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Where the Straight Path Leads

Summary

INTRODUCTION

Two years ago, Daniel José Propp (Dan) asked me to read over the memoirs of his father, Arthur Propp, a German Jew from Königsberg (the main city in East Prussia, since 1945 part of Russia under the name “Kaliningrad”), who immigrated to Canada in 1950. These memoirs consisted of a series of typewritten pages bound into booklets, which were now, after several decades (the author died in 1965), a few moves and other vagaries, in a state of disarray; they were written in Arthur’s native language, German, and were ostensibly a letter to his son, who was then (1956) twelve years old (although in the later parts of the work this is forgotten and Arthur speaks of Dan in the third person). Dan wanted me to select the best passages, which I was then to edit with a view to publication; there was enough material for a book of about 200 pages. On the basis of the published German version I would then provide an English translation of the memoirs. This translation is the volume that you, dear reader, are now holding in your hands.

Despite the poor condition of the booklets and the gaps in the text, it was still possible to extract a coherent and more or less complete narrative, spanning Arthur Propp’s life from his birth in Königsberg in 1890 to his move to Canada in 1950; a life marked in particular by his participation in WWI, his imprisonment in 1938, his escape to England in 1939 and his life as a refugee in Bolivia in the decade 1940-1950. In the downtime, so to speak, between one and another of these major events, Arthur’s life unfolds in the seeming banality of the everyday; yet even there he can find something to philosophize about and experiences from time to time discrimination based on his being Jewish, which does not stop him, however, from achieving great successes in his professional life and becoming considerably wealthy. The keen gaze of this European, always willing and able to adapt to whatever circumstances in which he found himself and to any country he emigrated, was the first thing to catch my attention while I was perusing the manuscript.

Arthur’s life stands out in another respect: his resilience, the fact that he always ends up “landing on his feet”, even as a foreigner and immigrant. One may say that he was, in fact, a foreigner all his life, although he and his family strongly felt that they were Germans and East Prussia was their home, and although Arthur himself displays a deep acquaintance with German literature and culture. The reader can recognize almost at every turn that, in truth, he never did “belong” but was a Jew, a stranger, “other” even in his native Königsberg. And yet he does not omit to point out all the cases in which people helped him, first by giving him contracts and positions that made him a successful lumberman, then by enabling him to escape from Germany and later to move to Bolivia. This kindness in the middle of absolute horror is what gives him, and should give the reader, hope that human life can make sense and human communities can be made to be humane and just after all.

Before and after Arthur’s text you will find a few passages and a poem written by Dan himself. As Dan has inherited his father’s literary skill, he has written a great deal about being the child of two Holocaust survivors. So he decided to task me with choosing passages from one of his books (specifically, Through the Sunshine, which was later republished in expanded form as Landing on my Feet) in order to provide the son’s perspective. This part of the volume is particularly important since it shows the long shadow cast by Hitlerism and the Holocaust even on people who did not directly experience it, to wit, the children of the survivors. Dan’s parts are therefore the most appropriate frame for his father’s narrative.

Domingo Aviles

CHAPTER ONE

Gibsons, B.C., Christmas 1956

My dear Danny,

You are now twelve and I am sixty-six! Often, in the evening before going to bed, you come to me and say, “Dad, ask me something.” And then I ask you what it was like at school, how you like your teacher and what your classmates are like, or what you think of the people in the town we live in.

Often your answers catch me unprepared, so spot-on are they; and it dawns on me that you are no longer a little boy but have matured a great deal. I then think about what I could do for you to have a colorful, warm and happy life.

Sometimes, when the following day is school-free and you get to sleep in, you come into my bed and ask me about my life. Then you listen to me silently until I notice by your breathing that you have fallen asleep, and I tuck you in well and, in my thoughts, continue to tell you my stories…

Perhaps I should tell you about my entire life! Some of it might be useful for you. Maybe later you’ll say, “Dad, tell me something!” when I’m no longer there. However, even then I would like to be “there” too, so I’m going to tell you many of my stories in advance, so to speak—for later…

I haven’t forgotten what you once said to me, while I was telling you about my youth. “Dad, I’m not terribly interested in this. This is what used to happen in the old times, but no longer today…” I know, I am of “yesterday” and you are of “tomorrow”. So I will tell you —for later—not of landscapes, love, hatred, and business, but I will provide you with a “sketch book” of my life. The people are the sketches: some of them are faint, some others carved into my life like runes; and yet all of them together create a picture of what it was like, or, rather, what it seemed like to me.

Was it beautiful? Was it bad? Before a person is there, there is nothing; after they go away, there is nothing. As long as a person is there, there is life, unique, like a miracle, and this in itself is wonderful.

 

***

 

My father, your paternal grandfather, was born in 1854 in Skaudvile, a town in Russian Lithuania. I know nothing about his parents, not even their names. Around age twenty he emigrated to Königsberg in Eastern Prussia and learned to become a lumberman.

When he was twenty-seven he made enough money as an employee, had his bride come over, and married her, after being engaged to her for seven years. Around age thirty he started his own business, the firm Propp & Winsber in Königsberg with a sawmill by the Memel river near Tilsit. In 1898 he filed for bankruptcy; he had raked up about 1.5 million Mark in debt; the settlement was made on a 30%-basis. His self-confidence had hereby been broken and he saw it as beneath himself to be an agent. So he tried going back to being a businessman and in 1908 had to make another settlement over his debts on a 30%-basis. In 1903 he had gotten sick at heart and kidneys; he died in 1908.

He was buried on April 19th, 1908. It was Easter Sunday. His casket was followed by a line of people the end of which was almost impossible to see. Even many years later, people’s voices would become warm and their eyes would become wet when they (often complete strangers) talked to me about him. My father was a naturally friendly, often funny man. I never saw him read a book, but he always had a joke ready. He was of middle height, skinny, always well dressed and handsome.

My mother, your grandma, was born in Tauroggen in 1860. She met my father at a wedding; they were both still kids and waited for one another for years. My mother belonged to a renowned family, who owned a tannery. Her brothers were staunchly opposed to her marrying my father, who owned nothing and came from a working-class family.

They had four children, two brothers and a sister of mine. My mother was neither funny nor beautiful nor friendly. She saved every penny she could, didn’t need anything for herself and only lived for her husband and her children. In times when my father was unable to fulfill his obligations and had plenty of creditors, she would shame herself to death and withdraw herself with the kids to remote parks or to popular excursion places far away from town. She never wore jewelry and kept all the gifts that my father gave her in a drawer, so she could pay for school and rent in bad times.

She died at age 59; her casket was followed only by a handful of people.

I recall a strange conversation I once had with her. A few weeks before she died unexpectedly I asked her about my father. She said, “If God gave me the chance to get my Max back, but I had to give Him my four children instead, I would not hesitate for a second but say to Him: ‘Give me my Max back.’” At that time, my father had already been dead for eleven years.

My parents’ house was unadorned; not warm, not cold. Father had trouble making enough money for us all; Mom had trouble dressing and feeding her kids and keeping the house clean.

That household was full of duties: school during the day and then homework, then food, drink and sleep; once in a while a book from the school library. Very rarely theater, high up in the gallery – exactly three times while my parents were alive. I wore my older brothers’ used clothes and went to school with their old books; only my shoes were new, because my feet were too big. The food was simple; one orange got cut into six pieces, one for each of the six mouths. Fruit soups that we had gotten for lunch showed up again at dinnertime, with more water in them. I once received from my dad as a present a rubber head of the Italian king Hubert and an ink ball with holes for a pen, a pencil and a knife, and another time three Mark, when I was in Cranz; the presents I got from Mom were a knife for my ninth birthday – I can still clearly see the color of the enamel – and also a small bar of chocolate on each of my birthdays. My father never sent me a letter or a postcard when he was traveling; my mother sent me a few with receipts and exhortations.

I can’t remember us ever talking about politics, books or business.

The house was very clean. Lene, my sister, at age fifteen once told a joke she had heard in school that was rather spicy; I still remember how everybody at the table laid down their cutlery in horror and Lene sprang up crying and left the room. Us siblings did not have intimate relationships with each other or our parents. Each of us went their own way; however, we didn’t miss the warmth. This was the way of life of those days, and warmth was seen as un-German, as effeminate. I can’t remember Dad or Mom ever kissing me; Mom didn’t do so even when I went to war. “Do your duty!” she said to us boys, and didn’t even accompany us to the train station.

This all, however, was on the exterior more than anything else. Inwardly Mom and Dad lived wonderfully with one another, even though no tenderness was ever shown in front of the kids; and their children were the center of their life.

Nonetheless, life was dull, cold, punctuated by duties, and monotonous; there were no flowers, no fairy tales, no music or fantasy or tenderness. It wasn’t a Jewish home, either: our life was that of a typical German middle-class family: unadorned, unexciting, but well ordered.

From 1896 to 1906 I went to Königsberg’s central school. It was no fun. Both the interior and the exterior of it were that of a Prussian military building made of yellowed red bricks and couched among age-old barns and small, dilapidated gabled houses. The young prisoners’ eyes could rest on a fire department station, where firefighters were constantly practicing on ladders, and the 200-year-old main town park with its green trees.

The teachers, most of them reserve officers, were to the kids, who were just yet coming out of mommy’s soft lap into the so-called real life, more than their fathers and just a little less than God Almighty. Sure, we gave many of them nicknames, but, apart from that, none of us would ever doubt that they were infallible, all-knowing, untouchable and examples to us all.

The teachers are indelibly etched in my mind. Even fifty years later I could paint each of them, including the hats and the clothes they wore. In first grade we had Herr Assmann: young, sturdy, fresh from teacher training, always holding in his hand a yellow cane whose upper end was curved like a sword’s grip. I remember very well how painfully many a child’s hand burned.

In second grade we had Herr Klein: a middle-aged man, always well dressed, who taught us calligraphy.

In the classroom hung a big painting that portrayed harvest chariots coming to the barn, carrying farmer girls and men holding pitchforks. This is the only picture I ever saw in the classrooms, apart from the main hall. There hung paintings by arts teacher Dörsting, which portrayed Greek athletic competitions.

In the following year we had Herr Riechert, a little old man, who constantly sniffed tobacco and whose eyes ran. I don’t know anything about him except that it was his last year and he left the school with a medal in recognition for his service.

In the following year we had Professor Karschuk, our class teacher. He taught French, had lived in France for many years and was as nimbly, adorned and preppy as a Frenchman.

In the following year our teacher was Professor Vogel. He looked like a farmer and behaved accordingly, with a good sense of humor. He taught the natural sciences. Vogel was a piece of nature himself and didn’t know how to teach. Before giving the marks he would make each student assess themselves. “I think I deserve a B” I said to him. “Kork,” – this is what he called me – “you deserve an F, I shall give you a D and you will get a B. Be careful you don’t die of megalomania.”

“Kids,” he would sometimes say, “no one has learned anything. Why do you anger me so? And today of all days, when my mother has promised me my favorite dish: pig foot with sauerkraut.” To each science lesson he’d bring a lot of still-soiled leaves, roots and flowers and put them on his desk, which made him look like a greengrocer. He would then play around with these objects and forget about his students.

In seventh grade we had Professor Ivanovius. He was fat and pot-bellied; his belly rubbed down from his pants, his clothes had refused any contact with an iron and he owned only a single suit. As far as I know, he had no jacket. He was our Hans Christian Andersen. He traveled a lot – only on the map, however, since he lacked money, and he did so only in the spring or summer. And although he never had any money in his old-fashioned wallet, he took all who were around him along on his trips.

When he was traveling, we all forgot where we were – not just us kids but also the other teachers in the staff’s room. So they sometimes came some fifteen minutes too late into the classroom and they’d simply say: “We could not arrive earlier, our colleague Ivanovius was talking…” He somewhat reminded one of the teacher in “Blauer Engel”. In a pub with female personnel he once ran into one of his more mature students, invited him to sit at his table and paid for his drinks. Lehr (a schoolmate, tall as a tree) told me later the following story: “So who was there? Our Professor! I wanted to leave quickly, but he had already seen me and said: ‘Listen, my son, of course is any business where your teacher goes a totally classy one, but if I see you here again you’ll be expelled from the school. Now, though, for tonight you’re my guest, since of course you stepped in here – I am sure – just because you forgot your house key and you needed shelter from the rain.’”

When as a captain he led his company up the hill in midtown, he slipped and fell with his fat belly. The girls, who were just coming out of his school, laughed. “My fair ladies,” he shouted, “I hope you will get fat as respectably as I have!”

When, as an old man and probably syphilitic, he took leave from his students, he said, “I hope with my life I’ve given you a compelling example of how not to live your life.” A few years later I saw him sitting in the Kleistpark, in the autumn sun, surrounded by the falling leaves, together with the white-haired Professor Mollmann. He held my hand and said, “How beautiful, how wonderful is this colorful sunny autumn – the last of my life!”

He died early the following year. Every time spring arrives and I open the windows, I am reminded, fifty years later, of his favorite line: “Open the windows, open the hearts, quickly, quickly…”[1]

Professor Loch was like Secretary Wurm in "Kabale und Liebe": he looked like a stealthy cat and had the movements of one. He was filled with ambition and so he later became one of the tycoons of the school system. What he taught I don’t remember; we didn’t even bother making up a nickname for him. In the Hitler era Loch lived in the neighboring house. At that time he surprised me. His grandson yelled through the fence to Macki, my son, "kike boy". Loch hit his grandson behind his ears, came with him to Macki and his grandson had to apologize.

Professor Friedlander had been nicknamed "Suse",[2] and that’s what he was. He had no marrow in the bones: a quiet voice, a gentle gait, an eternal smile on his lips. Maybe that was because he stemmed from Jews. He appeared to possess a chronic insecurity hidden behind smiles and restraint. I can’t remember what he taught, either. I have read in a newspaper from East Prussia that he rests in Berlin next to the graves of the Brothers Grimm. But otherwise he was far away from anything fairy-tale...

Rosikat, Professor Rosikat, on the other hand, was such an imposing block of marble, very earthy, his hands and feet planted firmly on the floor, firmly rooted in reality – and yet he brought us students in the senior years close to the stars and the timeless wonders. His front was like one made by a sculptor such as Rodin, and his facial expression like that of a fish market woman. He displayed a range of knowledge and wisdom like that of a student of Goethe; he was also the president of the Goethe association. Us senior students, the students of his class, he treated with contempt and even disgust: "Sit down, douchebags," he’d say upon entering the classroom, “and open the windows: I’ve had my colleague Gassner chemically analyze the stench of this class: it is 50% moral and 50% physical.”

And yet – what a wonderful teacher! He – and he alone – for the first time in all of the school years managed to make us grasp the spirit of antiquity and also that of German literature, with a few strokes that were unforgettable. Whenever spring comes and I go through the forest, I must think of him. "If in the middle of spring all of a sudden you see an old toothless woman walk around the corner from the forest toward you, you’ll be turned to stone – then you’ll have grasped the meaning of the Gorgon’s head!"

Gassner taught us geometry and arithmetic. He did so with such accuracy and clarity that even the slowest learner would understand: a truly born teacher. With me, however, he had no luck: I didn’t understand anything and geometry remains, to this day, a complete mystery to me! Many, many years later, whenever I ran into him, he’d always say the same thing to me: "I’ve heard that you have built up a large business." And then he’d look at me, always with the same eyes, and add, "How is that possible??" I didn’t understand it any more than he did. For the first time we understood each other: that was the one thing neither of us understood!

Troje was nicknamed "the blubberer": he was often incomprehensible. He taught geography and sometimes mathematics. I was his best student in geography and his worst in mathematics. This made him nervous, and me too. He was a traveler through the world. An artist, scientist, accompanier of the emperor, mountaineer, geographer: a stimulating personality – and a very endearing one at that, one that stimulated one’s fantasy.

Last but not least, Professor Lehmann. He taught Greek (he had lived in Greece for a long time); his image is the one that is burned most clearly into my memory, with his never-changing old brown eyes and permanent light-brown stiff round hat.

The last time I saw Lehmann, he was pushing a small stroller with tools through the Schrötterstrasse. It was around 1939. He must have had a garden in that area. He was wearing his brown suit again, now obviously degraded to work clothes.

I can’t say what made us like him so much. I don’t even know whether he was a good teacher. But I do know that he was a good man who secretly loved his students. Of course, he could not say it out loud or show it: he was a Prussian teacher and reserve officer. But we all felt that this man had such an open, benevolent and yet so manly face. Maybe there was something of the Greek serenity in him. We called him "Bull" because he looked a little like a bulldog, and bulldogs are the coziest animals.

These, dear Danny, were my teachers. Now, they rest for the most part in the cemeteries in the old Pillauer country road just outside what used to be Königsberg’s city gates. I wish I could go to Königsberg/Kaliningrad again, now that it’s ruled by the Russians. I would visit my teachers: they all still live in me and we could have great talks.

There is only one teacher I came into close contact with: Herr Assmann. It was 1922, the year of the hunger, the frost and wild inflation. "Do you know a teacher named Assmann?" my clerk in the tax office asked. "I live in Königseck 8, and on the other side lives Herr Assmann. He has nothing to heat his room with, so he remains in bed all day." I sent him some firewood, and he, proud as a Spaniard, brought to me as compensation a bottle of rum, which at that time was very precious and rare.

So we became friends and remained so for fifteen years. I spent Christmas with him. His wife, who was paralyzed, sat upright and cheerful in her chair in front of the big Christmas tree (every morning Assmann would pull her out of bed and dress her, and he’d bring her back to bed in the evening and undress her); his daughter, an unmarried primary school teacher, was with us.

After dinner he and I went into a room next door, which was his only son Alexander’s room. In it was a small illuminated Christmas tree for him. I was a friend of Alexander’s; I’d talked to him shortly before the war, when he was about to be ordained a priest. The last time he had been seen was in 1914 near Loviz with a shot in the lung. "I’m not giving up hope," Assmann said; "perhaps he just lost his memory and will come back one day.”

Each month, Assmann would go to the bank office in town to pick up his pension, then he’d run up to my office. When his wife died, we were together at the crematorium and talked about the "nonetheless" in the funeral sermon. We both understood, without saying so, that it was the motto of our lives. At age eighty he climbed the Schneekoppe;[3] he was the front man of the seniors in the men’s gymnastics club, worked out outdoors every day in any kind of weather, and at night studied the new releases in the reading room of the school.

Only once did he drop by my apartment in the Kronprinzenstrasse during one of his walks. He spoke with my wife. He didn’t know that she was mentally ill; at first he didn’t understand, then he became restless, then he understood (I hadn’t told him about it). I followed him as he walked away; he stood by a lamppost, leaned onto it and wept.

It was 1938. He had withdrawn his pension again and came up to my office with a newspaper in his hands. "Isn’t it terrible that you now" and he pointed to the paper "can no longer lead a business. So the few good Jews must now suffer for the deeds of the many bad ones." All of a sudden I felt a burning pain in the kidneys; I was paralyzed. My appearance must have changed a lot. Assmann looked at me aghast. He offered his hand in farewell; I didn’t take it. "Oh God oh God" he muttered; these were his last words.

I saw him once more, when I was at North Station, as he was walking with his quick gait – straight as a soldier – toward the Stresemannstrasse. This image of him with the white billowing hair, combed to the rear by the wind, has stayed with me for all these years.

When in 1940 I arrived at Hamilton, the capital of Bermuda, after a long, nearly two-week trip in the dark on my way from Liverpool to Chile, there was again an entire city illuminated at night: almost a revelation after all the blackout of the war. That must have thawed me because I wrote a long letter to the teacher of first grade, Herr Assmann, Konigsberg/Prussia, Königseck 8.

I wonder whether he received it?

 

[1] “Die Fenster auf, die Herzen auf! Geschwinde! Geschwinde!”, from the poem “Frühlingseinzug” (‘the arrival of the spring’) by Wilhelm Müller (1794 - 1827).

[2] A female name, so this nickname is tantamount to “sissy”.

[3] A mountain in the Czech Republic, about 1600 meters high.

CHAPTER 1

Gibsons, B.C., Christmas 1956

My dear Danny,

You are now twelve and I am sixty-six! Often, in the evening before going to bed, you come to me and say, “Dad, ask me something.” And then I ask you what it was like at school, how you like your teacher and what your classmates are like, or what you think of the people in the town we live in.

Often your answers catch me unprepared, so spot-on are they; and it dawns on me that you are no longer a little boy but have matured a great deal. I then think about what I could do for you to have a colorful, warm and happy life.

Sometimes, when the following day is school-free and you get to sleep in, you come into my bed and ask me about my life. Then you listen to me silently until I notice by your breathing that you have fallen asleep, and I tuck you in well and, in my thoughts, continue to tell you my stories…

Perhaps I should tell you about my entire life! Some of it might be useful for you. Maybe later you’ll say, “Dad, tell me something!” when I’m no longer there. However, even then I would like to be “there” too, so I’m going to tell you many of my stories in advance, so to speak—for later…

I haven’t forgotten what you once said to me, while I was telling you about my youth. “Dad, I’m not terribly interested in this. This is what used to happen in the old times, but no longer today…” I know, I am of “yesterday” and you are of “tomorrow”. So I will tell you —for later—not of landscapes, love, hatred, and business, but I will provide you with a “sketch book” of my life. The people are the sketches: some of them are faint, some others carved into my life like runes; and yet all of them together create a picture of what it was like, or, rather, what it seemed like to me.

Was it beautiful? Was it bad? Before a person is there, there is nothing; after they go away, there is nothing. As long as a person is there, there is life, unique, like a miracle, and this in itself is wonderful.

 

***

 

My father, your paternal grandfather, was born in 1854 in Skaudvile, a town in Russian Lithuania. I know nothing about his parents, not even their names. Around age twenty he emigrated to Königsberg in Eastern Prussia and learned to become a lumberman.

When he was twenty-seven he made enough money as an employee, had his bride come over, and married her, after being engaged to her for seven years. Around age thirty he started his own business, the firm Propp & Winsber in Königsberg with a sawmill by the Memel river near Tilsit. In 1898 he filed for bankruptcy; he had raked up about 1.5 million Mark in debt; the settlement was made on a 30%-basis. His self-confidence had hereby been broken and he saw it as beneath himself to be an agent. So he tried going back to being a businessman and in 1908 had to make another settlement over his debts on a 30%-basis. In 1903 he had gotten sick at heart and kidneys; he died in 1908.

He was buried on April 19th, 1908. It was Easter Sunday. His casket was followed by a line of people the end of which was almost impossible to see. Even many years later, people’s voices would become warm and their eyes would become wet when they (often complete strangers) talked to me about him. My father was a naturally friendly, often funny man. I never saw him read a book, but he always had a joke ready. He was of middle height, skinny, always well dressed and handsome.

My mother, your grandma, was born in Tauroggen in 1860. She met my father at a wedding; they were both still kids and waited for one another for years. My mother belonged to a renowned family, who owned a tannery. Her brothers were staunchly opposed to her marrying my father, who owned nothing and came from a working-class family.

They had four children, two brothers and a sister of mine. My mother was neither funny nor beautiful nor friendly. She saved every penny she could, didn’t need anything for herself and only lived for her husband and her children. In times when my father was unable to fulfill his obligations and had plenty of creditors, she would shame herself to death and withdraw herself with the kids to remote parks or to popular excursion places far away from town. She never wore jewelry and kept all the gifts that my father gave her in a drawer, so she could pay for school and rent in bad times.

She died at age 59; her casket was followed only by a handful of people.

I recall a strange conversation I once had with her. A few weeks before she died unexpectedly I asked her about my father. She said, “If God gave me the chance to get my Max back, but I had to give Him my four children instead, I would not hesitate for a second but say to Him: ‘Give me my Max back.’” At that time, my father had already been dead for eleven years.

My parents’ house was unadorned; not warm, not cold. Father had trouble making enough money for us all; Mom had trouble dressing and feeding her kids and keeping the house clean.

That household was full of duties: school during the day and then homework, then food, drink and sleep; once in a while a book from the school library. Very rarely theater, high up in the gallery – exactly three times while my parents were alive. I wore my older brothers’ used clothes and went to school with their old books; only my shoes were new, because my feet were too big. The food was simple; one orange got cut into six pieces, one for each of the six mouths. Fruit soups that we had gotten for lunch showed up again at dinnertime, with more water in them. I once received from my dad as a present a rubber head of the Italian king Hubert and an ink ball with holes for a pen, a pencil and a knife, and another time three Mark, when I was in Cranz; the presents I got from Mom were a knife for my ninth birthday – I can still clearly see the color of the enamel – and also a small bar of chocolate on each of my birthdays. My father never sent me a letter or a postcard when he was traveling; my mother sent me a few with receipts and exhortations.

I can’t remember us ever talking about politics, books or business.

The house was very clean. Lene, my sister, at age fifteen once told a joke she had heard in school that was rather spicy; I still remember how everybody at the table laid down their cutlery in horror and Lene sprang up crying and left the room. Us siblings did not have intimate relationships with each other or our parents. Each of us went their own way; however, we didn’t miss the warmth. This was the way of life of those days, and warmth was seen as un-German, as effeminate. I can’t remember Dad or Mom ever kissing me; Mom didn’t do so even when I went to war. “Do your duty!” she said to us boys, and didn’t even accompany us to the train station.

This all, however, was on the exterior more than anything else. Inwardly Mom and Dad lived wonderfully with one another, even though no tenderness was ever shown in front of the kids; and their children were the center of their life.

Nonetheless, life was dull, cold, punctuated by duties, and monotonous; there were no flowers, no fairy tales, no music or fantasy or tenderness. It wasn’t a Jewish home, either: our life was that of a typical German middle-class family: unadorned, unexciting, but well ordered.

From 1896 to 1906 I went to Königsberg’s central school. It was no fun. Both the interior and the exterior of it were that of a Prussian military building made of yellowed red bricks and couched among age-old barns and small, dilapidated gabled houses. The young prisoners’ eyes could rest on a fire department station, where firefighters were constantly practicing on ladders, and the 200-year-old main town park with its green trees.

The teachers, most of them reserve officers, were to the kids, who were just yet coming out of mommy’s soft lap into the so-called real life, more than their fathers and just a little less than God Almighty. Sure, we gave many of them nicknames, but, apart from that, none of us would ever doubt that they were infallible, all-knowing, untouchable and examples to us all.

The teachers are indelibly etched in my mind. Even fifty years later I could paint each of them, including the hats and the clothes they wore. In first grade we had Herr Assmann: young, sturdy, fresh from teacher training, always holding in his hand a yellow cane whose upper end was curved like a sword’s grip. I remember very well how painfully many a child’s hand burned.

In second grade we had Herr Klein: a middle-aged man, always well dressed, who taught us calligraphy.

In the classroom hung a big painting that portrayed harvest chariots coming to the barn, carrying farmer girls and men holding pitchforks. This is the only picture I ever saw in the classrooms, apart from the main hall. There hung paintings by arts teacher Dörsting, which portrayed Greek athletic competitions.

In the following year we had Herr Riechert, a little old man, who constantly sniffed tobacco and whose eyes ran. I don’t know anything about him except that it was his last year and he left the school with a medal in recognition for his service.

In the following year we had Professor Karschuk, our class teacher. He taught French, had lived in France for many years and was as nimbly, adorned and preppy as a Frenchman.

In the following year our teacher was Professor Vogel. He looked like a farmer and behaved accordingly, with a good sense of humor. He taught the natural sciences. Vogel was a piece of nature himself and didn’t know how to teach. Before giving the marks he would make each student assess themselves. “I think I deserve a B” I said to him. “Kork,” – this is what he called me – “you deserve an F, I shall give you a D and you will get a B. Be careful you don’t die of megalomania.”

“Kids,” he would sometimes say, “no one has learned anything. Why do you anger me so? And today of all days, when my mother has promised me my favorite dish: pig foot with sauerkraut.” To each science lesson he’d bring a lot of still-soiled leaves, roots and flowers and put them on his desk, which made him look like a greengrocer. He would then play around with these objects and forget about his students.

In seventh grade we had Professor Ivanovius. He was fat and pot-bellied; his belly rubbed down from his pants, his clothes had refused any contact with an iron and he owned only a single suit. As far as I know, he had no jacket. He was our Hans Christian Andersen. He traveled a lot – only on the map, however, since he lacked money, and he did so only in the spring or summer. And although he never had any money in his old-fashioned wallet, he took all who were around him along on his trips.

When he was traveling, we all forgot where we were – not just us kids but also the other teachers in the staff’s room. So they sometimes came some fifteen minutes too late into the classroom and they’d simply say: “We could not arrive earlier, our colleague Ivanovius was talking…” He somewhat reminded one of the teacher in “Blauer Engel”. In a pub with female personnel he once ran into one of his more mature students, invited him to sit at his table and paid for his drinks. Lehr (a schoolmate, tall as a tree) told me later the following story: “So who was there? Our Professor! I wanted to leave quickly, but he had already seen me and said: ‘Listen, my son, of course is any business where your teacher goes a totally classy one, but if I see you here again you’ll be expelled from the school. Now, though, for tonight you’re my guest, since of course you stepped in here – I am sure – just because you forgot your house key and you needed shelter from the rain.’”

When as a captain he led his company up the hill in midtown, he slipped and fell with his fat belly. The girls, who were just coming out of his school, laughed. “My fair ladies,” he shouted, “I hope you will get fat as respectably as I have!”

When, as an old man and probably syphilitic, he took leave from his students, he said, “I hope with my life I’ve given you a compelling example of how not to live your life.” A few years later I saw him sitting in the Kleistpark, in the autumn sun, surrounded by the falling leaves, together with the white-haired Professor Mollmann. He held my hand and said, “How beautiful, how wonderful is this colorful sunny autumn – the last of my life!”

He died early the following year. Every time spring arrives and I open the windows, I am reminded, fifty years later, of his favorite line: “Open the windows, open the hearts, quickly, quickly…”[1]

Professor Loch was like Secretary Wurm in "Kabale und Liebe": he looked like a stealthy cat and had the movements of one. He was filled with ambition and so he later became one of the tycoons of the school system. What he taught I don’t remember; we didn’t even bother making up a nickname for him. In the Hitler era Loch lived in the neighboring house. At that time he surprised me. His grandson yelled through the fence to Macki, my son, "kike boy". Loch hit his grandson behind his ears, came with him to Macki and his grandson had to apologize.

Professor Friedlander had been nicknamed "Suse",[2] and that’s what he was. He had no marrow in the bones: a quiet voice, a gentle gait, an eternal smile on his lips. Maybe that was because he stemmed from Jews. He appeared to possess a chronic insecurity hidden behind smiles and restraint. I can’t remember what he taught, either. I have read in a newspaper from East Prussia that he rests in Berlin next to the graves of the Brothers Grimm. But otherwise he was far away from anything fairy-tale...

Rosikat, Professor Rosikat, on the other hand, was such an imposing block of marble, very earthy, his hands and feet planted firmly on the floor, firmly rooted in reality – and yet he brought us students in the senior years close to the stars and the timeless wonders. His front was like one made by a sculptor such as Rodin, and his facial expression like that of a fish market woman. He displayed a range of knowledge and wisdom like that of a student of Goethe; he was also the president of the Goethe association. Us senior students, the students of his class, he treated with contempt and even disgust: "Sit down, douchebags," he’d say upon entering the classroom, “and open the windows: I’ve had my colleague Gassner chemically analyze the stench of this class: it is 50% moral and 50% physical.”

And yet – what a wonderful teacher! He – and he alone – for the first time in all of the school years managed to make us grasp the spirit of antiquity and also that of German literature, with a few strokes that were unforgettable. Whenever spring comes and I go through the forest, I must think of him. "If in the middle of spring all of a sudden you see an old toothless woman walk around the corner from the forest toward you, you’ll be turned to stone – then you’ll have grasped the meaning of the Gorgon’s head!"

Gassner taught us geometry and arithmetic. He did so with such accuracy and clarity that even the slowest learner would understand: a truly born teacher. With me, however, he had no luck: I didn’t understand anything and geometry remains, to this day, a complete mystery to me! Many, many years later, whenever I ran into him, he’d always say the same thing to me: "I’ve heard that you have built up a large business." And then he’d look at me, always with the same eyes, and add, "How is that possible??" I didn’t understand it any more than he did. For the first time we understood each other: that was the one thing neither of us understood!

Troje was nicknamed "the blubberer": he was often incomprehensible. He taught geography and sometimes mathematics. I was his best student in geography and his worst in mathematics. This made him nervous, and me too. He was a traveler through the world. An artist, scientist, accompanier of the emperor, mountaineer, geographer: a stimulating personality – and a very endearing one at that, one that stimulated one’s fantasy.

Last but not least, Professor Lehmann. He taught Greek (he had lived in Greece for a long time); his image is the one that is burned most clearly into my memory, with his never-changing old brown eyes and permanent light-brown stiff round hat.

The last time I saw Lehmann, he was pushing a small stroller with tools through the Schrötterstrasse. It was around 1939. He must have had a garden in that area. He was wearing his brown suit again, now obviously degraded to work clothes.

I can’t say what made us like him so much. I don’t even know whether he was a good teacher. But I do know that he was a good man who secretly loved his students. Of course, he could not say it out loud or show it: he was a Prussian teacher and reserve officer. But we all felt that this man had such an open, benevolent and yet so manly face. Maybe there was something of the Greek serenity in him. We called him "Bull" because he looked a little like a bulldog, and bulldogs are the coziest animals.

These, dear Danny, were my teachers. Now, they rest for the most part in the cemeteries in the old Pillauer country road just outside what used to be Königsberg’s city gates. I wish I could go to Königsberg/Kaliningrad again, now that it’s ruled by the Russians. I would visit my teachers: they all still live in me and we could have great talks.

There is only one teacher I came into close contact with: Herr Assmann. It was 1922, the year of the hunger, the frost and wild inflation. "Do you know a teacher named Assmann?" my clerk in the tax office asked. "I live in Königseck 8, and on the other side lives Herr Assmann. He has nothing to heat his room with, so he remains in bed all day." I sent him some firewood, and he, proud as a Spaniard, brought to me as compensation a bottle of rum, which at that time was very precious and rare.

So we became friends and remained so for fifteen years. I spent Christmas with him. His wife, who was paralyzed, sat upright and cheerful in her chair in front of the big Christmas tree (every morning Assmann would pull her out of bed and dress her, and he’d bring her back to bed in the evening and undress her); his daughter, an unmarried primary school teacher, was with us.

After dinner he and I went into a room next door, which was his only son Alexander’s room. In it was a small illuminated Christmas tree for him. I was a friend of Alexander’s; I’d talked to him shortly before the war, when he was about to be ordained a priest. The last time he had been seen was in 1914 near Loviz with a shot in the lung. "I’m not giving up hope," Assmann said; "perhaps he just lost his memory and will come back one day.”

Each month, Assmann would go to the bank office in town to pick up his pension, then he’d run up to my office. When his wife died, we were together at the crematorium and talked about the "nonetheless" in the funeral sermon. We both understood, without saying so, that it was the motto of our lives. At age eighty he climbed the Schneekoppe;[3] he was the front man of the seniors in the men’s gymnastics club, worked out outdoors every day in any kind of weather, and at night studied the new releases in the reading room of the school.

Only once did he drop by my apartment in the Kronprinzenstrasse during one of his walks. He spoke with my wife. He didn’t know that she was mentally ill; at first he didn’t understand, then he became restless, then he understood (I hadn’t told him about it). I followed him as he walked away; he stood by a lamppost, leaned onto it and wept.

It was 1938. He had withdrawn his pension again and came up to my office with a newspaper in his hands. "Isn’t it terrible that you now" and he pointed to the paper "can no longer lead a business. So the few good Jews must now suffer for the deeds of the many bad ones." All of a sudden I felt a burning pain in the kidneys; I was paralyzed. My appearance must have changed a lot. Assmann looked at me aghast. He offered his hand in farewell; I didn’t take it. "Oh God oh God" he muttered; these were his last words.

I saw him once more, when I was at North Station, as he was walking with his quick gait – straight as a soldier – toward the Stresemannstrasse. This image of him with the white billowing hair, combed to the rear by the wind, has stayed with me for all these years.

When in 1940 I arrived at Hamilton, the capital of Bermuda, after a long, nearly two-week trip in the dark on my way from Liverpool to Chile, there was again an entire city illuminated at night: almost a revelation after all the blackout of the war. That must have thawed me because I wrote a long letter to the teacher of first grade, Herr Assmann, Konigsberg/Prussia, Königseck 8.

I wonder whether he received it???

 

[1] “Die Fenster auf, die Herzen auf! Geschwinde! Geschwinde!”, from the poem “Frühlingseinzug” (‘the arrival of the spring’) by Wilhelm Müller (1794 - 1827).

[2] A female name, so this nickname is tantamount to “sissy”.

[3] A mountain in the Czech Republic, about 1600 meters high.