Hitler Over My Head – Short Story

Judaism, Summer, 1999 by Edgar Rosenberg

A FEW WEEKS BEFORE MY TENTH BIRTHDAY, I PINNED A photo of Hitler over my bed. I had clipped the picture from the boys’ monthly Jugendlust, to which my classmates and I subscribed in third grade. Jugendlust carried a full-page picture of one of the Party bosses in the centerfold of each of its issues, and I remember the thrill with which I looked forward to the first of each month, when the magazine would be distributed in class and I would pounce on the photo with the same avidity with which people over sixty pounce on obituaries. By the time Hitler appeared on my wall, I had already tacked up a whole galaxy of dimmer luminaries: the Bavarian governor Ritter von Epp, Leo Schlageter who used to blow up French railways in the Ruhr and had long been enshrined in the Party hagiography, and a dozen members of Hitler’s brain trust: our National Sports Commissioner Hans von Tschammer und Osten, the money man Schwerin von Krosigk, our Minister for Soil, Manure, and Fertilizers Walther Darre. Even a few long-defunct trailblazers and John the Baptists of the Movement occasionally crashed the pages of Jugendlust: Fridericus Rex, old man Jahn, the Grandfather of German Gymnastics, and even one of the Hohenstauffens, I think. Thus Hitler did not on the face of it enjoy a privileged status among my pinups. As I recall, his photo supplanted a charcoal sketch of Hans Schemm, our “handsome Hanni,” the Bavarian Minister of Education, who had just died in an airplane crash–the sketch (charcoal on tan) suggested that it might have been a genuine Holbein. I was all the more shocked therefore to discover that he needn’t have crashed at all if he hadn’t tanked himself up with American whiskey before he took his two-seater up into the clouds over Munich and Dachau.

As Hitler had been in power for more than two years before he filled the vacancy left by Schemm on my bedroom wall, I assume that this was not the first time he broke into Jugendlust or that the editors would have been imprudent enough to put him on the back burner behind minor leaguers like Hanni Schemm. I may have passed over his earlier appearances because I found them lacking in aesthetic appeal, or they may not have corresponded with my personal view of Hider–one didn’t have a “personal view” of lightweights like Baron von Neurath or Baldur von Schirach, except that one looked as courtly as Queen Victoria’s butler or chamberlain and the other presumably had been picked to head the Hitler Youth because he himself looked rather a cheerful baby; and still other front men who peeped in on my sleep left whatever impression they left by some idiosyncratic stamp of nature: the gloomy Hess with his beetle brows and buckteeth (I couldn’t for the life of me understand why the Second Man in the Reich refused to c onsult a cheap orthodontist); or the dyspeptic Marshall Ludendorff with his permanently arrested bilious glare, as if some one had done him an ill turn in his crib and he hadn’t recovered yet. By the time his picture went up (in the fall of’35) I had already tried to make sense of Hitler by starting to write a Life of Our Leader; its first chapter bore the title, borrowed from Schiller’s Wallenstein, “Thanks to the House of Austria!! Poor as a Church Mouse in Linz!”; once I abandoned the book a few weeks later, I had gotten my seedy subject into a third-class compartment on the Vienna-Munich express, munching on a stale piece of pumpernickel.

The picture–a three-quarters length portrait, Hitler clad only in shirt and tie, one hand covering his private parts, the other smartly poking his rib- created no particular stir in my family or among my pals. Certainly it didn’t give rise to the scandal provoked by a nearly wall-sized canvas of the Crucifixion which the Heilbronns, members of my parents’ Saturday evening clique, had the nerve to mount in their dining room. Unlike my Hitler, the Jesus was universally damned for being in the worst taste imaginable. I don’t know which was considered in more atrocious taste, the chutzpah of displaying a jesus at all, or the subject–a jesus so floppy, clammy, and eviscerated, all ribs, navel and dripping loincloth, that it would have given me fits if I had been in little Edith Heilbronn’s place–or the composition, for not even the Heilbronns, though in the lucrative toy business, could afford a Lucas Cranach or even a School of Lucas Cranach. Instead, the painting resembled one of those Golden Anniversary Chr ists which are bought by the lower middle-income groups the world over and are tinted or “colorized,” as if Jesus had ordered the dabbler, Color Me Pink and Color Me Purple and Don’t Forget to Throw in a Few Streaks of Honey Yellow and Bismuth White if you expect to Come Unto Me. No wonder the jesus was the talk of the town, both among Jews and Gentiles, but mostly Jews.

The Hitler, by contrast, went virtually unnoticed. At worst, my father might pull a wry face at my choice in wall decorations (he much preferred the caricatures of Max and Moritz I copied in India ink from our set of Wilhelm Busch and pinned up between bouts of Schemm, Epp, and Hess); and my mother might say, “oh do take that hideous thing down, Edgar! what is Frau Dr. Herzstein going to think?”–Frau Dr. Herzstein was our pediatrician, and as an in-law of the Heilbronns she had no right to think anything. But my parents did not insist; they believed in my finding things out for myself, and they knew that the picture would come down in due time. It would be a mistake, however, to read their auguries as wishful thinking that Hitler himself would come down in due time; certainly my father no longer cherished any illusion that Hitler would drop out of sight before we did. But not even my father could suppress a smile at a framed photo of Goring that my seven-year-old brother hung over his bed and which (my brot her being more parsimonious and stable than I) outstared a dozen of my idols. Perhaps the pure innocence of his gesture–and the whimsical juxtaposition of the fat-faced Marshall and my chubby brother–amused my father; then also Goring’s presence in our Kinderzimmer may have appealed to his cryptic sense of the ludicrous: my father and Goring had been schoolmates in the early years of the century, and my Dad remembered him as an odiously spoiled arse-licker, sneak, and sniveling tattletale, who ratted on every one of his classmates: a repulsive creature if there ever was one. A miracle that he had ever made it to the Richthofen Squadron, along with my Uncle Max Holzinger, who crashed of engine failure over Amiens in 1917; his tombstone, smothered by a gigantic helmet and strangled by a monumentary laurel wreath, is one of the sights of our Jewish cemetery in Furth.

I no longer remember when the Hitler finally did come down, nor whether he was replaced–by Horst Wessel, say, or Admiral Horthy. It has only been recently that I have given this any thought; nor do I know what has now recalled the Hitler to life. Very likely (but this merely begs the question) the photo owes its emergence to my recently having ransacked my father’s heirlooms, and as custodian of our family trinkets I find myself swamped with every kind of keepsake: my father’s Iron Cross First Class, the Further Tagesblatt for September 1847, notifying its readers that my Great-Grandfather Asur has been licensed to take up residence as a textile dealer; along with more recent stuff: a 102-year-old Haggadah inscribed “To my cherished Grandson Otto Rosenberg, whose meritorious and unremitting efforts will be crowned by their meet reward, from his devoted Grandfather Jeremias”; a slender volume of sermons, tributes, and testimonials delivered at my Uncle Max Holzinger’s burial by everybody from Richthofen’s pro xy to Rabbi Freudenthal himself; nor should I care to pass over yet another dedication copy, that of my father’s regimental history, a priceless affair in blue vellum, which I found on my birthday table a week after the passage of the race laws (and which must have reverted to him during our tribal migrations); the book is inscribed in his furious hand, “To my dear son Edgar Otto on completing his tenth year. Given in Furth, in the year of the deepest humiliation of German Jewry”; then the signature–not “your loving Papi” but “Dr. Jur.etrer.pol. Otto Rosenberg, First Lieutenant, Retired, 6th Bavarian Field Artillery Regiment, under command of Prince Ferdinand of Bourbon, Duke of Calabria.” Among these 100-odd spoils Hitler’s photo, of course, is not to be found, but there are crumbs enough to mark our dim passage. Early on in the film Shoah the historian Hilberg evokes the history of our people by holding between his thumb and forefinger a railway schedule from Frankfort to the mephitic East. I too have a fe w tangible proofs–all of them dauntingly innocent, marginal, barely on target. Still, there they are. Suppose I pick four or five: a couple of passports; an almost illegible carbon copy of what looks like a laundry list, the list itself stashed away in a hand luggage initialed E. R. and so battered that it would fall apart between Nuremberg and Furth–I can only account for its survival among the paternal holdings by the same coincidence which turned up two tropical helmets my father picked up in Hamburg more than half a year before we set sail for Haiti. Then also a newspaper clipping and a letter from President Nixon. The last two will detain me a second; the suitcase, the laundry list, and the children’s passports involve an adventure story, a border romance a la Walter Scott. It is convenient to begin with the clipping.


Any one who consults the Kingston (Jamaica) Daily Gleaner for Monday, June 26, 1939, will spot the following notice which appears on page 19, column 2:

Seeks New Home Mr. Otto Rosenberg, one-time leading Jewish lawyer in Germany, with his wife and two children are in transit in the “Claus Horn” on their way to Port au Prince, Haiti, where they go to settle down. Educated at Oxford and Berlin, Mr. Rosenberg, up till recently, was a director of the South German Trust Company, a subsidiary of the Bavarian States Bank. And a fine accountant he is too and a few years ago he represented the German Government at the International Congress of Accountants in London. In the last war he was a Captain in the German Army. Prior to leaving Germany, he resided in Fuerth, near Nuremberg, where his family has been settled since the last century. “I am looking forward with interest to my stay in Haiti,” Mr. Rosenberg told the Gleaner yesterday. “Just from Switzerland, I plan to start life afresh in the coloured Republic.”

Above this confusing vita appears my father’s picture–his passport photo; in my mind the thing has long taken on the qualities of his official portrait. Thus, in rummaging through his files at the time my brother Harry and I divided the spoils (my brother claiming my father’s Leika and I his 500-page typescript war diary), I stumbled on a dozen copies of the same photo, as if he had at one time or other planned to distribute autographed copies among the Haitians. Or (as we hadn’t the slightest intention of spending our lives in the coloured Republic) he may have saved up these photos as handouts to the few relatives in the States with whom he was still on speaking terms, or to members of Roosevelt’s inner circle– the vinegary Mr. Ickes, or Roosevelt’s court Jew Heinz Morgenthau (who was rumored to be blood-related to the Solly Tuchmanns from Bamberg), or one Mr. Jones, the Secretary of Commerce, or Miss Frances Perkins, the Trade Unionist, with that Easter bonnet of hers–all of them familiar to us through David Low’s caricatures in the Swiss weekly Weltwoche.

Though my father told me more than twenty years after the Kingston call, notwithoutashade of malice (on my 35th birthday, I think) that he himself had already passed his professional prime at 35, the “Gleaner” photo shows him to be, at 49, at his elegant best. His thinning black hair is groomed so impeccably that he gives the impression of some one who never had a haircut and never needs one; there is the guileless Ascension Day nose as it already appears in the miniature oval photo, taken when he was nine and pinned, like all the Rosenbergs, to our family tree, the baby-sized nostrils so very round that God must have used a pair of compasses before He breathed life into them. Smooth-shaven; high forehead (the photo only hints at the vertical folds and network of wrinkles); prim, rather defiant lips. His eyes gaze not directly into the photographer’s lens but beyond it, with that wistful gaze perhaps common to all emigrants, and more nearly peculiar to one who gazes beyond the immediate past (“Just from Swit zerland”) to his captainship in the Sixth Bavarian. At worst, his cheeks still betray that slight pudginess of which the malaria he caught among the coloreds was to rob them, despite all serum injections and mild consumptions of atebrine.

My father’s illness (I recall it more vividly than anything I recall about the four-week journey to Haiti) still dogs my days, and I can date its onset exactly: my father turned the color of quince end of September, the day von Kleist’s merry panzers rolled into Warsaw, von Reichenau’s armies having already made mincemeat of every heroic Polish nag east and west of the Vistula. The Reichs-German colony all over Haiti, flushed with triumph, brightened the autumn nights by exploding firecrackers from every cranny of downtown Port au Prince, Jacmel, and Gonaive; for five gourdes, they would have dynamited the crazy Emperor Henri Christophe’s fortress in their delirium. But Henri Christophe’s citadel had already been ruined ages ago, and the Germans must have sensed the pointlessness of laying waste to so much monumental debris. Much as I like Shelley’s sermon on Ozymandias (I had to memorize it barely a year later in junior High), I appreciate the importance of ruins; even then I knew better than to assume that ruins are reminders of mutability, of the fall of the mighty: a cracked mirror for magistrates. Years afterwards I revisited Nuremberg, and nothing reminded me so much of Henri Christophe’s monument to his self-conceit as the ravaged Party Stadium out on the Luitpold Meadows, the site of our annual Rallies: that colossal wreck lay spread out against the April moonlight, boundless and bare; moss grew behind the tiered stone benches; a mere eighteen years had passed since the Collapse; yet looking at it you would hardly have guessed this: to my eyes the Stadium looked as old as the Coliseum or Wailing Wall. The very appearance of its antiquity refuted all ideas of an apocalyptic defeat; it testified to an historic permanence, a durability far more secure than the durability of an undamaged (and hence still vulnerable) preserve like the sunny Taj Mahal or Saint Peter’s–it testified to the actuality of a thousand-year Reich and so confirmed prima facie the prophecies of the great Sorcerer, the master builder, w ho had commissioned it as the platform from which to issue his cold commands: Polonia delenda est, and day after tomorrow the world….

And while thousands of Poles littered the roads, beginning their first night of death, and halfway around the world my father lay stretched out on his cot in our hillside shanty, shrouded in his useless mosquito netting, I ran like a madman in search of a doctor, stumbling over the burning cobblestones in my torn sandals, my knees bleeding, my cheeks as hot as my Papi’s, for I was certain that the anopheles fly had launched him into eternity. But not a single doctor was to be found: they were all out, every one of them, raising hell, popping champagne bottles and getting up their own Party Rally on the Champs de Mars. As I raced downhill, the odd thought flashed through my mind: how unfair it was that unlike the bee the malarial fly should sicken its victim without stinging itself to death. This fancy must have had its source in one of the earliest incidents of my infancy: when I was a bare six weeks old a bee stung me in my right thumb; it buzzed its way into my pram while our good nanny, Betty Breit, took me on my first sightseeing spree down Hindenburg Street, and cured me forever of sucking my thumb. The bee thus deprived me of one of my earliest consolations. But the bee died.

“Better stay indoors today, everybody,” my father mumbled from out his mosquito net, emaciated, cadaverous, after I came back panting from my bootless errand….

He recovered; he had made up his mind to recover; he owed it to us to recover; by mid-October ’39, a couple of weeks after the anapholes fly had slaked its thirst by nose-diving into his veins, you may spot him at a lawn reception hosted by the Haitian president, Stenio Vincent, displaying on his finespun tropical suit his black Iron Cross. After all, it was a Presidential reception. The Iron Cross in despite, President Vincent raised his glass in a toast to Peace on Earth, Good Will Towards Men…. But for the time being we are still lying at anchor in sunny Kingston; it is Sunday, June 25th, and my Dad still weighs in at 75 kilos.–

As long as page 19 of the Daily Gleaner lies open before me, I may as well cite one other column; it appears next to my father’s photo and may be opaquely related to it.

Labour Chief and P.N.P. Official Confer

Yesterday afternoon Mr. Alexander Bustamante, President of the Bustamante Labour Union, and Mr. Vere Johns, Chairman of the Propaganda Committee of the P.N.P., met in the latter’s residence and discussed certain matters.

It is understood that the meeting of the two was in connection with certain proposals with regard to the relationship between the two bodies.

Mr. Johns in the course of his conversation put certain points affecting the movement to Mr. Bustamante.

It is to be understood that another meeting is to be convened at some time between Mr. Bustamante, Mr. Johns, and certain other officials of the P.N.P.

I recall, too, that on reading this twaddle my father could barely contain himself; tears of laughter ran down his cheeks. (My father had an exceptionally beautiful smile, but at least until middle age-until we went into exile, in fact-he was seldom given to outbursts of mirth.) He roared at Mr. Bustamante and Mr. Vere Johns because Numero Eins, he had never come across a more resolute use of the adjective certain; and Numero Zwei, because he had never read such explosive political flimflam. The report confirmed his suspicion that colonial or parliamentary government was probably not the answer either; but at least if that was how things were managed among the coloreds, the Rosenbergs had nothing to fear for the first time since ’33.–Now for some letters.


Back in the seventies, refugees of ray vintage found themselves constantly under fire if they committed two misdemeanors: if they disclaimed any hang-ups about returning to Germany-they of all people; and if (by a crude oversimplification by their appellants) they-they of all people-condoned President Nixon’s war crimes in the same breath in which they talked into their cups about the German atrocities.

Can you go home again? I mentioned that I myself first returned to Germany in ’63, and I have been back a dozen times. At worst, I found myself hounded by a few old pigs hanging around the Cafe Kroll, who seemed to be kept alive by their commitment to the idea of Collective Guilt; they grunted into their troughs about Collective Guilt, world without end, until you finally had to tell them to their pink faces: you know, you started this conversation; I didn’t. But Nuremberg offers many compensations, especially to a camera freak, and with a Kodak dangling from one shoulder and a Fujica from the other, I was naturally taken to be a waschecht Yank, except by the handful of people who saw through my disguise and preached their sermons on Collective Guilt between the pulpits of Saint Lawrence and Saint Sebaldus.-

My mother is innocent of Count 1 (re-entry) and guilty of Count 2 (the Nixon thing).

From the early sixties on, once my father had recovered from the slump of the postwar years, my parents would take an annual four-week vacation to Switzerland. Of course, they never went to one and the same spot twice, for that would have been silly and self-defeating, and besides my mother maintained that “it never looks as good the second time.” It might be Wengen one year, Beatenberg another, then again Oberhofen or Burgenstock, where the speedwriter Simenon holed himself up, turning out three detective novels a day. It was my mother who insisted on Switzerland-my father, more relaxed about the whole thing, wouldn’t have minded taking another peep at Munich or Augsburg. But nothing and no one could drag her back. At that, she was anything but impressed with the Swiss, whose technology might as well have been hatched during the ice age; she made a point of deriding their cavemen’s system of insulation; and whenever she and my father passed even the neatest chalet, she would have herself a mock-shudder and w onder how people could live in such primitive shanties without central heating and dumbwaiters.

The fact is that her decades in Washington Heights had turned my mother into a perfectly blinkered patriot, for whom no American president from Roosevelt to Eisenhower or any Vice President from Nance Garner on up could do any wrong; and she all but fumed at people who criticized the George Washington Bridge or the Woolworth Building or the Riverside Funeral Chapel on Amsterdam Avenue. In my mother’s vocabulary, these pickthanks were dismissed as “The Grumblers.” Herr Rosenbaum, for example, who lived in Apartment 45 directly below ours and who didn’t see anything in Fantasia to go wild about nor found it a miracle of advanced cinematic technique to have Leopold Stokowski shake hands with Mickey Mouse-Herr Rosenbaum was very high on my mother’s list of Grumblers. Worse still, Herr Rosenbaum made it no secret that he preferred Lotte Lehmann to Kate Smith and Rigoletto to Oklahoma. Only less high on my mother’s blacklist, because she didn’t know her personally, was the refugee lady who sat next to us on one of the stone benches of the Lewissohn Stadium and who, after Lauritz Melchior, the Danish Wagnerian, had gone through his Heldentenor megillah and concluded the recital by asking the audience to join him in the refrain to “Vive la Companie!,” turned to her husband or elderly refugee boyfriend and in a voice louder than Melchior’s kvetched, “That man has become dreadfully Americanized!”-“Du, der hatsichaber furchterlich amerikanisiert!” My mother looked daggers at her: “to be dreadfully Americanized” was sheer double talk. And my Aunt Betty Rosenberg qualified as an occasional grumbler because of her idiotic isolationist view that no American hand lotion could hold a candle to Nivea Cream and no indigenous mouthwash to Odol. My mother derived positive pleasure from living within twelve blocks of George Washington Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world, or the second longest; for there was also something of the Guinness-Bookman-of Records about her.

“The George Washington Bridge,” my father needled her, “was built by a Swiss”; but she turned a deaf ear to such foul-mouthed language.

My mother died of a stroke in 1970. She was 66; my father was 80. It was a very hard death. I was teaching on the West Coast at the time and flew East to peek in on my half-paralyzed mitherling as she lay dying inchwise in the Harkness Pavilion, two blocks down from the parental homestead in which they had lived for just over thirty years. It was an unusually bright Saturday morning in April; the loudspeaker over my mother’s cranked-up bed gave out cracked intermittent music, coughing up static. I asked my mother whether she was tuned in on the Sabbath service; I remember her radiantly mocking smile and shake of her head. Though the stroke had all but deprived her of speech, suddenly from the depth of her underworld she whispered: “Manon. “Manon, of course-the Sabbath Service, what next! A lifelong unbeliever, she died unbelieving; the fidelity of her unbelief staggers belief; it largely accounts, I think, for my own fickle and sickly superstitiousness. On the other hand, my mother retained her faith in Amer ican presidents–literally to the last.

Literally. Some eight weeks after my mother’s death, my father, who had spent some time with us in California after the services in the Broadway Memorial Chapel on the corner of 173rd Street and the urn burial in Scarsdale, discovered a penciled note in my mother’s hand in her night table, almost certainly her last letter before she cashed in her ticket to the stall of night.

Lilly Rosenberg to Richard Nixon.

Dear Mr. President:

So many people complain of your handling of the Vietnam War that I want you to know that I do not belong to this category. I am convinced that all the decisions you make will be the right ones.

My family and I came to this country, of which I am proud to be a citizen, from Nazi Germany in 1940. You gave us the most precious gifts: freedom, the opportunity to lead a normal and happy life and the finest education for our two sons. I will never forget that.

Very respectfully


In view of her short lease on life, the final adverbial construction, that sanguine promissory note with its certitude of an indefinitely open-ended maturation date, used to trouble my afternoons. My father–like the rest of us very down on Nixon; my schoolmate Heinz Kissinger was about to trump half the people in Jugendlust–convened a family conference. Ought this letter to be passed on to Nixon? Yes: this had been clearly my mother’s intention; its being her last letter gave it a special urgency. To withhold it would be to betray her trust in us as her moral executors. I transcribed the note from the scrap on which she had scribbled it into my father’s “Erika,” my father dictating a covering note to me ex tempore:

Otto Rosenberg to Richard Nixon.

Dear Mr. President:

The enclosed letter necessitates an explanation. [Can I make that “requires a brief explanation?” I asked. All right, “requires”; go on]. My wife died after a painful illness on August 2nd. I found her note to you only a few days ago, as I had spent some weeks with my older son and daughter-in-law in California. [But Papa, I said, why drag that in?–No, leave that in, said my father; Nixon is sure to like hearing about California]. It would surely have been my wife’s wish to send you the letter; under the circumstances, it is my painful duty to discharge it on her behalf.

Sincerely yours,

Otto Rosenberg

“That,” I said, “is fantastic. “A masterpiece of equivocation.”

“You seem to forget,” said my father, “that I used to be a lawyer.”

“Et in Arcadia ego,” I said, my father being given increasingly to nostalgic retrievals, which irritated my brother even more than they irritated me.

“That isn’t what I meant,” snapped my father.

We happened to be visiting him in New York for the weekend when Nixon’s answer arrived some two weeks later. On White House stationery; pale blue.

Richard Nixon to Otto Rosenberg.

Dear Mr. Rosenberg:

It was especially kind of you to send me the copy of Mrs. Rosenberg’s message of confidence and understanding. You have my deepest sympathy in your great loss, and I want you to know that your thoughtfulness and your wife’s words of encouragement will be a continuing source of strength and inspiration to me.

With my best wishes for the days ahead,


Richard Nixon

After reading and re-reading the letter himself, my father read it to us aloud. “Hm,” he said, clearing his throat in the familiar symptom of grief or panic. Of course I knew better than to defuse the crisis by allowing that obviously Nixon hadn’t written the letter himself and that it teemed with banalities. My father lived to be 89, and in the 54 years of our togetherness this was the only occasion on which I saw tears, other than tears of laughter, well up in his eyes. For minutes on end he stared at the ceiling, like a sick eagle looking at the sky. Perhaps, after the California respite, the shock of my mother’s death set in only now, crystallized by the president’s letter. This, at least, is the view advanced by my anti-Nixonian friends, whose names are legion. I myself suspect that my father’s peculiar moisture originated in something akin to awe and wonder: a letter from the President of America! That, at least, he could now share with my mother. No wonder that woman had nothing good to say for the Sw iss, with their half-baked heating systems.


“Just when did you get out of Germany?” the author and journalist Jane Howard asked me. We were sitting on her back porch in Sag Harbor; fireflies dashed past us, dizzying specs of light against the black 4th of July sky; now and again the muffled sound of a distant firecracker broke in on our reveries; it exploded with a certain tentative air, as if it reserved the right to change its mind and there were very little to celebrate after all.

“March 23rd, ’39,” I told her, adding unnecessarily, “the day they occupied the Memel, up there in the Baltics.”

“Good thinking,” said Jane.

Yes, bright and early on the evening of March 23rd my brother and I entrained for Switzerland. My father had already made his getaway back in November: two days after Crystal Night, coming home from the office, he asked my mother to lay out some shirts and suits; Frau’n Wedel, his secretary, had tipped him off that the local Party boss was about to spring the trap on him. The legality of his flight would have pleased the Party itself: he left with a passport and visa in his vest pocket. At worst, the police might have grumbled at his failure to turn in his passport (as required by law) within twenty-four hours of his return from his last trip abroad. But he had skipped across the Swiss border before that occurred to anybody…. The rest of us stayed on and on, waiting to get our passports. But the police chief, Herr Kandl, absolutely refused to part with them and kept them nicely locked in his drawer. Why? Because! Warum? Darum! And then, four months later, Herr Kandl had a change of heart and released the p assports after all-to the two boys, that is. Our mother’s and grandmother’s? Certainly not! In a couple of months perhaps; perhaps not. But now! What did my mother take him for? A baboon, a bushnigger, a Tyrolean clodhopper and blistering Hottentot! But the boys were free to go, and the sooner the better. The Ministry of the Interior had passed a law injuly, introducing mandatory I.D. cards to be carried by all Jews, and another law in August, investing all ditto with the middle name Israel, or else Sara, and another in October, marking all Hebrew passports with the initial J (as if passports were playing cards!); and so on March 23rd Edgar Otto Israel Rosenberg and Hans Ludwig Israel Rosenberg pocketed their I.D.s and passports, along with ten marks and a typed list of their portables which had been compiled by the Finance people. Assuming that the train runs on schedule, it reaches the border at half past ten. Our visas expired at midnight. Did I mention that we were taken into custody at the border and tha t this last delay nearly cost us our necks?

It was all my fat brother’s fault.

As children my brother and I could scarcely have differed more sharply. I was the scrawny and jittery one, so twitchy that one of our gullible townsmen actually spread word that young Rosenberch suffered from the Saint Vitus Dance; the prospect of being caned in front of the class sent me into such imbecile titters that Teacher Wiedemann lost all patience, forgot to cane me and instead had me write on the board, “The Fool is Known by His Laughter”-“Am Lachen erlcennt man den Narren”; I talked such hair-raising nonsense that even fifteen years later, as I burst into our Washington Heights apartment, my mother would say with a certain complacency, “I wonder what horror stories you’ve cooked up now.” And I must have been a scandalous gossip: only last year my Cousin Ellen, down on a visit from Western Ontario, reminded me of the time she had spent an afternoon with us as a teenager and cracked a Hitler joke; the second the enormity of her gaffe hit her, she raced back home, scared out of her wits: “Oh my God, I told it in front of Edgar!”–dead certain that Edgar was even now spreading the Hitler joke all over town. As she repeated the story, she seemed to smart still under the sixty-year-old fright and gave me the evil eye.

Of my brother all Furth clung to the view that “Hans never opens his mouth.” I recall him as a secretive, dreamy, and lazy child–so lazy that once, when he announced over breakfast, “Brother, I’ve had the best dream ever” and I said, “Tell us about it, Brotherling, and I’ll interpret it for you,” my brother said in his close-mouthed way, “I dreamt that I was asleep.” But he was given to odd witticisms: he must have been seven when one Hanukkah evening he lifted one of the candles from our Menorah, planted himself in front of the dining-room window, and absentmindedly sucking his thumb (he sucked his thumb until he was ten), smeared a staggering number of large and little HEIL HITTLER HEIL HITTLER HEIL HITTLER all over the steaming windowpanes with the tip of the shammes. “Good grief, Hans,” my mother said, “what are you doing!” “At least that won’t come off, if you ask me,” said my morosely farsighted brother…. The Menorah, now that I think of it, had been all my doing. Once I discovered (on my report car d in first grade) that I was an official Israelite, I pulled one of my fits and told my father, “excuse me, Papi, but I’ll fry in hell before I’ll light another Christmas tree in my house.” My parents, sensitive to the slight they might inflict on the two Catholic antiques who had made us a present of the Christmas tree from the time I was born, fudged; for the next year or two we no sooner extinguished the Christmas candles than we lit the Menorah, or vice versa, unless the two coincided, which I thought a great cheat as it meant fewer presents. My brother would sit in a corner of the Kinderzimmer in his blue playsuit, spinning an ivory trendel in his saturnine way without knowing a gimmel or nun from an omicron; I crouched and twitched over the boardgame “Our Loyal Hindenburg”; the object was to win the Battle of Tannenberg by a series of lightning maneuvers; I waged the battle all by myself and routed the craven General Samsonoff every time. By the time I was eight, the modest Menorah once and for all rout ed the ceiling-high tree with its kitchy tinsel, its nerve-racking cow bells and seraphim, and the crib of the holy Meshpukheh, not counting a mangy underfed donkey, whom my little brother wooed with a licorice stick.

My brother wanted to become a pretzel man and to fix my grandmother’s radio earphones. In other words, he wanted to give other people pleasure: the notion of turning the pretzels to cash never crossed his mind. I drifted from one pursuit into another: I wanted to be a chauffeur (during our summer outings to Muggendorf I posted myself for an hour directly behind our uniformed driver, Herr Lengenfelder, lightly moving my hands with each turn of the wheels, and uninterruptedly giving myself directions); I wanted to be a concert pianist like our infant prodigy Klaus Frank, who stood all Nuremberg on its ears by playing one minute waltz after another; he bowed from the waist and name-dropped Schopang; I wanted to be a conductor, rapping the orchestra to attention like the Adam-appled Herr Furtwangler; I wanted to be a Minor Prophet. Instead, my father paid dear money to a dissatisfied, perpetually congested drawing master, with a silk handkerchief bigger than Palmstrom’s, to come down from Nuremberg once a week t o give me drawing lessons! Just to waste time, Herr Hibbeli (I swear that he faked his name) had me practice–perspective! Perspective! While Hibelli kept looking at his watch every five minutes, I sat there, copying one cigar box after another, when I could have become a whiz at the piano, or chess. During one of our “lessons,” Hibelli nosebled all over one of my cigar boxes; I nearly died. After that, he stopped coming.

Clearly, unlike my brother, I wanted to please only myself by showing off. And the most deliriously happy moments of my childhood were those in which I performed in school plays. There was the time when I was propelled into the lead by the luckiest of accidents: the chum who had been assigned the leading part developed German measles and stage fright and, all other roles having been parceled out, I was picked to replace him. I played old Abraham, wrapped in some bedsheets my mother had sewn together, looking for all the world like Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian hunger artist and knife-swallower; of the play I remember only that I was pacing up and down a platform labeled “an oasis in Mesopotamia” and just ere the curtain dropped I kissed my nine-year-old childwife Sarah, whose name was Anneliese and who wore an enormous Old Testamental pink bow and pink Biblical dancing slippers, tailor-made for a hike through Mesopotamia; the applause was deafening; I took four curtain calls, and Anneliese, much too ashamed to show her face after being licked all over in public, took none. What gave these performances their special thrill was that they were held in the evening, before adults, who could be expected to plaster my fame all over town next morning: Quite a prodigy, young Rosenberch–not half bad for a lad with his handicaps.–In fairness, my brother too went before the footlights once, at the Cafe Fink; he played the role of a jewish yo-yo, or rather one in a long chorus line of Jewish yo-yos–but he and the other yo-yos just had to perform a few none too mind-taxing kneebends and every time they came up for air yell some such simple lines as “Yo Yo Yo / Kinder ich bin froh.” The yo-yos were all dressed up as Easter bunnies, in one-piece suits with red polka dots and a white headpiece, which gave these children the appearance of being completely bald.

By the time he was six, my brother succumbed to a most horrible passion. My mother’s younger sister, Aunt Else, who had moved to New York as early as ’29, eking out a living as secretary-typist for Bosco Chocolate Powder, came home for a visit to Furth and brought my brother a Kodak, one of those preadamite things which yield eight pictures a roll, the numbers visible through circular reddish celluloid. Actually, after three years of incessant use, the Kodak produced no more than two exposures, for the film invariably got stuck when you advanced the lever from 2 to 3 and had to be taken out of the spool in the larder, while the rest of the film went to waste. And besides he so badly over-exposed or under-exposed the two shots the Kodak secreted that he had yet to produce a single remotely distinct image. The few people he did manage to capture emerged as no more than gray smudges, fading off into a general whiteness around the edges–“the clouds.” “There’s my brother Edgar in front of the Brown House,” he mi ght say, pointing to a leaden blob. “Looks like an angel, don’t he? And that’s a cloud, by God.” Or: “That’s my Grandmother Arnstein. See her? Her feet are missing, but that’s because she moved while I snapped her picture. She’s the nervous type.”

“Hm,” my father mused, “yes, Edgar always did take after his Grandmother Arnstein. And the clouds are excellent. You can practically see the gathering storm….”

And now that pig headed child insisted on smuggling this broken-down toy out of the country with him. Nobody would have objected to this if the Kodak had been entered on the prescribed list of portables, but by some oversight the gent from the Finance Bureau had forgotten to enter it–unless my brother had hidden it from him. Why now did he have to take it along! Why? Because! Warum? Darum! The evening before our departure, my father’s junior partner, an Aryan and Communist, convened a leisurely conference in the study to give us our parting instructions: he told me to keep a civil tongue in my head for a change instead of aggravating the Authorities with my (unquestionably tantalizing) blather….

“That’s right,” said my brother, “you keep a civil tongue in your head, Brother”–and then the junior partner put it to my brother that the Kodak, like other elderly parties, would never survive another migration; it was certain to give up its ghost by the time it got to the border; and, in short, if Kodaks could be said to have organs, senses, affections, and passions, the Kodak would feel and fare better in being left at home, in familiar surroundings. “Nothing doing!” my brother said. “But I beg you, Herr Doktor!” my grandmother flared up, speaking with the slightly querulous sovereignty which her wealth and matriarchal position conferred, “surely no one will question a child often about some childish trinket….” “Don’t you call it a childish trinket!” my brother said, ready to bawl. He had little use for my grandmother’s highhanded ways and much preferred his fidgety Grandmother Arnstein, who lived on the outskirts of town, on Dambacherstrasse, leading the cowed life of the poor relation. “I don’t call your hair-drier a childish trinket!” he bawled. “I don’t call your grandmother-of-pearl necklace a childish trinket! I don’t call your valerian bottle a childish trinket! I don’t…. .” “That’s quite enough, young man,” said the snappy Commie.

“This Kodak,” my brother announced, “goes with me.”


And bright and early next evening the three of us–my brother, the Kodak, and I–waved our Mami farewell at the Nuremberg station. The ride from Nuremberg to Lindau at the Swiss border takes some five or six hours, with brief stops at Donauworth, Ulm, and Memmingen. Can anything be more thrilling than a five-hour train ride? My brother, with infuriating monotony, called out the names of all the towns as we sped past them, and once he got a little tired of that he took out a pack of cards and challenged me to a round of Black Peter. At Donauworth a Brownshirt came on board and sat down in our compartment, a scarecrow of a man, so skinny and pimply that you wondered how he ever got beyond the Race Bureau. He tossed us a friendly “Servus” and asked, might he have the pleasure of joining them two young gennelmen in the next hand. “Nothing doing,” said my brother, “only two can play. It’s the law.” (The year before we had been hauled off to a Hollywood version of Victor Hugo’s Die Elenden, and the inspector’s pet phrase, “It’s the law,” impressed my brother no end.) The Brownshirt spluttered with mirth at my brother’s owlish Party-line lingo and drooled all over his chin like an infant: disgusting. I felt a little sorry for him because all that acne was guaranteed to scare away any sweetheart, even a Catholic virgin; to bolster his ego a little, I reached up to my suitcase and hauled down my battered set of “Our Loyal Hindenburg” (my attachment to this now strikes me of course as weirder than my brother’s attachment to his camera), and the three of us teamed up against that old bore of a Samsonoff. Then Young Pimples, pitifully confused by the order of battle and meditatively picking his nose every time it was his turn to move, stood my brother and me a tumbler of beer, which made us both dizzy; and at Memmingen he decamped, wishing them fine young gennelmen a pleasant ride and leaving Hindenburg’s left flank so exposed that he might have reversed the course of history if my brother and I hadn’t been too whiny to fini sh the battle ourselves.

And then everything went wrong.

An hour takes you from Memmingen to Lindau. By the time we reached Lindau it had turned pitch-black. At Lindau a border guard boarded the train, a greasy functionary in a greenish-gray uniform, whose perpetual simper suggested that he had been born that way, like Hugo’s Laughing Man. He Heil-Hitlered us with his humorless simper, bleating Heil Hitler like a nanny goat; my brother smartly returned the salute and said, “With German Greeting, Sieg Heil!” The “man” stared at my brother as if he were loco, and asked us to open our luggage and unhand the itemized list. Hm. It became instantly clear that he agreed 100% with my brother: no way could the unlisted Kodak be palmed off as a babyish toy. Nowhere could he find any written record of the Kodak, which my brother, very tipsy by now, maliciously waved in his face. Old Greasepot went over the list twice, three times, stupidly whetting his forefinger and underlining each entry as he checked it, taking so long about it that the passengers to the front and rear of us must have been hopping from one foot to the other while this simpering ass kept the whole train waiting. Twenty minutes went by and then, greasy goat that he was, he asked us to pick up our belongings and step off the train. The train roared away into the darkness towards St. Gall, leaving us stranded with less than an hour before our visas expired at midnight.

Anybody who plans to emigrate is advised to bypass the border station at Lindau, which is no fit place for children at midnight. Picture an unpeopled no man’s land, a vast seedy prison compound, an empty domed cattle hall or slaughterhouse, in which the sudden sound of a footfall is enough to bring a stifled scream to your lips.

We stood there, our suitcases in our hands; I began to shiver with cold, fatigue, the horrors. I have never been afraid of the dark, but the feebly lit hall, the stale stench of kerosene, a bare wooden clothes hanger yards away, turning into an indefinite torture instrument by the dim shadows it cast-these things composed themselves into the blurred contours of nightmare. “Where are we, Edgar?” my brother asked. And then from the shadows emerged a person in a green uniform, trailed by three or four henchmen. “You may put down your suitcases,” said the man in green. He did not speak unkindly; if anything, he spoke with a certain forced cheerfulness, and his hazel-brown eyes seemed to be tinged with melancholy. “May I see your passports?” I fumbled for my passport–“here’s mine,” said my brother, miffed that he hadn’t been asked first. “Ah, there’s yours,” said the Green Man with another forced laugh–I now noticed that a livid scar transected the whole of his cheek. The sight of the scar struck me as oddly reassuring, for it suggested the hazards and retributions of an earlier, more peaceful age. And as if to make up for his unsoldierly conduct in front of his subalterns he shut both passports with an immoderately noisy snap: I don’t think that he looked at them. The confrontation appeared to strike him as unseemly, even distasteful; and the next moment he strode out with the same immoderate swagger, leaving instructions with his myrmidons “to proceed.” The swagger was something impaired by what now revealed itself as an unmistakable limp; the man was ill, unfit for service.

The myrmidons proceeded. Would the two of us strip, please? For fifteen minutes our bodies were searched with polite thoroughness. “My, you’re scrawny as a chicken,” one of the inspectors (or whatever) said to me. Then another inspector, who cut a more dashing figure, enhanced by a cultivated mockery, a habit of lifting his brows as if he didn’t believe a word of it and speaking in ironic quotation marks, fired a dozen questions at me, which suggested that my brother and I were underfed double agents, smuggling top secrets out of the country along with the Kodak–and then, to everybody’s amazement, the hindmost of the inspectors, a rusty old party who hadn’t opened his mouth all night, allowed that my brother was missing! He was missing; he was nowhere to be found! What a surprise! Had he jumped jail? But that seemed unlikely.

The foppish cross-examiner ordered old Rusty to conduct a “sweeping search” of the hall, while he himself kept a baleful eye on me, crooning (and freely misquoting) the “Lorelei”; but by the time the sailor and his skiff were about to capsize, the silent partner came rushing back and said, “Ja, Du lieber Herr Jesus, will you look at that”–he nearly whispered it, as if seized by a fit of piety, and for two cents he would have crossed himself. My brother, overcome by the events of the day, the good-bye from our Mami, the train ride, the beer, the exciting search, had crawled away into the furthermost corner of the station and fallen asleep. There he cowered, sucking his thumb, his index finger folded over his unfinished snubnose, his deep regular breathing punctuated by a little leave-me-alone gurgle or homesick whimper. And at once everybody relaxed; the Green Official was fetched to take a look at the sleeping babe; he tapped my brother on the arm–so softly that he might have been scared to wake him, and, expanding with bonhomie, he asked, “Did you have a nice dream, young man?” “No, I didn’t!” said my brother. “And what makes you think I was asleep, you!” The Green Man, turning on his u nderlings with sudden fury, snapped that it was “unseasonably” late for a child of seven to be up and about. The smart-aleck inquisitor remonstrated: begging pardon, the child was ten going on eleven; the children would have to stay in town overnight, of course, till the paperwork had been completed; and besides the last train had left an hour ago, and besides our visas had now expired. The Official in Green glared at him with unconcealed hatred; then he beckoned to one of the porters, a wrinkled old sot, foully reeking of firewater, and told him to conduct us to the nearest inn, the “Gasthof zum Lieben Augustin.” The three of us stumbled city-wards through the night; the moon was down; the porter swayed in the windless dark, failing a step or two behind us, and beneath his breath he muttered desultory trade-union oaths, which could have landed him in jail. The Gasthof “Zum Lieben Augustin” had posted a large lantern-lit sign, “Jews not Admitted.” Very likely all other hotels in town posted identical signs.

As I was getting undressed, it struck me that my Papi must have been waiting for us all this time at the St. Gall station, and besides I had no way of paying the hotel bill. Instead of putting my clothes back on, I crept down to the concierge’s desk in my pajamas, barefoot–for all my panic I had enough presence of mind to know that I should play on his heartstrings the more poignantly if I played the part of a pitiful waif. Though I already shivered with cold, I now made a point of shivering and shaking like an infant’s rattle, and in asking the unshaven consumptive old sourpuss in his green eyeshade to exchange a five-mark bill for a fistful of silver I actually set my teeth a-clacking to wake the dying and dead. With my fistful of coins, I rang up my mother Collect from a booth in the lobby–I barely recognized her voice, not because the connection was poor but because it seemed weeks since I’d spoken to her–and asked her, would she telegraph money to cover our stay and to phone Papi once he got back fro m the station to clue him in. But what telegraph office, even in Furth, is open at 1 A.M.? Somehow she convinced the tubercular clerk that the money would be telegraphed first thing next morning; and it turned out that Papi had already called to find out what his sons were up to: don’t tell him that they had missed the train! Yes of course she would call Papi right back and see about an extension of our visas…. “Now you get a good night’s sleep, Sonny,” the porter yawned, but he looked at me from below his green shade as if he wished me a very good nightmare or two; and then he had himself such an alarming coughing fit that I would have clapped him on the back if I hadn’t been scared to touch him, catch the consumption, and given the Swiss still another excuse to shut their gates on us.

I stayed up the rest of the night, racked with visions of being sent back to Furth, of never getting another visa; of never seeing my Papi again, of Papi coming back to Furth to turn himself in to Inspector Kandl, of Papi standing out there at the St. Gall station, drenched to the skin in the middle of a tornado…. Dawn broke over Lake Constance; a steady drizzle obscured the view of the lake; and then it was half past five and I shook my brother awake.

We made our way back (unescorted) to the border police; by seven A.M. all formalities had been completed; a change of guard had taken place overnight; the kindly Giant in Green, the obnoxious interrogator, the rusty old gent had all been swept off the face of the waters; our visas had been extended by twenty-four hours; at 9 A.M. we crossed from Lindau to Sankt Margareten, into the brisk air of exile. The Kodak the Germans retained; nor was it ever mentioned again.

After a brief joyful reunion with our father, my brother and I pushed on to our foster-parents in Montreux. (The German Pflegeeltern has always suggested to me that the job of these people is to nurse you back to health.) There we sat out the next seven weeks–in retrospect these seven charmed weeks even now appear to me twice as long as our nine-months’ intermittence in Haiti, perhaps because none of us knew from one day to the next whether my mother would ever get out of Germany. My brother found refuge with a middle-aged Catholic widow, who reminded me (and therefore still reminds me) of Lillian Gish, a lady of such surpassing sweetness that my brother developed the weird theory that her widowhood was a mere fiction and that her husband, unable to live up to such a dear creature, had run off with the Cook, a conviction he supported with the insane argument that as an Aryan “that man” couldn’t be sent to jail for running off with the Cook. I myself was farmed out to a kindly, quarrelsome Alsatian-Jewish cou ple, who ran a textile shop on the Avenue de Kursaal and who made the mistake of looking on me as a perfect prodigy of martyrdom, an expert in the mechanics of persecution, the Oliver Twist de nos jours, the late-model Odd Boy Out. I noticed that whenever they introduced me to anybody, they assumed the unmistakable tone (matey, chin-up, doubly courteous) you assume in the presence of dwarfs and half-wits. Every so often they took me down to their shop; I perched on a wooden tripod in the recesses of the shop, browsing through Match, while the customers came up to me, so to speak on tiptoe, eyeing me tentatively as if I were the Oracle, before they screwed up their courage to shake hands. Clearly they (and my hosts) thought of me as a concentration camper manque, and the intimidation they felt precluded all intimacy. I had a wicked idea that Monsieur and Madame liked me to hang around the shop as a promotional stunt and that the instant I left their establishment they went bankrupt. I am being terribly unfair to people who took me on ferry-boat rides, paid for my haircuts, and kept from talking about Itlere in my presence, even in French, or about the ugly Contessa Ciano, the nee Mussolini.

April passed; May arrived; Pentecost came and went. What a dreary time we had of it! My brother and I took afternoon strolls along the lake and suddenly had nothing to say to each other. Nothing could rouse him from his lethargy; everything was stupid–“blod.” The lake was blod; the swans in the lake were blod; the peaks of the Dent du Midi with its billion-year-old snow were the last word in Blodsinn. Snow in the summer: what next! We trundled along the Quai des Fleurs towards Territet like small pensioners and, past Territet, to Chillon’s once snowy-white battlements; passing across the moat, we gazed sullenly at the rusted torture instruments, the mindless chains, until our weary dispirited eyes lost themselves in an impenetrably dark dungeon, a primitive haven for lepers or Jews…. And then, the third week of May, after our passports had been sent to Bern twice for the renewal of our visas, my grandmother, and a few weeks later my mother, arrived after all! At the Zurich railway station, my eternally you ng mother is running along the platform towards the barrier that has just been flung open; my first words on seeing her after what seemed half a century were a half-shocked half-wicked, “My God, Mami, you’re wearing lipstick!” My mother blushed to the tips of her ears. I wondered: could the long absence from my father, the six dreadful months since November, have tainted even my incorruptible mother?

And this, dear Jane (to answer your question) is how Clever Edgar and Hans-in-Luck got out of Germany.

“I didn’t ask how; I asked when,” Jane Howard said. “It’s getting chilly; let’s go inside.”


“I’m freezing my butt off; let’s go inside,” a psychiatrist said to me at a Georgetown lawn party. Though as frisky as a young colt, he seemed very put out and eyed me with professional leeriness as if to ask: what’s behind it all? Come clean…. He wouldn’t let go of me: of me, my repressions, my Holocaust. “Now look, you must have known something….”

Fair enough. I have said that I no longer recall just when I removed the Hitler over my bed; other worrisome images have long taken its place. I remember one incident to which I’m inclined to attach a slightly superstitious importance. It happened in my first year in high school, a year and a half after we arrived in the States. Junior High–P. S. 115 on 177th Street–had been within easy familiar walking distance from home; but once I graduated from Junior High, I had to take the subway to Inwood, to the Isham Annex of George Washington High School. Within a week of the term, while we were lazily shuttling back and forth between Dickens’s London and Paris, a fire drill was held in the school. After more than a year in New York, I still didn’t realize just what was happening, though we must have had similar drills in Germany. I understood only that a few minutes into the hour a siren started to clang through the building; our homeroom teacher, Miss Lieberman, arrested in mid-sentence, foolishly clapped her ha nds, and at once, automatically, without fuss or resistance, moving like the figures in a silent film, the students slid out of their seats and lined up in the corridor. (I also remember my sense of disorderliness in finding out that in this country the shortest student in class always headed the file, not, as in Germany, the tallest-I felt rather the same confusion in priorities on discovering, at about this time, that while the news of Lou Gehrig’s death leaped out at you in huge block letters from the front page of the Daily News, the concurrent death of the Kaiser was buried in half a column on the same page with an ad for foot powder.) All round us, up and down the hall, the same operation repeated itself; students came filing out one by one, like dream phenomena out of Caligari, in obedience to some tacit formula, and took up their positions against the wall; in the hush you could sense rather than hear the same process taking place upstairs and downstairs, until the whole building seemed to be drained of its animation and every particle of life had been swept into the corridors. For ten minutes or so we were kept inert, our backs pressed against the wall; we might have been waiting out an air raid that didn’t, after all, come off.

Then, acting on another mute signal ahead, the lines began to move again; still a little like sleepwalkers we moved downstairs, out of the building; and the moment we were in the street the students burst Out of their trance, cracked jokes, jostled each other, stepped on each others’ toes; we marched a few blocks uptown, across empty lots, past bleached warehouses and red factories, toward a neighborhood which was totally unfamiliar territory to me; and then it dawned on me what they were doing and I went blank with terror. I was positive that we were being herded–the whole school was being herded–into an apparatus for extinction, a camp, an oven: they had picked on our district to supply the initial quota of death campers and now they were going to rub us out. (This, you have to remember, was in the autumn of ’41, months before the news of the camps leaked out.) Obviously all that banter and kidding in the ranks should have convinced me that I was out of my mind, but that meant just nothing to me. I looke d with sad and sudden envy at my classmates; I had no idea who among them was Gentile or Jew; I didn’t know whether they were more to be despised or venerated for their unfeeling humor in the face of such monumental disaster. Looking back on the episode years later, already faking it for the sake of the conceit, I thought of Lord Haw-Haw, the English traitor, of whose death march Rebecca West wrote that “he halted on his way to the scaffold, looked down on the violent trembling of his knees, and calmly and cynically smiled.”

Within minutes, of course, we executed a smart about-face (but not a very smart one) and trundled back to school; the students–George Blekas, Milton Petrides, Sid Nussbaum, Clifford Lovett–became more and more boisterous; water pistols materialized out of their pockets, sleek little toys in every color of the rainbow, with which they squirted each other in the neck and face and eyes. They ducked into the gutter, bobbed up again, played at being, not dead (they were too old for that, of course) but blind and spastic. Back in the classroom, Miss Lieberman, with an indescribably silly gesture, clattered a little handbell, as if to announce the end of the interval, the resumption of the suspended talk about Sydney Carton’s hang-ups; I recall, too, the relief, the sense of fatigue and anticlimax.

When I was a very little toddler of four or five, while Hans still lay in his crib, gurgling and burping and napping out great gaps of time, my mother would take me for an afternoon stroll just past the limits of town; on Sundays my father occasionally joined us. I have no clear memory of the direction we took; I imagine our walk must have led us towards the Poppenreuth Bridge or the birch-lined Fronmuller Path which crosses the Rednitz River. In my mind (though this is surely no more than a trick of memory) we always took the same walk and always came to a stop before a sharp rise in the path, which I may have been too small to climb. What lay behind the incline I didn’t know. Nor did it occur to me to ask my parents. As all my experiences of the world were necessarily limited to my sense perceptions, I took it for granted that nothing whatever lay beyond the untrodden hill: my intuition very properly told me that whatever I could not see could not exist. (This infantile sense persists of course long past childhood; for example, if I ask a question of my students, the students who don’t want to be called on look in their lap, in the assurance that as long they can’t see me, I can’t see them.) The point at which my mother and I invariably stopped before we turned back thus clearly marked the end of the world. Beyond the world lay some unknowable void. This insight aroused neither curiosity nor fear in me, perhaps because it rested on an unalterable certainty. It was only now, ten years later, that the things beyond the visible world–the uncharted stretches, the puzzling red factories–began to reveal their shape and to take their revenge on my guilty innocence, my unacknowledged complicities.

EDGAR ROSENBERG, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cornell, has written a pioneering study of Jewish literary stereotypes, From Shylock to Svengali, as well as two monographs on the treatment of Jews in dramatic literature, has contributed short fiction, translations, and scholarly pieces to Commentary, Esquire, Epoch, and learned journals here and abroad.

His edition of Dickens’s Great Expectations appeared earlier this year in the Norton Critical series.

COPYRIGHT 1999 American Jewish Congress

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group


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