Becker stood up, stubbed his cigar in the ashtray, buttoned his jacket, and placed his right hand reassuringly on Silbermann’s shoulder. “So then take care, Otto. I think I’ll be back in Berlin by tomorrow. If something comes up, you can simply call me in Hamburg.”
Silbermann nodded. “Just do me one favor,” he said, “and don’t go gambling again. You’re too lucky in love to have luck in cards. Besides, you’ll end up losing … our money.”
Becker laughed, annoyed. “Why don’t you just say your money,” he asked. “Have I ever once…?”
“No no.” Silbermann quickly cut him off. “I’m only joking, you know that, but even so: you really are on the reckless side. If you start gambling again you won’t be so quick to stop, especially if you have all the cash from this check…”
Silbermann stopped in midsentence and went on calmly. “I have complete confidence in you. After all, you’re a reasonable fellow. Still, it’s a pity to lose a single mark at the game table. And even though it’s your money at stake, now that we’re business partners I’d feel just as bad if you lose as if it were my own.”
Becker’s kind, broad face, which for a moment had turned sour and furrowed, brightened.
“We don’t need to pretend, Otto,” he said, now at ease. “If I lose then of course it’s your money I’ll be losing, since I don’t have any.” He chuckled.
“We are partners,” Silbermann insisted.
“Of course,” said Becker, once again serious. “And so why are you talking to me as though I were still your employee?”
“Have I offended you?” asked Silbermann. His tone was part gentle irony and part mild fright.
“Nonsense,” Becker replied. “Old friends like us! Three years on the western front, twenty years working together, sticking together—you can’t offend me old fellow, at most just annoy me a little.”
He again placed his hand on Silbermann’s shoulder.
“Otto,” he declared in a forceful voice. “In these uncertain times, in this unclear world, there’s only one thing that can be relied on, and that is friendship, true, man-to-man friendship! And let me tell you, old boy, for me you are a man—a German man, not a Jew.”
“But I am a Jew,” said Silbermann, who knew Becker’s fondness for proclamations that had more pith than tact. He was afraid his new partner might go on expounding in his coarse-but-heartfelt way and so miss his train, but Becker was having one of his moments of feeling, and he wasn’t about to give up a single second of it.
“I’ll tell you something else,” Becker declared, ignoring the nervousness of his friend, to whom he had opened his heart more often than Silbermann would have wished. “I am a National Socialist. God knows I’ve never misled you about that. If you were a Jew like other Jews, a real Jew, in other words, then you might have kept me on as general manager, but you would never have made me your partner! And I’m not just the goy of record, either. I’ve never ever been that. I’m convinced there’s been some mistake and that you’re actually an Aryan. Marne, Yser, Somme, the two of us, man! So just let anyone try to tell me that you…”
Silbermann looked around for the waiter. “Gustav, you’re going to miss your train!” he interrupted.
“I couldn’t care less about the train.” Becker sat back down. “I’d like to have another beer with you,” he declared with some emotion.
Silbermann rapped his fist on the table. “Go ahead and have another then, for all I care, just drink it in the dining car,” he snapped. “I have a meeting to go to.”
Becker first let out an offended huff but then said, more compliantly, “As you like, Otto. If I were an anti-Semite I wouldn’t put up with that tone. Like you’re some lieutenant barking orders. The truth is I never put up with it! Not from anyone! Except you.”
He stood up again, took the briefcase off the table, and said, laughing, “And a man like that claims to be a Jew!” He shook his head with feigned amazement, nodded once more to Silbermann, and left the first-class waiting room.
Watching his friend leave, Silbermann was dismayed to notice he was weaving slightly and bumping into tables, with the same stiffly erect posture he always assumed when seriously drunk.
He’s not well suited to being a partner, thought Silbermann. He should have remained a manager. In that capacity he was reliable, quiet, and respectable, a very good colleague. But his newfound fortune doesn’t become him. If only he doesn’t wind up ruining the business. If only he doesn’t go gambling!
Silbermann wrinkled his forehead. “His good fortune has made him unfit,” he mumbled, annoyed.
The waiter Silbermann had been looking for earlier—without success—finally appeared.
“Are guests meant to wait for service here or for the trains?” asked Silbermann, his sharp tone expressing his disdain for anything that approached slovenliness or exuded an unfriendly air.
“I beg your pardon,” answered the waiter. “A gentleman in second class was complaining because he thought he was sitting across from a Jew. But it wasn’t a Jew at all, the man was from South America, and since I know a little Spanish I was called in to help.”
Silbermann got up. His mouth contracted into a line, and his gray eyes fixed the waiter with a severe look.
The waiter tried to smooth things over. “It really wasn’t a Jew,” he assured Silbermann. Evidently the waiter considered his guest to be a particularly staunch member of the party.
“I’m not interested in that. Has the train for Hamburg already left?”
The waiter glanced at the clock above the exit to the platforms.
“Seven twenty,” he thought out loud. “The train for Magdeburg is just leaving. Hamburg leaves at seven twenty-four. If you hurry you can still make it. I wish that someday I could go running to catch a train, but people like me…”
He brushed a few bread crumbs off the table with a napkin.
“The best would be,” he went on, picking up the previous subject, “if the Jews had to wear yellow bands on their arms. Then at least there wouldn’t be any confusion.”
Silbermann looked at him. “Are they really so terrible?” he asked quietly, regretting his words even as he spoke them.
The waiter looked at Silbermann as though he hadn’t understood him right. He was clearly surprised, but also unsuspecting, since Silbermann had none of the features that marked him as a Jew, according to the tenets of the racial scientists.
“The whole thing has nothing to do with me,” the man said at last, carefully. “Still, it would be good for the others. My brother-in-law for example looks a little Jewish, but of course he’s an Aryan, it’s only that he has to constantly explain and prove everything, over and over. That’s too much to ask of anyone.”
“Yes it is,” Silbermann agreed. Then he paid his tab and left.
Unbelievable, he thought, absolutely unbelievable.
After leaving the train station, he climbed into a taxi and headed home. The streets were full of people, many in uniform. Newsboys were hawking their papers, and Silbermann had the impression they were doing a brisk business. For a moment he considered buying one for himself but then decided against it, since he figured the news was bound to be bad, and almost certainly hostile, at least as far as he was concerned. He would undoubtedly be experiencing it all firsthand soon enough.
After a short ride the taxi pulled up in front of his building. Frau Friedrichs, the wife of the concierge, was lingering in the stairwell. She greeted him politely and Silbermann was somehow glad to see that her behavior remained unchanged. As he stepped onto the red plush runner and climbed the stairs, he once again had the sensation that his life was only half real. Recently such ruminations had become a habit.
I’m living as though I weren’t a Jew, he thought, somewhat incredulously. For the time being I’m simply a well-to-do citizen—under threat, it’s true, but as of yet unscathed. How is this possible? I live in a modern six-room apartment. People talk to me and treat me as though I were one of them. They act as if I’m the same person I used to be, the liars—it’s enough to give a man a guilty conscience. Whereas I’d like to show them a clearer picture of reality, namely that as of yesterday I’m something different because I am a Jew. And who did I used to be? No—who am I? What am I, really? A swear word on two legs, one that people mistake for something else!
I no longer have any rights, and it’s only out of propriety or habit that so many act as though I did. My entire existence is based solely on the faulty memory of people who essentially wish to destroy it. They just happen to have forgotten about me. I’ve been officially degraded, but the public debasement has yet to take place.
Frau Zänkel, the councilor’s widow, was just stepping out of her apartment. Silbermann doffed his hat and greeted her with a “Guten Tag, gnädige Frau.”
“How are you doing?” she asked kindly.
“I’m fine, by and large. And yourself?”
“Tolerably well. For an old lady.”
She held out her hand in parting.
“These must be difficult times for you,” she added, regretfully, “terrible times…”
Silbermann contented himself with an attentive little smile that was both cautious and thoughtful, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. “In essence we’ve been assigned a peculiar role,” he said at last.
“But they’re great times, too,” she consoled him. “There’s no doubt that you’re being treated unjustly, but that’s exactly why you need to be fair-minded and compassionate in your thinking.”
“Isn’t that a lot to ask, gnädige Frau? Besides, I don’t think at all anymore. I’ve given that up. It’s the best way to deal with everything.”
“They’ll never do anything to you,” she assured him, and banged the umbrella she was clenching in her right hand resolutely on a stair, as if to signal that she wouldn’t allow anyone to get too close to him. Then she gave him an encouraging nod and stepped on by.
As soon as he was back in his apartment, he asked the maid if Herr Findler was already there. She said he was, so Silbermann hastily took off his hat and coat and stepped into the study, where his visitor was waiting.
Theo Findler was examining a painting with clear disapproval. When he heard the door open, he quickly turned around and smiled at the man entering.
“Well?” he asked, knitting his brow as he always did when he spoke, thinking that the wrinkles added weight to his words. “How are you, my friend? I was afraid something might have happened to you. You never know … Have you given my last offer some more thought? How is your wife? I haven’t seen her at all today. So, Becker’s off to Hamburg.”
Findler took a deep breath, because he was only at the beginning of his monologue.
“Well you two sure are clever! A person could learn from you. Becker has a Jewish head on his shoulders. Ha ha, he’ll manage all right, he’ll manage. I’d have been happy to join in the business, but too late is too late, right? By the way, where did you dig up these awful pictures? I don’t understand how anyone could hang rubbish like that on their walls. No order to the things, you old culture-Bolshevik you. Now don’t go thinking that I’ll be raising my last offer even by just another thousand marks. Not on your life, I can’t do it.
“You think I’m a rich man, Silbermann. Everybody does. If only I knew where they came up with that idea. And here I’m having a hard time paying what I owe in taxes. Speaking of taxes, can’t you find me a clever bookkeeper or point me to someone? I mean I know my way around a little bit, but I don’t have time to take care of all that properly. These taxes, these goddamned taxes. Tell me, am I supposed to support the whole German Reich all by myself? Well?
Copyright © 2018 by J. G. Cotta’sche Buchhandlung