I knew her only at a distance. She was a graduate student in European history, and appeared occasionally in the wood-paneled rooms where wisened professors took theatric measure of the past. She was lanky, and always book-laden, and happened to walk beside me out of a lecture hall one autumn afternoon my first term at Oxford. At the hip of her spruce dress was a weathered copy of The Origins of Totalitarianism. As we came beneath the courtyard spires I asked what she thought Arendt would make of the lecture.
Later she said, “Do you mind if I wash up?” Her fingers lingered in my curls as she rose from bed. “Asher,” she whispered, “from New York.” As the bathroom door closed behind her I looked around her room. Every object seemed fastidiously placed. Two porcelain cups faced one another on a tea table. An ironed black dress hung from the closet doorknob. A cherry shelf held three dozen books on the fate of the European Jews.
I stepped over my tangled clothes toward the books. They were annotated in cursive along the margin of nearly every page. In the indexes I searched for the Polish towns where my grandparents lived as children. The bathroom door creaked open. Christine’s trembling expression suggested not that I had been invited to see her naked and discovered her books, but that I had been invited to see her books and discovered her naked.
We might not have seen one another again but for the grant that sent me to Berlin that summer. I had written an elaborate research proposal for the Oxford history faculty about war ruins in Berlin, but intended to spend my time working on a novel. I was wary of renting an apartment over the internet, so I booked an Airbnb studio in Neukölln for a week and decided I would look for a two-month sublet once there. I did not know a soul in the city, and imagined an uninterrupted summer of inexpensive cafe afternoons. But on the first night in Berlin, as I wandered over the Oberbaum Bridge and along murals graffitied on remnants of the Berlin Wall, the specter of a solitary summer glimmered dark as the River Spree. I sat at the water’s edge, where fleeing East Berliners were once shot by the Volkspolizei. Facebook told me Christine was the only person I knew in Berlin. I tapped her an impulsive message.
She said, “Do you mind if I wash up?” Christine’s fingers lingered in my curls as she swayed toward the bathroom. I sat up in bed and surveyed her apartment. A spotless desk, shuttered closet, and oak bookshelf were arranged with the same exacting eye that governed her room at Oxford. Christine slipped from the bathroom and back into bed. In the confidential tone that often follows sex, she described her last academic paper, a passionate critique of the popular but misguided view that European Jews had passively accepted their fate.
“So where are you staying for the summer?” she asked.
I told her about the Airbnb and said I planned to look for a sublet.
“For two months? Oh, you’ll never find anything.” Christine looked around the room, as if the rental contract I needed might be lying on the floorboards. “You’ll be homeless if something isn’t done. I can’t believe nobody warned you.”
She said this not with tender concern but rather the annoyance of inefficiency. “You know, this place could fit two. That would make…sense.”
I said nothing, certain I misunderstood her offer. She glanced at me shyly, as if anticipating harsh reprisal. I thought of the forlorn shadows on the River Spree. Two months could only go so badly.
We fell into a silent rhythm. Each morning we woke at seven and spent thirty minutes in bed. It was never more or less: no matter the stage of the act, at seven-thirty Christine issued a curt, “Do you mind if I wash up?” As she showered, I sipped coffee at a window overlooking Oranienstraße, a boulevard near remains of the Berlin Wall. By seven-forty Christine emerged dressed from the bathroom, nodded at me in her official way, and left the studio. We never worked in the same cafes and we never spoke during the day. I spent mine in the neighborhood’s Turkish, Korean, and Indian restaurants, writing over six euro lunches. I soon felt like part of the local architecture, typing away in restaurants into which white tourist couples momentarily peered, issuing delighted gasps. When my rabbi asked in a cautiously worded email how it felt to live in Berlin, I replied that Kreuzberg was a cheaper Williamsburg. At nine each evening Christine and I met at the apartment. After a cursory description of her daily research on the Final Solution and thirty precise minutes in bed Christine would turn from me and fall asleep. At seven the next morning she would wake to begin the routine once more. All this might have remained a mystery had we never gone hiking with Ingrid.
Ingrid’s name was whispered and came with preconditions. These were three: she had been a family friend before she was in Parliament, she was quite humble if you got to know her, and she always wanted the best for you. Christine repeated these descriptors as we walked along Oranienstraße. “Ask her about her refugee advocacy,” Christine said for the third time that morning. “I told you she leads the Greens in Parliament––right?”
We came out of the U-Bahn in west Berlin. Christine seized my hand and hurried us toward a stylized Gothic townhouse. A woman with cropped blonde hair stood between a brown Volkswagen Beetle and a dazed-looking man in a beige sweater. Christine breathlessly reported our respective names. The man was introduced as Klaus. As I shook Ingrid’s hand, I emphasized that I had heard a great deal about her.
“From a young age,” Ingrid said, grimacing at Christine, “I am impressing on this one to be on time.”
Ingrid turned to the Volkswagen. “I am also having a jeep, but I am liking better to fly this little Beetle.”
We squeezed into this little Beetle.
Christine and I sat in the rear and Klaus in the passenger seat. He held a Blackberry toward Ingrid. As her eyes scanned the traffic Ingrid spoke in German into the phone. The voice on the other end seemed more withered with each reply. Klaus clicked off the call and dialed another. Each voice that responded to Ingrid shared a frightened quiver, and her replies a brutal finality. She never once looked at the phone.
We loitered in traffic. “There’s that Vietnamese place I told you about,” Christine said. I looked through the window. Between the U-Bahn station and a department store was a black sign that read Stuthof, Treblinka, Dachau. Ingrid battled wilting voices.
We drove through the outskirts of the city, highway overpasses and gray residential towers giving way to farmland. Ingrid waved off the phone and stared at me in the rear-view mirror with sudden interest. “You are familiar with Silesia?”
I said, “Only from a distance.”
“When I am going somewhere I am researching it,” Ingrid said. It took a moment for me to register this as a reprimand.
“Silesia is a land of many palaces,” Ingrid continued. “Do you know who is building these palaces?”
I did not. Another moment passed in judgmental silence.
“These palaces are being built by Prussian nobles. In former times Silesia was the finest place in all Germany to spend the summer. Many nobles came from Berlin for the weekend. In former times there were many magical nights in these palaces.”
“Sounds lovely,” I offered.
“Then came the war,” Ingrid lamented.
We drove in silence past steeples and hay-thatched huts. The landscape echoed the nostalgia of S.Y. Abramovich and I.L. Peretz, Amos Oz and Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Yiddish stories my grandfather read to me at the end of childhood evenings, the memories he sometimes offered of his own. I thought of a day I had yawned beside him through a New York museum, this frail man whose body was marked with signs I did not yet know how to decode, standing for an unfathomable time before a canvas of mythical village fragments.
“You have never been to Poland?” Ingrid asked. “But Christine is telling me your family is Polish.”
“What a shame you are so disconnected from the family history.”
We sped through dusk. I gazed onto the farmland, drifting in and out of sleep. Ingrid and Christine’s brisk German intermingled with the Yiddish accent in which my grandfather once read me bedtime stories. The images of those stories glinted in the farmland, children running through shtetl valleys, Mendele the Foolish trekking over the hills to sell books and wine and gossip. Six magnificent turrets rose into the sky. I stared at the palace spires, which rose from marble towers over a courtyard of Doric columns and pruned trees that I could not place in my grandfather’s tales. Abruptly I realized we had reached our destination.
Ingrid drew the Volkswagen to a halt, and on her nod we stood from the car. An elderly man in a maroon dinner jacket and trousers whispered, “Velcome.” He opened the palace’s brass doors to reveal a hall lit by baroque chandeliers. Suits of armor guarded the dark hall with medieval axes and cruciform swords. A ceiling fresco depicted three knights on horseback pursuing a hare. The mute proprietor led us down the hall. With a grand gesture he threw open an oak door. The chamber was lined with silver-framed portraits of men in tunics and furs, a pigmented army of Jack of Hearts. Golden curtains hung from a four-poster bed. The mute proprietor bowed Christine and me inside.
Thirty minutes later she said, “Do you mind if I wash up?”
To dinner Christine wore a black dress studded with silver sequins. I put on a navy blazer and trim blue jeans.
“Don’t you have something else?” she asked. I didn’t.
“How did you not pack slacks?” “You said a hiking trip.”
“I said a hiking trip in a palace.” “I didn’t know that meant––” “Do you like Ingrid?”
“Well I want her to like you too.”
Ingrid and Klaus greeted us in the dining hall with cordial handshakes. “Pleasant to see you,” Ingrid said, as if we had just arrived by carriage from eighteenth-century Berlin.
White tablecloths shimmered beneath chandeliers. Blond children wore obsessively ironed shirts. At the head of each table were sullen men whose last name I presumed to begin with De or Von. The regal countenance of a beheaded stag judged us unblinkingly from the wall. Ingrid ordered for the table.
“So,” I smiled to Ingrid, “Christine tells me you’re working on refugee rights in Parliament?”
She looked sternly at me, as if judging whether I was worthy of such talk.
“Correct,” Ingrid conceded. “You are surely knowing there is a trouble with refugees. Tens of thousands are coming to Germany, but our laws are from former times. For example there is a law making it impossible for refugees to be working. Go to Goerlitzer Park, hundreds of them from Eritrea and Sudan are selling drugs. It is not enough for us to be accepting refugees, we are needing to make it possible for them to be contributing to the nation.”
“That’s such humane work,” I said, “helping people rebuild their lives.”
“Yes of course,” Ingrid chided. “If this situation is not going to turn into the problems we had in former times.”
A plate of fleshy meat slabs arrived at the table. “Rinderroulade,” Ingrid announced. “You know rinderroulade?” I shook my head.
“You must know rind?”
“I don’t speak much German,” I observed innocently.
“Yes, but you should know rind.” Ingrid grimaced. “So what languages are you speaking?”
“Just the one,” Christine apologized for me.
“I’m still trying to learn English,” I quipped. Nobody laughed.
Ingrid switched to German. Klaus laughed as he sank his teeth into a slab of meat. A roasted goose arrived at the table, one solitary feather rising from its rear. Mercifully there was also a salad, which I served onto my plate. Ingrid’s voice veered between tones and accents as she mocked nemeses unnamed to me. Occasionally one of the others inserted a half-sentence of hurried agreement. When all that was left were the unfortunate goose feather and a few scraps of rinderroulade, Ingrid turned to me and said, as if no time had passed, “You are not even speaking Hebrew?”
I said I did not.
“But zat is the language of your people.”
“My grandparents spoke Yiddish,” I said stiffly.
Ingrid grinned, unphased by this correction. “Zere is nothing like zis in America, is there?” She gestured around the palatial hall. “Not a single palace in ze entire country…”
I admitted that America has no Prussian palaces.
“I am noticing that to sit in a formidable restaurant in America you are having to go up in ze spacescrapers.” Ingrid jabbed an accusing finger.
“Skyscraper,” I said, “and you don’t.”
Christine’s hand came into my palm. For the briefest moment I thought it was an act of solidarity. Then her fingers clamped around mine and she detained my hand beneath the table.
“No culture,” Ingrid gleefully lamented.
Several minutes earlier I would have thought it ludicrous to be badgered by Ingrid’s patriotism into any flag-waving of my own. But as the rinderroulade glistened on the plate before me I sensed an ancestral obligation to take up the role of national spokesman.
“That’s harsh,” I said, “how about Fitzgerald, Ellington, Twain, optimism, baseball, liberal arts coll––”
The end of my sentence interrupted the beginning of Ingrid’s. She spoke in German, her eyes moving rapidly between Christine and Klaus, who let out an endearing little laugh.
Christine’s expression was fixed in impressionable astonishment. The waiter arrived with white wine, one hand behind his back as he poured a taster for Ingrid. She brought the wine to her nose. She sniffed. Disgust cringed her face. The waiter seemed unsure whether to pour or flee.
“Answer me something,” Ingrid turned to me. “It’s easy for you to sit here and tell me your country is so wonderful, this, that. But you study in England. Christine is German. You vacation with us in Silesia. You are not as loyal to your country as you want me to believe, I sniff that from a great distance.”
My hand swept into riposte from beneath the table, but was promptly arrested by Christine’s clasp. Ingrid held her glass to the waiter. He poured the wine.
“At least you are seeing some history in Silesia,” Ingrid observed.
As we lay beneath our golden curtains that night I said to Christine, “I wouldn’t have minded you intervening when Ingrid came after me like that.”
“You’ll have to forgive me, I was just so taken aback,” she said, “by the way you were holding your fork.”
“You were holding your fork incorrectly the entire evening. It was embarrassing, Asher.” There was no washing up that evening.
Christine was gone when I woke in the morning. In the dining hall I found Klaus seated beneath stained-glass windows. A newspaper lay on the white tablecloth.
“Morning,” I smiled. He indulged a delicate sip of coffee. Then he stared at me as if trying to remember who I was. I couldn’t tell if it would be more awkward to join him or to sit alone in the empty dining hall.
“You are liking Silesia?” he inquired gruffly. This seemed as close as I might expect to an invitation. I assured Klaus I was liking Silesia very much as I took the seat across from him. He reached for the newspaper and held it as an iron curtain between us.
“I am sinking of my bees,” Klaus said.
The newspaper obscured him entirely from view.
“I am having sousans of bees. I am having relaxation with my bees. We are only having small minutes until hiking.” He set aside the newspaper and walked out of the dining hall.
Ingrid, Klaus, and Christine were waiting in the courtyard when I arrived. Christine’s eyes avoided mine. Ingrid wore a khaki hiking uniform cut precisely to her knees and elbows. Klaus scowled at the sunlight. Silently we set on a wooded path. Forest thickened about us, pine trees rising high as the palace spires. I figured it was as good a time as any to make amends.
“So,” I said, coming beside Ingrid, “Christine tells me you’ve written two books while in Parliament.”
“Correct,” Ingrid declared.
I waited for elaboration, but none came. “What are your books about?”
“Ze problem of fat children.”
“Oh, that’s such important work. My sister is a teacher, she talks all the time about how children can’t focus in school unless they have the right nutrition…”
Ingrid stared at me as if she could not fathom the connection. “An embarrassment,” she grumbled.
“Yes,” I said, eager to agree. “To live in such a wealthy country, and so many children don’t have the nutrition they need…”
“A great embarrassment,” Ingrid said, “to be valking the streets of your country and everyvere you look, zere are fat children. Vere is the motivation in society? Vere is the discipline? How are we achieving anything when all around we see the next generation of Germany is fat, lazy, not even willing to work for their own health, let alone the health of the nation.”
Christine nodded vigorously.
“I am introducing in ze Parliament,” Ingrid said, looking courageously to the horizon, “a solution to zis problem. The youth in this country are needing proper exercises. I am introducing a new program for the youths to be going out in the wilderness, on hikes like the very one we are taking now, so they are learning discipline, and also to appreciate the nation. We are killing two birds with one hike.” Ingrid gave out something like a laugh.
The trees began to thin, revealing the sweep of the mountain range, jagged peaks high above rocky plateaus. Beneath us rolled prairie farmland, minuscule towns dotted with church steeples. Perhaps it was in that very meadow that as a boy my grandfather chased a goose through the rain, slipping as he cursed its clucking insistence on living. Perhaps here it was that the infamous Rabbi Kesler of Breslov was snared by an entourage of stick-wielding men, upon revelation that he was neither a Rabbi, a Kesler, nor from Breslov, but rather had for years been journeying from one shtetl to the next carousing among eligible young women on the premise that he was. And it was surely in these fields that my grandfather grazed the Chanukah cow, so dubbed for its inexplicably abundant udder, which sustained his family on eight times the milk gifted by any other cow.
“Imagine a hundred thousand boys and girls, future leaders of Germany, hiking like we are right now. Learning to appreciate.” Ingrid gestured to a distant ridge. “I am happy you are seeing Silesia on such a strong day. So now it is time for lunch.”
Christine hastened beside Ingrid. She spoke in urgent German, pointing toward a mossy clearing several dozen yards away. Ingrid barked a surly blessing. Christine took me by the hand and hurried us toward the clearing.
“There’s something we need to talk about,” Christine said. She opened the knapsack and took out two sandwiches and one stainless steel fork. “We can’t have a repeat of last night at dinner. I brought us away from the others so we can practice. Here.”
She handed me the fork. I did not take it. “How is this what bothered you last night?”
“It’s not just the fork,” she said. “It’s also your hand gestures. You can’t wave your arms all over like that when you’re talking. This isn’t some New York deli, you’ve got to care about the impression you’re making.”
She held the fork toward me as some absurd offering of peace.
“It’s rude to ignore local customs,” Christine continued. “It’s a problem you have, just the same as you don’t bother learning other languages. That’s the sort of attitude––I’m not comparing, obviously it’s not as bad–– but superior attitudes never lead to anything good politically, do they? You can’t rampage through Europe like it belongs to you, just because we all happen to speak English. That’s imperialism on a small scale, isn’t it?”
“Lovely, let’s have a German masterclass on respecting other cultures,” I snapped. “You can’t make everything about––”
“You know, I wouldn’t mind knowing what Ingrid’s parents did in the war. She’s got more than a dose of Lebensraum in her, doesn’t she? And while we’re on the subject, how about your grandparents?”
Christine’s shoulders shuddered. Her fingers clasped in her sweaty palms. Her breathing took on an animated haste. “Take the easy way out, Asher, that’s right, remind me I’m a Nazi! I’m trying to make up for it. I feel awful about it, I’m sorry, I hate what happened, I’m against what happened, I spend all my time writing about it so nobody ever forgets. But you’re not even grateful! After everything I’ve tried to do for you, I’ll always be just another Nazi!”
Her wounded eyes retreated to the prairie floor with hopeless desolation. I knew there was only one thing to do.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t mean that. Will you show me the right way to hold that fork?”
At dinner I did my best to hold my fork at a Prussian angle over a plate of gleaming schweinshaxe. Ingrid spoke in wistful tones about the hike, as if it were a fond childhood memory. “And the pines––I am never seeing taller pines! And these mountains, every time I return they are being more majestic! How is the schweinshaxe, Asher?”
“Delicious,” I assured her. Beneath the table Christine’s hand offered mine a complimentary squeeze. “So Ingrid, I’ve been meaning to ask: how did you get into politics?”
Ingrid smiled curtly.
“Ah vell, funny you should ask. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to be giving back to Germany. Here in this country we have achieved so much over the years. We’ve had our struggles, oh yes, but we have a great tradition to be preserving. Maybe in some countries you don’t have much history to be passing on to the future generations, but for me––”
I dropped my fork onto the schweinshaxe.
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to help me, because I’ve never understood what was so fabulous about Europe before 1776. What’s the history we’ve missed out on? Toothless peasants dying of the black plague? Religious wars? Sexless monks? Teutonic beheadings? Absolute monarchy? Please, tell me an inspiring Hohenzollern tale.”
Ingrid stared aghast.
“Let me tell you something Ingrid, and I’ll make it as simple as I can. The worst parts of American culture, the hierarchy and pretension, came from Europe. The best parts of my country are the ones Europe didn’t want, and that includes my grandparents, in case you were wondering why nobody in my family has been to Poland since 1942.”
Ingrid closed her eyes. She bowed her head. Christine glanced apprehensively between us. Klaus held his breath. Ingrid whispered, “I am sorry. I did not know.”
Nobody said anything. Then Ingrid’s eyes opened into mine, and she said, “They survived?”
“After nine months at Majdanek.”
“Thank God,” Ingrid whispered. “No one can ever truly understand ze horror of the Holocaust. The devastation of the Jewish people. The devastation of the German nation. Many great German Jews were killed. Many Jews who contributed to the strength of the nation. Chaim Ernst, the splendid stage actor. Clementine Krämer, one of our finest poets. Hubert Golden, the mathematician. Victor Wittgenstein, the great industrialist.”
“You’ve forgotten Captain von Trapp,” I sneered. Ingrid blinked.
“You’ve never seen The Sound of Music?” I went on. “Captain von Trapp, the Nazis’ greatest victim, a patriotic Austrian naval officer forced to flee his country villa.”
“Tragic,” Ingrid agreed. “We are working very hard to remember. Look everywhere around Berlin, even on the street outside Christine’s apartment there is a little cobblestone plaque for the family that lived there.”
For an unsure moment I absorbed these words. Then I repeated, “The family that lived there?”
Ingrid looked pleasantly between Christine and me.
“Yes, the family that lived there. The Rulskis––was that their name, Christine? They were very fine shoemakers. I am even meeting some of the older generation who were being fitted by the Rulskis themselves, in that shop on the first floor of the building.”
I rounded on Christine. “You never thought to mention this?”
“You didn’t know?” She looked confused. “I thought you’d seen the plaque, I thought it was special to you to reclaim the apartment, that’s why you agreed––why else did you think I offered you to live there?”
I rose from the white-clothed table. The baroque chandeliers glowed overhead as I paced down the hall. I didn’t want to be in the same country as Christine let alone the same room but she was dashing fifteen feet behind me. As I passed beneath the three hunters bounding after the hare in the ceiling fresco it struck me how vile was this nostalgic retelling of the past. Perhaps my time in Berlin had been no less vile a pursuit. Christine could draw me no nearer to the inexplicable past than the palace could transport Ingrid to the lavish parties of the eighteenth century Prussian nobility. The chamber door swung open and Christine stood breathless in the doorway. We stared at each other with a mutual enmity that could only be resolved by sex. Our bodies pressed against the silver-framed portraits with tumultuous finality. As her fingers gripped my skin I was already packing my belongings in the Oranienstraße studio, finding a cheap flight across the channel that Hitler failed to cross, and sitting down at my desk in Oxford to make sense of this comedy of errors. But I knew that even after I slipped from Christine’s life she and Ingrid and Klaus would always be able to say, “Oh yes, Christine dated a nice Jewish boy once…” I could not let her possess me as an object as fastidiously placed as the tea cups and history books in her apartment. Her breaths were fast and hushed and I put my mouth to her ear and whispered as lightly as I could.
She went limp in my arms.
In a low voice I said, “What’s wrong, is this not good for you?” “Did you say––?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You didn’t––I’m sorry, I thought I heard––”
I clasped her naked hips. Her breaths came more rapid and I leaned into her ear and between kisses whispered as lightly as I could, “Auschwitz.”
She trembled and released.
Her fingers rested in my untamed curls as she lay panting on my chest. Then her eyes glimpsed mine and I could tell she did not want to know whether she had heard or imagined what I said.
We did not speak in the car back to Berlin. We crossed the darkening landscape, past the wide rivers and wheat farms of my grandfather’s stories, past vanished shtetls that once enlivened Polish plains. It was here, in thatched-roof living rooms through Shabbos evenings, that a generation once argued zealously about the future. Assimilationists decried Zionist escapism and socialist utopianism, convinced that pogroms were a matter of the bitter past and the Jewish voice would be heard in the upcoming election. Would-be emigres disputed the merits of America and Palestine, while religious traditionalists promised that God would never forsake His people. A generation choosing what to do with the future before anyone understood what the future would do to it.
It was late evening by the time we returned to Berlin. Ingrid parked beside her Gothic townhouse. Christine and I walked wordlessly to the U-Bahn. We sat beside a woman with a hijab and a toddler. An American couple spoke in headache tones.
“And the food scene, it’s a–may–zing!” “And cheap!”
“It’s such a relaxed city!”
The train came to our stop. On the street Christine hissed, “You’re repulsive. After everything I’ve tried to make things right.”
When we came to the apartment building on Oranienstraße Christine hurried up the stairs.
I knelt on the street. There among the cobblestones were two faded brass stones. One was marked George Rulski and the other Freyda Rulski. I let my fingers rest on the dates beneath their names.
In the studio I packed in silence. I paid two euro and seventy cents for the U-Bahn to Schonefield airport. There was a flight out of Berlin at nine o’clock.
Sam Sussman has written for Harper’s and the Tel Aviv Review of Books and won the BAFTA New Writing Award and Oxford Review of Books Short Story Prize.