Lore Gyldenstern was neither big nor small, neither fat nor thin. Nor was she old or young, being 393. Lore was Lore – and rightly so. She was similar to others yet entirely herself: her hair flowed tree of heaven green. Sea green shone her eyes. From head to toe little golden yellow Gyldenstern stars glittered on her, shimmering in the sun when she was happy.
Gyldenstern’s heart was so big that it could never ever all have fitted in someone’s chest, which is why it had long since plopped into Lore’s belly. And for Lore it beat there – not red, but golden. Her pointed ears could twist and turn, her eyes could see around corners and through walls. The palms of her hands hid beneath soft velvet seventy-seven sensitive buds, and on the tips of her seven fingers her nails shimmered like the soft belly of the rainbow trout.
Lore Gyldenstern lived in the trunk of an old corkscrew hazel that for two hundred years had raised its branches into heaven’s blue and whose tiny crumpled jitterbug leaves loved to quiver and shake in the gentle morning breeze, playfully sparring with the wind at rustling and sighing – until the hazelnuts fell clattering to the ground in the autumn. Then, gradually, the corkscrew hazel leaves too glid past the windows of Lore’s eyes.
Because the tree had lived so long its trunk had grown massive, and there, where four branches embraced one other, lived Lore Gyldenstern in her roomy hollow.
Every morning, when the sun lured Lore from her sleep, she stretched and yawned and looked at the walls around her. She was happy, for her treasures lived there, word for word, everything that she had collected: all the beauty of the world.
‘Hulled in hoarfrost’ stood where her left big toe pointed, ‘spring soft’ enthroned behind her right foot, ‘October gold’ and ‘sunlighted’ rejoiced in the middle. Yes, that was it, what Lore did: She flitted with the wind through the world, through streets and buildings and alleys, to catch words.
Some Lore collected because the sound enchanted her – ‘verily’ was such a word, or ‘marigold merry’ or ‘fire lily fierce’. She liked ‘apple of my eye’ and ‘a feast for the ears’, stole ‘bliss’ from the mouth of the old and ‘brilliant!’ from the mouth of the young. She liked ‘gunge’ and ‘gossip’ too, because there was truth in them. Every afternoon, when she had collected enough words, she sat down cross-legged on the ground to write her eavesdrops in ink on strips of paper That done, she sought for each word its own particular place. Somewhere it could feel comfortable, because the others around it would welcome it joyously. Then she attached it to its new home.
In the evening, when Lore lay in her feather bed and waited for moss green sleep, her eyes glid from word to word. They would join together in sentences, to tell their story. And the star-crowned heavens listened as did the ever-changing moon.
On good days she caught seven times seven words and thirteen sentences - but the last good day was stuck all the way back in the winter snow. Weeks, no, months actually, had gone by with her barely finding a word. At first they had sounded less satisfying, then poorer, dishevelled even, ragged around the edges. Or they crawled at the last gasp from people’s lips, dying in a gentle sigh ‘so…’
When Lore wandered through town and village now seldom was there someone on the streets. And anyone who still went out was always in such a rush and never said a word. The windows of the houses stayed closed, curtains blocked out the world. When the people weren’t sleeping with their eyes closed they slept with them open: spellbound by a slab of light and sound in their hand, which exhaled unsteady life over the people and deposited monosyllabic ‘not much’ to echo dully in their heads.
Even in the squares and in the shops, they snarled like dogs. Stranger still was the fact that the people, always so fond of covering everything – against sun, wind and rain, snow – were suddenly hiding not just arms and legs, belly and bum beneath material, but their faces for good measure. Yet no snow squalls were whipping around the corners of houses, nor even a bracing autumn wind.
The people’s hidden mouths merely murmured, produced grumbles and growls. Of the few words, scarcely a single joyful one could be heard; to say nothing of one as clear as a bell. They all sounded ash grey. And the ringing slabs spat miserly syllables into the world, as if everything were an order: Coming? I’m here. Yep. Okay.
Pedestrians hustled and bustled along the streets, furrow-browed, dragging children, or dogs, along behind them, gloom in their faces – as if suddenly, in the middle of spring, the iciest of winter winds had cut them to the bone and torn the laughter from their voices.
Even in the places where people commonly gathered when windy winter cold reigned, in cafes and pubs, in kitchens and by stoves, the grumbling ruled. No merry fire burned there, nor were the people sitting together chatting and laughing. On the contrary. They kept a bitter silence and their gazes fell away into nowhere, away from their fellows […].
(Translation: Bryn Roberts)
What does literature mean to you?
Marlen Schachinger: The curse of literature lies in its blessing.
What role do cafés play in your life?
MS: A café is a stimulating, calm place, in which inspiration surrounds me in my tranquility.
What do you do when you’re not at a café?
MS: Live and love. Or, to be more precise: write, read, reflect, listen… Often alternating with agricultural work, whose rhythm allows creative space to the worlds of stories waiting be told.
(Translation: Anna Robinigg 2017)
That the world stops at the edge of our village, 48°72’ North, 16°14’ East, is something we realized decades ago; and we survived this knowledge. Of course we survived it—at least those of us did who weren’t suffocated by the Iron Curtain. Today you’ve got people on both sides of the border jawing about strengthening national borders. It’s already happening in the east, as well as the south. We want our defensive towers, military watch points and a president suitable for the conditions. That said, we do want to preserve our modest border traffic. After all, everything is cheaper somewhere, the brothels to the north certainly are. Yes, border posts should be revived, like registries to stem this crazy tidal flood bringing waves sloshing from east to west and from south to north, all the way here, to us, who are so fortunate to be able to dwell here, in this landscape, 48°72’ North, 16°14’ East. That’s why we’re also eager to keep an eye on our crop yields, the ripeness of the harvest in our neighbors’ gardens, everyone’s morality, their unemployment and their benefits, the city filth that’s now washing up right to our doorsteps; and ‘those people’ so rudely making their way to our village. Not one of us can understand their croaking, nor do we want to. Wouldn’t it be even nicer if we learned their horrible squawking? And then they come into the bakery with their English, probably convinced they’re something special, better than us. Things would be at a pretty pass in our village, if we suddenly had to serve our customers in English. Or is that now a basic requirement for getting a job in this country? None of us here ever learned Czech either. So we’re supposed to think globally? We’ve certainly seen where that leads. Are ‘those people’ going to bake bread now? Then no one should be surprised when the loaves look more like patties, like cowpats, actually! And one of them calls out, ‘Mother of God!’ when she orders her daily cookie and coffee. She invokes the rosary, following our very own culture: more of that and we’ll be praying to get rid of her.
Anyone who wants to live here should be able to speak properly, a man declares in strong dialect. And the baker recounts that one of ‘those people’ answered every single sentence with ‘I beg your pardon?’ in German—she doesn’t need them taking the piss. What are they learning in their German classes—German German? We’ve got enough Krauts here in Austria already! And the Germans’ conviction that they’re better than we are, well they can take it, along with their Hartz IV unemployment and welfare benefits, their mini-jobs, and their ‘We can do it’ and shove it. They’ve always managed to ‘do it’, the German: first they shift the dirty work onto others—and then the responsibility.
(There’s absolutely no point in bringing up distorted views of history. It’s better to listen and learn…)
To think they were brought here, were practically begged to come, with their black hair and hooked noses—just to sit around and do nothing! The red carpet was rolled out for them, houses were renovated and repainted—as if one of us here in the village were to go around asking everyone, “May I please whitewash your kitchen, lay you a wooden floor? I’m honestly concerned that you’re a bit overwhelmed earning a living and working overtime, and ailing on top of that, we know very well no one can afford to take sick leave these days. Let me help you, I can see you can’t manage all the yard work, welcome, welcome…’
‘Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone would cooperate so well? It could be a way to work things out, at least in our village, don’t you think?
48°72’ North, 16°14’ East
A two-hour wait. She watched the red tail lights of the train she’d missed disappear into the mist, two goddamn hours, because she hadn’t been able to get away in time from the student representative, who not only annoyed her by insistently and repeatedly calling her Frau Doktor Doktor Monika Mühlberger, but on top of that, he had nothing relevant to say after addressing her so formally. And she had not only put up with it, she had provoked it by interrupting him to say that neither her title nor her detested first name were necessary. Professor Mühlberger was more than sufficient to be polite…
She was feeling the cold now far more keenly than she had in Dublin’s autumn temperatures. On cold, damp evenings like this one, the season’s only appealing behind a pane of glass, Mona thought as she left the platform for the overcrowded station. From her reflection in the shop window of a boutique, she saw that her short skirt was riding up. She discretely pulled at the hem. People were waiting in groups, crouched on the floor, backpacks and plastic bags heaped around them. Barrier tape marked off the area available for them to use. Police officers stood on the other side of the tape. A boy hopped from tile to tile. A policeman smiled. Mona thought of Fatima’s son Nuri, hardly older than this small boy. A policewoman groused at her colleague: ‘Until he slips and falls, then we’ll be in for it. Don’t any of you dare run over to the midget and put him back on his feet…’
Mona remembered the pictures that had circulated over the internet a few weeks before: ‘A man in uniform bullying a woman lying defenselessly on the train tracks with a child in her arms.’ The officer was showered with vitriol, reviled as a ‘Nazi pig’. Those who hadn’t known before, understood afterwards: even photographs can lie—and short videos that don’t show the beginning or end of an incident can be just misleading. Nothing was what it seemed at first sight. Since then, her understanding of the world shaken, Mona examined her judgments even more closely, as well as those of her ‘friends’. Some suddenly expressed irritating views or flipped their stances towards events from one front to the other.
An announcement over the station loudspeaker: ‘we ask all passengers for extra vigilance. Please keep a close eye on your strollers and bags. Do not leave them unattended under any circumstances!’ There had been no such announcements even just a few weeks ago. They seemed to be due to the current situation and Mona suspected they were only stoking the heated atmosphere, pouring oil on the fire, no, she wasn’t afraid, not of these people who had lost everything, their language, their families and friends, their homes, only to be stranded here with their meager possessions and even this notion seemed to carry a whiff of scorn. Oh right, she had to let Emil know—missed the train again, messed up—and she took her cell phone from her coat pocket, wrote ‘Sweetheart’, and stopped. She stared at the greeting, next to which the cursor was blinking signals in Morse code, and asked herself: is that what Emil was? Before she’d left, he had looked at her as if relieved; then he’d hardly spoken a word. She deleted the term of affection one letter at a time.
‘Hey … Missed the train from the main to the regional station, next suburban train not for two hours, so will get to L. at 21:56. Kisses…’
The blonde policewoman gave her a challenging look, fanned her gloved fingers as if she were shooing away an annoying insect. The officer next to her loosened his collar, sweat beading on his brow.
Now anyone who stopped and looked around with a cell phone in hand was suspicious. How can anyone live this way? Under constant surveillance, always on the lookout for immanent danger, real or imagined? Mona stowed the phone in her pocket and turned the corner.
Two hours, what do you do when you unexpectedly find yourself with two found hours? She could bring little Rana something, a small gift. Mona thought of the photograph Salma had sent of her daughter that day. ‘Rana thinking’ was the caption and Mona laughed at the memory of it. With a finger she had gently stroked the face of the girl with big eyes. This little girl seemed to take everything in, every trace of beauty, even the slightest fracture in the composition of the world, which Rana preferred to see in harmonious green. Salma had told Mona it had always been that way, even before their escape from Syria. The girl would sit, not looking at anything in particular, only to come out with an astonishing sentence after a short time. It was the girl’s father who had kept her from being disturbed when she was in this state, which he called ‘Shhh! Rana’s thinking’. Before he was executed by ISIS—and Rana had to hear about it. Mona would bring something for the little girl, some drawing materials, some craft kit, and she smiled, picturing Rana’s painting that hung over her desk, a portrait with Salma on the right, Rana in the middle, and Mona on the left, all in green, all of them holding Rouk, the cat, stretched out full-length, and over him their three faces, cheek to cheek.
A map: Mona stepped up to the board, the sections, the list of stores—Books & More, second floor, center, south. She dragged her suitcase onto the escalator, two young men overtook her, chatting and laughing, and stopped a few steps above her. One of them turned and stared at Mona openly with a look that left her feeling naked. She broke into a sweat, didn’t know where to look, she couldn’t avoid his eyes, and she regretted that her coat wasn’t longer, she wished she had a shawl that was thick and heavy, not like the wispy little banner she was wearing. She wanted to turn away, to walk off—some eyes reach for you like fingers sticky with honey and leave you feeling dirty… Mona turned her face to the wall, her hair fell forwards, covering her shoulders, and the strands reminded her of a chador’s complete veiling. She kept silent and told herself that this young man probably wouldn’t understand any kind of rejection, might even take anything she said as an invitation to speak to her or alternatively, feeling insulted, might react aggressively—but at the same time she knew she was only making excuses, a tangled line of reasoning without substance. From the corner of her eye, she saw him slide his tongue provocatively along his upper lip. His friend, taller than he, barked a comment, short and sharp, then swung himself over the handrail onto the descending side of the escalator. The racket sounded threatening—don’t look, hold your purse tight, stand completely still. After one more glance at Mona, the young man leapt after his friend on onto the escalator’s other side. She sighed with relief; how silly she was to be so fearful. At that moment, she heard the same rumbling noise behind her, she glanced back quickly. The two stood behind her, leaning casually on the handrail and grinning at her, just three steps below her suitcase, with an unobstructed view of her back, her bottom. You can’t trust them, they only have one thing in mind—don’t they, even when snickering, one of them already has his cellphone out, ready to film, the other one hops onto the opposing steps, almost falls, stumbles, catches himself, laughs, out of the picture, video done. Everything, absolutely everything leaves traces on your view of the world, every picture you’ve seen, every single ugly word you’ve heard, even if you dismiss them, every headline: they seep into your memory, spread out, shape your being. Like the photograph, misinterpreted because it fit the worldview that had been hammered into everyone for months: the Hungarian border police were considered ‘Nazi pigs’ and the ‘eternally lustful Muslim’ assaulted every European woman, and the knowledge that all these stereotypes had little truth to them and that this fearful stance was foreign to her did not change a thing. Soon she would behave just as hysterically as some of her students and friends, and Mona, furious at the fear that had been ignited earlier, yanked hurriedly at her luggage cart, caught its lurch with her knee and longed for a cigarette.
A few steps ahead there was a shop, travel provisions. If smoking was forbidden because of Emil, at least she could indulge in something sweet. She passed the shelves, cookies, poppy seed crescents, cinnamon rolls, chocolate, her hand already reaching: 133 calories a serving, 415 in the entire bar. She decided against it, grabbed a bottle of water from the shelf opposite, shoved her suitcase into the next aisle without ramming into the Christmas pyramid, soon the Easter bunny would overtake Saint Nick. A super special offer glowed neon yellow: smoked salmon. At midnight on the dot it would expire, so now you could buy it at sixty percent off. Better some crazy extravagance for the cat than a muffin top for her.
When she left the shop, the announcement calling for heightened vigilance was playing again and Mona caught herself checking her computer bag and luggage cart for the third time, her purse pressed tightly under her arm, ‘…keep a close eye on your strollers…’ and Mona wanted to scream that she didn’t have one, goddamn it, and wouldn’t ever need one either. Manipulation, it’s all just manipulation, they’re constantly telling us we should be afraid, fanning our fear, and choking us, only to be ‘amazed’ at what all is happening in and to our country. And the president grinned at her from the poster across the way: ‘We must stick together’. Behind him was a mountain landscape. Oh, it would be nice to be somewhere else, in the mountains or at least at home. Someone jostled Mona as he rushed past, an older man holding tight to his backpack, no apology. The man had smelled strongly of tobacco. She took a gulp of water to wash down the bitterness. Books & More shone pink at the end of the hall, here too, on the upper floor, people waited, crouching against the wall, no barriers or police to be seen for whatever reason. These people would remain in this cityscape until a special train arrived headed to Germany, the goal towards which they were fleeing and as in every escape, Mona thought, the place they longed to reach had a dream-like character, shaped as much by their lack of knowledge about that place as by uncertainty, maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe never. The term ‘special train’ always made Mona think of the Udo Lindenberg song Special Train to Pankow. As an adolescent in Austria, she’d thought it was Bangkok until she finally saw a subway map of Berlin. To get from ‘Pankow’ to the river ‘Panke’ it only took one entry in the internet: everyone has their own view of the world and reality is another thing altogether. This could also be due to the fact that very soon after they’d set off toward the place they longed to reach they found themselves sent back here or maybe even further east like undeliverable packages: the recipient, who had previously called out to them, ‘we can do this!’, had completely lost interest.
“My dear,” Marie had said, “you need to be somewhat measured in your behavior, but first and foremost, you should live, finally live, don’t you think?” And I answered Marie—though I no longer remember what I said to her.
We’d had little more than a year together, and now I wonder if I’d shortened that time with my probing questions.
Carla reaches for my hand.
I lay the pebble on the grave. It is speckled with green—just like Marie’s eyes. I run my fingers over the white letters on her tombstone: LIVE!, and below that Marie’s name and 1918 – 2007.
And Sophie’s name.
“When I’m dead, at least our bones can lie together again,” Marie had said.
There. Now all the things that must be said in these situations have been: “I’m sorry”, and “We can still be friends, of course.” The “Don’t you think?” that she tags on I leave unanswered, same as everything that preceded it. I’m more preoccupied with the question of how to preserve the blossoms that had appeared overnight on my Lophophora williamsii (more commonly known as peyote cactus). It’ll need a bit of water at some point, plus my elephant foot palm could desperately use a misting. I put the telephone down and ignore her voice, which is still coming from the receiver. I begin misting, watering, plucking off wilted leaves; they pile up at my feet before I sweep them up and drop them in with the organic waste.
I leave the house with my sunglasses on. I do what I always do in such situations (it’s certainly not the first time I’ve been left for someone else). I dive into my work: the edits for my documentary about sexism in advertising and the storyboard for my next film. The film’s theme is ‘Crime and Punishment’, and maybe it will also be a radio feature, I’m not sure yet. The perfect interviewee for it would be my mother, but talking to her about it would be like working on Sarajevo. I prefer to drop Amelia’s crate off at her apartment door. A moving van is parked in front of her building with the tailboard down, and a writing desk—unmistakably hers with its missing knobs—standing against the back wall of the van. So that’s why she can’t come and get all her things, I get it. My resentment strikes me as indulgent.
Friends murmur sentences that I find astonishing—“But you could see it coming, couldn’t you?” or “You’ll see, you’ll fall in love again.” I’ve heard it all a thousand times before, seen it in films; what I find amazing is how cliché these break-up scenes are. As if somewhere in heaven—or in hell—there were a storyboard for the procedure. I picture the Angel of Separation in his vaulted room with light coming in from a bank of windows. Surrounded by countless books, the Angel of Separation hurries between two desks. One, a white Victorian roll-top desk has endless ornamentation and fine carving and is for separations that are mutual, whereas another, with a glass top, is where painful separations are processed. In the background run several long clotheslines on which any dirty laundry can be aired in public. Now and then, a line snaps, since they are worn to a thread in spots and the webbing sags into the appropriate mud bath, and what difference are a few more blotches? The Angel of Separation, by the way, is the only one up there who welcomes the existence of non-Western worlds! Only unofficially, of course. He would never dare admit aloud that married couples in Africa, Asia, and the Arab world delight him with their statistically verifiable disinclination to divorce, no, he actively celebrates and delights in them, and not out of holiness, heaven forbid. The fact is that he would otherwise have to be admitted to the heavenly psychiatric ward, burned-out in no time flat. I decide to make things easy for the angel: he should transfer my file immediately to the Victorian desk, open the drawer, pull out his Montblanc, write down a line or two, sign it, give two quick puffs to dry the ink, and it will be ready for the ‘Settled Cases’ tray.
On Sunday, after the Angel of Separation first appeared, and because none of my friends are free, I board the streetcar with no particular destination in mind, and ride back and forth across the city. As soon as the recorded voice announces that the next stop is the hospital where Marie Gersberg is a patient, I tell myself that instead of continuing to gawp out the window, I could just as well do my good deed for the day and pay Marie a visit. Holding a rose I stole from a garden and without asking at the front desk if Marie is still in the ward, I climb the three flights of stairs, walk down the hall, and look for her room number. Her name is still on the door. Her surprise at seeing me is as obvious as her delight that I’ve come to visit. She tells me that her requests for dismissal from the ward have so far been denied; her argument that she could easily get to her physiotherapy sessions in a taxi was met with the repeated advice that she really should move to a nursing home. Of course, she need only show that she had someone who could take care of her… so Marie gave the senior physician a name: Sophie Isabella Weissenthal. The doctor asked for an address and telephone number. Marie answered: “Section A, Row 1, Number 6—but I’d be surprised if they’ve installed telephones at the Neustifter Cemetery.”
I laugh at Marie’s mischievous expression and suggest she give them my name next time. But back at home I ask myself what on earth made me offer my name to a stranger who just happened to be hiking on the Rax at the same time as I was, and then slipped and fell at my feet, which meant that I was the one who accompanied her to the hospital. To put it in other words, my offer to help a woman I don’t know at all during her convalescence even though I can’t stand being with my mother for even two hours at a stretch is nothing less than astounding. I tell myself there must be something about Marie, but that doesn’t explain anything.
At night Ini calls. She wails and sniffles into the phone, her whining is unbearable. I have no idea what happened and since she can’t calm down, I promise to head over to her place on the other side of the city.
I have to ring the bell several times before Ini finally opens the door. Her face is puffy, her eyes red. Mother is sitting in the rocking chair I gave Ini for her last birthday, wearing pink slippers adorned with tassels in a lighter shade of pink. She nods at me without saying a word and I already regret having come to see her. Ini’s beloved cat Fufu lies motionless on a rose damask cushion in the middle of the coffee table.
“We have to put him to rest in the box, and then in the fridge,” Ini says in a childish voice, “That’s how it’s done. I saw it in a movie. Not the fridge, the freezer. It’s just that my freezer is way too small to fit Fufu inside. How could I have known he was planning on dying? But keeping him cold should do the trick, don’t you think? Until I’ve bought him a coffin, right?”
I look at the colossus on the table. Of course her freezer is much too small. Fufu is the size of a piglet.
“Could you do it for me?” Ini begs. “I – I just can’t bring myself to. Mama says she doesn’t know how to pick Fufu up.”
I look at Mother’s manicured hands.
“Without hurting him,” Ini adds.
“Hurting a dead cat?”
Mother shakes her head indignantly: I am as heartless as my father, that Jew; and the softly hissed slur is immediately followed by endearments for Ini—“my little cupcake, my sugarplum.” Whereas I only get angry looks.
So I put the cardboard box Ini brought on the table, lay cat and cushion inside, and close it. In the kitchen, I empty out the refrigerator and take out two glass shelves. Who needs low-fat cheese when you’re mourning a dead cat? And the handful of carrots will surely survive a brief existence without refrigeration. In their place, I slide the box with Fufu into the fridge, at an angle so it fits. I turn the temperature to the coldest setting and leave without saying goodbye.
On the way home, I keep nodding off in the streetcar. The leaden exhaustion that sets in after I have to deal with Ini or Mother is nothing new. To keep myself from sleeping through my tram stop, I start counting pedestrians, a childhood game: How many are wearing white, blue, red, who will count the most? One, two, three, go… I would have been better off going to bed with a book. I won’t tell Mother about Marie.
. . .
It was springtime, 1938, Marie would say. A spring that broke with surprising force over this land that would now no longer be a country.
And then Marie would fall silent.
It all began shortly after her twentieth birthday, she’d tell Lea. Great Britain, she remembered quite clearly, had just recognized the annexation of Austria to the Altreich. It would have been in May, that May with the week of summer weather. They’d joked that the sun seemed determined to console them for the political situation, Marie would have continued her story, then fallen silent and gazed out the window.
They had set out on their way, Marie would resume, Hans, Paul, Erika, Rosa and she, Marie. A birthday present from her two friends, a multi-day hike on the Rax, the reason why Hans would later feel responsible for Marie’s love.
Erika, Marie would say, picking up the story’s thread once again, was Hans’s sister, she was a bit unusual, a little slow, Marie would say, but good company.
And Rosa … aah, Rosa. And Marie would sigh.
Rosa … No, she really couldn’t explain what Hans must have been thinking because, of course, considerations of how to remain safe were the first order of the day for everyone back then. But he must have had something in mind, which is why they wanted to climb that high in the mountains, so they could finally move freely again. And then, Rosa.
Ro-sa. Marie would roll the name slowly over her tongue and then let drop that she never trusted the woman. Even then, she’d had suspicions about Rosa for a long time and indeed they would have her to thank for the misfortune that subsequently fell upon them, among other things. But Marie would never be able to prove it.
Rosa, Marie would say, was the youngest, which is why Hans wouldn’t have taken her seriously. Rosa, of this Marie was sure, loved Paul with a passion back then. Rosa would certainly not have guessed when they started out on the hike that he and Hans were actually a couple.
On that first night, when they’d reached the hut, Erika had been sleepy and Rosa soon followed her to the communal bunks, as she was tired from working a shift as a waitress the prior evening. First, she’d coquettishly shown off her swollen legs, in a clear bid for sympathy, after which Paul had drily suggested she take the top bunk, since it was the best, after which Rosa had withdrawn in a huff.
Marie, meanwhile, had gone off on a walk with Hans and Paul. They’d have had to speak quietly, out of caution, even though they knew they were alone. Hans was deeply worried; he’d already had a few experiences—but there were also things he could only have guessed at back then. Still, neither she nor Paul had believed his stories, they both called them ‘fanciful.’ He had told them about Siegfried, his friend from Berlin, the man he’d been in love with a few years earlier. A time of roses, he called those months.
Siegfried, Marie would tell Lea decades later, had also not survived. And then Marie would fall silent.
In the years prior to 1933, Siegfried had worked for Hirschfeld. That’s how they’d have met; Siegfried was a doctor, and Hans, a medical student at the time. He would never finish his studies.
She’d never forget, Marie would say, picking up the thread again, the expression that came across Paul’s face when Siegfried’s name was mentioned, restrained but out of sorts all the same. Paul was a jealous lover, which was dangerous, especially in those times.
Hans, Marie was certain, had admired Hirschfeld’s work. And Marie would look at Lea and ask, “Does the name Hirschfeld mean anything at all to you?”
Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, who created the Scientific Humanitarian Committee and founded the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin in 1919. He and his colleagues—including those at the German League for Human Rights—advocated repealing Paragraph 175 of the German penal code, which criminalized homosexual acts.
During the Weimar Republic, a vigorous campaign to abolish Paragraph 175 developed. Homosexuals fought for their rights through organizations and societies, they were supported by prominent people, used the press, and were gradually able to create their own subculture. Accordingly, the political parties felt it necessary to take positions on the matter: some advocated for making the punishments more severe, demanding the sterilization of all homosexuals, ‘preventive detention’ or enforced ‘curative treatment’. ‘Anyone who even thinks of homosexual love is our enemy,’ was the Nazi Party’s stance, as given on a survey conducted by the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. Others, in contrast, agreed with Hirschfeld’s view that homosexuality is a ‘natural’ predisposition.
At the time, in the Weimar Republic, Marie would explain, the view that homosexuality was a ‘medical problem’ was widespread. Some people assumed it was a consequence of masturbation. In any event, it was seen as a degeneracy of the personality caused by morphological changes in the brain or disturbances of the nervous system, Marie would continue. Some might claim it could also be traced to hormonal imbalances; some, Marie would report, went a step further and considered homosexuality a mental disorder.
But all agreed that those who are sick should be treated, Marie would explain, and the spread of the sickness should be prevented lest it become an epidemic.
By then we knew at least a few things that had been happening in earlier years in Hitler’s Germany, but we still were endlessly naïve back then, in the spring of 1938, Marie would say.
On May 6, 1933, students from the higher schools of physical education had stormed Hirschfeld’s institute; Rudolf Diels, first head of the Gestapo after 1933, were responsible. Siegfried was not in the institute at the time because the rampage took place in the early morning and his shift started in the afternoon that day.
Around 100 students had come with a brass band, doors were kicked in, ink wells emptied over papers and carpets, books confiscated, wall charts thrown out the window, photographs kicked around the room. The physical education students had been given clear orders: After the clean-up operation, they were to destroy the institute. Even the medical instruments were to be made useless.
The loud music of the band drew a crowd of onlookers, whereupon the leader gave a speech. Afterwards they all retreated, temporarily.
At three in the afternoon, Siegfried was in the institute, busy cleaning up with his colleagues. SA troops returned with an order to remove and investigate the material. They asked for Dr. Hirschfeld. On hearing that he was abroad due to a bout of malaria, one of the SA soldiers retorted, “Well, hopefully he’ll croak without us doing anything; then we won’t need to hang him or beat his brains out.”
Hans had heard the same thing from Siegfried himself and the day of the ‘clean-up operation.’ Deeply worried, Hans had offered his beloved friend a secure place to stay in Vienna, which Siegfried declined on some pretext or other. Only months later did he first hear the name Toni. Hans, whose letters to his lover had gone unanswered and who had suspected a nasty plot on the part of this unknown Berliner and had therefore contemplated a trip to Berlin.
For financial reasons, he’d had to delay it until the beginning of the holidays. It would have been cold then, especially in Berlin. Hans did not find Siegfried. The pubs had been closed, so there were no longer be any meeting places; nor were any of the newspapers Hans always used to bring back from Germany to be found at the newsstands. He hesitated, but in the end didn’t dare ask, and left Berlin, falsely concluding that Siegfried must have taken off with Toni.
Back in Vienna, as Marie would relate, he tried to get on with his life. In the summer of 1936 he met and fell in love with Paul.
Only after the annexation to the so-called Altreich did he receive news from Berlin, but not from Siegfried. Instead, he had a visit from Toni—a few days before our hike on the Rax.
So that evening, on the Rax, Hans talked about that meeting, and also about Siegfried’s death, the cause of which came originated in Columbia-Haus and Lichtenburg.
You, all of you, should be very careful, Toni had warned him, and Hans passed on this warning to his friends.
Columbia-Haus, Marie had joked at the time with her friend, what could that be, sounds like a travel agency, off to South America, crisis-ridden Mitteleuropa, adieu!, Marie would later tell Lea, blushing and looking away.
Toni told Hans that he had done everything he could to get Siegfried out of Columbia-Haus. He’d written to bishops, even to important people in the party, anonymously, there was no other way, but no one had helped him. Friends finally counseled him to keep his mouth shut and disappear if he didn’t want to end up there himself.
By 1938 people knew things weren’t going to get better, Marie would continue, because after 1925, the Nazi Party had made its position unmistakably clear in debates about homosexuality; it was known, according to Marie, that in their eyes, we represented the ‘downfall of the German people.’
Back then, until the mid-1930s, they’d joked about it, Hans and she; outwardly they’d always been cautious, but never amongst themselves. Still what can you do, Marie would ask, except crack jokes when you’re faced with such an attitude? Because of Hans, the German people were being deprived of some children, the National Socialists would have argued, since he and his kind were responsible for the falling birthrate. Furthermore, their lifestyle spread like a plague. Because of their tendency to form cliques, they could potentially be members of the opposition and therefore enemies of bourgeois society. Nevertheless, Marie still smirked about it all. It was her way of dealing with it.
That time on the Rax, Marie would say, continuing her story, Hans, who’d lost any desire to joke around since Toni’s visit, had shown her a copy of an article from an old issue of the Völkisch Beobachter, so she might finally believe him that the situation was really dangerous and start to take his warnings seriously: on the page it was written that all homosexuals should be hanged from the gallows. She, Marie, had quipped that they’d need an awful lot of gallows to hang them all, especially since it was apparently an epidemic; they’d need a hanging line, she’d laughed and asked where the Volk of the Third Reich were going to hang their washing afterwards, or do they no longer do laundry there? And Hans answered that there was nothing funny about it, she would see.
Back then, Marie would tell Lea, she—like many others—didn’t want to acknowledge what was going on in the so-called Altreich. Terrible things were happening in the Berlin Columbia-Haus, in all the so-called ‘camps’, Hans told her. Even if Toni had been exaggerating, if you only took half of what he said, it would still be bad enough to be unbearable.
So what is this Columbia-Haus, then?, Marie had asked him that night on the Rax, a little annoyed over being put straight by the older boy.
Since 1935 there had repeatedly been round-ups—in various bars, in public conveniences, in train stations, sometimes several in one night. Anyone who looked suspicious was corralled into a van. One member of the ‘Adolf Hitler’ SS Bodyguards reported: “Here, our haul was one van-load.” Sometimes it was more, sometimes less. The men were taken to the Gestapo station and left to stand 12, 13, 14 hours in the corridor without food or water; they were allowed to go to the toilet only after six hours of standing. Some collapsed, suffered chest pain, lost consciousness. From the Gestapo station they were taken to Columbia-Haus. They were kicked in the shins: “You piece of shit!” Beatings. “Miserable bastard!” They weren’t allowed to go to the toilet. “You bugger, here’s a kick in the ass!” Anyone who defecated on the floor was forced to eat his own excrement. Those who refused disappeared down the corridor. “What are you squinting at, you stupid goddamn shithead!”
Hans kept quiet. He avoided Paul’s eye. Siegfried was held in Columbia-Haus for months. Afterwards, he was taken to Lichtenburg.
The man who came back from Lichtenburg was a different man than the one Toni had fallen in love with; broken, his hair turned completely gray. Toni almost hadn’t recognized him.
Siegfried would wake up screaming in the middle of the night, would only sit with his back to the wall. Only after several days did Siegfried tell Toni what had gone on. The following night, Siegfried hanged himself.
Toni wrote another anonymous letter to the Reich Bishop about the Columbia-Haus and Lichtenburg; people are tortured there, he wrote, as a ‘sport’, even a ‘special sport’, with canings and roll calls, with confinement in a dark cell.
And Hans, Marie would say, read the letter out loud to us:
“Reverend Reich Bishop! These prisoners are people who ended up there because of some sexual inclination or merely the suspicion of some inclination. Yet not a single one of them has appeared before a judge! […] The torture continues. As you read these lines, many hundreds are suffering the most horrible torments. Reich Bishop, if someone has committed a crime, he should be called before an official judge so he can take responsibility for it! This is the view of all decent Germans. […] In the name of our Savior’s love for mankind, I beg you: Please help! […] Our Lord God will reward you for this deed, which will certainly please him. You are our highest evangelical priest, whom we soldiers especially revere. […] I have been told that our glorious Führer would punish such acts most severely if he got word of them. I am of the same view, since Adolf Hitler wants to see justice and the heartfelt love of one’s neighbor served. […] For fear of reprisal (I have grounds!) I cannot reveal my name, most reverend Reich Bishop […] Our Lord be with you and bless you in all you do!”
And Maria would stand up to get a glass of water. She would open her desk drawer and hand Lea an envelope.
The one on the right, she would say, is Siegfried; and next to him, the one with curly hair, is my Hans.
That night on the Rax, on Marie’s birthday and years after Siegfried’s death, she had not believed Hans, instead, she wanted to live. And living means loving, Marie would say, recalling how she saw Sophie for the first time the following morning. It was early, the sun was rising and she, Marie, armed with a hand towel and her toiletries, had marched out to the well behind the house next to which Sophie, her braids undone, was standing and washing her face. Water dripped from her lower lip down her chin and onto her skirt, creating a spot shaped like France. Marie leaned against the wall of the house to watch Sophie and listen to her soft singing: ‘A friend, a dearest friend that is the greatest thing there is in the world…’ A habit, Marie would say, that Sophie kept her entire life: singing in the bath. She brushed her hair, making the same motion again and again until she froze mid-stroke, as if she’d forgotten something, and turned to Marie, making room for her with a cheerful “Good morning.” She told Marie that she should feel free to come up to the well and begin her morning washing. I’d rather have stood there a while longer watching her, Marie would say with a laugh, adding that she thoroughly savored that glimpse of Sophie throughout all the years they lived together.
Marie felt shy and remembered Hans’s warning. She didn’t know how to start a conversation or how to keep one flowing except by asking where Sophie came from, where she was headed, the usual hiking talk. And later, at breakfast, Sophie asked about Hans, if he was her husband, which Marie answered in the negative, just a friend, a dearest friend. Sophie blushed.
During the day they went hiking; Marie had convinced her friends beforehand that they could head east today and west tomorrow, without telling them that she hoped to meet Sophie by chance. That’s what had annoyed Rosa later, Marie would add, it was too many women at once for her and Paul spent the entire day chatting with one of the girls in Sophie’s group, someone whose name Marie had forgotten, although she certainly remembers that the young woman was a beauty. And Marie stayed by Sophie’s side, talking about harmless things as they walked. Both were teachers—though that was by no means a harmless topic. After all, Maria’s headmistress, Dr. Schwarzwald, had been discredited and the school was threatened with closure. Her school was in the city center, Marie answered evasively, near the Café Central, and she quickly switched the topic to children in general. Unlike Marie, Sophie did not teach for financial reasons, an impassioned educator, that’s what she was, and the way she spoke about her work bolstered Marie’s spirits: how frightened some children are, scarred as they are by life, Sophie remarked, and Marie thought of Eugenie Schwarzwald and how essential happy schools were, because no one can learn when afraid. She didn’t talk to Sophie about it, not then. Paul’s warning glance, his left elbow, his quick nod at Hans, and the seed of distrust needed for survival was planted, so Marie changed the subject to the flora and fauna of the mountains. Annoyed that this was the only harmless topic that occurred to her, Marie tripped over a root and Sophie caught her, ‘forgetting’ to remove her hand from Marie’s forearm where she’d grabbed her.
It was a slow rapprochement, with caution and reserve on Marie’s side. Had Sophie not been so forward on Saturday evening and asked for Marie’s address—the two of them got along so well, they were both interested in opera and the theater, perhaps they could meet in Vienna, for coffee, why not?
Had Sophie not been so bold that Saturday evening, they might never have seen each other again.
In Vienna, Marie later found a card at her door asking, in Sophie’s neat handwriting, if she might like to go to a concert the following weekend, and suggesting a place and a time to meet. Marie discussed it with Hans, asked him what he thought about it, and Hans warned her that it could be a trap, that Sophie could be an informer, that Marie should be at the least extremely cautious, demure, and well-behaved. You can’t trust anyone.
Sources used for this work include, in this excerpt:
Grau , Günter (Hg.): Homosexualität in der NS-Zeit. Dokumente einer Diskriminierung und Verfolgung. Frankfurt a. M.: Fischer TB, 2004. Available in English as Hidden Holocaust? Gay and Lesbian Persecution in Germany 1933-45. Edited by Günter Grau. Translated by Patrick Camiller. London: Cassell, 1995.
Schoppmann, Claudia: Nationalsozialistische Sexualpolitik und weibliche Homosexualität. Pfaffenweiler: Centaurus, 1991 sowie 1997.