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“Those Damn Jews …”
A writer’s poignant memoir of a people whom he had been taught to fear and learned to love in a time of trouble
December 1978 | Volume 30, Issue 1
Franz invited me to spend Christmas, 1934, with his family in Berlin-Friedenau, one of the suburbs absorbed by that great stony capital. I haunted the bookstores, especially around Von Kleist Platz. By then, I could translate the rhythmical, image-loaded poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, a German from Prague, secretary to Rodin, isolated, dressed like a girl until he went to military school, needing human companionship as a dog needs bones yet frightened of intimacy and commitment. There was one shop I returned to almost daily, for it had a shelf of Rilke books in half-leather, what the Germans called Schmuckausgeben, fine editions. I would take them down not to read but only to hold. It was like touching the skin of Rilke to feel that soft binding and the colored title pages. One day the old man who owned the store came up to me and asked, “Would you like a cup of tea?” The store was long and one room wide; a corridor led along one wall, with small rooms off the left, all of them crammed with old books. We carried all the Rilke books with us. I assumed he was going to offer me a special discount if I bought all of them, but even that I could not afford. He showed me into a room with table and chairs. The Rilke books were placed on the table between us like sacred objects brought back from a long-sealed tomb. I could not touch them.
The old man called out to a closed door. Soon tea was brought in by an obviously very intelligent girl of sixteen, hair and eyes black as night, but glowing, glowing. She bowed to me and fled. Pouring tea, the old man said gently, as if he were blessing a child, “I see you like Rilke. Take them. Take all the books. They are too precious to sell.”
Suddenly, they were mine, those loved poems written by that poet always in flight, in Worpswede, Paris, Switzerland, in a castle above the Adriatic, the poet who always had women looking after him but could not live with his wife, the poet Germans called der weibliche Dichter, the feminine, or womanly, poet.
“Why?” I asked.
He stared at me the way an animal will look at a human being into whose hands he is entrusting his life. Total, no reservations, to the death. “I am a Jew.”
He waved his hands toward all the rooms of books. “ They will destroy all of this.” (He never used the words for which “Nazi” is an abbreviation; they were always they . But I knew, I knew, from the darkness in his voice.)
Then he turned and gestured toward the door the lovely girl had closed. “I am old. It does not matter. But my daughter, that girl.” He could not speak, his throat muttered wordless sounds which were the most moving language I had ever heard. Again, I weep inside to recall it.
He turned his eyes toward me. They burned my eyes.
“She must go. Out of Germany. We are the damned Jews.” (Old filling-station neighbor, you knew little of what you were saying. You would have looked at home in a Sturmabteilung , a brown-shirt uniform.)
“I know your name. It was on a traveler’s check you gave me for some books. You are Paul. You are American. You are the lucky one. My daughter, Rebekah, get her out. Take her out. Leave me to die. We Jews are very skilled at dying. If you are in trouble, come to Jews. They know so much about it.”
The room shrank to my body’s size. For a moment, I was in a trap, its teeth on my neck. Outside, I seemed to hear the Nazi boots marching, the shouts in marching cadence, “ Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil .” Victory, victory; over the helpless little man opposite me, his thin hands trembling, his head shaking, the tears of two thousand years falling down his cheeks.
“I will try,” I said stupidly. “I will try.”
Rebekah entered the room. Standing close to me, she said nothing, bowed with more dignity than I had ever seen in a human being, picked up the teapot as if it were a chalice on an altar, and backed out of the room, looking at me, looking at me, with trust, with trust, a flame which miraculously could walk across the floor and close a door. (Back home a month later, I found people who promised to help. I wrote the family. My letter was returned stamped Verschwunden —“disappeared.” Do not be patient with the frightfulness of the human race. Howl, howl. From your dark cave, howl.)
That evening it was Friday, and after dinner Franz said, “Now Paul, tonight someone will come. We will go into that room.” He pointed to a little odd room in the center of the apartment, the room without windows or outside walls. “Speak softly.” All week such bits of food as would not spoil had been saved. Now they were put on the table.
“Who is coming?” I asked.
Franz whispered, “Die alte J’fcdische Witwe, ” the old Jewish widow. “She was my friend’s wife. He was not Jewish. But she must eat.”