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tearing the rag off the bush again
Dachau Idyll PDF E-mail
Our arrival in Dachau was very well received, understandably so. Because of the town’s stigma, they had not been able to get a gynecologist to accept a position there.

Lately I have been overcome by an urge to put my affairs in order, the end must be near. I can’t complain though. My health seems to hold up, I have a cozy apartment overlooking solid red-roofed Bavarian houses and I enjoy the friendliness and respect of the good people of Dachau. Yes, I can say it in good conscience, I have achieved happiness in this lovely town. My Gabriel, may he rest in peace, is buried in the Catholic cemetery here and a place next to him is reserved for me and paid up for twenty-five years. For now I tend the grave, I quite enjoy doing so, the cemetery is so peaceful and you meet nice people there. When I am gone, my son will have to take care of it, he owes us that much, “the good Jew.” He rarely comes to visit, though we asked so little of him over the years. We ultimately accepted his remaining Jewish, though Gabriel had repeatedly tried to convince him and that Protestant wife of his to make a compromise and convert to Catholicism, the best religion by far, if you ask me. No, he had that shiksah convert to Judaism just to spite us, or as he likes to put it, to bring the children up Jewish, of all crazy ideas. Once when we brought up the subject of his Jewishness, he suggested we all spend a vacation away from the monotony of Dachau, “say in Auschwitz?” He never understood us, we couldn’t afford to stay Jewish.

When we finally got out of Romania in ’59, according to the emigration papers we were supposed to be headed for Israel. But we weren’t born yesterday, we didn’t leave one hell to move to another. Yes, right away they would have taken my son to the military and that clumsy boy, he would have fallen in some battle or other and then my Gabriel and I would have been left alone with no one to look after us in old age. So, Paris it was for us. My son got himself a fellowship and received his doctorate there, but we couldn’t stay. We supported ourselves by selling a few of the diamonds we managed to take with us, don’t ask me how, yes, if you have to know, by hiding them there. But it couldn’t go on like that for long, Gabriel and I had to do something. Gabriel was a fine gynecologist, but with a Berlin diploma they wouldn’t let him practice in Paris, or anywhere else in Europe, outside of Germany. Sure, he could have taken an equivalence exam, the nostrification as they call it, but that would have been stupid. That exam is not meant to find out whether you qualify to practice with a foreign diploma, but to find something you don’t know, the name of the nerve that runs from here to there, or some other nonsense like that, so they can keep the foreign competition out. The only hope we had, was to go to Germany and open a practice there. But you try and hang out your shingle in Germany as a Jew, even after Hitler. You think those Germans would allow a Jew to cut them up or bring them into this world?  No way! Yes, they’d let a Jew drill their teeth or they’d even take little Helmut to a Jew if he runs a fever, but the Jew better keep his distance from the main battlefield of the war between the sexes. That’s off limits for the Jew. Strengstens verboten!

When we showed up in Bonn with the request to settle there and ultimately to open a practice, a serious bespectacled official made it clear to us that while Gabriel’s diploma was impeccable, to settle as foreigners was far from trivial. The only ones for whom settlement was automatic were Auslandsdeutsche, Germans from abroad. Dejectedly we left his office and took a train to shabbily rebuilt Cologne to see its famed cathedral. We were standing in front of that gray stone giant, watching the swift flow of the muddy Rhine when Gabriel came up with the remedy to our predicament. As he looked at a wooden horse swaying in the brisk wind, its poster announcing a vocal recital of songs on Heine texts, Gabriel exclaimed “that’s it! we’ll say we’re German, we’re Auslandsdeutsche.” We decided to continue on as far as possible from the bespectacled official and more or less at random settled on Munich. The only rational explanation I have for this choice is that both Gabriel and I were born in the Habsburg Empire and Bavaria was the closest you could get to that in Germany.

To introduce ourselves as Auslandsdeutsche was not all that difficult, Gabriel had always been a Teuton at heart. He walked with determination, his speech was heavily cadenced, he carefully avoided any Levantine mannerisms: when speaking, he never used his hands, he never let his feet create the tell-tale Chaplinesque obtuse angle, he felt insulted if anyone took him for a Jew. His ideal was Erich von Stroheim, the quintessential German field marshal of the silver screen. We saw Billy Wilder’s  Five Graves to Cairo seven times at the very least. While I rooted for poor Anne Baxter and her Franchot Tone, Gabriel was winning the war for the Führer with Stroheim’s General Field Marshal Erwin Rommel “We shall take that big fat cigar out of Mr. Churchill's mouth and make him say Heil.” Come to think of it, our son, he couldn’t tolerate even this minor hobby of Gabriel and in a wanton act of cruelty had to tell his father that Stroheim’s accent in English was Viennese not Prussian and that Stroheim was a Jew. Von Stroheim a Jew! Whom was he kidding? You can explain Gabriel to his very last toe, if you think of him as a perpetually self-perfecting copy of Erich von Stroheim, Prussian officer, not Viennese Jew. My Gabriel knew better.

So, we made an appointment at the Bavarian resettlement office and with Prussian punctuality we showed up for it. To parade as Auslandsdeutsche with emigration papers made out for the Land of the Jews was far from easy, but we were prepared for the obstacles. We came from the Romanian Banat where a sizable Swabian population was known to reside. We both spoke fluent German and identified as Germans. The small detail that we were both born Jewish was incidental and we had tried to emigrate to Israel simply because that was the only emigration destination acceptable to the Romanian authorities.  But we have never had the slightest intention of going to a country with which we felt no affinity, we were German through and through. “How about religion?” Our answer to this question: we had converted to Catholicism long ago, before the war. Any proof? Hardly, after all we were coming out of a dictatorship like Romania headed for Israel. But we were well prepared for this question and named a former Swabian patient of Gabriel, one Anneliese Hund, who could swear to the fact that we were Catholics.  Anneliese was a tall obese spinster, who had entrusted Gabriel with the medical maintenance of her chronic virginity. Anneliese badly needed a man in her life, but there being no mortal takers, had settled on her Lord as a spiritual substitute. This pious virgin was deeply disturbed to have her body tended to by a man who believed in only one component of the Trinity, so she made it her mission to make Gabriel accept the remaining two. In a blatant manner she started proselytizing for her Lord. Now she would give Gabriel a leather-bound copy of the New Testament, now a copy of both Testaments bound in one volume, now a rosary. After a while Gabriel, by nature not a religious man, got fed up with all this. To keep his patient happy, he swore her to secrecy and then told Anneliese that convinced by her arguments and without anyone knowing it, he and I had converted to Catholicism. This made Anneliese immensely happy and she gave Gabriel a gold-plated crucifix with the Savior’s pain-contorted silver-plated body soldered to it. Given the strict prohibition against the exportation of precious metals from Communist countries, Gabriel couldn’t possibly be expected to have brought out this cherished sacred object, which unlike compact diamonds, is not easily hidden in a woman’s body. On the other hand Anneliese herself had left Romania for Germany right after the war and with a small effort should be traceable.

This story so moved the Bavarian official that he promised to locate Anneliese as fast as he could. He found her in less than a month and got from her an affidavit in which Anneliese confirmed all the details of our story, while at the same time taking ample credit for her missionary work. This way in early 1961 we both obtained German working permits. Given the remarkable spirituality of our past, the Bavarian official, a deeply religious man himself, saw to it that Gabriel found a job and let us know that as Auslandsdeutsche, one year after our arrival we will be entitled to a large sum of money from the government, should Gabriel wish to open a private practice then.

The task at hand was to choose a hospital at which to spend that first year. The official had given us a list of Bavarian hospitals with gynecology openings. There were fourteen listings, near Passau, near Würzburg, and in other distant places. There was nothing in Munich proper, but there were two listings in the Munich suburb of Dachau. At first we dismissed this tainted town as no place for two Jews, no matter how Auslandsdeutsch their credentials. Then it occurred to us that Dachau was the safest place for such Jews, for precisely in this setting, absolutely no one would dare start a serious investigation of their religious history. I felt ill at ease about this whole Auslandsdeutsch business at the time, but I understood that we had to make a living and that we weren’t the youngest any longer. So, if a modest deception was what it took, so be it. No one would be the wiser. Anneliese Hund could be counted on, she was so proud of her missionary record. The only fly in the ointment was my son. I therefore undertook a brief journey to Paris. The easiest thing would have been for him to join our mock-conversion, Anneliese could easily be induced to vouch for him as well. Yet, this obstinate boy would have none of it, the most I could make him promise was that if asked, he would confirm our Catholicism. Gabriel was very worried about the reliability of this promise, the young are not known to be all that careful. To safeguard our position then, we found it expedient to curtail our relations with our son. We certainly did not attend his Jewish wedding. For this my son blames me to this day, as if it were my fault. But honestly, he has no one to blame but himself, all we were asking of him was to pretend to be a Catholic, not to actually convert. If his parents weren’t deserving of this minuscule sacrifice, then I must wonder whether I succeeded in rearing him properly, of impressing upon him the immense debt owed by each and every one of us to our parents.  

Our arrival in Dachau was very well received, understandably so. Because of the town’s stigma, they had not been able to get a gynecologist to accept a position there. The townspeople resented this very much. To deliver their children, the women of Dachau had to journey to Munich, to some big impersonal hospital, the act of giving birth was robbed of its traditional homey warmth. Sure, during the war some atrocities were committed in Dachau, but by the SS, not by the townspeople, same as elsewhere. So, say some Jews lost their lives there as claimed. Does this condemn the Dachau citizenry in perpetuity to a deprivation of the most basic services? Viewed from here, it appears as if the Jews were unfairly singling out idyllic Dachau for their habitual cruel vengeance. In this atmosphere a Catholic shingle was of essence and we could provide one. That first year Gabriel started an Ob/Gyn section at the municipal hospital and local women came in droves to have their babies delivered there. This augured well for us, for in the second year when we would open the private practice, Gabriel would have a large population of satisfied patients to draw on. They all were very grateful to him.

Still, this was all predicated on our impeccable Catholic credentials. We had a local woman clean our place and even this good woman might notice that there was not a trace of Catholic life in our apartment. Something had to be done about that. At a fair in a nearby village I bought the portrait of a haloed woman piously looking heavenward, whence a bright white light shone upon her blue dress. According to local tradition this was unmistakably a portrait of the Blessed Virgin. Once hung over my bed this portrait would serve as a daily reminder to our cleaning woman that she was cleaning good Catholic dirt and not the reviled Jewish kind. At the same fair I also picked up a brass ashtray in the middle of which rose a cross to which was nailed the figure of a handsome Germanic youth rendered decent by a small loincloth. I placed this contraption on our coffee table and henceforth no one could smoke a Camel in our living room, without inhaling a trace of good Catholic spirituality. Beyond its practicality for the nicotine-addict, this sacred-looking object had the advantage that in a pinch, say a sudden visit from our son, it could quickly be hidden and then returned to its central location once the boy was gone. With this ashtray lording over our coffee table and the haloed woman’s portrait over my bed, our reputation as a God-fearing pious couple was forcefully established, even against our dismal record of Holy Mass attendance.

There was another ingredient to our bogus pedigree, we couldn’t cultivate any genuine friendships. After all, the hallmark of a genuine friendship is the ability to let one’s defenses down and bare one’s vulnerabilities. This was the one thing we could not afford. We had to stay alert at all times. Now, not making close friendships with Dachauers may not be such a great sacrifice. Yet, we all need others to stay in touch with, we need to relate, ever so superficially, to someone. We found an excellent medium for cultivating such relationships, we took up the game of bridge. We played as a team, us against them. Our conversation was highly formalized, bidding and pleasantries. Our actions were quite ritualized: shuffle, deal, eat, drink. And yet, even this rigid form of human relationship met our needs, we were not alone, much more even, we were accepted.

What was all this for? For this: without the hundred thousand marks we got from the German government, we would never have been capable of opening a practice, we could not even have played bridge, maybe Chinese checkers after mowing lawns all day. But without being Auslandsdeutsche, not a pfennig would have come our way from the German government. Finally, who has ever seen a pair of Jewish Auslandsdeutsche? So we decided to live the Catholic life, no Torah, no fasting at Yom Kippur, no tallis, no phylacteries, bareheaded before the Almighty, no more circumcisions either, unlike Romania, where many of Gabriel’s patients had been Jewish. For sure no circumcisions! Dachau is not in America where they circumcise even the Goyim. If you ask me why they do that, I’ll have to reply like Frau Keller, our neighbor, that unlike our German variety, most American obstetricians are Jewish and that these Jewish doctors want to make sure that no one will ever be able to tell the Jew by his schmuck. Understandable, but hardly very different from what we did, if you think of it. Incidentally, Frau Keller came to this insight on a vacation in the Rockies, where she swallowed more than one of these circumcised American organs --- her specialty, to believe the gossips, --- and afterwards needed to make sure she hadn’t whored for the Jew.

So, instead of all the Jewish paraphernalia, we have haloed portraits and crucified loin-clothed hunks, not so different after all. I really don’t see what the fuss is all about, and there is fuss, just ask my son. But leave me in peace, I’ve heard it all, and it all sounds like a lot of hogwash to me. If it all matters so much to him that’s his problem, I have no doubt we did the right thing.

There was one close call though. Some years ago, around Christmas we were invited for a game at the house of our bridge club president. He had three tables going, twelve of us plus two alternate players. It was a major event in the president’s dream-villa away from the bustle of the city, in a rural part of town overlooking the former concentration camps. If you are not aware of what ever went on there, or if after all these years you are willing to suspend your awareness of it, it is really quite bucolic, idyllic. We watched the sunset and sipped Mosel before sitting down at the three tables. With the holidays around the corner, people were more outgoing, they were outright restless. A couple of hours into the game our hostess, plump Mathilde with auburn braids rolled around her rotund head, asked us to help ourselves to a, by Dachau standards, lavish buffet dinner: beef stew with hunter’s sauce and dumplings and sekt, the German bubbly which is to French Champagne what a French Citroën Deux Chevaux is to a German Porsche. This may not sound like great food or great drink to former Habsburg subjects, but the elegance of the service made up for the culinary and enological shortcomings. Be that as it may, people got very carried away, especially by the sekt. No one had expected such extravagance, coffee and cookies and some sandwiches was all that most of us had in mind. With all that booze, people lost interest in the game and for a change started talking like old friends. Of course, we had been playing together for years and had occasionally gossiped with each player about each other player. Still, now for a change we were all together and for the first time we could all relate to each other and thereby create a cohesive group with a common experience to cherish. To make this experience truly memorable, it had to relate to a happy time in all our lives and retrospective happiness invariably finds its seat in youth. Yes, we were going to share the happiest days of our youth with each other and thereby create the bond that would light up our old age. Youth, happiness, clearly this meant the war.

It was Mathilde who came up with the idea, as far as I recall, but it somehow was in the air: all men should tell what they did during those exciting war years. The host was to go first. He had served under von Paulus at Stalingrad and had spent three years as a POW in Kazakhstan. The next one to go had served under Jodl in the Ardennes and so it went around the room, some in the Luftwaffe under Goering, some quite openly in the SS and all were proud of what they had done. One SS man, who had served in Poland, recounted the killing of seven Lublin Jews in as many days. He told it as one big joke. He was particularly proud of Thursday’s kill “we made that rat crawl on all fours into a pit of snakes even more poisonous than he”. We all laughed at his tale and Mathilde passed the sekt. “Prosit” intoned our host and we all got up and joined him in a loud unison “prosit”.

As we sat down, it was my Gabriel’s turn. I was very worried, was he going to confess? If these people found out that we were Jewish, they’d run us out of town. No, Gabriel had used the time the others were telling their stories to make up his own. As a German from the Romanian Banat, he had the choice between the Eastern Front and Africa where physicians were in high demand. In medical school he had taken a course in tropical medicine and this qualified him for service in Rommel’s Africa Corps. Now strictly speaking, the Sahara is not quite your typical tropical terrain, but then my Gabriel knew a thing or two about antidotes for snake venoms as well, and that made him particularly useful to Rommel. He had personally accompanied the great Field Marshal on his march to Cairo. The most remarkable instance was their stopover at a desert inn owned by an Egyptian. He had a beautiful French chambermaid, Mouche was her name, and she was working for the British as it turned out and therefore had to be shot. To hear Gabriel tell it, the debacle at El Alamein was all Mouche’s fault. Fortunately none of these good German patriots had seen von Stroheim and Anne Baxter do their shtick even once, let alone seven times as I have, or they would have known that Billy Wilder never cast my Gabriel in that movie. After Gabriel’s story we all went home, no one could possibly trump that.

On the drive home I took Gabriel to task, what if even one of these people wises up and realizes what he had done, we are cooked. “Not so fast” my Gabriel countered, “not so fast!” He could always claim he meant the whole thing as a joke, just like the SS man and his seven Lublin Jews. Spending the war in an American movie, even if only figuratively, is less of a transgression than throwing Jews in snake pits. “Don’t worry, none of this is going to get around.” He was right, I needn’t have worried, these people had no interest in hurting us. They may have had their suspicions, but ultimately they had fully accepted us, we belonged.

If you think of it, what Gabriel had done was the right thing. We have one big secret, we are bogus Catholic Auslandsdeutsche, the big lie of our life my son calls it, maybe he is right. This secret must be preserved at all cost, and if you have a big secret to preserve you are entitled to create new secrets, yes, lies I should call them. The sole purpose of these lies is precisely the preservation of the big secret. You are always allowed to add a new lie, you are just never allowed to get rid of one. The lies must all be consistent, the new lies must buttress the old. Ultimately you are creating your own history and that is your prerogative, as long as everything remains consistent and no contradictions arise. I don’t care what my son says, I am the only one in charge of my life, no one else has a say.

There is but one danger, as time goes by, my memory begins to fail me, and I am afraid I will carelessly land in the ultimate contradiction, visible to one and all. Gabriel, he is happily buried in hallowed ground, but I have to carry on without contradiction. Occasionally I do not know any longer who I am. Yes I am Jewish, of course I know that, my father lies buried in a Jewish cemetery somewhere in Romania and I am my father’s daughter. But I am also my husband’s widow and he slept at an inn on his way to Cairo with Stroheim and Anne Baxter, or maybe he made that up, or maybe my father made his Jewishness up, maybe those weren’t phylacteries he was wearing when he said his morning prayer wrapped in his tallis, and maybe that wasn’t a tallis after all, but a silk shawl. Who am I to tell? All I know is we got one hundred thousand marks from the German government and therefore now I can live happily in the charming Bavarian town of Dachau awaiting to meet my maker. Many others before me have been brought here to meet that same maker. Maybe they were Jews, or were they Catholics? Who knows? Does it matter?
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