Joseph Kanon Leaving Berlin Preview

Joseph Kanon Leaving Berlin Preview

They were still A few miles out when he heard the planes, a low steady droning, coming closer, the way the bombers must have sounded. Now loaded with food and sacks of coal. After Köpenick he could make out their lights in the sky, dropping toward the dark city, one plane after another, every thirty seconds they said, if that were possible, unloading then taking off again, the lights now a line of vanishing dots, like tracer bullets.

“How does anyone sleep?”

“You don’t hear them after a while,” Martin said. “You get used to it.”

Maybe Martin had, new to Berlin. But what about the others, who remembered huddling in shelters every night, waiting to die, listening to the engine sounds—how near?—the whining thrust as the nose was pulled up, free of the weight of its bombs, now floating somewhere overhead.

“So many planes,” Alex said, almost to himself. “How long can they keep it going?” Die Luftbrücke, Berlin’s lifeline now, with little parachutes of candy for the children, for the photographers.

“Not much longer,” Martin said, certain. “Think of the expense.

And for what? They’re trying to make two cities. Two mayors, two police. But there’s only one city. Berlin is still where it is, in the Soviet zone. They can’t move it. They should leave now. Let things get back to normal.”

“Well, normal,” Alex said. The planes were getting louder, almost overhead, Tempelhof only one district west. “And will the Russians leave too?”

“I think so, yes,” Martin said, something he’d considered. “They stay for each other. The Americans don’t leave because the Russians—” He stopped. “But of course they’ll have to. It’s not reasonable,” he said, a French use of the word. “Why would the Russians stay? If Ger- many were neutral. Not a threat anymore.”

“Neutral but Socialist?”

“How else now? After the Fascists. It’s what everyone wants, I think, don’t you?” He caught himself. “Forgive me. Of course you do. You’ve come back for this, a Socialist Germany. To make the future with us. It was the dream of your book. I’ve told you, I think, I’m a great admirer—”

“Yes, thank you,” Alex said, weary.

Martin had joined him when he changed cars at the Czech bor- der, straw-colored hair slicked back, face scrubbed and eager, the bright-eyed conviction of a Hitler Youth. He was the first young man Alex had met since he arrived, all the others buried or missing, ir- retrievable. Then a few dragging steps and Alex saw why: a Goebbels clubfoot had kept him out of the war. With the leg and the slick hair he even looked a little like Goebbels, without the hollow cheeks, the predator eyes. Now he was brimming with high spirits, his initial formal reticence soon a flood of talk. How much Der letzte Zaun had meant to him. How pleasing it was that Alex had decided to make his home in the East, “voting with your feet.” How difficult the first years had been, the cold, the starvation rations, and how much better it was now, you could see it every day. Brecht had come—had Alex known him in America? Thomas Mann? Martin was a great admirer of Brecht too. Perhaps he could dramatize Alex’s Der letzte Zaun, an important antifascist work, something that might appeal to him.

“He’d have to talk to Jack Warner first,” Alex said, smiling to himself. “He controls the rights.”

“There was a film? I didn’t realize. Of course we never saw Ameri- can films.”

“No, there was going to be, but he never made it.”

The Last Fence, a Book-of-the-Month-Club Selection, the lucky break that supported his exile. Warners bought it for Cagney, then Raft, then George Brent, then the war came and they wanted battle pictures, not prison-camp escapes, so the project was shelved, another might-have-been on a shelf full of them. But the sale paid for the house in Santa Monica, not far from Brecht’s, in fact.

“But you were able to read it?” Alex said. “There were copies in Germany?” Really asking, who are you? A representative from the Kulturbund, yes, the artists’ association, but what else? Everyone here had a history now, had to be accounted for.

“In Switzerland you could get the Querido edition.” The émigré press in Amsterdam, which explained the book, but not Martin. “Of course, there were still many copies of Der Untergang in Germany, even after it was banned.”

Downfall, the book that had made his reputation, presumably the reason Germany wanted him back—Brecht and Anna Seghers and Arnold Zweig had all come home and now Alex Meier, Germany’s exiles returning. To the East, even culture part of the new war. He thought of Brecht ignored in California, Seghers invisible in Mexico City, now celebrated again, pictures in the paper, speeches of wel- come by Party officials.

There had been a lunch for him earlier at the first town over the border. They had left Prague at dawn to be in time for it, the streets still dark, slick with rain, the way they always seemed to be in Kafka. Then miles of stubby fields, farmhouses needing paint, ducks splashing in mud. At the border town—what was it called?— Martin had been there with welcoming flowers, the mayor and town council turned out in Sunday suits, worn and boxy, a formal lunch at the Rathaus. Photographs were taken for Neues Deutschland, Alex shaking hands with the mayor, the prodigal son come home. He was asked to say a few words. Sing for his supper. What he was here for, why they offered the resident visa in the first place, to make the future with us.

He had expected somehow to find all of Germany in ruins, the country you saw in Life, digging out, but the landscape after lunch was really a continuation of the morning’s drive, shabby farms and poor roads, their shoulders chewed up by years of tanks and heavy trucks. Not the Germany he’d known, the big house in Lützowplatz. Still, Germany. He felt his stomach tighten, the same familiar ap- prehension, waiting for the knock on the door. Now lunch with the mayor, the bad old days something in the past.

They avoided Dresden. “It would break your heart,” Martin had said. “The swine. They bombed everything. For no reason.” But what reason could there have been? Or for Warsaw, Rotterdam, any of them, maybe Martin too young to remember the cheering in the streets then. Alex said nothing, looking out at the gray winter fields. Where was everybody? But it was late in the year for farmwork and anyway the men were gone.

“Martin insisted on sitting with him in the back, an implied higher status than the driver, which meant they talked all the way to Berlin. ‘Excuse me, you don’t mind? It’s such an opportunity for me.'”

Martin insisted on sitting with him in the back, an implied higher status than the driver, which meant they talked all the way to Berlin. “Excuse me, you don’t mind? It’s such an opportunity for me.”

I’ve always wondered. The family in Downfall ? These were actual people you knew? It’s like Buddenbrooks?”

“Actual people? No,” Alex said.

Were they still alive? Irene and Elsbeth and Erich, old Fritz, the people of his life, swallowed up in the war, maybe just names now on a refugee list, untraceable, their only existence in Alex’s pages, some- thing Fritz would have hated.

“It’s not us, these people,” he’d yelled at Alex. “My father never gambled, not like that.”

“It’s not you,” Alex had said calmly.

“Everybody says it’s us. They say it at the club. You should hear Stolberg. ‘Only a Jew would write such things.’”

“Well, a Jew did,” Alex said.

“Half a Jew,” Fritz snapped, then more quietly, “Anyway, your father’s a good man. Stolberg’s just like the rest of them.” He looked up. “So it’s not us?”

“It’s any Junker family. You know how writers use things—a look, a mannerism, you use everything you know.”

“Oh, and so now we’re Junkers. And I suppose we lost the war too. Pickelhauben.”

“Read the book,” Alex had said, knowing Fritz never would. “What does it mean, anyway? Downfall. What happens to them?

The father gambles? So what?”

“They lose their money,” Alex said.

Old Fritz turned, embarrassed now. “Well, that’s easy enough to do. In the inflation everybody lost something.”

Alex waited, the air settling around them. “It’s not you,” he said again.

And Fritz believed him.

“But the camp in The Last Fence,” Martin was saying. “That’s Sachsenhausen, yes? They said at the office you’d been in Sachsen- hausen.”

“Oranienburg, in the first camp there. They built Sachsenhausen later. They put us in an old brewery. Right in the center of town. People could see through the windows. So everyone knew.”

“But it was as you describe? You were tortured?” Martin said, un- able to resist.

“No. Everyone was beaten. But the worst things—I was lucky.” Hands tied behind their backs then hung from poles until the shoulder joints separated, torn from the sockets, screams they couldn’t help, pain so terrible they finally passed out. “I wasn’t there long enough. Somebody got me out. You could still do that then. ’33. If you knew the right people.” The one thing old Fritz had left, connections.

“But in the book—”

“It’s meant to be any camp.”

“It’s nice, though, don’t you agree, to know what the author has in his mind, what he sees?”

“Well, Sachsenhausen then,” Alex said, tired of it. “The layout was described to me, so I knew what it was like. Then you invent.”

“’33,” Martin said, backing off. “When they rounded up the Communists. You were in the Party even then?”

“No, not then,” Alex said. “I just got caught in the net. If you were sympathetic. If you had Communist friends. They scooped up all the fish and you were caught. You didn’t need to have a card.”

“And now the Americans are doing it, putting Communists in jail. They said that’s why you left.” A question. “They’re trying to destroy the Party. Just like the Nazis.” The only way it made sense to the Kulturbund.

“They’re not sending people to Sachsenhausen,” Alex said evenly. “It’s not illegal to be a Communist.”

“But I thought—”

“They want you to tell them who the others are. Give them names. And if you don’t—then that’s illegal. So they catch you that way.”

“And then to jail,” Martin said, following the logic.

“Sometimes,” Alex said vaguely.

Or deportation, the Dutch passport of convenience that had once saved his life now something to use against him. “Might I re- mind you, you are a guest in this country?” The congressman with the thick athlete’s neck, who probably thought exile a greater threat than prison. And let Alex slip away.

“So you came home to Germany,” Martin said, making a story. “Yes, home,” Alex said, looking out the window again.

“So, that’s good,” Martin said, the story’s end.

There were city buildings now, the jagged graveyard streets of the newsreels, Friedrichshain probably, given the direction they were coming from. He tried to picture the map in his head—Grosse Frankfurter Strasse?—looking for some familiar landmark, but all he could see were faceless bombed-out buildings heaped with rubble. He thought of the women handing down pails of debris, hammering mortar off reusable bricks—and four years later the rubble was still here, mountains of it. How much had there been? Standing walls were pockmarked by shelling, marooned in empty spaces where buildings had collapsed, leaving gaps for the wind to rush through. The streets, at least, had been cleared but were still lined on either side with piles of bricks and smashed porcelain and twisted metal. Even the smell of bombing, the burned wood and the sour lime of broken cement, was still in the air. But maybe, like the airlift planes, you didn’t notice after a while.

“You still have family in Germany?” Martin was asking.

“No. No one,” Alex said. “They waited too long.” He turned to Martin, as if it needed to be explained. “My father had the Iron Cross. He thought it would protect him.”

But did he? Or was it simply a cover for a fatalism so knowing and desperate that it couldn’t be admitted? It was almost as if he had exhausted himself getting Alex out. How much had it cost? Enough to wipe out Fritz’s debts? More?

“You owe him your gratitude,” was all his father would say. “You should come too,” Alex had said.

His father shook his head. “There’s no need. Not for me. I’m not the one they send to prison for having such friends. The Engel boy, he was always trouble. Who does he think he is, Liebknecht? Times like these, you stay quiet.” He took Alex’s shoulder. “You’ll be back. This is Germany, you know, not some Slavic— So it passes and you’ll come back. Nothing is forever. Not the Nazis. Now don’t worry your mother.”

But it turned out the Nazis were forever, long enough anyway to turn his parents into ash, seeping into the soil somewhere in Poland.

“There’s Alexanderplatz up ahead,” Martin said.

The welcome lunch and bad roads had made the trip longer than they’d expected, and it was late now, their car lights stronger than the occasional streetlamp shining a pale cone on the rubble. On the side streets there were no lights at all. Alex leaned forward, peering, oddly excited now that they were really here. Berlin. He could make out the scaffolding of a building site and then, beyond a cleared, formless space, the dark hulk of the palace, singed with soot, the dome just a steel frame, but still standing, the last Hohenzollern. Across from it the cathedral was a blackened shell. Alex had expected the city center, the inevitable showcase, to be visibly recovering, but it was the same as Friedrichshain, more rubble, endless, the old Schinkel buildings gutted and sagging. Unter den Linden was dark, the lindens themselves scorched clumps. There was scarcely any traffic, just a few military cars driving slowly, as if they were patrolling the empty street. At Friedrichstrasse, no one was waiting to cross. A sign in Cyrillic pointed to the station. The city was as quiet as a village on some re- mote steppe. Berlin.

All the way in Martin had talked about the Adlon, where Alex was to stay until a flat could be arranged. It was for Martin a place of mythic glamour, of Weimar first nights, Lubitsch in a fur collar coat. “Brecht and Weigel are there too, you know.” Which seemed to confirm not only the hotel’s status, but Alex’s own. But now that they were almost there, with no lights visible up ahead, no awning or doormen whistling down taxis, he began to apologize.

“Of course it’s only the annex. You know the main building was burned. But very comfortable I’m told. And the dining room is al- most like before.” He checked his watch. “It’s late, but I’m sure for you they would—”

“No, that’s all right. I just want to go to bed. It’s been—”

“Of course,” Martin said, but with such heavy disappointment that Alex realized he’d been hoping to join him for dinner, a meal off the ration book. Instead, he handed Alex an envelope. “Here are all the papers you’ll need. Identity card. Kulturbund membership—the food is excellent there, by the way. You understand, for members only.”

“No starving artists?”

A joke, but Martin looked at him blankly.

“’No one starves here. Now tomorrow we have the reception for you. At the Kulturbund. Four o’clock. It’s not far, around the corner, so I will come for you at three thirty.’”

“No one starves here. Now tomorrow we have the reception for you. At the Kulturbund. Four o’clock. It’s not far, around the corner, so I will come for you at three thirty.”

“That’s all right. I can find—”

“It’s my pleasure,” Martin said. “Come.” Nodding to the driver to bring the suitcase.

The functioning part of the Adlon was in the back, at the end of a pathway through the gutted front. The staff greeted him with a stage formality, bowing, their uniforms and cutaways part of the surreal theatrical effect. Through a door he could see the starched linen on the dining tables. No one seemed to notice the charred timbers, the boarded windows.

“Alex?” A throaty woman’s voice. “My God, to see you here.”

He turned. “Ruth. I thought you’d gone to New York.” Not just gone to New York, been hospitalized there, the breakdown he’d heard about in whispers.

“Yes, but now here. Brecht needs me here, so I came.” Martin lifted his head at this.

“I’m sorry,” Alex said, introducing them. “Ruth Berlau, Martin—”

“Schramm. Martin Schramm.” He dipped his head.

“Ruth is Brecht’s assistant,” Alex said, smiling. “Right hand. Col- laborator.” Mistress. He remembered the teary afternoons at Salka’s house on Mabery Road, worn down by a backstairs life.

“His secretary,” Ruth said to Martin, correcting Alex but flattered. “I’m a great admirer of Herr Brecht’s work,” Martin said, almost clicking his heels, a courtier.

“So is he,” Ruth said, deadpan, so that Alex wasn’t sure he could laugh.

She seemed smaller, more fragile, as if the hospital had drawn some force out of her.

“You’re staying here?” he said.

“Yes, just down the hall. From Bert.”

Not mentioning Helene Weigel, his wife, down the hall with him, the geography of infidelity. He imagined the women passing in the lobby, eyeing each other, years of it now.

“Of course a smaller room. Not like the great artist’s.” An ironic smile, used to servants’ quarters. “They’re going to give him a the- ater, you know. Isn’t it wonderful? All his plays, whatever he decides. We’re doing Mother Courage first. At the Deutsches Theater. He was hoping for the Schiff, but not yet, maybe later. But the Deutsches is good, the acoustics—”

“Who’s playing Courage?”

“Helene,” she said simply. Now finally Brecht’s star as well as his wife. Alex thought of the wasted years of exile, keeping house for him, ignoring the mistress, an actress without her language. “You’ll have to come to the theater. She’ll be pleased to see you again. You know Schulberg is here?” Wanting to gossip, California in common. She jerked her head. “In the army. Over in the West. Which is lucky for us. Food packages from the PX—he’s very generous.” Alex felt Martin shift position, uncomfortable. “Not for Bert, of course. They give him anything he wants. But for the cast, always hungry. So Helene gets food for them. Imagine what they would say if they knew they were flying in food for Weigel?” She looked up at him, as if the thought had jogged her memory. “So tell me, what happened with the com- mittee? Did you testify?”


“But there was a subpoena?” Asking something else. Alex nodded.

“So,” she said, taking in the lobby, his presence explained. “Then you can’t go back.” Something else remembered, glancing behind him. “Marjorie’s not with you?”

Alex shook his head. “She’s getting a divorce.” He raised his hand. “We should have done it years ago.”

“But what happens to Peter? The way you are with him—” “He’ll come visit,” Alex said, stopping her.

“But he stays with her,” she said, not letting go. “Well, with the way things are—”

“You like a fugitive, you mean. That’s what they want—hound us all like fugitives. Only Bert was too clever for them. Did you see? No one understood anything he said. Dummkopfs. And what? They thanked him for his testimony. Only he could do that. Outfox them.” “But he left anyway.” His bridges burning too. “So now we’re both here,” Alex said, looking at her.

“We’re so happy to have our writers back,” Martin said before she could answer. “A wonderful thing, yes? To be in your own country. Your own language. Think what that means for a writer.”

Ruth looked up at this, then retreated, like a timid animal poking its head through the bushes then skittering away, frightened by the scent in the air.

“Yes, and here I am talking and you want to go to your room.” She put her hand on Alex’s arm. “So come see us.” But who exactly? Brecht and Ruth or all three? A hopeless tangle. She smiled shyly. “He’s happy here, you know. The theater. A German audience. That’s everything for him.” Her eyes shining a little now, an acolyte’s pleasure. The same look, oddly, he’d seen in Martin’s, both in thrall to some idea that seemed worth a sacrifice.

“I will,” he said, then noticed the overnight bag at her feet. “But you’re going away?”

“No, no, just to Leipzig. They want to put on Galileo. Bert doesn’t think they’re serious, but someone has to go. One day, two maybe. It’s all right, they keep my room for me here. You can’t make such arrangements by letter. You have to go.” So someone would.

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