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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Excerpt from ROSES AT NOON, nonfiction novel about the White Rose (by Ruth Hanna Sachs)

May 1, 1942
It is so cold today. Cold and snowing. I wonder if I am making the biggest mistake of my life. Yesterday I footed numbers in Daddy’s office, checked his arithmetic to keep his clients happy. He had the heat turned up. Even Inge laughed now and then.

But today, today. The signs flashed by, Mering, Nannhofen. I told myself over and over, Sophie, you have waited two years to be in Munich with Hans. With Hans!

I will admit it out loud. It was great fun seeing him waving to me from the platform. His arm around Traute, that casual romance that gives him the very breath he breathes. She looked the picture of elegance, every hair in place, her shoes matching the skirt she wore. I really should not like her, you know. But there is something so un-Nazi about her, we are at once kindred spirits.

We rode the streetcar out to Dr. Muth’s. If Hans had not told me volumes about this Catholic scholar before, if I had not met him myself a few months ago, I would have packed my bags and headed home. Home to Ulm, where that heated office burns me with its boring nothingness, and we all agree on politics. But in the time it took Dr. Muth to put on tea, I did not know myself.

Hans had warned me about the professor’s penchant for penetrating masks. I thought I wore mine well. You know what I mean. That Sophie mask that tells the world I am in control, that I know what I want, when and where. But with a few words, Dr. Muth rips it off, ruthlessly, like you rip a bandage off a child.

We were talking about this and that. Knowing that Dr. Muth concurs with our conclusions about, about Hitler, I courageously talked about our need to do something. You know I have felt this way a long time now. We jabber and prattle about how awful that man is. Daddy even got arrested for calling him the divine scourge on Germany.

But none of us does anything about it. We talk, and the more the cheap wine flows, the grander our schemes. So I casually mentioned that opinion, feeling a little bolstered by Hans’ presence. And Dr. Muth fixed those blue eyes, blue eyes of lightning, not of sky, directly on me. ‘And, Fräulein Scholl, what basis do you find in the Bible for what you propose?’

Traute rescued me by steering the discussion to the magazine Dr. Muth publishes, or used to publish till the Nazis shut him down. But I know he has not forgotten the question. I will have to find an answer for him.

Hans, my dear dense brother, soon caught on to Traute’s defense. ‘Sophie, let’s celebrate your birthday at my place tonight. Should we invite all our friends, or would that be too much for you?’

And with that deft maneuver, we were out his garden gate, back on the street.

Funny, but I had nearly forgotten the cake Mama had baked, and the bottle of wine Daddy had donated. I would have preferred waiting till tomorrow, when Fritz is here. But I could not spend one more minute in that house, with that question hanging over me.

I persuaded Hans to keep the party small. He knows these people, and I feel like I should too, the way he talks about them when he comes home. But all at once, I stood overwhelmed.

Overwhelmed by the swastikas on every house. Munich… The very best of our country has been violated, raped by men in brown. Venetian beauty defiled by shrines to criminals. The artists I cherish, the Noldes and Geyers who paint with color so vibrant, they make the world sing, they are burned and banned. In their place, hideous murals sully grand edifices.

Hans and Traute have learned to cope with the devastation. When we passed Hitler’s House of Modern Art, Hans whispered in my ear, ‘Soph, you like the wienie palace?’ I had heard that joke before, but seeing it firsthand, I erupted into giggles. First time I felt good all day. This Parthenon with columns that, yes!, were a tribute to proud Bavarian sausages. At best.

They left me alone in his room for an hour or two. The Blue Horses that survived Hans’ own arrest a few years ago comforted me strangely. I resisted the urge to hang the picture straighter. I must have slept, lulled to sleep by the aroma of a lone jasmine in an airless room. For it was nearly dark when Hans and Traute returned, bearing food.

‘We invited Christl and Alex,’ Hans said, waiting for my reaction. I could not think of two people I wanted to meet more.

Alexander Schmorell arrived first, doffing his beret and kissing my hand. Before the second sentence, I found myself calling him Schurik like everyone else, blessing him with the Russian name that connected him to his homeland. And separated him from the insanity of our Volk.

And I don’t have to tell you that for half a second, I could not even remember Fritz’s name. Schurik embodied everything I have wanted Fritz to be. He made me laugh, he made me forget that I was being demure, he made me feel like a lady, every bit as pulled-together as Traute.

When Christl showed up, the other three reacted with an emotion I have never experienced. This tall, lanky farm boy folded himself into the room. It was like their backbone had straightened or their vision re-focused. Christoph Probst, this Christl, brought pictures of his babies, news of his wife, that village decency that knows little of goose-stepping or Sieg Heils.

He also got us going on a game he had conjured up on the way to the party. We tried to stump each other on famous literary quotes. Sounds boring, I know, yet it was anything but. Of course, someone had to quote Novalis, and I think Hans was the culprit. He likes Novalis’ view of going to the edge of the pit before finding the way home. And we debated Goethe, a trivial debate to be sure, but not completely without merit. Can someone who never lived a single day of misery really write? I say no. Goethe lovers find themselves forced to defend the indefensible.

I enjoyed being among friends who read banned literature. There are not many places in Germany these days where one would dare quote from Heine or Stefan George or Spinoza. But in this room, not to quote our greatest poets and thinkers was unthinkable. Traute assured me she would introduce me to the booksellers who stocked these good books.

And I cannot tell you what it did for me to see Hans among these people. You know how he has those mood swings that make him impossible to love. I can never forget how badly he treated Lisa Remppis, my best friend. She tolerated his ups and downs far longer than any woman should, and he still trifled with her feelings for him. I think he only wanted her when she finally had enough. Some stupid nonsense about writing her name out in bread crumbs when he was in jail for, well for.... But by then, she had called it quits.

I don’t have to tell you about Rose Nägele. One of the dearest women our family has known, hard worker too, bright girl. Did Hans’ sexual addiction start with Rose, or was that the first we knew of it? I wish I knew. But he never should have hurt her like he did.

He seems to have learned from those failed courtships. He and Traute cuddled off and on, teased each other like friends do, yet it is clear that he loves her deeply. Things are different with him and Traute. Maybe he has finally found someone who loves him with all those faults he usually hides so well. She knows every wart and kisses them into diamonds.

In the middle of our lighthearted fun and scholarly debates, Hans dropped a bombshell on us. He dramatically pulled a piece of paper from his hip pocket and began to read. Words about a madman who spreads lies till they become truth. Not till they are believed as truth, like we define Goebbels’ pathetic and provocative propaganda. But until they become truth. The more he read, the more you could see the sheer terror on our faces. Terror at the reality of the world portrayed in that poem.

He sat down, quite satisfied with himself. And none of us knew who wrote the text. I thought he had. My brother is articulate and passionate about his writing, and words like that flow from his pen with no effort at all.

But Gottfried Keller had written it, well over a hundred years ago. Schurik immediately devised a plan for forcing every German to read it. ‘We will rent planes and drop millions of these from the skies on every city in Germany.’

And though they joked with him about the extravagance of his idea, threatening to put it all to his rich father’s account, no one contradicted him. I found that extraordinary, but said nothing.

Someone (and it was not Hans) remembered that we were here to celebrate my birthday. A little early, to be sure, but the cake would not keep another eight days.

And dear Schurik, he who has stolen my heart, suggested we head down to the river. We dug through the mounds of junk in Hans’ desk drawers till we found twine ‘to cool the wine the Russian way,’ Schurik said with a mysterious smile. And Traute managed to find five things that held liquid—I dare not call them cups or glasses—and four forks and a spoon for the cake. I think part of the strength of their relationship is that she does not try to organize Hans’ life.

We had the city almost entirely to ourselves. Our Luftwaffe has been so merciless in its bombings of the English that we fear the day retaliation begins. It has not started yet, but everyone lives behind walls of black curtains. The air raid shelters are often better stocked than our own kitchens.

Hans’ apartment in the Mandl Strasse lies next to Munich’s English Gardens. We walked that street, and I fingered the cold cement wall that divides Schwabing from the Gardens. Schwabing, heart of the university district, home to artists and actors alike, draws its life from the Gardens. In this patch of earth, German efficiency is buried among dense shrubs and wonderful forests. I understand why Hans’ letters home spoke most often about his time in these Gardens, walking in the rain, breathing the last remnant of pure air in a place so brownly defiled.

A great harvest moon hung over the river. Christl wished out loud that his family friend, Emil Nolde, could see this yellow orb and paint it. I tried not to express my astonishment that Christl actually knew someone whose work I studied and imitated. I must have been bad at disguising my surprise, because Schurik mentioned that Nolde had painted a portrait of Christl and his sister Angelika. No wonder Hans spent as little time as possible in Ulm. These people fed his soul.

Oh, and the twine! Schurik tied it around the bottle and dragged it in the icy river. The feel of doing something distinctly Russian must have ignited the passions he cannot hide for long. Because we sang his songs of the Volga, melodies swaying in moonlit birch trees and steppes that never end, tunes no Bach-fed brain could ever sing. We sang his songs that speak of death, and hardship, and the pain of living, all tinged with silver and gold and horizons sparkling with dew. All in the darkest, richest, minor keys on earth, a darkness and a richness banned from Aryan ears as too Jewish.

We found a level place next to the river, a river that hardly compares to the great rivers of Ulm—the Iller and the Danube. This Isar flows dirty, more a canal than a river. In fact, in places only the canal that parallels the river is navigable. But if you must have a city, you should have a river, and the Isar is better than nothing at all.

The hilarity of Christl’s game segued into muted discussion no less intense than the debates of Hans’ room. I am the only one of the group not studying medicine. Over cake and wine, after the embarrassment of toasts in my honor, we talked about the internships they had recently completed.

Schurik explained for my benefit his distaste for medicine. His father, a well-known physician in Munich, more or less forced him to study. He wants to be a sculptor, but that matches neither his father’s nor the government’s view of what is good for young men to do. The least detestable alternative was to acquiesce to his father’s desire, since that also meant a near-exemption from active duty in Hitler’s army. But after the war, he wanted to pursue the things he cherished: sculpting, painting, and piano. And he wanted to go home to Russia.

Hans lapsed into his melodramatic style of story-telling to describe his work at Schrobenhausen. He had treated frost-bite victims from the winter’s devastation in Russia. He must have forgotten that my Fritz is headed to the Russian front tomorrow, because he described the fingerless hands in gory detail. But he ended with the observation that if he had ever doubted his love of medicine, the internship had restored the passion. For he saw that healing was something God let him do. He could not undo all the evils our country inflicted, but he could heal, one person at a time. And after the war, he could do even more.

Traute nodded vigorously as he spoke. Her permission to study medicine was likely granted due to her father’s rank in the National Socialist Party, since we women are expected to be reproductive units, with minimal education wasted on us. When it was her turn, she whispered that after the war she wanted to be the best doctor in either Munich or Hamburg (her hometown), if you-know-who did not pass laws that kept her from practicing. Without her saying a word, we knew how absurd, yet how necessary, it was for her to whisper those sentiments at midnight, under a harvest moon, in a deserted city.

Even I noticed that Christl was being quiet. I thought perhaps he had fallen asleep, since he does have a newborn at home. But Schurik knew his friend better. ‘Christl, Christl,’ he shook Christl by the knee. ‘What are you thinking? What do you want from life?’

When Christl looked up, the tears were streaming down his cheeks. ‘Listen to us,’ he nearly shouted, caring little whether Nazi mole heard him or not. ‘You all know what Manfred tells us is going on in Poland. They are slaughtering Jews, murdering innocent children. And we sit here and talk of medicine and art. After the war, after the war, we say. Not just you. Me too. I am guilty too.

‘But what am I going to tell my children? That their daddy was too much of a coward to do anything? That their daddy did not love them enough? After the war, after the war. Well, listen to me. After the war, the rest of the nations will have the right to say, You Heines, you Jerries, you damn fools, why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you resist?’

I know I did not breathe for the longest time. The cold night grew colder still. Resist. He had said the word. Resist.

(and this isn't even the good part... there's more!)
(c) Ruth Hanna Sachs

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. You might have already mentioned this, but how come you have stopped writing on this? You put so much small detail in this, were the details true to The White Rose as well? I'm sorry about so many questions.