Originally posted March 2018.
"What You Read" is a short story which will be released in ten parts in this blog. It is inspired by the work I did for “The Pendulum”. It revolves around the question of what the books we read say about us.
I wondered whether on the estates your husband and his comrades stole in the name of the Reich in Poland, you listened to Mann’s BBC radio broadcasts, imploring the German people to awaken from their fateful sleep. To do so was illegal, but as the senseless war turned against Germany, increasing numbers listened in private to this literary giant, who lived in exile with his Jewish wife in America. Did you dismiss his revelation that people were being gassed down the road from you as the influence of ‘decadent’ America on his mind, or did your nightmares begin then? Did you wonder about the ill-smelling haze from the chimneys that drifted overhead, or did you dismiss it as greasy smoke?
“The Holocaust was a conspiracy by the international media to keep Germany down,” you once told me, offering what you regarded as an appealing alternative truth.
As you said these words, you will have recalled Toni’s reference to “the secret scandal, that feeds on oneself in the quiet and that devours self-respect.” Her call for “uprightness and openness” would have grated on you, as you delivered this explanation to me that you knew was false. In that moment, it must have been terrible to be so well read.
It was easy to blame the males for everything, but inwardly you must have contemplated your role in the fall of the family, and in the ill-fated Brazilian adventure. Despite the security you and your husband had built up through your business and home outside of Hamburg after the war, the renewal of war crimes trials in the late fifties put both of you under pressure. The argument that one had simply followed orders, and therefore could not be regarded as responsible, fell on deaf ears. There was no knowing where this might end, and so you both took the extended hand offered by a former SS-comrade who seemed to be living the good life far away under the sun.
Toni followed you in every move you made, with her encouragement of ill-fated transactions between men that she thought would benefit her, but that eventually resulted in the sale of the grand family home, and the scattering of the remaining members in different directions. Despite this, Toni never let go of her aspirations, as impossible as they had become. Neither did you, and while I can rail at you for your apparent lack of remorse, this is what kept you alive, so that I too could gain a glimpse into what had preceded me: the golden age of Hamburg merchants and the thousand-year Reich, which in their preoccupation with infinity were destined to end.