It was 1957, twelve years after the end of the war in Karlsruhe, West Germany. Most of the scars from the heavy Allied air raids had been covered over. As a bureaucratic center, Karlsruhe had been spared the abundant destruction from the house-to-house fighting that was still visible all over Germany. Lightly defended, Karlsruhe had been quickly subdued by the Allies when they had swarmed across the Rhine sparing it major battle wounds. Then, as now, it was a “civil service” town. The heavy lifting in Nazi Karlsruhe had been done by the Supreme Court of the German Reich, an odious and corrupt Hitler-compliant organ. The court’s contribution to the war effort was the issuance of death warrants for Hitler’s enemies and the confiscation of Jewish property.
Still, some war memorabilia remained in Karlsruhe. The former SS and Wehrmacht barracks now housed the American, French and Canadian occupation troops. There was a huge mound of debris in the city park near the zoo, a feature of nearly every German city. The rubble of war – bricks, cobblestones, stones and, no doubt, a few bones – had been collected and bulldozed into a free standing dune. This ugly mesa was as big around as a football stadium and looked down on every other natural feature in the area. In the spring, it sprouted the thin, pale, lime-colored grasses, scrub plants and bushes that are the pioneer plants of devastated areas.
At the center of the city was the devastated Altstadt, Karlsruhe’s old town. There are Altstadts at the heart of most German cities. Destroyed and rebuilt again and again after wars, floods, riots, fires and civil disasters, they retain their medieval feel no matter how recently reconstructed. This Altstadt still bore the marks of the war’s bombings. The old buildings were tottering, often just silhouetted skeletons haphazardly propped up. Others leaned crazily against each other, buttressed by flimsy scaffolding like the Vienna of The Third Man. Even the shakiest ruin was inhabited.
From the narrow streets, one could see dioramas of dissected rooms open to the elements and the inquisitive gazes of passersby. It was jarring to see the homey, kitsch floral wallpapers exposed to open air. Apartments and rooms were served by temporary exterior stairs that wound around these desiccated shells like a Gothic etching.
The Altstadt was off limits to GIs. Amis like me had to sneak into them to enjoy the carnal sins available there for less money and less hassle than in the “authorized” districts. The ban was due to the twin dangers of falling bricks and the Altstadt’s inhabitants themselves. For the most part, they were petty criminals, stateless refugees, squatters, fugitives, prostitutes and their agents, communists, students and artists. Basically, those who could afford to live only there.
The Altstadt had become my headquarters. I made a bee-line for it with my first pass. I knew where it was from the mimeographed warning letter issued by the Post Commander to all new assignees. It stressed the dangers (and penalties) for anyone caught within its bounds. If the MPs stopped me, I planned to speak only German to them. They’d leave me alone because they had no authority over the locals. It never occurred to MPs that a GI could speak colloquial German.
I had been born in Germany. My ancestors had lived in a small Hessian village for more than three hundred years. After Hitler came to power, the fact that we were Jewish made us decidedly unwelcome, and we fled to America. I was barely three years old.
In order to hang out in the Altstadt, I had disguised myself by wearing typical German clothes from the C&A department store in Frankfurt. This was ironic, since the local Germans would kill for American clothes; anything American was preferred to the clunky domestic fashions. My German outfit featured dark green, wide-wale corduroy pants and a gray felt Bavarian sports jacket. I covered my military haircut with a Navy watch cap that no GI would ever wear. The final touch was a Texas bolo tie. A fashion anomaly, contemporary German men had adopted this western US accessory. They didn’t realize that GIs wore them as a protest against the Army dress code that required some neckwear when in mufti off-base. The Germans thought that bolos were the latest American fashion statement. My deceptions functioned on several levels; the MPs assumed I was a “kraut” and never questioned me. I, on the other hand, seldom revealed that I was Jewish to the locals because I was wary of any residual anti-Semitism.
Thus camouflaged I became a regular at a cozy local Gasthaus, a café called zum Edelweiss just across the border in the off-limits zone. I was comfortable there, knew all the regulars and loved the creamy local brew. I seldom missed a Wednesday evening when they served fresh homemade liverwurst: two big, coarse, black-speckled grey sausages split open, warm and greasy, smothered with caramelized onions and topped with vinegary potato salad flecked with bacon. Liberally slathered with grainy mustard and washed down with swigs of that cold creamy Pilsner beer, the liverwurst surpassed anything on base and cost 2 deutsche marks, about half a dollar.
When I wasn’t eating liverwurst or the excellent egg bedecked natur schnitzel with spaetzle, I was sitting at the bar where I could see the door and get first dibs on any fraulein who might wander in. Despite my German clothes, the girls knew that I was an American, an ami. I had learned not to speak German to them. The girls who went out with GIs were by far the best looking, but were looked down upon by German civilians. Any girl who went out with GIs was considered a prostitute, which was essentially true. In self-defense, the girls rejected anything German, especially German men. Early on, when I had spoken German to them, they were confused. Was I German or American? So they had avoided me. Now, because I kept it secret that I spoke German, I could sit and listen to what they were saying about me. Eavesdropping in plain sight was quite an advantage.
It was from my vantage point at the bar that I fell in lust with Elsa the minute she walked in. My first impression was of a cloud of iridescent black curls flowing over a scarlet ribbon. The curls formed a frame for an oriental porcelain doll’s face with scarlet butterfly lips. She had a strong, straight nose, and sad, almond-shaped Egyptian eyes. She was in her twenties, a trifle plump and vulnerable-looking. I sensed she had secrets, and that, along with her availability, attracted me.
She sat down at a corner table, but before the waitress got there, I ambled over and offered to buy her a drink. She ordered an egg liqueur. When it arrived, she sipped it quickly and then ran her small, pink tongue around the bottom of the parfait glass, licking up the remains of the bright yellow syrup. Very sexy. She said that she was meeting her “friend” and wouldn’t be able to spend any time with me that evening, but before her friend arrived, we made a rendezvous for the next night. I was surprised when her “friend” turned out to be a German in his 40’s, tall and blond: an Aryan. Elsa introduced him as Horst and we shook hands. That brought me up short. Horst’s hand was the roughest, most calloused hand I had ever touched. I wondered if he had leprosy or some skin disease like sclera derma.
“My hand startles you,” Horst said in precise Oxford-accented English. “I have a photo finishing company. They are so rough from the burning of the chemicals.”
Elsa was quiet. When they left together after a few minutes, I asked Oscar, the bar’s owner, about them.
“Elsa is auf der strich [on the stroll]. She comes in once in a while.” Oscar told me, “Horst is either her pimp, her husband or her lover.” In postwar Germany there were all sorts of convenient relationships between all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons. Nothing surprised me anymore. Especially after Pirmasens.
Some months before, I had picked up a girl who came from Pirmasens, a small, rural village about 15 klicks north of Karlsruhe. I had driven her home to a farmhouse in my second-hand Mercedes 170 and she had invited me in. By the light of a lantern, she led me to a primitive wooden box-bed in a darkened room. I took off my clothes and we made love under a huge feather quilt. In the morning, I woke up and looked around. I was in a peasant farm house. She was still asleep, but an older woman who turned out to be her mother was at a wood stove preparing breakfast. The mother saw I was awake and brought me a glass of apple juice. I got out of bed and dressed. She and her mother insisted that I sit and have breakfast with them. Her brother, a young man in his twenties, came in from outside and joined us at the table. Coffee, fresh eggs, thick bacon and black bread. It was bizarre, to say the least, but I went with the flow. When I left, I gave the mother some money and a few packs of Marlboros and drove, bemused, back to base. No one to whom I told the story, American or German, believed me. Such things just didn’t happen. It was too surreal.
Now I had met this beautiful woman who was undoubtedly a prostitute. She was with a strange, well-educated German with deformed hands who might have been her husband or her procurer. It intensified my sexual fantasy. I thought about nothing else all day at the Army Post Office unit where I worked until I finally got to zum Edelweiss that evening. Elsa arrived about twenty minutes after I did, looking as lovely as the night before, her body straining a trifle against her close fitting black lace dress. She did her egg liqueur thing again, licking the inside of the glass even more slowly. She told me that she was originally from Berlin, but was now living in the Altstadt. Her English was not very good, but, as usual, I didn’t tell her that I spoke German.
She worked as a secretary in a small government office that printed and distributed the decisions of the German Supreme Court in Karlsruhe. Like most Germans, she didn’t speak about the war. The Nazi years were a taboo topic and I knew not to ask about them. Occasionally, when I had established some trust and intimacy with a German who had lived through the war, he or she would open up a little and tell nightmare stories of terror, starvation, flight and the Wagnerian climax that marked the last days of the war. Of course, no one had been a Partei member.
After she had lapped up two more egg liqueurs and the blood was pounding in my ears, I proposed that we go to her place. She agreed and matter-of-factly named a price. No problem; I would have paid her ten times as much at that moment. She led me by the hand into the very heart of the Altstadt, down crooked streets that even I had avoided. We passed rats and feral cats and a yellow three-legged dog. Finally, we arrived at a particularly rickety ruin, but, rather than climbing the jury-built scaffold-like staircase, she guided me down a flight of stone steps into a dimly lit basement seraglio. It had a Gypsy air about it; Oriental rugs and Kilims covered the walls and floor. The entrance hall was defined by a cliché curtain of hanging glass beads. She lit some candles and a gas mantle, and offered me a glass of red wine. I lowered myself into a velvet arm chair and watched as she moved around the dim room. We chatted about my job in the Army Post Office and she asked me, wistfully, about New York and America. Again, I sensed a deep sadness in her. It only added to my heat. I got up, wrapped my arms about her, and we fell toward the small bed. It was covered with a red and black gypsy rose printed shawl that served as a bedspread. We undressed in the muffled gloom, and she gently satisfied my needs.
Afterwards, while she was stroking my chest, my heart jumped as if I had touched an exposed high tension line: in the dim light I saw a blue blur on the inside of her left forearm. Instantly I recognized it as the tattooed numbers from a concentration camp. I gasped, but said nothing. She hadn’t noticed my reaction. Was she a Gypsy, was she Jewish, a survivor, a DP, but still in Germany? Who was she really? My head was spinning. I kissed her, dressed quickly and left, after making a date to meet her on Saturday for a picnic in the park.
We met at the main gate near the zoo entrance. In the daylight she looked tired, but, if anything, even more beautiful. She put her arm through mine and we strolled past the rowboats on the small lake and followed the cobbled path around the brooding hill of rubble. It was an early, unseasonably warm spring. The winter-damp earth was steaming slightly as the sun warmed it and the slight breeze whistled lightly in our ears. Occasionally, I caught a whiff of the natural fertilizer that nearby farmers used. We spread the Army blanket I had brought on a small patch of grass and unwrapped and ate the crusty bread, hard sausages, local cheese and delicate Moselle wine that I carried in a military gas mask bag.
Then I put my head in her lap and closed my eyes. She laid her left arm over my chest and leaned back against a tree with her eyes half closed. I caressed her arm gently, casually pushing back the sleeve of her pink cardigan sweater until the number was revealed. She started, and jerked her arm away. I told her quietly in German, “Ich bin Jude.” [I’m Jewish.] I told her about my family, how we had escaped from Germany just before the war in 1937. As I spoke, her eyes brimmed with tears. She was silent, collecting her thoughts.
Then, slowly, she began to talk about herself. She spoke quietly, mechanically, in a flat voice, telling the story as if it were about someone else.
Her family had actually lived in Vienna. They were middle class Jews, not religious. Her father had been a typesetter at one of Vienna’s many newspapers. When the Anschluss, the annexation, by Hitler took place, they hadn’t been concerned; they were Austrians, assimilated. She was only eight and the horrors of the racial laws and the persecution had built up slowly, gradually. Then, as the war had started she and her parents had become state enemies. They were transported, separated, sent to different camps and would never see each other again. As a beautiful, nubile adolescent she discovered that her survival depended on her own resources, and her only resource was her sexuality. Just a teenager, she quickly learned that by pleasing her tormentors, she could survive, and even gain a few privileges. Eventually, she came under the protection of a young SS lieutenant who fell in love with her. He took her from the camp and hid her in his house for the duration of the war. He used her, obscenely and perversely. When the Russians came and liberated the camp, she and the lieutenant, now a captain, fled together to West Germany. The tables had turned. As an SS man, a Nazi, an officer at a konzentration lager, he was now being hunted and she was protecting and sustaining him. She earned money for their needs the only way she knew how, as they made their way slowly to the Western Zone dodging Russian denazification squads and living a fugitive existence. As story trickled out, I understood Horst’s calloused, chemically-abused hands: he was destroying his fingerprints.
Now Elsa became agitated. She must have realized what she had just told me. She had spoken aloud words she may never have consciously thought before, perhaps to the only Jew she had met in a dozen years. My mind was racing. Suddenly, I understood what she had had to do in order to survive. Her life now was a compound of guilt, gratitude and denial. She was bound to the man who had both saved and exploited her.
There was no number tattooed on my arm, but that was only because I had been lucky; if we hadn’t escaped when we did, we probably wouldn’t have survived. Now, I was back in this tormented land, with someone who had lived through the war and who had done what she had to in order to survive. In my mind I saw the skeletal images of the liberated survivors. Millions of people had suffered incomprehensible agonies Now she made me see that these had been real people, whose stories, unlike hers and mine, had ended in the camps.
Without another word she rose and left me sitting there.
I would never see her again.