Martin, the central character of Hart Wegner's powerful short-story cycle, is a middle-aged German emigre who has found a home, of sorts, in the isolated and often surreal setting of contemporary Las Vegas. Exiled at the end of World War II with his parents from their beloved Silesia, the family struggles to come to terms with the turmoil of history and memory while they cope with the challenges of assimilation in an alien setting.
In stories that range from the Nevada desert to the lost world of prewar Silesia, Wegner explores, through the perspectives of Martin, his aging parents, and their small circle of fellow emigres, the intricate tapestry of the exile experiencechildhood recollections of the vast and fertile plains of East Germany and the shelter of comfortable and loving homes, memories of the horrors of war, the guilt and terror and despair of displacement, the frustrations of finding one's way in a new and alien culture, the precious ties of family and longtime friendship. And most of all, lossthe loss of home; of an identity formed by an ancient language, the details of a shared culture, and a common sense of past and of future; of loved ones; and finally, and most tragically, of memory itself.
Wegner's characters are vividly and bravely human, bitter, tender, despairing, and full of hope. And ever-seeking a new home, a new place in which to belong after their long sojourn in the wilderness. The inner world of the exile has never been examined with such sympathy, such clarity, or such eloquence.
About the Author
Hart Wegner is professor of German, Comparative Literature, and Fim Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and chairs the Department of Film, which he founded. His first collection of stories, Houses of Ivory, was published in 1988. A native German speaker, Wegner has attracted national notoriety for his stories written in English. His fiction has been published in distinguished literary journals, and he has received numerous grants and awards such as inclusion in the Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories. In 1990 he was the first foreign-born writer elected to the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame.
Read an Excerpt
"No, no, Lottel!" Although Mother was speaking into a telephone receiver, her voice was as loud as if it had to carry all the way to the Sahara Hotel. "No! First you drive on Paradise Road. Yes, like Paradies mit Adam und Eva."
From an easy chair in the living room of his parents' house, Martin watched his mother as she spoke on the telephone. Although she was bent with age, the prospect of having guests from homenot just from Germany but from Silesiawas filling her daily with such energy that she had been preparing the house as if nobility was to visit. Though she had known Lottel's family for close to seventy years, she hadn't seen them since five or six years after the war.
How many times had he heard her give elaborate instructions to people from out of town? Her visitors were mostly Germans who settled in America after the war, in Salt Lake City or in Southern California, but sometimes they would come directly from Germany. Mother's house wasn't hard to find, but her detailed instructions made it appear so. It was just that she wanted to help as much as she could; besides that, she had great faith that all would finally turn out well.
Martin could not remember when he had last seen Lottel. He began to figure the years and his trips to Europe. Whenever he was there, he visited Lottel and her family in Bremen.
Could I still live over there? He often asked himself that question, and whenever he did, he reminded himself of an incident in Leipzig. It happened on his first return to Silesia after they had fled in the winter of 1945. He had stopped over at the best hotel in Leipzig. In order even to stay at the hotel he had to prepay in dollars for a package that included a musty room and a cold breakfast. He filed past the laid-out food and took two rolls and some slices of cold cuts. First the cashier looked at him and at his tray, then she took a fork from the breast pocket of her uniform. Poking at his stack of cold cuts, she turned over each of the slices of salami. Martin wondered what she hoped to find. Only then did he realize that she was looking under the larger slices to see if he had hidden a smaller one underneath. She told him in a voice vibrating with teacherly righteousness that he had to pay extraand pay in dollars, she addedbecause he had taken two slices too many. He often wondered if this was merely socialist bureaucracy or if it reflected a pettiness that he usually didn't find among Americans. Maybe that was why he could never move back to Germany, because he believedand he kept this to himselfthat it hadn't been communism that accounted for the fork in the breast pocket of the cashier's smock.
His parents had broken more cleanly with the Old Country than Martin had. After their ship landed in Brooklyn, they never went back to Germany and instead committed themselves wholeheartedly to the new life in America. Martin couldn't remember if his parents had ever actually told him that criticizing America was a sign of being unthankful, but if they hadn't said it to him, it had always been understood. In many conversations and in all family prayers it was never forgotten that they were grateful to God for having led them to the Promised Land. To this day, in his mother's eyes any criticism of local or national flaws was clearly a sign of ingratitude to the one who had brought them here.
He often became uneasy when he heard his mother quote from the Bible about the hand of the Lord. She liked Elijah in particular, and the hand of the Lord had been on him when "he girded up his loins, and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel." He felt apprehensive because he had often been called upon to do things because it had been implied that it was the Lord's desire that he, Martin, do something like gird up his loins and go alone to America to find a new home for his family. And he was uneasy because he was also a Bible reader, and he remembered very different quotes about the hand of the Lord. It might have been Luke who said about John the Baptist that "the hand of the Lord was with him." And how had that turned out for him? Saint Paul was closer to what Martin thought about life when he said, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." But Mother never quoted these lines.
Martin reasoned differently than she did. If God's will brought you here, it was like being drafted. He himself had been drafted into the American army during the Korean War, less than a year after he had arrived from Europe. As a draftee, you could complain about army chow, your bunk, twenty-five-mile marches, but if you had volunteered, then it was best to accept quietly what the sergeant told you to do; otherwise the draftees in the barracks would point out to you that it was your own fault that you were even there.
Martin was watching his mother as she listened to the voice on the telephone. He knew that Lottel would be trying to keep his mother from waiting outside.
"Aber natürlich," Mother insisted. "I'll be standing in the street. I hope that you still recognize me. Seeing me will help you find our house. Auf Wiedersehen!"
He had noticed that his mother used the German farewell more and more, even to her American friends. Holding the receiver in front of her as if it were a microphone and she a singer, she would say "till-we-see-each-other-again" more loudly and with such faith in her voice, as if that alone would make it happen. A second phrase that she always used when Martin was leading her into church, step by painful step, was an answer to the question "How are you?" Bent over as she now stood, she would raise her head and look with a proud smile into the face of the questioner and say slowly and deliberately, "I ... am ... here." All she would have needed to add was "amen," and then she could have offered it up as testimony to God and the congregation that she was still alive.
Hearing his mother say "auf Wiedersehen" to Lottel on the telephone reminded Martin that she had known Lottel since her birth in the same apartment house and in the same year in which Martin was bornand had known her parents even before then. Now Lottel and her husband had both retired and were driving through the American West. Their first stop was Las Vegas, and they were picking up their rental car directly at the airport.
It was the week before Christmas, and Martin was sure that they would enjoy the warm weather more than anything else, especially since Bremen was cold and wet. Martin had visited Lottel in the block of apartments set on a big lawn. The weather was not fit for vacationing, although it was July. Day after day he looked down from the third floor at the rain hitting the seagulls feeding in the lush grass. Through the whole week it kept raining in that sullen, hopeless way that it rained by the North Sea.
While they stood in the doorway, Martin hugged Lottel. She was short and stout, and her gray hair was a carpet of tight curls. Like a doll's hair, Martin thought as he looked over her head and down the steps to the driveway, where her husband was pulling suitcases from their rental car.
She stepped back over the threshold so as to look at him from the landing. It reminded him of his father buying a suit and insisting on taking it out into the daylight to see the true color of the material.
"Do I look real?" Martin joked.
"Every time we meet, you look like a different person." She shook her head.
"I keep changing because I have to adapt. If I had lived my whole life in Germany, who knows, I might have stayed the same." He realized that he sounded unfriendly, and so he decided not to tell her that he would always recognize her because she never changed.
"I don't see a wreath hanging from the ceiling. How do Americans celebrate Advent?" Horst sounded puzzled.
"It's not a big thing here." Martin didn't explain.
"And what about Christmas?"
Mother thought for a while. Martin was sure that she was silent because she never wanted to be thought of as being critical of anything American. "Mostly shopping," she finally answered.
Horst, who usually let his wife speak, agreed. "The same in Germany now, mostly shopping." In the meantime, Mother had thought over her own answer. "But they have Christmas trees everywhere, some of them have them out already in October."
"I think about our Christmases together in Brockau," Lottel said. "They were so different from what we have now. I remember most of all the making. Throughout the weeks of Advent all we ever seemed to do was make things. We cut, glued, and painted, and every December Sunday my mother would light one of the big red Advent candles. All of those sheets of gold and silver paper ..."
"Did you buy yours at Dudek's?" interrupted Martin. Dudek was the stationer where Martin had bought his first books, those that hadn't been presents from his mother. When he was small, his parents took him to Dudek's, where he could select from sheets of cut-out figures, wild animals, a whole circus, and soldiers. Mostly he picked soldiers because he liked the different historic uniforms.
"Yes, we bought our sheets of silver and gold foil at Dudek's. You remember cutting the paper into strips as wide as my finger is now. Then it may have been as wide as two of my fingers." Lottel laughed good-naturedly. "We would glue the strips into loops and then link the loops into long chains."
"And then we would drape the chains over the Christmas tree!" Mother laughed as she remembered the time when they were all still home. "I remember you two sitting at the kitchen table, bent over your Christmas papers ..." Mother looked at Lottel and Martin, and then she shook her head as if she couldn't believe what she saw. "A lifetime ago, a whole lifetime ago."
Back home, the first time Martin would get to see the tree, decorated and illuminated, would be on Christmas Eve when the gifts were given. Father and Mother would have been inside the living room behind the closed door for hours, while Martin and his grandmother had to wait outside in the dark corridor. Before the door could open, there had to be the questioning of Martin. Fatherstanding behind the doorlowered his voice until it rumbled as if he were indeed Saint Nikolaus. He asked in a serious tone how the boy had done during the year. Martin pretended that this was not his father's voice, and he pretended so well that he trembled in the dark. He answered bravely while he clutched his grandmother's hand. His face burned while the excitement went to his feet until he could not contain himself anymore and he began running in place in front of the dark door. The questioning always ended with words of advice: obey Father and Mother, study, be good. Then Father threw his voice back and forth and up and down, while he was saying good-bye to himself. Through the door Martin could hear steps and then the opening and closing of the window. Even then, as he played out being scared and then relieved, he knew that only the inner of the double windows had been opened, because his parents, always concerned about his health, surely would not have let in a blast of icy air just before he was allowed into the room. Often he was sick at Christmastime, and a lawn chaise would be set up for him in the room with the presents.
Finally, when Martin had gone from running in place to twisting around, the door opened, slowly as if no human hand was pushing on the handle, not onto darkness but onto brilliant light. The candles and sparklers on the tree had been lit, and the whole dining table and even the top of Father's mahogany desk were covered with presents, and among those presents were even more candles. Martin never knew where he should look first among all of the presents or whether he should concentrate on the tree or look at Father and Mother, who were beaming with joy.
On that last Christmas at home, the joy was tainted by the coming closer of the war. The first air raid had been in October. At Christmas they were able to hear the artillery fire from the eastern front, which grew steadily louder until they had to flee in January. Even if Martin hadn't known how grave their situation was, the adults in the household must have. When the bombers had struck in October, Martin had walked out of the cellar during the raid. Standing in the garden, he had listened to the explosions of the antiaircraft fire over the city. The older boys had been taken out of school, and it was they who were now manning the guns. While he was standing outside in the night, he heard a strange rustling in the fallen leaves. Bending down, he found a small jagged piece of steel from an artillery shell. It was still hot. Between the explosions in the sky above, he heard the rustling again and again, as if the first drops of rain were falling. He wasn't afraid, but he went back into the cellar. He didn't show anyone the steel splinter he had slipped into his pocket. It had cooled down some, but he still felt its warmth against his thigh. He wondered why his parents had let him walk out during the raid. They all had cowered in the cellar, so close to a pile of winter potatoes that Martin inhaled the sour smell of earth. Their corner of the cellar was dimly lit by a small candle, but its glow didn't reach far enough to shine on the piles of coal and coke, the stacks of briquettes and the barrels in which cabbage was curing. Between the cabbage barrels, Grandmother was hiding under a zinc tub that she had pulled over herself. Martin smiled when he thought about that scene, because for hours they cowered in fear from the explosions of the antiaircraft shells, believing that they were hearing bomb blasts. No bombs fell near them, but they had not yet learned to tell the different explosions apart. Later they would learn.
It was not the last Christmas in Silesia that Martin remembered best, but the one the year before. He had come home by train from Militsch, where he had been sent to be out of the city during air raids. He had taken the two-hour train ride not knowing that he would never return. Although he had been old enough to live in another townhe was twelvehe still underwent the questioning in front of the dark door. When it opened and turned into a white door, Martin's eyes fell first on the tree, but moved in an instant to a glistening line of a hundredhe counted them laterfreshly cast tin soldiers. Their rifles, carried at shoulder arms, sparkled in the light of the Christmas candles.
"Ach ja," muttered Martin's mother. "Ach, Christmas."
"There is so little religion in Christmas. Now, I mean," Horst said.
"Do you go to church?" Martin asked Lottel.
"No, I don't, but Mother goes ... I mean, she went."
"Why did she stop?"
"When she couldn't ride her bicycle anymore."
"Don't you have a church in your own neighborhood where your mother could walk to the services?"
"She didn't like the pastor in our church, so she began riding her bicycle into Bremen so she could go to another parish."
"You didn't go with her, did you?"
"No, I didn't go with her. As a matter of fact, I don't go to church at all. Does that finally satisfy you?"
"A heathen, that's what you are." Martin said it with a smile, but Lottel didn't smile back. He knew that she didn't fit into the category of those he jokingly called "heathen," those who couldn't identify a simple biblical reference if it was made in conversation or those who ran their lawn mowers on Sunday morning. He knew that she was Lutheran because he had taken religion classes with her in grade school in Brockau. He and his family were not Lutheran, but it had been his father's thought that any religious instruction was better than none.
As children, he and Lottel had played together, at first almost every day. During the war when the schoolchildren were evacuated from the cities, he and she had been sent to different towns in Silesia. And after the war, when little travel was possible, they had lived in different zones of the divided Germany. Finally, he had gone to America and they hadn't seen each other for many years, but when he went back to Europe at last, he had stayed with her and Horst and they had talked deep into the night.
In that night he learned of Lottel's bitterness. Somehow she still believed, although she had fallen out with her church and bore a grudge against God. Her quarrel with God arose from the same root as her dislike of the German government, because God had been silent when the chancellor had given up any German claim to Silesia and the other territories now to the east of East Germany. She couldn't stay loyal to a government or a church that acted with no higher morality than a business hungering for sales. To her, God was not worthy of prayers because he had permitted a war that first took her father, then her home, all of her possessions, even the graves of her ancestors, and finally even her identity.
"Whenever I can, I mention that I am a Silesian," said Martin.
"Do people here know what Silesia was?" asked Horst.
"Then what good is it to proclaim yourself Silesian if no one knows what it is ... was? It's just an affectation, nothing else." Lottel had suddenly become angry, as she often did when the subject of Silesia became part of the conversation. Sitting in silence, she soon gathered herself again. "It really isn't any different in Germany. Nobody wants to hear about it, nobody feels sorry for the people of Silesia. One million killed while fleeing or killed after the war. Shot, clubbed to death, starved ..."
Martin raised his hand to stop her. "Americans might ask you without really expecting much of an answer to their question, 'What do you expect? After all, you started the war?"
"We Silesians didn't start the war," Lottel answered hotly.
"But we are Germans."
"But we are the ones who had to pay the price, not the Bavarians, not the Saxons and all of the others who could go back to their towns. Their houses might have been bombed, but they still had their Heimat."
"But I feel guilty," Martin said quietly.
"Why should you feel guilty?" replied Lottel hotly. "You were twelve, thirteen when the war ended."
"Thirteen," he said.
"Not even the Volkssturm could draft you. Even at the very end of the war, in the spring of 1945, they only went down to the fourteen year olds. Why should you feel guilty? What did you ever do to anybody?"
"When I came to America, the war had been over for only a few years. Wherever I went to work, I was bound to be the only German, branded by the heavy accent of a newcomer. All around me, in movies, televisionwhich was so new that my aunt had the first set on the blockand in magazines, I kept seeing pictures of German atrocities. Real, as in a documentary, or imagined in the mind of a writer, it finally didn't matter anymore. Faced with pictures of piles of emaciated corpses, I began to feel guilty, not for anything I ever did or didn't do but for whatever my countrymen were accused of having done or having failed to do. Before I was twenty-one I began to feel guilty, and it hasn't stopped.
"Later, I felt guilty for what white America had done during slaveryalthough my own ancestors had worked in poverty in the fields of Silesiaand for what had been done to the Indians. Then came Vietnam and more guilt."
"But you have to admit, after the war it was us, the Silesians, who were made the scapegoats for the lost war and for the sins of Germany."
"Do you know how the scapegoat was selected?" Martin asked. "In Leviticus, the third book of Moses ..."
"The Jews," said Horst.
"Yes, the Jews," continued Martin. "Two of the best goats were chosen. Then a lot was drawn and one goat was sacrificed on the fieldstone altar. Then Azazel, the other one, was brought to Aaron the Levite, who laid both hands on the head of the goat and confessed to him the sins of the children of Israel. Then the goat was driven away from the camp into the wilderness carrying all the sins between its horns."
"What happened to it?" asked Horst.
"It wandered in the desert, haunted by the demons that inhabit the wilderness, until God took it to Him and with it all the sins it carried on its back."
"Most of the stories in the Old Testament don't turn out too well," Mother said. "At least the scapegoat lived and wasn't sacrificed on any altar."
"Spoken like a true refugee!" Martin laughed.
"It's easy to laugh now, but then, then it was very different. You and I were children. Our parents were the ones who did all the planning and worrying ..."
"And praying!" Mother added quickly.
"And as for losing, what did you lose anyway? Your toys?"
Martin nodded. Lottel was right. What had he lost? He had lost what he should have inherited. Not just the house and the garden but the right to have a family home, a right to the river, the mountains, a language, a past and a future.
"We were talking about religion in Christmas, before ... this whole story about the scapegoat. Here in America we even have people coming to our door." Mother pointed to the front door. "They stand out on the landing and sing of Our Lord's birth in the manger. And they don't want anything for it. This is nice."
They all nodded, even Martin, who was beginning to feel better about the way his story of the scapegoat had been received. He had felt that either nobody understood the story or nobody cared to hear it. It was good that Mother had mentioned the manger scene. He had always liked to think of the babe in the manger, because he still remembered the smell of straw and hay from the nights they had spent sleeping in barns and stables on their long walk back to Silesia.
"So, you like it here?" asked Horst.
"We have always gone where His hand has led us," Mother answered. "We survived, escaped with our lives. But without Him ..." She pointed upward and shook her head. Two fingers of her raised hand were loosely folded down while three fingers stood up stiffly in the same silent gesture of testimony and benediction Martin had seen on dark Russian icons. "Without Him, where would we be? We wouldn't even have our naked lives. When we were fleeing from Brockau, God sent us a train, the only one that would carry us to the right destination. Blindly, we stumbled onto it, pushed and shoved by the others who were in a panic because that train might be the last one. As was His will, that train took us to Waldenburg."
"You were born there, weren't you?" asked Lottel.
"Yes, I was born in Waldenburg," Mother nodded. "The train could have gone to Glatz or some other place where we would've been trapped. When the time came to flee from Waldenburg, God sent us a truck. Then He sent us another train, which stopped in the night, and from that train we watched Dresden burning. As a pillar of fire, He led the Israelites. Us He led by the cities burning in the night." She looked straight ahead while the others nodded silently. "And when we were wandering home, on those dangerous roads, he kept us safe in the shadow of His wings."
"You escaped with the clothes on your back," Horst said. "There is something strange about losing everything and grieving about it."
Mother looked at Lottel. "Do you remember the blue spruce by the entrance?"
"I didn't see a spruce." Horst pointed at the window.
Excerpted from Off Paradise by HART WEGNER. Copyright © 2001 by Hart Wegner. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Table of Contents
|The Stone Girl||33|
|The Blue Line||55|
|A Ransom for Tedek||67|
|Dogs of Autumn||113|
|On the Road to Szkaradowo||136|
|Following the Nun||164|
|The Pilots of the Rose Trellis||188|