The house in Silesia

Issue 4/1989 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Talo Šleesiassa (‘ The house in Silesia’, 1983). Read the interview

We set off, my brother-in-law and I, at the beginning of September. The tourist season was already over, and on the Gdansk ferry there was stacks of room for my brother-in law’s Volvo and the two of us.

We’d driven from his home on the shore of Lake Mälar to the ferry port at Nynäshamn, about fifty miles south of Stockholm. We’d driven in an atmosphere of cheerful resolution, accelerator down, but going steadily. The resoluteness was due to my brother-in-law’s decision after forty years’ absence to visit his childhood home. If it was still standing, that is – or whatever of it was.

‘Oh the house is definitely still in place there all right,’ he said: ‘I’ve got that sort of tickly feeling in my arse.’ It was a direct translation from the German – German humour of the vulgar variety centring round the bottom.

My brother-in-law’s name was Erwin. It’s an old German name meaning ‘Victory-venerator’ or something equally grandiloquent. He was as German as they come, light-blue eyes wide-set, long-headed, lanky, with a flat bottom suitable for short trousers, coarse bushy hair still ash-blond in his sixties and high-cheekbones like old Adenauer. (Though some anthropologists claim this is a typical East-Prussian feature, the Chancellor himself was actually from the Rhine.) In his fifteens Erwin had in fact taken to the Hitler Jugend like a duck to water, until someone discovered he was actually Jewish, and he was kicked out of the organisation.

This dismissal was in Erwin’s view so embarrassing and unjust that he could never bring himself to forgive it. There was a lot else that a German Jew found difficult to forgive the Führer for and the gauleiters, and the Nazi party, and the majority of the population; but for Erwin this first blow stung so hard because it was the first and came as such a surprise. Nevertheless, obviously enough, it was precisely this measure he could thank for getting away with his life.

Erwin was bitter, and his bitterness was also directed at his parents. He felt as if they too were responsible in some way for his being kicked out of such a fun youth organisation: for instance, they’d given birth to him, even though they were, from the standpoint of the organisation in question, on the wrong side of the race track. His parents couldn’t understand him; they found him flabbergasting. Purer German bourgeoisie of the German bourgeoisie it would be difficult to find anywhere on earth, and scarcely underneath it either. The fact that they were also Jewish only made them in their own eyes more German, in line with some scheme of things that couldn’t be verbalised, and for which precise philosophical categories, let alone signifiers, had not yet been discovered. You sort of just knew it was the case. They were thoroughly convinced of it. Was it conceivable that Hitler had another view? They were astounded by the whole business.

‘I’ve had enough,’ Erwin said – whom I’ll stop calling Erwin. He didn’t in fact use the name himself: he called himself Gucke, and so did everyone else. Gucke! We were sitting in the bar of the Polish ferry and sipping ‘Vignac’. That’s what it tasted like.

‘Fifteen I was when I ran away the first time. They found me in Berlin and hustled me back home. Ran away again. Brought back. Each time it got more of a drag to put up with the place. My parents were too old. My brother was the nice boy, and I was the bad lad. Now I’m still alive, and he’s dead. It’s not always wise to obey your parents. Always? Never? I don’t know. But in 1936 going to school, for Jewish children in Germany, began to become a somewhat dodgy, not to say perilously dicky pastime. The way to school was fraught with quite new hazards: some kids didn’t come alive out of their journeys to school, and not because they’d been run over…’

I’d heard. I didn’t question him about how it had gone with certain children on their way to school.

‘However, in 1936 Berlin happened to be the venue for the Olympics, and naturally I wanted to go. So what did I do, I ran away again and bummed lifts to the capital. Then, right at the main gate, they grabbed me, with no entry ticket, and led me off to the stadium lockup. At that point I really got scared. I had a sudden vision of the whole situation. I don’t just mean my own: all Germany’s, all Europe’s – well, maybe that’s an exaggeration; but I got such an insight, I made up my mind there and then: just let me get out of this lightly now, and I’ll clear off out, get away from the whole country. So I hid my identity card in my shoe – and told the attendant it had got lost in the crush. I may have blubbered a bit, too, no kidding. So he let me go before the police could get over there.

‘This time I went home all by myself and was pretty relieved to be back there without losing my skin. Back home there was no special astonishment that the lamb had returned to the fold. Just let him be, thought my parents: he’ll settle down all right now: he’ll see this National Socialist hullabaloo for the flash in the pan it is. He’ll see that it’ll pass us by because we’re such good Germans. If some people get hurt, well, that’s deplorable, but at any rate it won’t, can’t last. But I’d already seen further than they had, and I didn’t believe a word they said, because they’d never been right before. Come the next year, I forged my father’s name on a passport application, nicked a bit of money, got the passport and set off for the Czech border. Seventeen I was at the time. There was a gang of young musicians crossing the border, the Dresden Youth Orchestra, I think – probably all dead now: the men at the front and the women in the bombing; no satisfaction, that, to me. Anyway, I fell in with them and that got me an easy passage through the passport control, even though I didn’t have an instrument of my own; but I gave a girl a hand with her cello. My closest contact with live music, that – life-saving music you could say,’ added this brother-in­-law of mine, who prides himself on belonging to the two per cent of the human race that’s completely tone deaf.

‘Never saw them again after that, my parents. Nor my brother. Nor any relative. I’ve a couple of cousins living somewhere. I did write to my father and mother in ’38, telling them to get out fast; but they wouldn’t believe the worst, and they weren’t willing to sell their house in a hurry like that, and at a depressed price. There they stuck. And there the house stuck. And I’ve never seen it since.’

‘You soon will,’ I said.

‘That’ll be the day,’ he said, overtaken by a sudden pessimism. The Vignac wasn’t doing him any good. ‘It’s in the heart of Europe, Silesia: one of the darkest spots. It always has been. It was part of Germany then, part of Poland now, but a dark region it’s always been. That’s where my house was: Silesia.’

Our Volvo lights beamed through the low-lying Polish landscapes we were traversing. We spent the night in a Polish town with a name impossible to pronounce and difficult even to write. In the morning we were on our way again, my brother-in-law at the wheel. On the outskirts of Poznań the police stopped us and asked why we were driving with half-lights in the daytime. Before my brother-in-law had time to argue about the bad light, I replied that it was the custom in Scandinavia. The police thought it a waste of electricity. Isn’t it true, my brother-in-law asked, that in Poland blackout prevails in broad daylight? – but the police didn’t understand his Swedified German and wished us a good journey.

We arrived at the city of his birth, which currently is referred to as The City, for the sake of simplicity and tact: the town has – used to have, rather – two names, a German and a Polish, and one or the other party might take offence. My brother-in-law had in fact been born in a city whose name began with a B, though now it began with a W. Evolution of this kind is called phonetic history. We crossed one of the town’s numerous bridges over the Oder: the one leading straight to the old university.

‘That’s a place I know,’ he said. ‘The Jesuits used to perform there in the old days. How is it now, I wonder? This is, after all, still the most Catholic of Catholic countries.’

We were driving along an embankment south of the river. My brother-­in-law wound the side-window down to get a better look at the street­names.

‘Grodzka,’ he read. ‘What sort of a name is that? Grodzka!’ We came to a huge medieval Town Hall that ought, according to my brother-in-law, to be a ruin. We drove all round this Gothic edifice, and he scratched his head.

‘The devils, they’ve completely restored it as it was,’ he said admiringly. ‘I must say… Down there there used to be a medieval beer cellar: got myself thrown out of it once, too.’

‘The Nazis, was it?’ I asked.

‘No: The bouncers. I was too young.’

We drove south, towards the railway. My brother-in-law rolled his eyes.

‘When you remember that seventy per cent of it was a ruin …’ he went on, still astonished. ‘After Warsaw, this was the most devastated city. Got to take your hat off. There’s been no end of building. I wonder if I really will find that house of mine? If it even exists. Don’t know my way around any more. And the street-names are all Polish.’

We came into Kosciuszko Square. My brother-in-law shook his head.

‘A Polish freedom fighter, Kosciuszko, wasn’t he? And before him, they named the square after some German bigwig. Can’t remember who. And before him? And what about tomorrow? The places remain the same – it’s only the names that change. Sometimes, of course, it’s just the opposite, on purpose. But what does it prove? Everywhere in the world, in every age, it’s been the same story. And how many millions and millions have been killed in the process?’

He asked an old flower-seller what the square had been called before.

The old man understood German and said it had always had the same name as long as he could remember.

‘So it was never Stalin Square?’

‘If it ever was, I’ve forgotten, I’m glad to say.’

‘What about before the war? Do you remember what it was then?’

‘Didn’t have the honour to be here before the war. Came here from the east when the war was over, from Lvov.’

‘Interesting,’ my brother-in-law said. ‘As for me, I was born here, but I don’t have the honour to live here any more.’

They bowed to each other, and the flower-seller offered my brother-in-­law a chrysanthemum.

‘Welcome back,’ he said. ‘Will you be staying long?’

‘I doubt it. Don’t know. I’m looking for my former home. It’s somewhere a bit south of the railway. If it exists. The army HQ was in the same street. I mean the German army. And the Jewish Hospital. Nice coincidence!’

He pronounced the German name. The flower-seller shook his head: ‘Never heard of it. But keep on looking. Seek and ye shall find.’

We found the house. Coming out of a tunnel under the railway we took the third turning on the right. Lining the street in neat order were some two- and three-storey houses, brick residences from the ‘fifties. There in the midst was an older two-storey ivy-clad house, whose steps were split. We drove past it, my brother-in-law looked at it disbelievingly, and then he shouted: ‘That’s it! That’s the one.’

I backed in front of the house. My brother-in-law stared at it for quite a time, and his Adam’s apple stirred noticeably. I wondered what he might have been feeling and thinking.

‘There’s the yard I used to play in with my kid brother. Not that it was always fun. We weren’t allowed to muck up our clothes. Guess if I did or not! Guess if I got a hiding! They were bourgeois of the bourgeois – fanatical educationists, God rest their souls!’

We got out and opened the gate. As we went into the yard my brother-­in-law took a long look, and he was quite obviously deeply moved at seeing it all again, for he leaned on my arm as if his legs would hardly hold him up. At the bottom of the yard there was a wooden shack: out of it came a cackling of anxiously enquiring hens.

‘Where that henhouse is my brother and I had a toy house. White, it was, with a red roof, and it had proper windows. But I never spent much time in it – we had to keep that tidy too, and clean it out every time we used it. When I was a bit older I’d occasionally withdraw there sometimes to be alone. But actually, I wasn’t very good at being alone. More often I’d be taking a couple of pals in there and we’d be swilling beer and corn brandy. Took a girl there once, from our school. We played house – can you image, at sixteen! I tried undressing her, but every bit of clothing I took off she put back on as soon as I’d got it off. In the end I got so sweaty I had to take my own clothes off, and then she ran to her dad to blab. Her father was a furnace man at the hospital. My father was a doctor at the same hospital. Guess if I got a hiding. No, I didn’t. I was too big. But my pocket money was cut. Or something else stupid. It was then I started sloping off. And now here I am.’

We went up several steps to the main door. My brother-in-law read the name on the door and shook his head. ‘Too difficult to pronounce. The same with that other name: people on the top storey, I suppose. In those days we had the whole house.’

He had calmed down already. A mining engineer is not supposed to get excited, or at least show it. His eye lighted on a crack that started on one of the corners between the two storeys and stretched down to the cellar. ‘Aha!’, he said. ‘I see the war hasn’t completely spared this house either. There’s clearly been some subsidence. The bombings have made the earth settle a bit there.’

‘Or frost?’ I suggested.

‘It doesn’t get as cold as all that here,’ he remembered. He rang the doorbell. After a moment a middle-aged woman came and opened the door. Her bleached hair was in curlers, tucked in a plastic shower cap.

‘Excuse me, do you speak German?’ my brother-in-law asked and offered the chrysanthemum. She looked at us and then at the Volvo parked in the street, said something and closed the door. We stood waiting. Shortly the door opened again and a fiftyish man was there gaping at us. My brother-­in-law asked him too if he spoke German. He nodded. My brother-in-law explained that he used to live in this house as a child. The man just stared. My brother-in-law said he remembered that there were five rooms on ground floor, a kitchen and a ‘mädchenzimmer’ or maid’s room. Whereas upstairs …’

‘So what? What do you want?’

‘Nothing specially, I just came to have a look at the house, out of interest, you know. I’m a pensioner now, I have time… Would it be possible to have just a peep inside, some moment when it suits you…’

‘It doesn’t suit,’ the man said curtly. ‘You lost your house, like you lost the war, and serve you right. I don’t owe the Germans anything. Rather the opposite.’

My brother-in-law tried to put him right: it was precisely the Germans who had taken the house away from his family, from himself, and then eliminated the former inhabitants. He was the only person left alive out of his family. The Pole looked at him suspiciously and then asked if there was someone else who could prove that this was where he’d lived. Any Tom, Dick or Harry could come along and claim they used to live here forty or fifty years ago, just here, in somebody else’s house.

‘So why should I lie?’ My brother-in-law showed him photographs of his family and himself, standing in front of the house and inside. The man acknowledged the house was the same and then asked if there was someone else who could prove the house had been owned by the family. My brother­ in-law said it would be difficult, since it was not likely there’d be papers extant in any file. Besides, there’d be no point in it.

‘No point? Anybody you like could come along and claim they’d owned a person’s house, if there were no papers.’ The shower-cap lady was standing by her husband and whispering something in his ear.

‘We’re sorry it’s gone as it has,’ the man said. ‘But we bought the house from the town after the Germans had left. There’s no way you can get it back.’

‘I don’t want it back.’

The man turned to his wife; they whispered a moment.

‘You don’t want it? So what are you looking for – money? We’ll not pay a penny. How do we know your father didn’t sell it to the Germans?’

‘He didn’t sell it. He lost his house. And his life. But I’m not after money. Anyway not from you.’

‘What do you want then?’ He was perplexed. His wife stared at us with open hostility.

‘As I said, all I want is a peep… at places.’

He and his wife whispered together again and then said: ‘Come back again in the evening at nine o’clock.’

He closed the door.

At the time agreed we drove back up. The house was in darkness. We rang the bell. No one came. We rang the upstairs bell, but no one came to the door. We stood in the yard wondering. Nothing happened. Then I chanced to notice that across the street, in a house almost directly opposite, the curtain was moving. I told my brother-in-law. I saw his face clouding with anger. He considered quite a while and then got a powerful torch out of the car and began to shine it on the foundations of the house, particularly round the front-right stone pedestal.

‘What on earth are you doing?’ I wondered.

‘Mementos,’ he said, exploring holes in the concrete with his fingers, and groping the skirt of the house, groping and digging.

‘Looking for mementos there – why?’

‘Not looking for mementos, actually; I’m leaving mementos – of myself,’ he said, clearly enjoying being mysterious. I asked no further questions. Then we drove to the Hotel Europa, where he’d reserved a room.

In the hotel restaurant we ate various soups and bigoss, and drank some dreadful beer with vodka chasers. My brother-in-law looked relaxed and even a little amused.

‘Well, how does it all look to you now?’ I asked.

An orchestra was playing dance music, and a few couples were circling round the floor.

‘Well, how shall I put it? … I’ve seen the house is still standing. So it’s alive, like me. Just about. Ugly old thing it is. It was perfectly clear to me that I’d seldom if ever been happy there. I started missing my brother, though – being there. Small and delicate he was – has a pageboy haircut and a sailor suit. Pale and big-eyed, rather frail. Oh, I liked him all right, but I was never nice to him. But what to do about that now?’

He lifted his glass and looked at the dancing couples.

‘Still my house, though,’ he said tightly. ‘It belongs to me. In principle. I’ve never surrendered it. That fellow was trying to keep me out of my own house.’

‘Surely it’s no good turning to the authorities?’ I surmised.

He snorted. The orchestra took a rest. The pianist played on abstractedly: a Chopin nocturne. A cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth, and he screwed up his eye against the smoke.

‘I’ve never understood the Poles,’ my brother-in-law said. ‘That famous Polish spirit soul – what do they call it? Zal?’

I thought perhaps it was because he was so unmusical. But I left it unsaid.

A young – actually a very young – woman, a girl, with a ponytail and rouged cheeks, came up selling roses.

‘Who do you think I should be buying roses for?’ he quizzed her. ‘This fellow here?’ – pointing to me. ‘Or the pianist?’

She smiled and waited. He gave her a largish note.

‘Go and buy yourself a red riding hood.’

The girl didn’t get the joke. She looked at the note in astonishment, and her blush was visible even under the rouge. My brother-in-law gestured to show he didn’t want anything in return. The girl put the money away, curtseyed and walked off rather stiffly.

‘Ah, what did I…’ he fretted. ‘I’m getting old, past it.’

We went to bed. My brother-in-law tossed in his bed and muttered discontentedly to himself. I was tired, as I always am travelling. Before I dropped off, my brother-in-law was up and dressed and said half to himself:

‘Can’t get to sleep… I’m going off to do a bit of sightseeing…’

I wondered whether he did want something from that girl after all, but I was ashamed of the thought and went off to sleep.

In the early hours I woke to find my brother-in-law clattering round the room. He staggered against my bed, plumped down on it, and pushed a wide-bottomed bottle under my nose.

‘Try some of that, kid, it’s home-distilled, the real stuff. Found it behind the henhouse.’

I shot up into the sitting position, thunderstruck. ‘You mean to say you’ve been there again?’

‘Certainly have. The hens raised a terrible to-do, I’ll say, but I quietened them down.’

In my imagination I saw him systematically wringing their necks.

‘Read them a nursery rhyme from the Talmud – very effective rhyme.

Soul of fowl, and spirit of hen,
hearken to the spell I spin.
Stop your cackle now, and lay
no let or hindrance in my way.

If you cluck alarm, you’ll vex:
Reynard the fox will wring your necks;
and these fingers, skilled at plucking,
will discipline your dismal clucking amen, taamen,
taamen, aamen.

‘What’s this “taamen”?’ I asked.

‘Taamen? Tamen, if you like. It’s… Latin. “Neque tamen semper liber erat populus germanorum”?

“Nevertheless, the German people had not always been free.” Don’t you remember it from school?’

‘But in the Talmud?’

‘Makes no difference. Hens? Damnall about religion they know. They can’t perceive the distinctions… It works with hens. They go quiet. But it woke the Pole up, this old spell of mine… Came threatening me with a poker. His wife yelled and raved – a peculiarly ugly person. They threatened to call the militia. I pretended scared – whispered to him not to do it – I’d a little secret I’d rather share with him than with the militia. Then he got terribly interested, told his hag to slip off, dug this hooch out from under the henhouse, and was all set for a natter. And we did natter. I told him about the cache.’

‘The cache?’

‘The cache of our family’s – the Staufler family’s – silver and jewels. So and so many ounces of gold, so and so many ounces of silver, pounds you could say, such and such precious stones in the jewellery, and naturally a pile of money, which of course has lost its value.’

‘I’d no idea,’ I muttered.

‘I didn’t like to say,’ he said. ‘Anyway, I told the Pole, and did he begin to glow with enthusiasm! It does do me good to see people showing enthusiasm, mature people that in general nothing gets going any more, either physically or spiritually.’

‘So where is this cache?’ I asked, still unbelieving.

‘Ah, yes! Where is it? Just what he asked. I told him the story, but all he could do was interrupt: where is it? I did keep him on the grill for quite a while. Explained how in 1938, after the Krystallnacht, we decided to hide the family treasures. At that time we were still living in hopes that the bad days would blow over, and some day we’d dig it all out again from its hiding place. “Where, where?” the fellow kept asking. “Split the kitty, shall we?” I asked. He gave me the evil eye, but then agreed. “Come and look,” I said. We went to the corner. “So you see, Herr Obchoz … “– what the hell zinsky was his name – I said. “As you see, they’ve put a concrete surface on the original stone pedestal!” He looked but didn’t see. “They have, they have,” I insisted. “I was there myself, giving a hand. We were otherwise having the house decorated: my uncle is – was – a builder; we tucked the valuables in here, between the concrete facade and the stone pedestal!” “Here?” he asked greedily. ”Well, I’m not all that sure,” I said. “I wasn’t actually told. I was too young. They couldn’t have known, could they, that I’d be the only member of the family who’d be left alive.”

“What was the point of concreting over all four of the corners?” he asked, with a suspicious look, thinking he was being very cunning.

“Well, just think for yourself, ” I said. “How would it look if there was a slab of concrete there, just on one corner, unexpectedly, for no particular reason? Naturally, they surfaced all the corners,” I went on. “And those baubles could be in any one of those stone pedestals. But I’m betting you they’re here, in this right-hand corner.”

‘He got a gleam in his eye: you see, he’d seen me poking about round there earlier in the evening. So he invited me into the house. No, I said, thanks: let’s sit here on the steps. So that’s what we did. We sat on the steps and drank this schnapps. He really threw himself into it. Turned out he really liked Jews a lot: they were… what was it… I can’t remember what thoughts we exchanged on the subject. Turned out too that he was more German than Polish – had gone to a German school. In fact, he’d changed his name – Polecised it. I’d been wondering how he spoke such good German – better and better in fact the more we drank. He could recall a lot of the songs and rhymes and catches from his old schooldays, and we sang them together. His wife came to yap at us, but we told her to go to hell. This was the sort of song he was very good at – I thought I was the last person left in the world who could still come out with it.’

My Erwin brother-in-law sang, in his own way, that is, with no proper tune and very arbitrary intervals, but a sure rhythm:

A woman had an only son
who hadn’t found his destined one;
but the need for a girl in this wild young lad
was dished by his craze for the latest fad.

The telephone girl aroused his thirst:
his heart, his thing were fit to burst.
So into a distant phone connection
he misguidedly pushed his whole erection.

And though his aim was noble and chic
it didn’t cool his burning prick.
Into the box his coin he’d shove.
Oh the price of long-distance love!

Having sung it, he slumped on my bed and slept. I had quite a bit of trouble prising him longways onto the bed. Then I went over to his more or less untouched bed and dropped off myself again.

In the morning a pale brother-in-law woke me. He sniffed at the dregs in the bottle, grinned and took a wallow.

‘Think you’re up to driving?’ he asked.

‘Sure. Where to?’

‘Gdansk. And fast.’

‘And the family treasures?’

‘Aren’t any. Never have been.’

Even in the bar of the Polish ferry my brother-in-law’s hands were still trembly as he lifted the beermug to his lips. He looked through the window and watched the city drawing away, the Westerplatt monument, the Cathedral tower, the harbour gantries, and reflected:

‘Coming to strip the house, they are, from corner to corner. And it was in pretty awful shape already… What they should have done is invite me in, like civilised people with civilised people… then I’d have let them have the house… I’d have written them a moral deed of conveyance. Honest I would.’

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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