings that for some reason seem consistently to be chosen as terrorist targets.

The book (published in 1980, when the author was in his late fifties) is set in Wurtemberg (the brothers’ home town) and in Brumholdstein, a fictional new town – and home of the equally fictitious philosopher, Brumhold, “who has enabled us to see ourselves as we truly are” – built on the bulldozed rubble of a concentration camp formerly known as Durst, which itself has been quietly removed from history.

 “Durst … has no official history … not that anyone has tried to hide or conceal the fact … but nothing on Durst is on the shelves, since, as the librarian will explain, Durst was by comparison with other concentration camps quite small … quite insignificant …”

Society seems to have quietly collapsed. The mayor is corrupt, the quality of cakes and pastries is a major focus, the men are relentlessly unfaithful to their wives, while the women who appear are strangely compliant to the sexual whims of the males. Everyone clings to the old class distinctions, while terrorist bombs explode, mysterious individuals emerge to take pot shots at the brothers and Franz, the traumatised old servant and Wehrmacht soldier, builds a model of the old Durst concentration camp from matchsticks.

Symbolically then, it is no surprise when a sewer in the main street bursts, releasing a terrible stench and uncovering a mass grave underneath the town.The book’s characters have the same kind of careless jauntiness as The Aerodrome, but without the more explicitly allegorical approach. How German Is It assumes an assured semi-surreal quality in which the characters seem inhabit a similar, but less familiar society to the one we are aware of, underlining the book’s demand that we re-double our focus on what we see.

This is a world where memories are smothered in concrete and collective amnesia.“In this small community, did it really matter what anyone may have done, or failed to do, in the war? If they did anything, it was the predictable.”

The devil’s advocate is everywhere in this book, where there are all too often convenient short-cuts to good and bad – the brothers’ father, for example, is revered as an anti-Nazi hero (shot for his involvement in the Stauffenberg plot) when for many of the war years he was comfortable enough to wear his swastika lapel pin.

In this world, the urban terrorists seem to have captured the moral high ground, even though their crimes are characterised by a pathetic randomness (a bomb in the Post Office, a guard on a waterway persuaded to shoot two policemen and blow up the lock that allows ships into the North Sea).

The terrorists may be emptily destructive, but are they the force that might release those myriad tensions? Is violence the only response to the past, and does the past still live?

 When, finally Ulrich Hargenau is hypnotised, “he was positive that he was not a good hypnotic subject,” but, “as he opened his eyes,” he finds “his right hand raised in a stiff salute. ‘I think we’re getting there,’ the doctor said pleasantly.”

‘What is really at stake is one’s image of oneself,’ says the quote which prefaces the novel. The questions we are left to answer at the end include: when should the past become scenery? When, if ever, can the mistakes of past society be ignored? And what kind of image of the future do we have? Those questions may have become less urgent with the passage of time. They are though, questions that every generation needs to answer for itself.

*Elisabeth Wiskeman was born in England, though of distantly German descent. She worked throughout the war for British Intelligence in Switzerland, and was responsible for at least one act which, temporarily at least, halted the Jewish deportations from Hungary. Knowing it would be passed to Hungarian intelligence, she deliberately sent an unencrypted telegram to the Foreign Office in London that contained the addresses of the offices and homes of those in the Hungarian government who were best positioned to halt the deportations and suggesting that they should be targeted. In subsequent nights, an air attack that went wrong resulted in some key government buildings being destroyed. It is thought that this caused the authorities to suspend deportations.

Litro London Walk: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Camden

heikowalkThis walk was put together by Heiko Khoo, who runs the Karl Marx Walking Tour in Soho, London, a tour that gives a full introduction to Marx’s ideas, legacy and life in London. Find out more at their website.
You can follow this walk on our interactive Google Map below, or read about the places visited in the accompanying article. Nearest tube stations: Chalk Farm, Camden Town, Kentish Town West, Gospel Oak, Hampstead Heath.

View Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Camden, London in a larger map

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels transformed the world. Their ideas about economics, socialism and society changed the way we think forever, influencing everything from how we view history to how nations are governed. It’s a well-known London fact that Karl Marx is buried in Highgate Cemetery, but most of us don’t know much else about one of the world’s most famous German authors’ time in London. Our walk around his old haunts in Camden will take you through Marx’s years here, his relationship with his lifelong friend and financial supporter Friedrich Engels, his greatest writing, and his sad death.

Marx came to London in 1849, exiled from his native Germany and from France as a political threat. He remained here for the rest of his life, learning English so that he could write in for English language newspapers, sometimes living in extreme poverty (only three of his seven children survived into adulthood). He was largely supported by his friend Engels. The headquarters of the Communist League also moved to London, and the city became an international centre of the socialist movement.

Marx was from a middle class family. A writer of fiction as well as his best know philosophical works, Marx had studied in Bonn and Berlin, becoming involved in radical left-wing politics. He began to develop his theory that societies naturally go through a process of class struggle, a war between the owners and the workers, and that capitalism would be overthrown by socialism and then communism. He called for the working classes to fight to bring this about.

Marx and Engels met on the radical scene in Paris in 1843. Engels had already lived in England, working for his family business in Manchester, where he wandered the slums, researching his work The Conditions of the Working Class in England in 1844. It was this book that persuaded Marx that the working classes would be crucial in the final revolution that would bring about communism. The two would collaborate on The Communist Manifesto in 1848.

Engels moved with Marx to London, going back to work in Manchester in order to support himself and Marx, whom he saw as an important thinker. During their time in the city they wrote some of their most important works, and were both leading figures in the International socialist movement, putting them under scrutiny from the British authorities.

1. Escaping Poverty: Marx at 36 Grafton Terrace (Formerly no. 9)

Click here for the location. Marx moved to London in 1849 after being exiled from France and Germany as a political thread. His first years in the city were plagued by dire poverty and squalor. In October 1856 the Marx household moved here, to Grafton Terrace near Chalk Farm, escaping the miseries of their former rooms in Dean Street, Soho, where three of their children had died. The move was financed by Marx’s friend Friedrich Engels, who had sold his share in a Manchester factory to fund their joint studies.

The new house had eight rooms, enabling the Marx children to entertain other children from the neighbourhood. Initially, their life was radically improved, but Marx was soon overspending the money he and his wife had inherited from his father, and was soon reduced to begging cash from Engels again. The exterior of building has an appropriate red door, and it remains little changed from when Marx lived there.

The leader of the German workers’ movement, Ferdinand Lassalle, stayed here in 1862 while he was visiting the International Exhibition. He engaged in profligate spending whilst Marx was completely broke, infuriating Marx.

Marx would trundle off from here, taking the omnibus to the British Museum, where he would spend hours in the reading room, researching and writing his great life’s work, Das Kapital.

2. Death of Marx: 44 Maitland Park Road

Click here for the location. The house is gone, but a plaque on a council flat marks the spot where the Marx family, now made up of Marx himself, his wife Jenny von Westphalen, his daughter Eleanor and their maid Helene Demuth, lived from March 1875, a smaller house than their previous address.

Marx was suffering from liver complaints, lung problems, and numerous minor but extremely uncomfortable ailments.

Jenny died on 2nd December 1881, but Marx was so ill himself that his doctor forbade him to attend the funeral.

Engels called on Marx at half past two in the afternoon on 14th March. He left Marx in his room for a few minutes, finding him dead on his return. Marx was buried in Highgate Cemetery on 17th March 1883, his death going largely unnoticed. He was officially a “stateless person”, someone with no nationality, a with only a handful of mourners at his funeral. Engels said in his speech;

“On the 14th of March, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think. He had been left alone for scarcely two minutes, and when we came back we found him in his armchair, peacefully gone to sleep—but forever.”

A hundred years later, 37% of the world was living under governments ruling in Marx’s name. We will never know for certain, but as a man who believed that true social change is brought about by natural social development rather than the actions of “a handful of men”, it seems likely that these regimes would have horrified him.

3. New-found Prosperity: Location of 1 Modena Villas

Click here for the location. The Marx household moved here in March 1864, paying £65 a year in rent. Marx had inherited £820 from Willhelm Wolf, to whom he duly dedicated the first volume of Das Kapital, which was finally ready for publication in 1867 after more than 16 years struggle with the complexities of economics.

In his new-found prosperity, Marx wrote to his uncle Lion Philips claiming that he’d been successfully speculating on the stock market and made more than £400. This was indeed the family’s most prosperous period, when the children could entertain and life was good. It was also Marx’s most productive period in politics and publication.

Marx was hurled into hectic participation in political life when the socialist organisation First International was created in September 1864. Marx’s collaborators organized protests in Hyde Park in 1866, calling for the extension of the male franchise. The Paris Commune of 1871 made Marx the centre of political attention, and he was condemned as the Pope of Communism.

It was during his time here that his clash with the Anarchist leader Michael Bakunin came to a head. 

4. The Good Life: Engels at 122 Regent’s Park Road

Click here for the location. In 1870, Frederich Engels sold his share of his Manchester factory Ermen and Engels, overjoyed at finally giving up the “shitty business”. He made £12,500 from the sale, with which he moved to this house, also supporting the impoverished Marx family with the cash.

Karl Marx’s wife Jenny found the house for the Engels family, writing, “I have now found a house, which charms all of us because of its wonderful open situation. It is next to Primrose Hill, so all the front rooms have the finest and openest view and air. And round about, in the side streets, there are shops of all sorts, so your wife will be able to buy everything herself.”

It was in this house that Engels wrote his main works and ploughed his way through Marx’s illegible scribbles, producing volumes two and three of Das Kapital, as well as his own famous works, Anti-Duhring, Socialism Utopian and Scientific, and The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

It’s a five minute walk from here to the house Karl Marx and his family lived in at the time, a trip Engels would make daily. They loved to take long walks up to Hampstead Heath for picnics, with a compulsory stop at the Jack Straw’s Castle pub.

British police and foreign spies would observe the comings and goings at this strange house from the front of the pub opposite. Engels was relaxed about the attention.  “The imbeciles evidently think we are manufacturing dynamite, when in reality we are discussing whisky.”

Engels loved the good life, entertaining deep into the night with large quantities of claret and champagne laid on. In 1878, he married Lizzy Burns on her deathbed in the house, the younger sister of his lifelong partner Mary, who had died in 1863.

After Marx died in 1883, Helene Demuth, Marx’s maid, moved worked for Engels. When she died, Sophie Kautsky, the estranged wife of the German Social Democratic leader Karl Kautsky moved in, much to the alarm of Eleanor Marx, who feared she was deliberately isolating Engels.

Engels became a leading figure in the new socialist organization Second International, created in 1889. It eventually included the German Social Democrats, the British Labour Party and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. This house acted as both command centre and intellectual hub of the international Labour movement, with Engels becoming known as “The Grand Lama of the Regent’s Park Road”,

Visiting this house was a pilgrimage for young revolutionaries. All manner of socialist newspapers in many languages would arrive to be studied by Engels every day.

5. Engels’s Death: 41 Regents Park Road

Click here for the location. Engels moved to this house in 1894, but would only spend a year here before his death. He died in this house of cancer of the throat on August 5 1895. His last words were said to have included a confession that Helene Demuth’s son Freddy was Marx’s child, but this story has always been contested.

His body was taken to Woking Crematorium after being given a send-off at Waterloo Station by socialist delegations from all over Europe. A small group of friends and comrades, including Eleanor Marx, Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky rowed out to sea near Eastbourne and scattered his ashes. Engels wanted no monument, statue or tombstone. In the years since his death, thousands of statues of Engels and Marx have been erected all over Eastern Europe, China and the Soviet Union.


heikoThanks to Heiko Khoo for the design and information for this walk. The Karl Marx Walking Tour in Soho, London gives a full introduction to Marx’s ideas, legacy and life in London. Find out more at their website.


Germany Style

It started in Bernkastel-Kues market square. The tallest of the boys, you larked in the back of photos making bunny ears above heads. You jumped off the stone step monument and landed in my teenage heart. All right, time to go, the teacher said.

Back at the Hostel, once the Tee? Kaffee? lady buggered off, I asked the girls about you. He likes hand-jobs, they said, ask his cousin Claire. So I did, whilst trekking the hill to Traben-Trarbach. It’s true, she said, he always wants them. Keep moving Girls, the teacher said. Come over later and we’ll talk, she whispered. So I did.

Claire sensed my innocence and offered her advice, and we talked of boys and making moves over bars of Ritter Sport. Does your hand rub over the skin, or move with the skin, I asked. Claire placed a sandwich bag over her bristle brush to try and demonstrate the skill. Oh, I said, and danke schön, and returned to my room, confident in love and lust.

The next day on the river boat along the Mosel bends, I asked you for a favour; to reserve the seat second to the back, and sit with me on the coach to England. And you did. As we neared the Belgium border, passing Winterspelt I think, I told you to close your eyes, covered your lap with my coat and began. You must have told the boys at the back to avert their eyes as they didn’t interrupt. You finished and peered under saying, Oh I wondered about that. I asked you what you meant. The sandwich bag, you said? Mortified, my cheeks flushed red.

Neat trick though, no mess, you said, and squashed it in amongst the empty Fanta bottles in our makeshift coach bin. You joked and called it Germany Style. You must have liked it, as you asked me over Saturday night to do it again.

Litro #125: Germany

Cover Art: Chessing with Loss by Kirstine Roepstorff

Letter from the Editor
Andrew Lloyd-Jones

Short Fiction

Schwellenangst by Jeremy Tiang

Blühende Landschaften by E. E. Mason

Heidelberg, A Beautiful Life: 1946-1951 by Florence Grende

The Fall Of Berlin (Oil On Canvas) by Jim Ruland

Love by the Wall by Robin Wyatt Dunn

Berlin Ghost Story by Pippa Anais Gaubert

This is only a taster of our Germany issue. Become a Litro Member to read the whole issue.

Love by the Wall

The Margraviate of Brandenburg, Berlin, 1248 A.D.

They are building a wall in the swamp.

“Ever since Albert the Bear this backwater has smelled bad,” said Thomas.

“Albert the Bear?  Since Pribislav too.  It stinks.  It has always been stinking,” said Hermann.

“What is there to wall off?  Nothing.”

“You, you were made to dig a ditch.  Your ancestors were ditch-diggers, too, not like mine, mine were chiefs.”

“And what happened?”

“Therein lies a tale,” said Hermann.

[private]“I’d rather not hear it,” said Thomas.

They are building the wall in the swamp, digging the trench, maintaining the sluices to keep the area dry.  Still, water seeps in.  The wall will never stand for more than a week, but this is where the Rat wants it.

“The Rat can kiss my ass,” said Hermann.

“And it will, when you’re in the stocks.  You think I’ll guard you then?”

“Fraulein, bring us some water!”

The Fraulein lingered near the workers, watching the younger men.


“Get it yourself, lecher!”

The men laughed and Hermann’s face grew dark.  “So I’ll get it myself,” he muttered.

The sky was clear;  autumn lingered richly.  Hermann eyed the Fraulein as he brought the water dipper to his lips.  His wife had left him for a merchant nearly seven years gone now;  he felt like a widow.

The Fraulein was a Sorb, or anyway her grandfathers had been.  The Margraves had brought civilization and the love of Christ to this backwater generations before;  some heathens persisted in their worship.

Hermann walked up behind the woman and whispered in her ear:  “Do you wish it were one of your ringed ditches, the one we dig, little pagan?”

She turned and caught his hand as he reached for her ass.

“You will never come to my bratchina, old man,” she whispered back.

“Then you will not have my lute.”

“You play it badly anyway.”  She frowned but her eyes were fiery;  she was a lonely woman.

“A bad song and a happy hearth,” Hermann replied, and nodded to her, returning to his ditch.

He dug, and he dug.  This ditch was partially ringed too, though not like the sacred groves of the Sorbish people.  Hermann assumed he had some Sorbish blood too;  the Margraves were not particular about peasant marriages, as long as their taxes were paid.

Some said the Fraulein was a whore;  Hermann was old enough to know that a whore waited inside every woman, but for this one it still had not quite yet shown its face.

The priest said this life was part illusion, only a journey towards the greater truth of heaven.  Hermann certainly wanted to meet Jesus ― great men had always fascinated him ― but part of him understood better the obeisances of the Sorbs, the reverence for this green, brown world.

Hermann did not see her for three days.  He spent most of Sunday drunk on mead;  he considered hanging himself.  It was not the first Sunday he had spent this way.

The Margrave grew nervous and demanded stronger walls;  forever uneasy lies the crown, but Hermann’s head rested no easier crownless.  He only seemed to grow more unhappy as the years passed.

He fucked her against the wall the next night, holding her mouth and shoving himself into her, listening with his whole body to every stifled cry the madchen made, feeling great pain even in that act of pleasure, unable to forget that it would not last.  He could not have her forever, and he wanted to.  He wanted to win and own her, to subdue her and tame her, to transform her slavic bitterness into saxon schadenfreude.

He came in her and shouted into the night.

What were the faerie circles, and where did they go, and why?  What spirits still remain?  It was not a joyful traipsing trip through the wood, the older man and madchen, but a wary spell, his steps heavy and hers light, the air and sky alive with the music of the sun.

“Where are you going, woman?  I’m getting tired.”

“Stop complaining!” she shouted as she ran ahead.

As on earth, so it is heaven.  Allegiance to the Pope, to the Holy Roman Emperor, allegiance to the margrave, allegiance to god.  But the women keep the dirk, not in their skirts, but in their minds, slipping under monotheistic hierarchies to swing the cycle out again, to fire their dreams like they fire their cunts, damning any effort to agree on the permanence of kings.

Pan or Innocent IV?  Tiu or Jarilo?

She stripped off her dress and stepped within the grove, the yellow light matching her hair.  Somewhere near, the spirits rustled, moving through her flesh to stir the world.

And what can man know of god, when he has woman?

They never married, though she bore his child.  He named his son Zarek, because he had a strange dream.

I hold you like my own skin, strung out and dangling in my hand, I wish I were dead, he had cried in the dream, holding his son, bleeding, by the wall he had built.

Berlin, the marsh city, felt tired to him.  In his son’s eyes, he saw the fire he had never had.

“Zarek, bring me the beer,” he said, watching his son’s face.  His son did as he was told.  The boy’s mother was out in the woods, doing whatever it was she did when alone and walking and singing to the trees.

“Your mother is a thief, you know.  She stole my heart,” he told his son.  The boy watched him, solemnly.

“Will you worship a German god, or her Slavic ones, boy?”

“Let me have some beer, Da,” the boy said, and the father gave it to him.

The wall did not stop the next margrave who took an interest in Berlin.  Years later, Zarek’s mother left Berlin, without a word, when her son was seventeen.

Zarek took his father’s tools and went east in search of her.

So too did Ing go, long ago, in the age of runes.  A man who went east and drove a knife into a million tongues.  What is a wall to history?

From Ing, England, and one bold man, inside the curl of tongue and logic of language, can inspire friends into worshippers.  What is Man, that we always want avatars in place of hominids?

Zarek never returned to Berlin, not even for his father’s funeral.[/private]

Heidelberg, A Beautiful Life: 1946-1951

How long before they could afford our flat with its glass French doors, gardens, and pond that so enchanted me? Constructed of small stones, about two feet high and perfectly round, swimming in it, outsized goldfish, shimmering with tones ranging from silver and coral to coal and coral.   Watching them as a child, I longed to join in, to glide through water aimlessly, secure, in that compact world.

“We had a beautiful life in Heidelberg,” my parents’ friend, Sara, says.

She, one of the youngest to survive the war in the Polish forests at age fourteen, my only source for family history, now that Mameh and Tateh are both gone.

Holocaust survivors, they had all emigrated to American Occupied Heidleberg from Poland. To begin anew.

[private]With the German Reichmark worthless and goods scarce, a black market economy thrived.

And, according to Sara, so did we.

“What were they dealing?” I ask Sara about Tateh, and his partner, her husband, Moishe.

“Cigarettes, with cigarettes you could buy anything, With cigarettes I paid for my gall bladder operation.”

In fact cigarettes became commodity-money, used by everyone to buy and sell  in Germany, from 1945 until 1948, when the Deutshe Mark began to bolster the economy.

“They had people who drove them around. My husband had a Mercedes-Benz.”

“You had a girl who stayed with you. A nurse.”

Four years old at the time, I remember several.

For a hungry populace, cigarettes, easily transported, standardized and divisible, bought food.  At the time the Allies rationed less than 1000 calories per day. With cigarettes as money one could buy butter, eggs and meat from a farmer, sugar and other staples on the black and gray markets.

Tateh ignored convention and relied on cunning to provide.  I don’t know precisely how he operated. He may have bartered for cigarettes from the American soldiers who imported one thousand tons per month. Plenty of tobacco money there.

Sara doesn’t know the particulars.

“I never asked.”

I never asked either, although it’s now clear how my parents furnished the sterling flatware, candelabras, porcelain, and Czech cut crystal gracing our shelves.

Of Heidelberg I remember the earthy dark fragrance of fresh brewed coffee wafting down from a neighbor’s flat on Haupstrasse, our street. I called her Frau Kaffe. Her coffee, scarce at the time, likely procured by Tateh.

I remember the Neckar River, just steps from our flat, and tossing bits of bread to the milky white swans gliding on it, the pleasure I felt in feeding those graceful creatures.

I remember gingerbread houses with their red tiled roofs stacked at odd angles, the grand castle and mountains surrounding the town.

I remember snow.

And I remember Mameh screaming  Ess! Ess!, Eat! Eat!

Mameh targeted me for childhood chubbiness, perhaps it was then fashion, more likely to shore up my reserve of fat and fuel. Just in case. In photos my parents, both portly, appeared to be catching up on lost time, their girth claiming space that had been denied them, just as they filled up on the luxuries of apartment, car, plenty.

In Mameh’s photo album they’re in smiling groups, fifteen, twenty of them celebrating, squeezed next to each other around long linen covered tables laden with platters of food and bottles of alcohol. Page after page of them. Here they are vacationing in a Baden, perched on the rim of a pool, thick arms around each other like loving, happy family. I sense their deep connection to one another, both in the physical ease they seem to share, and in bittersweet words held just inside the flicker of their eyes, we’re alive.

I turn a few pages and here are the women, also in groups, proudly posing, holding up their babies for the camera like hard won trophies. And here I am, maybe two or three, wearing a silky dress with Peter Pan collar and cuffs, clutching a plush toy, a schnauzer, a toy goat knee tall beside me. Yes, it does indeed look like a beautiful life. A bubble life, insulated from the outside reality of a broken down, hungry populace. Perhaps that was cause for celebration too.

In the end they didn’t care to live among Germans, didn’t care to hear neighbors bemoan Der Fuhrer’s defeat, or whine about the prosperity they might have enjoyed had he succeeded.

“If you wouldn’t be alive, I would have been a big man,” Sara’s neighbor told her one afternoon, while picking up little Hans, her son’s playmate.

“If they had won the war, and I was dead, he would have been a big shot,” she explains.

It must have been a difficult choice: Israel or America. My parents knew Israel would embrace them. There they might settle among their own kind, revel in a homeland. But it would be a harsh life. By 1948 Israel was at war with its Arab neighbors and they had had enough of strife. They would, all of them, surviving friends and family, eventually emigrate to America. In America they would be sheathed in the companionship of shared history, and together face the hurdles of learning a new language, navigating a strange culture and deciding how they would earn money. Tateh’s great-aunt Frances, who had the foresight to sail to America well before the war, sponsored our family.

They would begin anew, carving out yet another iteration of their lives.[/private]

Blühende Landschaften

The path was once asphalt: you can see that straight away, but moss has almost grown over it, the richest green, creeping in from the edges. The ornamental birches of the garden have run wild: underfoot there are scatters of small leaves, as if someone has shaken the shapes from a thousand playing cards, and we’re walking over a carpet of golden hearts and spades. From somewhere nearby comes the hollow drone of a woodpecker. Otherwise, nothing.

It’s been twenty years since the Russian army left here, and no one’s used it since. As we struggle along the path to the house, snagging our clothes on thorns and brushing creepers aside, a statue looms to our right. The round head, the high cheekbones, the pointed beard and short neck are unmistakable: Lenin, poor man, is flaking badly, abandoned to overlook the empty bramble-filled bowl of the fountain. He gazes over it into the far distance, straight-backed, his chin raised, ignoring the dilapidation behind him, the broken windows and rustling trees.

This whole area was once a Soviet army zone, forbidden to Germans. It’s a place of lakes and pine and beech trees, endless forest. The woods around here are full of army barracks, their roofs falling in and teenage graffiti blurring the hammer-and-sickle mosaics by their doors. But this house, a grand mansion with a baroque stone balcony and a wide terrace sweeping up to the front doors, was built for rest cures back in the 20s. It’s a short walk from a lake; nearby are the old vacation villas of wealthy Berliners, confiscated by the Nazis, then commandeered by the Soviets, and then abandoned for years.

We skirt the house. Basement windows still have their decorative ironwork — a sunburst now scuffed with mould. The jolliness has been sobered with a layer of pale army paint. All over the building, plasterwork is peeling off, and way up on the fourth floor, under the roof, a sapling has taken root. Behind the building, a recessed door leads into a long grassy embankment. The door is a sheet of grey metal, scored and blistered, with a row of  solid bolts and hinges. It’s half-open. We hesitate at the entrance to the bunker. “Want to look in?” — “You’ve got to be joking!” We peer inside. Bare concrete walls; a coffee cup. A sign in Cyrillic, turned upside down.

After reunification, Helmut Kohl promised the former GDR  “blühende Landschaften” — blossoming landscapes, a vision of the economic abundance the West could bestow. Twenty years later, towns on the eastern side of the country have bled thousands of workers to Munich and Frankfurt and Stuttgart. Local rumours say this house has been bought by developers, who are still wondering what to do with it. A hotel, perhaps. In summer the area’s popular with day trippers, and some ideas work, while others inexplicably fail. We turn back, down the overgrown path, back over the golden leaves. Behind us, the ruins, the silence, the eager forest.

The Fall Of Berlin (Oil On Canvas)

02 May 1945

Captain Stoddard:

At your request, I have set down a description of my duties from 1933 until the time of my arrest. I have taken the liberty of providing details of a personal nature. Although these may not be of immediate interest to you, I feel they provide a fuller picture of my circumstances.

I was born in 1890 in the village of Ferch to the northwest of Potsdam. My father was the village doctor, my mother its nurse. If this association strikes you as quaint, it is because the Deutschland is different now than it was then.

All my life I wanted to be an artist. Perhaps it is a common ambition in young men of privilege, but in me it was a comical one for I was entirely without talent. I did, however, possess a fascination for the interior of things, a curiosity that leads to the joys of classification, which are meager and few, but are the wellsprings of discovery.

[private]Discipline, obedience, restraint: these were the skills my father strove to cultivate, perhaps because he recognized them as his own. Thus, I learned to shunt the hot wax of my artistic impulses into the mold of the scholar, and the peculiar habits of my youth served me well as a critic and a collector. All things happen for a reason.

I joined the National Socialist Party in October of 1933. I want to make it clear that my motive for joining the party was to enhance my career. I was not much interested in politics. The world of art was more than enough for my overzealous imagination. Perhaps you think this irresponsible of me; perhaps you have a right to think that way. I understood, sooner than most I think, that the National Socialist worldview was stridently straightforward, and just as there was room for only one Führer, one Reich, and one people, in the world the party foresaw there would be room for just one kind of art.

Uninspired depictions of farm life and rural landscapes hold no great sway over me, and one can only look at so many idealized depictions of Teutonic mythology in the neo-classical style before slipping into a kind of intellectual stupor. These were the works the party championed, and it stood to reason they would, in time, become the only works the Reich would deem suitable for viewing. As you well know, I was right. The new works went up and while the propagandists were busy ensuring that it served their purposes, I made it my business to safeguard the German public from “inferior” art. I amassed, as you might imagine, a handsome collection. I was left to manage things as I pleased. If I had had a title, it would have been “Minister of Degenerate Art.”

I never would have been able to manage all this without my peerless assistant, Alexander Overbruck. I met Alex, the quintessential Austrian craftsmen, during a trip to Madrid. His lungs were so weak the doctors had sent him to the dry climate to recuperate, but his love of Goya was greater than his concern for his well-being and I found him at the Prado working feverishly as a restorer. In Alex I discovered a colleague who possessed the talent I had once yearned for, but without the brashness that transforms ambition into immodesty. I came to know him quite well during my visit to Madrid, and I urged him to return to Berlin with me. Despite my best efforts to persuade him, Alex declined; but he promised to come north as soon as his health permitted.

A year later, he was in Berlin. Alex might have joined me sooner if not for his lingering concern that the political climate might be more detrimental to his health than the harsh winters. His fear stemmed from an accident of ancestry (his maternal grandmother had been a Jew) and his libertine ways. The former was a trivial matter that was easily concealed, and the latter ensured I had an entertaining travel companion. Within a matter of months it became clear that Alex’s talent as a restorer was without equal. He was a master copyist, possessed an eye for forgeries, and was a tireless worker. He was, in a word, indispensable.

I will tell you a story that reveals something of his personality. Shortly after his arrival in Berlin, we were sitting in the parlor of a manor house that had been done up in the Tudor style. The gentleman we were calling on–an officer of the Luftwaffe–was an arrogant boor who had no appreciation for the artwork we were selling him: an exquisite portrait of the Earl of Roquefort by an obscure Frenchman named Frowst. The pilot kept us in a stuffy room, arguing over the price for hours. When Alex had heard enough, he unrolled the canvas on the table and threw open the curtains, flooding the parlor with light. Alex walked the man through the painting, patiently explaining the history of its composition, the merits of its technique. It was all nonsense, of course. Even if the damn fool managed to follow Alex’s fantastic description, there was no conceivable way he could see it with all the light stabbing into the room.

But I saw it. This wasn’t the original portrait, but a forgery Alex had created, and it was a not a perfect forgery: reflected in the mirror above the bureau was the silhouette of a donkey. Alex had turned the Earl’s reflection into an ass. I don’t need to tell you what the repercussions would have been if the correction had been discovered, but Alex was full of mischief.

The war did not adversely affect our business. On the contrary, the way the map of Europe was being reconfigured created favorable situations for the collector who learned to look past his nose instead of down it. You could say it was a buyer’s market. However, when the advance on Leningrad was repulsed, everything changed.

It suddenly became imperative to get the most valuable pieces out of the country lest they be seized, stolen, or destroyed. Alex and I threw ourselves into this effort with great vigor. Technically, we were smugglers; but in the east, or so we were informed, a work of art that did not meet with the Mongols’ approval was slashed with a bayonet and set aflame. We were not going to let that happen to our collection. For a time I feared the Führer might come to regard these assets as a form of currency, a commodity he could turn into armaments for his infantry, but I don’t believe he ever seriously considered liquidating the collection. Alex and I did the best we could. We exerted great caution, in many cases delivering the goods to their new hiding places ourselves. We went to Switzerland, Portugal–places where the people were not gripped by the spasms of war. Alex was particularly fond of Lisbon. It helps that I never tired of his company. During our ten years together we seldom, if ever, quarreled. I miss him desperately.

You may be wondering how we were able to accomplish so much without attracting attention from the party. Please understand that Alex and I were spokes on the great Aryan wheel with the Reichstag at its hub. Senior party members were expected to lead by example, but having neither supervisors nor charges we seldom looked to the Reichschancellery for instructions as to how our business should be conducted and, though we dared not say it aloud, concluded.

As the Red Army’s noose drew tighter, old-line Berliners like myself were quick to realize that what was right for the Reich was all wrong for Berlin. For reasons that baffled me then, and continue to flummox me now, the Führer and those closest to him had reached the conclusion that the perpetuity of the Reich and the preservation of Berlin did not run a parallel course, and it woke us up to the fact that we Berliners had a great deal to lose. If there was a plan to protect the city, it was implemented too late. This failure was devastating. The streets were filled with refugees: men, women, and children whose homes were destroyed and had nowhere to go. It is my opinion that the people of Berlin needlessly suffered, but it wasn’t until Alex made the observation that the rats no longer fled at the approach his footsteps that I realized how grave our situation had become. The liquidation of the city was underway.

Around this time I stumbled upon a painting in the attic workshop that I had never seen before. It depicted a scene from a city under siege. A wave of rodents pursued a howling figure through the rubble. To the left, a man reeled in a fish from the black pool of a shell hole. In the background, hundreds of eyes peered from shattered windows and doorways. A giant cloud hovered over the landscape. When I asked Alex where the painting had come from, he smiled and confessed it was his own. He called it The Fall of Berlin.

It became clear that things on the frontline were not going nearly as well as Goebbels and his army of propagandists wanted us to believe. Then there were the air attacks, which made the nights unbearable. The building shook with such force that we could feel the vibrations all the way down in the basement. Time and time again they knocked down the radio masts and Alex would scurry up to the roof to rig them anew. I begged him not to go, but he would hear none of it. He was, without question, the bravest man I ever knew.

When the Red Army began to attack the city in earnest, lobbing shells at us with their long-range guns, the rooftop became much too dangerous, and we had to rely on other sources for information. Phone service within some sectors remained intact, but communication with the world outside the city became increasingly intermittent. When we managed to get through we still heard that familiar series of clicks that reminded us the Gestapo was listening. The news we received was of a sensational, speculative, or altogether lurid nature. Reports from the front kept our minds in a near-constant state of turmoil. You could say we became numb from rumor. Where facts are lacking, lies abound. But we did not give up. Alex would not permit me to lose hope.

Anyone who was in Berlin will tell you about the smoke. It mingled with the dust that rose from the shelling and was freshened by fires burning all over the city. It was as omnipresent as it was unbearable, a miasma that blanketed the city. Our thirst was intense and we were powerless to slake it. Water was scarce; but alcohol provided some relief and we were seldom sober by day’s end. We dragged our mattresses into the basement, plucked wine from the cellar, and spat great gobs of mucus that was as black as the soles of our shoes. I was struck by how much the city was coming to resemble Alex’s painting.

We had been misinformed about the quantity, quality, and effectiveness of Berlin’s defenses. The Reichschancellery had lost all contact with our armies, and the generals coming in from the field were faced with the unwelcome task of informing the Führer that the armies on his beloved map board existed only in his imagination. There was little sense in being the bearer of bad news. Rattenhuber, with whom I was close, told me staff members who had offices facing the Reichschancellery’s inner courtyard moved to other parts of the building to avoid witnessing the executions.

There were no army groups to mobilize, no troops moving in concert, no secret weapons to drop from the skies. Steiner had failed. So had Weidler’s 56th Tank Corps. General Wenck, our best last hope, had disappeared. Although there were those who groused that that which had never materialized could not be said to have been lost, it was assumed by all but the most fanatical that Wenck’s failure to link up with the Ninth Army Group made it clear that if there was to be an eleventh hour rescue it could not come from the Wehrmacht. All we had left were old men and young boys. The sight of them shuffling down the street in their ill-fitting uniforms to drill in the woods, holding their arms as clumsily as one might handle a shovel, made my heart sick.

We had heard that makeshift fortifications were sprouting up in the most unlikely places–ruined hospitals, abandoned schools, bombed-out factory buildings–and that some of these places housed as many as a thousand men. They had been given submachine guns, grenades, and faustpatronen—a favorite with the young boys who dreamt of destroying tanks with their new toys. I witnessed a training exercise and saw a boy of fourteen teetering with the weapon on his shoulder like a sailor walking a sloping deck. This was our defense? Shameful.

In the Reichstag, where piccolos of chilled champagne were still being served by men in pressed tails, it seemed not so inconceivable that the right man might marshal our motley armies together long enough for the English or Americans to intervene and force a reprieve from what the Russians had in store for us. It seemed not so difficult a task, not with the perpetuity of the Thousand Year Reich at stake; but the rumble of a lone tank motoring down the Königsplatz, fuel tanks sloshing, was enough to make any sane person realize that this was the stuff of fantasy.

I proposed to Alex, faithful Alex, that we quit Berlin at once. Alex agreed. Having determined that we had scant time to waste, I began making inquires. We could not leave without turning over a copy of what Alex and I referred to as The Inventory–our detailed catalog of treasures and where they were hidden.

I asked an anxious member of the Führer’s Special Guard, one of Mohnke’s men, when Captain Gorgast would be available, and he informed me that the captain was among those who were making one last attempt to dislodge the Führer from his apartments below the Reichschancellery garden. The guard did not know when or if Gorgast would return, for he suspected that if the Führer refused to leave, Gorgast would join the others in OberSalzberg. We had the distinct impression we were being railroaded.

That evening, 30 April, I was informed that my appointment with the elusive captain had been postponed indefinitely, but if I liked, I could give my report to an under-secretary named Tensch. Alex and I went to the Reichstag at once. It struck me as strange that the building was unscathed by artillery, when the Tiergarten had been reduced to a field of charred black tree stumps standing in circles of ash. We were taken to a records room in a western wing of the building. I gathered that until recently, this part of the Reichstag had witnessed few visitors: the carpet was plush and had some spring to it, and the upholstered chairs gave off the scent of fresh leather. The chamber in which I was to be interviewed turned out to be a conference room that had been converted into a makeshift depository. The tables were crammed with crates of files, stacks of dossiers, reams of reports. Functionaries sat thumbing through documents and dividing the papers into piles. Others busied themselves by ferrying files from stacks on the floor to the burning trash barrel that sat near the open window.

Tensch was amiable but distracted. He had a broad leathery face of the sort one associated with frontline soldiers. He looked exhausted and he kept staring out the window. The sun had begun its down-going and I couldn’t tell which Tensch found more distressing: his chore or the coming of another night. He seemed not to see me at all.

I told him what I’d come to tell. Tensch muttered, I see, when it was obvious he did not. The man could not manufacture the will to understand the full measure of what I was telling him. At the time this angered me greatly. The destruction of secret documents did not inspire confidence in the government’s pledge that we were safe, and for those of us in the Reichstag, the very object upon which every Red rocket, rifle, and bayonet was fixed, that pledge was all we had. With the complete erasure of the Reich in evidence all around me, I could not help but think that as soon as Alex and I got up from the table and exited the room, my report on the treasures we had amassed would find its way to the trash barrel.

When the interview was over, I found Alex waiting for me outside. Alex, ever the resourceful one, busied himself gathering limes, hard gray-green orbs that had been knocked from the trees by the force of the shelling.  He looked like one of Breughel’s wise peasants. For a long time we did not speak to one another. There was nothing to say. It was time to run.

The road to Munich was overrun. All manner of vehicles clogged the throughway: motorized units, jeeps, horse carts and the occasional sedan bearing the National Socialist standard. The people were in an ugly temper and altercations erupted when vehicles couldn’t be moved out of the way fast enough. So many of the people fleeing the city were party members they were calling it the Reich Refugee Road. Everyone had hit upon the same idea at once. We made the Russian’s job easier by acting like a gaggle of frightened schoolchildren.

We moved to the south, but the rubble dictated our course. It made the roads slow going and I could not see how those who had fled in motorcars would be able to make it through the streets. Perhaps they didn’t. Our progress was slow but steady, even if we could not always be certain if we were headed in the right direction. A gray pallor fed by smoke and debris obliterated the sky. There were roads awash in rubble where entire buildings had collapsed, yet in other places we caught glimpses of courtyards utterly unmolested where old women dusted their flowers.

The sound of shelling was the only constant. It neither intensified nor receded, and I had an easy time convincing myself that the sound was the score to a tragic opera, foretold in the mythology of our ancestors. Our Gotterdammerung was nigh. What more evidence did we need?

If one were inclined to make a study of how people behaved when a great society disappears, Berlin provided ample material. Alex and I engaged no one. I love my city, but I had no desire to be pressed into service defending it. A fool’s mission. Soldiers roamed the streets. The S.S. indiscriminately stripped civilians of their clothing and checked them for special markings. To speak of surrender was a death sentence, and executions were swiftly carried out. On several occasions we discovered the way had been blocked by the Gestapo, who in their zeal–to curry favor? Exact revenge? Solidify a reputation for cruelty?–engaged in the wholesale dispatch of traitors simply because they had been authorized to do so. Corpses dangled from lampposts, shiny in the spring heat, a beacon for crows and flies. Broken-necked bodies were flung out of windows, suspended by sheets and sash cords. If one could find a tree still standing it was almost always decorated with the body of a German soldier. These orders were carried out with such fervor that I found it easy to imagine how the enemy must see us. This revelation left me feeling quite unwell. It would be reassuring to know that I was not the only German who felt this way.

What disheartened me the most was the sight of our citizens, thousands and thousands of them, cast adrift in a sea of calamity. They kept telling us there was no army, but I saw them with my own eyes: listless soldiers, useless Luftwaffe men, sailors of every stripe, nurses on bicycles, men pushing farm carts, Hitler Youth recruits, graybeards in their sixties, thin boys in the pale flower of their youth slouching about in pairs, young soldiers clutching at their uniform as if they were ashamed of what it stood for, Mercedes sedans stuffed with soldiers bristling with insolence, wounded men being jockeyed about in wheelbarrows and motorcycle sidecars, entire divisions of men crippled by injury. For the want of a few men with a talent for organization, our once-proud sons roamed the streets like animals.

Our intention was to reach the Potsdam Corridor, but no matter which direction we fled we felt as if we were marching into the teeth of the Red Army’s maw. We encountered a hysterical private who told us his entire unit had been wiped out in an instant. When we asked him how this had happened he informed us the Russians were advancing 650 artillery units per kilometer. We calmed the man down as best we could. He needed medical attention we were powerless to provide. The numbers were so incomprehensible, we regarded them as the ravings of a madman, but we learned, much to our horror, that he spoke the truth.

How had it come to this? I had imagined, and rather naively I admit, that the Russians would come at Berlin from the East, the Americans from the West, and that they would meet at the Reichstag. So you can imagine my dismay when I learned that the two fronts of the Red Army–Konev’s Ukrainian and Zhukov’s Byelorussian–had linked up and encircled the city.

We reached an abandoned factory not 200 meters from the Tetlow Canal. Alex went up on the roof to see what he could see. When he came back down his ashen face betrayed him. I begged him to tell me what he had seen. They’re everywhere, he said. I demanded to know how many, how far, and when he told me–As far as Potsdam–I, too, fell silent. All your life you know that you will die someday, but you don’t know it the way you know that your eyes are blue or that you prefer port to sherry, until death is standing on your doorstep, asking to be let in.

The Potsdam Corridor was closed. It had been a rumor, a cruel ruse. Tempelhof Airfield was our only hope. If we were lucky, we’d find a plane. If we were unlucky, well, we’d just have to make our own luck.

Now greater difficulties faced us. If we went back the way we came, we ran the risk of chancing upon those who might take us for deserters, which, in a narrow sense–the only kind the Gestapo understood–we were. It was a moot point, for our journey was already over. While puzzling over which path was likely to be the least perilous, Alex collapsed. I opened his jacket to loosen his collar and saw the blood. He’d been shot, of course, while he was up on the roof. He had tried to conceal it from me to ensure that I made it out of the city alive. He asked for a cigarette he knew I didn’t have. That’s when I knew that Alex would die. I knew it in the same way that a painting would sometimes reveal itself to me, my understanding so instantaneously thorough and complete that I didn’t need to know anything else about the artist or his intentions, indeed I preferred not to know, because now the work knew me. I put my arms around him and wept.

Alex insisted I go, but I would not leave my partner to die in the street alone. I refused.

He pressed something into my hand, a rolled up piece of canvas soaked with blood. I opened it up and saw that it had been cut from his painting. He’d destroyed it so that no soldier would ever lay eyes on it. His dying wish was that I give him my honest opinion of his work. I told him the truth: that it was masterful yet blunt and not much fun to look at. He smiled and told me to take a closer look. I did so, and there in the bottom corner of the cutting was a hole in the cloud where a single ray of light shone through.

That’s you, Dieter, he said with his last breath.

That is when your men found me, Captain. To their credit they treated us with dignity. I wish there was a way I could repay you for that, for it says a great deal about the kind of leader you are.

As for the inventory, I am afraid I cannot assist you. Alex copied every major work that came into our possession, often several times. We disseminated so many fakes and forgeries throughout Europe it would take a lifetime to hunt through all the private collections and separate the copies from their originals. Perhaps it was foolish of me to entrust all of Europe’s degenerate art to a mass producer of fakes, but I could deny Alex nothing. He is the only one who knows where the originals are and now he is gone.

My past is clear, my conscience is not. For some history is as distant and remote as a patch of land seen through dense fog, but not for me. I should have taken Alex to Lisbon where he could pursue his own work in his own studio and drink in all the warm air and sunlight he required. I do not regret the loss of the art that slipped through my fingers; I mourn the masterpieces Alex will never create.

Captain, we live in a world that finds lies preferable to the truth. I wish you the best of luck sorting them out.


                                                                                                Yours sincerely,


Litro #125: Germany – Letter from the Editor

litro125_germany_singleWillkommen! At the helm of European policy, champion of the Euro, home of the largest economy in the union, Germany would appear to be one of Europe’s biggest success stories, its eyes fixed firmly on a brighter, stable future for the continent.

But the submissions to this month’s issue of Litro would seem to tell a different story. The Germany they describe is haunted by its past. There is an air of uncertainty and at times, tension to each of these pieces—whether born of regret of past actions, fear of unresolved confrontation, or simply the frustration at not being able to leave history behind.

In Jeremy Tiang’s Schwellenangst, the central character is advised against visiting the abandoned Nazi resort of Prora on the island of Rügen—“Go to Binz instead,” she is told. “Nicer there. Not so much history.” We walk through the grounds of E.E. Mason’s beautiful desolate Blühende Landschaften, watching an indifferent nature reclaim layers of history—from affluent Berliners to German Wehrmacht to Soviet occupiers—Lenin is left, “abandoned to overlook the empty bramble-filled bowl of the fountain.” Heidelberg, A Beautiful Life, an extract from Florence Grenede’s memoir Out of Silence, tells the story of a family’s post-war success, but one which shrouded in mystery as thick as smoke from the cigarettes, while in Jim Ruland’s The Fall of Berlin (Oil on Canvas) the narrator recounts a tale of despair and deception, the consequences of which reach from the past to the present. Love by the Wall by Robin Wyatt Dunn offers us a slightly different view of Berlin—regrets already forming in the city’s marshy foundations; and Pippa Anais Gaubert’s Berlin Ghost Story finds the narrator literally becoming a ghost—a condition which gives her a way to relieve the pain of reality, but one for which there is, sadly, no cure.

Although only the one mentions it explicitly, in many respects, all of this month’s stories are ghost stories. But while Germany may have a haunted past, it’s the way these stories confront it, the frisson of tragedy that runs through each of them, that makes them so compelling.

Viel Vergnügen

Andrew Lloyd-Jones
May 2013


She can just make out the words in the fading sunlight: ‘The only good system is a sound system.’ The concrete façade is marred in patches, but several stretches are still pristine grey, damaged only by the salt air and bird droppings – the vandals defeated by its sheer length. Most of the graffiti is in German, but language here is no badge of authenticity. Everyone Joy has met seems eager to parade their English before her. Even the older residents, the ones who learnt Russian at school, pepper their dialogue with it. ‘Auf meinem To-do List stehen drei Urgent Emails.’

[private]Her own German is rusty, but fine for ordinary conversation. She isn’t bothered about details like gender. It makes no sense, anyway, that ‘sea’ is feminine but ‘ocean’ neutral. She tries both out, looking at the glittering water just visible through a screen of pine trees. ‘Das Meer. Die Ostsee.’ The Baltic, starting here on the Northern German coast and rising in a silver arc along the Scandinavian peninsula.

She has been walking for almost an hour, yet there is no sign the building will surprise her. Its uniformity is strength, the sheer brute force of a monolithic bulwark against – what? On the way over, when they stopped for lunch, the fat woman who ran the café tried to talk them out of staying there. ‘Go to Binz instead,’ she insisted. ‘Nicer there. Not so much history.’

Joy tried to explain that history was exactly what they were after, why the school was sending twenty-three of its brightest A-Level candidates on a journey away from anything normal teenagers might find exciting. The Head of Department having decided the way to truly understand a language is to know the past of its speakers, they have gone in search of artefacts.

And now, Prora. They arrived that afternoon, but the real exploration will take place tomorrow. Her solo walk around is ostensibly to identify potential problems in their route, but really she wants to experience the building without the distraction of two dozen well-meaning but unbiddable young people. The daytrippers have long gone, and she has the narrow footpath to herself.

Even with the wind, she can hear vague throbbing that resolves into a bass line as she nears a row of broken windows with light behind them. Not the steady glow of normal lamps, but flickers and flashes. Torches? Then she gets closer and it is obvious. As she watches, a tallish red-haired man steps from a window, finding his footing on the ledge, lighting a cigarette. They eye each other. She calls up, Englishly polite even when speaking another language, ‘Entschuldigung, ist hier einen Rave?’ Hoping the German word is the same as in English, as they so often are.

He shrugs. ‘Name it what you like.’ His English is excellent, with only a trace of accent. ‘Come up, come in, if you like. Why not?’

There are many reasons why not, but she finds herself testing the first step of the ladder, gripping a rung, easing herself up. The man waits, and offers her the hand which isn’t holding a cigarette. ‘Peter,’ he beams.

‘Joy,’ she offers in return. Now that she’s up here, the music is a physical force, thrumming through thick walls and empty windows. He leads her into the room, still smoking, and she has the impression of chintzy furniture tortured by birds and rainwater, spiderwebs layered thickly over the ceiling.

Peter hands her a beer, slamming the bottle open against a table edge. She accepts it carefully, wiping the rim before putting her lips to it. ‘You like this?’ he says loudly, his hair gleaming like copper in the hazy light, and she nods. He smiles like a wolf.

There are about forty bodies in the space, mostly older than she’d have expected – some even in their thirties. They are dancing in a listless, bobbing sort of way. The music is some kind of European house, not all that different to a normal nightclub anywhere. Perhaps the location is the only subversive thing about this gathering.

Peter is waving at a girl, who walks over to them. ‘My twin sister, Sigrid,’ he says into Joy’s ear. She has the same shade of hair, matte and unruly. Joy smiles uncertainly and she responds by leaning forward for a kiss, which ends awkwardly as she moves back while Joy is leaning in for the other cheek. ‘Not very rock and roll,’ says Sigrid cheerfully, and drags them both onto the dance floor. It’s been a while since Joy has done this. She stands swaying for a while before falling into the rhythm, though she is stiff next to long-limbed, dextrous Peter and Sigrid.

After twelve songs or so, Joy begins to feel bored, and this too is something she remembers from her clubbing days. Even when the melodies vary, all dancing seems to be against the same beat. These tunes, all cool detached topnotes with electronic riffs, feel assembled from parts by a robot.

Around the third time she has this thought, her beer dangling emptily, Peter nods at the window and Sigrid smiles, then all three of them are scampering down the ladder like children into the damp night air. ‘Enough,’ says Sigrid, as if instructing an apprentice. ‘The art of parties is knowing when to leave.’

‘Who organises this?’ says Joy, eliciting another shrug from Peter. ‘Someone. Some people. They come here from the town. There is not much happening her on Rügen, I think. They party and they leave. We heard about this from a friend.’

‘Where in Germany do you come from?’

‘Where in Germany?’ Peter mimics. ‘Stockholm. Did you think I sound German?’

Joy is about to apologise when they laugh and instead she asks, ‘How long have you been here?’

‘On the island?’ Peter shrugs. ‘Yesterday. It’s easy to get here, Sweden is just—’ He gestures vaguely towards the trees, to the dappled water beyond. They reach a sandy, shallow slope, dotted with fir trees sweeping down to the unseen ocean. It is tempting to suggest a dip in the dark, but they were warned at the youth hostel about dangerous currents, and the water is probably cold. Already, the evening is falling into more orderly lines, and Joy instinctively knows the single aberration of the not-quite-rave is all she has appetite for. She is aware of her sensible shoes, her glasses, her utter lack of what Sigrid would call ‘rock and roll’. But that is fine. She will sit for a time with her new friends, then head to bed.

‘You are staying nearby?’

‘In the Jugendherberge.’ She gargles her ‘r’s a little to sound like a more proficient speaker.

‘Oh.’ Sigrid wrinkles her nose. ‘We passed by earlier. All neat, ping pong table and barbecue pit outside? I don’t know why people stay.’

‘But a party is okay?’

‘That is different. The building is empty, ruined, we don’t pretend it’s fine, we see it and we dance. But that side – painted white, pretending it’s so nice and perfect, no.’

Joy takes a pull from her beer, not sure she can formulate a coherent response.

‘Do you know the history of this?’ says Peter.

‘Of course. We’re here to experience the place.’

‘My grandmother wanted to stay here,’ says Sigrid unexpectedly. ‘I read her old diaries, when she died. She talked about Prora like paradise. How great the Führer was, to build this. Cheap holidays for workers.’

‘Kraft durch Freude,’ says Joy.

‘Freedom through happiness, yes. You have researched.’

‘Your grandmother?’

‘She was German. So were my parents.’

‘And now you’re here instead of her.’

‘We thought we would see if there is any furniture left in the bedrooms,’ says Peter. ‘But now I think we will sleep here. Siggy? Here it is nice.’

‘If no rain.’ Sigrid rests her head on Peter’s bony knee, her hair fanning over his lap. He leans forward, his skinny back arching, and kisses her hard on the mouth. She rises on her elbows. When they are done, Peter winks at Joy. ‘She is not really my twin.’

‘Did you say that?’ Sigrid tilts her head back. ‘He does that sometimes. It is maybe amusing because we look similar.’

‘You believed?’ Peter waggles his ring finger at her. ‘Wife, not sister.’

‘Congratulations,’ is all Joy can think to say.

‘See how it turns out before you congratulate.’

Sigrid smacks him across the shoulder. ‘Joy, where are you from?

‘Hackney. East London.’

‘I do not know it. Do you have something like this?’

‘A five-kilometre concrete hotel built by the Nazi Labour Front? No.’

‘Then no wonder you come here to see it.’

Joy checks her phone. No messages or missed calls – everything must be all right. She is surprised by the time, later than she thought. They students will be asleep by now, or at least in bed. They have an early start in the morning, a visit to the museum and then a guided tour of those parts of the ruins it is safe to walk in. The ballroom, the many swimming pools, the dining hall designed to serve meals for twenty thousand in shifts. A sandwich lunch, provided by the youth hostel, then back on the coach for more history.

This is meant to be the exciting part of her job, but so far it has been largely pedestrian. The only requirement is they return with the same number of students they left with. This evening –she has a flash of how odd it is, like a movie, to be here. The Swedes are completely relaxed, as if used to the loose ebb and flow of people. They enjoy her company – they must do, or they wouldn’t still be here – but at the end of the evening they will not be swapping e-mail addresses or promising to add each other on facebook.

‘Where will you go after this?’ says Peter, combing Sigrid’s long hair with his fingers.

‘We’ll head along the coast for a bit – to see the towers, the watchtowers—‘


‘Is that them? The ones they used to look out for people trying to escape.’

‘Yes, Grenzturm. For anyone swimming to the West. Searchlights level with the water to spot them more easily. Still people tried, and got shot. My aunt froze to death. She thought it would be easier in the winter.’

Sigrid volunteers this so matter-of-factly that Joy takes a moment to be sure she has heard it. ‘Your family was here?’

‘My aunt married someone from here. My mother was in Berlin.’

‘Which side?’

‘East, of course. We were all East. She could see the wall from her bedroom window, when she was a girl. So close. There was one viewing platform on the other side. People from the West stood there, waving or just looking, with signboards like “Down with Communism” or “We are solidarity with you”. My mother waved back sometimes. Then one day, she was looking, and you know, she saw—‘

‘She saw herself, a doppelganger in the West,’ says Peter in a ghost-story voice.

Sigrid smacks him. ‘No. You are a dick. She saw Beata, her best friend from school.’

‘How did she get across?’

‘She didn’t know. People crossed, and of course you wouldn’t tell your friends before you went. Beata waved, but maybe not at her. She never saw her again. Later, they came and covered all the windows with bricks.’

‘We’re going to Berlin, with the students. Leipzig, then Berlin.’

‘Bernauerstrasse, my mother’s street. You should visit. There is still a platform there, and they have kept a part of the wall. For souvenir.’

‘Did she ever get out?’

‘No, she didn’t try.’ Sigrid’s beautiful face is unreadable. Peter has tuned out, not unsympathetically, but Joy can tell he has heard this story more than once. ‘We left like everyone else, when the wall fell.’

‘1990,’ says Joy automatically, less like a teacher than a schoolgirl at a quiz, hand in the air.

‘It’s funny, we heard it was happening, but my mother had a cold so she slept early that night. My father didn’t care about the news, he said nothing would ever change, just one wall won’t make a difference. But the next day our neighbour said what are you doing, you are missing the biggest event of your life. So we drove there, not very far, then there were so many people we couldn’t move. We got out and walked. There was a big smash in the concrete, nothing like we’ve ever seen, all the way through the two walls, outer and in. We went through and the people on the other side were like us, but not so, what, grey? A woman put her hand on my cheek and gave me sweets.’

‘And you were in the West.’

‘For a few hours, then we went back, I had to do homework and my mother wanted to cook dinner. We went across again on the weekend. Fewer people, and more wall missing. It was more normal to walk across, and no one welcomed us like before. I asked my mother where the people with the sweets were. She laughed and said life in the West would not always be so much fun. A few weeks later we moved to Sweden.’

‘Why Sweden?’

‘Why not? It was the West. She hadn’t seen anything West. Maybe she remembered her sister, trying to swim to Sweden. Not so far, but far enough.’

There is a silence, then Peter says, gently, ‘They came to Sweden so she could meet me.’ It sounds like a joke, but there is a stillness in his voice that was not there before. He lowers himself onto his elbows so Sigrid can fit her body against his, sliding together as if their curves and grooves were made to match.

‘And now,’ says Sigrid, ‘I am Swedish.’

‘But you came back.’

‘I wanted to see.’

‘You have walls in your country too? London Wall,’ says Peter.

‘That was gone long ago. Anyway the Romans built it to keep people out, not in.’

‘Most walls do both,’ says Sigrid.

They talk about the next day. The Swedes have no plan, they will hitchhike off Rügen, see where they end up next, or maybe take a ferry to Norway. They have a bit of money saved up, and travel is cheap in summer when you spend most nights in the open.

And behind them, still visible in the moonlight, is the great concrete slab of Prora. Really, they are between two walls, that and the screen of trees shielding them from the full force of the sea. Joy is looking forward to seeing what remains of the Berlin wall – Mauer, she remembers, not Wand like an interior wall. The few stretches they have allowed to remain, the line that marks the rest. Are there walls where she comes from? Ones around the estate, when she was growing up. To keep people out or in?

This feels like the end of the night, the wind softening its tone like a lullaby, like the last slow song before the lights come on. How unlikely, that she should be here, hundreds of miles from where she was born. She carefully brushes sand off her blouse and thinks, I should get back, but stays a moment longer, enjoying the sounds and sap-smells of the night.

Peter and Sigrid are quiet now, but there isn’t enough light to tell if they are asleep. She doesn’t want to speak, it would spoil something, whatever is circling in the air around them. The ground, cushioned by pine needles, seems to mould itself to her body.

Joy collects German compound words – enjoying how they are concertinaed together, even the term for them: Bandwurmwörter, tapeworm words. There is always one for the specific sensation of each moment. Right now: Waldeinsamkeit, the feeling of being alone in the woods. As she shuts her eyes, they slide through her mind like beads on a string. Schadenfreude, of course. Verschlimmbesserung, a so-called improvement that actually makes things worse. Schwellenangst, the fear of crossing thresholds or boundaries.

Joy dreams of being in a maze, of running through a limitless number of turnings and crossroads, all of which might lead to more choices, or to a dead end. On either side of her are walls too high and smooth to climb, so tall she can only dimly see the sky above her, and a glimmer of the moon. Behind the walls, she somehow knows, are all the people she has lost, but on this side just her, just the path ahead.

She wakes up with a niggle of disquiet in her mind, a persistent crick in her neck, but most of all a warmth and well-being that radiates through every cell in her body. The sun is already up, an intense point low in the swimming-pool sky. A moment of panic as she looks at her watch. Not yet seven. She has plenty of time to walk back, shower, and present herself at breakfast, respectable Miss Hammond once again, as if none of this has happened.

The Swedes are still asleep beside her, their skin even paler against the tangle of red hair by daylight. She looks at them a moment, decides against taking a picture, and waves goodbye although they cannot see her.

It is not far to the hostel, and she allows herself to meander through the trees. Prora is to her right. She looks hard but cannot work out which set of windows the party was in. Even with the graffiti as a marker, the surface is too uniform. To her left is the Baltic Sea, flexing its surface with strong, regular waves. The green-black water reaches all the way to the horizon, but she imagines that she can just see, in the distance, other lands.[/private]

Berlin Ghost Story

I never expected to become a ghost but it happened to me all the same.  Up until my move to Berlin, I had never had a problem being real apart from the usual vagueness suffered by many people who have spent a lifetime lost in books and thought.

I had moved from New York to Berlin by myself, determined to focus on my studies and start a new life.  I found myself living in a two room Altbau apartment with wooden floors.  My apartment looked onto a cobbled street that had three restaurants, an antique shop, two florists and one community center for homeless old people. All day long, people walked up and down, walking dogs, carrying home shopping, strolling arm in arm.  And of course there were a lot of old people, on their way to the center, with bowed heads and hunched backs.

[private]The condition began with headaches, hot, screaming, loud, red pain in my head that lasted for hours. The pain had rich texture and subtle nuance; it was a vast world of pain. I went to the doctor’s, but not even that was easy to do for me as I spoke no German and the smallest of practical things in Berlin were challenging for me to do.  Where was the doctor’s office? Would they speak English? How did I file for my insurance? Often, after a day of trying to take care of simple tasks, I would find myself coming home and flinging myself down on my bed, unable to work or move, overwhelmed by the searing pain in my head and with the difficulties of everyday life.  I presumed the pain was caused by stress, so did the doctor.

The doctor said: “Frau Stark, they are migraines.  Perhaps you are stressed because of the move to a new country.”

I thought perhaps I was finally showing my age.  I was only 38 and had never had any sign of growing old, still presenting myself in the world as a young, single woman.  But it seemed I was not dealing with change and stress in the way that I had always been able to do up until then. I even wondered if the old age of the people on the street below was contagious, that I had come down with old age in the same way you came down with a bad cold.

Another consequence of arriving in Berlin and immediately coming down with those headaches was that I was unsociable; perhaps for the first time ever, I stayed at home and I didn’t meet anyone.  Not a soul.  I knew there were many ex-pat Americans in the city and I presumed before I arrived that I would meet many.  However, I found myself renting an apartment in a very traditional area where there were primarily stiff older Germans who had a reserve I couldn’t even imagine breaking through.  The utter shock of being out of the English speaking world and thrust into the alien Teutonic world froze my tongue and I found myself shy and incapable of talking to anyone.

Then, one day, after I had been in Berlin for about two months, and I had finally managed to open a bank account, order a coffee in German and figure out where the post office was, I woke up to find my eyes looked strange.  Nothing too serious, I thought, it must be an eye infection.  I treated it with a hot cloth of salt water, hoping that would fix it.  It didn’t.  I went to the pharmacy and they told me I had to go to the doctor’s.  I was annoyed that they wouldn’t just give me eye drops.  I went to the doctor’s.  I said to the receptionist, ‘I have an eye infection, I need some drops’.  I said the same thing to the doctor.  The doctor was quiet, examining my eyes.  He said, ‘I will give you some drops, but if there is no sign of improvement, you must come back.’ There was something serious in how he spoke that began to give me some small doubt.

That weekend, my eyes got stranger and stranger, and my headache worse.  The headache was a fact of life now it seemed.  I went back to the doctor on Monday morning.  He looked in my eyes for a few solemn moments.  He said, ‘You might have a serious problem, go and see this specialist’.  The receptionist made an appointment for me.  I was to go straight away.  ‘Don’t go and research this on the Internet,’ said the doctor, ‘just go and speak to the specialist’.

No one seemed to want to say out loud what was happening to me.

The specialist, Dr Emmelman, had a surprisingly humble office in another part of Berlin.  I had to take three U-bahn trains to get there and walk through a lot of ice and snow. The receptionist was young and pretty but very sad in her demeanour. She asked me to fill in a form and then she asked me to sit. I was surprised by the waiting room, it was so bare, there was nothing to read anywhere.  There was only one diagram on the wall which illustrated the stages of becoming a ghost by way of line drawings of the same woman, repeated in fainter and fainter ink.

The specialist himself was tall, blonde and handsome.  He shook my hand very firmly (I felt somehow that the firmness was contrived) but he didn’t speak much.  He asked me to sit on a chair and he proceeded to shine lights in each eye, then used some kind of device which puffed cool air into each. He measured my body, my height, my width.  He weighed me.  He pinched my arm, quite hard, and asked me to rate the level of pain. Then he looked into my eyes again. He was very quiet.  I could hear his breathing.  I could smell the faint odour of soap on his skin. I could hear the clock tick.

Eventually he said, ‘Ok.  Could you please take a seat over there, Frau Stark?’  He hesitated then he said, ‘There is no cure for your condition.  All we can do is try to manage it.  We may have to operate,’

He gave me five different eye drops and clear instructions, to put these drops in my eyes every three hours, even through the night.

“But what about sleep?” I said.

He shook his head sadly. He seemed so tired.  I wanted to comfort him.  In that moment, all I really cared about is making him feel better.

I said, “I’m sure it won’t be so bad,”

I knew that I was in shock.  That I was surprised this was happening to me would be an understatement.  Still, I didn’t know then what was to come.  I assumed that it would all take much longer.  I didn’t understand that it would all only be a matter of days.  I presumed it would stretch out for years, give me time to adjust.  Becoming a ghost in the end was very quick and the quickness was at least was a blessing.

I went home on the U-Bahn, clutching my bottles of eye drops and medicines.  I thought that all the people were looking at me, the women with cropped blonde hair and angular faces, the workmen drinking bottles of beer, the old ladies with shopping bags, the Turkish girls with heavy makeup and headscarves… all of them seemed to be looking at me, and somehow, just by looking at me, I thought they would see something strange about me, that they would know.

When I stopped at the Spatkauf to buy cigarettes, I avoided looking the girl behind the counter in the eye.  But strangely, I wasn’t quite sure she could actually see me; she seemed to peer at me as though I wasn’t quite there. I had to say what I wanted several times. When I left a man entered the shop and didn’t hold the door for me, as though he didn’t even see me.

I didn’t look at the Internet to try and understand further my condition.  I knew I would undoubtedly just upset myself.  Strangely, I also didn’t tell any of my friends or family back in New York.  It seemed like an impossible subject to broach.  I didn’t know anyone here in Berlin to tell.  There were my landlords, but I wondered if perhaps they would be upset and not want to keep renting to me, if they would be afraid I could no longer pay my rent.  My studies would have to come to a halt. When I tried to read, the words started moving around and blurring on the page as they do sometimes when you try and read in dreams.

I did call my insurance company, although it took me awhile to dial the number, I couldn’t seem to remember more than one digit at a time. Finally, I got through. I explained to them the nature of my condition and all I knew so far.  They put me on hold for a long time.  I was transferred twice.  Finally, I spoke to a long-term care consultant.  “Do not fear, Frau Stark,” said a compassionate, wavering voice.  “Whatever happens next, Plenitude Insurance is behind you.  All you must do is connect us with the specialist, we will take care of all things from there,’ I managed to tell them the name of Dr. Emmelman, and the address of his office. The consultant thanked me, her voice still wavering, and put the phone down with a soft click.

I stared for a long time at the phone, wondering if I would ever use a phone again, if I would even be able to remember what it was for.

On Monday, I went back to see the specialist.  The U-bahn was full of people in their winter clothes.  I stopped for a koffee mit milch on my way from the station but the girl behind the counter couldn’t seem to hear me when I spoke. Finally, I pointed to what I wanted on the menu.  I sat at a table and drank;  the burning of hot liquid on my tongue was a welcome distraction from the pain in my head.  By the time I got to the office, my head was hurting so much I was ready to gouge out my own eyes.

Dr Emmelman looked long and deep into my eyes.  I felt that I was in love with him, but where the feeling and the thought had come from I didn’t know.  ‘We must operate,’ he said, ‘But it may well already be too late.’

Early the next day, I arrived at the hospital, unfed and un-watered, as I’d been instructed. A nurse asked me to change into a white gown that opened at the back. I slipped into a clean white bed and I was grateful for the induced sleep from the anaesthesia.

When I woke up, the headache was gone.   “That is a good sign,” said Dr Emmelman.

Days went by with no more headaches.  It was such a relief.  Then one morning I woke up, they had brought my breakfast and the strangeness had gone from one eye. Perhaps the operation had been a success and all would now be well.  I sat up and ate, boiled lax, scrambled eggs, black grapes.  Dr Emmelman came and tested me.  Yes, one eye at least seemed normal again. He pinched me on my arm and asked me to rate the level of pain and seemed pleased with my answer. They might even be able to send me home.

But the next day, suddenly, the pain and the strangeness in both my eyes were back, stronger than ever. Dr Emmelman and a whole team of nurses pinched me harder and harder, all over my body, but I couldn’t feel even a thing.

At last, after hours of pinching me, Dr Emmelman said, “There is no hope for recovery.  But we must still operate one last time and completely severe you from reality.  The pain will always come back otherwise.”

He seemed so sad that there was no more hope for me.  But I only wanted the pain to stop.

“Stop the pain,” I said, “And I will be happy.”

I suppose I’d known all along there would be no hope.   Besides which, pain and reality had become one, so to remove one I understood we had no choice but to remove the other.

When I try and understand my feelings looking back, I draw a blank, as though life before becoming a ghost and afterwards were two entirely separate worlds.  I became a whole new person, with barely a thread joining the me of then and the me of now.  This is the only way I can

find to explain my lack of empathy for the woman I was then. Things just kept slipping and sliding away and the old world of forms and light was among them. I did my best to grasp that world, as I did my best to grasp everything from the past.  But in the end, it all fell away and out of reach.

The last thing I ever saw of that world was Dr Emmelman’s face.  It will remain the last thread between the me of now and the me of then.  The light in his eyes as he looked into mine, the communication we shared, the unspoken knowledge of each other; it was sublimely intimate.

Now it seems impossible to me that we took the reality of each other so much for granted.[/private]

Book Review: Roman Elegy by Sabine Gruber (trans. Peter Lewis)

event_71For the English translation the title echoes Goethe’s ode to Italian culture – Roman Elegies – and, as in Goethe’s 24-poem cycle, this book is also concerned with a German perspective on the sensuality of daily Italian life. From the start however, Sabine Gruber is focused not only on the sensations of life in the Italian capital but also the historical tensions that have existed between these two grand European cultures.

Told through the eyes of three women, all from the same fictional village in Northern Italy, Roman Elegy spans the decades from the second world war to the present day. Stillbach, the village that spawns these three girls – Clara, Ines and Emma – is a microcosm of the South Tyrol, the German speaking part of Italy ceded from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1919.

“‘So, if you’re not German,’ demanded Antonella, ‘then what are you?’ Truth is, I wasn’t sure what I was. I never had been. And the more people wanted me to tell them, the less idea I had. To lots of Italians I was a German, while to most Germans I was neither an Italian nor a German.”

The changing political landscape of post-war Italy is examined from the perspective of these three very different South Tyrolese women, each of whom feels an outsider in Rome despite being native-born Italian. The different language, the different landscape of their upbringing, the prejudices they believe in all serve to drive a wedge between them and their surroundings, forcing them to look at events with dispassionate eyes.

The novel starts in the present day period with Clara, a writer, travelling to Venice in the aftermath of the death of her childhood friend, Ines. She is joined by Paul, an Austrian academic, and past lover of Ines.

Upon the discovery of Ines’s notes for a “multi-volume” work the story plunges back to 1978 when Ines first met Paul and was working for Emma Manente, the proprietess of a budget hotel in Rome. As Ines struggles to comprehend life in the hustle and bustle of Rome, away from home for the first time, Emma recalls her past love for an SS soldier and the steps that have led her to become ostracised from her beloved home town of Stillbach.

“Yes, the Stillbach dialect fell firmly between two stools, a place where it felt safe and comfortable. The Austrian monarchy, Italian Fascism with its proscription of the German language, and finally schoolbooks and tourists from Germany had all left their mark on it.”

While ostensibly a work of fiction, it is apparent that Gruber is equally, if not more, concerned with historical contemplation. Although the characters each face day to day dilemmas, struggle with their work or their love life, the plot is always tied back to the underlying political situation. Historical fiction can be notoriously difficult to get right – either leaning too far towards fiction and appearing lite on the facts or else becoming dry and academic.

Recent fiction titles such as Laurent Binet’s HHhH have taken a fresh approach to the study of recent European history and Gruber manages this line masterfully, weaving layers of fiction in with hard research and detailed background on the role of Nazism and Fascism in recent Italian history. At one point the author herself is referenced by one of the characters and, at the end, in a where-are-they-now post credit she gives equal weight to her fictional creation Emma Manente and the real-life politician Horst Köhler.

“They’ve got it easy writers. They can write the truth and pass it off as fiction.”

Blending intimate background on day to day life in Rome with a fascinating exploration of the historical development of a country, Gruber has delivered an homage to both Rome and South Tyrol that satisfies on several levels without ever reaching for easy options or cliché.

Roman Elegy by Sabrine Gruber was published in April 2013.

An abandoned amusement park in Berlin

Maedels logoThis week, as part of our Mystery issue, guest podcasters Mädels with a Microphone explore the curious world of Spreepark, an abandoned amusement park in Berlin. They uncover the sad story behind the park, its collapse into bankruptcy, and the destruction of the family who owned it. Spreepark is the place to go in Berlin for urban explorers. Once a popular GDR amusement park, then a privatized post-GDR fledgling amusement park and now covered in overgrown foliage and trees, trespassers can explore the carcasses of toppled dinosaurs, a 45-metre high ferris wheel that blows eerily in the wind and ghostly abandoned fun park villages. To listen to this episode, use the player below. Or you can subscribe on iTunes — just search “litro lab”.  Mädels with a Microphone are journalists and Berlin residents Jennifer Collins and Tam Eastley

You can find Mädels with a Microphone online, or on Twitter, Soundcloud or Facebook, or on itunes. In their podcast series, Jennifer and Tam strive to create informative and quirky long and short podcasts about the hidden side of Berlin. Their podcasts are entirely self-produced using Audacity free software and trusty little zoom H2 recorders.