By Peter Wortsman
It was my last night in the lavish villa on the lake in Berlin-Wannsee where I had holed up for the winter. A noted Indian economist was scheduled to lecture on the underlying causes of the global financial crisis and its effects on the developing world. Call me an escapist, but I was not inclined to listen to the sad statistics. The world’s affairs would muddle on without me, I thought, intending to grab a quick bite and slip off unnoticed to attend to my packing.
Such dinners were always a festive affair, the guest list sprinkled with Berlin society. My tablemate to the left, the wife of the German theologian seated beside the Indian economist, was a tall, stately woman of late middle age with prominent cheekbones, Prussian blue eyes, and tightly braided, blond hair, who wore her years like a string of pearls. Straight-backed, head held high, as if she were not seated at table, but rather astride a saddle, ears pricked for the sound of a hunting horn, she had what in former times would have been called an aristocratic bearing.
Socially maladroit and constitutionally incapable of making small talk, a tendency further aggravated by chronic insomnia, I either clam up on such occasions or put my foot in my mouth.
Prodding myself to say something before taking up knife and fork to dispatch the appetizer, two luscious-looking, seared sea scallops on a bed of wilted seaweed, I wished her, “Bon appétit!”
“Gesegnete Mahlzeit! (Blessed meal),” she replied.
“Bless the chef!” I countered, immediately regretting the flippancy of my ill-considered response. “Please forgive me, but I’m not a believer.”
She smiled to make clear that she took no offense. “Religion is a personal matter. My faith,” she affirmed, “makes me feel geschützt (protected).”
A striking choice of words, I thought, while savoring the flavor and firmness of the first scallop. “I myself altogether lack the foundation of faith,” I confessed, “Given my family history, feeling protected is simply not in the cards.”
She seemed concerned, sympathetic, as though suddenly fathoming that I was missing a middle finger.
“I’m the child of refugees,” I said to set the record straight.
I might have changed the subject but I chose not to. With me it’s a compulsion, a need to lay my cards on the table.
“My father’s departure from his native Vienna was…” I searched for the appropriate adjective, “precipitous.”
“Involuntary,” I clarified.
Decorum should have compelled me to change the subject. But impatiently lapping up the second scallop whole, my tongue rattled on.
“Huddled, to hide his prominent nose, in the sidecar of a motorcycle with a swastika flapping in the wind, he was driven by an accommodating member of a motorcycle gang, who agreed, for a fee, to drop him off at sundown at a wooded stretch of the border with Czechoslovakia. And when, at the sound of what he took for a gunshot—but was, in fact, an engine backfire—they suddenly stopped, convinced his time was up, my father held his breath as the motorcyclist dismounted, only to return moments later with a bleeding hare he’d run over, knocked its head against the fender, and asked my father to be so kind as to hold it for him. Fresh meat being scarce, he meant to have it for his dinner.”
The arrival of the entrée, one of the chef’s signature dishes, rack of venison prepared “von Himmel und Erde” (heaven and earth) style, i.e. stuffed with a puree of mashed apples and potatoes, came as a welcome point of punctuation.
She eyed me in between bites with an intense, but not unfriendly, gaze, as if, I thought, considering a rare wild flower, which aggravated my malaise.
To smooth the way for my escape, I let slip that I was leaving early the next morning for a trip to Poznan, Poland, and so, unfortunately, would have to skip dessert and miss the lecture, to pack.
“To Posen?!” she burst out, employing the old German name of the region and city ceded to Prussia following the Congress of Vienna and reclaimed by the Polish in the wake of World War II; promptly correcting herself: “Poznan!” to make clear that she harbored no secret dream of re-annexation.
I nodded to indicate that I understood.
“Ich bin auch…I too am”—she hesitated a moment—“das Kind von Flüchtlinge…the child of refugees.”
It was the way she said Kind…child that made the years fall away from her face and gave her voice the candor of innocence.
“I come,” she blinked, embarrassed and proud, “from a long line of Prussian aristocrats, the landed gentry of Poznan, Posen, as it was called back then.
“The War was practically over. The Russians were advancing from the East. It was a winter so bitter and cold the children broke the icicles from the windowsills and sucked them like candy. A decorated tank commander in the Wehrmacht who’d been away a long time, and whom the family thought dead, miraculously broke through enemy lines, and came rolling up in his Panzer in the dark of night to the family estate.”
She described what followed in vivid detail, like an eyewitness, yet with a certain distance in the telling, like she couldn’t decide whether to embrace it or hold it at arm’s length.
“The officer leapt out in his neatly pressed uniform, in which the War hadn’t made a wrinkle, tipped his cap, worn at a jaunty tilt, hugged his two sons and his trembling wife, who took him for a ghost.”
She paused to mimic the hollow look in his eyes.
“That night the officer told his wife he wanted to make a blond-haired, blue-eyed daughter.
“‘Are you mad?’ his wife protested in a whisper, not wanting to wake the children. ‘The War is lost, we already have two sons to raise. Why bring another child into this world?’
“But the officer insisted, and his wife dared not refuse a decorated hero of the Reich.”
Turning away, the theologian’s wife bowed her head to mark a private moment, shut her eyes tight and seemed to be peering inwards, straining, as I suddenly fathomed, to remember the moment of her own conception.
“Bright and early the next day,” she continued, her voice now taking on a strange solemnity, “Father put on his perfectly pressed uniform, set the cap on his head at just the right angle, pausing briefly in front of Mother’s vanity mirror to approve his appearance, said he’d only be a minute, and as Mother watched from the bedroom window, he smiled, patted the protruding cannon, lifted the hatch, climbed in, set the great metal elephant in motion, and poking his head out, waving to her at the window one last time, leapt out and hurled himself under the rolling tread.”
They cleared the table and brought in the dessert, a wild berry parfait that neither of us touched.
“Did she mourn for him?” I inquired.
“There was no time for mourning,” my tablemate shook her head. “With the Russian artillery thundering ever closer all through the day and into the night, Mother pulled herself together, took a pick axe, buried Father’s remains, and fled with the clothes on her back and a small bundle, with my brothers in toe, and the seed of a child planted in her womb, walking all the way to Berlin.
“Father posthumously had his wish, a blond-haired, blue-eyed daughter,” she shrugged, with a look that wavered between disapproval and a proud affirmation of self. “The four of us lived together in a cramped attic room with a ceiling through which it rained and snowed. In that leaky attic I grew up with barely enough space to stretch my arms and legs, but there,” she smiled, “I felt protected.
“When I grew up I met and married my husband”—she nodded at the theologian, who cast increasingly concerned looks to see his wife so stirred up with a stranger, to which she replied with reassuring nods. “I became a kindergarten teacher, had a long career, and just retired last year.”
She was horrified, she said, at the number of broken families her pupils came from, one in three in Germany. She hoped to devote her “golden years”—the hackneyed expression took on a freshness framed by her radiant, tightly braided blond head—volunteering to help children in need.
I had stuck around too long to escape the economist’s lecture, but I was preoccupied and don’t remember a word of what he said about the present crisis or his prognosis for the future.
I kept glancing at the theologian’s wife, now seated beside her husband, her hand in his. Born of conflicting legends, we were bound in braided tragedies. And though I still can’t fathom what it means to feel protected, and doubt I ever will, as disparate as our destinies are, there is an undeniable parallel between the motorcycle that carried my father to one kind of freedom and the tank that took her father to another, on both of which history hitched a ride.
Happiest when peripatetic, Peter Wortsman’s restless musings have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the German newspapers The Atlantic Times, Die Welt, and Die Zeit, and the popular website WorldHum, among other print and electronic outlets, and in the last four volumes of Travelers’ Tales The Best Travel Writing.