Literature, Books and Writing

Kristallnacht, 1938

My novel will be out in two weeks.  There is a passage that I find particularly unsettling right now, although I wrote it a couple of years ago.  It is a description of Kristallnacht, a night of nationwide anti-Semitic violence in Nazi Germany that marked a dark turning-point in the society.

I have found that I have really great readers on this blog, and would love to hear your thoughts.  I do plan to get back to humor, by the New Year, if not sooner.   But I am interested in your opinions on that as well.

 

From, “The Feet Say Run”: 

It was early November.   I was with Hilda when we heard the news over the radio.  A German diplomat had been shot.  By a Jew.  We’d never heard of this diplomat.  Who had?  But suddenly it was all over the news.  This abominable act!  Committed not just by a Jew.  But, rather, by the Jews.  This high crime!  For a few days the diplomat clung to life.    But the fury of the official broadcasts was astonishing.  The demands for revenge.  And then, on the day I had marked for my next visit with Sylvia, this obscure diplomat, now elevated to the level of a great personage, died of his wounds—martyred himself for the cause of all of us violated Germans.

Hilda and I just looked at one another.

“I think you need to get her out now,” Hilda said.  And then, “If you’re going to do it.”

I nodded.

The wireless was broadcasting stories of rioting breaking out all over Germany.  Anti-Jewish rage.  Synagogues torched.  Storefronts smashed.  From inside Hilda’s apartment though, we heard nothing.  It was like any other night.  Would it really spread to our quiet little town?

I left for Sylvia’s before midnight.  The crooked alleys in Hilda’s neighborhood were all calm.  Maybe none of it was true.  There were people out here and there, maybe more than usual —groups of threes and fours, mostly drawn out by the news, wondering what they would see.  But it was a chilly night, and that seemed to keep people moving.

As I walked toward the river I could hear more voices.  And then there was something.  A lamp store.  Brodsky’s Lamps and Lampshades.  Smashed to ruins.  Shards of glass everywhere.  Just as the radio had described it.  Why had it happened here though?  What was this strange, magical connection between the radio and this pile of debris?   Is that what it means to be a social species, that we will simply do what we believe others are doing?  We hear words on the radio, people are destroying Jewish businesses, and like pre-programmed automatons, we interpret this message as an instruction?

I moved on, walked along old streets, under medieval arches, and out to the less ancient, less huddled part of town.  Across all of it was a sort of crystalline quiet.  A milkman’s wagon passed —the horse clopping and snorting.  Along the next block I scared up a yard of chickens, startled myself with the sudden clucking and scattering.  Peaceful Edelburg.  My storybook town.

I was most of the way to Sylvia’s when I approached something again.  A commotion.  I drew closer.   A crowd of figures, milling around a square, Vanderplatz.  Watching something.  Watching what?  There were voices.  Shouts.  I approached.   Peeked through a pair of shoulders.   A man was being pushed by several men.  They were shouting at him.  Trying to get him to push back.  He was older, had a frightened face, kept trying to back away, but there was always someone behind him, giving him another shove.  His hair was disheveled.  Beside them, on the ground, was a hat that had evidently been knocked off his head.  What did they want from him?

A woman, who seemed to be his wife, was restrained by two other men.  One had her arms.  The other had a hand in her hair.  She was crying, protesting.  She wore a heavy coat that bunched in the neck as they pried her arms back.  When she spoke, the hand in her hair drove her down lower, until at last she was on her knees, and drool was dripping from her mouth.  Now the man protested the woman’s treatment, begged on her behalf, and this resulted in a fist hitting his stomach.  He bent over, breathless, as other blows started to land on him.

What an unreal quality it had though.  This one little act.  This one droplet of cruelty amid the sea that seemed to be sweeping the country.  You could even sense a kind of self-consciousness among the perpetrators.  Acting out this bit of violence, getting themselves comfortable with it, acclimated to it, this act that they had heard was happening everywhere, trying this new thing out, yet having trouble identifying this old couple, these actual people, with the criminal Juden of the broadcasts.

And then, after the first blow, how much easier it seemed, the next punches coming so much more naturally, the hatred starting to feed on itself, the inner pleasure at inflicting pain.  Yes!  This was going to be a beautiful thing, this new violence!  It was just a question of adjusting to it.  That the victims were old and helpless, that there was nothing that they had actually done to deserve it that anyone could name—wasn’t that really part of the joy?  Wasn’t that liberating in some way?  Because if you could beat these people, punch their elderly faces and kick their sides, with all these others watching, doing nothing to stop it, didn’t that give you a kind of power, not merely over your victims, but over everybody, everything?  Could you not take it even farther, see how far it could go?

There were maybe only six or seven young men actually involved in tormenting this couple, and maybe sixty or seventy watching silently.  Many no doubt shocked, horrified, wishing it would stop.  But silent as an audience watching a performance in a theatre.  Silent as a group of schoolchildren watching a bully pick on someone smaller and weaker.  Each thinking maybe now someone should stop this.  It has gone on long enough.  Someone should intercede.  But who?  How?  Others just incorporating it.  Accepting it.  Who knew.

And then there was that awkward moment.  That end without an end—the victims just lying there bloodied.  The beating done.  Only there was no curtain to lower upon the scene.  And that lack of a proper ending seemed to reveal, even to the perpetrators, the pointlessness of what they had done.  Did they just walk away?  Bow to their audience?  What?  At last it occurred to one of them to spit on the couple.  And then the others recognized the virtue of this, and added their spit.  And their beads of spit landed like hateful, little exclamations points on their victims.  And thus having found a suitable denouement, they turned away, headed off, whooping, breaking into some Nazi song—as though it were the final number in a musical.

Kristallnacht had come to Edelburg.

 

For a while the crowd stayed where it was, looked on at those two heaps of suffering, as though still expecting something more to happen.  Wondering if it is over.  Wondering if they should offer assistance, call the police, deposit their own spit.  In the end though, they did none of these.  Instead they just watched for a while more and wandered off, left to sort out their own thoughts.

I was one of the last to leave.  I watched them stagger up.  Alive.  Moaning.  I briefly caught the man’s eye.  At least someone get him his hat, I thought.  But I didn’t.  I left.  Just as the others had.

Just a few more blocks to Sylvia’s, and now I felt even more urgently the need to reach her.  I was aware of forms passing this way and that.  More than would normally have been out at that hour.  I heard muffled voices.  But it was difficult to see very much.  The night was moonless.  Who were they?  It was hard to make out.

I waited across the street for a while, until it seemed there was nobody around.  Then I slipped around the back of Sylvia’s house and tossed a pebble at the window.   A moment later I was inside.  I was in her arms.  That same shocking nakedness through her nightgown.  Pressed against her.  We tiptoed up to her room, just as we had on my last visit.  I undressed.  Slipped into her bed.   At first I was still seeing that scene at Vanderplatz that I had witnessed.  That vignette.  And then in another instant it was gone.  As though a great wave came over consciousness itself, obliterating everything.  Because how could this beautiful sensation and that horrid memory coexist?  Or maybe I just willed it away.  I just wanted the pureness of the moment.  No past and no future.   No words.  Just the sensation, the great ocean-wave of desire, flooding everything.  So that when the bed creaked it was as though reality itself had given us a little nudge.  No, you cannot forget me.  I am right outside.  I am waiting for you.

 

——

 

Again, all comments welcome.

Update (12/18):

“The Feet Say Run,” is now available for purchase here.

tfsr-front

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27 replies »

  1. This was very hard to read, not just because of the heartbreaking violence toward the old couple, but because it so accurately describes the mob mentality that feeds into the violence. It reminds me of the feeding frenzy you see on social media sites when one person posts something and others either join in, or responds with something in opposition that ignites a horrific war of ugly words and threats. It is my hope and prayer that those of us who see what is going on and continue to raise our voices will do what the Germans did not – fight against it and not become complacent. Complacency in our system is part of what got us to this place, but it’s not something we, as a civilized first-world country, can afford. As always, incredibly well-written.

    Liked by 1 person

    • yes, social media…where posters are hidden behind relative anonymity, gets very nasty. (my last novel was pure comedy, and really about how social media, or internet chat, also gets very, very sexual.) the unconscious has a way of finding an escape valve. as for speaking up….i really think seeing very run-of-the-mill schoolyard bullying as a child – and of course not saying anything – has had a lasting influence on me. thanks for your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sadly, there was nothing unique about the German people at that time. It’s not as though they had particularly heinous DNA.They were just people experiencing economic hardship who were riled up by the fear tactics and lies of a charismatic leader and did deplorable things. The line, “it was just a question of adjusting to it” is especially disturbing given the events of the past few months. Trump’s hate speech is becoming normalized, and that is a truly frightening thing.

    This excerpt from your book is chilling and well written. I very much look forward to ordering it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! They had the same dna. They were not a generation of evil killer robots, as we were somehow led to believe by so many simplistic histories and war movies. and yet…it happened. thanks.

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  3. There is so much that is compelling in this piece.The details of the beating are particularly vivid and disturbing. My thoughts are these: your main character makes no move to intervene himself or try to find an ally in the crowd–I’m sure this was a deliberate choice on your part to make a point about all of us, but as the reader I was wondering what was in his head beyond his horror and tying the violence to the spell of the radio propaganda. Did he notice/reflect about his own passivity? I can imagine him desperate for intimacy after witnessing this event but was not convinced that he could respond sexually–you tell us he does but I was not so sure.

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    • thanks for the very thoughtful comment. to the second point, would the character really have felt sexual after that experience…i think this is very fair question and one i have myself turned over. i did ultimately feel it fit in the larger context, in part because it is a semi-fictionalized version of the reality in which the characters inhabit. but maybe that’s a poor excuse for taking poetic license. as to him not reacting…this is something that comes back a lot in the book. i won’t say more in case you want to read it.

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  4. I agree with all of the above, and your excerpt was chilling. I was in Berlin a few weeks ago — before the election — and visited The Topography of Terror, where the SS and Gestapo were headquartered. Exactly as you write, it was the ordinariness of the people, and the way they were acclimated to accept the rise of the Nazi party who first played on their fears of a failing economy, then opposing parties such as the Socialists and Communists, and then of course of The Other in general. The explanatory materials were very, very frank about that aspect, and at the time it certainly brought Trump and his rhetoric to my mind.

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    • all true. the other parallel is the view then that ‘the world is against us’ and now that, ‘the world is laughing at us’. then it was all tied to the treaty of versailles. now…it is somehow nafta or the iran deal.

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  5. Your story is tragic – both in the violence wrought on innocent folks and in the lack of anyone to stand up for them. I hope we are better as a nation than to allow this to come to pass again. I’m sure none of the people in that crowd viewed themselves as bad people – just like few of the people who voted for Trump view themselves as bad people. Only through a free press and the willingness of all of us to stand up against it when evil manifests will we prevent mass tragedy from occurring. Unfortunately, there are currently and will continue to be small tragedies (that are huge to those they occur to) as long as politicians and others use fear to consolidate power.

    I enjoy your humor writing, but I fully understand you lack of a humor muse at the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • thanks. agree with all your points. in my own imagination (because of course i wasn’t there), the people in the crowd not only didn’t see themselves as bad people, but weren’t necessarily bad people. but they failed to act on whatever good impulses they had. maybe the humor muse will revisit on thanksgiving. 🙂

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  6. Powerfully imagined. I have a friend who recently (after the election) recounted a similar incident during the 30s in Germany in which her grandfather had been beaten on a bus. From the point of vi ew of the bystander it is even more unsettling, as the response is discretionary and implicitly asks the reader to imagine what she would do.

    My husband and I had a conversation this morning, as I jokingly told him I thought recent events pointed to the apocalypse. He wasn’t so worried, asked me what I was going to do today
    “Go to the studio and make art”
    ” Well, if it’s the apocalypse why don’t you just stay in bed?”
    ” Because it’s my responsibility to record the present for the future”

    At least that’s all I can think of to do for now.

    Looking forward to reading your book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • we all would like to imagine we would have the courage to speak out. but it is not easy to do, both psychologically and politically. i haven’t really been able to do much the last couple of weeks. simply keeping busy with “day-job” work has been a good distraction. thanks for the comment.

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  7. Terrifying- especially because so many people are saying “It could never happen here! People would stop it!” but I truly feel that when the time comes people will repeat history and put their heads down and ignore it.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I hope your book comes out quickly and is extremely accessible. People need to read this. They need to feel the distaste and shame and to be haunted.

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  9. Of course it could happen here. It has already started here. The only question is whether we “bystanders” are going to spectate, or whether we will step in to stop the beatings. Given the propensity of Mr. Trump’s alt.right to exercise its God-given right to carry, intervention seems like a much riskier proposition than it might have been in Germany in the 1930’s. And it sickens me to say this, but Mr. Post is right: we do share the same DNA with the Nazi’s. However he backs away from the inevitable question: why should we expect a different result?

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  10. Gave me goosebumps, and not the good kind. I love that you were able to draw out the scene, adding so much more internal detail than all those (excellent and memorable) film depictions could possibly do.

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    • Film is a great medium, but there are still some things you can only say in a novel. You can get into people’s thoughts in a movie, but in a much more limited way. glad you liked. thanks for the comment.

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