2005 Harold U. Ribalow Prize: Those Who Save Us
When the director of Holocaust studies at her university gets a grant to interview survivors in the Twin Cities for an oral history project, Trudy Swenson, whose specialty is German history, decides to launch a parallel project: interviewing ordinary Germans who lived through World War II. As the reader of Jenna Blum’s novel Those Who Save Us knows better than Trudy herself, the project is part of Trudy’s effort to unravel the mysteries of her own life, which began in wartime Germany and then changed when her taciturn mother married a G.I. from rural Minnesota. In the following excerpt, one of the people who responds to Trudy’s ad for interview subjects has lured her to his home under false pretenses. It is just one of the twists in a spellbinding story that earned Blum the 2005 Harold U. Ribalow Prize.
The subject’s house is in Tanglewood, a neighborhood about fifteen blocks from Trudy’s own, and by the time Trudy pulls up in front of it, her car has thawed enough that she is spared the embarrassment of exiting the same way she got in. Trudy glances at the dashboard clock as she cuts the engine: twenty minutes late. Not good, but it could be worse. Indeed, considering how treacherous the roads are—radio announcers imploring people to stay home if they don’t have to drive, accidents at nearly every intersection—it is something of a miracle, Trudy thinks, that she is here at all.
Thomas’s white van is at the curb, and Trudy sees that he has already loaded his equipment and is waiting for her. She makes her way toward him as quickly as she can, which isn’t very fast given the ice and the fact that her snapped lace forces her to do a clumsy shuffle just to keep the wretched boot on her foot. Trudy rolls her eyes and throws out her arms in a pantomime of haplessness, mistaking Thomas’s grimace for a suppressed grin at the sorry picture she presents.
But when she reaches him, slipping a little, Thomas grips her elbow both to stabilize her and to draw her behind the truck where they can’t be seen from the subject’s house. His round face is set in lines of uncharacteristic anxiety.
Whoa, he says, steady there. You all right?
Well, it’s been a hectic morning, as you can tell, but I’m fine. What’s the matter?
Maybe nothing, Thomas says, adjusting his bandanna. Maybe it’s just me. Still…
Thomas lowers his voice, although the subject cannot possibly hear him from here.
I think you might have some trouble handling this guy, he says. He seems a bit…angry.
Trudy glances automatically over her shoulder and sees only the truck blocking the house from view. This will not be her first male subject; there was a Mr. Pohl, a butcher exempted from fighting in the Wehrmacht because of a hand lost to a cleaver. And some other subjects, of course, have been difficult. But…
Angry? she asks. Angry how? Because I’m late?
He’s come out four times to ask where you were. Look, I’ll show you.
The pair edge around the truck. Sure enough, the subject pops out onto his porch and stands with his arms crossed, breath chuffing in the frosty air.
See? says Thomas from the side of his mouth.
He points to Trudy.
She made it, he yells. She had trouble with the ice. We’ll be right in.
Trudy waves and smiles at the man, then turns and rubs her eyes.
Wunderbar, she mutters. This is all I need.
Thomas glances down at her with concern.
Are you sure you’re up to this? You look a little…
He trails off tactfully, and Trudy laughs.
I know how I look, Thomas. Thank you for being too polite to say it. No, let’s do it. If— Oh God, what’s this guy’s name again?
Goldmann, says Thomas.
That’s it, Goldmann. It completely slipped my mind… Well, we’ve kept Mr. Goldmann waiting long enough, don’t you think? Let’s get started.
Yes ma’am, Thomas says.
The two of them pick their way up the icy path to the house. Mr. Goldmann has disappeared inside but left the door open a crack, which Trudy interprets as an invitation to enter. She walks tentatively into the foyer and stops there, disoriented; after the glitter outside, she is blind as a mole.
Hello? Trudy calls. Mr. Goldmann? I apologize for having kept you waiting. But at least you’ve already met my cameraman—
Indeed, I have had ample opportunity, a deep voice rumbles from somewhere in the dim hall. You are twenty-seven minutes late, Dr. Swenson.
Mr. Goldmann looms suddenly in front of her, and Trudy blinks up at him—and up and up, for he is very tall, taller even than Thomas, and heavyset, with a large, square, rather magnificent head topped with thick pewter-colored hair. He would be intimidating even if he were not impatient; his face is ruddy, his expression stern; he fixes Trudy with a penetrating glare over gold-rimmed bifocals. All he needs, Trudy thinks, assessing his pressed slacks and fine Scottish cardigan, is a tumbler of Scotch in one hand to complete the impression that he is a lawyer relaxing at home after a long day of bullying witnesses.
Yet in fact Mr. Goldmann is, Trudy remembers from their brief phone conversation, a teacher. She decides to use this as a bargaining chip to win back rapport as she follows him farther into the house.
As I recall, you said you teach history? she says, trotting to keep up with him, her unlaced boot slapping against the floor. So, you know, that’s something we have in common. What’s your field of interest? It’s probably much broader than mine, since I specialize in—
Mr. Goldmann stops and turns.
I am well aware of your credentials, he booms. I telephoned the university to establish their validity, Dr. Swenson. Or perhaps I should say Frau Doktor?
Trudy smiles weakly at him.
Trudy would be fine, she says.
Mr. Goldmann raises an eyebrow.
To answer your question, Dr. Swenson, I no longer teach anything, he says. I retired last year.
Oh, says Trudy.
Mr. Goldmann stalks into a living room of Hitchcockian gloom and proportion, its high ceiling and dark wainscoting muffling sound. He picks up a teacup and saucer from a low table—the delicately flowered china incongruous, surprisingly fussy for such a large man—and gestures with his free hand at the space.
I trust this will be sufficient for your cameraman’s purposes? he asks.
Oh, yes, says Trudy, although she hears Thomas muttering about the lack of light and knows he will have to set up extra lamps.
Mr. Goldmann nods but keeps a weather eye on Thomas as he sips his tea. Trudy’s empty stomach growls at this reminder of the coffee she hasn’t had. She wouldn’t mind a cup of something hot with cream and sugar in it. And perhaps a sweet roll or two. However, Mr. Goldmann, unlike her previous subjects, does not appear to be about to offer her anything to drink, let alone food.
How long did you teach? Trudy asks.
Thirty-eight years. In the Minneapolis public school system.
That’s quite a stint. And you’re newly retired, you said? You must miss it.
For the first time Mr. Goldmann smiles, if a bit acerbically. Rainer, Trudy remembers; his name is Rainer.
As a matter of fact, I don’t miss it at all, he replies. I found my students to be a profound disappointment. Their lack of intellectual curiosity was staggering, whatever native intelligence they might have possessed destroyed by their preference for pop culture. Their brains have been turned to mush by a steady diet of television, on which they have been fed from the womb. Trudy strives to maintain a polite expression, but she can feel her jaw slotting out in defense of her students. It is true that she has had the same thoughts on occasion, that the majority of faculty conversations consists of woe-is-us hand-wringing over pupils’ lack of preparedness, their laziness and apathy. Kids these days! But Trudy has always secretly granted her students the benefit of the doubt, as she is convinced that their indifference is a façade, cultivated in answer to the American aversion to overt shows of intelligence. And behind this self-involvement, they have such rich inner lives! One only need tap into that energy; they are not stupid; they are simply in need of proper stimulation. How Trudy pities the students of this mean and terrifying man! God in heaven, who let him into a classroom? Why be a teacher at all, if one doesn’t like kids?
Mr. Goldmann is watching Trudy’s struggle for control with some amusement.
I gather you don’t agree with my assessment, Dr. Swenson, he says. You are ruffling like a hen.
Well, says Trudy. Well, with all due respect—
She whips around. Thomas gazes benignly at her.
We’re set to go, he says.
Oh. Right. So I see. Thank you.
Trudy and Mr. Goldmann take their places at two chairs set catty-corner at a broad dining-room table, which Thomas has bracketed with screens to retain light and create the illusion of intimate space. Trudy is grateful for the heat of the lamps, which provide an excuse for her flushed cheeks. Also, it is otherwise cold in this big old house, a fact to which Mr. Goldmann, in his cardigan, seems impervious.
Trudy forces a smile as Thomas stoops to affix a grasshopper-sized microphone to Mr. Goldmann’s tie.
Very good, she says briskly. Are you ready, Mr. Goldmann?
Whenever you are.
Trudy leans forward.
Can you state your name for me, please?
My name is Rainer Josef Goldmann, it was Rainer Josef Goldmann at birth, I am sixty-six years old, I was born in Berlin, and, with permission, I have prepared a statement I wish to read in lieu of answering the usual questions.
Trudy senses Thomas shifting, detaching his head for a moment from the camera. She wishes he were not behind her so she could exchange a meaningful glance with him: What now?
Instead, she knots her chilly hands beneath the table and—with resigned foreboding—says, By all means. Go ahead.
From the breast pocket of his cardigan, Mr. Goldmann extracts a sheet of paper. He places it on the table and irons out its creases with several thumps of his fist. He settles his gold-rimmed bifocals more firmly on his nose and glances over them at Trudy. Then, in a voice resonant from decades of classroom training, he begins to read.
THE GERMAN PROJECT
Subject: Mr. Rainer Josef Goldmann
Date/Location: February 14, 1997; Minneapolis, MN
* subject reading prepared statement, per request *
You will be forced to wear a badge. You will bring your little girl, dressed in red, hair bouncing in curls on her shoulders and tied with a ribbon, to another child’s birthday party. When you take off your coat to enter the Gentile home, your badge will be hung in the closet along with it. Later, holding your child on your hip, you will back toward the door. You know the birthday girl means no harm; she is herself only a child. But you will not be able to keep your face from crumpling when she cries. Where’s her Star? Where’s her yellow Star? I saw her wearing it yesterday! She has to wear it; all Jews have to wear the Star! Mama, make her put it on!
You will trade your dead father’s watch and your dead mother’s rings for a crust of bread, for a few parsnips, a potato. To do this, you will venture into dark and filthy streets that terrified you before they became part of the ghetto, and they still do. You will have to deal with men to whom you would never have spoken before they became black-market dealers, men you would cross the street to avoid, whose jeers you would self-consciously try to ignore. You will feel stupid approaching these men, you who hated to haggle over the price of vegetables in the prewar market. You will beg these men to accept your family heirlooms, and when they toss them on the ground and sneer you will cry, and you will, in the end, let one of them have sex with you against a back wall, your coat still on, his coat smelling of dirt and sweat and his breath of herring and cheap wine, because after all he is right when he points out that your father’s watch is not gold but only gold-plated and therefore not worth an entire loaf. Then you will have no jewelry left to barter, and as you wonder where the other family who lives in your room got their diamonds, you will watch your daughter grow emaciated and die of malnutrition. Sometimes you will eat rats. You will dream of eating the dead.
You will drink your own urine in the dark from your cupped hands. You will smell excrement and feel it splashing on your legs and not know whether it is your neighbor’s or your own or perhaps comes from the single bucket the Germans have provided, which started overflowing two days ago. You will feel your tongue grow fat with thirst and your breath will become sour and your dress soiled and your hair matted, and as you wait for the doors of the cattle car to roll open, you will know that your chance of making a good impression and thus your sole chance for survival is shrinking with every passing stinking moment.
But you will not be given that chance. You will not be permitted to plead with your executioners. You will not be allowed to visit the latrines, even though your stomach burns with dysentery. You will not be able to clean yourself properly after the train journey. You will not be granted the dignity of keeping your hair, the hair you have washed, pomaded, styled, cut, brushed, and fretted over on days when it rained or snowed. They will shave it with a blunt razor, so as you march to the gas chamber your scalp will sting and you will be unrecognizable to yourself, as strange and ugly as the people you see around you, and you will have a dim understanding of why the SS see you as so ugly, as dispensable and interchangeable as sticks of wood, and you will feel ashamed of being so ugly and long to hide your head.
You will not know how to act as they shove you naked through the doors with slivers of soap and mouthfuls of lies and blows from their clubs if you do not move toward your death fast enough; it will not matter whether you laugh or cry or pray or sing or grab a stranger’s hand for comfort as you watch the nozzles overhead in terror. You will not be prepared for the milling panic nor the screams nor the punches of people pushing you down and trying to stand on top of you in an instinctive effort to get more air, even though they are really climbing toward the gas. You will not know what you want your last thought to be, nor be able to fix one in your head, and in the end it will not matter: you will be one of a pyramid of anonymous corpses that they will remove from the chamber with rakes, entangled so tightly with strangers that they will have to walk among you and separate you forcibly.
And then they will burn you. They will burn you: you, your body, your own beloved and maddening body with its quirks and birthmarks, its trick knee or double-jointed thumb, its scars each with its own story; the body that you and others have nursed through colds and fevers; the body whose digestive processes have provided the visceral rhythm for your days; the body that it has been your goal in life to feed and clothe and shelter; the body that only your mother and your lovers know better than you. They will burn your brain with its magnificent network of neurons, in which are stored memories and hard-earned philosophies, books you have read and sights you have seen, the endearments you used for others and the concept of yourself as an individual being, that inviolable essence of yourself so deeply personal that it can never be articulated. They will put you in the oven and they will burn you, and the only thing that distinguishes them from the monsters of the Grimm tales is that they will not eat you afterward. In all other respects, they are monsters, with the faces of businessmen and bullies, monsters literal and insane; they will yawn as you go up the chimney.