Saturday, 20 December 2008

Voyage through Germany

The traveller left the reunion of dormitory mates, who had shared a “corridor” at the Egmont Kollegium in Copenhagen nearly 40 years before, a little early. The venue was the house of one of the mates and his wife, near Haderslev, in southern Jutland. A lot had been achieved during Saturday: A superb lunch in the garden, an excursion to Christiansfeld with a guided tour through the small town replete with the Herrnhuter Protestant Fraternal Community, and a picnic in the small forest; then the mildly ritualistic dinner, this time with exquisite game and matching wines. Songs, speeches, chatting, good spirits. The outlandish collection of hunting trophies including several dangerous bears, which had been expertly shot and skilfully stuffed, could not be forgotten.
The host and hunter understood the traveller’s desire to leave early and drove him to the railway station. The conversation was gentle, about pensions, getting on with life, places to live, arrangements to make.
The traveller had a little more than an hour to kill, while waiting for a connecting train in Hamburg. Posters told him that an exhibition by the painter Rothko was on in the city. Having often heard the name of this modern painter, but not really knowing his work, he decided that the exhibition would be the best place to spend the time. After first going in the wrong direction and getting too close to people who looked like drug addicts, homeless East Europeans or both, the traveller found the exhibition and saw Rothko’s paintings. Some paintings with large monochrome rectangles or bands, which were not quite monochrome, because the colour in each rectangle was variegated and often much darker, kind of burnt, towards the edges, made a strong impression. They were good, artistic, strong. Yet, the traveller got mildly irritated by two things: There were too many of these good paintings of rectangles: At some point Mark Rothko had started copying himself, living off a formula that worked? The other irritation was more sinister, as the traveller recognized at once. He did not like the fact that Mark Rothko was Jewish: two many of the people who had made it in New York were Jewish. Could others not get a chance?
Back in the railway station, the traveller just managed to get about one kg of German Sunday newspaper and a magazine to enjoy on the onward journey. He was headed for Basel in Switzerland, where he worked, but had made arrangements for stopping over in Bad Arolsen. While he was deeply immersed in an article in die Welt about the decay of musical culture in Germany or some such subject, another traveller came to his reserved seat, insisting it was his. ‘Sorry, I have a reservation for this seat until Kassel, you can see for yourself, but, we have just left Fulda, the train passed Kassel long ago, oh I see, dammit, you are right. With a weary and haughty look, our traveller got up, found an empty seat, descended at the next station, took a train back to Kassel, explained himself to a member of the Zug team, thus avoided paying, and hence arrived in Bad Arolsen at nearly 11 at night. A taxi took him to the reserved hotel, where, surprisingly he was able to have a lonely dinner in a garden restaurant, sitting close to a very civilized wine drinking party.
The following day, he easily found the International Tracing Service for holocaust victims. The young lady with whom he had an appointment was well dressed in a blue jeans suit and a white linen shirt. At first, she gave the traveller printouts that she had already prepared. They were copies of personal registration cards, which referred to train transports for the two persons, who were travelling in 1942 from Prague to “unknown destination” according to some Czech text on the cards, which were otherwise in German. The sympathetic lady explained that the numeric code on the cards meant that the train was headed for the Lublin-Maidanek camp in eastern Poland. ‘But in my family, we have always assumed that they had been taken to Auschwitz, yes, in fact, the Red Cross Centre also assumed that until some years ago, but newer research has sorted out the destination of all the trains (or maybe most of them) deporting people to concentration or extermination camps. The two persons whose fate so interested the traveller were an elderly couple in 1942, though not very elderly. He, whose first name was Simon Majer, was 61 years old and she, Janka, was 53. The German lady and the traveller agreed that in Maidanek they would both have been selected for getting killed as rapidly as possible. Probably by gas, but shooting could not be excluded.
The journey from Prague to Maidanek probably took something like 20-24 hours. It is much longer than Prague – Oswiecim (Auschwitz). The traveller thought that the travel time could be further investigated, but under all circumstances, it would have been a torture. As the journey took place mainly standing in wagons normally used for livestock and no food or drink was likely to be available, it was possible that one or both of the persons mentioned would have died before arriving in Maidanek. According to a post-card (the last) sent by Simon Majer one month before the deportation in 1942 to his son, who then lived in Denmark, where he later begat the traveller, Janka had been in poor health then. The postcard had been shown to the traveller by his mother around 1960 in Copenhagen.
The traveller tried obtaining information on a number of other people, close relatives of Janka and Simon Majer, while in Bad Arolsen, but despite the patient assistance of the staff of the Tracing Service and its well designed search machines, it was not possible to find anything to match those other persons.
Having said good-bye to the helpful people and the quaint little town, the traveller continued his journey to Kassel and on to Basel with a sense of mission accomplished - although, in reality nothing had been accomplished, but nothing more could be done, he felt.
On arrival in Basle, the traveller scanned the two printouts and sent them to others, who were as interested in the information, as he was. A few weeks later, he discussed with one of them, whether such efforts were worthwhile. ‘We must look to the future, yes, but we must also know the past, I think that we as survivors have an obligation to bear witness to what exactly is the truth and not allow it to be abused by those who deny it or by those who abuse it for political agendas, which are not justified. Yes, but one should not become obsessed, there are so many people suffering now and needing help, yes, that is true, but still’.
Some months later, the traveller wrote the above and decided to acknowledge the great writer, José Saramago, whose style he is humbly imitating. Since it is so easy, he then looked up Saramago on Wikipedia and discovered that the Nobel Prize winner had written in 2002 in the respected Spanish newspaper, El Pais:

“ Intoxicated mentally by the messianic dream of a Greater Israel which will finally achieve the expansionist dreams of the most radical Zionism; contaminated by the monstrous and rooted 'certitude' that in this catastrophic and absurd world there exists a people chosen by God and that, consequently, all the actions of an obsessive, psychological and pathologically exclusivist racism are justified; educated and trained in the idea that any suffering that has been inflicted, or is being inflicted, or will be inflicted on everyone else, especially the Palestinians, will always be inferior to that which they themselves suffered in the Holocaust, the Jews endlessly scratch their own wound to keep it bleeding, to make it incurable, and they show it to the world as if it were a banner. Israel seizes hold of the terrible words of God in Deuteronomy: 'Vengeance is mine, and I will be repaid.' Israel wants all of us to feel guilty, directly or indirectly, for the horrors of the Holocaust; Israel wants us to renounce the most elemental critical judgment and for us to transform ourselves into a docile echo of its will.”

Well, there we are now, guilty and hated, thought the traveller, before we were only hated.

Basel, November 2008

Allan Schapira

PS: Comments are welcome


naman said...

An interesting style - would like to see more posts.

Are you the traveler?

Allan Schapira said...

Yes, I am.

ketut-santrawan said...

nice blog... greetings from berlin,

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