• Buchenwald Weather

    by  • July 16, 2012 • Fiction • 0 Comments

    The sky darkens as the train rolls drearily eastward, past abandoned factories, along sooty station platforms; desuetude striated by rain.

    A speaker crackles with the approach of Weimar. He downs the last of his beer and leaves. I slip Uncle Oskar from the rear of my book to the open page.

    We step simultaneously onto the platform, a car apart. He smiles stiffly. Coat bag slung over one shoulder and laptop lodged under the other arm, he passes as I two-handedly trundle my Louis Vuitton down the station steps.

    “Hilfe ?”

    “I speak English, thanks.” And I set the suitcase on a step, re-shoulder the strap of my leather bag. I look up to find him once-overing: Late-thirties? Forty, more?

    “Sorry. Do you need a hand?”

    “I’m quite all right.” I set off again.

    He figures he should ask, “American?”

    “As Long Island.”

    “No kidding. I was born in Brooklyn. But I live in Detroit.”

    A little fervid, in the manner of a man awkwardly accustoming himself to his late-thirties. Crazing undermines the boyish lustre. No doubt he weighs whether or not it would be unseemly to bound away. Instead he says, “So, what brings you to Weimar?”

    “Just visiting.” Is he waiting to be excused? “You?”

    “Oh, ah, my company is putting me up here, for some reason. I’m supposed to visit a plant in Eisenach Monday, but everything’s booked there, I guess. They tell me this is best hotel in the region, though.”

    “Good for you, then.”

    And we stride toward the door to the street knowing it’s another thirty feet through the cheerlessly rehabbed station hall and well then have fun in that Europe. But I wonder if he’ll split a cab: “The Elephant, by any chance?”

     

    Mist materializes more than falls over the cobbled plaza. Three Mercedes woggle.

    We exchange cards as the cab tacks through the maze. “So what does a ‘news researcher’ and ‘database specialist’ do for Newsday?” he asks.

    “A glorified librarian. I look up things for people, then they write about them.”

    “Hey, I need somebody to do that. But I also need them to write it for me.”

    Self-deprecating, from GM, he is (hmm…) a designer. Eisenach: new Opel plant; American-cum-Japanese team management. GM owns Opel.

    The cab rushes into a sloped square with tents and trailers and hunches to a stop next to a plain, buff building on the right, shuffling away several members of a tour-group. A man in a long coat and homburg points to the facade.

    I have only hundreds so he pays the forty-five-mark fare with a fifty. Shouldering his bag, he walks over to the group as a plastic-sheathed photograph circulates: Hitler harangues from a balcony.

    I hobble by. “You didn’t know you were stepping into history?”

    He follows to the desk. “So Der Fürher slept here?”

    “They say it was his favorite hotel.”

    “Dodging his ghost seems to be the main travel hazard in this country.” Smug smile; high-hat flourish. He looks a little like the intern who wrote that GM story.

    “I’m sure they’ll let you change your room if you encounter him,” I say, with unexpected charm.

    While he checks in, I settle on the loglike armrest of an upholstered chair in the center of the Moderne lobby. In the mirror above the stair landing, I am the model in a 1930s oceanliner ad, suitcases gathered, russet coat rolled around my elbows, garnet gabardine dress draped elegantly over the fat black chair.

    I pull a hundred-mark note from my coat pocket. “I could break this now, if you’d like.” I am not trying to display it, but I never learn: The diamond pulls his eyes, and he mulls.

    “Tell you what,” he bites. “Why don’t you buy me dinner?”

    “I don’t think twenty-five marks will buy much dinner here.”

    “Well, there’s got to be a cheap restaurant in Weimar.  And you don’t have to buy.”

    “I wouldn’t count on that, and thanks.”

     

    Maybe a week of halting, inane conversations with Ernst and Anni have primed me for a redemptive encounter with American English. Attractive, and he appears to have some wit, but God no. It is as much tawdry as wrong, something of which I would be as mortified as guilty. But I must admit the thin thrill of being desirable.

    I windmill my right arm, wincing each apex. Therapy has toughened it, but it aches from pulling the bag. Slumped onto the bed, I think supine is fine. I prop the phone on my breastbone and tap out the familiar sequences.

    Becca picks up on the third ring with a put-out “Hello?”

    “Hello honey. I made it to Weimar.”

    “Oh, hi.” I wait and Becca complies: “So, how is everything?”

    “I’m just fine,” I chirp, feeling guileful. “It’s drizzly and little chilly here, but the train ride was nice. I even allowed myself a glass of wine.”

    “Oo, be careful, mother, you know how giddy you get.” Becca could have said this more jovially.

    “Well, I’m going out to dinner shortly, and I just might have another.”

    “Mm-mmm.”

    I was about Becca’s age when my mother — a little wine might have been involved, too — called Ernst and Anni and let me speak with them briefly. Talking with someone on another continent so confounded me that I stammered. But I could be calling from work with a request to thaw some chicken; Becca’s sulk is impenetrable from any distance.

    “Well, is your father there?” I ask indifferently.

    “I’m sorry, he’s not in right now. May I take a message?”

    “Stop it, Becca. Do you know where he is?”

    “He doesn’t clear his schedule with me.”

    “I would hope not. It is not unreasonable, however, to expect that he might have said something on the way out.”

    “No.”

    God, how this tires me. I love Becca dearly but sometimes I just want her to get older and move out. Maybe we’d like each other again. I should ask about school, or if Becca has plans for the night, but cannot bother.

    “Well, tell him I called, all right? And I’ll see you next week. Goodbye.”

    “Bye.”

    I say “I love you” to the klaxon-like dial tone.

    Sitting on the end of the bed, I slip from my book the photograph, the tattered, laminated original for the print propped on the corner of the dining room sideboard throughout my childhood: A slender, serious face, sprouting a wavy shock of black hair and cocked sideways, eyes looking up in a squint, as if at a light. When I was tall enough to look down on the picture I discovered he was not looking at me, regardless where I moved in the room.

    Uncle Oskar stayed at the Elephant, too.

     

    I open the door as he reaches to rap on it.

    “Just an old fraternity salute,” he explains, relaxing his fist, flexing fingers.

    “I didn’t think designer types were frat boys.”

    He wants to set me straight, but I stay him. The hall music. “That was playing when we came in and I thought it was odd, but it’s still playing.”

    It takes him a few seconds to absorb the faint, familiar melody.  He sings along: “lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you….”

    “I guess it’s Christmas every day here,” I say. “Or maybe it’s the Thuringian state anthem.”

    He laughs gamely.

    Mist lifts, dusk settles, the square clears. Two men fold tables and fit them into a van. A small truck tows away a trailer. On the left, pallid light edges the Gothic arches of the Rathaus.

    “I’ve never been here,” he says, “so if you have somewhere in mind…”

    “It’s a first for me, too. Let’s just find a place.”

    We walk to the corner and to the left.

    “I guess I just assumed you’d been here.”

    “I always make a point of learning about where I’m going.” I try to say this matter-of-factly, but it sounds smug.

    “Well, I didn’t know I was coming here,” he says. “The itinerary changed.”

    We turn to walk along a pedestrian street with brittle lamplight and still-leafy lindens. The shops are lit but closed, people purposeful about getting away. I notice a sign for a second-floor restaurant, figure it might be a hearty, local place.

    Faded black-and-white photos of the dining room line the ascent, and their subject is too bright and nearly vacant. A plump, late-middle-aged couple sits in a booth in the center of one wall and a plump, older couple sits in a booth in the center of the adjacent wall and all four watch intently as the waitress seats us at a small table in the center of the room.

    We are interlopers. That couple, they might have been born in the war, but the other pair, they were young, maybe young adults. I remember the brochure: “…voted almost two-to-one against the National Socialists… most citizens had no idea…” Well, what had I expected at a hearty, local place?

    “Lively joint,” he says quietly. “I guess we’re the show.”

    We sip sweet Franken wine from goblets on green, ribbed stems and trade tales of office folly in subdued voices, muting laughter. I ask, “Isn’t it just an assembly plant? Why would they send a designer?”

    “Damn! You see right through me! All right, I’ll admit it, I’m from a network of ex-KGB saboteurs.”

    “Let me guess. You have to kill me now.”

    “No, dinner first. You still owe me twenty-five marks.”

    “Oh good, a last meal.” But it is not funny. “Why are you here?”

    “I’m paying for having read the in-house magazine. We had one of those feel-good meetings, you know, with a ‘facilitator,’ and to have something to say I mentioned reading about this Opel plant and said it might be a good idea for designers to be more familiar with new production processes.”

    “That’s not bad. Hmm, wonder what I could learn about research at, say, Le Monde?”

    “Well Cologne’s nice, but it’s no Paris. And mostly I’ve been stifling yawns in presentations and tours.” He primes a fork with sausage and sauerkraut. “You said you were ‘just visiting.’ Anything or anyone in particular?”

    I set my forkful of turkey back in its gravy, glare at the older couple until they look away. “I suppose you could say I am here to visit my uncle. Except he died before I was born.”

    “Is he buried here?”

    Not with these dour Germans staring. I lean conspiratorially. “It’s not that I don’t want to tell you. After.”

    “You don’t have to tell me anything. I didn’t mean to be nosy.”

    The older couple stand to leave, sharing a mirthless chuckle. After they shuffle by, I say, a little brightly, “So, you know I am married. How about you?”

    “Not yet. My girlfriend, I think, already has patterns picked.”

    “Well, then, what’s keeping you? Marry the girl!”

    He smiles vexedly. “I don’t know. I’m just not ready, I guess. I’ve waited this long, I’m in no hurry.”

    “Look.” I swallow. “I’ve been married 16 years. I have a daughter who’s 15. I’m guessing I’m not that much older than you.”

    “Well, there’s a good reason. I’ll be sure you’re invited.”

    And here I surrender my gummy smile, and he knows he’s finally chalked one up.

    “What does your husband do?”

    “He golfs.”

    “No kidding?” Abruptly Franklin has become more interesting than me. ”Professionally?“

    “No. Well, yes. He’s a lawyer.”

    “Spoken like a woman who sips her coffee alone on Saturday mornings.”

    Another tally. White terry cloth, hands around a mug, gazing over the leaf-littered deck. “Spoken like a man who has made his share of early tee times.”

    “Oh, no. Not me. I can’t stand golf. Dull. Dull. I shoot hoops.”

    “So did Franklin.” Wait a couple of years, I almost add.

    “You’re not making much of a case for marriage.”

    “No, I suppose not. Oh, I love my husband, I do. But there’ s no telling at 22. Or 32, for that matter. Inertia kicks in, and when … things happen … it tides you along, perhaps a little too comfortably. It’s still preferable to the alternative.”

    “And that would be…”

    “Oh, loneliness, the indignity of dating, not to mention all the danger nowadays.”

    “Still, those are reasons not to be single, not reasons to get married.”

    “Well, it helps to be in love, of course.”

    “It’s none of my business, but it sounds like… staying in love is the problem?”

    I can’t believe I walked right into that. As I glower at him I see he can’t believe he said it. “Well, obviously… at some point, merely loving someone isn’t enough…”

    “But you see, I think that’s all there is. I don’t know about ‘in love.’ It usually turns out I’m in hell, not love.”

    The remaining couple, still watching, settle with the waitress.

    “Then what about your girlfriend?”

    “I met her through work. I realized here was a friendly, easy-going, attractive girl, this is someone I can love.”

    My turn. “This followed a sojourn in the underworld, I presume.”

    “Well, Purgatory….”

    “And you’re in no hurry to marry because she doesn’t excite you.”

    “Hold your calls,” he says sourly. “We have a winner.”

     

    An agreeable dampness saturates the nearly chill air as we walk back to the hotel, then past it, through a plaza with an equestrian Karl August on an immense plinth, then down a cobbled street, around the stone tower of the Schloss and onto a bridge. It starts with a general discussion of parenthood, but unaccountably I find myself telling him about Becca: “I couldn’t wait to get away from my mother, and now I can’t wait to get rid of my daughter.”

    Is he simply a neutral ear? He must be wondering, too.

    “I take it you grew up in an unhappy house?”

    “No worse than most, I guess. My parents divorced when I was little and my mother and I lived with my grandparents.”

    His “Hmmm…” presumes this could not have been good.

    “It was fine, actually, until in short order my grandparents died and I turned into a teenager. It’s taken me twenty years to figure out I resented my mother for losing my father, although he left her. The bastard.”

    “I know this is Weimar, not Vienna, but… it sounds as if you might have had some, uh, expectations, when you got married.”

    “Thank you, doctor. That’s a little too easy, actually. I don’t think I married my prodigal father, if that’s what you mean. Southampton was a potent lure to a quiet girl from Queens.”

    “And being a golf-widow is not the same as being abandoned.”

    I do not know what to say to this, nor do I know why I have no answer. He is right. But this avenue of conversation has no end. I stop halfway across the bridge. Below, the Ilm rills silkily, and a swan idles in the current.

    “Actually,” he announces with a relieving, and-now-this flair, “I do know something about Weimar. You probably knew, Goethe lived here.”

    “Yes, his house is around the corner from the hotel. Have you ever read anything by him?”

    “I struggled through ‘Sorrows of Werther’ in comp. lit.”

    For a moment I prospect the years and spot no Goethe, but then I remember in a rush whose intensity surprises me. When I was a young ‘stay-at-home’ mother, I determined to reeducate myself, on my terms. Becca and I haunted used-book stores. Once, in the chaos of The Strand, I found a nineteenth-century translation of Eckermann’s ‘Conversations with Goethe,’ and it was a stately old tome, with a photogravure frontispiece and an india-plate etching. Leafing, I came on a remark that flattened me, and even at this dozen-or-so years’ remove I recite it flawlessly: “ ‘Man,’ said Goethe, ‘knows only when he is satisfied and when he suffers, and only his sufferings and his satisfactions instruct him concerning himself, teach him what to seek and what to avoid.’”

    “There’s that pesky Romantic dualism for you,” he says blithely.

    “Yes, well, I’ve always wanted some middle ground between suffering and satisfaction. But I expect the poet is right.”

    “Oh, there’s plenty you can be besides satisfied or suffering. How about ‘content?’ Neither here nor there, not in pain but not quite happy…”

    “Satisfied, you mean?”

    “All right, semantics. The problem is it reduces life to positive reinforcement and negative feedback. It presumes inevitable self-interest. But you can seek pain, say for a common good. Or you can avoid satisfaction for your own good.”

    “Yes, but satisfaction and suffering orient you nonetheless. What disturbs me is that there is no satisfaction for most, and for many, suffering cannot be avoided.”

    He looks as if I have incanted the spell that vitiates his life’s lucky amulet.

    “Herr von Goethe, of course, did not much worry,” I tell him, as if to assure him he should not, also. “Goethe was a famous and favored man, with an ample house in town, painted to illustrate his psycho-chromatic theories, chock-a-block with classical casts, and a garden house here in the park. And he rode in a hunting preserve in the hills outside of town. I’ll be going there tomorrow.”

    He is lost. “To hunt?”

    I almost laugh. “I’m sorry. I really did not want to go into it in that funereal restaurant. My uncle died in Buchenwald, where Goethe picnicked with his noble patrons.”

    “You’re Jewish?”

    I gaze over the territory he might have traversed to that question, cannot bring it into focus. “In theory, yes.”

    “You mean, cultural but not religious?”

    Oh God, I can’t talk with Franklin about this; why am I discussing it with some guy who draws cars? “No, that’s not it,” I say, working hard to mask exasperation. “That’s a false distinction, I think. I know for many Jews, it is not, and for many other Jews, it is dishonest to make. I won’t go that far. But either you’re a Jew or you’re not.”

    Apparently I am talking about something for which he has no reference, for he glares a moment into the layered grays of the park, then speaks with a hastening cadence: “So you’re visiting your uncle…”

    I pull in and expel a large volume of air. I very much want to talk about this, it occurs to me as I exhale, for I have spoken to no one, at least not fully, about it, only guarded fragments with Franklin, Becca, one or two others. “I got very sick about a year ago. They say nothing sharpens the mind like mortality, but instead I found the certainties of my life turning fuzzy, the frontiers shifting… My Uncle Oskar always was a presence in the family, a personification of grief and regret, but after my parents divorced, he loomed. For Passover Seder, you set a cup for the prophet Elijah; Uncle Oskar was our empty setting. I think I faulted him for the sometimes surreal air in that apartment.”

    “Tell me about your uncle.”

    “It’s getting a little cold. Let’s go back.” I tighten the belt of my raincoat, hunch. “With a Gentile partner, my grandfather owned a prosperous dry-goods store in Berlin. Everyone could see what was coming, so he made an arrangement with his partner, whereby it appeared on paper that the partner had bought him out. He moved the family into a cheaper apartment and saved for eventual exile. Why it took him so long, I don’t know, although I suspect he was loath to leave Berlin and clung, as not a few Jews did, to the illusion that the phase would pass and everything would be all right again. But by 1938, of course, not many places were accepting any more Jews.

    “On Kristallnacht, while my grandparents and my mother, who was six, and my Aunt Anni, who was 10, cowered in the dark, Uncle Oskar, who was 19, watched from the window as a gang stoned the synagogue down the street. When they made to set fire to it, Uncle Oskar, ignoring the family, ran down into the street to stop them. He was beaten and arrested. Through the neighborhood grapevine, they heard he had been taken to Buchenwald. They sought a way to ransom him through bribery, with the money Grandfather had saved, but about two months later they heard that he’d died and decided they’d best flee while they could. They went first to England, then through a distant cousin with political connections they gained U.S. entry and settled in Queens.”

    “That’s … very sad.”

    “It gets worse. You see, I discovered recently that Uncle Oskar did not die two months later. He managed to live almost three years there. It’s pretty remarkable when you consider Jews endured the worst. But the winter of ‘41 claimed him finally, pneumonia. There’s nothing his family could have done for him, but I doubt they’d have left if they’d known.”

    “And you would not be around.”

    “I don’t know. Maybe they’d have sent the girls away. Probably. But I don’t know.”

    “Surely,” he says carefully, “you do not hold yourself… accountable…?”

    This certainly is an unexpected insight, and when I turn to look into the face that has spoken these words, I find it faintly scowling, in a paternal way. I take too long to answer. “No. No. Not really. Although I do — Do you know anything about the Jewish holy days? Monday is Yom Kippur. It is the Day of Atonement. You fast, and pray, and consider… your life. Not simply your sins, but what you are, and why… The choices you make, of course… But I suppose at some point, too, those you can’t make.”

    “So what will you do Monday?”

    “Tomorrow I’m taking a train to Berlin, and Monday I plan to return to the rebuilt synagogue my uncle could not save.”

    It is draining to talk, but palliative, after all. Franklin has been formally solicitous, but he declined to come along and it was clear he dismissed the trip as melodrama. Planets in an astrolabe, our orbits close irregularly. Carport kisses, dinner at the kitchen counter, Becca tactics.

     

    I tussle with the starchy duvet. This is not the first time I have attracted a stranger, nor the first I have relished the attraction. But I berate myself for failing to ask him along, and for wishing I had: It is a concentration camp, not a museum.

    I will ask at breakfast.

    It seems he has made an effort on my behalf. I take seriously even the half-assed efforts. Sometimes it’s all I ask. And for my sake he seems to have shelved the overgrown undergraduate. Could he be one of those men who manage to avoid transforming extended childhood into middle-aged folly?

    Who, I wonder, is this woman he won’t marry, and I tease myself with the standard Alison or Melody or Shannon, office-worker, art student, fragrance sprayer.

    Yes, he’s a couple of years younger. How old do you have to be when you notice that? Is it another of those landmarks you miss on the way? He’s clearly no fool, capable of patter beyond sports and drink. The crowsfeet that clutch his temples when he grins lend his cool hazel eyes a bracing keenness.

    But no.

    Around 4:30 I awake, abruptly alert, spooked. I pull on slacks and sweater, step into the bright hall. At the curtained windows, Hitler in the van of a brown entourage; SS guards pull open the French doors, a roar rises outside…

    Am I accountable?

    Down the hall the other way, light frosts the hallway carpet by the next door.

    I take my key on its doorknob-sized marker and pull my door closed as quietly as possible, walk to the glowing fringe. I half-expect to hear a sports match, or rock music. Instead, I hear the sodden labor of my heart, and faint music: “lovely weather…”

     

    The cab climbs into steeping mist.

    “I did not sleep well, either,” I tell him. “You should have roused me. We could have played gin.”

    “Little wonder, with The Leader on the prowl.”

    “Oh, I’m not that superstitious. Besides, my uncle and my grandfather stayed at the Elephant, too.”

    “Seriously?”

    “Contrary to stereotype, my grandfather left the books to his partner. He was the buyer. He traveled frequently in Thuringia, mainly to buy pottery. Often he took Oskar with him, when Oskar was a child, before it became… impossible. Of course, the last time Oskar arrived in Weimar, the reception was less pleasant.”

    “In Weimar?”

    “Oh yes. The prisoners arrived at the train station. Like you and me. Then they had to trot, on the double, to the camp, with the SS beating and shooting them along the way. I thought of walking, actually, but, well, I’m not as sturdy as I was, and I did not think Uncle Oskar would begrudge me the cab.”

    We turn left onto a broad, concrete road. The tires hum, beat a rapid tattoo on the seams as the road rises into the cottony forest. At a large, paved clearing, I pay the fare. Between two buildings on the edge, roses and yellow wildflowers vanish in fog. Beyond a few hundred yards, unvaried gray prevails. He lifts the lapels of his raincoat against the wet-skin chill of the light wind.

    “These were SS barracks,” I tell him, and lead past the flowers and along the side of a building, from which issues an old man and a young girl who walk about ten paces ahead. They follow a lane between several utilitarian buildings toward a brown-tiled gatehouse, a squat, square tower with a clock. A wire fence stretches along a sequence of concrete poles with in-curving tops. People enter and leave through a door in the barred gate with a wrought-iron greeting: “Jedem das Seine.”

    “‘To each his due,’” I explain.

    About twenty-five people, in small groups, roam the gravel plain that slopes away from us. It is edged by forest and mist and set with ranks of low rectangles, foundations filled with darker stone.

    “All the barracks were removed after the war. These mark their positions.” I know I am tour-guidey, try not to be, but it is invigorating to pronounce aloud what I have been telling myself for months. I lead across the plain and down the hill to the stump and wait. “Eckermann describes a tree that Goethe sat under with Karl August years earlier,” I relate. “The SS believed this was the tree, so they spared it when they levelled the forest.”

    “Is it?”

    “I don’t know. But, paradoxically, many of the inmates revered it, too.”

    “Satisfaction and suffering.”

    “I suppose. It burned in a bombing raid on the factory. The East Germans razed everything else.”

    Partway down the slope, several people walk around one of the long, narrow barracks forms. It is filled flush on three sides with medium-sized rocks, which grade downward in a broad “V,” like sand collapsing in a trough, toward a white wall that rises about a foot above the ground. On the wall are hundreds of small stones, most left singly, without pattern, but some arranged in words of various languages.

    I take the garden stone from my leather bag, stoop to place it, step back. And in the taut, persistent wind at last I find the shabby sheds, the wraiths in faded stripes, the wracked coughs.

    He walks down to the end of the memorial, bends for a stone and sets it at the edge of the wall.  As he stands again he finds himself beside the old man and little girl we followed into the camp. The man clasps the girl’s shoulder and halts her.

    By the time I amble into earshot, I hear the old man speaking in a courtly Saxon accent: “I see you are too young to understand, but I will always admire the Americans, and again I will say ‘thank you.’ I stood over there, you see, in the parade ground, on the eleventh of April in 1945, and I greeted the American officers who came through that gate…”

    “My God! You were here?” His astonishment is cringingly innocent.

    The man pushes his hands forward, as if declining food. “Oh, I had it easy, relatively speaking. I was a ‘political.’ I had the bad sense to edit a trade-union newspaper. I really thought they were doing me in by bringing me here, after prison, but I managed to live a long while here. We politicals outfoxed the criminals who were running the camp and after that, well, I’d say we had the best lot. When the criminals were still in charge, they even corrupted the SS.”

    “What about the Jews,” I ask severely, unsure he recognizes one in me. I expect an Eastern gloss.

    “I was here not long when the first groups came from the Von Rath action, pushing their way in terror through that door in the gate. In 1939, after the assassination attempt, they took twenty-one Jews at random and shot them. ‘Attempting to escape.’ Incredibly, many Jews from that time were released. The SS extorted everything from the Jews, made them write home for money. But many never managed to ransom themselves…”

    “Like my uncle.” I hand him the photograph.

    The old man holds it before his face, then shrugs sympathetically.

    I see the old man has put it together, wonder if my companion has, too: Oskar might have saved himself. They would have sent the money; they had tried to ransom Oskar from Berlin. But if they had, all would have perished.

    Out of nowhere, he says, “The weather seems appropriate today.”

    The old man chuckles. “Oh, it is typical. ‘Buchenwald wetter,’  we call it, even today. Damp, chill, fog. Buchenwald WEATHER, yes.”

    “Have you been here frequently?” I ask.

    “I used to bring her mother,” he says, sifting the girl’s short, wheaty hair. “I have come here for years, even before the changes. My communist colleagues, of course, made themselves the heroes, although some were, shall I say, less than angels. We could have done more, especially for the Jews. At the end, when the rats were scurrying, they tried to evacuate the Jews, the other barracks hid as many as we could. But we could have done more. It is one of the reasons I come here, to remind myself.”

    “You have no reason to bear that burden,” I offer meekly. “You have suffered enough.”

    The old man turns a strained smile to each of us, and his granddaughter guides him up the slope.

    We stand mute for a moment. Each of us must decide how much he crowds my commemoration. As I walk away, I think of him at the train station, toying with taking off. He could be thinking about the same. I speak over my shoulder.

    “You may go, if you like, but I must visit that building, up there.”

    The brick chimney rises into the brume. In several languages, a sign compels silence.

    People died horribly, hung from those hooks; stiff bodies tumbled through these trap doors, gathered here like logs until heaved onto the lift; sunken figures shoved them into the arch-gated ovens. You came here for me, Uncle Oskar. I come here for you. And what have I done with your gift? I ran away, I spawned a sullen half-Jew. And I learned to enjoy a halb-trocken Moselle.

    We exit into a space sectioned into two small rooms, with plaques. I walk out as he reads one.

    About 20 paces up the hillside, I wait. When I hear his footsteps, I walk.

     

    We ride back to Weimar in silence. At the Elephant, I ask the driver in German to wait.

    “I’m going straight to the station. My train is in a half-hour.”

    He follows through the lobby to the hallway alcove where I retrieve my bag. I let him carry it.

    An ecru effulgence filters through scattering clouds, glints on the moist stones of the square. People stroll around tables stacked with rhythmically patterned pottery, queue by trailers for crepes and sausages.

    We face each other with hands in coat pockets.

    “Well, you have my card,” he says, “if.”

    “Yes, likewise.”

    We smile abjectly.

    “Look, I am really glad I met you,” he says. “I know I hardly know you, and that I can’t know you any better, but it’s meant a lot to me, just talking. And today…”

    “Yes, thank you for going along. I had expected to be alone, but it was good to be with someone.”

    And yes, I want to tell him: life deals moments without reprieve or reprise.

    “I admire … what you’re doing,” he says. “I guess I should say what you said to the man at the camp: ‘You have no reason to bear that burden. You have suffered enough.’”

    “Thank  you,” I whisper, and lift my hand.

    He takes my fingers and studies them in his palm. He closes his other hand on top of them for a moment.

    Before the cab turns, I look back to see him headed for Goethe’s house.

    About

    Chuck Twardy is a writer and an instructor in the School of Communication at East Carolina University.

    http://www.chucktwardy.com

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