The Road to Atonement

“How do you feel about representing New York at our literary festival here in Frankfurt?” asked the voice on the phone in halting, German-inflected English. The voice belonged to Wolfram, the organizer of the festival. “Writers from other cities are also invited,” he said, ticking off the names of authors who would be embodying the spirits of Paris, Vienna, Rio de Janeiro, Barcelona, and Luanda, the capital of Angola. “We call the festival Metropolitan. We are in our second year. I am thinking this will be very important.”

Despite the challenge of conversing by cell phone in a language in which he was far from fluent, Wolfram seemed eager to prolong the conversation. He wanted to acquaint me with the wonders of Frankfurt. “We never had a prince,” he said. “We were always a free city, a city of commerce, of trade, of ideas, not politics.” Frankfurt flowed outward toward the world, welcoming and open. Twenty-five percent of its population was composed of immigrants, more than that of any other city in Germany. How could I, a citizen of the world’s premier immigrant city, turn down the invitation?

At Frankfurt airport, I spotted Wolfram holding up one of my books like a sign. He was a tall, powerfully built man in his late fifties, with a broad handsome face, thin lips, and long, paling blond hair that crept away from a dramatically Beethovenian forehead. In the taxi we picked up where we had left off on the phone, Wolfram speaking with the heatedness of one who is not sure he is being understood, every other phrase punctuated with a burst of uncertain laughter. He launched into a new round of praise for Frankfurt, comparing it to Berlin, “that nervous, unpleasant city” with too much space for the amount of people who lived there. “In Frankfurt every square meter is gold. We’re a richer city. The concept of banking, of the circulation of credit, was developed here. Think of the Frankfurt branch of the Rothschild family.” Then, almost without a pause, he blamed the banks for the current world economic crisis. “Five thousand people control the entire financial system and they can’t be reined in by any government, including yours. They should be hung from the lampposts.” He told me that as a boy he was a devout Catholic. “I was planning to become a priest, until I lost God at age eighteen to the philosophers. A classic case: faith followed by eternal skepticism and unhappiness.”

The taxi pulled up at my hotel, an über-hip affair with bathroom urinals fashioned to look like giant red lips, black toilet paper, and quotes from approved figures such as Bono and Gandhi and Marilyn Monroe on the walls. Wolfram seemed proud of the place. He said that it was the brainchild of “a Jew named Goldman,” a nightlife entrepreneur whose daring ventures were a source of general bewilderment and awe. He enveloped me in an embrace before taking his leave. “I can see straight away that you are a receptive person.” My room was as red as the urinals, with tasseled bordello lampshades and a huge painting of Marlene Dietrich opposite the bed, staring icily down.

My reading was at a former brewery that now housed clothing stores, restaurants, a nightclub, and a chrome café with high, darkened windows. It was all owned by Goldman, who, I discovered, was also Wolfram’s employer: His job was to mount events for the café where I was to “perform.” Wolfram hastily handed me an envelope stuffed with euros, my fee paid in cash, and rushed off with a glass of wine for a woman from Frankfurt’s department of culture, which apparently was bankrolling the festival. After a round of obligatory speeches, I was led onstage with an actor who would read my stories in German and an interviewer who was to ask me questions and then translate the answers. I kept an eye out for Goldman, hoping he would show up, but he was only talked about, the subject of eager gossip after the reading. He had expanded too quickly, just before the economic downturn, almost going bankrupt, but now he was on track again. “You can’t keep Goldman down,” said Wolfram. He showed me his photograph: a modern lounge king in his thirties with a cultivated six-day beard and a young woman standing happily by his side.

Was it because I was Jewish that this obsession with Goldman made me uneasy? Or was my Jewishness the reason Wolfram spoke of him to me in this manner? Perhaps it was neither; surely these sensitivities were passé, an inherited projection on my part that I would do well to suppress. “Germany” sometimes seemed more like a complicated historical word than an actual place. For Wolfram, it may have been a point of status to be working for Goldman. A Berliner I know told me that it had become fashionable among some of his friends to claim to have Jewish blood, a grandparent or great-grandparent or great-aunt. “It’s a way of boasting, of making yourself interesting,” she said. It was also the ultimate means of expiation: To become the victim was to wash away guilt once and for all. Most Germans in their twenties rejected the penitent meekness that had been forced upon their parents. When my book editor was in elementary school, in Hamburg, his teachers taught him that if his parents claimed they had nothing to do with the killing of Jews they were liars. “They turned us into spies,” he said. If you weren’t Christian, you were given special classes in your faith. Atheists took philosophy. Everyone’s god was equal. The world no longer demanded repentance; it was now a matter of Germans striking a truce within themselves.

The following evening I gave a reading in Darmstadt, a thirty-minute drive from Frankfurt. Wolfram seemed agitated. Darmstadt was his hometown, and in the car he spoke regretfully of the improvisational quality of his life. He had frittered away the years, bouncing from one passing interest to the next, accomplishing nothing in comparison with his father, a gifted chemist. “At least I found love,” he said, though not until he had turned fifty. He had lived for so long with the idea of himself as a lost soul that it had become a permanent part of him, like an old friend you’ve outgrown but can’t throw over.

My reading was in the old wine cellar of the former ducal palace, a long, narrow space known as “the artists’ cave.” I remained on the tiny stage for four hours, while the actor read my stories with a passion that gave me the illusion of understanding German, and the moderator engaged me in an unending conversation about immigrants, assimilation, and the elusive meaning certain places assume in our minds. By the end, we were all dripping with sweat, including the audience, fueled by buckets of golden beer.

After the reading, Wolfram took me for a walk through Darmstadt, trying to impress upon me the degree to which the city had been destroyed during the war. “We have our own 9/11,” he said, referring to September 11, 1944, when Darmstadt was firebombed in a rehearsal for Dresden, which was similarly reduced to flames four months later. More than three-quarters of Darmstadt was destroyed; out of a population of just over one hundred thousand, almost fifteen thousand were killed, and seventy thousand more rendered homeless. “Members of my family boiled to death in that diabolical storm,” he said. “Maybe you can explain to me what this slaughter of innocents achieved.”

I decided not to point out that Germany had been the primary engine of destruction in Europe, or that Darmstadt had been the first city to force Jewish shops to close after the Nazis took power in 1933, or that one of their most prominent citizens was Karl Otto Koch, commander of the concentration camp at Buchenwald. What good was it to repeat what he already knew? At any rate, the Holocaust wasn’t the reason why Churchill ordered “strategic bombings” of civilians; their aim was to break morale through terror.

Instead, I told Wolfram of a family friend from New York, a bomber pilot who flew more than eighty sorties over Germany. Several years ago, I gave him W. G. Sebald’s book On the Natural History of Destruction, about Germany’s civilian casualties and the country’s self-punishing muteness on the subject for fifty years. “What did he think of the book?” asked Wolfram. “He handed it back to me. He didn’t want to know.” Wolfram gave me a bitter look that bordered on outright hatred. “We have atoned,” he said. “We did more than we needed to do. We have the best laws in Europe.” He seemed to want my forgiveness, as if I, a representative of thriving Jewishness and the victorious armies, possessed a mysterious, excusing power.