If you take me to Berlin, I won’t ask any questions. If you take me to Berlin, I will change its name to Linber, just for you. The city will sparkle at us in all its glory, and we won’t go rummaging through your past. I won’t have to know if your father, a certain Heinrich Ludwig, was ever an S.S. officer. I won’t feel compelled to find out what your mother, a certain Giselle, was doing on Kristallnacht. I simply won’t know. My mind will remain in the present. The fluid, pliable present. A present that will flow through me like honey and fill my entire being.
We’ll land in Berlin-Tegel and head straight to the city, which will greet us with a smile.
And I promise: I won’t look at the stolpersteine beneath my feet, the stumbling stones that line the streets of Berlin. The stones where the names of Holocaust victims are inscribed on brass. Stones upon stones, names upon names. Names of disembodied Jews. I won’t look down, I won’t let them blind me, I will close my eyes and let the sun warm my eyelids and cradle me through the Linberian streets.
From there, we’ll merrily slip away. I might trip once or twice, and you, as my love and my lover, will steady me, and we’ll skate over the smooth tiles that conceal the clean, efficient, precise sewage system. You will look at me and say, “Tired, aren’t you?” I’ll shrug my shoulders and go back to feeding the ducks. The world will start spinning in a jumble of white wings, and just before I collapse on the grass, on the fine, cushioned German grass, you will anxiously tilt your head towards me and tell me I look very pale.
In the Linber clinic, you will give the nurse a questioning look, and when they come at me with a needle you will speak to her in German, and I will remain calm, even as you watch the concentrated Jewish blood – fifty percent Moroccan, fifty percent Ashkenazi – flowing out of my arm and into the test tube. “Your blood is that of royalty,” you will whisper to me in the glossy Hebrew of a new speaker.
I won’t give a thought to the blood that is going down to the labs for a lymphocyte count. I won’t think that they might discover the fifty percent Holocaust survivor on my father’s side. And not thinking of Father will instantly make me think of mother: “Don’t go looking for any Holocaust, do you understand? Your father gave me more than enough Holocaust. Go have fun with him.” The tests will come back negative. Just another bout of anemia. The nurse will assess me with her eyes, and then thrust the needle into my arm. One shot of iron and already I’m getting back to myself, walking with you, hand in hand once again.
If you take me to Linber. No vampires will rise up from the sewage canals onto the stolpersteine. They won’t don masks, they won’t conscript anyone into the army, they won’t rape anyone. They won’t gnaw anyone’s neck.
And later on, that night, you will desire me. Red-faced and rugged, you’ll try to make me giggle . With your large palms that could easily hold another pair of trembled hands. A strange cloud will burst through the window, and on the nearby dresser a cigarette will burn in an ashtray. Your hands will travel over my skin, not over the skin of a doomed concentration camp prisoner, not over skin that is desperately pleading to be covered in a shroud. And it will no longer matter which city she was born in and what she did between ’33 and ’45. We will no longer be Gentile and Jewess; neither shall we learn of nations any more.
And when I look up I will see that the cloud that knocks at my window is nothing more than fog.
The next morning, the city will ply us with even more of its delights. We’ll gorge on ice cream on the Friedrichstrasse. We’ll look at the silvery present of the city. The quicksilver present. The gilded, grizzled, yearned-for present.
Hand in hand we’ll stroll past the Konzerthaus. And we will never venture out of Linber. We won’t go down into the forests. We won’t go down to the train tracks. We won’t jump the tracks. We won’t stand on the stolpersteine, trampled to the point of erosion. We won’t veer off towards the railway, we won’t join the Partisans, we won’t tattoo our brains with meaningless numbers, like the tattooed man from my neighborhood whom Mother abhorred, whom she tried to keep away from us, insisting that we continue to live in her private reality, where there is no Holocaust and no Memorial Day and no siren and you’re allowed to leave food on your plate.
And then we will sit down with your friends at one of Linber’s watering holes. A deep hole reflecting Linber back at us. My beer will swell up at me, dark and murky. I will stare at it, and the friendly sounds of laughter will grow more distant as I’ll sink into my glass. 100% German beer. 100% barley picked by fat, red-cheeked Linberian girls, village girls who never complain about the hard work in the field. Your hand is on my back and your friends are all around us and their laughter is getting louder. Their hair is fair and honey-colored, like the stolpersteine. I won’t think about the stolpersteine. I won’t let my mind wander off to the pitchforks in the hay stacks, to the babies hidden inside them. Covered in sheaves, I will stick to the drunken present.
If you take me to Linber, I won’t ask you about your hometown, I will just marvel at how your height fills the city.
In the hotel, you’ll collapse on the bed, and, babbling drunkenly, you’ll try to hold me. The effort of your arms will make you tired, and you’ll fall asleep. I won’t change my clothes. I’ll lie next to you, my body folded into yours, and stare out the window. The gathering fog will turn into a dense, black cloud with bits of coppery-purple brass. I’ll burrow my head in the crook of your arm, and I’ll laugh at myself. After all, the window is sealed; there’s no hand to open it and let the cloud in. The psychedelic cloud will fly around the room, and out of it will emerge my mother: first her head with its mane of curls, and then her hand, waving my identity card in the air.
“I’ll never tell,” she’ll shout. And I’ll try to rip the card from her hand, but the cloud will close around me; it won’t let me get close enough to see what’s written next to “Father’s Name.” Well-meaning letters dance in the air and almost succeed in coming together, but Mother manages to separate them. I catch a glimpse of the Hebrew letters shin and yud, but then she steals them away.
The cloud comes closer and settles on my neck. Its touch is cold and metallic.
“Just tell me his name,” I beg my mother.
“I’ll never tell. I’ll never tell.”
And a forest starts to grow all around me, and drummers are swinging from the branches and the bushes and the vines, beating their drums to the rhythm of her voice: “I’ll never tell. I’ll never tell. Never ever.” The rhythm of the drums will singe my ears and my eyes. And I’ll wake up and blink and try to push the forest away, but there is no forest, everything is already pruned and trimmed. And you are next to me, snoring away.
And I will remember the first time you met my mother. “You had to bring home a German?” she said. “There aren’t enough Moroccans?” But her manners were impeccable, because when you’re in the presence of so much tall, blonde attractiveness, you don’t behave crassly.
You are next to me, snoring away, but even so, everything around me is fuzzy. The cloud condenses on the window and the letters dance on top of it, but when I try to catch them they fall away, crumbling like cigarette ash. You toss and turn and mumble in your sleep, and I realize that I am fully immersed in the present moment. I get dressed and head to Linber. Even in this dense and darkening night, the streets shimmer like an armored Crusader embarking on a holy war.
Linber is imposing at night. Cold. Chilling. And there are no people. Everyone is sleeping. The cats are sleeping, the party-goers are sleeping, the drunks are sleeping, the tourists are sleeping. All the Linberians are sleeping. Linber sleeps, and amid all the torpor only one old woman holds my attention. Her back is hunched, and her footsteps on the sidewalk are shaky, as if she’s been doing this nightly walk for centuries.
I follow her. She continues to walk, bending down every now and then. She’s on a mission; its purpose is unclear. I maintain a safe distance from her, and I keep my head down. When she reaches the intersection, she glances at me, then turns right. I look down at the sidewalk. A wet stolpersteine twinkles at me in the darkness. Gertrude. The Gothic letters jump out at me. Ander. Markovich. Schultz.
I walk over more stolpersteine. I don’t step on the names and numbers, I just float above them. The woman leads me to a building. I can’t identify it right away, even though it looks familiar. Rows and rows of orphaned benches in front of my eyes. And although there is a strange-looking pillar next to the Holy Ark, I eventually realize that this place that resembles a church or concert hall is actually a synagogue. And it’s nothing like the synagogue in our neighborhood, with its broken tiles and the seats arranged in a U and the faint smell of aniseed liquor that lingers no matter how often you air it out, like an obstinate goblin.
The old woman disappears, and she comes back holding a broom. For a moment I think she is the witch of the synagogue, but it’s not the right broom for a witch. She sweeps the tiles with measured movements. I approach her, she exudes the smells of old age and chlorine.
“Und das Passwort kennst du?” She whips the question out like the strike of a snake. I recoil from her face, from her smell.
“Und das Passwort kennst du?” she asks again, and when I don’t answer, she waves her broom at me.
Breathless, I run out of there and head towards Linber, which is becoming more and more engulfed in fog. The German words pound in my head while I try to clear a path between the clouds and navigate my way back to the hotel. Why did I leave there in the first place?
If you take me to Berlin. If you take me to Linber. Why did you have to take me to Berlin? You shouldn’t have taken me to Berlin. Don’t take me to Berlin. Oh, please, don’t take me there.
I can see the hotel through the fog. That must be it. Yes, there’s the round porch in the front, and the taut flag, but the hotel’s façade is completely obscured by the clouds. I feel as if I’ve been hurled limbo, and I try to get out before I myself turn into a cloud. Fear rises from my throat and mingles with the muggy air.
Once again, I find myself in front of the building. Right in the middle of Linber, there is a building covered by clouds. The old woman’s words are pulsing through my head, and I suddenly realize that they are coming out of the ground. I look at the floor of the building, and I see all these brass squares, these stolpersteine, rising up in front of me. Swelling up and turning into skinny human bodies. Brass on the bottom, clouds on the top, and me in the middle. Letters line up before me and I can’t put them together. Blue identification cards prance around in my head like wild trains. The brass bodies bend towards me.
“And you still don’t know the password?” they ask me, this time in Hebrew, using the same tune the old woman had used. I stand there, unable to move. But there is no hotel and no porch and no north and no south and no guidebook.
“Everything you have is ours,” they shout. “You’d better tell us the password.”
And one of the women hugs me, her brass arm slinking over my body; her eyes are full of compassion. “You don’t have a choice,” she says. “You have to do it. You have to come with us.” And all the other brass bodies are chanting, “Look at the mouth. And the nose, and the hair. They all belong to us.”
“The hair is mine,” an old brass woman says, her afro sticking straight up from her head.
“There’s no time,” the chlorine woman with the broom calls out.
Everyone nods at me. And all of a sudden, I understand. I know. And they know that I know. A small brass girl holds out her hand; her fingers scratch my skin. The smell of earth, of the netherworld, of roots and rot, fills my nostrils. Another life is waiting for me. Different than the glistening life my mother had contrived for me, the life that released me from Holocaust Memorial Day, the life that refused to stand during the siren, all because he had abandoned her when she was pregnant. The Armenian Holocaust? Absolutely. Somalia-Biafra-Nigeria? Fine. Pancreatic cancer? Count us in. But the Holocaust won’t set foot in here, do you hear me?
“Your hair is so pretty and shiny,” the girl says, her voice brimming with sympathy. Her brass hands get tangled in my roots.
“Like my hair used to be,” the afro woman shouts.
“Really?” a man with a pointy nose says. “When was that?”
I try to tune out their voices. I am sinking deeper and deeper into a morass, and there’s nobody to help me.
Half of my body is already underground. And everyone is chanting the old woman’s password. I smell the brass-scented ground, and the old woman turns to me and, switching back to German, asks me again. And everyone stands around her humming. Password. Password. “Und des Passwort kennst du?”
And it doesn’t look like they’re waiting for an answer.
I think about the identification card, and five letters dance in front of me. I beg them not to scatter, to keep dancing, and for a brief moment they line up, then immediately disperse, but I already know my father’s name. “Stein!” I yell. You can see the disappointment on their brass faces, and they won’t relent. I’m still half-submerged, but my body gets stuck there and I can’t move. And everyone is crying, shedding brass tears, and the little girl releases my hand with a sigh and an accusatory look. They start to sink, and the old woman sweeps them up; when I look into the building, I see that all the stolpersteine are perfectly arranged.
Exhausted and dirty, I leave Linber. The clouds lift. What is that standing on the side and twinkling at me? Linberians walk past me. They are all strong and gracious, and they point me in the right direction. I whisper the password over and over again. Tomorrow I will confront everything, I will look for the photos and search for the names, but right now you’re waiting for me at the end of the road, between Linber and Berlin. Between the past and the future. And when we sail away, Berlin will disappear from view, and when I look behind me and ahead of me, I will see that Linber is gone as well.
*Story translated into English by Shira Atik