Deerfield Beach, Florida 1985
Soon I will be eighty years old. And the book that you can read in Germany only now was written about fifty years ago, in German, and in France.
I was and still am a political animal. I was never indifferent to what was happening in Germany. Although I was able to save myself I worried a great deal about my friends there. Some are still alive.
Talleyrand thought that politics spoiled a person's character. In my case politics spoiled neither my character nor my memory. I can remember very well. My memory today is as good as it was in 1932-33, when I was the youngest member of the editorial staff of the weekly liberal Berlin newspaper Die Welt am Montag.
When I escaped into exile I wished that Germany had sent Hitler and his gangsters to the devil. My political opinion of that time has not changed. I have been living in America for more than forty years. But I know that many young Germans share this opinion with me and my old friends in Germany, those who survived March 3, 1933 and what came thereafter.
What happened on that day?
On March 3, 1933, 17,277,122 German voters put the fate of Germany and of the world in the hands of Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels. I was never able to forget this shockingly high number. No one should forget what this authority set in motion.
What does Hitler have to do with the Fishmans?
The idea of writing a book about the Fishmans (a name that I invented) came to me as I sat thirty yards from my compatriot Hitler, listening to his inflammatory speech against the Jews. He railed especially against Jewish immigrants.
Hitler and I had one thing in common: we had both immigrated to Germany from Austria. We both came from the East.
I was born in the eastern province of the former imperial and royal (k.u.k.) Austro-Hungarian Monarchy of the then Kaiser Franz Joseph, in the same province as Joseph Roth, Manès Sperber, Soma Morgenstern, Elisabeth Bergner, Alexander Granach, and many others. All were Eastern Jews who gave the German people more than the anti-Semitic numskulls who let themselves be seduced by the adventurer Hitler.
I had nothing to do with my coming to Germany. I experienced this immigration as a child. Immigration and the problems associated with immigration are completely different for adults.
Hitler was an adventurer. He was no child when he immigrated to Germany in 1913. He was an adult, twenty-four years old. He was born and grew up in Austro-Hungary but was unable to get a firm professional footing there. The painter Hitler found no success in his homeland with his pictures of churches and landscapes. He was convinced that the fact that he didn't make a go of it in Austria was not his fault but that of the Jews. He came to Germany without means, half-educated, but with a consoling "weltanschauung": the reason for all grievances, his and those of the world, was that there were simply too many Jews; it was that simple. If there were no Jews, he and everybody else would be much better off. Hitler came with his "weltanschauung" to the right country for him. He found like-minded people and he found influential financial contributors with unscrupulous political ambitions. The rest is a sad story. Sad for Germany and the world.
It was the summer of 1932. I finally wanted to see and hear my successful compatriot. There was no doubt that he was successful. Many have forgotten this, but not I: In February 1932 his accomplices in Braunschweig appointed the immigrant adventurer government councillor and thereby citizen. I traveled to Halle on the Saale, where, in a circus tent, Councillor Hitler was giving a campaign speech at a mass rally of the Nazi Party. As if hypnotized, thousands listened to Hitler's inflammatory speech against the "Untermenschen" (subhumans), against the Jews. The Jews were to blame for the inflation and the impoverishment of the Germans. Immigrant Jews had caused millions of fellow Germans to become unemployed. And the Jew, especially the immigrant Eastern Jew, like a parasitic plant, had the lives of many German women and children on his conscience...The Jew! The Jewish "Untermensch"...!
Behind a podium, after every Jewish "crime" the "Führer," drenched in sweat, would pull a white handkerchief from the left sleeve of his jacket, as if by magic, to wipe the drops of sweat from his forehead and under the dark lock of hair. No one recognized me, the "guilty" Jew. It is true that I had stuck a swastika on my windbreaker. Everyone in the tent had a swastika on his jacket or clothing, or armbands with the swastika, and repeatedly interrupted Hitler's speech with deafening shouts of "Heil Hitler." No one around me suspected that I could be an "Untermensch." Maybe because I looked more Aryan than the dark-haired Hitler?
Creative ideas can come in unusual places. For the birth of this book it was, believe it or not, a Nazi tent.
Suddenly I was aware that I was already thinking of experiences that I could use in my book. How would I start? With the description of the country from which my Eastern Jews came? (That is how my mind was working: They were already "my" Eastern Jews, and I already had a name for the family, the Fishmans...) I knew that I could write such a story. I had grown up with Jewish children, I was one of them. Not all had been born in Germany. Some had come with their parents to our small town from Prague, Linz, Krakow, Tarnopol, Brody or Lemberg. We grew up together. I knew the immigrant children. And I knew the immigrant parents of these children.
I would not write only about Jews. I also lived with non-Jews in my town, daily and for years. I belonged to the town athletic association and was a passionate soccer player, inside right. I saw myself hiking through the forest around the town, alone or with others. I saw myself with my first pair of long pants and my first hat. Someone used the polite form of address, Sie, to me for the first time, and on the same day I smoked the first cigarette in my life and promptly threw up. And I was a proud, self-conscious youngster, who tripped when I crossed the street with my first girlfriend.
Oh yes, I knew all kinds of people in the small town that I wanted to describe.
That is where the high school (Realgymnasium) was, where I rarely felt secure and hardly ever felt comfortable, and where the non-Jewish students of the class enjoyed themselves when the teacher began his English lesson with an anti-Semitic joke, in German, of course. He wasn't the only teacher who allowed himself anti-Semitic insults at the expense of the few Jews in the class. Luckily I also had other teachers; they awoke in me an interest in literature and history.
My Protestant childhood friends belonged to Protestant youth groups; I belonged to a Jewish youth group. Until the day I discovered the Socialist youth movement, that I joined like a volunteer soldier when the Nazis in the town, in their civil war against anti-Nazis and Jews, had become ever more powerful...
The meeting came to an end with "Germany awaken! Germany awaken!" and I emerged from my recollections. I was surprised that I did not have the feeling the Nazis around me were enemies. I knew them all too well. But did these Nazis know Jews, of whom the former painter Hitler had drawn such a diabolical picture that afternoon? How many of these Nazis had ever had a conversation with one of these "Jewish devils"? I was absolutely sure these Nazis knew Jews only from Nazi leaflets and Nazi inflammatory speeches. (Years later, on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, the Nazis broke in to Jewish homes in every town in Germany. For most of these Nazis this was their first personal contact with Jews and their first "visit" in Jewish homes.)
On January 30, 1933 Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, his "Third Reich" began with two concentration camps, Dachau and Oranienburg. Ten years later there were hundreds of concentration and extermination camps.
The World on Monday (Welt am Montag) was, like many other newspapers, shut down and its property seized. I was unemployed. But I was still fortunate in this misfortune. On the day the SA [the paramilitary organization of the Nazi Party] came to Ritter Street [Ritterstrasse] and stormed the editorial office, I was in a bookstore, to buy a travel guide.
For two reasons, I would like to recount in somewhat greater detail my exile in Lyon [in France]. First, because I wrote The Fishmans in Lyon. And second, because many Germans, who were never forced to go into exile, probably have the wrong picture of the life of a refugee.
I reached Lyon on May 17, 1933. I was twenty-six years old, without a profession, in a francophone country. I was a young German-speaking editor, retired. At the age of twenty-six, being Ret. is abnormal. What happened to me and to so many like me was also abnormal. I decided not to dream. What once was would not come back overnight. I thought of Mussolini, who after years was still dictator in Italy; his opponents were either dead or refugees in numerous countries. I made up my mind to work in a Lyon factory or in an auto repair shop. This would help me get accustomed to the place and to live, I told myself. I was young and willing, I told myself. I had a lot to learn and still more to forget.
In my youth I devoured the works of Balzac, Anatole France, Victor Hugo, and Emile Zola. My school French was not bad. But France, as I came to know it, was a foreign country for me. Only when I thought of Berlin did Lyon, with its quiet streets and without marching Brownshirts, seem to me to be a peaceful paradise.
Since I arrived with some money, enough for a few weeks, the "League for Human Rights" recommended an inexpensive boardinghouse to me. I was urged to apply for an identity card and a work permit for foreigners as soon as possible. Without a work permit I would not be allowed to work.
It was then that the tragicomic experiences of a refugee from Germany began. Like so many refugees I experienced that for some of the French, Germany refugees were as much "arch-enemies" as the Nazis, from whom they had just escaped.
The official from the police department dealing with aliens (Police des étrangers) was suspicious. He was also polite. "Vous permettez que je vous parle franchement" ("Allow me to speak to you frankly"), that is how he started every interrogation, to which I had to submit myself once a month.
I am indebted to this official for the fact that my knowledge of the French language progressed rapidly in a short time, that my knowledge of human nature in general grew tremendously. In any case, this "fonctionnaire" had no resemblance whatsoever to Balzac, Anatole France, Victor Hugo, or Emile Zola.
Why did this official want to see me every four weeks? He explained that he was suspicious of everyone who came from Germany. "Too many spies come from Germany," he made quite clear to me. How could he verify that I wasn't one. Monsieur Hitler or Kaiser Wilhelm, nothing had changed. He still knew from his father that in 1870 the Prussians first smuggled spies into France and then started the war. He had lost two uncles in the battle of Sedan. "What do you say to that?" he asked me triumphantly. I answered, truthfully, that I regretted the heroic death of his uncles most deeply and, in my most polite French, expressed my belated condolences. But, I added, he would have to admit that I only came into this world thirty-five years after 1871. "Qui sait?" "Who knows?" he sneered. "Who knows if you gave me your true birth date? Your birth certificate? I've seen enough birth certificates that were falsified."
Nothing helped. Another time he came up with the War of 1914 and wanted to know if I thought that the executions of Belgian civilians that Kaiser Wilhelm ordered in 1914 were justified. "Oui ou non?" I was, I proclaimed, against executions, not only in wartime, not only in Belgium, but everywhere. He interrupted my ideological statement with an annoyed: "Je ne suis pas de votre avis" --"I am not of your opinion" - and again gave me only a four-week extension of my residence permit, but no work permit.
A member of the League wanted to boost my spirits. Not all police commissioners were the same, he assured me. Unfortunately, I had landed in the wrong hands. Everyone in Lyon knew this official - "Un vrai salaud!" - "A real bastard!" I shouldn't worry. That's just how it is in France. Sooner or later I would get my identity papers.
No, I should not despair. There were also different French people, who wanted to help the refugees. But I should understand that many French people could not forget the war with Germany. Almost every family in Lyon had lost a father, a son, a brother in the war.
Before we separated on that day, he made me a proposal that I accepted with great relief. He offered me a room; actually it was only a garret. In exchange I would have to tutor his son in German once a week.
I gave up my boardinghouse room that very day. Moving was easy. I owned only a small suitcase. All the money I had left was in my pocket, about thirty francs. But I was rich, I now lived rent-free!
My luck continued. I even found work, without a work permit.
The owner of a restaurant near the railroad station [la gare des Brotteaux] could take the liberty of hiring foreigners without work permits. It is true that the railroad station police visited his establishment every day, but not to check on the employees' papers. The restaurant served every police officer free meals and plentiful beverages. For that reason the police officers didn't want to see anything, hear anything, ask anything.
Since the restaurant could not find any Frenchman willing to work as a glass-washer for ten hours on both Saturdays and Sundays, for ten francs and three meals a day, the restaurateur let the committee of the League know that he wanted to do something for refugees.
And so I became a washer.
It was not only a restaurant, it was a much frequented bar. Day and night people waited for the arrival or departure of trains. And so I washed countless glasses, ten hours at a stretch, Saturdays and Sundays. In the morning I let cold water into a basin into which I also emptied a packet of soap powder, one packet for ten hours. I filled a second basin with clear cold water. In this second basin I washed every trace of soap off the glasses. In the evening the water in both basins was soapy.
My hands got used to the rims of the glasses and the soapy water that stank of beer, wine, and other alcoholic drinks.
Saturdays and Sundays I ate my fill, stocking up. Monday to Friday I could afford only one meal, a midday meal, in the Salvation Army. That cost one franc.
It was hard to hold out with one meal. But my stomach and my head got used to it.
In no way can I compare my life as a refugee in Lyon to the heroic life and death of Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans, to resistance fighters like Ernst von Harnack, Theodor Haubach and many others. Or with the suffering and death of my father and other members of my family, all victims of the Nazis.
For this reason I will not write more here about my years in exile. Only what I think is necessary in order to understand the "fate" of the Fishman story.
February, 1934 was cold and windy in Lyon and I sat in my garret in a sweater and raincoat. At the time I could not understand (and I still do not understand) what suddenly came over me. All at once I had a pencil in my hand and a school notebook in front of me, and I began to write the story of the Fishmans.
From that moment on, as I wrote down the first sentences, I experienced a curious change in myself. I became two people. One of the two washed smelly glasses Saturdays and Sundays and tutored an unwilling student on Mondays. The other one left Lyon and France. Even Germany was a foreign country for a long while. He forgot the Nazis, forgot the reality of the year 1934, suddenly was a little boy. And it was the year 1914.
From the first moment on, writing The Fishmans was a bewildering experience for me, one that I did not understand at the time, nor do I completely understand it today.
I was writing a German novel, in German, and Germany was closed to me. In the past I had written short stories and articles for newspapers, but never a book. I didn't ask myself for what readers I was still writing. I wasn't writing for the book market; at the time I didn't even know what the words "book market" meant. Why was I writing, really? And for whom? I never asked myself these questions. I wrote.
In my school days compositions had to be written according to a specific structure: beginning, main part, and ending. I rejected the idea of such a structure. The story I was telling was like life itself. And what life proceeds according to a specific structure?
I was the narrator. But the more I wrote, the more I split into several other people. Now I lived constantly, night and day, and intensely connected, with exotic people who very obviously and successfully were influencing my thinking. Sometimes I tried to change their thinking and behavior, but they didn't play along. They insisted that under no circumstances could I transform them. They forced me to let them live as they actually live or once lived, with all their good qualities and all their defects and without embellishments.
It lasted almost two years; they were extraordinary years. The garret was often as hot as a bakery and in the winter, as cold as an icebox. But I felt nothing. The garret had neither a gas lamp nor electric light. At night I burned candles, hundreds in those two years. I used every franc I had - and I had few of them - for candles, notebooks, and pencils. I didn't have a single book in the small room, not even a dictionary.
I lived all alone behind a bolted door. Only the Fishmans and all the other people from their country visited me. No one, only I could see them or speak with them. No one, only I could understand what they told me. And they told me everything, everything. And I wrote everything down.
I began the migration with the Fishmans in the middle of the highway, in a wooden wagon. And the story ended with the promise that I would continue the story. I kept my promise with No. 21 Castle Street.
In the book The Fishmans - in which memories of the Eastern Jewish friends of my childhood in Germany are mixed with discoveries of my own childhood and with experiences and imagination -- the characters describe their lives themselves. They speak in the book, not I. They dictated to me and I wrote down what they told me. It was their idea that I become Jacob Fishman. The novel had its own life from the start; I was only the one who helped it become a reality.
When I sometimes hesitated, since I owned neither news items nor a dictionary or other reference works, then Jacob Fishman, the narrator of the story, assured me that I needed no news items, no books. When, here and there, doubts befell me and I wanted to cross out screams, Jacob Fishman forced me to stick to the truth. Even when some protests seemed to me to be superfluous, shrill, Jacob Fishman cautioned me that even then I had no right to tamper with reality. Not for a minute should I forget that the life of the Fishmans was no romantic novel.
That is how my first novel came to be. I cannot deny that in the garret I often thought how much better off I was in comparison with other refugees. I realized that my writing was a kind of therapy that was of enormous help to me in enduring the hard times in Lyon. How much harder it was for all those refugees who could not, like me, retreat to a self-created fictional world. Who could not, like me, with the help of The Fishmans, sometimes forget Hitler's Germany. Who did not for hours and days at a time forget the suffering of exile and instead describe the life of people in another time and in a long forgotten country, with their imagination and memories. I had to do without many things. But I was a happy man. The world of the Fishmans was my creation. In spite of everything.
How often one reads that authors send a finished manuscript to twenty publishers and then get one rejection after another.
By chance, in a newspaper I read about a literary competition of the Parisian "Protective Association of German Writers" [Schutzverbandes Deutscher Schriftsteller]. The manuscripts were to be submitted anonymously; I followed the instructions. No one in Paris could know who the author or sender of the Fishmans was. My name was in a sealed envelope in the package.
Months later I received a notification: out of eighty manuscripts submitted, my book The Fishmans had been chosen to receive the first Heinrich Heine Prize.
From that day on my life changed. Paris became my residence. And I was no longer alone. I was married.
I remember vividly "my" evening in Paris, when the official award ceremony took place. I had just begun to read a chapter from my novel, when all of a sudden those gathered (they were several hundred) interrupted my reading with unexpected jubilation, clapping, and enthusiastic shouting. The applause was not meant for the unknown author of the Fishmans, however, but for Arthur Koestler. Sentenced to death in Franco's Spain and finally pardoned, Koestler was returning from Spain that evening. While in prison in Seville he had not forgotten where and what evening German writers in Paris came together. I remember still today, after almost fifty years, that on the one hand I was very happy to share the podium with Koestler, freed at last, but that I would have preferred to see Koestler an hour later. Should I be belatedly ashamed of this thought? By no means.
Soon thereafter Hermann Kesten, the literary head of the first publishing house in exile - Allert de Lange in Amsterdam - read the Fishmans. The book was then printed in Czechoslovakia - still free - and published in Amsterdam in 1938.
When a writer starts to become known he meets other writers, and that is good. If he is lucky and sits across from a master, he can learn a great deal. I shall never forget the day when we, my wife and I, received an invitation to Sanary from Lion Feuchtwanger. There was the imposing property on a hill, from which one had a splendid view of the Mediterranean. There was Lion Feuchtwanger, who welcomed us in his study. I still remember an enormous horseshoe-shaped desk and his books, a long, long row of translations. Then he showed us his pride and joy, a precious library, books of many writers and countries, in many languages. I had trouble finding words. There I stood, my mouth wide open. I had published only a single book.
Lion Feuchtwanger surprised me with an oral review of my book. He had read it. He analyzed both the author and the book and the unexpected "examination" was a great and useful experience for me. I will never forget how this major and older author welcomed a young beginner, counseled and encouraged him. At the time, Lion Feuchtwanger was about twenty-five years older than I, and a prominent writer.
Later we were introduced to Lola Sernau, Feuchtwanger's secretary. Martha Feuchtwanger served tea, then drove us back to the small fishing village of Sanary, a place which, until the start of the war in 1939, was a gathering place for German-speaking literati. We spent the evening with Ludwig and Sasha Marcuse.
Back in Paris I saw the American publisher Ben Huebsch. He accepted the Fishmans for Viking Press in New York.
A Polish translation was published in Warsaw. The Polish publisher changed the title - They Came from Strody on the River Stryj.
Then the Fishmans came out in London.
One year later the war instigated by the Nazis broke out.
During the war the second volume of the Fishman story (No. 21 Castle Street) came out, in translation, in America and England, and was even transferred into Braille.
I went to war and came out of it alive. Only 268 out of the 3000 men in my regiment survived the blitzkrieg. I was a wartime volunteer and risked my life. Destroying the ever-spreading Nazi-cancer was not something I could just leave to others. I felt it was my duty to enlist, especially for my wife and our one-year-old daughter.
My compatriot, the daredevil Hitler, was a coward. When he saw that he had made the wrong bet on Germany's destiny, and that all was lost, he crept into a bunker under bullet-riddled Berlin with his companion. Like a greasy hero in an operetta, he still quickly made Eva Braun his legal wife, before he killed her and himself. No, he did not stand his ground. Instead of that, like a bankrupt gambler, he played his last card. He ordered fifteen-year-old members of the Hitler Youth to defend the once-beautiful Berlin streets against the incoming Russians.
These children were not only Hitler's sacrifice. They were also the sacrifice of their stupid parents.
On May 10, 1933, at eleven o'clock at night, I was standing in Berlin, squeezed inside a huge crowd of people, somewhere between the State Opera and the Auditorium [Aulagelände] on Kaiser-Franz-Joseph Square. It was the night of the book burning. I remember still today my unwavering daring, that of a journalist who - although there was no chance of being published - did not want to miss any opportunity to be a witness.
It was the night when the non-intellectuals in Germany tried to eradicate thinking in Germany. Thousands of books were thrown upon the funeral pyre, a symbol of the dark Middle Ages. Here and there the Nazi hooligans hurled the bust of a writer they hated into the flames. In spite of the search lights I could not discern which heads were being burned. The crowd around me was jubilant, as if this shameful ceremony of annihilation were a joyful public festival.
I was crying, but without tears. I suddenly understood that it was pointless to "wait and see" and to postpone my escape. It was as if all the mad people in Germany had escaped from the asylum, for that is exactly how these people acted that night. The Nazis burned books, but they would get a response. Free writers would escape and would replace each burned book by at least one new book.
That is what I talked myself into that night. I cannot say I was very confident. But I wanted to hope at least. I hoped for the writers of the burned books and at the same time I tried to give myself courage. I needed courage. Everyone who was not a brown madman needed courage at that time. Germany was in a delirium. Adventurers, madmen, the mentally deranged with some kind of crazy ideas and nothing else in their heads, had taken over the poor country.
Fortunately hundreds of writers saved themselves by going abroad.
The Fishmans and No. 21 Castle Street are two out of thousands of books that were written in exile.