Ute Schmidt’s first lesson, upon arriving in Boston, is that Americans talk fast and laugh at things that are not funny. She learns this while going through customs and immigration at Logan airport, when an officer asks her where she is hiding the sausages and then laughs immoderately. He has to wipe the moisture from his eyes with the back of his hand before he can collect her form. Her second and third lessons are that she will have to tolerate being called “Utah,” and that a Starbucks cappuccino costs the equivalent of six marks.
Her primary motivation for moving to Boston was to meet Jews. Otherwise, she might just as well have gone to graduate school at Freiburg, where her brothers attended. In her Dorf of Klärbach there were naturally no Jews, although there were four pubs and an Italian restaurant on the main street (it was not completely backward). So, she had to imagine. And what she imagined when she was a child and not old enough to know any better was: androgynous skeletal figures in stripes. She knew later, however, that this was incorrect, that Jews lived—somewhere—in full color, healthy and plump and prosperous, that they ran film studios and law firms and, as they had once done in Germany, contributed special things to the culture. But even at twenty-three and fresh out of University, she does not know what, exactly, these special Jewish things are. She wants to find out.
Ute is tall and heavy-set and blond-haired—hübsch but not schön, as her grandmother told her when she was fourteen and always dreaming about Christmas Carp and Linzer Torte. Her nose is a shade long, aristocratic, although her ancestors were shopkeepers. Her eyes are Dresden blue. Her field is Musicology. She has considered looking at Jewish contributions to Western music in her dissertation, and hopes to make her decision after a year of living amongst Jews. It is less a question of musical style than of personal shame, as if the only music Ute can justifiably embrace is the music of the Other. She does not particularly like the music of Ernest Bloch and Kurt Weill; it will be a fitting expiation to listen endlessly to their voices.
Ute’s grandfather, Hans-Jörg Schmidt, was a prominent Nazi doctor in the thirties and forties. Under his direction, hundreds of inmates at Sachsenhausen underwent gruesome medical experiments. Ute knows all about it. There had been no Opa at all until she was eight; then one day a tall, lean man with stand-up gray hair, rather like the roots of a leek, and a penchant for Belgian chocolates and the Struwwelpeter, arrived in the spare bedroom next to Ute’s. He was the kind of grandfather who would have played “Hoppe Hoppe Reiter” with a grandchild of four, if he had been around when she was four; who had tirelessly watched her jump rope when she was obsessed with jumping at the age of nine. But when she was ten a classmate had made a comment, a quiet kind of comment but one which stirred her to ask questions: Rosalie Kreisler, always with the red ribbons, saying, “You never met your grandfather until you were eight? Where can he have been all those years?” She said it in a way that suggested Ute was foolish, as if everyone except she knew where her grandfather had been.
She asked her mother where Opa had lived before he came to be with them.
“In a place far away,” was the reply.
“Because of his medical practice.”
“He could not practice here?”
“There was some sort of trouble.”
“Don’t ask so many questions!”
Once they were driving in her mother’s car and noticed some graffiti above a cigarette machine on the side of a house. “This country is going to the dogs,” Opa had complained, pointing at the tags. “We built the Autobahn,” he’d boasted on more than one occasion, “and put people to work.” The old stories. She asked him, “Opa, what did you think about Hitler?”
“The Führer is misunderstood,” he’d replied mildly.
When he died at the age of seventy-eight, three hundred people attended his funeral. “He was a great man,” whispered Frau Handschuh to Frau Klinger. The pastor’s eulogy lasted half an hour. After the service mourners shook her hand as if congratulating her on having such a distinguished family member. On her twelfth birthday she composed a letter, in tentative English, to Sir Hugo Oswald, a noted Holocaust scholar and author of a book on the Third Reich she’d read in a shaft of furtive sunlight between the dusty library stacks. “Hans-Jörg Schmidt was responsible for the ‘medical’ program at Sachsenhausen,” he wrote in response, four months later and on the back of a cocktail napkin. After reading the napkin, she’d taken a box cutter from her father’s workbench and carved four straight lines, like the stems of quarter notes, in the flesh of her left forearm. Then she’d wrapped her arm and gone to the shops, where she’d found a purple, mohair sweater, just her size, and taken it home without paying for it.
She plays her clarinet on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, when she is not overburdened with theory. She often sobs when she plays Stamitz, and this produces a startled squeak. It is more satisfying to voice a tender A, sostenuto, than to work out keys and intervals, to read Schumann, or Burney, upon music, but Ute decided early on that she would be a scholar and not a performer. Her parents had always hoped that she and her brothers would be musicians. The family vacationed in Vienna, for the music; never in the Alps, for skiing, which Ute would have preferred. The day Ute learned about the death camps in school, she went home and played the slow movement of Weber’s first clarinet concerto twelve times in a row. Then she flushed her goldfish, Sophie, down the toilet to set it free. Ute, Ute, her mother had scolded. You play like a machine. And the goldfish will die in the sewer.
It is at Brandeis, where she studies Bloch and Weill, that Ute has come to know Jews. The very first was a doctoral candidate in sociology named Elizabeth Grunebaum. At the orientation for foreign graduate students, Elizabeth Grunebaum served as a sort of docent, taking the foreigners on campus tours, describing student life at Brandeis, asking them about their hometowns. Elizabeth wears a tiny golden Star of David around her neck; that’s how Ute first inferred she is Jewish, that and a certain air of difference from the people Ute knows at home. It is not simply that she is American, although Americans, who are always saying, “We should do lunch!” and never following through, are different enough. It is that standing beside her makes Ute feel like she is submersed in water, desperate for air, the way she was once, as a very young child, at the baths in Baden. It is hard to catch her breath.
She wonders whether Elizabeth’s grandfather or great uncle perished at Sachsenhausen at the hands of her Opa. This represents a real possibility in Ute’s mind, and it makes her uncomfortable around Elizabeth whenever they meet. But Elizabeth, if she feels at all uncomfortable around Ute, never shows it. At the orientation she smiled graciously and told Ute about a high school trip to Munich. She told her that the campus pub at Brandeis is called “the Stein,” didn’t she think that was funny? Ute didn’t get it. Only later would she learn that Americans think the German word for beer glass is “stein.” She would also discover that there are fourteen Steins in the campus directory, and they are all Jewish.
Near the end of her first semester at Brandeis, Ute receives an email inviting her to attend a meeting of the campus German-Jewish Dialogue Group. The email comes from Dagmar Krauss, a German student in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies program. Ute has met Dagmar a few times around campus and finds her unbecomingly philosemitic. It reminds her of Berlin’s faddish devotion to Klesmer music and bagels, which she has heard of from her brother Martin, and which she disdains—not because these are Jewish things, but because a German adoption of them rings false. Like Jews, yes! But do not become one, when you are not, she thinks, reading the email. That night in bed, she hears a breathy voice: do not think it, or you will become it. Is this the whisperings of the radiator under the window? She puts her pillow over her head to drown out the voice, which reminds her that her obsession with Ernest Bloch, whose music does not move her, amounts to the same thing.
When she was a teenager in Klärbach, Ute’s peers talked incessantly about rejecting their parents’ denial of Jews and ovens. They murmured obscenities at their history teachers, resolved to spend a year in Israel working on a kibbutz. Ute observed from a distance. She rarely spoke. Sometimes she read American comic books, sent to her by a cousin who lived near the military base in Frankfurt, and sometimes she listened to music for hours at a time, but she never invited a girl or a boy back to her house after school. Their talk frightened her, ovens and kibbutzim frightened her, and she found comfort in silence. She thinks of the silence, pristine and cold as a snow, when she reads Dagmar’s email, and feels acutely her failure—as a child of the seventies; as a young German. She will go to the dialogue, and if she can, she will talk.
Dialogue #1: The first meeting of the dialogue is in a classroom on the second floor of Rabb Hall. Ute enters ten minutes early and sees the pattern laid by the early afternoon sun upon the wooden seminar table. It is like marquetry. Later, the pattern will be spoiled by books and the moist imprints of nervous hands on the table. She takes a seat near the door, in case she should need to escape. She is the first one to arrive.
After three or four minutes other people begin to wander in. Ute searches faces and finds that it isn’t hard to tell the Germans from the Jews. Of course, there is the young man in the Lederhosen; he is an embarrassment. But the others, even without leather shorts or knitted caps, show physical characteristics that fall neatly along what Ute assumes are racial lines. Elizabeth Grunebaum, for example, who has settled directly across the table from Ute, has dark hair that curls angrily, and that exotic otherness. She is a beauty, but not the sort of beauty Ute sympathizes with—Ute regards Elizabeth the way one might regard Jane Morris if one’s taste ran to Renoir and not the Pre-Raphaelites: coolly, and without joy. The German co-chair of the group is blond and big-boned and rigid as Ute herself. His name is Wolfgang. She notices a rosiness under his nose, and she thinks of offering him balm from a tube she carries in her purse—she feels oddly tender toward him, as if he were a boy or a small animal—but then his Jewish co-chair says, “Thank you all for coming,” and the dialogue begins.
They start by going around the room and introducing themselves, talking about that part of their histories that has brought them together. The Jewish co-chair, whose name is Debbie Shapiro, has a Bergen Belsen grandmother. Wolfgang is German; that is enough. The young man in Lederhosen had a Nazi great-uncle, a journalist who wrote grotesque and inflammatory articles for Der Stürmer until he died of tuberculosis in 1941. Kari Lieberman’s parents were both refugees in the mid-thirties. And Ute has the grandfather. When it comes her turn she says, simply, “I don’t know any stories. I am here to listen.” The room is quiet, then, while the other participants size her up. She can hear what they are thinking: denial! But her courage has failed her, and they will think what they will think. She can’t help that.
She thinks of something she’d like to say, near the end, but she doesn’t know how to say it. It is a question about American Jews—something banal but interested, such as what do they learn about in their religious schools—but one can’t say “Jew,” and she isn’t sure whether “Jewish people” is acceptable, either. She sits in an agony of indecision until Wolfgang stands up, signaling that the dialogue is over.
Dialogue #2: The room is cold, and Ute, the first there, sits directly in the block of sunlight on the window side of the room. There is room for one other in the sun; she hopes it will be someone German but NOT the young man in the Lederhosen. Of course, it’s a Jewish person! There is nothing wrong with this, but Ute is afraid the Jewish person will not like her, that there may be an odor to Germans that is offensive to Jews, that she will say the wrong thing and the Jewish person will snub her. She is afraid of these things even though her head tells her, no. And the young man, who does not wear a crocheted cap and has friendly brown eyes, merely smiles at her and asks her how she’s doing, which she assumes is a formality and disingenuous. She smiles back at him and then lowers her eyes to her lap.
Elizabeth Grunebaum sits down across the table from her once again. “Utah, how do you like Brandeis?” she asks.
“Oh, of course, I like it very much,” Ute tells her. “But it is a different culture, and I sometimes do not say the right thing.” She hopes she has been disarmingly honest. Elizabeth says nothing, just nods and looks at her with what Ute perceives to be a hostile eye. She smiles, at last, but it is too late.
Wolfgang starts the dialogue by asking if they might talk about current events. A German politician has offered publicly some old lies about the Jews, and has been relieved of his post. The discussion that ensues reveals utter ignorance, on the part of the Jewish participants, about German culture and politics. And where does it end up? The Holocaust. Jewish interest in Germany, she is starting to see, is limited to the Holocaust. The Germans attempt to steer the discussion back to the present. The Jews stubbornly resist. Then Ari Solomon pulls out an eight-by-ten photograph of his grandfather in his concentration-camp stripes. It was taken, he says, by some inmates after liberation to record their unspeakable history for their children; they donned laundered and pressed Auschwitz garb and sat for a portrait. Dagmar Krauss, completely undone, drops her head into her hands, and the dialogue is over.
Ute notices Debbie Shapiro laughing with a German woman named Karin on the way out; Debbie grasps Karin’s upper arm, a simple gesture of intimacy, of warmth. She cannot stop watching their bodies’ proximity, the way they walk like friends toward the campus center.
Dialogue #3: Two Jews and one German are absent. The young man in Lederhosen—always, strangely, in Lederhosen—has brought in three Der Stürmer articles, penned by his great uncle. He passes out photocopies of the originals, and translations for the Jews. One is a crowing account of the beating of a Jewish leather merchant on the steps of the synagogue in Darmstadt. We kicked some Jewish ass! Lederhosen has translated. Ute glances discreetly around her to see the reactions. Debbie Shapiro looks alarmed. The man with the friendly brown eyes looks unfriendly. The Germans sit thin-lipped and tense.
The second article is a review of an Aryan production of Cosi fan Tutte.
“What’s notable,” remarks Kari Lieberman, “is the paranoia.”
“Yes,” agrees Wolfgang. “There would have been no Jews in the audience of a German opera house. None in the orchestra or cast, and the opera was by an Austrian. Yet all this reviewer can talk about is the Jews.”
Ute glares at Lederhosen, but of course it is his uncle’s fault, not his.
The third article is on the art of Bonsai. She braces herself for more anti-Jewish invective but there is nothing but gentle discoursing about the beauty of pruning and containment, and a nostalgic tramp through the Black Forest, where Bonsai candidates may be found. Everyone looks puzzled. “I wanted to include it,” says Lederhosen, “because it’s curious. It makes you see the human inside the monster.”
“It’s tender, almost,” offers Elizabeth Grunebaum, and then she smiles an inscrutable smile in Ute’s direction. Ute flushes as she smiles back.
There is discussion about the articles, reference to family stories. (The Bergen Belsen grandmother, it turns out, was the model for a Nazi poster illustrating the beauty of Aryan women and the ugliness of their Jewish foils. Ute thinks she has seen this poster in a museum exhibit, and that the grandmother had frizzy black hair and a nose like a beak.) Elizabeth leans over and whispers something in Dagmar’s ear. Dagmar smiles. Ute’s chest aches. Lederhosen collects the articles from those who don’t want to keep them, and the dialogue is over.
Dialogue #4: Someone mentions Sachsenhausen! Ute closes her eyes and counts slowly to ten. The Sachsenhausen mention comes from Dagmar Krauss. It turns out the friend of a friend of a friend’s father was Commandant there. She thinks she can bring information about Sachsenhausen back with her when she returns from Germany after winter break. Ute makes four livid crescents on the tender inside of her wrist with her fingernails.
Today Wolfgang makes a confession. It is not just that he’s a German. That’s not the only thing that brings him here. He too has a great uncle, and that great uncle—ninety-five years old and infirm—was in the Wehrmacht. He does not know exactly what the great uncle did in the Wehrmacht, but once he found a photograph in a desk in his great uncle’s house: women, maybe twelve of them, naked and running. Their eyes are cold with fear and their bodies must have been cold as well, for there is snow on the ground. He thinks the women are Jews. Surely, the women are Jews.
“I don’t know why he took this picture,” Wolfgang says, “but I do not imagine it was for any good reason.”
Ute cannot raise her head. She stares at her wrists and imagines her blood, tiny beads along a thin cut, then a fine red line, then a geyser-like spray from the severed artery.
There is silence around the seminar table. Debbie Shapiro suggests the dialogue adjourn. Ute notices that the sun has retreated to the other side of campus. The autumn sky offers its half-light and nothing else to the cold room. She sits for a full five minutes after everyone has left, feeling chilled and depressed.
The Stein is half empty. She takes a table in the corner, so as not to feel the emptiness. As she eats her burger and drinks her beer, she sees the man with the friendly brown eyes enter. He wears an oversized gray pullover that makes him look vulnerable. She looks away, but he has seen her, and he walks over.
“Hi,” he says cordially. “It’s Utah, isn’t it?”
“Ah, well, yes, but it’s really Ootuh,” she explains.
“Oh. Ootuh,” he says. “Sorry. Can I join you?”
She hesitates for a beat. Then she smiles and pushes the chair across from her out with her foot. It is a graceless gesture, she realizes as soon as she does it, but the man with the friendly brown eyes, whose name is Brett, doesn’t seem to care.
“How do you like the dialogue, Ootuh?”
“Oh, fine, fine. I haven’t much to say, but I like listening to everyone else speak.”
“And what’s your story? Oh, that’s right. You don’t have a story. Forgot.”
Ute feels the urge to tell him about her grandfather and the experiments at Sachsenhausen. He seems very nice; perhaps he won’t despise her if she tells him. But as she thinks this, the opportunity passes.
“The only Germans I knew before dialogue were my German-Jewish grandparents,” Brett says offhandedly. “Then I came here, and it’s like, Germans everywhere!”
Ute narrows her eyes. “We’re not really everywhere,” she says, a bit coldly. “I think there are only twelve of us on campus.”
“It’s a figure of speech,” he says.
“Is that why you go to dialogue?” she asks, changing the subject. “Because of your grandparents?”
“In part, yes. But I also thought it would be cool to meet some Germans, learn a little bit about that history and see how the other side feels.”
Ute finds this alarming: being on the other side. She has finished her beer and wants to leave, but she doesn’t want Brett to think ill of her, to think she’s rude—or Nazi-like. She says, “Oh.”
“You know,” he says, “there’s another dialogue group, one that meets in Newton. They’re not students, just random Germans and Jews in the community. I went once. It was a different perspective. Mostly they were older than us, our parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Anyway, it was interesting. You should give it a try.”
“Maybe I will,” she says. “I have to go now,” she adds faintly, and stands up. Brett reaches out and shakes her hand. “Nice talking to you,” he says. “See you around.” She walks back to her dorm, pausing to notice the moon, barely risen and as pale and round and haloed as the face of an angel. It casts faint light upon the shrubbery flanking the walkway, makes the leaves look silvery around the edges.
There was a man in Klärbach, a physical education teacher in the local Gymnasium, with whom she’d had a detached kind of relationship—sex and a movie, once weekly. If they missed a week, it was because his wife’s choir practice was cancelled. The man was fifty, and his name was Bernhard Krup. Because years before he’d been her teacher, she called him Herr Krup for the first month, even though she knew it was ridiculous, like bad pornography. She tolerated him, nothing more, because it was preferable to be one of a pair rather than a singleton, even if one half of the pair was married to someone else. There was nothing balletic or inspired about their coupling; Bernhard grunted and sweated, thrusting with animal vigor, hard enough to drive Ute’s diaphragm up out of reach of her fingers. This happened every week, and Bernhard would have to remove the diaphragm carefully, with the nail of his middle finger.
Ute wonders, sometimes, whether there will be a man for her in Boston, and whether that man will be Jewish. She tries to picture herself in bed with Brett, but she cannot visualize him naked. She has never seen a circumcised penis, and her imagination fails her. Also, what would they talk about in bed after the sex? Would she have to mention her grandfather? He would thrust her away and pull on his jeans, leave her lying there with her hair a mess and her nightgown bunched up around her waist. Probably there is no man for her in Boston. An American song she knew and loved as a girl wafts through grad housing and intensifies her misery: The love she’d waited for was someone else, not me…
Dialogue #5: One evening in January she takes the subway to Newton Centre and makes her way to the Unitarian Universalist church. A sharp, crystalline snow drives against her face, and she screws her face against it. A man dressed for summer in light ragged pants and a dirty golf shirt, probably homeless, tells her to lighten up. “You’re frowning!” he cries accusatorily. She looks the other way and walks faster.
The church is warm and bright, and the contrast makes her cheeks burn. She has come late: the dialogue has already started. She stops in the doorway; thirteen pairs of eyes scrutinize her, until the facilitator, a woman perhaps in her fifties (brown curly hair, large chest) invites her in. “I am Heike,” she says, and it appears that Ute has failed the test: she thought Jewish for sure.
Heike asks Ute to introduce herself, and Ute mentions Brandeis and Musicology, but neglects to mention Sachsenhausen. “If it’s okay, I would just like to listen,” she murmurs, and the group nods sympathetically.
An elderly German man speaks about the superiority of the Jewish race, and a couple of the Jews demur. “We cannot use that language!” shouts a bearded man in a little cap and scuffed black shoes. Then, a general restlessness. Several other Jews agree. “It is the language of the Reich,” suggests a petite, round, red-haired woman with red-penciled eyebrows. “But,” protests the German, “there is evidence that this is so. There are more Jewish Nobel Prize winners, more Jewish scholars, than Christian, or Muslim, or anyone else. At least, relative to their numbers. The Jews,” he insists, “are a superior race.”
The Jews seem agitated, and this mystifies Ute. Yes, of course race was something used by the Nazis to differentiate and denigrate the Jews, but the elderly German has not said that they are an inferior race, and she does not think that they should be offended.
The discussion here is livelier than at Brandeis, but she has not heard any of the Germans admit to a Commandant father or a grandfather like hers. She wonders about their stories, and when it comes time for a coffee break she deliberately makes eye contact with a few people, German and Jewish, to see if they might initiate conversation. She herself cannot initiate conversation. Not yet. She nibbles on an almond macaroon, and it becomes evident that no one, German or Jew, will speak to her. They are chattering madly to each other and barely notice her.
After coffee, the dialogue reconvenes. She hears nothing but the blood roaring inside her head as if she held a conch shell against her ear. There is laughter, and earnest discussion, but she is inside her past: having breakfast with Opa; having sex with Herr Krup. Despair at Gymnasium. It takes a tremendous effort to break with memory. When she does, near the end of the meeting, she finds her mouth opening, her voice emerging. The voice is hoarse. Staring at the puddle under her left boot, she recites a sentence from Sir Hugo Oswald’s cocktail napkin: “At Sachsenhausen, the doctor was an obstetrician before he was a Nazi.” She feels, then, the kind of relief one feels when one has emerged gasping from the water, as she had at Baden. She has not drowned.
People strain to hear. They notice her distress and nod sympathetically. Then, for a full measure: nothing. When the scraping of chairs upon the floor commences, the bustle of people donning coats and hats, murmuring goodbyes, she drops her face into her hands. One person squeezes her shoulder in passing, a single person, and she looks up, after a moment, but the person has left. The room is empty.
She rises heavily and walks alone toward the bus stop. She hears rapid footsteps behind her, either someone trying to catch up or someone intending to mug her, and she tries to look behind her without seeming to look. It is a small, older man in a soiled jacket; she recognizes him from the dialogue. She tried not to notice him then, in that church basement, because something about him made her lungs constrict, the old feeling. Reluctantly, she slows down. He is out of breath.
“I had a dream last night,” he says thickly. Ute looks at the ground. The street is silent, silent.
“I was back in Germany. I was walking along the Main, with my mother. My mother was alive, and we were walking together along the river in the sunshine. In Germany.” He touches Ute’s arm. “It was as if there had been no Auschwitz. I wasn’t going on a train to England; I was just with my mother.” He pauses, and Ute feels the tightness like a tourniquet around her heart. She wants to run but at the same time is afraid to move. She is afraid of how the story ends.
“The sun was warm,” he continues. Ute waits. The snow stings. They have stopped and are standing in front of a café. She cannot look at him so she looks instead at the jittering flames on the café’s tables. Each table has a candle. In the unbearable silence she counts ten candles. Then he touches her arm again.
“Goodnight,” he says gently, and walks away.
In a bit she can look up, but the darkness has swallowed him and she is alone again.
Art by Kerri Augenstein
Deborah Vlock is a Boston-based writer of fiction and creative non-fiction, and a blogger for Psychology Today. Her work has been published in print and online, and can be found in literary journals and glossy magazines, as well as on newsy and literary blogs. O, the Oprah Magazine, Cognoscenti, The Huffington Post, Hunger Mountain, Literary Mama, The Missouri Review Blog, YARN (Young Adult Review Network), and The Atlantic Magazine online have all featured Deborah’s work.