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Arts and Review - Arts and Review

By David Hoban - Special to
SANTA CRUZ (January 2011) - It is thirty years after the War. I am living in Munich , a student, a Jew, here over my parents’ objections. But here I am. I am afraid. I believe that somewhere in a Greek-columned building in Kaiserplatz there is a technical manual directing the intricacies of all German relationships. They study it religiously. They follow it imperfectly. Obedience to its rules is not enforced by jack-booted police, rather by little old ladies wearing Persian lamb coats, uttering disapproving sounds.
Laura and I meet. She is forty-four. Neither of us notices. We both have something to gain. No demand for effort. I feel lucky, lucky, like a gambler on a rush. That she finds me desirable is a wonder to me. She asks where I am from. I tell her I was born in Philadelphia. She says, “No, all Americans are from somewhere else; where are your parents from or your parents’ parents?”
My father walked across Russia from Kiev to Bremen after having seen his parents shot in a pogrom…before the first War, not the last. She bursts into tears. She smothers me with kisses. She is a sudden squall.  Later, entwined, she looks - I think she is gazing into my eyes. We sleep like cats.  
In the morning I recognize the light of the Munich sky. I notice I haven’t noticed before. Leaning my elbows on the window casement, I notice the thickness of the walls. I observe the windows opening out. My life has been spent in a world where windows go up and down. The leaves of the horse-chestnut are enormous and green.  
Morning coffee, sun streaming, I ask, what’s your story?
She turns formal, correct. "This is not the time for that."
OK, she’s not a morning person. Later, walking in the English garden, I ask again. She says again, "This is not the time."
"Why can’t you just say you don’t want to tell me?" I reply.
"Because this is not the time does not mean I don’t want to tell you. It means this is not the time."
I worked. She worked. I cleaned my place. She cleaned hers. Weekly in the Laundromat I broke my usual trance marveling at the length of a German wash cycle and women ironing sheets. Tuesdays we made love.  
She was the daughter of a German general, the military governor of Munich during the War. She was sent to a prestigious boarding school where she studied Goethe, Nietzsche, Beethoven, dance, art, and the laws of purity.  
We were in the Cafe am See, at the waters edge. I counted twenty-three people sitting at tables set in a pebbled garden with red potted geraniums. Ten couples. One elderly man wearing a green hat with a red feather sat alone nervously glancing at his watch. Eleven fish darted in the shallows. As if analyzing the chemistry of the ink would yield the meaning of the message, every detail of my surroundings clamored for my attention.
She was not taught to hate Jews. Her education inoculated her with an air of barely noticeable condescension. She informed me she was never infected by the emotions of the War time. She didn’t believe the race theories but she had kept thoughts of opposition to herself. She spoke of the Jews as a British missionary would talk of the heathen. She hadn’t known about final solutions. She went to university and became a biologist. Her politics were left. She hated the industrial polluters. The neo-Nazis were barbarians. She was tolerant of immigrants.  
"Did your father have anything to do with the exterminations?"
 "No. During those times it was best not to ask questions."
"But wasn’t he the one you’d ask the questions of?" I found it difficult to talk.
There was a silence. "My mother was Jewish," she said. "My father was able to hide her identity from the authorities. I, myself, did not find out my mother was Jewish until her death in 1973."
"Well," I said exhaling, "What was it like when you found out that you were Jewish?"
"What do you mean," she said, tossing some crumbs to the ducks.
"You know, when the mother is Jewish that makes the children Jewish."
A wasp landed on her unfinished cake. She shooed it away. The afternoon sun gave a yellow wash to the far shore of the lake, the trees silhouettes.  She didn’t answer. On the way to the car, she said she wanted to be alone. I drove her home. I have not seen her since. Once I saw her reflection in a store window. She was not there when I turned around.  
Today a letter came. My curiosity on a summer afternoon so long ago had struck her a blow. She had not known (how could she not have known?). Any half-educated person would know that she was Jewish. She was seized by a great agitation and confusion. The words, I am Jewish, echoed in her head for weeks after.
She suffered greatly. She was helpless to silence an ever-present thought of murdering herself. Ceaselessly, without answer, she asked, why murder?  Suicide felt right for the despairing, the guilt- ridden, the shamed. She felt none of these. Murder felt solid, appealed to something deep within her, something wrong yet desired. Not like a forbidden love that would gratify. The desire to know her own wrongness and her method to gratify it existed incompatibly within her. She did not want just to destroy. She desired only to annihilate. If an artist creates something from nothing, she desired to turn herself into nothing. But to annihilate herself would assure that she could never know the gratification of her longing, And as the words, ‘I am Jewish’ had provoked the storm, so did the words ‘I am not a murderer’ bring calm.  
She went to Israel. There were Jewish soldiers, Jewish police, Jewish street sweepers, Jewish stone masons. She sought union with them all. They obliged. She was certain of her destiny in a land whose people were a reflection of her formerly hidden self. She sought a rabbi eager to restore her to her true identity. She obeyed the Sabbath. She studied, ate kosher food. She changed her name. She married. She belonged. She was Jewish. The fever, though dormant, was still active. She wrote, “After ten years of this self-amusement, it all fizzled, a vain mistake.”  
She went to Peru. Studied weaving. Learned Spanish. Taught school. Explored solitude. Meditated. Sought enlightenment. 
“In the end,” she wrote, “I returned to Germany, to the village where I was born. I work as a biologist. I have a few friends. The people in the village know who I am, who my father was. Some come to revile me, others to support me. I leave it to them to work it out. I have learned that I am neither a Jew nor a German. Who I believed myself to be was only a bundle of familiar responses, thoughts, and beliefs that I would go to any length to preserve. Today I understand. I am.”
David Hoban is a psychiatrist and a long time Santa Cruz resident. Click here, and here, to read other pieces by David Hoban.