By Lore Segal
Dr. Samuel Rosen believed in the circle. They rearranged their chairs and Gretel, one of the Viennese visitors, volunteered to go first: “I am Gretel Mindel. You are Margot Groszbart. Dr. Samuel Rosen. Father Sebastian Gotthalt—” Here Dr. Rosen held up his hand to say, “How about just Gretel, Margot, Sam . . . ? It’s hard to learn 12 new names.” Father Sebastian had brought the six Viennese to New York to meet with the six Viennese-born New Yorkers whom Dr. Rosen had found—not without difficulty—for five intensive days of bridge building. Father Sebastian believed in bridges.
Gretel started over: “I am Gretel. You are Margot. Dr. Sam. Father Sebastian. Bob and Ruth. Erich. Steffi. And your name is—?”
“My name is Konrad,” said the eldest of the Viennese—thin, elegant, and tremulous like a man after a heavy illness. Margot Groszbart, one of the New Yorkers, observed his high, narrow nose—an alp of a nose. Margot liked to say the one thing she missed was the mountains.
Konrad Hohenstauf’s papery brown lips parted as if reluctantly: “Gretel. Margot. Sam. Father Sebastian. Bob. Ruth. Erich. Steffi. And you are?” He looked past—not at—Shoshannah Goldberg who sat next to him. If looking at Shoshannah was hard it was impossible not to look and try to figure what was wrong—beside the inward-turning left eye, the abbreviated leg, and frozen shoulder—with the way she was held together.
Shoshannah forgot the name of the forgettable Erich Radezki, a pink young Viennese with a round chin and soft round cheeks. Erich got as far as Jakob Kohn, a New Yorker with a Kaiser Franz Joseph mustache. Gretel, on her second turn, was first to remember everybody’s name and close the circle.
Dr. Sam wanted input. “Questions? Suggestions? Anything anybody would like to share?”
“Yes, I,” Gretel responded. “This morning I walked into this room and was surprised with myself that I believed that you all . . . that all you in New York would know each other. I mean I felt surprised why I believed this.” Gretel addressed herself to Margot Groszbart. During their first American breakfast of sugared donuts and bad coffee, Gretel had failed to get close enough to talk to the elderly pianist whom she had seen in performance from the back of a Vienna concert hall. Across the room, in New York, Margot Groszbart looked to have retained a lot of black in her hair. Her eyes had a snap; they had lighted briefly on Gretel Mindel before continuing to rove the room. Gretel understood that she had made no impression on the elderly Jewish musician.
Margot Groszbart was surprised at herself too. After not responding to Dr. Rosen’s repeated and particular invitation that she join the workshop, she found herself on the phone postponing a visit to her daughter in Los Angeles in order to attend it. Rachel said, “Last time you were here, you told Jack’s mother you were proposing to worry about current genocides. You weren’t going to keep doing the Holocaust.” “I know,” Margot had said, “I know, but it’s so fascinating-—six of us stuck in a room with six of them. And, unlike your Brooklyn-born mother-in-law, I do not walk around in a state of chronic Holocaust anger.” “Why don’t you?” Rachel asked her. “Don’t know,” Margot had answered. “I don’t seem to have the chronic-anger gene.” Rachel had refrained from questioning her mother’s chronic anger toward her mother-in-law and said only, “Come the next week, then, and tell us how it went.”
And so here, on this Monday morning, Margot Groszbart sat on a bottom-chilling metal folding chair in the windowless basement meeting room that Dr. Rosen had rented from the local reform synagogue. The upright in the corner had the jolly, debauched look of a barroom piano. Here, for the next five days, she was going to build bridges with the children and children’s children of the Hitler generation.
Dr. Sam, building on Gretel’s input, said, “Isn’t that what we have come together for? To tell each other what maybe we don’t even know that we are thinking?
“What don’t we know that we are thinking?” Ruth Schapiro said. Margot began to feel as if she had always known this old, pretty woman with her neat ankles, nice blue suit, hair nicely kept, the kind of red that gets redder with each passing year. Bob Schapiro looked toward his wife. She said, “We know what we are thinking.”
“And will you share it with us?” Dr. Sam asked. Bob Schapiro looked at Dr. Sam. Ruth Schapiro said, “The six million.”
Konrad Hohenstauf looked at the floor, lifted his pointed, tremulous fingers to cover his mouth and murmured, “Ach, what I have done . . . ?”
To fill the ensuing pause, Margot said, “I have a question. How is it that all of you speak such efficient English?” The Austrians demurred. “Well, you seem to get said what you want to say.” During breakfast Margot had given up the attempt to activate her rusty childhood German, first in conversation with the baby-faced Erich, then with Father Sebastian, a powerful, red-haired man who looked at Margot out of intelligent eyes. Neither of the two young men had been about to give up the opportunity of practicing his English. Margot said, “Why could I never get my American daughter to learn German?”
“You want her to learn German?” asked Ruth Schapiro.
Dr. Sam was master of his own Socratic method. When the input for which he had asked turned the conversation off course, he knew an exercise to fetch it home. He went around the circle and had them free-associate with their given names, which they did until a boy appeared with a great cardboard box of Cokes and brown paper bags of kosher lunches.
The circle is not a natural configuration for a roomful of strangers. The young Austrians—Erich, Steffi, and Gretel—took their lunch bags and went out to discover the New York neighborhood; Dr. Sam and Father Sebastian went off together to talk workshop business. The others disposed themselves about the ugly room, the elderly folk—Austrians and Jews— headed for the chairs set out around small tables that Dr. Sam planned to use when he broke the bridge builders into working units. Margot, who had been widowed for decades, watched Bob and Ruth Schapiro share their lunch bags wordlessly, as she imagined them sharing a lifetime of breakfasts, lunches, and suppers. At another table Konrad Hohenstauf supported his chin on the handle of his cane and seemed to sleep. Plump young Jenny Birnbaum, the only bridge builder born in the New World, spread her coat on the floor, curled up, and really slept, while Jakob Kohn, the Jewish stage-Viennese—shirt sleeved, beer bellied, mustachioed—lit a pipe and walked to and fro.
Margot’s lifelong and daily discipline as a performer translated doing nothing into guilt. She had sacrificed a week’s practice and felt that she should use her time talking to people. She could not remember having heard the voice of the unusually tall Austrian woman in the plum-colored turban, who sat close enough for conversation but had her back and shoulders hunched against the room. It had become oppressively hot. A midday lassitude fixed Margot onto her chair.
For the afternoon session Dr. Sam had them go around the circle and speculate on the name they would have given themselves if they’d been their own parents. Konrad Hohenstauf asked to be permitted to pass and passed again when they were asked to complete Gretel’s sentence “When I came into this room, I thought . . . ” going counterclockwise.
On Tuesday morning Dr. Sam handed out blank sheets of paper and crayons saying, “Don’t think, draw.”
Gretel followed Margot to one of the little tables. She said, “I heard you play in the Akademie Theater. Wunderbar.” Margot gave Gretel Mindel her professional smile. People made a mistake thinking this a prosperous opening for conversation. A decent “Well, thank you” returned the ball to the flatterer who had nowhere to go with it except on and on. Margot, aware of the girl’s eagerness, did not return it. These Viennese young women knew how to dress, Margot thought. In black on black with the hair left to look slept in and not the least makeup to cover a rather sallow complexion, Gretel Mindel was, in her way, a beauty. While talking with the undersexed Erich and the courteous Father Sebastian, Margot had recognized a familiar chill. She experienced it now, sitting across from Gretel Mindel. Margot took it for granted that she must radiate toward the Austrians a reciprocally alien heat. Margot gave a laugh. Gretel raised her hopeful face.
Margot said, “I’m looking forward to getting Dr. Samuel’s goat.”
“His goat, please?”
“I’m going to irritate Dr. Sam by telling him my racial theory based on an incompatibility of body temperatures.”
“It is a joke?” Gretel Mindel asked.
“Yes, yes,” Margot said and had, once more, surprised herself: Why was she making herself interesting to the Austrian girl? Margot said, “Asking me to draw something is like asking me to say something. My head goes empty.”
“I know! I know it!” cried the girl. “I know it exactly! Mine also!” Gretel Mindel now searched her mind for some other human oddity that she and a Jewish pianist might discover to have in common. Gretel asked Margot if she, on entering the room yesterday morning, had thought of the Viennese as a cohort. “Were you surprised we did not even know each other’s names?”
Margot said, “No, I was thinking how I never walk into a room full of new people without a drop of the heart: I look around, I think ‘Is this all the world has available?’ My folks as well as yours.”
Gretel laughed nicely. “I always look if there will be an available man.”
The two women glanced across the room where the rosy Erich and the slender, stylish Steffi sat on the floor side by side bent over their drawings. It reminded Margot and Gretel to take up their crayons.
“In my age group,” Margot said, “there is Bob.” Bob Schapiro was a heavy man in a brown suit. He wore a yarmulke.
Gretel said, “But not available.”
“Well,” said Margot, “there’s always—what is the name of the fellow who did something he won’t say?”
“Konrad Hohenstauf,” said Gretel. She drew silently for a while before she asked, “It is permitted to make jokes?”
Margot said, “My daughter’s American-born mother-in-law thinks it’s sacrilege, but I refuse to think of the Holocaust as a sacred event.”
Gretel kept drawing.
Margot wasn’t sure she agreed with what she had just said and felt uncomfortable having said it to the Austrian girl. She was drawing a train that started on the left edge of her paper and traveled off the right edge. She made a row of windows and drew a face in each window.
Gretel said, “I have made a Munch.” In the foreground she had drawn the back view of a lollipop-shaped human form facing the back of another lollipop in the middle distance. “But your heart does not drop at Dr. Samuel?” she said.
“It doesn’t?” Margot said.
They both looked in the direction of a pleasant incongruity—-stout Dr. Sam with the drama of his full beard, sat on the floor. His sad, hot eyes above their sacks of flesh were fixed on the paper before him: Dr. Samuel was drawing. Father Sebastian sat next to him, drawing.
Gretel said, “Der Dr. Sam schaut so lieb aus. How to say this in English?”
“You can’t. English won’t let someone ‘look dear.’ You can say he has a look of sweetness.”
“Yes, I think that is what he has! Don’t you think he has it?” Gretel urged Margot.
Margot said, “Bet you somewhere under the mess of coats behind the piano there’s a guitar.”
Gretel and Margot took their lunch bags to the little green community garden across from the synagogue. It was a windy blue day, barely warm enough to sit. “Who is the woman in the turban?” Margot asked Gretel.
“Peppi Huber. We think she doesn’t understand English.”
“Did she come all the way to New York to sit and not understand?”
“That we were wondering also.”
Margot asked Gretel where she had learned her English.
“I was six months at the University of Texas.”
They waved to Konrad walking by with his cane, and to Shoshannah limping beside him. Shoshannah waved back.
Gretel told Margot that her grandmother had taken her to the Akademie to hear Margot play. “You played Das Wohltemperierte Clavier,” Gretel said.
“So I did.” Margot ate her sandwich and tried to calculate Gretel’s grandmother’s age in 1938, but did not ask Gretel. There exists an embarrassment—a species of shyness—between the party of the murderers and the murdered. From a tooth-whitening ad in her dentist’s office, Margot had learned which of the facial muscles operate the human smile. These muscles appeared to have frozen the area around Gretel Mindel’s mouth. She said, “My grandmother liked to tell that she was the youngest district SS youth leader. There comes Dr. Sam.” Crossing the street toward the synagogue, Gretel frowned and said, “But you like Dr. Sam.”
“I do. I do like him! How can you not like Dr. Sam Rosen! What I don’t care for are his exercises to force-feed intimacy and pressure-cook healing.”
“Better than not cooking!” cried Gretel Mindel. “Here you and I are talking.”
“So we are,” Margot said.
In the afternoon session they went around the circle to explain their drawings. Ruth Schapiro said, “Bob doesn’t draw.” Across his paper he had printed “March 12 1938,” the date of Hitler’s annexation of Austria, in black capitals. Ruth had drawn a Magen David on a bluewhite-blue background.
Konrad had removed the paper sleeve from a black crayon and rolled the crayon on its side from the top to the bottom of his paper.
Jakob Kohn had drawn an adorable pair of lederhosen. He said, “You can take the Jew out of Vienna but you can’t take Vienna out of the Jew.”
Shoshannah’s picture depended on explanation: “This is supposed to be a soldier,” she said. “I don’t know how to draw a kneeling person, but he is kneeling down planting something. I think maybe he went awol and got a job on a farm.”
“Went AWOL from which army?” Ruth Schapiro asked.
Shoshannah didn’t know. “Someone maybe stole his uniform or he bartered it for food?”
“But was he an Ally or was he a Nazi?”
“How would we even know? This white thing with the red is the bloody bandage round his head. In the background these are supposed to be burned-out farms. Here are the puffs of smoke from guns. We didn’t know if we were behind the frontline or ahead, or if the war was over and they weren’t telling us. Maybe they didn’t know. They were marching us south as it turned out and we saw this soldier kneeling. He was planting things. See the row of green? Anyway, Dr. Sam said to draw something.”
Bob Schapiro stared at Shoshannah. Ruth Schapiro said, “What has this to do with the murder of the six million?”
Margot peered around the room. The Austrians were looking straight before them except for Konrad who looked at the floor. He covered his mouth.
Shoshannah’s drawing started a debate that lasted the four remaining days: Shoshannah held that a head wound is a head wound is a head wound, while Ruth argued that you have to know if it was the head of a soldier who had killed or a soldier who had liberated Jews.
Erich said, “My father died of a head wound in Russia,” but he said it in German to Steffi, later, when they were walking back to the hotel.
Jenny Birnbaum had drawn three skeletons—-her grandparents and a baby uncle on her mother’s side.
The Austrians looked straight before them.
Margot’s turn. “The faces in the windows of the train are Jewish children leaving Vienna. This is my Mutti waving.”
Ruth Schapiro asked Margot, “Did your parents get out?”
“No. When they invited me to play at the Akademie, I went to the Resistance Archive. My parents were numbers 987 and 988 out of 1,030 on the train leaving Vienna on June 14, 1942, original destination Izbica, detoured to Trawniki.”
“Bob and I don’t go to Vienna,” Ruth Schapiro said.
The Austrians kept looking straight ahead. Margot thought, Where are they supposed to look? What do we want them to do with their eyes?
Dr. Sam had drawn a circle of people dancing the hora. Father Sebastian had drawn a bridge over a lot of troubled-looking water.
That evening produced the guitar. Dr. Sam taught the Austrians to sing the Hatikwah. They sang “Ach, du lieber Augustin.”
“You don’t sing?” Gretel asked Margaret.
“I’m willing, but my mouth is not.” Margot’s mouth would not open to sing the Hatikwah; it would not sing “Oh, say can you see . . . ” It refused to sing anything communally from which Margot Groszbart chose to deduce that if birth had made her an Aryan in Vienna in 1938, she would not have sung the “Horst Wessel Lied,” or raised her arm and opened her mouth to shout “Heil Hitler.”
At lunchtime on Wednesday, Margot told Gretel she was staying in to talk to people and found her path blocked by the plum-colored turban. “I’ will Ihna ‘was sagen. I want to say something to you.” Margot followed the tall woman back to one of the little tables. They sat down. The turban approached Margot’s face. Speaking in Margot’s childhood Viennese German, the woman said, “There was no anti-Semitism in Vienna before they accused Waldheim.” She held Margot’s eyes. “This time it is the Jews.” She waited, her face so close it blurred in Margot’s vision.
In her childhood German, Margot said, “Is it possible you don’t recognize the same old line?”
“I know. I know that. I do, but this time it is true.” The turban intensely waited.
Margot said, “I cannot have this argument with you,” got up and seeing the Schapiros by the coffee urn walked over to talk with them. Ruth Schapiro said, “We heard you play-—Bob, what was it we heard Margot Groszbart play? Wonderful.”
Bob Schapiro said, “Wonderful.”
“Thank you,” Margot said. She told them her encounter with the purple turban, and Ruth said, “So? She’s an anti-Semite. What else is new?” Margot looked back. Peppi continued to sit; her head appeared to be sinking in the direction of her lap. Margot said, “She is, but I think she was waiting for me to argue her out of it. That’s what she came to New York for. She’s no longer comfortable being an anti-Semite.”
“An anti-Semite is an anti-Semite. What’s to argue?” Ruth Schapiro said.
“What made the two of you come to the workshop?” Margot asked them.
“Dr. Rosen begged us. He was afraid no Jews would come.”
Margot took her cup of coffee to chat with young Steffi. Steffi was a graphic designer. Her mother, it turned out, had gone to Margot’s old district Volksschule. Margot reported the Waldheim conversation to Steffi who looked disgusted and said, “Na, die is ‘a anti-Semit. That one is an anti-Semite.” Steffi wanted Margot to tell her all the anti-Semitic remarks she remembered from her school days in Vienna and was disappointed—was disbelieving—when Margot couldn’t recall any.
In the afternoon, Dr. Sam paired them off to interview each other. Steffi and Bob Schapiro, Ruth and Father Sebastian, Shoshannah Goldberg and Konrad Hohenstauf. One had to wonder in what language the American schoolgirl, Jenny Bernstein, and the plum-colored turban were going to interview each other; the beardless young Erich and the historically mustachioed Jakob might hit it off.
Gretel Mindel asked to be with Margot. A premature nostalgia made her bag the table at which they had drawn pictures together. Gretel was wanting to confess. Gretel’s SS grandmother had lead a cadre to Poland. It was her job to establish the “Jew houses,” in which deportees could be held over till their transportation to the final destination. She would give a Polish farm family 24 hours to load what they could onto a wagon and get out of the area. Gretel’s grandmother boasted of never having had to use her whip.
Gretel asked about Margot’s Mutti who had waved from the platform. Margot experienced a reluctance, but said, “All right, here’s something I remember: When I was a bad child and hadn’t put my toys away, my Mutti would be angry and not look at me and not talk to me. So long as my Mutti was not talking and not looking, I couldn’t play, couldn’t do anything. I would follow her around the apartment saying ‘Sei wieder gut! Sei wieder gut!’—something else, by the way, that doesn’t translate into English. You can’t say ‘Be good again!’”
“‘Stop being angry,’” suggested Gretel. “‘Forgive me!’”
Margot said, “Anyway, I would keep walking behind her saying ‘Sei wieder gut!’ till she relented or, more probably, forgot.”
The next morning they sat in their circle to report on each other’s stories. Shoshannah related only her faithful promise not to tell what Konrad had told her. Using her right hand to lift the inoperative left arm, she laid her hand on Konrad’s wrist and said, “You were only eight years old.”
Margot gave a straightforward account of Gretel’s grandmother’s Nazi career. “She never had to use her whip,” she concluded.
It was in recounting Margot’s story of walking after her Mutti that Gretel experienced that shock of understanding something one has merely known: the Mutti whom the little Margot had followed around the Vienna apartment was the Mutti who had put her on the train was the Mutti who had been put on the train for the east from where she had not returned. Gretel sobbed aloud.
At the lunch hour Margot got her coat and walked out of the door, universally irritated by the freshness of Gretel Mindel’s emotion; by the mileage Konrad Hohenstauf was getting out of what he wasn’t telling; by the hurt hunch of Peppi Huber’s shoulders; by the Schapiros’ single incorruptible idea, and Sam Rosen’s incorruptible good will. She hailed a taxi. Margot opened the door to the calm of her handsome apartment, finished yesterday’s soup, skimmed the Times, failed to reach her daughter on the telephone, sat at the piano and practiced for 15 minutes before getting into a taxi so as not to be late for the afternoon session.
On their last day, Gretel, Steffi, and Erich took Margot to lunch in the little restaurant they had discovered. When the conversation relaxed into German they forgot she wasn’t one of them. Steffi was a good mimic: she appeared to blow herself up to Bob Schapiro size and said, “Sixmillionsixmillionsixmillion.”
Erich said, “Did you see Ruth let the cuff of her sleeve fall open, to show the numbers on her wrist?”
“And you think that was impolite of her?” asked Margot.
Steffi said, “Na, aber die is’ ja immer so hochnäsig.”
“Interesting,” Margot said to Gretel beside her. “Hochnäsig translates, literally, into ‘highnosed.’ Both languages place the seat of arrogance in the nose. You know the English expression ‘being snotty’?” They had lost Steffi and Erich to a conversation of their own.
Gretel had been studying Margot and now said, “You don’t think we have the right to say Ruth Schapiro does anything wrong?”
“I think you’re wrong about her being ‘hochnäsig’: it’s not that she looks ‘down her nose’ at you; it’s that there is no way for her to look. What is the right way for Ruth Schapiro, with the numbers on her wrist, to look at you?”
But Gretel said, “That was not what I asked. You think we don’t have the right to criticize you.”
“You’re right,” Margot said, “I don’t grant you that right. Notice,” she added, “that you and I are now saying the things for which Dr. Sam has no exercises.” She turned to her table companions and asked them, “What did you come for?”
“I know the answer,” Gretel bitterly said. “We came for you to console us for having been terrible.”
Margot laid an affectionate hand on the girl’s wrist.
Margot had agreed to give a final brief recital. The upright had not only the look but the timbre of a barroom piano. She played the first Prelude and Fugue of the Well-tempered Clavichord with a smile in the direction of Gretel Mindel, who, as the day advanced, had become tearful. The windowless meeting room had been transformed and the little tables arranged into one long table covered with a cloth for a last supper. During the kosher chicken with vegetable garnish, Father Sebastian rose to announce that he and Dr. Sam planned another such workshop next year, under the auspices of his church. He hoped that the New York bridge builders would come to Vienna and participate.
“I will,” Shoshannah said.
“I want my mom to go,” young Jenny said.
“By next year,” Jakob Kohn said, “I am thinking I may have my own apartment in Vienna.”
“Bob and I will be in Jerusalem,” Ruth Schapiro said.
“Come! Come to the workshop!” Gretel said to Margot. “Come and you can stay with me.”
“Thank you,” Margot said, “but I don’t know that I’ll be going to Vienna again.”
Gretel went with Margot to help her find her coat. “Forgive me!” she said.
“What for?” asked Margot. “I don’t know that you’ve done anything wrong.”
Gretel held Margot’s coat, watched Margot put her arms into the sleeves and button the buttons and felt time running out. She said, “I go to Jerusalem also, for six months. I want to learn Hebrew!”
“Do you?” Margot said. “I’ve forgotten mine.” Here came the big red-haired Father Sebastian to say goodbye and to reinforce the invitation to Vienna. Margot shook his hand. Margot shook hands with Erich and embraced Steffi. “Goodbye, young Jenny. Goodbye Schapiros!” She embraced them. “Goodbye Shoshannah, Jakob.” Everybody was shaking hands with everybody except for Konrad Hohenstauf, who had not come to join in the adieus by the door, or the plum-colored turban, who must have left without anybody noticing. Margot took Dr. Rosen’s hand. “This has been quite something else. Goodbye.”
“Sei wieder gut!” Gretel called through the door after Margot Groszbart.
It came to Margot that she had not said goodbye to Gretel Mindel and she meant to—thought she was going to—turn around and wave to her, but she was already halfway across the road and she kept walking.
Lore Segal is a novelist, translator, essayist, and writer of children’s stories. Her books include the novels Other People’s Houses and Her First American and the short-story collection Shakespeare’s Kitchen.
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