Changing the Subject

By Stuart Friebert                             

 1      In late spring, 1949, as something of a joke, my fraternity brothers at Wisconsin State  entered my name in the competition to pick the first exchange student, of what the dean hoped would eventually be a long line to follow, to study at the Technische Hochschule in Darmstadt. To play along, I went through the motions, never cracking a book for what I knew would be really challenging language questions; and to no one’s surprise, I didn’t come in first; two German majors did. After all, I’d only enrolled in German to pass a med school requirement, I told myself though, competitive by nature, not coming in first in anything always bugged me. However, the two top students – in case one fell ill or bailed out — were later disqualified for unknown reasons, so with little idea of what was in store, much less of what life would be like my first time away from home for so long a time, I found myself landing in Rotterdam in August, having sailed from Quebec, and studying the train schedules in what remained of the main railroad station. Most of the city lay in ruins, its harbor so choked by debris and sunken ships that ours, the S.S. Volendam, which served in the war and was newly converted into a ship for students, had some time of it docking. The station itself was barely a shell, but somehow some tracks had been spared. I snapped a raft of pictures to send home, until the horror of it all backed up in mind and body.

2       Our school had adopted the TH, as everyone called it, as a sister college and hoped to help the TH return to its former days of glory. I was still trying to catch my bearings, not slip up straight off, embarrass Wisconsin State’s selection committee, when shock waves hit and sent me to the infirmary for a few days: my new roommates had begun telling me, in gruesome detail, of the worst of the fateful bombing raids on Darmstadt by RAF bombers. It was said to be the second worst, after Dresden, and left ruins it would take years to clear. The rumor ran that a secret weapon was even at that late juncture being developed in Merck’s labyrinth of labs. “Just an excuse to pay us back for atrocities our troops inflicted,” some said.

 3     When I recovered, mainly from severe abdominal pains, my roommates, Martin von Gandersheim, Klaus Franck, Sebastian Plok, and Heinz Sauerwein were thoughtful about not bringing up that “night of hell” again; and the rest of the term went along rather uneventfully. “Here’s to none of us having flunked out!” we kept toasting over warm beer at the corner kiosk, before we had to decide how the five of us would recombine living arrangements, as everyone’s first-term room assignments – in Quonset huts the army engineers had set up as makeshift dorms – were reconfigured, to make room for incoming transfer students and new arrivals.  So after more beers, Martin finally suggested moving in with Klaus, joking about being ghettoized when the authorities found out about their “non-Aryan blood.” They disclosed just getting word from Allied High Command, with help from the Red Cross, that due to possible Jewish ancestry they’d be allowed to file for modest reparations and at least continue their studies tuition-free! They stared at me for a moment, and I sensed they somehow knew I was Jewish, though I’d never made a point of mentioning it or even letting it slip.

4      Another bombshell hit the very next morning: the TH sent everyone a black-bordered missive that a student we’d never met, Uwe Steinbach, but whose heroics as a submariner were widely shared, had committed suicide over the weekend; and Heinz and Sebastian were asked to leave on some sort of probationary arrangement. They’d been friends of Steinbach, in his company of late, and apparently somehow involved in what was being called “suicide” for now. To my great surprise, Martin and Klaus didn’t seem particularly curious about the details, so I wondered if they were also involved, if more tangentially. What was clear was it was none of my business; and all over campus, it felt as if everyone agreed to keep the lid on; watching what one said, deferring to others.  Men held doors open even for men.  The sternest professors, among them Professor Breiter, went out of their way to show kindness and understanding when students slipped up. 

4      In Professor Breiter’s case, I was relieved, because there were whispers I’d become his pet. Some students had seen us taking long walks in the woods south of the TH. He’d taken some interest in me to be sure, which I suspected had to do with distant American relatives who may have lived near us in Wisconsin, and had engaged me on occasion to house-sit when he was off lecturing elsewhere. Inasmuch as he’d lost his wife and children in the raid on Darmstadt – he’d been out of town and hence escaped perishing with them – I also suspected I was substituting for his son, who’d been just about my age.

5     Professor Breiter returned from the first days of the break quite alone.  It was soon clear that his relationship with Miss Mannheim, the lab assistant, was over.  Once again he began inviting me to “walk around a while” several times a week, when she and he’d normally be spending time together.  He never said anything directly but began revisiting, reliving, really, those days right before the “terror attack” on Darmstadt, which most everyone knew had killed his wife and children while he’d been away visiting “a friend.”  He strained to put the matter delicately but could see I knew he was mincing words.  To distract him from saying more than he intended, or wanted to, I changed the subject somewhat.  I tried a few questions about his use of the expression “terror attack.”

        “That was a slip of my Aryan tongue,” he said and I blanched.  “Of course, that’s what Goebbels and Goering wanted us to feel.  A normal person – hah,” he suddenly laughed, “as if such a person existed now – a normal person would call it an air raid, however devastating and total…”  I said nothing and on our next walk he changed the subject.

6     “So,” he began on our last walk before I’d head off at the end of December to vacation in Southern Germany with relatives of my grandmother’s friend, “have I not convinced you by now to make German and German literature your master, and not those wayward sciences?”  He proceeded to extol my work on the Nibelungenlied, which was the centerpiece of his course; and urged me as well to continue “fooling around” writing a few more little poems of my own — in the manner of several I’d once attached to an assignment, asking for his comments.

       The only professor who would have risked doing so, we learned later, he recommended we try our hand at some of our own verses to extend the epic poem, fragmented as it was.  “Students composing their own verses?” a colleague of Breiter’s fairly snorted.

        “You obviously know your Heine,” he’d written back.  “Now it’s time to enter the 20th Century.  For starters, see Trakl, Rilke, and Stefan George; with Gottfried Benn, maybe Richard Dehmel too, as an antidote; but on your own time, not at the expense of my course!” 

       It struck me that was way too kind, but I didn’t confess I was writing simple little ditties to  impress Miriam Pfungsheim, one of the more dazzling female students in the course, on whose desk I’d drop my little forays into rhymes when no one was around. At first I hadn’t signed them, but when I saw her looking around after she’d unfolded the slip of paper with my latest verse aboard, I decided to add my name to the next drop.

       Catching sight of her looking my way at the end of class, I thought I saw a faint smile cross her lips, but that was that; so I put an end to my versifying from then on. But I suspected Professor Breiter suspected I’d had her on my mind a lot, because he’d make a point of calling on me when I was sneaking glances at Miriam across the lecture hall.  If nothing else, he did start me revisiting my long-range plans to steer toward the sciences.  At the very least, his encourage-

ment prompted me to advance-enroll in the only pure literature course offered in the spring – to ensure I’d have a place.  I didn’t bother finding out what the course would entail, merely hoped Miriam would also be aboard.

7     The twice-yearly literature courses tended to be over-subscribed, which people like Director Meyers , and through him the American authorities, took as a sign that students wanted to look into the mirror of fictional worlds by way of gaining a deeper look into themselves, as the position paper circulating argued.  Director Meyers was even said to be petitioning his superiors to add several more language and literature courses to what was substantially a science curriculum, though his antagonists pointed to the road leading out of town: to the Pedagogical Institute in Jugenheim, a village south of Darmstadt; saying in effect, “go south if you want that sort of education.”

       “Minor” was clearly implied.

 8    On a dark and snowy night late in December, shortly before we’d split for the rest of the holidays, Klaus mentioned his desire to turn to language teaching as a way to help the young get off to a start that would never again result, as he put it, “in their being bamboozled by devils, who pervert language into a deadly weapon.”  We were lazily cleaning up our quarters to get ready to move out at the beginning of the new term when Klaus said, almost in passing, that he’d not be around much in the spring since he was transitioning to a transfer – “I’m taking that road south, but if you get me a buddy-pass we can meet in the showers at the Officers’ Club in Darmstadt,” he said, jabbing my chin playfully. When anyone found out I was able to have a hot shower at the Club, the teasing hit me from all quarters.

     “You’d never clear security with all your Jewish blood,” I said.  “Martin might, with his thimbleful.”  I ran like hell out the door.  He’d begun throwing books after me.

9     Just before I was off to Tuttlingen near Lake Constance, where I’d been invited to spend breaks between terms by the Kramers, my grandmother’s friend’s relatives, the mailman delivered what he said was the smallest envelope the post allowed.  It was decorated with odd little flowers and insects.  I could just make out the postmark, from a town I couldn’t quite place.  When I flipped it over to the return address:  Miriam Pfungsheim, c/o Die Odenwaldschule, I finally made the leap.

     “Dear Mr. American Exchange Student,” she began, “suspect you’re wondering why I’m not back at the TH where I trust this finds you.”  While I’d not forgotten her, it took me a moment to conjure her up again in my mind’s eye because she was strangely absent after mid-terms. “Well, my old teacher,” the note went on, “whom I’ve been assisting as a sort of practicum-exercise since mid-term (to see if elementary education’s for me) suddenly took ill just before I was set to return to the TH; and the school here was desperate enough to engage me to fill in for the remainder of the term, which I’m still sort of digesting.  Of course it wouldn’t have been possible without the cooperation of Director Meyers, who in his typical way said he couldn’t imagine a more important mission.  So he’s arranged for a temporary leave, which is highly unusual I understand.  You can imagine I feel some pressure to do a decent job.  After all, in effect I’m basically not going to have to finish my courses; though I’m still obliged to make up the exams, which’ll probably be the end of me, but still…. .

     “Anyway, what I’m trying to say is I’ve taken your verses with me in a little box, and every time I open it and read through them again, I’m cheered by their mix of serious and silly, so I just wanted to let you know your poetic beginnings are available for your future biographer! When I return at the end of the spring term, let’s have a cup of whatever.  Meanwhile, the children I’m working with also like to write little verses, as well as express themselves artistically with colored pencils. Quite graphically expressed, don’t you think, by their drawings on the envelope?  Thinking of you, with best wishes, Miriam P.”

10    “So, exactly how beautiful is she?”  Klaus said to Martin more than to me when they caught me standing there, fingering the little envelope, staring into space in something of a trance precipitated by disbelief.

     “Anyone we should also know?” Martin baited me.  When I stiffened, closed one eye, and kissed the envelope tenderly, Martin shouted, “Step right up folks.  What we have here is a lovesick freak, who’ll amaze you with feats of…. Well, just get your tickets now and take a seat inside the tent!”  I held out my arms as a sleepwalker, took some monster steps straight out of Frankenstein, and was about to clobber them when they hightailed it back to the Quonsets.

 11    “Time for a full confession,” Martin said when we met later for a meal of bratwurst and beer at the corner kiosk.  “Klaus has put the kibosh on me and I’m deserting you, too.  But now that Heinz and Sebastian are gone, off to their private hells one assumes, you won’t need much protection from your 1/32nd Jewish bodyguards.  Besides, there’s a higher good at work here, so cut the moping, pay attention!”

     Klaus cut in, “We’re going to do our utmost to revolutionize education in the mother-land.  Assuming we get our teaching certificates, we’re going to steal some ideas from the Odenwald system, do background work in Pestalozzi and Montessori, maybe throw in some Uncle Freud.  And what the hell, maybe even come to live off you in the States a while to see what folks like John Dewey are up to.  And eventually open our own private school, maybe on an island in the North Sea, one the Nazis didn’t sink.  Or die trying.  I hope someone’s told you along the way to expect to have to pay back our hospitality.  Like a good Greek Jew….”

12     At the mention of the Odenwaldschule, I decided to keep Miriam’s note a secret for the moment.  I knew Klaus was constantly on the lookout for a female companion, to put it politely, and he’d taken an interest in my interest in her.  But I pledged my general allegiance, which Martin said he hoped meant real dollars down the road.  We drank to money, lots of it.  They both said they’d have me over to their new digs when they settled into the “castle” the pedagogical institute was housed in.  It’d been spared during the war, thanks in part to an enormous red cross painted on the roof.  But more likely because it had been in the Mountbatten family for years; a.k.a. the Battenbergs, generations removed.

     Klaus and Martin gave me the finger when I suggested they were really leaving to escape Quonset life.  “”And what’ll you do when winter really batters us?  When the wind stops at paned windows, doesn’t blow your notes and papers into the hall?  Or worse, freeze your hair, which you’ve just washed in nice icy water?”  I yelled after them when they took off, before I had the good sense to say a silent prayer for their being in the world at all, and a big part of my mine as well.

13     End-of-term exams came and went.  While I wouldn’t exactly have won highest honors or anything close if there’d been such distinctions, I didn’t embarrass my professors, as the director put it when I stopped by to wish him and his family happy holidays. He did take a moment to recall a highpoint: my failure to be able to name the most prominent mathematician working in the new Germany at the moment. When I hemmed and hawed, Professor Thyen, one of my three examiners, whispered, “He’s sitting right before you, son…”

       Quickly changing the subject after we joined in a laugh, I asked after his son especially, wondering why I’d not seen little Peter around much of late. He’d sometimes sneak into my Quonset to ask about America, obviously his major fantasy-land, especially when it came to “cowboys and Indians.” To my relief I learned he was feeling himself again and already off on an extended vacation with his mother and sister, visiting an aunt north of Kiel, who happened to have horses.  Both children were delighted at the prospect of helping to groom them.  “I’m afraid he’ll come back sick again, as he usually does travelling at all,” the director let slip, and then quickly apologized.  When I told him I’d bump Peter up my prayer-list – our family’s mantra – and haul up some heavy-duty prayers from the bottom of my brain, I realized that was way too much information and hastily took my leave, careful not to turn in the doorway to exchange any more glances.

 14     Before catching the train for Tuttlingen, I made the rounds of Professor Breiter’s house and grounds one last time, checking the note-pad by the phone where he usually left last-minute instructions to see to this or that.  In his large scrawl, with the laundry marker he liked to use, he left a cheery note about how well I’d done on the Nibelungenlied  exam.  I’d chosen the striking option that everyone else had shied away from, he wrote, and that alone was “quite commendable.”  He voiced great surprise (a compliment?) at the ease with which I’d produced the ten additional stanzas to the Nibelungenlied  the exam called for: “in a manner concurrent and congruous with the unfinished ending of the text.”
          Checking the grandfather clock on Professor Breiter’s mantle so I wouldn’t be late for the train to Tuttlingen I knew would leave the very minute the station clock struck ten, I noticed to my great shock it was stuck on 9:19, and recalled Professor Breiter had left it there as a memento to the very minute the first British bombs fell in the most devastating raid on Darmstadt, the night of 11/12 September, 1944.

       Hurrying down the cobbly path to the tram, stones flying underfoot, I didn’t look around until I was sitting in the third-class compartment of the express.