"What You Read" is a short story that has been released in ten parts in this blog. This is the final instalment. Please see the postings for 1 and 8 April; 4, 11, 18 and 25 March 2018; and 4, 11, 18 and 26 February 2018 for the previously released parts. It is inspired by the work I did for my upcoming book, the expanded version of "The Pendulum.
Like a woman possessed, I ordered a short biographical account of Klepper’s life, his collection of church hymns and poems, and most importantly his diary. The latter had been written in blood between 1932-42, as life closed in on his family, and he grappled with his faith in the German Evangelical Church, which had capitulated to the Party. Der Vater had been the most important literary achievement of his life, he thought, having no idea that his diary would far overtake it in importance later on. Senior Nazis, even the Führer himself, it was said, had read it, because they saw it as an endorsement of rearmament and the militarization of German society. Klepper mused at their rabid hunger for self-reinforcement. Blinded by their own hubris, they could not see that it was a work of resistance, a tale of just rule that could not be a greater contrast to the violent, disorderly, power-gluttenous National Socialism.
Did you read it because your dead leaders had read it? Or did you read it because you knew of Klepper’s fate, and that there must be more to this novel than the story of a soldier king? Perhaps the contradiction of Klepper intrigued you. One who wrote about Prussian kings, whose life was broken by those who revered their mythology the most: the Nazis, your Party, your people.
Once when I sat with you over coffee in your apartment, decades after your return from Brazil, you lowered your voice to a whisper when you mentioned your neighbour down the hallway.
“I’ve had tea with her many times. She is very orderly and has the finest things, but she’s Jewish, you know.”
It was a jumble of ill emotions, including jealousy and disdain. But, soaring like a dark genie above it all, was the suggestion in your whispering that you had done something illegal. I didn’t know how to respond to this, and took another sip of tea to wash down the queasiness. Maybe that was the way you had read Klepper, as though it was something daring because his marriage to a Jew was against nature in your perspective.
Yet when first you read him in exile, you were not the same person as the one who sat before me now. Then you had left your home suddenly for an unknown and dangerous frontier, with a volatile husband who had hurt you, only because you were more afraid of what could happen if you stayed. I was certain that on that terrace you read Klepper out of fear and confusion, making a book choice that your fanatic husband would find acceptable, but that also offered refuge in what you saw as a dignified history far away from madmen and disgrace. In choosing Klepper, perhaps you also privately acknowledged your feelings of guilt and shame. And maybe this was so terrible that it led into the unfathomable darkness of depression that you spent so many subsequent years in.
You knew everything about your authors, and so you knew that Klepper coped with his family’s dwindling circumstances and the hubris of the times through his unflinching faith. In it he found the strength to resist spiritual crimping and retained his creative integrity, at least for a sufficient time to produce what would become his life’s work. Suicide or giving up went against his beliefs, until there were no other options. He stayed with God to the end, but you didn't, and now you regretted it.
“Of course God will take you,” I said unconvincingly, as you cleaned your teeth fretfully with a toothpick, after telling me that you didn’t think St. Peter would open those gates for you.
The truth was that I had no idea, as I didn’t presume that there was a God. I had come to the daunting conclusion that you had chosen the path of no remorse, and I grieved your tragedy as though it were mine. I tried to reassure you, because, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, if there was a God, he could do what I was incapable of, which was to know your many faces and to see them as one. Reassuring you was my reminder that what you read that I read wasn’t only about you. It was about both of us.
"What You Read" is a short story I am releasing in ten parts in this blog. Please see the postings for 1 April, 4, 11, 18 and 25 March 2018 and 4, 11, 18 and 26 February 2018 for the previously released parts. Once a week a new part is released. It is inspired by the work I did for my upcoming book, the expanded version of "The Pendulum.
The Bertelsmann order arrived once a month at the tiny border outpost between Brazil and Paraguay, where you had gone into self-imposed exile with your husband in 1960. At home in the Federal Republic, prosecutors wrenched open a past that previously you thought had been entombed by the need to look ahead. Your husband, my grandfather, ordered books from this German publisher about Adenauer, the post-war Chancellor of the Federal Republic, who spoke in favor of drawing a line under history, and Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s assault on Russia that turned the fate of the war. Grandfather, who remained afraid of the noose of justice until his natural death, wanted everyone else to forget, while he reserved the right to look back at where the military strategy, and the chance to grab more land in the Ukraine, had failed. The Holocaust was a parenthesis to him, which was quite alright in your new surroundings. In the nearby town where ranchers occasionally gathered to determine how they were going to protect the area from drug traders, strong men were admired.
Among the books you ordered was "Der Vater" (The Father), a novel about Frederick I, Frederick the Great’s father and the founder of the Kingdom of Prussia, that became a bestseller in 1935, but that had largely been forgotten or rejected because of its association with the time period in which it was published.
It was one of the last books to remain in the shelf above your bed, where you lay with intensifying nightmares under the camel-fur cover. I tried not to look around the apartment at your things, as you came ever closer to death. Other members of the family had already decided what they wanted to have once you had died, and sometimes you assigned things to them. I couldn’t bear it, and attempted not to look at anything in your apartment for too long. You had always been generous with me, passing on things that had been most precious to you over the years: your grandmother’s swirling garnet brooch, your best winter hat and coat, and your heavy silver serving spoons. You offered all of your photo albums that included war-time images of the occupation, adding that your children intended to burn them once you had died. I accepted your offer, since the things around you were world heritage to me and should never be destroyed.
Once, when I thought you weren’t looking, I removed this last thick novel of yours from the shelf. It was no longer sufficiently well known to have been recorded as an audio book. No one in the family cared much about it, because no one else read like we did.
“It’s a book about the suffering of kings, who must endure more than ordinary people,” you said, as you caught me flipping through the pages.
I quickly slammed the book shut, embarassed that you had caught me looking through your things.
“Do you want it?” you asked, holding your ailing body up against the doorway.
Into your eighties you had led walking groups through the Black Forest, but now you didn’t walk much anymore, and barely ever changed out of your blue satin bathrobe and night shirt. Your offer unleashed an awful struggle inside of me. I hated the idea of taking more of your things, but the prospect that this book might help me to solve the riddle of you was irresistible.
“Yes, if you don’t mind,” I said sheepishly, looking at the sober grey book that had suddenly become mine.
On the journey home, I began reading eagerly, but encountered a dense, nearly indigestible historical account of the nascent Prussian kingdom. Impatient that the book might not deliver the answers I sought, I turned to the author description on the last page. After reading the short text, it struck me that while remorse had never crossed your lips, you may in fact have felt it inside. How I hoped for it.
Jochen Klepper, the author, was the son of a pastor who had interrupted his studies in theology to become a writer in Berlin in 1932, shortly after he had married a Jewish widow with two daughters. A decade later, after all efforts to spare his wife and one of her daughters from deportation had failed, he switched on the gas in their Berlin apartment, so that they could die together. I pictured you on the terrace of your Brazilian ranch, out of the glare of the sun that your skin could not tolerate, reading the work of this energetic novelist, whose life and career your movement had cut short. What thoughts went through your head, what feelings through your heart?
"What You Read" is a short story I am releasing in ten parts in this blog. Please see the postings for 4, 11, 18 and 25 March 2018 and 4, 11, 18 and 26 February 2018 for the previously released parts. Once a week a new part is released. It is inspired by the work I did for my upcoming book, the expanded version of "The Pendulum.
Tolstoy’s deeply Russian sense of fatalism, expressed most clearly by the enigmatic character of the Russian General Kutuzov, dulled the sharpness of this new question and must have come as a relief to you. According to him, in the eye of battle no one was responsible and no strategy possible. According to Tolstoy, Kutuzov and Napoleon resigned themselves to fate and superstition, and history simply unfolded. You found a certain comfort in this portrayal, which I had difficulty understanding until I learned that you had volunteered for an organization responsible for redistributing clothing that had once belonged to those sent to be exterminated ‘for the war effort.' Was this too part of the momentum and the haze of war that no one had any control over?
In later years, the nervous condition that forced your eyes to shut each time that you looked at the printed page seemed the harshest of punishments for one so in love with books. Instead, you listened to “War and Peace” performed by some of Germany’s best acting voices on a tape recorder.
“What we did was nothing compared to the slaughter of the Napoleonic Wars. Terrible! TER-RIB-LE!” you exclaimed, with an indignation I recognized from growing up at home. You patted the thick book, which you kept before you on the dining table when you were listening to it, even as you no longer opened the cover. It was like your best defence in a never-ending trial.
When you were over one hundred years old, I confronted you with the truth you could never share with me: the fanatic Party and SS engagement throughout the duration of the Third Reich. I tried not to cast blame, having learned from Tolstoy that the forces of history were too complex to lay the responsibility for their unfolding at the feet of any one person.
“This history doesn’t belong to you and you will never understand it,” you snapped, warning me to leave the past alone. It was a clever, temporarily destabilizing retort until I reflected upon your apparent mastery of the Napoleonic Wars, which had ended nearly a century before you were born. If none of us had the right to history, how could you have the right to the early 19th century?
I have sometimes wondered whether it is the duty of family members to the leave the past of loved ones alone. It might have been an act of tolerance and mercy to behold and accept, rather than to demand clarity about every one of your many faces. But I chose another path, which was to read “War and Peace” now and again to discover the questions that may have lurked in your heart, because someday they could be mine.