I recently returned to W.G. Sebald, a 20th century German author whose novel The Emigrants (Die Ausgewanderten) had positively blindsided me in my last year of college. Profiling four different characters, one of whom, as I vaguely remember, was an uncle or distant cousin of his, Sebald paints a rich and moving portrait of a people (the Germans, of course) trying to find itself once again, attempting to redefine its own history and allow an identity to emerge that does not have to be defined by suffering and atrocities. All Germans are familiar with the term Vergangenheitsbewältigung —loosely, the “past reckoning”—and the somewhat ungainly word is one I learned almost immediately after first coming here, not from a German but strangely enough, from a New York Times article on the WWII-era cartoonist and satirist Arthur Szyk, whose work was at the time being shown in retrospective at the Deutsches Historisches Museum.
I remember being utterly fascinated by this word when I first heard it, or rather, by the idea that a way of thinking and feeling could be so ingrained in a specific culture, there could be a word that only exists in that language for it. I had taken linguistics classes before, and learned other foreign languages, but I suppose this caught me because it was the first evidence I had that a collective history can truly shape language. I’ve since probably mentioned it here a couple of times, but really I didn’t think about it for ages. It only popped up in my head again when I picked up Austerlitz, my second Sebald novel, which I am still reading now. Austerlitz, although it first made me think of a battle Napoleon fought, which I read about back when I was nine years old and inexplicably obsessed with the diminutive French emperor, is actually a person. Although a battlefield would do just as well. He doesn’t know where he’s from, and neither do we, for the first 150 pages or so. Then it slowly begins to emerge that he was a little boy in Prague, shipped to Wales on what was called a Kindertransport to escape the increasingly harsh rules imposed upon Jews in the late-1930’s, after the Nazis took Europe. The story itself seems like those told a thousand times by a thousand infantilizing children’s book authors and Hollywood producers out to win Oscars, but the way he tells it is new. That is, he tells it from another point of view; that of the narrator or the author or something in between, in a series of meetings with Austerlitz, through which the story of his self-discovery is relayed to us. The narrator, we can only assume, is a German—and as Austerlitz tells his story and he tells us, writing the entire novel without quotation marks, Austerlitz’s words become his own, we forget who is talking, and the entire narrative begins to blur. There is a reason the narrator feels so connected to and fascinated by Austerlitz, but that reason has not yet become clear. I suspect, however, that Austerlitz holds a certain appeal for the German narrator that has befriended him because what he is doing is the opposite of Vergangenheitsbewältigung. It is rather a Vergangenheitsausschachtung: the act of excavating a past that one does not yet know.
Indeed, Berlin is a city steeped in its own past—sometimes a little too much. And there are so many parts of history to choose from, it can be a bit difficult to decide. Not only do you have DDR time, WWII time, “Cabaret” time, “Berlin Alexanderplatz” time, you also have all the tiny and personal stories that are the pepper and spice of any city in the world. I have alluded to it in past posts, especially the one that began with my biking along the Mauerweg (trail of the wall), but perhaps Berlin is the greatest palimpsest city—and believe me, if there were a German word for that, I would have found it already.
In a way, discovering my own past, and trying to figure out what that might have to do with my decision to come here, I feel a bit like Austerlitz—or at least maybe I want to, as identifying with a solitary and melancholy figure traipsing across the globe is perhaps the fondest wish of every aspiring writer. After all, every expat knows that the first question anyone asks you is why you came to Berlin, and as I seem to be always meeting a lot of new people, I am invited to go through this particular little bit of self-exploration practically every day. And my answer keeps changing because I’m still not exactly sure. One possibility, which my mother has probably suggested but which I had earlier tended to ignore, is the idea that, as a Jew, coming here is somehow transgressive. Learning the language is perhaps even more so. Do I like the idea of arousing people’s curiosity, and doing something that seems at first glance somewhat abrasive, unexpected, and defiant? Yes. Definitely, yes. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. From the moment a couple of years ago when I announced at the dinner table that I was most decidedly not pro-Israel, and watched my parents’ faces freeze in a kind of horror as a creeping twinge of satisfaction tickled itself through my chest, there was something appealing to me about refusing to be a self-righteous and past-obsessed Jew.
I went to high school with this girl who I inexplicably called a good friend for the first couple of years. Then in English class junior year, something happened. Probably no one else remembers it, but it disgusted me so much that I could never forget it. I don’t believe it was the only thing leading to my realization about her, but I’d like to think it contributed to my general feeling that perhaps I should stop considering her a worthwhile person to spend time with. I don’t remember what text we were all discussing as a class, or what conversation we were having, but talk somehow turned to the Holocaust, and perhaps I was the one to turn it, because I remember distinctly being interrupted by her self-satisfied outburst: “I have relatives who were killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust, and I have some other members of my family who are fighting for their survival every day [yes she punctuated every other word like that] in Israel…. So just don’t talk about the Holocaust in this classroom in front of me…it’s wrong.” I remember turning to her quite calmly, for the first time after having many irritating conversations like this one with her suddenly knowing what to say: “The Holocaust happened. Israel is still happening. The last thing that’s going to help is not talking about it. We’ll talk about whatever we like in this classroom. And if you don’t like it you can leave.” I still don’t regret saying that to her. Although at the time it may have been an outburst intended to silence a class rival who had usurped the conversation, now I understand that I was lashing out at an entire generation of people who said that I should hold anger in my heart for something that had happened before I was even born.
But perhaps the one thing that makes me feel connected to Austerlitz more than all else is a revelation my father shared with me when he and my mother were here visiting in May. We were walking along an entirely normal street, on an entirely normal day, when he said, as if casually mentioning a bit of news from home: “Perhaps we should go to Charlottenburg and see where your grandmother lived.” I stopped in my tracks. “What?” “Oh,” he continued, “we never told you? Your grandmother lived here for a while, on Momsenstrasse…in fact your great-grandfather, her father, lived there until 1938 when he was deported by the Nazis.” My head spun. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The first thing I could think to say was, “wow, that’s…awesome,” which probably makes me a horrible person, and later on I would excuse my inappropriate reaction by explaining that this information was as good as solid gold to me: if I had relatives who were killed in the Holocaust, I could actually have a chance at getting German citizenship. Thinking about it recently though, I realize that my joy at this news was actually two-fold. The first was what I just mentioned, but the second was something else: it wasn’t a coincidence that I had come here after all. I had a connection to Berlin that I hadn’t even known about. This city and I, we shared a past.
So as I read through Austerlitz, first in English and then most likely in German, I can’t help but feeling, as I’m sure the narrator must have felt, a certain closeness with this fictional person. And indeed I can feel nothing but gratitude for the author who dreamed him up, trying to provide a flesh and blood catharsis to the past-reckoning of a people. Now that I have gone deeper into that past than I ever thought I would, I feel as though I have seen both sides. It is in the end a past I would not wish on anyone, but am nevertheless proud to share with many.