Tuesday, January 12, 2016

"Ich weiß schon selber, was ich tu"

For some weeks now I've been slowly reading Lena: unser Dorf in der Krieg by Kaethe Recheis. I am still a fairly slow reader of German-language texts, but I persevere. Lena is an award-winning novel of World War II from the perspective of a young girl named Lena, in rural Austria. Her little village is in the middle of farm country, Linz being the closest real city nearby. The book opens with the Anschluss, Hitler's invitation for Austria to join the Reich. There was a vote, in case you were unaware, Austria being allowed to choose if they would remain independent or if they'd "rejoin" their German homeland. I don't understand the politics of the day, and 10 year-old Lena doesn't either, so all I know is that some Austrians were pro-Nazi and pro-Anschluss, and others were not, and in Lena's village emotions ran high before the election. Emotions ran even higher after the vote: Hitler sent squads of Nazis into Austria to manage the election:
"Er kränkt sich so sehr", erklärte uns Tante Steffi. "Nicht einmal das Kreuz haben sie ihn selbst hinzeichnen lassen. Die Hand haben sie ihm dabei geführt. Und so was nennt sich eine Wahl!" Ihre Stimme wurde dabei immer lauter, immer zorniger. "Draußen auf der Straße sind die SA-Leute gestanden, und drin im Gemeindeamt war es nicht besser. Alle Nazis aus dem Dorf waren da und haben zugeschaut, was wir wählen. "Das müsst ihr euch ankreuzen", hat der Perwanger gesagt und auf den großen Kreis gezeigt. "Ich weiß schon selber, was ich tu", hat der Großvater geantwortet. Und dann hat er die zwei Kreise lange angeschaut, und der Perwanger hat um seine 100 % Ja-Stimmen zu zittern angefangen. Da hat er die Hand vom Großvater genommen und ein Kreuz auf das Ja gemacht und gesagt, alten Leuten, die schlechte Augen hätten, müsse man helfen. Und dabei weiß jeder im Dorf, dass der Großvater keine Brille braucht!" "Reg dich nicht auf, Steffi", sagte der Großvater. "Sind doch alles Lumpen! Ich geh' jetzt in den Garten." "Es war keine freie Wahl!" sagte meine Mutter. Mein Vater sagte gar nichts.
Which is to say, the Nazi election marshalls "helped" everyone to vote in favor of the Anschluss. No ballots were cast privately. There was a 100% "yes" vote in the election. Red and black flags festooned the town the next day, hurrah for democracy!

As you can imagine, things get progressively worse as the years go by. Young men are conscripted into the Wehrmacht and there begins a series of empty-casket funerals in the local church as reports begin to come in from the various fronts. The Jews, the mentally ill, the gypsies, and the vagrants are rounded up by SS squads, and taken to a "hospital" where they soon die of sudden mysterious illnesses. A pillar of smoke rises above the "hospital." "They are burning the mentally ill," young Lena thinks. The village is rife with informants, and citizens who voice anti-Nazi views are snatched up by the SS and sent to Vienna or Dachau. Recheis is a wise author, interrupting all of this paranoia and terror with comic episodes and nature writing, which she does well, and there is also the continuous maturing of Lena over the years to take focus away from the horror of the Nazi rule now and then. But with maturity comes a greater realization of consequences. In one of the most moving parts of the novel, Lena has visited a neighbor, Rosa, an invalid teen girl who has been a Nazi supporter from the start of the novel. Lena becomes angry at Rosa and blurts out that it would be a terrible thing if Hitler were to win the war and eliminate freedom from the entire world. "Where did you hear this?" Rosa demands. "The chaplain said so," Lena answers, and immediately regrets having said anything. Soon after this conversation, the chaplain is arrested by the SS and taken away to Vienna. Lena is certain that her "betrayal" of the chaplain has led to his arrest, and she is torn apart by her guilt. After getting out of school (in Linz) the next day, Lena walks to a high bridge over the Danube, where she stands between carved figures of the Nibelungen and looks down at the waters rushing past. There is a lot of traffic on the bridge but nobody notices the remorseful young girl considering suicide. It's a great scene, Lena deliberately building emotional distance from herself as she tries to will her body off the bridge. Perhaps life in a repressive state is like that.

This novel, I suppose it's a young-adult novel as we say these days, has won all sorts of awards in the German-speaking world. I'm surprised it hasn't been translated into English.

14 comments:

  1. I am envious of your German reading abilities; my foreign language skills hit the skids during my third year of Latin, and I can now barely manage 10% of Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic Wars.

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    1. Ja, verstehe, aber welches 10 Prozent?

      Yes, I can slowly make my way through a book written for adolescents. Not much to envy there. I studied Latin when I was a boy, and I've lost most of it. I tell myself I will break out the Henle someday.

      Where has your blog got to?

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    2. That blog -- the product of a feckless, forgetful, and fearful soul -- remains after numerous offs-and-ons: http://beyondeastrodredux.blogspot.com/
      More about the 3Fs in a future posting at Beyond Eastrod.
      As for my Latin, my teacher, Mrs. Brandfas (die-hard fan of Pittsburgh Pirates and Roberto Clemente) would be disappointed in my poor retention; we memorized and recited long sections of CC in classes.

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  2. powerful stuff. i hope the donald doesn't ever get elected.

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    1. If Trump were king, every day would be exciting.

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  3. The Nibelungenbrücke, the bridge upon which Lena stands in the above-described scene, was actually built by Hitler, as a monument to himself. So that's a nice bit of irony.

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  4. Isn't there a new publisher on the scene specializing in translations? You should send them a note about this book. It's timely, it's young adult, it's got a young female protagonist. If only she had superpowers . . . Also, I'd be ever so grateful if you'd do an English translation of the bridge scene for me.

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    1. Is there? Who? Europa Editions does mostly translations, but this might be too "young" for them, not edgy enough despite the murders and betrayals and the black-market slaughterhouses.

      I'll work on the translation of the bridge scene. Remind me later. Speaking of English translations, I like the look of this.

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    2. After class I didn't meet up with Christoph and Willi, and instead went to the Danube. I walked through the small, angular streets which led to the main square, now known as Adolf-Hitler Platz. I walked past the Plague Column. A tram rolled noisily over the square, the passengers hanging in clumps like grapes on the running boards.

      To both sides of the bridge stood the giant stone figures of Nibelung who had moved to the East long ago, Kriemhild and Siegfried, who stood guard on the bridge high above the current. In school and in the Hitler Youth they explained to us about the valor of the Nibelungen, and said that we should be equally brave for the Fuhrer. The stone Kriemhild and the stone Siegfried couldn't protest against the fact that they had become heroes of the Third Reich.

      I stood still in the middle of the bridge, kept my schoolbag next to me and propped my arms on the iron railing. The water broke against the bridge piling, foaming and gurgling, the waves capped with white crowns. I could see the many whirlpools, that pushed and pushed into so-called funnels. A horse-drawn wagon rolled past, then a truck with a crackling, noisy engine. People hurried over the bridge. Everyone went in haste, nobody cared that I was standing at the railing. Whoever jumped from the bridge would be dragged into the river depths by the whirlpools and cast out along the river bank. Whoever was dead could no longer reproach himself, would no longer feel any guilt.

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    3. excellent! if none of your many other occupations don't pan out, try translating!

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  5. The Anschluss was scheduled to foreclose on a plebiscite that the chancellor, Schusnigg, proposed to hold.

    About the middle of The Leopard, there is a village that also votes unanimously in a plebiscite. In this case, the officials spare themselves the trouble of supervising the ballot, and simply report the numbers they want.

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    1. They may as well have done that in Austria. I haven't read The Leopard, but I'm assuming the vote you refer to was in the South Tyrol? You see how I assume The Leopard must be about Italy.

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    2. The plebiscite in The Leopard takes place in a small town or village in Sicily. The question is whether the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies shall unite itself with the Republic of Italy. This would have been 1861, I think.

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