East Berlin wasn’t going to be what he’d expected.
West Berlin was mostly office towers, all very modern, but only if you meant what modern looked like ten years earlier in the 1970’s: smooth elephant gray cement slabs criss-crossed by grids of glass and steel, like giant air conditioners. But here in the East, the buildings actually looked like Europe, or what an American thought Europe should look like. This meant streetcars crunching down rails set into cobblestone streets; cracked, chipped atlas figures and Doric columns bolstering apartment buildings raked with crumbling cornices and prickly laurel wreaths; walls etched with strange crooked markings and the occasional punctures of bullet holes from World War II that had never been repaired. If you looked at the markings long enough, you could mistake them for encoded messages. And in a few cases, they really were messages, like the faded Gothic lettering of an old beer hall, now half-veiled by a yellow government banner that warned the public: “The Struggle for Peace is Doing, not Being!”
Finally, he’d arrived in a real place, with a tang and a bite.
Too bad the Protagonist didn’t have more time to take it all in. Because how many Americans had the chance to see the things he saw? Like the uniform rows of identical boxy East German cars parked on the sides of the road. Or grocery store windows with their ziggurat-shaped displays of sour, unappetizing vegetables in cans or jars. There were no corporate logos anywhere. The packages were simply labeled according to their contents. They said: “RICE” instead of Uncle Ben’s; “BEEF STEW” instead of Dinty Moore; and “VEGETABLE MIX,” with no sign of the Green Giant. The Protagonist had brought his Dad’s old camera but was too shy to take pictures. Also, he couldn’t help remembering what a man he’d interviewed in West Berlin had told him: “Taking pictures in East Germany is a good way to get yourself arrested by the secret police.”
“Don’t listen to him,” said the man’s wife. “He’s just trying to pull out your leg.” Germans were so fond of English idioms, and nearly always got them wrong.
Anyway, he didn’t have time for pictures. The border crossing had taken longer than he’d expected—not the actual procedure itself, but the lines—and Frau Mosebach was expecting him at eleven-thirty. Now it was almost noon, and Frau Mosebach had made it clear on the phone that she was the kind of person for whom punctuality was an article of faith. Still, when he saw the cemetery, he had to stop, just for a minute. It was a real intact Jewish cemetery, in the heart of Berlin, protected by a high red brick wall ornamented with cement Jewish stars. How was it possible that the Nazis had left it standing? Maybe Frau Mosebach would know, but he’d have to hurry or she might give up waiting for him.
The Protagonist began to run. A troop of children with shaggy hair and tight-fitting jackets stopped shouting at each other to stare at him. A row of old women peeked out above their fake-fur collared trenchcoats to stare at him. And a girl with a spiked blond mohawk squatting against a wall stared at him too. Evidently, this was not a place where people hurried.
At last he made it to 17 Sredzkistrasse, the rather improbably-spelled address he’d scribbled on a paper bag after his second telephone contact with Frau Mosebach. He found her name and rang the bell. At first, nothing happened. But after several minutes, he heard the harsh click of footsteps. Through the frosted glass of the front door, a solid black line stretched taut emerged from the dim hallway, then slowly filled into the form of a tall woman. Finally, she opened the door and appeared in her full majesty.
Her dark hair, threaded with brown and gray, was pulled back from her face, with its broad white expanses of forehead and pointed chin, and in between, a long, thin nose with a subtle and rather dignified arch. She had on a tweed jacket and matching skirt, a brown and black pattern. Underneath the jacket, she wore a shimmering orange blouse from a strange manmade material that glowed as if it had been heated with radiation.
Frau Mosebach paused to inspect his hair, his waist, and his shoes. “The door to the building was open,” she said in fluid English before he could show off his near-fluent German. “You could have come up.”
“I just assumed,” said the Protagonist.
“Never assume anything,” she told him over her shoulder and turned gracefully on her heel to lead him up the stairs. “Nice denims, by the way. Levi’s?”
“Yes.” He blushed.
“I see them often when I go to West Berlin,” she said. “But the price is so very dear.”
“They’re cheaper in the United States,” he said, trying to apologize somehow, which made him sound even more stupid.
“Yes, I know,” she replied. “I visited there once. And I didn’t even try to defect. Imagine it.”
Frau Mosebach’s apartment was on what in Europe was called the fourth floor, though in America it would have been the fifth floor. The Protagonist was well out of breath by the time they got there. She had him remove his shoes at the door, and he felt embarrassed at the threadbare state of his formerly white tube socks. But he was a student living on a grant. There were more important things to spend his money on than fresh socks.
The room felt cramped, darkened by wood paneling and a boxy black television set glowing in black and white. Frau Mosebach switched it off and invited him to sit in a stiff plain chair at a table made of pressed wood. She went into the kitchen and brought back steaming watery coffee in red-orange plastic cups shaped like hexagons. To eat, there were open-faced white bread sandwiches topped with margarine, thinly-sliced cucumber, and dill, and cut into diamonds. He tried to say he wasn’t hungry, but she said, “Nonsense. All boys are hungry,” and watched him chew valiantly at his first diamond, which had been slathered rather too generously with margarine. Anyway, he was hungry. No one had warned him how expensive food would be in West Germany. “How old are you exactly?” she asked.
“Twenty-two,” he said, gulping down a wedge of bread and artificial fat. Then he thought to add, “and a half.”
Frau Mosebach laughed. “So young? Your mother must be worried about you.” She leaned forward, as if she expected a response. The Protagonist didn’t want to make one, but he felt it being pulled out of him anyway.
“My mother is dead.”
The words still dredged up some of the old pain, which after all these years he found humiliating to exhibit in front of strangers. But he refused to smooth over the truth of “dead” with a softer phrase like “passed away.” Too insultingly insubstantial for the cancer that had caused the life to leak out of his mother in her bed. It had happened when he was fifteen, too long ago, when all the Protagonist had needed to be happy was to watch her sip an entire half-glass of orange juice, or to hear her stories of New York City in the `40s, an exotic place of egg creams and elevated trains, pickles that stung the roof of your mouth, Irish and Italian kids who’d pick on the Jews for killing Christ, and Jews brave enough to pick back. His mother was full of these details that he feared might be lost with her, and so he wrote down as many of them as he could remember. That was how he’d gotten into the habit of history.
Instead of saying she was sorry for his loss, Frau Mosebach told him, “Mine’s dead too. So what is it you want to me to tell you?”
With her steely blue eyes trained on his, no questions came to mind, even though during the past month and a half, he’d conducted interviews with Jews from Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Hamburg, and West Berlin. “It’s for my master’s thesis,” he managed to say. “And eventually, I want to turn it into a book. My professor promised me that she knows the editors of several university presses who might be interested.”
“That’s very nice,” she said. “You said the subject of this book is Jews who live in Germany today?”
“That’s right,” he said proudly. “After the Holocaust.”
“Right,” she said. “That must seem very important to you.”
“It is important,” he said.
“So you must have some theory about us, why we are living here. That we are all a bunch of sado-masochists. Is that it?”
“No, no,” he said. “Actually, my theory is… well, do you want to hear it?”
“I cannot wait.”
He blushed. “Well, my theory has to do with survivor guilt, even for people who didn’t directly experience the…” he paused, trying to think of a polite word, but there was none, “Holocaust. So my theory is that if you can’t jump into the grave, the next best thing is to camp out in the cemetery.” This had sounded clever in his professor’s office in Michigan, but here for the first time he realized it sounded glib, and that his entire twenty-two and a half years of life had been a complete waste of time. Maybe his father had been right: history degrees were for people who could afford not to become tax attorneys.
Frau Mosebach rewarded his theory with a withering smirk. “Do you know, I have lived here in Berlin for almost forty years. And in all this time, I never talked about Nazis so much until I visited New York City and everyone said to me, ‘You’re a Jew? And you live in Germany? With all the Nazis?’ I told them, ‘You’re mistaken. I live in East Germany, with the Communists. The Nazis live in comfort in West Germany, where they collaborate with the C. I. A. and escape punishment.’”
The Protagonist quickly dug around in his backpack. “Do you mind if I record this? For my notes?”
“You’re not with the C. I. A., are you?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” he said.
“Just a joke,” she said. “You Americans, you have no sense of humor. Of course you may record. Record all you like. I just hope you’re not wasting your tapes on me. I’m not accustomed to being interviewed. Do you do this often?”
But the Protagonist was busying setting up the recorder on her table. He’d just bought new batteries for it, an expensive German brand he didn’t recognize, and he worried they might fail. It occurred to him that if he’d bought the batteries in East Berlin, they might have been cheaper. He imagined they might not have had a brand name at all, and would have simply been marked: BATTERIES. In that case they’d have been too precious to use; he’d have kept them as a souvenir.
“So why were you visiting New York?” he asked.
“I was born there,” she said, sitting up straight in her chair, her nylon feet planted firmly on the ground and clamped together. “Yes, I’m as good as American. I could even vote for your president if I cared to. That’s why I went. I wanted to see my heritage, so I applied for an American passport, to travel, to explore my roots. Isn’t that the term? Explore one’s roots? That’s where I met your friend, Rabbi Shulman. You are a friend of Rabbi Shulman’s, yes?”
“Yes,” he lied. Actually the Rabbi was more of an acquaintance of his professor, who at that moment was probably calmly grading papers in her comfortable office back at the University of Michigan.
“I could not believe it, to meet a female rabbi. Here all our rabbis must have beards, no? But that was what I didn’t know about Judaism before I went to America, that you have so many different kinds of it. Like your ice cream, it comes in so many different flavors. What kind do you like?”
“I don’t practice very much anymore,” the Protagonist admitted. This had been a point of embarrassment in West Berlin, when he’d gone to observe a service and had been invited, impromptu, to come up on stage and lead a prayer. Suddenly he realized he’d forgotten everything his parents and Hebrew School had taught him.
“Not Judaism,” she said. “Ice cream. What kind of ice cream do you like?”
“Oh, that. Uh, vanilla, I guess. Maybe, chocolate.”
“With all those wonderful kinds available to you in the West? You’re boring, you know that? But you’re nice, anyway. You may take another sandwich.” She winked, then slid the plate closer to him. “Well, I’ll tell you the truth. I was born in Brooklyn, and I was curious to go back. Now they have many blacks there suffering from the racist policies of your cowboy president. But when I grew up, it was mostly Jews. Maybe our family would have made more friends with the blacks. The Jews didn’t approve of my parents because the Jews were very bourgeois in this neighborhood, and my parents were very strong true believers of Communism. That’s what saved them from Hitler. They left Germany right away because they were Communists. Just being Jewish, maybe they might have stayed longer and then not been able to get out. But then after the war, the Communism became a problem.”
“Why?” he asked, leafing through his notebook to find the list of questions he’d prepared the night before.
“McCarthy,” she barked, as if the Senator’s election had been his fault. “When Roosevelt was still alive, the situation was tolerable. Once he was gone, the government began hunting down Jewish Communists like it was rabbit season. I bet they don’t teach you this in your university. I bet you never heard of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Anyway, we ran away to East Germany.”
“That must have been hard for you, to adjust.”
“Not at all. The kids in Brooklyn they used to make fun of me for my accent, and because my parents didn’t believe in wasting money to dress me in the latest Fifth Avenue fashions. Here I didn’t have to worry about things like that and I could apply myself to my studies, like you are doing, yes? You are a studious young man, right?”
“I guess,” said the Protagonist, still trying to find the list of questions. He worried that he’d left them in his nightstand, with his new German porno magazines.
“You understand me,” she said, suddenly looking at him with kindness. “Did the other children make fun of you when you were growing up?”
“I don’t know,” said the Protagonist. “But can I ask you…”
“They did, didn’t they? I can always tell. I’m sorry for it. It’s because where you come from, you have a competitive system. It’s every dog for himself, dogs eating the dogs. Money, money, money. For a time, I lived in West Berlin, and the advertising gave me a headache. From the moment you opened your eyes, it was flashing in your face.” She slapped at air. “But you wanted to know about Jews in Germany, right? What’s the attraction? Tell me the truth.”
He struggled to explain himself. Somehow her sureness made him want to disappear. Also, it was hard to put into words, this fascination with Germany that seemed both irrational and inevitable. All his life, he’d been warned about Germans. His mother used to teach him that good Jews never bought Mercedes (which his family couldn’t have afforded anyway), never ate apple strudel or German chocolate cake. Certainly they never dreamed of setting foot on German soil. It was as if the map of Europe had this throbbing black hole at its center that he was expected to always ignore and at the same time never forget.
So he told her about a book he’d read, for a class in college called The Holocaust Explained, a new course offered because of popular demand. It was a memoir of a survivor who, according to the biographical note, now lived in Frankfurt. No explanation given, and this bothered him.
“Maybe this woman you read about lives in Frankfurt because she likes the hot dogs there,” said Frau Mosebach. “Who knows? What I still don’t understand is why is it your concern?”
“Because it’s fascinating,” he stammered. “After all that, to come back here…”
“So then why weren’t you afraid to come here?” she asked him.
The Protagonist was afraid of many things, like taking a shower at the campus gym where there were no individual stalls or attending family gatherings where well-meaning relatives asked if he’d found a girlfriend yet. Germany had been comparatively easy. Actually, it was his first time in Europe and he’d been looking forward to it.
“I want to get back to the interview,” said the Protagonist, determined to recover himself. “I read there are only two hundred Jews left in East Germany. First, it that true? And second, why do you think there are so many more Jews in West Germany than East Germany? What are the effects of anti-Semitism?”
“Pure propaganda,” she interrupted him. “Two hundred, two hundred, the West Germans say that number so often as if saying it makes it true. But I know more than two hundred Jewish people personally. It’s just that some Jews here don’t want to admit it by registering officially. However, things are changing. Some friends of mine and I, we’ve started a discussion group about Jewish issues. If you’re really interested in what it’s like to be Jewish in East Germany, you should come to one of our meetings.”
“I’d be glad to,” he said brightly. “Just tell me when and where. You see, you’re my only contact for East Germany, and there’s so much I need to learn.”
Suddenly she reached across the table and squeezed the hand he’d been writing with. He couldn’t remember the last time a woman touched him this way, so deliberately, and he dropped his pen. “Patience,” she said, squeezing more tightly. Her fingers felt cold and very dry. Then she let go. “I will let you know,” she said. “Now, are there any more questions? I have another appointment, and you were thirty-seven minutes late.”
“I’m sorry, but just a few more questions. You said some of your friends didn’t want to admit they were Jews. Was this because of anti-Semitism? Have you ever experienced anti-Semitism in East Germany?”
“No, never,” she said, standing up. “Well, the interview is closed. How old did you say you were? Twenty-two? You really are very young for this kind of work. Twenty-two! You’re almost a child. What do you study in school?”
“History,” he said, turning off his recorder. He tried to pack up quickly as she loomed over his chair. “I also did a sub-concentration in Jewish Studies.”
“A sub-what? I don’t understand. Have you got a girlfriend or something?”
“No,” he said quickly.
“Oh, that’s a shame,” she said. “You’re nice-looking, and for many girls that’s more important than having a personality. Me, I used to have looks and a personality, but now it’s just the personality.”
“But you’re very attractive…” he started to say, because she was in a commanding sort of way. But she went on talking.
“I had even a husband once, but it didn’t work out. Now it’s just me, myself, and I. Did I get the expression right? I still remember some of the idioms.”
Frau Mosebach was crowding him toward her front door, where he jammed his feet back into his shoes without bothering to tie them. As she let him out, he was still hugging his stained winter coat and his backpack and his reporter’s notebook and his tape recorder.
“And the discussion group?” he said. “When’s your next meeting?”
“I said I will let you know.” She closed the door. He stood there a minute, then tiptoed carefully down the stairs, trying not to trip over his own shoelaces.