I am on a train heading into Magdeburg in eastern Germany, an hour or so from Berlin. Sixty-one years ago, my late mother was on a train headed for Magdeburg. Hers didn’t have a dining car or changing electronic displays updating the train’s speed and distance from its next station. She was one of hundreds of internees being transported from the concentration camp of Stutthof in sealed and stinking cattle cars.
In Magdeburg, she would be a slave laborer at Polte Fabrik, Germany’s largest munitions plant. The factory was the scene of many accidents, and every night she would dream of her fingers being cut off. These dreams haunted her many years after her liberation.
They haunt me, as I look down at my hands. I’m coming to do a very different kind of work. I’m on a two-week book tour, scheduled to speak about and read from my novel, “The German Money” (Leapfrog Press), the story of a Holocaust survivor’s adult children who are arguing about their mother’s will.
As the train nears the station, it hits me that this entrance could not be more American. My mother was a slave; she survived, immigrated to the United States and bore me in the world’s freest country. Me, I’m returning to the scene of her imprisonment as a successful American author with two more books scheduled to be published in Germany.
Germany, the country I swore never to visit. The country whose products I never bought, the country that was so alien and radioactive that when I was a child, I used to imagine maps of Europe without it — as if I were a superhero whose laser gaze could slice it away from the continent and sink it without a trace. Then Switzerland would have a seacoast. Austria, too.
And I would have revenge for the camps and killing squads that not only murdered dozens of my parents’ relatives but also poisoned their memories. Talking about their lost parents, cousins, aunts and uncles was so painful for my own parents that I have no family tree to climb in middle age, no names and professions and cities to study and explore. The Nazis certainly won that round — like a giant grinding his victim’s bones to dust.
Growing up in New York, I bristled on buses and in the subway if I heard someone old enough to have been a camp guard or Nazi soldier speaking German. Were you there? I wondered. Yet here I am, going over an introduction that a German-speaking friend helped me write. It seems only polite to break the ice with my audiences that way, and I am enjoying people’s reaction: surprise that an American would even attempt to speak German, and enjoyment that I have done so correctly.
The bookstore, connected to the Protestant cathedral a block away, is packed before I begin, with at least 40 people looking interested and attentive. It’s warm, and at times I feel compelled to do better than I’ve ever done before, because not so far away, my mother was an utterly expendable cog in the German war machine. My book is a challenge to that. The questions come slowly. And while I understand some of the German, at times a fog of incomprehension sweeps over me and I have to wait for the translation. How long did the book take to write? How much is autobiographical? Can I say more about my mother’s experiences in Magdeburg? How much did my parents talk about their war years?
And then, this: Is forgiveness possible?
I start with my mother, who told me she never blamed all Germans, and younger Germans surely had nothing to do with events before their birth. She even once responded positively when a friend in graduate school raised the possibility of spending a summer abroad at a German university.
But that was her. What do I think?
“Forgiveness?” I ask. “Of course it’s possible. If not, I wouldn’t be here.” When the long evening ends with applause and some announcements, the effusive bookstore owner gifts me with a book about Magdeburg and with two bottles of local liqueurs.
Humbled, all I can think of is the end of William Faulkner’s “Light in August”: “My, my. A body does get around.”
Lev Raphael’s “Writing a Jewish Life” (Carroll & Graf) and “Secret Anniversaries of the Heart” (Leapfrog) are due this winter.