On packing suitcases
All that I have I carry on me.
Or: All that is mine I carry with me.
I carried all I had, but it wasn’t mine. Everything either came from someone else or wasn’t what it was supposed to be. A gramophone box served as a pigskin suitcase. The light overcoat came from my father. The fancy coat with the velvet collar from my grandfather. The knickers from Uncle Edwin. The leather gaiters came from our neighbor Herr Carp, the green woolen gloves from Aunt Fini. Only the burgundy silk scarf and the toilet kit belonged to me, presents from the previous Christmas.
The war was still on in January 1945. In their dismay at my being shipped off in the dead of winter to who knows where in Russia, everyone wanted to give me something that might be of use, even if it couldn’t help. Because nothing in the world could possibly help: I was on the Russians’ list, and that was that. So everyone gave me something, and kept their thoughts to themselves. And I took what they gave. I was seventeen years old, and in my mind this going away couldn’t have come at a better time. Not that I needed the Russians’ list, but if things didn’t turn out too badly, I thought, this leaving might even be a good thing. I wanted to get out of our thimble of a town, where every stone had eyes. Instead of fear I felt a secret impatience. And I had a bad conscience about it, because the same list that caused my relatives such despair was fine with me. They were afraid something might happen to me in a foreign country. I simply wanted to go to a place that didn’t know who I was.
Something had just happened to me. Something forbidden. Something strange, filthy, shameless, and beautiful. It happened in the Alder Park, far in the back, on the other side of the short-grass mounds. Afterward, on my way home, I went to the pavilion in the middle of the park where the bands played on holidays. I sat there a while. Sunlight came stabbing through the finely carved wood. I stared at the empty circles, squares, and trapezoids, held together by white tendrils with claws, and I saw their fear. This was the pattern of my aberration, of the horror on my mother’s face. In the pavilion I vowed: I’m never coming back to this park.
But the more I tried to stop myself, the faster I went back—after two days. For a rendezvous, as it was known in the park.
That next rendezvous was with the same first man. He was called THE SWALLOW. The second man was new, his name was THE FIR. The third was THE EAR. Then came THE THREAD. Then ORIOLE and CAP. Later HARE, CAT, GULL. Then THE PEARL. Only we knew which name belonged to whom. The park was a wild animal crossing, I let myself be passed from one man to the next. And it was summer with white skin on birch trees and shrubs of elderberry and mock orange leafing out to form an impenetrable wall of green.
Love has its seasons. Autumn brought an end to the park. The trees grew naked, and we moved our rendezvous to the Neptune Baths. An oval sign with a swan hung next to the iron gate. Every week I met up with a married man twice my age. He was Romanian. I won’t say what name he used or what name I used. We staggered our arrivals, so that no one and nothing could have any idea that we’d arranged to meet: not the cashier ensconced in the leaded-glass windows of her booth, nor the shiny stone floor, nor the rounded middle column, nor the water-lily tiles on the wall, nor the carved wooden stairs. We swam in the pool with all the others and didn’t come together until we were both in the sauna.
Back then, before my time in the camp as well as after I returned, and all the way up to 1968 when I left the country, every rendezvous could have landed me in prison. Minimum five years, if I’d been caught. Some were. They went straight from the park or the baths to a brutal interrogation and then to jail. And from there to the penal colony on the canal. Today I know that almost nobody came back from there. The ones who did were walking corpses—old before their time and broken, of no use for any love in the world.
And in the camp—if I’d been caught in the camp I’d be dead.
After those five camp years I roamed the busy streets, day in and day out, silently rehearsing what to say in case I was arrested, preparing a thousand excuses and alibis to counter the verdict: CAUGHT IN THE ACT. I carry silent baggage. I have packed myself into silence so deeply and for so long that I can never unpack myself using words. When I speak, I only pack myself a little differently.
Once during the last rendezvous-summer I took a long way home from the park and found myself near the Holy Trinity Church on the main square. This chance detour turned out to be significant: I saw the time that was coming. On a column next to the side-altar stood a saint in a gray cloak, with a sheep draped around his neck as a collar. This sheep draped around the neck is silence. There are things we do not speak of. But I know what I’m talking about when I say that silence around the neck is different from silence inside the mouth. Before, during, and after my time in the camp, for twenty-five years, I lived in fear—of my family and of the state. Fear of a double disgrace: that the state would lock me away as a criminal and that my family would disown me out of shame. On crowded streets I would stare at the glass panes of the shops, at the windows of streetcars, of houses, I would gaze into fountains and puddles—checking to make sure I wasn’t transparent after all.
My father was an art teacher. With the Neptune Baths inside my head, whenever he used the word WATERCOLOR I’d flinch as though he’d kicked me. The words knew how far I’d already gone. At the dinner table my mother said: Don’t stab the potato with your fork because it will fall apart, use your spoon, the fork is for meat. My temples were throbbing. Why is she saying meat when she’s talking about forks and potatoes. What kind of meat does she mean. I was my own thief, the words came out of nowhere and caught me.
Like all the Germans in our little town, my mother, and especially my father, believed in the beauty of blond braids and white knee-stockings. They believed in the black square of Hitler’s mustache and in the Aryan heritage of us Transylvanian Saxons. The physical part of my secret alone was a gross abomination. And with a Romanian there was the additional matter of Rassenschande.
I wanted to escape from my family, to a camp if need be. But I felt sorry for my mother, who had no idea how little she knew me. And who would think of me more frequently when I was away than I of her.
Inside the church, next to the saint with the sheep of silence, I had seen the white alcove with the inscription: HEAVEN SETS TIME IN MOTION. Packing my suitcase, I thought: The white alcove has done its work. This is the time that’s been set in motion. I was also happy I wasn’t being sent off to war, into the snow at the front. Foolishly brave and obedient, I went on packing. And I took whatever was offered—leather gaiters with laces, knickers, the coat with the velvet collar—even though none of it was really right for me. Because this wasn’t about clothes, but about the time that had been set in motion, about growing up, with one set of things or another. The world is not a costume ball, I thought, and no one who’s forced to go to Russia in the dead of winter need worry about looking ridiculous.
A patrol consisting of two policemen—a Romanian and a Russian—went from house to house carrying a list. I no longer remember whether the word CAMP was uttered inside our home. Or what other word might have been spoken, except RUSSIA. If the word CAMP was mentioned, it didn’t frighten me. Despite the war and the silence about my rendezvous draped around my neck, I was only seventeen years old and still living in my bright, silly childhood. The words WATERCOLOR and MEAT affected me. My brain didn’t register the word CAMP.
Back then, at the table with the fork and potatoes, when my mother caught me with the word meat, I remembered how she used to shout down to the courtyard where I was playing: If you don’t come to dinner right away, if I have to call you one more time, you can just stay where you are. But I didn’t always come right away, and once, when I finally went upstairs, she said:
Why don’t you just pack your satchel and go out into the world and do whatever you want. She pulled me into my room, grabbed my woolen cap and my jacket, and stuffed them inside my little backpack. I said, But I’m your child, where am I supposed to go.
A lot of people think packing a suitcase is something you learn through practice, like singing or praying. We had no practice and no suitcase. When my father was sent to join the Romanian soldiers on the front, there was nothing to pack. Soldiers are given everything they need, it’s all part of the uniform. But we had no idea what we were packing for, except a long journey and a cold place. If you don’t have the right things, you improvise. The wrong things become necessary. Then the necessary things turn out to be the only right things, simply because they’re what you have.
My mother brought the gramophone from the living room and set it on the kitchen table. Using a screwdriver, I made it into a suitcase. First I took out the spindle and turntable. Then I corked up the hole for the crank. The fox-red velvet lining stayed. I also kept the triangular emblem with HIS MASTER’S VOICE and the dog facing the horn. I put four books on the bottom: a cloth-bound edition of Faust, the slim volume of Weinheber, Zarathustra, and my anthology of poems from eight centuries. No novels, since you just read them once and never again. After the books came my toilet kit, containing: 1 bottle eau de toilette, 1 bottle Tarr aftershave, 1 shaving soap, 1 razor, 1 shaving brush, 1 alum stone, 1 hand soap, 1 nail scissors. Next to the toilet kit I put: 1 pair wool socks (brown, darned), 1 pair knee-high socks, 1 red-and-white-checked flannel shirt, 2 short plain underpants. My new burgundy-colored silk scarf went on the very top so it wouldn’t get crushed. It had a pattern of shiny checks alternating with matte. With that the case was full.
Then came my bundle: 1 day blanket off the sofa (wool, bright blue and beige plaid, a huge thing but not very warm). And rolled into that: 1 lightweight overcoat (salt-and-pepper, very worn) and 1 pair leather gaiters (ancient, from the First World War, melon-yellow, with laces).
Then came the haversack with: 1 tin of Scandia brand ham, 4 sandwiches, a few leftover Christmas cookies, 1 canteen of water with a cup.
Then my grandmother set the gramophone box, the bundle, and the haversack beside the door. The two policemen had said they’d come for me at midnight. My bags stood ready to go.
Then I got dressed: 1 pair long underwear, 1 flannel shirt (beige and green plaid), 1 pair knickers (gray, from Uncle Edwin, as I said), 1 cloth vest with knitted sleeves, 1 pair wool socks, and 1 pair lace-up boots. Aunt Fini’s green gloves lay within easy reach on the table. As I laced up my boots I thought about a summer vacation years earlier in the Wench highlands. My mother was wearing a sailor suit that she had made. On one of our walks she let herself sink into the tall grass and pretended to be dead. I was eight years old. The horror: the sky fell into the grass. I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t see it swallowing me. My mother jumped up, shook me, and said: So, do you love me. See, I’m still alive.
My boots were laced up. I sat at the table waiting for midnight. And midnight came, but the patrol was late. Three more hours had to pass—that’s almost too much for anyone. And then they were there. My mother held up the coat with the black velvet collar, and I slipped inside. She cried. I pulled on the green gloves. On the wooden walkway, just next to the gas meter, my grandmother said: I KNOW YOU’LL COME BACK.
I didn’t set out to remember her sentence. I carried it to the camp without thinking. I had no idea it was going with me. But a sentence like that has a will of its own. It worked inside me, more than all the books I had packed. I KNOW YOU’LL COME BACK became the heart-shovel’s accomplice and the hunger angel’s adversary. And because I did come back, I can say: a sentence like that keeps you alive.
It was three in the morning, on the fifteenth of January, 1945, when the patrol came for me. The cold was getting worse: it was -15° C.
We rode in a canvas-topped truck through the empty town to the exhibition hall. The Transylvanian Saxons had used it as a banquet hall. Now it was an assembly camp. Some 300 people were crammed inside. Mattresses and straw sacks lay strewn on the floor. Vehicles arrived throughout the night, from the surrounding villages as well as from the town, and unloaded the people who’d been collected. It was impossible to count how many, there was no way to see everything, even though the light in the hall stayed on the whole night. Toward morning I counted nearly 500. People ran around looking for acquaintances. Word had it that carpenters were being requisitioned at the train station, that they were outfitting the cattle cars with plank beds made of fresh lumber. And that other craftsmen were equipping the trains with cylindrical stoves. And that others were sawing toilet holes into the floor. People talked a lot, quietly, with eyes wide open, and they cried a lot, quietly, with eyes shut. The air smelled of old wool, sweaty fear and greasy meat, vanilla pastries, liquor. One woman took off her headscarf. She was obviously from the country, her braid had been doubled and pinned up to the top of her head with a semicircular horn comb. The teeth of the comb disappeared in her hair, but the two corners of its curved edge stuck out like little pointed ears. The ears and her thick braid made the back of her head look like a sitting cat. I sat like a spectator in the middle of all the legs and luggage. For a few minutes I fell asleep and dreamed:
My mother and I are in a cemetery, standing in front of a freshly dug grave. A plant half my height is growing in the middle of the grave. The leaves are furry, and its stem has a pod with a leather handle, a little suitcase. The pod is open the width of a finger and lined with fox-red velvet. We don’t know who has died. My mother says: Take the chalk out of your coat pocket. But I don’t have any, I say. I reach in my pocket and find a piece of tailor’s chalk. My mother says: We have to write a short name on the suitcase. Let’s write RUTH—we don’t know anybody named that. I write RUHT—rests, as on a gravestone.
In my dream it was clear to me that I had died, but I didn’t want to tell my mother just yet. I was startled out of my sleep by an older man with an umbrella who sat down on the straw sack next to me and spoke into my ear: My brother-in-law wants to come, but the place is guarded. They won’t let him in. We’re still in town, he can’t come here, and I can’t go home. A bird was flying on each silver button of the man’s jacket—a wild duck, or rather an albatross, because the cross on his badge turned into an anchor when I leaned in closer. The umbrella stood between us like a walking stick. I asked: Are you taking that along. Yes I am, he said, it snows even more there than it does here.
No one told us how or when we were supposed to leave the hall—or I should say, when we’d be allowed to leave, since I was anxious to get going, even if that meant traveling to Russia in a cattle car with a gramophone box and a velvet collar around my neck. I don’t remember how we finally got to the station, just that the cattle cars were tall. I’ve also forgotten the boarding, we spent so many days and nights traveling in the cattle car, it seemed we’d been there forever. Nor can I remember how long we stayed on the train. I thought that traveling a long time meant we were traveling a great distance. As long as we keep moving, I thought, nothing can happen. As long as we keep moving, everything is fine.
Men and women, young and old, their bags stacked at the head of their plank beds, talking and keeping quiet, eating and sleeping. Bottles of liquor made the rounds. People grew accustomed to the journey, some even attempted to flirt. They made contact with one eye and looked away with the other.
I sat next to Trudi Pelikan and said: I feel like I’m on a ski trip in the Carpathians, in the cabin at Lake Bâlea, where half a high school class was swallowed up by an avalanche. She said: That can’t happen to us, we didn’t bring any skis. But with a gramophone box like that you can ride ride ride through the day through the night through the day, you know Rilke don’t you, said Trudi Pelikan in her bell-shaped coat with the fur cuffs that reached to her elbows. Cuffs of brown hair like two half-dogs. Trudi Pelikan sometimes crossed her arms, hiding her hands in her sleeves, and then the two halves became a whole dog. That was before I’d seen the steppe, otherwise I would have thought of the little marmots we called steppe-dogs. Trudi Pelikan smelled like warm peaches, even her breath, and even after three or four days in the cattle car. She sat in her coat like a lady taking the streetcar to work and told me how she’d hidden for four days in a hole in the ground behind the shed in her next-door neighbor’s garden. But then the snow came, and every step between house and shed and hole became visible. Her mother could no longer bring her food in secret. The footsteps were plain to see all over the garden. The snow denounced her, she had to leave her hiding place of her own accord, voluntarily forced by the snow. I’ll never forgive that snow, she said. You can’t rearrange freshly fallen snow, you can’t fix snow so it looks untouched. You can rework earth, she said, and sand and even grass if you try hard enough. Water takes care of itself, because it swallows everything and flows back together once it’s done swallowing. And air is always in place because you can’t see it. Everything but snow would have kept quiet, said Trudi Pelikan. It’s all the fault of the snow. The fact that it fell in town, as if it knew exactly where it was, as if it felt completely at home there. And the fact that it immediately sided with the Russians. The snow betrayed me, said Trudi Pelikan, that’s why I’m here.
The train rolled on for 12 or 14 days, countless hours without stopping. Then it stopped for countless hours without moving. We didn’t know where we were at any given moment. Except when someone on one of the top bunks could read a station sign through the narrow trap window: BUZAU. The iron stove in the middle of the train car crackled. Bottles of liquor passed from hand to hand. Everyone was tipsy: some from drink, others from uncertainty. Or both.
The phrase HAULED OFF BY THE RUSSIANS came to mind, and all that might mean, but it didn’t cause us despair. They couldn’t line us up against the wall until we got there, and for the moment we were still moving. The fact that they hadn’t lined us up against the wall and shot us long ago, as we had been led to expect from the Nazi propaganda at home, made us practically giddy. In the cattle car the men learned to drink just for the sake of drinking. The women learned to sing just for the sake of singing:
The daphne’s blooming in the wood
The ditches still have snow
The letter that you sent to me
Has filled my heart with woe
Always the same solemn song, to the point where you no longer knew whether it was really being sung or not, because the air was singing. The song rocked back and forth inside your head, and fit the rhythm of the ride—a Cattle Car Blues, a Song of the Time Set in Motion. It became the longest song of my life, the women sang it for five whole years, until the song became as homesick as we were.
The sliding door, which had been sealed from the outside, was opened four times. Twice, when we were still on Romanian soil, they tossed half a goat inside the car. The animal had been skinned and sawed lengthwise in two. It was frozen stiff and crashed onto the floor. The first time we thought the goat was wood for burning. We broke the carcass into pieces and put it on the fire. It was so dry and scrawny it didn’t stink at all, and it burned well. The second time we heard the word PASTRAMA: air-dried meat for eating. We burned our second goat, too, and laughed. It was every bit as stiff and blue as the first one, a ghastly bundle of bones. But we were too quick to laugh, it was arrogant of us to spurn those two kindly Romanian goats.
Familiarity increased as time passed. In the cramped space, people performed the little tasks: sitting down, getting up. Rummaging through suitcases, taking things out, fitting them back in. Going to the toilet hole behind two raised blankets. Every tiny detail brought another in its wake. Inside a cattle car, you lose the traits that make you distinct. You exist more among others than by yourself. There’s no need for special consideration. People are simply there together, one for the other, like at home. Perhaps I’m only talking about myself when I say that today. Perhaps that wasn’t even true for me. Perhaps the cramped quarters of the cattle car softened me, because I wanted to leave anyway, and I had enough to eat in my suitcase. We had no idea about the savage hunger that would soon attack us. During the next five years, when the hunger angel descended upon us, how often did we look like those stiff blue goats. And how mournfully did we long for them.
We were now in the Russian night, Romania lay behind us. We felt a strong jolt and waited for an hour while the train axles were switched to steppe-gauge, to accommodate the broader Russian track. There was so much snow outside it lit up the night. Our third stop was in an empty field. The Russian guards shouted UBORNAYA. All the doors of all the cars were opened. We tumbled out, one after the other, into the low-lying snowland, sinking in up to our knees. Without understanding the actual word, we sensed that ubornaya meant a communal toilet stop. High overhead, very high, the round moon. Our breath flew in front of our faces, glittering white like the snow under our feet. Machine pistols on all sides, leveled. And now: Pull down your pants.
The embarrassment, the shame of the world. How good that this snowland was so alone with us, that no one was watching it force us close together to do the same thing. I didn’t need to, but I pulled down my pants and crouched. How mean and how still this nightland was, how it embarrassed us as we attended to our needs. How to my left Trudi Pelikan hoisted her bell-coat up under her arms and pulled her pants below her ankles, the hissing between her shoes. How the lawyer Paul Gast groaned as he tried to force a movement, how his wife Heidrun’s bowels croaked from diarrhea. How all around the stinking warm steam immediately froze and glistened in the air. How the snowland meted out its drastic treatment, leaving each of us to our desolation, our bare bottoms, and the noise of our intestines. How pitiful our entrails became in their common condition.
Perhaps it was my terror, more than myself, that grew up so suddenly that night. Perhaps this was the only way for us to recognize our common condition. Because every one of us, without exception, automatically turned to face the track as we took care of our needs. All of us kept the moon to our backs, we refused to let the open door of the cattle car out of our sight, we needed it like the door to a room. We had the crazy fear that the doors might shut without us and the train drive away. One of us cried out into the vast night: So here we are, the Shitting Saxons. Wasting away in more ways than one. Well, you’re all happy to be alive—I’m right, aren’t I. He gave an empty laugh like tin. Everyone moved away from him. Then he had room around him and took a bow, like an actor, and repeated in a solemn, lofty tone: It’s true, isn’t it—you’re all happy to be alive.
An echo rang in his voice. A few people started to cry, the air was like glass. His face was submerged in madness. The drool on his jacket had glazed over. Then I noticed his badge: it was the man with the albatross buttons. He stood all by himself, sobbing like a child. Now all that was next to him was the fouled snow. And behind him: the frozen world and the moon, as on an X-ray.
The locomotive let out a dull whistle. The deepest UUUUH I ever heard. Everyone pushed to get to the door. We climbed in and rode on.
I would have recognized the man even without his badge. But I never saw him in the camp.
Copyright © 2009 by Carl Hanser Verlag
Translation copyright © 2012 by Philip Boehm