Photograph by Rus Bowden
Josef Klaren feared he would stumble on the steps. His entire body ached, just as it had most of the time since the Great War. He looked back at the other two stormtroopers, whom he'd met only hours before. They too had their arms loaded with books as they walked down the stairs toward the waiting truck. It was impossible to see his shiny black jackboots; all he could do was to feel one stair, then the next, like a blind man tapping his way with a cane, until he reached the sidewalk.
People lined the path to the truck. Several held arms out straight, gave the Hitler salute, shouted, "Get rid of the trash," or, "No more un-German books!" Most gawked at the three men as if they'd just picked up a corpse from the upstairs apartment. He wondered if the other two could sense what was going through his mind, or if someone in the crowd suspected him. He was certain the two books he found were at the bottom of the stack held by his left hand, his strongest. He would slip them under the bench in the back of the truck, and at the right time, move them to his rucksack.
He'd never seen so many books in his life. The writer's library was lined from floor to ceiling with bookshelves. Only a door, a window, and a small space on the wall opposite the large cluttered desk broke the rhythm of columns of books. There was a single picture, a female nude, legs spread, garish red-purple shadings, all angles and slashes. Josef recognized the style, a woodcut, Expressionist, popular just after the war but now considered depraved. His son had lectured him about it. Josef found the woman's smile humorous, even ironic; he wondered why the artist had given her this expression when the rest of the painting struck a threatening note. He dared not look at it too long.
There were two library ladders in the study. Josef stood atop one, throwing books onto the floor while the other two men checked their list for targeted authors, gathered the books, and hauled them down two flights of stairs to the street. Then one of the other stormtroopers, who introduced himself as Heinrich, climbed up while Josef and the third man, Stephan, sorted and hauled books. It took several hours, and Heinrich was pleased with the mess they left behind. Papers and torn books were scattered about. Heinrich had taken the globe from the desk and smashed it on the floor. "Jewish swine!" he muttered several times. Stephan spat "Shit-Jew" and "Pig," then looked up at Josef and said, "Man, this shit-Jew was one of the worst, an absolute Bolshie Arschloch. He's not so high and mighty now, is he?"
Josef nodded, smiled. He felt lucky to be on the ladder at that moment rather than down on the Oriental carpet ripping at books and swearing. Neither of the other two men knew his last name, and he would keep it that way. They could call him "Comrade Josef."
The writer was rumored to be abroad, having fled the country when Hitler came to power four months before. His disheveled desk and the clutter of the apartment suggested a hasty exit. There was a woman's vermillion bathrobe thrown over the back of the living room couch, a man's black slippers strewn on the terracotta tile in the foyer, dry cat food in a small white bowl on the kitchen floor.
The author was on every local party group's list. In university towns all over the country, his novels, plays, and collections of short stories now fueled bonfires. All the other giants joined him in the holocaust—Brecht, Einstein, Freud, Hesse, Hirschfeld, Luxemburg, Werfel, Tucholsky, even Hemingway and Jack London. Josef had heard Stephan say he would cart off anything in French, no matter by whom, no matter how old or valuable. "The more valuable looking the better," he said. "I'll never forgive the goddamned French for killing my brother in Verdun." The author had dozens of French language books in his study, including several illustrated works of pornography over which Stephan and Heinrich pored with immense interest and without a single word.
It would be impossible to salvage any of this author's work, thought Josef. But he would steal away two books by Hermann Hesse, whom the Nazis accused of decadence and being un-German. He was a dangerous figure, the regime said, a pacifist, corrupter of youth. I don't care, thought Josef, no matter the risk, these two books, just these two, will never see the fire.
Later they sat in the back of the truck, books piled high around them. Heinrich and Stephan talked and laughed about one of the books of French pornography, which Heinrich had open on his lap. He said he would give the book as a present to a woman he'd been seeing, but Stephan insisted it should go on the bonfire. Josef sat across from them, responding with a curt ja or nein or a noncommittal shrug and Ich weiß nicht. Hesse's volumes hid under his rucksack.
A boisterous crowd greeted the truck at the university square. It was almost dark, and the fire was high. Students, Hitler Youth, and many others ringed the pyre as SA men kept the crowd from moving too close. With each new pile of books thrown on the fire, the crowd chanted, "Down with the un-German spirit," or, "Jews go to hell." Hitler Youth members danced, imitating the war cries of American Indians. A band played Nazi songs and marches. A crowd mingled—curious passersby, lovers arm in arm, businessmen on their way home. Around the edge of the fire there were hundreds of books that had fallen short. Every few minutes, SA men, like locomotive firemen, used shovels to scoop up the volumes and hoist them into the flames.
Heinrich, Stephan, and Josef carried load after load of books through the cheering crowd. Heinrich and Stephan laughed and shouted as they threw their bounty onto the fire. They were giddy with hatred. Josef dropped his books to the ground, letting others consign them to the flames. His back throbbed like an exposed tooth nerve. On the fourth or fifth trip, he let Heinrich and Stephan go ahead of him, saying he had to take his boot off and straighten his sock. In their absence, he climbed, wincing, into the cargo area, undid his rucksack, shoved the books in. Both were thin; his pack looked as it always did. He slid it back under the bench, retrieved more books, and passed Heinrich and Stephan on their return trip.
Once all the books were unloaded, Heinrich and Stephan wandered off into the crowd, now larger and even more riotous than before. Neither bothered to say goodbye to Josef, who held back from the main throng as he stood with his pack and craned to see his son.
Josef focused on the sparks as they rocketed into the darkening sky. He recalled reading Demian in 1920, when he was a roofer's apprentice, still unable to sleep because of pain from multiple shrapnel wounds. Six years before, only weeks before his call-up, he'd done the honorable thing and married Monica, four months pregnant, who bore him a son, Michael, while Josef crouched in a rat-infested trench in northern France. He returned to an anxious, haggard-looking wife, old before her time, a woman with whom intimacy had become an impossible chore, who complained about his problems finding work and scoffed at his reading. "Josef," she whined, "you're wasting your time reading that filth."
Josef was not to be deterred. There was something about Hesse's writing, its clarity, its mesmerizing rhythm, that drew him in and made him feel even he, a simple apprentice, a bad student in school, a desultory private in the Kaiser's defeated army, participated in a grand imaginative community. Demian spoke to him, to his generation, to all those young men and women who had anticipated a great awakening in the war, a total revolution, a new humanity. It spoke to those who only wanted to follow the promptings of their innermost selves, to find connection with other likeminded souls.
Why was that so difficult for Monica to understand? He talked to her about the book, pleaded, read passages aloud. "That's far too deep for me," she would say. "You'll break your brain reading that, Josef. That's for the intellectuals, and the Jews." She thought the main character, Emil Sinclair, was weak, too bookish, "strange" because of his love for his mentor and older friend Max Demian. As for the scenes with Emil and Frau Eva, Demian's mother, whom Emil both desired and revered as a kind of Mother Nature-figure, Monica's lips curled when Josef read them to her. "Pornography," she snorted.
He didn't tell Monica the book excited him in ways he hadn't felt excited since he was fourteen. Then, for a few rushed moments, almost by mistake, out at a secluded spot by the 200-year-old oak where the river turned south near his village, his thin, naked, suntanned body had pressed against the older Thomas's muscular thighs. It had been impossible to forget the delicious sensation of Thomas's response—and the shame with which the memory announced itself, again and again, in his mind. Emil and Max. Josef and Thomas.
So many times, despite the gnawing shame, as persistent as the burning in his knees and back, the memory seemed to be as fresh, pure, and multisided as the experience for which it substituted. Even today, ten months after he'd joined the Nazi party, as his doubts about Hitler's promised revolution multiplied into new and disturbing variations, Josef's mind returned to the oak, the river, Thomas, and Demian. He would re-read the book again, and the other one as well, Steppenwolf, about which he'd heard, now that he had spirited them away from the chanting crowd and the inferno. Monica was no longer around to chide him for his books or his failures to keep a job. She'd left for the country to be with her aging parents, to escape the city and the Jews, to escape him. She'd called him a ne'er-do-well, Taugenichts. Even his letter to her reporting he'd joined the SA, that the stormtroopers would help him get a permanent job, that the uniform made him look like the soldier she remembered from August 1914—I can still see how you handed me the bouquet of flowers, Monica, right there in the middle of the street, as I marched off with others—even all that hadn't persuaded her to return.
The bonfire grew higher. Everything was illuminated by the inferno, as if all the streetlamps of the city ringed the square. Surely Josef would see his son now. Michael Klaren was a Nazi student leader who was among the co-organizers of the great event. For the past three weeks, he had talked excitedly of the important "action" he and his friends planned. Michael handled most of the coordination with the local SA office and the Hitler Youth, arranged for the speaker, and wrote the announcement to university students about coordinated raids on homes, offices, and research institutes. This was his fire as much as it was the party's.
They'd lived with one another in Monica's absence for nearly a year. The demands of school and party work kept Michael away from home most of the day. Josef had still not found a permanent job, despite the SA's promises. He had time to read, build a new hutch for the rabbits he kept in the courtyard, repair the wooden stairway to their third-floor apartment at the back of the building.
Their roles had reversed. The father was now student to the son, the mentor, the first Klaren to attend university, a young man making his way up the leadership ladder in the Nazi student league. It had been Michael and Monica who had encouraged Josef to join the party. It had been Michael who coached Josef on the finer ideological points, and who convinced him the Nazis had realized the ideals of community and equality he, Josef, admired in Hesse's literature. "But you see," said Michael, "the Nazis will bring about the new age in a much purer form than Hesse and his ilk imagined. Hesse and the others are decadent. They may use the right words, but they're Jewish in spirit if not in fact, and so they don't understand the racial basis of Hitler's thought."
Josef edged closer to the fire. He felt a growing anxiety. What if he was found out? He imagined Demian and Steppenwolf were on fire in his pack, burning his shoulders, searing his neck, exposing his secret. He reminded himself no one knew what was in his rucksack. And anyway, would anyone bother with an unemployed war vet and SA man who adored Hermann Hesse and many of the authors whose words were now ashes in the nighttime sky?
Yes, people would bother. Those in the know would say he was a symptom of something more ominous. They knew the SA, once the proud Sturmabteilung, had many members who didn't belong in the movement. Some stormtroopers had socialist-sounding ideas, others were said to be immoral—rumors of homosexuality drifted about—and still others were freebooters and opportunists. It would come as no surprise to the know-it-alls that Josef Klaren, a latecomer to the movement, hadn't yet comprehended the days of un-German culture had come to an inglorious end. There would have to be a housecleaning of the SA. Hitler would see to it. The Josef Klarens of the party would have to go, sooner or later. The SA would have to rediscover its ideological purity, by force if necessary.
Josef thought about all this as he stepped into the crowd with his secret. He'd had many arguments with Michael, who accused his father of being a "bourgeois individualist" at heart. The idea enraged the father at first. Josef Klaren, an ordinary roofer, son of a socialist factory worker, grandson of a peasant. He was a man who liked working with his hands but also liked to work his mind. Was he a bourgeois individualist? Later, he found the idea not so disturbing after all. If it meant he could still read his Hesse, or some of the others—Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Mann, maybe Hans Fallada—then so be it. All the better to be the wretched thing his son disdained.
As Josef inched through the welter of shouting people, he felt the heat of the bonfire grow. He had been in many demonstrations in the past year, but this was different. The flames illuminated people's faces and made their eyes look as if they burned with an orange-yellow glow. He thought of the Bible story of Pentecost—and there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. But these disciples hadn't received the Holy Spirit. Nor had they heard the sound of a mighty rushing wind. Their fire was inside their heads. They burned with a fanaticism far beyond that of the crowds in January who, after hearing of Hitler's appointment as Chancellor, chanted "Heil Hitler!" until they were hoarse and could no longer hold their arms in the Nazi salute.
Drawing closer, Josef saw a wraith-like figure outlined by the fire. It moved back and forth through the ring of SA men. The figure was tall, like Josef, but thinner. It gave off a chaotic energy, like a spark carried along by a gust of wind or the crowd's movements. It threw books onto the fire, turned to the crowd with fist raised, shouted, hurried to get more books, its red-black-white armband and brown shirt in constant motion. Several times the figure stopped to lead chants against Jews, Communists, liberals, intellectuals, the Versailles Diktat, the un-German spirit. Josef knew the figure, but he couldn't help but marvel that this presence, this node of energy, more like an electrical charge than a living being, was of his, SA corporal Klaren's, body. He could see the shock of straight brown hair over the forehead and the outlines of a fuzzy moustache above the lips, a mere suggestion of manhood. And he could see the eyes, gleaming in and with the bonfire.
Josef knew at that moment his son, some ten yards away, could just as easily have been on another planet. Josef longed to walk over to Michael, shake his hand, invite him out for a beer, talk about nothing in particular. He longed to be anywhere with his son but here, enveloped in this brown-shirted madness, separated by only a small space but isolated in a raucous crowd, without connection, abandoned.
Josef turned and eased his way back to the perimeter of the chanting mass, past the truck and the SA driver who leaned against the front fender smoking a cigarette, out into the street where a slow urban hum began to suffocate the noise of the demonstration. He would wait until tomorrow to tell Michael about the books in his rucksack. In the meantime, he would measure his relief by the increasing clarity of his footsteps as he put distance between himself and the flames.
The apartment was stuffy. The May evening had become very humid. Josef went to his bedroom and changed out of his uniform. Unlike Michael, who proudly hung the brown thing outside the battered wardrobe in his room, Josef hid his away, behind the faded black suit he last wore at his father's funeral. The armband he placed in the bottom drawer of the dresser, under a scarf and woolen cap. Then he opened the windows to let some fresh air in.
He felt the damp evening air cool the kitchen as he sat with his legs propped up on a chair. He looked down at his bare ankles, scarred with the marks of shrapnel and the field doctors' hasty work. He thought of how he carried the war with him wherever he went, how it woke him in the night, made him sweat, forced him to pace back and forth in the tiny living room, sent him out into the streets for hours of incessant walking, as if walking were an act of defiance against the burning enlacing his body. He thought of how Michael, now the best and brightest Nazi of his class, had introduced his father to Hermann Hesse's anti-war essays when Michael was still a high school student. And how Michael's young history teacher, a democrat, a man with conscience, had been fired after Hitler came to power. They said he'd spread "traitorous venom" among impressionable students.
"He's a disgusting liberal, a remnant of the decaying bourgeois world," said Michael of his former teacher just days before.
"You thought the world of him once. You learned more from him than you did any other teacher. He's one of the people who made it possible for you to go to university," protested Josef.
"Now I understand his political errors outweigh everything else," said Michael. "And anyway, it's easy to fall into the trap of having sympathy for the enemy. Everyone has a favorite Jew, or a favorite democrat. But we must resolve to fight against such feelings with a steel-hard will."
Josef knew from previous experience Michael would not be home until late at night, if at all. He might go out drinking with his comrades. Then it would be early in the morning before he slammed the front door and stumbled into bed. There were two beers in the cupboard; Josef decided he would drink both. But he still had trouble falling asleep. His mind was a newsreel, Michael and Monica the newsmakers.
After an hour of restlessness, he sat up with a start. He hadn't removed the books from his pack, which he'd left in the front entrance. He grunted with pain from raising himself out of bed and retrieved the books. Then he walked back to the bedroom and pulled several other tomes from their spot on the homemade bookshelf. He stood Hesse's two volumes, their back flaps facing out, against the back of the shelf. Once he'd replaced the other books, he stood back, eyeing the alignment in the dim light of a single overhead bulb. Even a close observer couldn't tell two books hid behind the others.
The bookshelf once stood in the living room, where Josef had displayed his small collection of literature. He read there every evening as he listened to classical music on the second-hand radio he'd placed atop the bookshelf. Four months before, Michael insisted he exile most of his books to the bedroom. Either that, or he could remove the entire bookshelf. It served no one's interest to have decadent literature so brazenly exhibited in the only room in the apartment fit for visitors. They'd had a terrible argument over it; neither spoke to one another for days after. Josef relented, as he always did, choosing to remove the heavy wooden shelf entirely. It was better in the bedroom anyway. He awoke each morning seeing his books, and the bookshelf would no longer have to support the little wooden box now spitting out speeches by Hitler, Goebbels, and the rest.
Still unable to sleep, he put on his slippers, switched on the light, padded back to the bookshelf. He removed Steppenwolf from its hiding place and began to scan phrases. He rarely dipped into a novel in this way; he had to read it straight through from the first sentence or not at all. But now a passage struck him. Hesse was writing about people with artistic personalities. These persons all have two souls, two beings within them. There is God and the devil in them. Michael had an artistic personality, of that Josef had always been certain. Was his present self an incarnation of the devil in him? Would the divine soul ever return? Was the whole nation experiencing an upsurge of satanic being?
Josef put the book down. If he kept reading, he would never sleep. He returned Steppenwolf to its spot. One day when Germany's better soul again gained the upper hand, he would personally return the two books to their owner. It would be redemption, a way of reuniting what was now divided and torn, a human gesture after a time of inhumanity. In the meantime, he would give the volumes the respect they deserved by reading and guarding them.
Only when the sky turned leaden and song sparrows chirped outside his window did he fall asleep.
Almost six. The front door shook the apartment like a roll of thunder. Josef heard a shuffle on the wooden floor, then a crash and a harsh verdammt! Had Michael knocked over a kitchen chair? The front door opened again, this time with a short creak. Footsteps down the hall, toward the toilet on the landing. A few minutes of silence, then the front door slammed again, then a soft click, the one Josef knew so well, from Michael's bedroom door. Josef heard two muffled thuds; the jackboots were off. A sudden protest from the bedsprings meant his son had gone to bed with his uniform on.
Josef sat on the edge of his bed and thought about breakfast. He would have to remove his battered kettle immediately once the water boiled or the whistling might disturb his son. Once he'd made his coffee, he placed two eggs in a pot of water and boiled them for three minutes. He looked inside the breadbox. There were two Brötchen, which meant Michael had not been home at all yesterday. He removed one, halved it, spread butter and peach jam. He thought how nice a slice of cheese would taste, but decided to leave the last chunk for Michael, who insisted on his Käsebrot in the morning. He made a mental list of things needed at the grocery and shook his head when he remembered the paltry sum left from his unemployment benefit.
Josef returned from errands around noon. Once again, he'd had little luck at the labor exchange. But he hadn't stayed there long either, because he didn't want to shop for groceries when everything was picked over. Michael sat at the kitchen table in his trousers, an undershirt, suspenders. "The Brötchen is stale," he muttered. "I hate stale rolls."
"We have to eat them sooner," said Josef matter-of-factly. Michael slurped his coffee.
Once the groceries were in the cupboard, Josef sat down at the table across from his son. Michael had the party newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, in front of him. The headline screamed: Successful Major Action Against the Un-German Spirit! He lowered the paper and said, "I saw you last night."
"You saw me at the book burning?" said Josef. "I looked for you, but you were very busy." It sounded more ironic than he'd intended.
"You didn't throw a single book into the fire," said Michael, shaking his head in disgust.
"How do you know? You didn't watch me the whole time. As I said, you were busy." Josef realized his pretense was not merely unnecessary but ridiculous. "There were many other people who could throw books in."
"It was a major action. Historical. I'm sure it will go down as a turning point in the evolution of the regime. A major strike against the old perversity. Centuries from now, Germans will point to yesterday evening with pride and say, 'There, on that day in May 1933, my country was at its best.' And you were half-hearted about it. Worse than half-hearted."
"You can be so certain about the future?"
"This isn't the point, is it?"
Josef laid both of his hands on the table, palms down. He eyed them closely. He thought the veins on the backs of his hands were unusually blue. Maybe it was the midday light. He had a sudden vision of himself and his son bathed in the intense whiteness of a spotlight.
"I saved two books last night," said Josef. He tried to sound nonchalant, but there was a slight tremor in his voice.
"What do you mean 'saved two books'?"
"Hesse. Demian and Steppenwolf. We were assigned a private study, a huge collection. The biggest private library I've ever seen. I noticed he had all of Hesse's work, and I saved those two."
"And what purpose did you serve by doing that? If your Sturm commander finds out, the SA will watch you closely. At the very least, you'll have exposed yourself as a slacker. Or worse."
"No one saw me do it. I plan to return the books to the author when all this is over. I'm going to do for the book what the doctors did for me back in '18. Call it cultural triage."
"Ah, that's what you have in mind. The larger issue, though, is your attitude in the moment—"
"—and its implications for you? For your career in the party."
Josef felt relieved to have completed the point for his son. It made him feel more assertive. He thought of Monica, who'd complained many times of his self-doubt. And of Michael, who constantly chided his father for his indecisiveness.
They sat, glared at one another. Midday sounds from the courtyard drifted into the kitchen. Schoolchildren were home for lunch. Clattering pots and pans, silverware, laughter, arguments between unemployed husbands and overworked wives. Michael looked away, listening. After a few moments, his dark eyes returned to the newspaper.
Josef rose and went to the window. He smelled a mix of boiled cabbage and cigarette smoke in the spring air.
From the table came Michael's demanding voice. "Whose study was it?"
"What?" Josef said, still gazing down into the courtyard. "Oh, the owner of the books, you mean. Kirschwein, the writer."
"Kirschwein? Johannes Kirschwein?"
Michael laughed. "He's already been taken care of. He was rounded up and sent to a detention center—Dachau, I think—a week or so ago. For subversion, in connection with the Reichstag fire. Everyone knows he's cozy with the Communists. My guess is the SA already liquidated him. That's been happening a lot, you know. 'Killed while attempting to escape.' You saved two books for a corpse. What a waste. Like so many things you do."
The father turned to his son, who wore a triumphant, grotesque smile. It made Josef think of barbed wire, or ugly gashes with black stitches, inflamed and oozing. Like the ones he remembered all over his body in the field hospital. For a few seconds he wished with all his heart he had the courage to swing at that smile and destroy it forever.
"I have to go, in any case," said Michael, rising quickly. "Cleanup actions. Don't bother about me for dinner. I'll be doing something useful for Germany."
Josef looked back toward the window. He desperately wanted to cry and felt angry knowing he couldn't.
The bright sunshine bathing the kitchen just minutes before now weakened. Josef noticed several cumulus clouds, plump and self-satisfied, their fluffy tops swelling into blue-gray mounds. Because his knees and ankles throbbed, he assumed the clouds meant rain, maybe a thunderstorm. "We need rain," he said out loud. "Lots of it."
Joseph Klaren walked up the stairs to his apartment like a man much older than his 50 years. His cane tapped on the stairway. He wore a black armband, as so many other mothers and fathers did in the streets of Berlin in August 1945. He carried a small bag containing his rations and a newspaper. It also held several tins of sardines and a puny bunch of carrots, which he'd been able to get for an exorbitant price on the black market. His survivor's benefits came in handy when he needed something extra to live on.
After putting away his food, he sat at the kitchen table and pored over the newspaper. He felt lucky to be living in an apartment building that, miraculously, hadn't suffered bad bomb damage. Just across the street, the building had been flattened and there were two families living in the cellar. When it rained hard, they were up to their ankles in filthy water. Josef lost only a couple windows and a stray bomb had torn a large gash in the roof over his bedroom. Once he could get his hands on some supplies, he'd try to do the repairs. He worried about how much longer his pain-wracked body could do carpentry work. In the meantime, the apartment was drafty and the sound of rain dripping into pails kept him awake.
He was ready to put the paper aside when he noticed a tiny ad buried at the bottom of the last page:
Famous novelist, poet, and playwright Johannes Kirschwein will speak at the Goethe Society Thursday, 26 August, 19:30, about his experiences in Dachau and his years in exile. Admission is free and open to the public.
Joseph's heart thumped irregularly as he rushed to the bedroom and went to his bookshelf. The two books by Hesse were still there. He'd completely forgotten he had them, just as he'd forgotten about the argument he and Michael had about Kirschwein on the morning after the book burning. Too much had happened in the intervening years; too much sorrow and hatred had buried the slim volumes in irrelevance. Now, the memory of that night flooded back, like a revelation. But it had a new meaning, a purpose beyond the raw bitterness it left in Josef's soul. The newspaper ad bathed the past in an entirely new light, brighter than anything Josef had seen for a long time: Kirschwein had not died in Dachau. Josef hadn't saved Hermann Hesse for a corpse. His efforts weren't wasted.
The hours inched by as Josef waited for evening. He'd decided he would need at least 45 minutes to get to the hall where the famous novelist would speak. The thought occurred to him that Kirschwein might not accept the books, especially after Josef told him he was one of the SA men who'd ransacked his home. He'd have every right to hate Josef. And what if Kirschwein did accept? Wouldn't it be a slap in Michael's face, a sullying of his son's memory?
"No," Josef whispered to himself. "Far more than me, Michael truly believed in a movement that lived by the sword. And he died by the sword, just as the regime died in the ruins of Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg. It has to be done. My son was wrong, and I take no pleasure in knowing that. But it has to be done."
Josef had trouble finding his way to the Goethe Society building. The ruins often made it impossible to get oriented, and the trams ran irregularly, if at all. He arrived 15 minutes late despite his planning. There was no one on the dais in the nearly empty hall. He asked someone if the event had been cancelled and was told it had not.
After another 20 minutes, the hall was half full, and people were restless. Josef heard whispering, shuffling of feet, clearing of throats. The place was stuffy; body odor and cigarette smoke thickened the air. Josef's mind rolled and churned. Should he leave? Should he give up his crazy idea once and for all? What if he was mugged on the way home? A man walking with a cane at night through the rubble was vulnerable. Anyone who looked weak was vulnerable.
He heard a bustle from the front of the hall. Two men entered from the left and walked up the short stairway to the dais. The tall white-haired man with wire-rimmed glasses approached the lectern while the other—short, dark, deep-set eyes, scrawny—sat on one of two creaking wooden chairs. The white-haired man introduced the speaker, Johannes Kirschwein, to enthusiastic applause.
Kirschwein's voice was as thin as his body; it barely carried to the middle of the small hall where Josef sat. It sounded like the shadow of a voice, a trace of something once forceful and alive. Josef heard only snippets of the text from which the writer slowly read, a memoir in progress of the past 12 years. Beatings and torture in Dachau. Sudden release and frantic exile, first in Prague, then Paris, finally London. Paralyzing anxiety about his brother and sister-in-law, who, he'd learned only two weeks before, had perished in Treblinka in 1942. Kirschwein coughed repeatedly and cleared his throat after every few lines. He never looked at his audience.
Even had Kirschwein's voice boomed, Josef would have had trouble following. His mind was wracked with memories of the book burning. He remembered how Michael had smiled when he told Josef that Kirschwein had been liquidated in Dachau. How was it his own son, flesh of his flesh, could smile in that twisted, obscene way? How had it come to be that such a high, thick wall could exist between father and son? How had Germany come to that smile?
Applause and questions came after Kirschwein finished. Then people filed out into the ruined city. Josef sat as Kirschwein chatted with a few members of the audience at the front of the hall. After several minutes, Josef straightened his back as if he'd been poked in the ribs and slowly raised himself from his chair. He let out a deep breath. It was time.
He felt like an automaton walking toward the dais. Would he be able to utter a single word? Kirschwein was shaking hands with an older woman who'd told the writer she'd read all his novels. He smiled graciously and thanked her for her kind comments.
Then Josef was alone with the writer and the white-haired man. Kirschwein looked even older up close. At least we have that in common, thought Josef. We've aged far beyond our years.
"Would you like to ask Herr Kirschwein a question, sir?" The white-haired man looked anxiously at his watch.
It took Josef a moment to respond. He blinked as if roused from a deep sleep. "Yes... I mean, no," he stammered. "I mean, I have something I'd like to give the author."
Kirschwein looked expectantly at Josef, who leaned on his cane as he held a wrinkled paper bag in his left hand.
"Something I stole from your study, more than 12 years ago now."
Josef felt as if some unseen force was choking him. Every word was an effort. Every word reminded him of the story of Sisyphus, condemned for eternity to roll a boulder up a mountain only to have it tumble down again once he'd reached the apex.
Frowning, Kirschwein and the white-haired man glanced at one another. Josef knew he had better speak or forget the whole thing. No time for indecisiveness now. This was his only chance. The words came from somewhere deep in the past.
"I, I stole two books. In order to return them to you. I was one of three SA men who ransacked your study and took many of your books to the book burning. I took two books by Hermann Hesse because, you see, I love Hesse's writing. His writing had meant so much to me when I was young, and I knew a man like you, a famous man, a famous writer, appreciated Hesse. Unlike my wife, or actually, my ex-wife. Unlike my son, who was one of the organizers of the book burning. See, he was in the Nazi student league, and... and... But he's dead now, my Michael, in Stalingrad, and he told me you were already dead. Or he thought you were. He thought he knew everything, then, I guess. He was so young, but... and he and I argued. And I loved him so much, and yet he, and, you see, oh, Germany and Nazism, he did terrible things. They all did terrible things..."
"I think that's enough," said the white-haired man, taking a step toward Josef. "You should leave. I doubt Herr Kirschwein wants to be bothered with this. He hears enough about Nazis who want forgiveness. People who think they can just ask those they've persecuted to let bygones be bygones."
"No," said Kirschwein, waving his hand. "Let him finish." The white-haired man stepped back as Kirschwein turned to Josef. "Go on. Tell me the rest of your tale."
"I wanted to return these two books as a small gesture for German culture. To return them to the people who, more than someone like me, an ordinary man who was a Nazi, can recover Germany's humanity, its art, its culture. I wanted to save these two books from all the destruction and hatred and see to it their rightful owner had them again. Cultural triage—those were the words I'd thought of. Cultural triage. Save what can be saved."
Josef hung his head. He felt completely defeated. He could think only of the military notice of his son's "heroic death for the Fatherland" with its black borders and bureaucratic language and smell of the grave. Avoiding eye contact, he carefully removed Demian and Steppenwolf from the paper bag and held them out to Kirschwein. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the writer consider the books suspiciously. Then he looked directly at Josef, who this time met the man's gaze. In contrast to his thin, tired-looking body and weak voice, Kirschwein's eyes were a vivid blue. There was still fire in those eyes, thought Josef; we haven't destroyed his soul. It made Josef feel less anxious. He felt mesmerized by the man's stare and at the same time ashamed of his cane and shabby coat and stained paper bag.
Kirschwein reached for the books. He held them thoughtfully in his hands for a few seconds, as if weighing them. He looked at the inside front cover of each volume and smiled when he saw his bookplate and signature.
Again he looked intently at Josef. But now there was no joy in his eyes. The flash of happiness had disappeared. Now there was only sadness lined with anger.
"Sir, I don't know who you are or what kind of man you are," said Kirschwein in a quavering voice. "But I know at one time in my life people like you caused me and my family such immense harm, it's impossible for me to forgive or forget. So I accept the return of these books, but I will not thank you. I will not shake your hand. All I will say is I deserve to have them back, and insofar that that's true, you've done the correct thing."
Kirschwein turned on his heels and left, the white-haired man trailing behind. The two men's footsteps grew fainter as Josef stood alone in the hall, its air still heavy with sweat and smoke. His mind felt as leaden as his legs. Did he feel a sense of accomplishment? Completion? Or only emptiness and despair? He couldn't say. How should he feel anyway?
He sighed heavily and turned, tapping his way down the middle aisle, out the door, onto the crumbled sidewalk. He thought of the sound his jackboots had made that awful night when he fled the book burning with Demian and Steppenwolf hiding in his rucksack. Better tapping than that other sound, he thought. Better the tapping. He felt relieved to see the August evening was still light. He'd not have to walk back through the rubble in total darkness.