“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
It could be death for a German to do what Franz was doing.
There was a wide stairway up the front of the building, and there was a narrow iron stairway at the back. We heard small steps on the iron. The kitchen door had been left unlocked. It opened softly. A tiny lady in black carrying an empty string bag came in and sat down without speaking. Franz went over and took her hands. There in Berlin, with all hell about to break across what has laughingly been called civilized Europe, a brave German embraced a terrified Jew. I remember thinking in that moment, “Paul, you better go back to Iowa. You haven’t the strength to be a part of this appalling life. Go back to your safe and friendly Jews in the clothing store.”
The widow suddenly saw me and put her hands over her eyes in fright. “Is he one of them?” she asked Franz.
He shook his head. “He is our American friend.”
“America.” She spoke the word as if it were the magical incantation which could open sealed doors and deliver you into heaven, which was, quite simply, a farming state called Iowa which had no Nazi party. “America, America.” She rolled the word on her tongue as a child treasures a piece of candy, wanting it to last. She left with her scraps. At the door, as she stepped out into the dark pit of Berlin, she looked at me in disbelief and spoke to no one, only to her own anguished mind, “America.”
Next morning I left Berlin. Lying in the gutter outside the apartment building was a dead man, hands bound behind with adhesive tape, ankles bound with adhesive tape, a wide strip of tape across his mouth, one over his eyes. The Nazis had come again in the night. And dear Jewish widow, did you make it home with the remnants of our humble food?
On the way to the railroad station, the old Potsdamer Bahnhof, we passed a little store with its windows smashed. Hung on the door was a sign, Deutschland wird Judenfrei —“Germany will be Jew-free.” Franz took my hand, then shook his head in the ancient gesture meaning no. He dared not talk in the presence of the taxi driver. He knew it all. He was mourning the dead to come.
The night before leaving, Franz and I had gone into the one room in his apartment that had no outside wall. As he closed the door he looked at me and muttered, “In this tragic country, walls listen, walls talk, then people disappear.” I asked why he hated Hitler.
“Because he is anti-German,” Franz replied.
“But he shouts about Germany all the time,” I said.
“Yes, he howls, but he is against all things beautiful and great in our culture. He is like an animal barking in the deep woods the Romans found when they came north.”
When I arrived in New York from my Oxford-European years (ironically, on a German ship, the Bremen ), I was waiting down in third class while a tug pulled us into the harbor. The purser came through, holding his nose at the degredation of slumming in that area so deep in the ship, so crammed with people obviously poor and obviously not too well bathed. He held up a letter in his right hand and called a name. Finally I realized that it was mine. He held it out to me carefully, so that his pure Aryan hand would not touch mine. He did not know that I was pure Aryan, too.
The letter was from Gabe: “If you have come back from Europe without having spent every cent you had, you are no son of mine. Here are a few dollars. Don’t spend them on anything sensible. Love.” I had in fact arrived without money to take a cab with my luggage away from the dock. I wrote Gabe my address in New York. Next week a telegram arrived with money for the fare to Florida and a message buried in his usual way of expressing affection: “Come on down and stew in your own Jews.” I went.
By then I had discovered that Jews were indeed damned, but in ways my hard-eyed neighbor could not have imagined. I had found his kind, those who marched east to die in the snows west of Moscow (he gladly would have joined them) in honor of that pig with the little row of pig bristles on his upper lip. I knew about pigs, that noble animal so abundant in Iowa, and I apologize to them for the comparison.
In Kraków the night before I went to visit Auschwitz so many years and so many deaths later, a German-speaking Polish person had held out his hand toward me, asking, “Do you know what that is?” No, what is it? “That’s a dead Jew.”
Innocent, I asked, “But how do I know it is a dead Jew?”
“Because,” he said, “if it was a live Jew it would be doing this.” He rubbed his thumb back and forth across the palm of his hand as if he were counting money.
Human life is too difficult for people.