Dear Gertrud F:
I received your official-looking letter just the other day. I could tell immediately its origin was from a foreign land: an evocative, welcome throwback to the tactile pre-Web era, when missives would arrive from beyond our shores bearing exotic-looking stamps, redolent of faraway places. All rendered basically obsolete, of course, by the Internet.
Registered by airmail! was the first thing I saw upon opening this letter from Germany, the exclamation point adding an unexpectedly jolly connotation, mixed in with an almost childlike excitement: A registered letter! By airmail, no less!
This was followed — quite jarringly — by the birth date of my father and his date of death, followed by “heartfelt condolences to the passing of your father in January 2017” — the date italicized, as if I’d forgotten that my father died a little over a year ago.
Your letter is about reparations. My father was a Holocaust survivor, and although I have mixed feelings about consigning him, first and foremost, as a Holocaust survivor — as if this is his lasting tagline — the facts can’t be wished away. As a Belgian Jewish child, he spent the World War II years in hiding, suffering through unimaginable terror, deprivation, hunger; the loss of his mother, who was sent to Auschwitz and never returned. For decades, my father’s income was supplemented by the reparation payments the German government disbursed to Holocaust survivors. I always felt very ambiguous about those payments, but as my father grew older and steadily incapacitated, the German money proved extremely helpful in easing his financial burdens. And I do have to admit that yes, modern Germany has tried to make amends for their genocidal rampage. Germany has made amends, in fact, in a way that the United States never did for its own genocidal rampages. And so, while I can’t say I really feel a sense of gratitude exactly, I’m cognizant of these facts.
But now, as per your letter, Germany appears to want some of this money returned to it. Specifically, 410.16 euros — overpayments that seem to have been disbursed after his death (In January 2017, as you have reminded me).
I’ve dubbed you Gertrud F The pseudonym, of course, is to protect your privacy, but “Gertrud F” also has a satisfying Kafkaesque ring to it. For instance, there’s this sentence, which you underlined, indicating a certain urgency: Several letters written to your father’s last known address regretfully remained without any response. There was no response, Gertrud F, because he wasn’t alive. But in most ways, Gertrud F, your letter isn’t really Kafkaesque. “Kafkaesque” connotes an anonymous, mysterious bureaucracy; a nightmare where nothing makes sense. Your letter is anything but anonymous. There’s nothing at all mysterious about its contents: The legalistic numerical tallies are displayed as if taken from the pages of a ledger.
The dubious legality of my supposed financial obligation aside, I wanted to reiterate the upshot of your letter: I owe Germany money. The concept is so logic-defying that I feel the strange need to repeat this in several different ways: I owe Germany money. Gertrud F wants me to pay 410.16 euros. I’m in debt to Germany. Germany is demanding money. From me.
Gertrud F, I don’t know whether to be horrified beyond belief at your demand for 410.16 euros or amused—amused in a sick, gallows-humor sort of way. At the moment, gallows humor is winning out, but I can’t guarantee that the horrified-beyond-belief won’t soon make its appearance.
Go to hell, Gertrud F.