My boyfriend in jackboots

I'm Jewish; Peter wasn't. Our summer reunion in Germany took me places I didn't want to know.

Topics: Germany, Travel,

My boyfriend in jackboots

I was thinking mostly about love. Throughout the entire long
flight, whether I was reading or talking to the woman next to me or resting, I was thinking
mostly of love, of 10 long months apart and the sweet specifics of our coming
reunion. Hands and arms and shoulders and lips, fingertips like feathers. Steamy
kisses in the airport. The delicious heat of summer after a long, long winter. By the time I got
off the plane, I was practically swooning. Only marginally was I thinking about Nazis.

The subjects had been sharing space in my mind for some time. This
trip was, after all, more than a visit to a long-distance lover. It was a
homecoming, of sorts, except I had to catch myself every time I wanted to say that: You
can’t return to a place you have never been. Still, there it was. Peter had been
studying in Germany for the year, and I, daughter and granddaughter of German
Jews, was, as an acquaintance put it, “returning to the motherland.”

They left in May 1938, when my mother was almost 2. If they had
waited six months more, they wouldn’t have been able to get out. My grandmother’s
brother and parents stayed behind. Her brother, my great uncle Hans, was arrested and
taken to Dachau, and released a half-year later.

The woman who sat next to me on the airplane was originally from
Germany, returning for a while to look after her sick mother. She took good care of
me: got me an extra blanket, told me to drink lots of water on the plane. She
offered me her dessert and patted my hand when we hit turbulence. And she
told me what to expect on my first trip to Germany: too many foreigners.
And not, if you know what I mean, the good kind. She had nothing against them, of
course, it’s just that they don’t work, only sit in cafes all day.
Germany, she confided, is becoming a melting pot. Full of dark-skinned people, speaking
strange languages.

As we flew over the ocean I worried that I wouldn’t recognize
Peter. What if he were as foreign to me and as frightening as the place he’d been
living? What if I scanned the crowd (the impossibly blond crowd, I
imagined) for his face and he was nowhere, until the stranger in front of me touched my
arm and said, “Lauren, it’s me! I’m right here!” And what if I still didn’t
recognize him?



Of course, I spotted him immediately, recognized in a blink the
shape of his body, the way he raked his fingers through his hair. It was the reunion
itself that I couldn’t have predicted: the way we should have moved together like
magnets and instead smiled awkwardly, hugged like there was someone standing
between us. The minute I saw him I felt as if he’d betrayed me by being here,
by being happy here, and a cold sadness burrowed into my body. In the airport
in Frankfurt, where I looked around and felt immediately like making unfunny
jokes about German efficiency, it was my own foreignness that took me by
surprise.

I remembered so much German. Sentences flew out of my mouth
before I even
thought them; phrases like bright, surprising birds fluttered to me from
nowhere, bold and unexpected. I have no idea how to say, “It’s warm
outside” in
German, or even, “I’d like to change some money, please.” But I can say
“Cauliflower” and “Stop that silliness, you bad thing” and “Give me a kiss,
little one.” I fell asleep nights to the familiar sounds of German in my
head,
a language that, when spoken by certain voices and in specific tones, will
always remind me of home. Will always feel safe. Will always smell warm,
like
a kitchen.

Peter spoke flawless German.

Peter, who isn’t Jewish, who lived in Germany that year and at other
times in
his life, spoke flawless German. And wherever we went, people were
amazed
that he was American, that my blue-eyed boyfriend was not, in fact, German.
Sometimes, in the car, he would get annoyed with other drivers and snap at
them,
or at me, in German. It was a reflex after living there for a year, I
suppose,
as unplanned as my response to it: visceral horror, fear of this language
yelled. I found myself pinned to the seat after these bursts of irritation,
immobile. “Don’t shout at me in German,” I said, embarrassed by the power
of my
reaction. “Don’t shout at me, Nazi-boy.” Laughing at the absurdity of it.

And, of course, Peter translated for me. He helped me order food in
restaurants, communicated with the doctor when I needed an antibiotic, pointed
out interesting pieces of information I would have missed. Like the
Judengasse — the Jewish Alley. We were in Rothenburg, a small Bavarian city that,
unlike most of the
rest of Germany, has been untouched by war because of the wall that surrounds
it. Rothenburg was an unplanned detour, an excuse to get out of the car after a long day of driving and a wrong turn and a
fight. It
was late, 11 p.m., and the city was relatively deserted. We wandered, relieved,
through its narrow streets, gentle with each other in the tentative
maintenance of love. Both of us surprised by the thick tangles of it, by the strength of
the webbing between two people who, we were slowly, belatedly realizing, might
not belong together. Here, outside, there was more space, at least, for
things
unspoken to hang in the air between us.

The houses in the Judengasse are closer together than those in the
rest of the
town, and shabbier, more cramped. People live there today, only they are not
ghetto Jews, of course, just German people going about their daily lives. We
could hear their voices float through open windows, laughter and the bumps and
murmurs of movement as they settled in, prepared for bed. We could have
been on
any street. I ran my hands along old stone, tiptoed into somebody’s
dilapidated
courtyard — three crumbling walls, grass growing through the cracks — and
wondered if it used to be the synagogue.

There are no Jews there, and no ghosts, either; no echoes, no
voices, although
I strained to hear them. I wanted something, comfort or impossible
reassurance
or just the presence of absence, more than a polished town and an incongruous
street name, someone to whisper, “Yes, we were here.” I wanted at least to
hear
voices as we walked holding hands down the street that is still called the
Judengasse.

Peter and I traveled across the country. I looked at people and
tried not to
think, Where were you? What are you teaching your children? But I walked
through the streets of Germany and looked at people and I wondered, and
wondered, and wondered.

Heads together, laughing, we renamed rock groups: Guns ‘n’ Moses,
The Shtetl
People. Sang in the car. Were sweet to each other. And fought. We
sucked
everything we could from one another, drank each other dry. Argued about
everything we could think of — directions, routes, what time to stop for
coffee, where to go next, whether to keep the windows up or down. We picked
fights, picked the scabs of our relationship till they bled. But once when we
were walking down a steep, rocky path I tripped and cut a deep gash in my
knee. He
took the bottle of mineral water from his backpack, knelt at my feet and
poured
the water so gently over my bleeding wound that it was almost absolution, almost
forgiveness. We pulled the last threads of our love taut, frayed, almost
broken. One moment we would be lovers, wandering German streets; then out of the corner of my eye I would see evil old men in black armbands. The depth of my anger surprised me. It
breathed.

We would split up, finally, when we got back to the States.

Sometimes on our travels, because we had no money
and because, at the time, it was an adventure, Peter and I would sleep in the car. We’d
pull into a farmer’s cultivated field late at night, when we knew he wouldn’t be
back, and we’d leave just after the first wash of morning light eased us
awake. We’d have to find a gas station in town in the morning so I could put in my
contact lenses.

In the car, in the middle of the blurry German night, curled up in an
uncomfortable ball in the vinyl seats that only partially reclined, this is what I
thought: I trust him enough to protect me here, in the place where my fears are outsized,
and older than I am. But the one who protects can never fully understand the
danger. Maybe this is the unbridgeable gap. Maybe this accounts for our
arguing and clawing at each other after 10 months apart, maybe this is the
thing between us. Or maybe it’s just me, overwhelmed by this place, saturated
with anger and sadness, everything in my path a symbol or a reminder, or
both. True, I considered, it’s probably not the most reasonable situation to be
in, a girl obsessed with her family history dating a Teutonic German-ophile. It’s a
lesson, I guessed: If you can’t stop imagining your boyfriend in
jackboots, it may be a signal that something’s amiss.

I thought, at 23, in the middle of the German night, that I’d
probably be
single forever.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

I liked taking the subway alone, back in Frankfurt. It wasn’t
difficult, but I
felt as though I were accomplishing something every time I did, listening for
the names in the proper order, deciphering a language that is not my own,
getting somewhere. I had to concentrate so hard, count the stops and
listen so
closely, I almost didn’t notice the man in front of me one day, the man
with the
black hair streaked with gray and the numbers tattooed on his arm. I
wanted to
grab onto that man, to call out, to make him turn around and look at me. I
wanted him to see me, to recognize a connection. I wanted him to say, “Yes,
you
will understand, and I will tell you …” And then perhaps we would share a
beer
while he reminisced about the good old days?

There are things I will never know, gaps that are also unbridgeable
for me.

I’ve heard Germans — good people; ethical, thoughtful people –
say that they
don’t want to continue to carry the burden of the Holocaust, that they’ve paid
the price and won’t suffer the sins of their parents any longer. They would
tell me I Go Too Far, tell me it’s Enough Already, it was 50 years ago, 50
years. And maybe they would be right. But I’d say this, too: 50 years is a
puff of smoke, a whisper, the flutter of wings before flight.

Perhaps I’d be a better person if I’d found in myself an
understanding, even a
sort of forgiveness, there in the place that wasn’t home. If I could have
found
reconciliation, made it somewhere to rest my mind. Then maybe I wouldn’t
continue to feel this way, as if I’m wrestling with a demon so many people
would
like to let sleep; as if I’m angry, full of bitterness and bile; as if I’m
the crazy one.

It’s one of my last nights in Frankfurt, cool and clear after a
week of 95-degree heat, and the city is holding its annual fair. We go to it late with
some
of Peter’s friends from school: Stefan, Gabi and Silke. They all speak
English, so communication is easy; we like each other and I feel, after
only a
short time with them, as if I belong. It’s always strange, though: I’m the
Jew, a curiosity to Germans my age who have grown up inundated with their own
history in this, their own country, but who have, for the most part, never
met a
real live one. We know, and never say, that our grandparents could have been
neighbors, friends, something else. Anything. A kind of guilt steeps so
huge,
so much bigger than we are that, like air, we can almost ignore it. They
tread
lightly with me, look a little too long, leave palpable spaces.

We’re all slightly giddy at the fair. Relieved from the week’s
thick heat;
light, finally, we whirl with the energy of it, bouncing off each other, off
everyone around us. We go on every ride, sucked in like children to the
blinking lights and the wind and the screams, laughing.

The Ferris wheel, they tell me, is the biggest in Germany. From
the top, they
say, you can see all of Frankfurt.

We share a gondola, the five of us, and Peter and I sit close. The
blunt
sadness that has hung between us these weeks is growing sharper now; the
slow
end of something once — still — sweet. I’ve felt near to what is raw and
essential here, in Germany, to a kernel of myself and my history that will
always, no matter what I do or who I become, define me. The link between my
grandparents, my mother, me, is as fragile and as strong as a spider web.
As close as I feel to it now, I know, as the Ferris wheel slowly climbs, that
their experience will be only, always my history — a continent away from
memory.

We rise above Frankfurt and it’s true, the whole city spreads out
in lights
beneath us. At the top I notice for the first time the pink entrance tickets
that carpet the fair grounds, as if these environmentally conscious Germans
have
given themselves a night to litter, to let somebody else clean up the mess.
Peter and his friends point out neighborhoods and buildings to me in a fast
litany and I look past their outstretched arms — there, and there, and
there.
Someone grabs the metal wheel in the middle of our gondola and starts us
spinning around as we rise and fall. Soon we’re all working it, five pairs of
hands turning the gondola faster and faster, our own mini-ride inside the
Ferris
wheel. I’m drunk with dizziness and wind, pressed up against Peter, and,
for a
moment, there is nothing else. Pink tickets litter the ground like
feathers and
we are high above the city, high above Frankfurt, spinning.

Lauren Fox is the author of the novels "Friends Like Us" (now in paperback) and "Still Life With Husband"

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