Read an Excerpt
"WHY ONLY NOW?" HE SAYS, this person not to be confused with me. Well, because Mother's incessant nagging...Because I wanted to cry the way I did at the time, when the cry spread across the water, but couldn't anymore...Because for the true story...hardly more than three lines...Because only now...
The words still don't come easily. This person, who doesn't like excuses, reminds me that I'm a professional: had a way with words at a young age, signed on as a cub reporter with one of the Springer tabloids, soon had the lingo down pat, then switched over to the Tageszeitung, where Springer was the favorite whipping boy, later kept it short and sweet as a mercenary for various news agencies, and eventually freelanced for a while, chopping and shredding all sorts of subjects to be served up as articles: something new every day. The news of the day.
True enough, I said. But that's about all I know how to do. If I really have to settle my own historical accounts now, everything I messed up is going to be ascribed to the sinking of a ship. Why? Because Mother was nine months pregnant when it happened, because it's sheer coincidence that I'm alive.
And already, again, I'm doing someone else's bidding, but at least I can leave myself out of it for the time being, because this story began long before me, more than a hundred years ago, in Schwerin, the ducal seat of Mecklenburg, nestled amid seven lakes, priding itself on postcards of its Schelfstadt district and a castle bristling with turrets, and outwardly left unharmed by the wars.
Initially I didn't think a provincial burg that history had crossed off long ago could attract anyone besides tourists, but then the starting place for my story suddenly acquired a presence on the Internet. An anonymous source was posting biographical information, complete with dates, street names, and report cards, a treasure trove for someone like me who was under pressure to dig up the past.
I'd bought myself a Mac, with a modem, as soon as these things came on the market. For my work I need to be able to snare information wherever it may be wandering around the world. I got pretty good at using the computer. Soon terms like browser and hyperlink were no longer Chinese to me. With a click of the mouse I could haul in stuff that I might use or might end up throwing in the trash. Soon, out of idleness or inclination, I began flitting from chat room to chat room, also responded to the most idiotic spam, checked out a couple of porno sites, and after some aimless surfing finally landed on sites where old unregenerates but also freshly minted neo-Nazis were venting their venom on hate pages. And suddenly-entering the name of a ship as a keyword-I clicked my way to the right address: www.blutzeuge.de. In Gothic script the "Comrades of Schwerin" were strutting their stuff. Something about a martyr. Dredging up the past. More ludicrous than disgusting.
In the meantime it's become clear which martyr is meant and what he's supposed to have shed his blood for. But I'm still not sure how to go about this: should I do as I was taught and unpack one life at a time, in order, or do I have to sneak up on time in a crabwalk, seeming to go backward but actually scuttling sideways, and thereby working my way forward fairly rapidly? Only this much is certain: Nature, or to be more precise, the Baltic, said yea and amen more than half a century ago to everything that will have to be reported here.
First comes a person whose gravestone was smashed. After getting through school-the commercial track-he apprenticed at a bank, finishing up without attracting undue attention. Not a word about this phase on the Internet. On the Web site dedicated to Wilhelm Gustloff, born in Schwerin in 1895, he was celebrated as "the martyr." The site did not mention the problems with his larynx, the chronic weakness of the lungs that prevented him from proving his bravery in the First World War. While Hans Castorp, a young man from a good Hanseatic family, received orders from his creator to leave the Magic Mountain, and on page 994 of the novel was left to fall as a volunteer on Flanders Field or to escape into a literary no-man's-land, in 1917 the Schwerin Life Insurance Bank took the precaution of shipping its industrious employee off to Davos in Switzerland, where he was supposed to recover from his illness. That locale's remarkable air restored his health so completely that death could get at him only in another form; for the time being, he did not care to return to Schwerin and its lowland climate.
Wilhelm Gustloff found a job as an assistant in an observatory. When this research station was converted into a Helvetian foundation, he was promoted to recording secretary of the observatory, a post that gave him time to supplement his income by working as a door-to-door salesman for a company that offered household insurance. Through his moonlighting, he became familiar with all the Swiss cantons. Meanwhile his wife Hedwig was not idle either; as a secretary in the office of an attorney named Moses Silberroth, she did her job without experiencing any sense of dissonance with her Aryan loyalties.
Up to this point, the facts offer a composite portrait of a solid bourgeois couple. But, as will become apparent, the Gustloffs' way of life merely appeared to be consistent with Swiss notions of gainful employment. Secretly at first, later openly-and for a long time with his employer's tacit approval-the observatory secretary exercised his inborn organizational talent: he joined the Nazi Party, and by early '36 had recruited about five thousand new members among German and Austrian citizens living in Switzerland, had established local chapters all over the country, and had had the new members pledge their loyalty to someone whom Providence had thought up as the Führer.
Gustloff himself had been appointed Landesgruppenleiter by Gregor Strasser, the man in charge of Party organization. Strasser belonged to the left wing of the Party, and two years after resigning all his posts in '32 to protest his Führer's cozy relationship with industry, he was included in the Röhm Putsch and liquidated by his own people; his brother Otto saved his own skin by fleeing Germany. At that point Gustloff had to find someone else to emulate.
On the basis of a question posed in the Graubünden cantonal parliament, an officer from the Swiss Aliens Police interrogated Gustloff as to how he envisioned carrying out his duties as NSDAP Landesgruppenleiter in the Helvetian Confederation. He is said to have replied, "In all the world, I love my wife and my mother most. If my Führer ordered me to kill them, I would obey him."
On the Internet this quotation was challenged as apocryphal. In the chat room sponsored by the Comrades of Schwerin, this and other lies were characterized as fabrications by the Jewish writer Emil Ludwig. It was claimed that, on the contrary, the influence of Gregor Strasser on the martyr had remained in force. Gustloff had always put the socialist element in his worldview ahead of the nationalist element. Soon battles raged between the right and left wings of the chatters. A virtual Night of the Long Knives took its toll.
But then all interested users were reminded of a date that allegedly proved that the hand of Providence had been at work. Something I had tried to explain away as a mere coincidence elevated the Party functionary Gustloff to a participant in a celestial design: on 30 January 1945, fifty years to the day after the martyr's birth, the ship named after him began to sink, signaling the downfall of the Thousand-Year Reich, twelve years-again to the day-since the Nazis' seizure of power.
There it stands, as if hewn into granite, that damned date on which everything began, later to escalate murderously, reach a climax, come to an end. I, too, thanks to Mother, began on that repeatedly unlucky day. She, however, lives by a different calendar, and grants no power to coincidence or any similarly blanket explanation.
"Don't get me wrong!" exclaims this woman, whom I never refer to possessively as "my mother" but only as "Mother." "That ship could've been named after anyone, and it still would've gone down. What I'd like to know is, what was that Russki thinking of when he gave orders to shoot them three whatchamacallums straight at us...?"
She still rambles on this way, as if buckets of time hadn't flowed over the dam since then. Trampling her words to death, putting sentences through the wringer. In her idiom, potatoes are bullwen, cottage cheese is glumse, and when she cooks cod in a mustard sauce, she calls it pomuchel. In typical Low German fashion, she also pronounces most g's like y's. Mother's parents, August and Erna Pokriefke, came from the area known as the Koschneiderei, and were referred to as Koshnavians. She, however, grew up in Langfuhr. She considers herself a product not of Danzig but of this elongated suburb, which kept expanding into the open countryside. One of its streets was Elsenstrasse, and to the child Ursula, who went by Tulla, it must have been all that was needed in the way of a world. When Mother talks about "way back when," even though she often recalls pleasant days on the nearby Baltic beaches or winter sleigh rides in the forests to the south of the suburb, she usually draws her listeners into the courtyard of the apartment house at 19 Elsenstrasse, and from there, past Harras, the chained German shepherd, into a carpentry shop, filled with the sounds of the circular saw, the band saw, the lathe, the planer, and the whining finishing machine. "When I was just a little brat, they let me stir the glue pot..." Which explains why, as the story goes, wherever she stood, lay, walked, ran, or cowered in a corner, the child Tulla had that legendary smell of carpenter's glue clinging to her.
It was thus not surprising that when they housed us in Schwerin right after the war, Mother decided to train as a carpenter in the Schelfstadt district. As a "resettler," the term used in the East, she was promptly assigned an apprenticeship with a master carpenter whose shack, with its four workbenches and constantly bubbling glue pot, was considered long established. From there it was not far to Lehmstrasse, where Mother and I had a tar-paper roof over our heads. If we hadn't gone ashore in Kolberg after the disaster, if the torpedo boat Löwe had brought us instead to Travemünde or Kiel, in the West, that is, as a "refugee from the East," as they called it over there, Mother would certainly have done an apprenticeship in carpentry, too. I consider it a coincidence, whereas from the first day she viewed the place where we were compulsorily placed as preordained.
"And when did that Russki, the captain of the U-boat, I mean, have his birthday? You're the one who usually knows that kind of thing..."
No, in this case I don't have as much information as about Wilhelm Gustloff, which I got off the Internet. All I could find online was the year of the Russian's birth and a few other facts and conjectures, the stuff journalists call background.
Aleksandr Marinesko was born in 1913, in the port of Odessa, on the Black Sea. The city must have been magnificent at one time, as the black-and-white images in the film Battleship Potemkin demonstrate. His mother came from Ukraine. His father was a Romanian, and had signed his papers "Marinescu" before he was condemned to death for mutiny. He managed to flee at the last minute.
His son Aleksandr grew up near the docks. And because Russians, Ukrainians, and Romanians, Greeks and Bulgarians, Turks and Armenians, Gypsies and Jews all lived there cheek by jowl, he spoke a mishmash of many languages, but must have been understood by his youth gang. No matter how hard he tried later on to speak Russian, he never quite succeeded in purging his father's Romanian curses from his Yiddish-seasoned Ukrainian. When he was already a ship's mate on a trading vessel, people laughed at his linguistic hodgepodge; but in later years many must have discovered that there was nothing to laugh about, no matter how comical the U-boat commander's orders may have sounded.
Let's rewind to an earlier period: at seven, young Aleksandr is said to have watched from the overseas pier as the last White Russian troops and the exhausted remnants of the British and French troops that had been sent into the fray fled Odessa. Not long after that he saw the Reds march in. Purges took place. Then the civil war was as good as over. And several years later, when foreign ships were allowed once more to dock in the harbor, the boy is supposed to have shown persistence and soon real skill at diving for the coins that elegantly dressed passengers tossed into the brackish water.
The trio is not yet complete. We are still missing one. It was his deed that set in motion something that would exert a powerful undertow, and prove unstoppable. Because he unwittingly transformed the man from Schwerin into the movement's martyr, and the youth from Odessa into the hero of the Baltic Red Banner Fleet, he will be on trial for all time to come. Greedy now, I extracted this and similar indictments from that Web site, which I always found by searching under the same phrase: "A Jew fired the shots..."
As I have meanwhile learned, a polemical work brought out by the Franz Eher publishing house, Munich, 1936, and written by Party member and official speaker Wolfgang Diewerge, made the charge less equivocally. The Comrades of Schwerin, following the irrefutable logic of insanity, could proclaim, more definitively than Diewerge was yet in a position to know, "Without the Jew, the greatest maritime disaster of all times would never have taken place in the navigation channel west of Stolpmünde, which had been swept for mines. The Jew was the one...It's all the Jew's fault..."
Certain facts could nonetheless be gleaned from the exchanges stirred up in the chat room, some in English, some in German. One of the chatters knew that not long after the war began Diewerge had become manager of the Reich radio station in Danzig, and another had information on his doings in the postwar period: as the crony of other Nazi bigwigs, such as Achenbach, who became a Free Democratic member of the Bundestag, Diewerge allegedly infiltrated the liberal party of Nordrhein-Westfalen. And a third chatter added that in the seventies the former Nazi propaganda expert ran a discreet donation-laundering operation for the Free Democrats, in Neuwied am Rhein. Finally, questions about the assassin of Davos rose above the din in the crowded chat room, and were shot down with sharp replies.
In 1909, four years before Marinesko was born and fourteen years after Gustloff was born, David Frankfurter came into the world in the West Slavonian town of Daruvar, the son of a rabbi. Hebrew and German were spoken in the home, and in school David learned to speak and write Serbo-Croatian, but he was also subjected to the hatred directed against Jews that was part of everyday life. His efforts to come to terms with it must have been futile, because he was constitutionally incapable of putting up a robust defense, and on the other hand he despised the very notion of accepting life as it was.
David Frankfurter had only one thing in common with Wilhelm Gustloff: as the latter was initially handicapped by weak lungs, the former suffered from childhood on from chronic osteomyelitis. But whereas Gustloff managed to overcome his illness by going to Davos, and served the Party diligently once his health was restored, the doctors could not help David. He underwent five operations, but without success: a hopeless case.
Perhaps it was because of his illness that he took up the study of medicine, which he did in Germany, on his family's advice. His father and grandfather before him had studied there. Apparently he had trouble concentrating, because he was always ailing, and he failed the preclinical examination as well as subsequent examinations. But Party member Diewerge asserted on the Internet, in contrast to the writer Ludwig, whom Diewerge insisted on calling "Emil Ludwig-Cohn," that the Jew Frankfurter had been not only a weakling but also a lazy and shiftless student, a dandy and chain-smoker who frittered away his father's money.
Then began-on that thrice-cursed date-the year of the Nazi takeover-recently celebrated on the Internet. In Frankfurt the chain-smoker David got a taste of what was in store for him and other students. He witnessed the burning of books by Jewish authors. Suddenly a Star of David appeared at his station in the laboratory. Hate, now taking a physical form, was closing in on him. He and others were pelted with insults by students raucously proclaiming their membership in the Aryan race. This he could not put up with. It was unbearable. He fled to Switzerland, continuing his studies in Berne, seemingly a safe haven-where he again failed to pass various examinations. Nonetheless he sent his parents cheery, even confident letters, wangling more money out of his father. When his mother died the following year, he gave up his studies. Perhaps in hopes of gaining support from relatives, he risked a trip back to the Reich, where he stood by without lifting a finger while his uncle, a rabbi like his father, had his reddish beard pulled on a street in Berlin by a young man who shouted, "Hepp, hepp, Jew!"
Any account along these lines can be found in Murder in Davos, a fictionalized version by the best-selling author Emil Ludwig, brought out in 1936 by Querido, a publishing house founded in Amsterdam by German émigrés. Again the Comrades of Schwerin had a different story on their Web site; they took the word of Party member Diewerge, because he quoted what the rabbi, Dr. Salomon Frankfurter, purportedly told the Berlin police when they interrogated him: "It is not true that an adolescent boy pulled me by my beard (which in point of fact is black, not red), shouting, 'Hepp, hepp, Jew!'"
I was unable to determine whether this police investigation, not ordered until two years after the alleged incident, employed any coercion. At any rate, David went back to Berne, and must have been in despair on a number of counts. For one thing, he was supposed to resume his studies, hitherto completely unsuccessful, and for another, to his chronic physical pain had been added grief over his mother's death. Furthermore, his impressions from his brief visit to Berlin became even more depressing when he read reports in the local and foreign newspapers about concentration camps in Oranienburg, Dachau, and elsewhere.
Suicidal thoughts must have come to him toward the end of '35, and repeatedly thereafter. Later, when the trial was under way, a psychological evaluation commissioned by the defense noted: "As a result of psychological factors of a personal nature, Frankfurter found himself in an untenable emotional situation, from which he felt he had to escape. His depression gave rise to the idea of suicide. But the instinct for self-preservation innate to every human being deflected the bullet from himself onto another victim."
The Internet carried no nit-picking commentaries on this evaluation. Nonetheless, I had a growing suspicion that what lurked behind the URL www.blutzeuge.de was no skinhead group calling itself the Comrades of Schwerin but a solitary clever young fanatic. Someone scuttling crabwise like me, sniffing for the scents and similar exudations of history.
A shiftless student? That was me, when I decided that German literature was too boring and media studies at the Otto Suhr Institute too theoretical.
Initially, when I left Schwerin and then migrated from East to West Berlin by S-Bahn, shortly before the Wall went up, I made a real effort, as I had promised Mother when we parted. Worked my tail off in school. Was sixteen and a half when I got my first whiff of freedom. Lived in Schmargendorf, near Roseneck, with Mother's old schoolmate Jenny, who had supposedly shared a bunch of crazy experiences with her. Had my own room, with a skylight. A nice time that was, actually.
Aunt Jenny's attic apartment on Karlsbader Strasse looked like a doll's house. Everywhere, on side tables and wall brackets, she had porcelain figurines under glass. Dancers in tutus on pointe. Some of them balancing in daring arabesques, all with delicate little heads and long necks. As a young woman, Jenny had been a ballerina, and quite well known, but then, during one of the many air raids that were reducing the Reich capital to rubble, both her feet were crushed, with the result that she hobbled when she brought me an assortment of snacks for afternoon tea, though her arm gestures remained fluid. And like the fragile figurines in her oh-so-sweet little attic, the small face atop her now gaunt but agile neck bore a smile that seemed frozen in place. She often had the shivers, and drank a good deal of hot lemonade.
I enjoyed living there. She pampered me. And when she talked about her old girlfriend-"My darling Tulla slipped a note to me a little while ago"-I would be tempted for a few minutes to feel some fondness for Mother, that tough old bitch; but soon she would get on my nerves again. The messages she managed to smuggle out of Schwerin to Karlsbader Strasse bristled with admonitions, underlined to the point of no contradiction and intended to "pester" me into compliance, to use Mother's word: "The boy's got to study, study, study. That's the only reason why I sent him to the West-so he could amount to something..."
As I read that, I could hear the words Mother would have used in her native Langfuhr idiom: "That's all I live for-so's my son can bear witness one of these days." Speaking for her girlfriend, Aunt Jenny would admonish me, too, in her gentle but pointed tone. I had no choice but to work my tail off in school.
My class included a bunch of other kids who'd escaped from the East. I had a lot of catching up to do on subjects such as democracy and the rule of law. In addition to English I had to take French-Russian was a thing of the past. I also began to see how capitalism worked, the whole business of structural unemployment. I was no star, but I passed the university entrance exams, as Mother had demanded.
In other respects I held my own, when it came to girls, for instance, and didn't even have to pinch pennies, because when I went over to the enemy of the working class, with her blessing, Mother slipped me another address in the West: "This guy's your father, or could be. A cousin of mine. He knocked me up shortly before he had to go in the service. That's what he thinks. Send him a note to let him know how you're doing, once you're settled over there..."
Comparisons are odious. Yet where finances were concerned, I soon found myself in the same situation as David Frankfurter in Berne, whose distant father deposited a tidy sum in his Swiss bank account every month. Mother's cousin Harry Liebenau-God rest his soul-was the son of the master carpenter back on Elsenstrasse, and had been living in Baden-Baden since the late fifties. As the cultural editor for Southwest German Radio, he was responsible for late-night programming: poetry around midnight, when only the pines in the Black Forest were still listening.
Since I didn't want to be hitting up Mother's girlfriend for money all the time, I fired off a rather nice letter, if I do say so myself, and after the closing flourish, "Your unknown son," I made sure to include my bank account number, in my most legible handwriting. Apparently he was too happily married to write back, but every month without fail he came through with far more than the minimum child support, the sum of two hundred marks, a small fortune at the time. Aunt Jenny knew nothing about this arrangement, but apparently she had been acquainted with Mother's cousin Harry, if only fleetingly, as she let on rather than actually said, a faint flush coloring her doll's face.
In early '67, not long after I had extricated myself from Karlsbader Strasse and moved to Kreuzberg, where I soon dropped my studies and clambered aboard at Springer's Morgenpost as a cub reporter, the money supply dried up. From then on I never wrote to my sugar daddy, or at most a Christmas card. Why should I have? In one of her smuggled messages, Mother had made it clear how things stood: "No need to fall all over yourself thanking him. He knows well enough why he has to pay up..."
She couldn't write to me openly, because by now she had become the head of a carpentry brigade in a large state-owned plant that produced bedroom furniture on the Five-Year Plan. As a Party member, she could not have contacts in the West, and certainly not with her son, a GDR deserter who was writing for the capitalist propaganda press, first short pieces, then longer ones, taking aim at a Communist system that couldn't hold its own without walls and barbed wire; that created problems enough for her.
I assumed that Mother's cousin had cut me off because I was writing for Springer's tabloids instead of finishing my studies. He was right, too, in a way, the frigging liberal. And soon after the attack on Rudi Dutschke, I said good-bye to Springer. Kept pretty much to the left from then on. Wrote for a bunch of halfway progressive papers next, because there was a lot going on at the time, and kept my head above water fairly well, even without three times the minimum child support. Herr Liebenau wasn't my real father anyway. Mother had just used him as a stand-in. It was from her that I learned, later on, that the director of midnight programming died of heart failure in the late seventies, before I was even married. He was about Mother's age, a little past fifty.
As substitutes she offered me the names of various other men, who, she said, should be considered possible father candidates. One of them, who disappeared, was supposedly called Joachim or Jochen, and another, older one, who allegedly poisoned the watchdog Harras, was Walter.
No, I never did have a proper father, just interchangeable phantoms. In that respect the three heroes I've been instructed to focus on were better off. It's clear, at any rate, that Mother really had no idea by whom she was pregnant when she set out on that morning of 30 January 1945 with her parents, leaving the Gotenhafen-Oxhöft pier as passenger number seven thousand such-and-such. The man for whom the ship had been named could identify a businessman, Hermann Gustloff, as his father. And as a boy in Odessa, the man who succeeded in sinking the overcrowded ship had received fairly regular beatings from Papa Marinesko-tangible proof of paternal solicitude-for belonging to a band of thieves, reportedly known as blatnye. And David Frankfurter, who traveled from Berne to Davos to set in motion the process by which the ship came to be named for a martyr, had an honest-to-goodness rabbi as his father. Even I, fatherless though I was, would eventually become a father.
What would he have smoked? Junos, those famously round cigarettes? Or flat Orients? Maybe the fashionable ones with gold tips? There are no photos of him smoking, except a newspaper picture from the late sixties that shows him with a glow stuck in his mouth during the brief stopover in Switzerland that he was finally allowed to make as an older gentleman, his civil service career soon to be behind him. Anyway, he puffed away constantly, like me, and for that reason took a seat in a smoking car of the Swiss National Railway.
Both of them traveled by train. Around the time that David Frankfurter was making his way from Berne to Davos, Wilhelm Gustloff was on the road organizing. In the course of his trip he visited several local chapters of the Nazi Party, and established new troops of the Hitler Youth and the BDM, the League of German Girls. Because this trip took place at the end of January, he no doubt gave speeches in Berne and Zurich, Glarus and Zug, marking the third anniversary of the takeover, speeches enthusiastically received by audiences of Germans and Austrians abroad. Since his employer, the observatory, succumbing to pressure from Social Democratic deputies, had relieved him of his post the previous year, he had complete control over his schedule. Although there were numerous Swiss demonstrations against his activities as an agitator-leftist papers called him "the dictator of Davos"-and a national MP named Bringolf demanded his expulsion, in the canton of Graubünden and throughout the Swiss confederation he also found plenty of politicians and officials who supported him, and not only financially. In Davos the management of the resort saw to it that he regularly received the lists of newly arrived guests, whereupon he would get in touch with those who were German citizens, not merely inviting but summoning them to Party events; unexcused absences were recorded and the names passed on to the appropriate offices in the Reich.
Around the time the smoking student took his train trip, having asked for a one-way ticket in Berne, and the martyr-to-be was proving himself in the service of his party, ship's mate Aleksandr Marinesko had already switched from the merchant marine to the Black Sea Red Banner Fleet, in whose training division he received instruction in navigation and was then groomed to be a U-boat helmsman. At the same time he belonged to the Komsomol youth organization and turned out to be a formidable off-duty drinker-for which he compensated with particular diligence while on duty; on board he never touched a drop. Soon Marinesko was assigned to a U-boat, the SC-306 Piksja, as navigational officer; after the war began, this unit of the fleet, only recently brought into service, ran over a mine and went down with its entire crew, but by that time Marinesko had become an officer on another submarine.
From Berne by way of Zurich, and then past various lakes. In his book, Party member Diewerge did not bother with landscape descriptions as he traced the path of the traveling medical student. And the chain-smoker, now in the seventh year of his studies, probably took little notice of the mountain ranges drawing ever nearer and eventually closing in the horizon; at most he may have registered the snow that blanketed houses, trees, and mountainsides, and the change in the light each time the train plunged into a tunnel.
David Frankfurter set out on 31 January 1936. He read the newspaper and smoked. Under the heading "Miscellaneous" he found several items on the activities of Landesgruppenleiter Gustloff. The daily papers, among them the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and the Basler Nationalzeitung, documented that date, reporting on everything happening at the time or likely to happen in the future. At the beginning of this year, destined to go down in history as the year of the Olympic Games in Berlin, fascist Italy had not yet conquered Abyssinia, the distant kingdom of Haile Selassie, and in Spain war was looming. In the German Reich, construction of the Autobahn was progressing nicely, and in Langfuhr Mother was eight and a half. Two summers earlier her brother Konrad, the deaf-mute with curly locks, had drowned swimming in the Baltic. He was her favorite brother. That explained why, when my son was born forty-six years later, he had to be christened Konrad; but most people call him Konny, and his girlfriend Rosi addresses him in her letters as "Conny."
Diewerge tells us that the Landesgruppenleiter came home on 3 February, tired from a successful trip through the Swiss cantons. Frankfurter knew he would arrive in Davos on the third. In addition to the daily papers, David regularly read Der Reichsdeutsche, the Party newsletter Gustloff issued, which listed the dates of all his appearances. David knew almost everything about his chosen target. He had inhaled as many particulars as he could hold. But was he also aware that the previous year the Gustloffs had used their savings to have a solid house built in Schwerin, of glazed brick, even furnished in anticipation of their planned return to the Reich? And that both of them fervently wished for a son?
When the medical student reached Davos, fresh snow had just fallen. The sun was shining, and the resort looked just as it did on postcards. He had set out without luggage, but with his mind made up. From the Basler Nationalzeitung he had ripped a photograph of Gustloff in uniform: a tall man with an expression of strained determination and a high forehead, which he owed to his receding hairline.
Frankfurter billeted himself in the Lion. He had to wait until Tuesday, 4 February. In Genesis, on this day of the week the expression "Ki tov," indicating that God saw that the Creation was good, appears twice, for which reason Jews consider Tuesday a lucky day-I picked this up on the Internet. On the home page, by now so familiar, this date was dedicated to the memory of the martyr.
Smoking in the sun on hard-crusted snow. Every step crunched. Monday was spent on seeing the town. Back and forth, back and forth along the main promenade. Watching an ice hockey game, an unobtrusive spectator among other spectators. Casual conversations with visitors to the resort. His breath forming a white cloud. Avoid arousing suspicion! Not a word too many. Nice and easy. Everything was prepared. He had bought a revolver without the slightest difficulty and had practiced at the Ostermundingen shooting range, near Berne-all perfectly legal. Sickly though he was, his hand had proved steady.
On Tuesday, close to his destination a weatherproof sign, wilhelm gustloff nsdap, came to his aid: from the main promenade a street called Am Kurpark branched off, leading to house number 3. A watery blue stuccoed building with a flat roof, its gutters garnished with icicles. Few streetlights to hold the gathering darkness at bay. No snow falling.
So much for the scene from outside. Additional details held no significance. How the deed itself unfolded, only the perpetrator and the widow could say later on. I accessed the interior of the portion of the house in question with the help of a photograph inserted beside the indented text on the aforementioned home page. The photo was apparently taken after the crime, for three fresh bouquets of flowers on various tables and a dresser, along with a blooming flowerpot, lend the room the air of a shrine.
When the bell rang, Hedwig Gustloff opened the door. A young man, whose "nice eyes" she mentioned in her testimony, asked to see the Landesgruppenleiter. He was standing in the corridor, speaking on the telephone with Party member Dr. Habermann from the local office in Thun. As he passed him, Frankfurter allegedly heard him saying "Foul Jews," which Frau Gustloff later disputed: she averred that such terms were foreign to her husband, although he did consider the solution of the Jewish Question urgent.
She escorted the visitor into her husband's study and invited him to have a seat. No suspicion. Petitioners often came unannounced, including fellow Nazis in financial difficulties.
As the medical student sat there in his armchair, still in his coat and with his hat on his knees, he could see the desk, on it a clock in a slightly curved wooden case, and on the wall above it the honorary SA dagger. Above and to the side of the dagger hung an assortment of pictures of the Führer/Reich chancellor, room decor in black and white and color. No picture of Gustloff's mentor, Gregor Strasser, murdered two years earlier. To one side a model sailing ship, probably the training vessel Gorch Fock.
As he waited, the visitor, who forbade himself to smoke, would also have been able to see the radio on a chest of drawers next to the desk, and beside it a bust of the Führer, in either bronze or plaster painted to look like bronze. The cut flowers on the desk that appear in the photograph may have filled a vase before the deed, lovingly arranged by Frau Gustloff to welcome her husband home after a strenuous journey, also as a belated birthday greeting.
On the desk, odds and ends and loosely stacked papers: perhaps reports from the cantonal Party chapters, doubtless also correspondence with offices in the Reich, probably a few threatening letters, which had been arriving frequently of late; but Gustloff had refused police protection.
He strode into the study without his wife. Straight-backed and robust, having shaken off his tuberculosis years before, he advanced in civilian dress toward his visitor, who did not rise from the armchair but fired from a seated position only seconds after he drew the revolver from his overcoat pocket. Well-aimed shots made four holes in the Landesgruppenleiter's chest, neck, and head. He collapsed, without crying out, under the framed pictures of his Führer. In no time his wife was in the room, first catching sight of the revolver still aimed at its target, then seeing her fallen husband, who, as she bent over him, was bleeding to death from all the wounds.
David Frankfurter, the traveler with a one-way ticket, put on his hat and left the site of his premeditated deed, without being detained by the building's other residents, who by this time had become aware that something was going on. He wandered around in the snow for a while, slipping and falling several times, had the emergency number memorized, named himself as the perpetrator from a telephone booth, eventually located the nearest police station, and turned himself in to the cantonal police.
He made the following confession to the officer on duty and later repeated it in court without changing a word: "I fired the shots because I am a Jew. I am fully aware of what I have done and have no regrets."
After that a great deal appeared in print. What Wolfgang Diewerge characterized as "a cowardly murder" turned in the hands of the novelist Emil Ludwig into "David's struggle with Goliath." These diametrically opposed assessments have survived into the digitally networked present. Before long everything that followed, including the trial, outgrew the perpetrator and his victim and assumed mythic significance. The hero of biblical proportions, who hoped his clear-cut act of defiance would summon his tormented people to resistance, was juxtaposed with the martyr for the National Socialist movement. Both were supposed to find their places in the book of history, figures larger than life. The perpetrator, however, soon sank into obscurity; even Mother, when she was a child and was called Tulla, never heard anything about a murder and a murderer, only fairy tales of a gleaming white ship that took loads of merry folk on long and short cruises for an organization calling itself Strength through Joy.
© Steidl Verlag, Göttingen 2002
English translation copyright © 2002 by Harcourt, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.