By ANNA SEGHERS, MARGOT BETTAUER DEMBO
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS Copyright © 1951 Aufbrau-Verlag GmbH, Berlin
All rights reserved.
They're saying that the Montreal went down between Dakar and Martinique. That she ran into a mine. The shipping company isn't releasing any information. It may just be a rumor. But when you compare it to the fate of other ships and their cargoes of refugees which were hounded over all the oceans and never allowed to dock, which were left to burn on the high seas rather than being permitted to drop anchor merely because their passengers' documents had expired a couple of days before, then what happened to the Montreal seems like a natural death for a ship in wartime. That is, if it isn't all just a rumor. And provided the ship, in the meantime, hasn't been captured or ordered back to Dakar. In that case the passengers would now be sweltering in a camp at the edge of the Sahara. Or maybe they're already happily on the other side of the ocean. Probably you find all of this pretty unimportant? You're bored?—I am too. May I invite you to join me at my table? Unfortunately I don't have enough money for a regular supper. But how about a glass of rosé and a slice of pizza? Come, sit with me. Would you like to watch them bake the pizza on the open fire? Then sit next to me. Or would you prefer the view of the Old Harbor? Then you'd better sit across from me. You can see the sun go down behind Fort St. Nicolas. That certainly won't be boring.
Pizza is really a remarkable baked item. It's round and colorful like an open-face fruit pie. But bite into it and you get a mouthful of pepper. Looking at the thing more closely, you realize that those aren't cherries and raisins on top, but peppers and olives. You get used to it. But unfortunately they now require bread coupons for pizza, too.
I'd really like to know whether the Montreal went down or not. What will all those people do over there, if they've made it? Start a new life? Take up new professions? Pester committees? Clear the forest primeval? If, that is, there really is a genuine wilderness over there, a wilderness that can rejuvenate everyone and everything. If so, I might almost regret not having gone along.—Because, you know, I actually had the opportunity to go. I had a paid-for ticket, I had a visa, I had a transit permit. But then at the last moment I decided to stay.
There was a couple on the Montreal I knew casually. You know yourself what these fleeting acquaintances you make in train stations, consulate waiting rooms, or the visa department of the prefecture are like. The superficial rustle of a few words, like paper money hastily exchanged. Except that sometimes you're struck by a single exclamation, a word, who knows, a face. It goes right through you, quickly, fleetingly. You look up, you listen, and already you're involved in something. I'd like to tell someone the whole story from beginning to end. If only I weren't afraid it was boring. Aren't you thoroughly fed up with such thrilling stories? Aren't you sick of all these suspenseful tales about people surviving mortal danger by a hair, about breathtaking escapes? Me, I'm sick and tired of them. If something still thrills me today, then maybe it's an old worker's yarn about how many feet of wire he's drawn in the course of his long life and what tools he used, or the glow of the lamplight by which a few children are doing their homework.
Be careful with that rosé! It tastes just the way it looks, like raspberry syrup, but can make you incredibly tipsy. It's easier then to put up with everything. Easier to talk. But when the time comes to get Up, your knees will be wobbly. And depression, a perpetual state of depression will take hold of you—till the next glass of rosé. All you'll want is to be allowed to just sit there, never again to get involved in anything.
In the past I often got embroiled in things I'm ashamed of today. Just a little ashamed—after all, they're over and done with. On the other hand, I'd be dreadfully ashamed if I were boring someone. Still, I'd like to tell the whole story, just for once, from the beginning.
Toward the end of that winter I was put into a French work camp near Rouen. The uniform I had to wear was the ugliest of any worn by World War armies—a French prestataire's uniform. At night, because we were foreigners—half prisoners, half soldiers—we slept behind barbed wire; during the day we performed "labor service," unloading British munitions ships. We were subjected to horrible air raids. The German planes flew so low, their shadows touched us. Back then I understood what was meant by the phrase, "In the shadow of death." Once I was unloading a ship, working alongside a young guy they called Little Franz. His face was as close to mine as yours is now. It was a sunny day. We heard a hiss in the air. Franz looked up. And then it came plunging down. Its shadow turned his face black. Whoosh, it crashed down next to us. But then, you probably know as much about these things as I do.
Eventually this came to an end too. The Germans were approaching. What had we endured all the horrors and suffering for? The end of the world was at hand—tomorrow, tonight, any moment. Because that's what we all thought the arrival of the Germans would mean. Bedlam broke out in our camp. Some of the men wept, others prayed, several tried to commit suicide, some succeeded. A few of us resolved to clear out before the Last Judgment. But the commandant had set up machine guns in front of the camp gate. In vain, we explained to him that if we stayed, the Germans would shoot all of us—their own countrymen who'd escaped from Germany. But he could only follow the orders he'd been given, and was awaiting further orders instructing him what to do with the camp itself. His superior had long since left; our little town had been evacuated; the farmers from the neighboring villages had all fled. Were the Germans still two days away, or a mere two hours? And yet our commandant wasn't the worst guy on Earth, you had to give him his due. This wasn't a real war for him, not so far; he didn't understand the extent of the evil, the magnitude of the betrayal. We finally came to a kind of unspoken agreement with the man. One machine gun would remain at the gate, because no countermanding order had arrived. But presumably if we climbed over the wall, he wouldn't aim at us too deliberately.
So we climbed the wall, a few dozen of us, in the darkness of night. One of our group, Heinz, had lost his right leg in Spain. After the Civil War was over he sat around in southern prison camps for a long time. The devil only knows how and through what bureaucratic mistake a guy like him, who really was useless for a labor camp, should have been transported north to our camp. And so Heinz had to be lifted over the wall. After that we took turns carrying him as we ran like crazy through the night to stay ahead of the Germans.
Each of us had his own particularly persuasive reason for not falling into German hands. I, for one, had escaped from a German concentration camp in I937 and had swum across the Rhine at night. For half a year afterward I'd been pretty proud of myself. Then other things happened to the world and to me. On my second escape, this time from the French camp, I remembered that first escape from the German camp. Little Franz and I were jogging along together. Like most people in those days we had the simplistic goal of getting across the Loire. We avoided the main road, walking instead across the fields. Passing through deserted villages where the unmilked cows were bellowing, we would search for something to sink our teeth into, but everything had been consumed, from the berries on the gooseberry bushes to the grain in the barns. We wanted something to drink, but the water lines had been cut. We no longer heard any shooting. The village idiot, the only one who'd stayed behind, couldn't give us any information. That's when we started feeling uneasy. The lack of human life was more oppressive than the bombing on the docks had been. Finally we came to the road leading to Paris. We certainly weren't the last to reach it. A silent stream of refugees was still pouring south from the northern villages. Hay wagons, piled high as farmhouses with furniture and poultry cages, with children and ancient grandparents, goats and calves. Trucks carrying a convent of nuns, a little girl pulling her mother in a cart, cars with pretty women wearing the furs they had salvaged, the cars pulled by cows because there were no gas stations anymore; and women carrying their dying children, even dead ones.
It was then that I wondered for the first time what these people were fleeing from. Was it from the Germans? That seemed pretty futile since the German troops were after all motorized. Was it from death? That would doubtless catch up with them along the way. But such thoughts came to me only then at that moment, when I saw these most wretched and pitiable refugees.
Franz jumped onto one vehicle, and I found a spot on a different truck. On the outskirts of a village, my truck was hit by another truck, and I had to continue on foot from there. I never saw Franz again.
Once more I struck out across the fields. I came to a large, out-of-the-way farmhouse that was still occupied. I asked for food and drink and to my great surprise the farmer's wife set out a plate of soup, wine, and bread for me on a garden table. She told me that after a long family argument, they had just decided to leave. Everything was already packed; they had only to load their truck.
While I ate and drank, planes were buzzing by pretty low. But I was too tired to look up from my plate. I also heard some brief bursts of machine-gun fire quite nearby. I couldn't figure out where it was coming from and was too exhausted to think much about it. I just kept thinking that I'd be able to hop onto their truck when the time came. They started the engine. The woman was running nervously back and forth between the truck and the house. You could see how sorry she was to leave her beautiful home. Like others in such circumstances, she was hurriedly gathering up all sorts of useless stuff. Then she rushed over to my table, took away my plate and said, "Fini!"
Suddenly I realized she was staring, her mouth wide open, at something on the other side of the garden fence; I turned around and saw, no I heard—actually I don't know whether I saw or heard them first or both at the same time—motorcyclists. The sound of the truck engine must have drowned out the noise of their motorcycles approaching on the road. Two of them stopped on the other side of the fence; each had two people in the sidecar, and they were wearing gray-green uniforms. One said in German, so loud that I could hear it: "Goddam it, now the new drive belt is torn too!"
The Germans were here already! They'd caught up with me. I don't know how I had imagined the arrival of the Germans: With thunder and earthquakes? But at first nothing at all happened besides two more motorcycles pulling up on the other side of the garden fence. Still, the effect was just as powerful, maybe even more so. I sat there paralyzed, my shirt instantly soaking wet. Now I felt what I hadn't felt during my escape from the first camp, not even while I was unloading the ships under the low-flying planes. For the first time in my life I was scared to death.
Please be patient with me. I'll get to the point soon. You understand, don't you? There comes a time when you have to tell someone the whole story, everything, just the way it happened. Today I can't figure out how I could have been so afraid, and of what. Afraid of being discovered? Of being stood up against a wall and shot? On the docks I could have disappeared just as easily. Of being sent back to Germany? Of being slowly tortured to death? It could have happened to me while I was swimming across the Rhine. What's more I'd always liked living on the edge, always felt at home with the smell of danger. As soon as I started thinking about what it was that I was so incredibly frightened of, I became less afraid.
I did what was both the most sensible and the most foolish thing I could do: I remained sitting there. I had intended to drill two holes into my belt, and that's what I now did. The farmer came into the garden with a blank look on his face and said to his wife: "Now we might as well stay."
"Of course," his wife said with relief, "but you'd better go to the barn. I'll deal with them; they won't eat me."
"Me neither," her husband said. "I'm not a soldier; I'll show them my club foot."
In the meantime an entire convoy of motorcycles had driven up on the grassy plot on the other side of the fence. They didn't even enter the garden. After three minutes they drove on. For the first time in four years I had heard German commands again. Oh, how they grated! It wouldn't have taken much more for me to jump up and stand at attention. Later I heard that this very same motorcycle column had cut off the refugee escape route along which I had come. And that all this discipline, all these commands, all these orders had produced the most terrible disorder—bloodshed, mothers screaming, the dissolution of our world order. And yet thrumming like an undertone in these commands was something terribly obvious, insidiously honest: Don't complain that your world is about to perish. You haven't defended it, and you've allowed it to be destroyed! So don't give us any crap now! Just make it quick; let us take charge!
Suddenly I felt quite calm. I thought, I'm sitting here, and the Germans are moving past me and occupying France. But France has often been occupied—and the occupiers all had to withdraw again. France has often been sold down the river, and you, too, my gray-green fellows, have often been sold down the river. My fear vanished completely; the whole dreadful swastika episode was a nightmare haunting me; I saw the mightiest armies of the world marching up to the other side of my garden fence and withdraw; I saw the cockiest of empires collapse and the young and the bold take heart; I saw the masters of the world rise up and come crashing down. I alone had immeasurably long to live.
In any event, my dream of getting across the Loire was now at an end. I decided to go to Paris. I knew a couple of decent people there, that is, provided they were still decent.
I walked to Paris; it took me five days. German motorized columns drove along beside me. The rubber of their tires was superb; the young soldiers were the elite—strong and handsome; they had occupied a country without a fight; they were cheerful. Some farmers were already working the fields on the side of the road—they had sown their crops on free land. In one village bells were ringing for a dead child who had bled to death on the road. A farm wagon had broken down at one of the crossroads. Perhaps it belonged to the dead child's family. German soldiers ran over to the wagon and fixed the wheels; the farmers thanked them for their kindness. A young fellow my age was sitting on a rock; he was wearing a coat over the remnants of a uniform. He was crying. As I walked by I patted him on the back, saying, "It will all pass."
He said, "We would have held the place, but those pigs gave us only enough bullets to last an hour. We were betrayed."
"We haven't heard the last of this," I told him.
I kept walking. Early one Sunday morning I walked into Paris. A swastika flag was actually flying before the Hotel de Ville. And they were actually playing the Hohenfriedberg March in front of Notre Dame. I couldn't believe it. I walked diagonally across Paris. And everywhere there were fleets of German cars and swastikas. I felt quite hollow, as if emptied of all emotion.
All this trouble, all this misfortune that had befallen another people had been caused by my people. For it was obvious that they talked like me and whistled the same tunes. As I was walking to Clichy where my old friends the Binnets lived, I wondered whether the Binnets would be sensible enough to understand that, even though I was one of these people, I was still myself. I wondered whether they would take me in without identity papers.
Excerpted from TRANSIT by ANNA SEGHERS, MARGOT BETTAUER DEMBO. Copyright © 1951 Aufbrau-Verlag GmbH, Berlin. Excerpted by permission of NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS.
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