Fiction – work-in-progress

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In issue 2 of C.20 we published an excerpt from Brewster Chamberlin’s Ursula’s Triumph – the fourth and final volume of his series of novels about Berlin. Here we are proud to include a further instalment of Ursula’s Triumph.

Brewster Chamberlin is an historian, essayist, poet and novelist. This extract is from Ursula’s Triumph, the fourth and final volume of his “Berlin book”, the previous volumes being Schade’s PassageSchadow’s Meditations and Peregrine’s Island.

Author’s Note

It will be helpful to the Reader to know that this excerpt comes from a novel-in-progress called Ursula’s Triumph, the fourth and final volume of a series about the city of Berlin; the earlier volumes are Schade’s Passage, Schadow’s Meditations and Peregrine’s Island already published. The characters in this winter 1948-49 excerpt are Frau Lazarus, an older Jewish survivor of the camps who worked in Berlin for the secret illegal movement of Jewish survivors to Palestine/Israel in the winter of 1945-46 and John Schade (born Johannes Schadlerberg, a German-American writer with his 30th birthday just behind him, his name pronounced Schahduh). Having submitted his second novel to his publisher, Schade has returned to Berlin from the United States to write about the Soviet blockade of the city for a cultural journal in New York (Openings) and write, in German, short commentaries on daily events for the Radio in the American Sector (RIAS). Others mentioned in the text are Immanuel Weinraub, the Jewish leader of the notion Jews must remain in Germany; David Ben Gurion*, the first Prime Minister of the new Jewish state; Erich Nelhaus,* the first chairman of the revived Jewish community in the city; Udo Siegmeister who survived in Berlin protected by a gentile Social Democrat small factory owner, who worked for the American information control office; Francesca Ionatta, an American photograph journalist; Robert Capa*, a well-known photographer, lover of Gerda Taro,* a young photographer who died in the Spanish Civil War; and Franz/Yaacov, Schade’s and Francesca’s German-American Jewish friend (from Peregrine’s Island) who joined the Israeli naval force to help save the new state during the war of liberation.

*Real historical figures.

Making Aliyah and Other Jewish Concerns

Ignoring the raw sound of the air traffic, the old woman, almost a caricature of an aging Jew, dressed in worn and shabby, but heavy winter clothes (“But my underwear is silk, so don’t feel sorry for me.”) almost bumped into Schade as he stood absorbed in his thoughts waiting to cross the Milinowskistrasse. She straightened her back and stared at him for a long moment before her face brightened slightly in the grey dusk.

“Well, lieutenant, I almost didn’t recognize you without the uniform. You’ve been gone for a while but you don’t look older. Must be the spectacles.” Her voice had lost the agitated sharpness he remembered from the first postwar winter in the city; calmer now but no less intense, her woolen gloved hands moved a new empty matchbox between them at speeds dependent upon her emotional state, a trait Schade remembered from the first time he met her in later 1945.

“Good day, Frau Lazarus.” Schade smiled to camouflage his surprise and sudden loss of words. “Yes, it has been a while.”

She gave a brief barking laugh, her worn face achieving not quite the short-lived levity of her words. “That isn’t my name, you know.”

Schade nodded. “Yes, so I gathered the first time we met.”

“Ah, yes, then. Our job is finished now. We no longer need to go secretly to Eretz Israel. We won’t ask you to accompany the trucks again; there aren’t any more such illegal trips. We have done our best to achieve tikkun olam, you know, fixing a broken world, our world. Nothing can bring back the dead, of course.”

“I’d do the trucks again if it made any difference.”

“I’m sure you would, but there’s no need now. All they need now are organizers, administrators to provide tickets and open travel papers. I could do that of course but I’m tired and that excitement is gone. Things have become too dangerous for the likes of me in this city. You have heard of Erich Nelhaus? The first chairman of the Jüdische Gemeinde? Last March the Russians arrested him and we’ve never heard of him again.”

“Why was he arrested?”

“The Ivans don’t need a reason, not the way we figure reasons. Anyway, it is time for a new form. And I’m too cold here. The weather exaggerates my bad leg so I limp more. Anyway, I’m going to make Aliyah next month. I may not be a tzadik, you know, but I’ll try my best to live according to the laws.” She paused, then said in a voice heavy with sadness, “They call us Sheckelzahler, dues paying Zionists, you know. We were never very strong numerically and we never convinced many Jews to emigrate to Palestine, not until 1945 after the Hurban. Now it is different.”

Tzadik?”

“Yes, you wouldn’t know: saint, lieutenant, something like a saint.”

“Doesn’t it snow in Jerusalem or Haifa?” He asked this in a neutral voice that suggested he really did not know the answer.

What migt have been a smaile appeared swiftly on her haggard face. “I’m moving to a kibbutz Ras Shamir in the Negev, a desert.”

“If the Jews still control the approaches.”

“It’s secular which is good for atheists like I am. It’s also far to the left which doesn’t bother me. It’s more like an outpost, I think, on the edge of the desert, y’know. I’ll fit in there. And we are winning the war despite the odds.”

“You know more than I do.”

“I’m reliably informed. If that wasn’t true why would I go? I can’t fight, I’m not a nurse, but I can do other things to help.”

“So you’re not an assimilationist.”

“No, obviously I’m a Zionist, a radical Zionist. And I don’t agree with that Weinraub about not giving Hitler a posthumous victory, a Germany free of Jews when they all move to Israel.” She shivered and drew her old duffle coat and thick scarf tighter. Then she said over the sound of the airplanes, “There will be enough Jews left in Germany, in Europe, to support the cause and shame the Germans. But you know, the Germans will do it again if given half a chance. Until 1933 we thought they could possibly stop referring to us in racial terms. We were so wrong.”

“Aren’t you German?”

“By some rules, perhaps. I’m a Jew, and actually from Poland though my Polish is primitive.”

“Danzig?”

“Gdansk now.”

“As Breslau is now Wrocław.”

“We seem to have some similarities in our lives. With one major exception of course.”

“Yes,” He interjected quickly. “I wasn’t there.”

“That is so. You weren’t.” She sighed. “There is a hole in our lives. The remnant saved cannot be silent because a few of us escaped death, but we live in a cone of silence because we’ve no family left to make noise. We don’t count those who we’ve lost, no, there are too many. We count only those who we still have left. Only they will hear birds sing or see the butterflies.”

A scrappy group of women, children and a scattering of old men trudged down the side of the street ignoring the pitted sidewalk, carrying their shabby belongings in small cloth bags and broken baby carriages screeching on their tireless rims; their visages grey and worn, their eyes matt and downcast, they moved slowly, dragged down with exhaustion and despair having left hope behind years ago.

“They’re Germans from the east thrown out by the Poles, the last of them, on their way to camps in the west. Most came through at the end of the war.” Frau Lazarus looked at them with a cold eye. “I cannot find it in myself to feel sympathy for these people. Most of them supported Hitler with enthusiasm.”

“They’ve lost everything, their sense of themselves, they’re in shock, they’ve got nothing more to hold onto in this slippery world.”

“They have their lives. That’s more than we have.” The bitterness in her voice did not surprise Schade but made him intensely sad.

After a moment of silence her voice tightened and almost hissed. “Listen. If Israel had existed in 1933 the hurban wouldn’t have happened.”

“Perhaps, but there was no Israel then.”

“There has always been Eretz Israel, the Jews’ homeland. It’s in our Bible, Ezekiel somewhere, also Exodus and elsewhere. Ben Gurion believes Israel’s mission is to fulfill the biblical concept of an ‘am segulah’, an exemplary nation of high virtue treasured by god. Even an atheist like me can support that idea. Whether the nation will be treasured by god is another question that need not concern me. I’ll be going home really.”

“What do you know about farming?” Schade asked seriously and shivered himself. Their breaths formed funnels of chilled steam as they talked. They stepped aside to allow the passage of a legless pile of rags on a warped board fastened to a pair of roller skates propelled by two blunt hands holding blocks of wood to push the board and its cargo on. Two old women each holding the handle of a basket full of broken pieces of coal followed the board, visages of absolute determination in the winter air. One of them whispered to the other, “Judensau” but neither Frau Lazarus nor Schade heard the obloquy.

“I’ll learn. I’m not that old,” she responded with a sudden smile which indeed added a youthful allure to her haggard face. “And it’s a great thing, exhilarating to have a real safe home. Yes, yes, I know, the war there, but it can’t last forever.”

Schade smiled sadly. “I doubt we’ll live to see a true peace in that part of the world. An interregnum, or several perhaps, but –“

“There are certain things I must believe in order to live. That is one of them. It allows me to go on.”

“Yes, I see.”

“Perhaps. Let me tell you about a dream, common I think to the survivors. We all dream it again and again, the same horrible dream. Will I ever be able to forget and dream of normal things? There is no longer any normal, only the fatal inexplicable. I looked out through my window to the horizon and saw between two hills an endless plain, under the deep grey sky overcast with ashes, empty except for the pits we dug into the earth. No bird sang, no small animal ran about, no bush grew in this dead earth. And the dead, the murdered, the exterminated began to tremble in their shallow graves in the grey-brown earth. The graves burst open suddenly and out they flew in their hundreds, thousands, millions, grey twisted naked bodies, ancient people, infants, everyone, the shards of life, surging out of the earth into the air, the leaden sky dark with their corpses as they flew up and into the sky. And I awoke as usual unable to swallow or scream, the sound died in my throat and my body quivered uselessly with pain in my joints and muscles and my heart wanted to burst its integument. But it didn’t, it didn’t – and here I stand, plagued with the past but I must have a future, no? Yes, someone must absorb the past so we can go forward from the nightmare to tomorrow. We couldn’t say Kaddish then so we say it now in this vast emptiness. No, it will not pass, it will remain the present for me and others. We cannot forget even if we try. They are dead but their deaths are not dead.”

“Yes.” Schade could think of nothing else to say as the planes relentlessly roared and droned overhead.

In a voice filled with a cold baffled bitterness, she suddenly gasped, “What is difficult to understand is the fact that some Jews helped the Gestapo in rounding up other Jews. In the camps we knew nothing about that betrayal, at least not in the camps I was in. I first learned about them when I got to Berlin in the summer of 1945. The grabbers, snatchers (Greifer). Do you remember those furniture vans? ‘Zieh aus, zieh ein mit Silberstein’ on the sides? The Gestapo used them to transport Jews during the round ups. Ironic, no?”

She snapped as if unable to contain a rage within her mind and heart. “The bulk of the German Jews were blind and stupid. They had a choice. Most of us in the East didn’t. These Yekkes believed they were German, assimilated Jews, yes and remained Jews but German patriots as well, perhaps mainly. They couldn’t see the mene teckel on the wall, refused to emigrate, too tied economically and emotionally and culturally to the Fatherland. Refused to face a horrendous reality.” She paused and breathed deeply. Schade said nothing but continued to look at her burning eyes through his partially fogged spectacles.

She shook her head and craned her neck to see the sky. “It took the Hurban to force reality on them. But even now some refuse to leave, refuse to move to the Jewish state. Incredible. Weinraub and the others have them buffaloed with the business of not giving Hitler a final victory even if the dog is dead.”

Once again she drew in a cold long breath. “Well, it’s over for me. I’m moving to Israel. I’ll make some contribution. Can’t do that here any longer. The Nazis or something similar will come again. Even if they remain a small minority there is no future for Jews in this place. Sorry, lieutenant, not what you wanted to hear perhaps.” A sad smile crept over her face. “It’s not your business, is it?”

“Not any longer as such. Or not yet again. The future is unclear, especially under the present circumstances.”

“They will change but I won’t be here to see them.”

“Perhaps the change will come sooner than we think.”

“Wishful thinking, lieutenant. Look at them now, those oh so innocent Germans, sitting in the cafes playing at prewar life, as if nothing happened in the last twelve years, drinking black market coffee or watered down wine, the Schorle, tinted seltzer water, now they’re dressed better, some of them, than when you were here, not silk underwear perhaps but better. They wash their hair more often, but their clothes still smell of their bodies. They laugh, they have no memories. They’ll do it again given the chance. I’m well out of here. You see, we’ve been struggling for the homeland for a long, long time. Now we have it.”

“Don’t you have any family left here?

“No. The Germans and their collabos killed them all.”

“You survived here, in the city?”

“Yes and no, I was one of the fortunate ones, not like your friend Siegmeister. He stayed in the city the whole time; I was one of the last Jews deported, but I survived and came back. O yes, we know each other. We both managed to stay out of the hands of the Gestapo and the Jewish snatchers until they got me. You’ve heard about them, the Greifer.” She returned to the subject as if she could not repress it.

“Yes, we learned about them when we got here in 1945. I found it difficult to believe the stories. I couldn’t understand how a Jew could turn in other Jews knowing they’d be deported and killed.”

The old woman shook her head drew in a deep breath. “Yes. They did it to save their own skins. Difficult to comprehend perhaps.”

“All too human.”

“All too evil, lieutenant. They collaborated with the Nazis, worked for the Gestapo. Weaseling their way into friendships then betraying their victims. Smiling and shaking their hands one afternoon and that night or the next morning the Gestapo picked them up and sent them to the camp in the Iranischestrasse to be deported. After the war, when we found some of them; they received no mercy. Even in 1944 we tried to kill a few of them before they could do any more. Ask your friend Siegmeister. I’m surprised he didn’t tell you about it when you were here then.”

“What did happen to them afterward, until now I mean?”

“Some got away, some were arrested, many disappeared. Most people are too busy rebuilding their lives to worry about these dregs, even most Jews here would prefer to look to the future rather than deal with a past that includes Jewish collaborators.”

“What about the Arabs who live there,” Schade suddenly asked with a certain amount of discomfort.

“Yes, that question always come up. They can leave or stay but they will be forever a minority force in Israel. And yes, some will lose their land and houses. It cannot be otherwise if the state, the community is to survive. And you don’t have to tell me about Deir Yassin”

“Not quite fair, is it?”

“Life isn’t fair, lieutenant, ask any Jew. Or any Negro in America for that matter.”

They fell silent for a moment and listened to the airplanes landing and taking off on the slippery runways, always expecting the wrenching sound of a crash but rarely hearing one.

Schade tried one further question. “What about the Jews in Arab countries, in the diaspora? There must be hundreds of thousands of them.”

“They will return to the homeland. Most of them will have no choice. The Arabs threatened them before 29 November and after the partition vote they rioted in the streets, destroyed European shops and synagogues. All over the Arab world they killed and wounded thousands of us; they attacked British and American consulates and burned European and American cultural institutes. What could one have otherwise expected? The main point now is the fact that the Haganah, the Irgun and the Stern people and the volunteers have won the war and armistice negotiations with the Arab countries are going on or already finished. So I’m going to be safe there.”

Frau Lazarus shook herself like a cat waking from a bad dream. “I must go. I am too cold. Goodbye, lieutenant. Shalom!” She nodded, adjusted her scarf and coat and limped away down the street, a grey figure in a grey city on her way to the sunlight of the Mediterranean shore and the warmth of the desert. “Good luck!” he called after her, but she continued to walk away as if she hadn’t heard. He wondered if her last word would become a reality. He turned away and continued down the street so he did not see her raise her left arm and salute her new world with a clenched fist. What he felt, not for the first time, was homeless; he felt he might not have a home, certainly not in Europe, and could he really consider New York as home? He envied Frau Lazarus just a little bit.

When Schade spoke about his meeting Frau Lazarus to his former colleague Siegmeister, now in his last days working with the military government before resuming his previous career in the movie industry, the former U-Boot said, yes, they had feared the Greifer even after word got around who they were, like Stella Goldschlag and Rolf Isaaksohn who some members of the underground Gemeinschaft für Frieden und Aufbau (Society for Peace and Reconstruction) attempted to assassinate in 1944. As bitter as Frau Lazarus, Siegmeister almost snarled, “They took bribes and stole jewelry, food and clothing from their victims. O we resisted when we could. Not often, after all, we could be on the next train east.” He stopped for a moment, remembering with heavy bitterness. “We even sent them phony death sentence documents to let them know that after the war they’d be tried and punished, if they survived. Some of them were, of course, some escaped thus far, some simply disappeared.

“Motivations? Who knows? Promises of exemption from deportation for themselves and their families, I think. What else? Extra ration cards for food, apartments and clothes. The situation was extremely complex. Who could read their minds? Today they are criminals to be punished. Some will have been and some won’t.” Siegmeister refused to talk about his own participation in the underground or whether he continued to be involved in the hunt for the unpunished Greifer.

* * * *

Later, after he’d left Berlin, when he met Francesca Ianotta at the Neutral Edge Bar in Zürich, she told him about her assignment to the new state in its wartime situation. “It wasn’t like you’ve heard. It’s true the Arabs committed atrocities, but look at it this way: the Arabs captured very few Jewish settlements so didn’t have the opportunity to wipe them out. The Israelis captured over 400 Arab villages and committed more atrocities than the Arabs because of this.”

“Very little is as it seems at first glance. Depressing,” Schade replied, retreating into the cliché.

“It wasn’t easy covering the war with any objectivity. Few Israelis would admit to what they did to the Palestinian Arabs and their property. Several times I had to meet people I interviewed at night in shabby cafés in the worst parts of town, or out in the countryside in orange groves. While they didn’t deny the most egregious actions, such as the massacre of the Arab village of Deir Yassin by the Irgun and the Stern gang even before the war began, they preferred to excuse others as part of what happens in a war, any war. Understandable, I suppose. Once I drove into the desert at the end of a convoy, or my driver drove and I hung on as best I could. I planned to take some pictures of the convoy as it made its way to one of the kibbutzim to deliver supplies and ammunition. The driver refused to move into any position a bit away from the convoy, but sped up to pass several trucks so we ended up in the middle of the thing. The road was so bad I couldn’t focus so made no pictures until we stopped at the kibbutz. Oh, and many of the drivers were young women in shorts and combat boots. They drove with the expertise of race car drivers. Many of the guards on the trucks and at the kibbutz were also women. I made a lot of photographs of them at work and the magazine printed the one with the shortest shorts of course. Nothing beats sex and war. One of the top editors is a Zionist sympathizer and wouldn’t have printed pictures of Israeli savagery even if I could have made any.

“I worked very hard at this assignment in dangerous situations. The magazine did print many of the photographs I took without the young women in shorts. I can be proud of that. They are as good as Capa’s.” She put out her cigarette and drained the rest of her beer glass. “Well, old friend, I have to catch a train to Genoa. I’ve got a ticket on a ship to Havana where I’ll rest a while and see if I can’t do something with Franz’s, I mean Yaakov’s papers.”

“What then?”

“Who knows? They’ll always be some stupid war going on somewhere in need of a photographer. Or maybe I’ll write my memoirs and make so much money I’ll retire.”

Schade laughed. “I can’t see that happening.”

“No,” she said with a grin. “Not really. Perhaps I’ll become a news commentator on the television.”

“Now that I can see. With your hair all done up and dressed to the nines.”

“Why not to the tens? Top notch. Lady who’s been in the wars, but wears dresses cut low in the front. Glamor and war. There were some of us, not many who saw action.”

“Yes, why not?”

“You know my hero, heroine actually, never had a chance to do that, become a star after covering wars as a journalist, a photographer. Ever hear of Gerda Taro? No? She was killed in Spain 1937 at 26 covering the war with her lover Capa for a French magazine. They told her not to go to that front but she did. Her images are so good Capa claimed some of them to be his own. Someday she’ll be recognized for what she was. At least I hope so. No, I don’t want to imitate her life but I’d like my work to be as good as hers.”

They stood up and embraced and murmured goodbyes. Francesca found a taxi to the train station and disappeared into the clean, brightly lit, unravaged Swiss city.

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