A note to the reader

Liberation is a work of fiction. All the principal characters are fictitious. But I took the liberty of incorporating a number of people from real life – mainly the political and cultural life of Germany and Israel in the fifties and sixties – into the action. Of those who are still living I beg their indulgence.

The book is in no way autobiographical. What Miki Wilner, my protagonist, has in common with me is that we were both born in Poland in 1935, that our surnames are derived from cities in (what was then) Poland, that we were liberated in Bergen-Belsen, and that we lived in Germany for a number of years after the Second World War. That’s it.

The action takes place over twenty days in August of 1970 and flashes back over the preceding nineteen years. Each chapter covers one day of the current action and, except for the last, one year of flashback – not a calendar year but approximately August to August – as indicated in the headings.

Lastly, a remark on italics. Besides their conventional use to indicate names of newspapers or titles of books, movies and the like, I use them as follows: (a) Entire paragraphs in italics represent written text, such as an article, letter, or book excerpt. (b) Italics in dialogue or thought indicate that the italicized text is verbatim in the given language (typically English); otherwise the dialogue is meant to be in German (primarily) or Hebrew (secondarily), unless otherwise specified in the narration.


Thursday, August 6, 1970


The day of the news item from Stuttgart began simply, like a typical vacation day on the island.

After breakfast Brigitte was reading the morning paper while holding the morning’s last cup of coffee – she had drained the gilded Meissen pot in order to fill it – in her left hand. She was wearing her reading glasses and a terry-cloth robe whose folds revealed her long crossed legs with beach sandals on her feet, a good portion of her thighs and a hint of her breasts. It was a pose that Miki continued to find infinitely alluring, after fourteen years or marriage and twenty as lovers.

It did not matter if under her robe she wore nothing, as she typically would at home, or a bikini, as she did here in the hotel, where they were seated on the awning-shaded balcony of their room. The North Sea breeze wafted over them, gently sprinkling them with briny droplets from the pounding surf. Whitish cottony clouds were moving across the sky, and the sea was like quilt of sunlit patches alternating with wine-dark ones.

He would have taken another photograph of her if he had not done so the day before, and about a dozen times over the years, in a pose somewhat like this one. Ever since he relegated his sturdy old Leica M3 to a shelf after acquiring the handy little Rollei 35, Miki’s zeal for photography had grown to the point that Brigitte, who was used to having cameras trained on her, would call him Paparazzo, after the camera-wielding madman in La Dolce Vita.

This time he contented himself with playing Superman – she sometimes called him that – and with his X-ray vision seeing her through the robe in her bikini, matching the image to the one that was indelibly etched in his mind: the photo, taken in 1951 on the beach a few hundred meters away, in which she posed – intentionally, she later told him – just like her newly famous namesake Bardot.

*      *     *

After he had written her a letter describing, briefly, his first two months in Israel, the one he received from her in return, three months – the whole summer – later, was so thick that it required sixty pfennig in stamps, all of them – a ten, a twenty and a thirty – of the post-horn series that had just been issued by the Federal Republic of Germany. The letter itself was densely handwritten, in ink, on both sides of four sheets of A5 paper, folded in the middle of the long side. As he unfolded the paper, a 9-by-13-centimeter photograph fell to the floor, face up, from the fold. Tzvi saw it before he did.

“What a piece!” he exclaimed. Eizo khatikha! Miki had learned, shortly after arriving at Kibbutz Refadim, something that had not come up in his Hebrew classes back in Germany: khatikha, ‘piece,’ is how Israeli boys refer to a sexy girl. And the picture was a color photograph of Brigitte – looking more tanned than he had ever seen her, far more than the naturally tawny complexion that made such a contrast with her blondness that there were those, even in Germany, who wondered if she was naturally blond – showing the full ripeness of her bikini-clad body reclining on a beach chair. The shot seemed to have indeed been taken at a beach, and over a stretch of sand she had written Miki ♥Brigitte.

“What’s this!” Tzvi went on. “You got an autographed picture of Brizhit!”

“Her name is Brigitte,” Miki corrected, saying the name in German. “She was my girlfriend in Germany.”

“You had a German girlfriend!” Tzvi said in a tone that was half accusing, half admiring. “Is she a natural blonde?” But, without waiting for Miki to reply, he went on. “Was her father a Nazi?”

“Actually her father was a mischling… part-Jewish,” he added, not sure if Tzvi knew the term. “He couldn’t have been a Nazi even if he’d wanted.”

“So what happened to him?”

“He was only a quarter-Jew, so he wasn’t bothered too much. He was a soldier in the Wehrmacht – he could not have become an officer – and probably got killed on the Eastern Front.”

“Yes, but he was a Nazi soldier. He had a swastika on his uniform, and he swore an oath to the Führer. Hanna told us…”

“I don’t need you or Hanna to tell me,” Miki said sharply. “I saw them. I was there.”

Tzvi could be like that sometimes, carrying an argument just one step too far, and an angry outburst seemed to be the only way to stop him.

But Miki wasn’t really feeling angry, not when Tzvi cited Hanna as his authority.

Tzvi was silent.

“Didn’t Hanna also tell you that there were good Germans, even in the military?” Miki asked, more softly. Tzvi nodded, and began to reply, but Miki cut him off. “Brigitte’s mother was my piano teacher, and they are wonderful people.”

“All right,” Tzvi conceded. “But this Brigitte of yours, you know, she looks just like that French khatikha, Brizhit Bardo. Have you heard of her?”

“No,” Miki said.

“Here, let me show you.” Tzvi lifted the pillow off his bunk, revealing a stack of pages cut out from magazines. He found the one he was looking for and showed it to Miki. The resemblance of the two Brigittes astounded him.

“Not bad,” he said, “but I like mine better.”

“I wouldn’t argue with you about that,” said Tzvi.

“It’s good that there’s something you won’t argue about,” Miki said good-naturedly.

“Never about tastes; the Romans said something about that, de gustibus non disputandum est. Anyway, you have a letter to read, and I have a fishpond to clean, so I’ll leave you alone.” Tending the fishpond, which was located just by the entrance to the kibbutz behind a stand of young eucalyptus trees, was Tzvi’s favorite chore.

*      *     *

The newspaper that Brigitte was reading was their home paper, the Hamburger Morgenpost, or MoPo as its readers affectionately called it. It was the paper where Miki got his start as a journalist.

As usual, she would peruse the paper while his glance wandered between her and the waves of the North Sea. He was, at this moment, letting the sentences of the essay he was planning to write take shape in his mind, but somehow they remained disjointed, like the balloons of a comic strip, and refused to merge into paragraphs.

Before long, she would find a news item that she knew he would find interesting, and either read it to him or summarize it for him. He preferred her summaries, often improvised with all her histrionic skill, to the raw text.

“Didn’t you once mention a certain Axel Hemme?” she asked.

“More than once,” he said, feeling a shudder in his stomach when he heard the name. “He killed my father with his own hands, and he had my mother and sister deported.” He tried gamely to keep calm, so as not to spoil the vacation feeling, as he recited the facts. “Right in front of me,” he added. “But you know all that.”

“Of course, my dearest,” she said softly, moving her glasses up over her forehead and looking at him tenderly. “I haven’t forgotten. But it’s been a long time since you talked about it.”

“I haven’t felt the need,” he said, now moved to tears. “I stopped covering that stuff after Leon died.”

“I know.”

“Of course you do. And I’ve been so happy with you…”

She put down her coffee cup and reached out to take his left hand, bringing it to her lips and giving it a gentle but prolonged kiss.

“What about Hemme?” he asked.

“There is a little item here – he was found murdered.”

He felt a jolt in his heart. “Where?” he asked.

“Some place near Stuttgart.”

“Let me see,” he said, more curtly than he would have liked.

She passed the paper to him. The news item was quite brief, but there was a photograph of the murder victim next to it.

“This isn’t Hemme,” he said. “Or, at lest, not that Hemme.”

“But it says here, ‘alleged to have been an SS officer in Poland.’ Are you sure?”

“Of course. How could I forget the real Hemme? I was a meter away from him when he shot my father. If this is a revenge killing, like what I used to fantasize about, then someone made a mistake. Or else it has nothing to do with it.”

“How strange,” Brigitte mused. “It vaguely reminds me of a story I once read. By a Russian writer, I think.”

“I wonder,” Miki said, “if I should tell the authorities, or the press, that this Hemme is not the one who was an SS officer in Poland.”

“Could there have been more than one Axel Hemme in the SS in Poland?”

“All the sources that I have checked, including the archive in Ludwigsburg that’s right near where this Hemme lived, mention only one.”

“Well, there are probably other people who will recognize the mistake. You’ve been out of the spotlight for a while, we’re on vacation, and it’s been so lovely, so peaceful – let’s keep it that way for just a little while longer.”

*      *     *

Brigitte had spent the summer vacation, she wrote him, on the North Sea island of Norderney, and that was why it had taken her so long to answer his letter. It was beautiful there; she described in detail the sea, the dunes, the freshly cleaned beaches, the gardens, the lovely old town houses, the breathtaking sunsets seen from the west beach; and she wished that he were there to enjoy them with her.

She had acted in school plays, and learned from the teacher who directed the drama group that a newly formed amateur theater company, which would perform for the vacationers, was auditioning in Hanover for juvenile leads in both classical and modern plays. She tried out and was engaged, in exchange for room and board on the island. She convinced the director to give her the part of the Young Lady in Lessing’s The Jews by telling her that she already was in love with a handsome young Jew. She wondered if Miki had ever read the play, guessed that he probably had not (she was right) and proceeded to give him an extended, humorous summary of how a Jew traveling incognito in eighteenth-century Germany uncovers the perpetrators of a robbery that had been attributed to “the Jews.” In the scene in which she flirted with the Traveler, she wrote, she imagined that it was Miki rather than the twenty-year-old actor who played the part, and it seemed that the public and the critics felt her sincerity.

She also got to play Diddo, the young girl in love with General Harras in The Devil’s General, which, as she reminded him, they had seen together in Hanover, so that she did not need to tell him about it. But she did anyway.

The company also put on a play in which she had no part, a comedy in Plattdeutsch, which people – even people their age – still spoke there. It was a different dialect from what the old people in Bad Harzburg spoke – it sounded more like Dutch – and she didn’t understand all of it, but what she did understand – and she gave him some examples – didn’t seem all that funny.

Most of all, she wrote about the joy she found in acting. She was seriously considering not going to university after finishing the high school, but enrolling in the Hanover Acting School, which was now a part of the Academy of Music and Theater, so that she could take singing classes there as well.

*      *     *

“You’re right,” he said. “I can do without more interrogations by my fellow journalists.”

“Doctor Wilner, Doctor Wilner,” Brigitte mocked, putting her coffee cup in front of his mouth like a microphone, “would you care to explain your position on Israel Palestine Jews Arabs Germans Kiesinger Kissinger Nixon Brandt Eshkol Meir Dayan…” She paused and concluded explosively, “Hemme!”

Miki laughed. His wife, consummate comic actress that she was, had managed, by changing the tone of her voice with each name that she recited, to encapsulate the entire West German journalist corps of 1970.

He stopped thinking about his essay and focused his gaze on her, letting it move from her face to the neckline of her robe. She put her cup on the table and reached with her left hand behind her back inside the robe, where she undid the snap that held her strapless bikini top together. The click made by the unsnapping sent a signal that, like a bolt of lightning, made direct contact with his body.

“Have you noticed the date?” she asked with a sly look.

He glanced at the paper that was now on the table. “The sixth of August,” he said, matter-of-factly at first, until its significance struck him. “The twentieth anniversary…” he exclaimed. Simultaneously, as though activated by the same switch, they stood up and began to move into the room.

*      *     *

For several days before the one they were now commemorating, he had practiced putting on a condom, but when the time came and he pulled the package from his pocket, she took it out of his hand and asked him, “Is this the first time for you?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“Unfortunately not for me,” she said, and kissed him hard before mounting him.

Afterwards she told him that when she, her mother and Renate were escaping from the East, they were stopped by some Soviet soldiers – Kirghiz, not Russian – who raped them.

“But you… you were only ten!”

“Almost eleven,” she corrected, “and rather developed for my age. My being the youngest made me the prize, so that I belonged to the highest-ranking soldier, a sergeant or something, and he was so violent that I will never be able to have children.”

The light-hearted way in which he said it surprised him. He had known women in the DP camp, Jewish and Gypsy, who had been forcibly sterilized by Nazi doctors, or who had been left sterile by rape or other trauma, and they invariably saw their condition as shameful, if not a curse. To Brigitte, on the other hand, it seemed to mean – for now, anyway – only that they could make love freely, without worrying about consequences.

At least biological ones. Emotional consequences were another matter. They knew from the outset that at some not-too-distant point he would be leaving for Israel, that his future lay among his people. But, orphan that he was, he had been deprived of a woman’s touch since the separation from his mother, whom he was never to see again. Her brother Leon, his only surviving near relative, became his substitute father, but Leon had lost his wife too, and was not interested in finding another. And so Brigitte became, to Miki, far more than an adolescent girlfriend, or Frau as the German kids said. The tenderness that flowed from her touch, her voice and her blue eyes came to fill the emptiness of his motherless years. Now, without her, he felt that emptiness coming back. He was almost an adult, he kept telling himself. He just needed time to grow up…

Still, their good-bye had not been particularly painful. They told each other that they would always love each other, but it was in a poetically abstract way, with no promises for the future. They were young, and this had been the first love for both of them, the kind of first love that Romantic poets wrote about. There would never be another like it, but life would go on.

*      *     *

A vacation, for the likes of Brigitte and Michael (Miki) Wilner, creative people in the public eye, is an escape from the public, a chance for private time.

But there is no escape from the activity that they call work. The creative process cannot be stopped or suppressed. Brigitte had recently been offered a major part in a new television series, for which she had received an extended outline. She had read only a little of it, but enough to know that she liked the part and to begin thinking about how she would play it, even in bed with Miki on the twentieth anniversary of their first time together.

Here in the hotel, she kept the outline in the safe of their room. No information about the series was to be released to the public, and especially to the press and to the television industry, until the network was ready to announce it. Miki was a journalist, and therefore he was a part of the press. He also appeared on news shows on television, and therefore he was part of the television industry. When she told him about the secrecy agreement, he agreed that professional ethics would take precedence over family intimacy, and refrained from asking her any questions about the series.

For his part, he had brought a small stack of books that he was to read or reread as material for an extensive essay on fanaticism in the second half of the twentieth century.

He had touched on the subject in several articles, but it was on specific manifestations of fanaticism: by Nazis, by Orthodox Jews, by Arab nationalists, by the New Left. In his book, he had written that the fanaticism of the Palestinian resistance was “not the mass-movement fanaticism described by Hoffer,” but without elaborating. It was this oblique reference that occasioned the invitation from the editor of the monthly Merkur, Hans Paeschke. In the formal letter – he was fond of formal letters – requesting the essay, Paeschke explicitly told Miki that, while the typical length of a Merkur essay was around five hundred typewritten lines, he was to be unconcerned about limitations of length. “There may be disagreement with your ideas, but there will be no complaint about too many lines from a master of German prose such as you. Should it grow to the length of a book, we would be happy to support its publication.”

Paeschke had flattered Miki’s prose in connection with his previous contributions to Merkur, but the business about the length of a book was, Miki thought, wishful thinking on his part, since he had not brought it up before Michael Wilner was the author of an international best-seller.

*      *     *

A few days after receiving Brigitte’s letter he took a sheet of paper from his school bag, took out his bar-mitzva fountain pen from its special storage place, and wrote Dearest Brigitte! in large letters across the top. He had not given any thought to what he would write, believing that the words would just flow. But he quickly realized that his thinking was by now mostly in Hebrew, and that writing a letter worthy of Brigitte, in good German, would be a struggle. His German had been fluent while he lived in Bad Harzburg, and he had received good marks in German class, but the lack of practice since coming to Israel, combined with the fact that German was not his native language and could be easily contaminated by Yiddish, had led to a rapid and marked decline in his fluency. He remembered how his uncle Leon (also known as Aryeh, which was how he signed his letters to him), with whom he normally spoke in Yiddish, would sometimes gently mock the overly German quality of his Yiddish. Now he felt unsure about his German – about the gender of some nouns, about which case went with what preposition, and about the past tense of some irregular verbs. He had no way of keeping up his studies in German, as English was the only foreign language taught in the kibbutz high school. He felt, for a moment, discouraged and dejected, until a one-word thought popped into his mind: Hanna!

Miki had arrived at Refadim in the spring, shortly after Passover, which he had spent with his uncle at a Jewish resort in the Bavarian Alps. There were two months left in the school year, and he was enrolled in what was left of the eleventh grade, as appropriate to his age, but he found himself learning nothing that he hadn’t already had at the high school in Bad Harzburg, except in modern history as taught by Hanna.

Hanna was a slim, attractive woman in her forties. She was a founding member of Lehavot Hadarom, a neighboring kibbutz of the same affiliation as Refadim, where she lived alone. Besides being single, she was in many other ways different from the other kibbutz women. Her manner was calm and reasoned, even when arguing. She took care of her skin (perhaps because she was from Hamburg, the home of Nivea) so that it did not show the effects of the dry, hot air of the Negev. Her dress was simple, but elegant enough for a city woman: well-fitting, well-pressed blouses and slacks, often a silk scarf around her neck, and shoes that had a little bit of a heel. Every so often she would go to Jerusalem to get her hair styled. Rumor had it that she had a lover there. Someone once surmised, jokingly, that it was her hairdresser, but Tzvi said no, that was impossible, all women’s hairdressers were homosexuals.

Miki ascribed these differences to her being a yekeh. Her Hebrew, after almost two decades, still had a noticeable German accent, and her manner – her insistence on precision, her way of showing several points of view of the same events, her blending of personal history with world events – reminded him of the best teachers at the high school, especially Dr. Roselius, who taught English. He would approach her. He would not ask her for help in writing a letter to a German girlfriend, but in keeping contact with German culture.

It proved to be an inspired decision. Hanna had gone to university in Hamburg, where she was born, and, as she told the class, not even Hitler could dim her love for her native culture. And she readily agreed to become his German tutor.

Once a week, during the afternoon break between school and evening chores, he would take a communal bicycle and ride the four kilometers to Lehavot Hadarom. They would then take a walk together.

She told Miki a bit of her personal history; he did not know if she had already told the others about it. She had been married to a non-Jewish German, a socialist like her, whom she loved very much, but in the wake of the Nuremberg Laws he had the marriage annulled in order to advance his academic career. She promptly emigrated to Palestine, but never married again.

From her private library that she had brought over from Germany, she would lend him German books by Jewish writers: poems and essays by Heine and Börne, and novels by Feuchtwanger, the Zweigs and Wassermann. If he wanted to, he could write short essays about his reading, in German, that she would go over with him.

Miki was a fast and voracious reader, and he devoured these books, sometimes in a single reading, through the night, with a flashlight. Wassermann’s Kerkhoven trilogy, in particular, was a three-course banquet that he indulged himself to repeat. Still, he managed to focus on fine points of style and grammar, and by November he felt ready to write the letter to Brigitte.

By now, however, he was not sure about what to write. He had written about Hanna in his first, brief, letter, and of course he would write about her again, this time at greater length. He would write about the books, but he would not bore Brigitte with details; he hoped that she would read them on her own, once they became available in Germany again.

But other than the literature that Hanna had conspiratorially lent him, there was not much in his life that he was enthusiastic about. He was having some fun, to be sure, but it was not necessarily something to share with Brigitte.

Along with learning the meaning of khatikha, he had noticed that Israeli girls had made up a masculine counterpart, khatikh, to describe boys that they liked, and he had overheard the word applied to him. Before long, he found girls overtly coming on to him. Adolescent sex was something that their kibbutz tacitly encouraged. It seemed that the grownups saw it as another sport, a way of getting rid of tension, of using up excess energy before settling down to productive adulthood. At the same time, exclusive boyfriend-girlfriend relationships seemed to be frowned on. A good part of biology class for tenth-graders – which he had missed – was devoted to sex education, using a textbook titled Bakhur uvakhura, ‘Boy and Girl,’ that had been published – in Hebrew – before the war, in Warsaw, by the organization that Refadim was affiliated with, and that had been inspired, their teacher told them, by an American anthropologist named Margaret Mead.

Miki had seen the book, and it had struck him as laughably clinical; it seemed to reduce sexual relations to a satisfaction of biological urges. Still, he could not help noticing that kibbutzniks in their twenties, after their military service, had no trouble forming close, loving couples, though, more often than not, such couples were formed by members of different kibbutzim – what anthropologists would call exogamy.

The common expression for the activity was “going out to the field,” as in the Song of Songs, and it was a literal description of the process as well. There were sections of the fields surrounding the kibbutz, shaded by old olive trees, that were unofficially, or perhaps – who knew? – even officially, designated as trysting places. In the evening one could usually hear the sounds of several young couples going at it at once.

Often, Tzvi would be seen lurking behind the eucalyptus trees, tending the fishpond, as the couples strolled by on the way to the field.

It was understood that there was to be no outward indication of this activity outside the confines of the adolescent community of the kibbutz, for example at school or when any adults were present, except those who, professionally, had to be privy to the supposed secret: the biology teacher, the nurse, the psychologist, the district doctor. Of the trips to the fields, what the adults ostensibly knew was simply that boys and girls went for walks together.

Miki’s problem was that kibbutz girls cared nothing about making themselves attractive; in fact, to do so would be considered a sign of bourgeois decadence. They all wore khaki blouses and shorts over sturdy boots, just like the boys, had their hair cut short, and used no makeup or perfume of any kind. Even those were naturally pretty chose not to use their looks to their advantage, and they were relatively few; only one, the tall, black-haired, exotic-featured Nili, could be called beautiful. The system worked because sixteen-year-old boys don’t need much to arouse them; the sight of a breast or of a tuft of pubic hair was enough.

But Miki had been spoiled by Brigitte – her beauty, her femininity, the wonder of her having emerged from her childhood ordeal with a robust sexual appetite that he could satisfy, not to mention that the spontaneity that, as a result of her condition, he had enjoyed with her was held in check by the kibbutz’ rigorous insistence on condoms – and to perform with the kibbutz girls he had to close his eyes and imagine that he was with her. With Nili that ruse was unnecessary the first time; her unusual beauty was different enough from Brigitte’s that the difference had a charm of its own. But her participation was as passionless and as matter-of-fact as the other girls’, and on subsequent occasions – and there were several, since she liked him – he found that he had to use his imagination after all.

*      *     *

Brigitte’s style in the act of love was ever varying, and her imagination in concocting erotic games was boundless. Miki sometimes wondered if, were this not so, he might become bored. He was sure that he wouldn’t, but he never had a chance to find out. She liked exploring variety for its own sake, but there was a professional side: her specialty was romantic comedy, and while the women that she portrayed on stage, screen and television rarely expressed their sexuality beyond flirting and kissing, she needed, she told him, to experience the full sexual persona of the part she was playing. In her role study at home, consequently, Miki would be the stand-in – or body double – for the actor playing her love partner. She would tell him in advance that, in the throes of passion, she would call out “Heinz!” or “Willy!” If this was infidelity – and he could, as a philosopher, argue with equal plausibility, especially in German, that it was or was not – then he didn’t mind it at all; on the contrary, it was fun, there was no deception, and he reminded himself that he, too, had played imagination games with girls, though of a different kind.

After their twentieth-anniversary ritual, in which they were Brigitte and Miki, she told him that in their next encounter he would be a man named Axel…

“Hemme!” he interjected, without having meant to.

Brigitte became silent for a moment. “Forgive me,” she said softly. “I hadn’t thought of the coincidence.”

“No, it’s all right,” he said. “I can be the Axel in your series, whoever he is. But I am curious about what kind of man Axel Hemme was, or is, not just as the brutal SS man that I saw, but as a husband or lover. He was probably about the age that I am now, in his thirties, and may have been married, and may have been very tender with his wife. Or not. Maybe he was not married, or had left his wife in Germany, and spent his nights raping Polish girls,” he concluded with a sardonic laugh.

He realized, a moment too late, that he had laughed a little too casually. But rather than apologize, he changed the subject.

“Or, for that matter,” he went on, “what about the wrong Axel Hemme, the one who was killed? I’m sure we’ll find out more about him as the days go on, but…”

“But probably not about how he was in bed. But you don’t really care about him, do you? You just changed the subject for some reason.”

“You’re right,” he conceded.

“I think I know the reason, but it doesn’t matter. Let’s get back to the real Hemme. Sometimes it amazes me that you are not more obsessed with him than you are, that he is not your Moby-Dick, that you haven’t pursued him fanatically…”

“You know about me and fanaticism.”

“Yes, and I respect and admire that about you, along with everything else. But if you were different in that regard, I would understand.”

*      *     *

In February of 1952 he turned seventeen. Adulthood was indeed approaching fast, perhaps faster than was comfortable. In another year and a quarter, as soon as high school was over, he would be joining the Israel Defense Forces.

The thought of himself in uniform, with a rifle in his hand, was disturbing. Though kibbutz members who were on active duty were always around, and though he had been friendly with several of the British soldiers who had liberated him, the images that were most deeply engraved in his mind were those of German soldiers, of the SS and Waffen-SS, and it was those images that surfaced when he thought about his future.

When he told Tzvi about these misgivings, he got nothing but rebukes. “What are you saying?” Tzvi demanded. “Aren’t you excited about fighting our enemies? After two thousand years, isn’t it time?”

“Our enemies? Sure,” Miki said. “But my enemies are the Nazis, not the Arabs. There are plenty of Nazis who didn’t get caught, like SS-Sturmbannführer Axel Hemme, who with his own hands shot my father when he reached out to my mother as she was being led away from us. If I could, I would track him down and shoot him myself. But not as a Tsahal soldier.”

As usual, Tzvi was silent for a moment when Miki brought up something of his wartime history. But not for long. “You don’t think the Arabs are our enemies?” he asked with a laugh. “They hate us just like the Nazis, and they would act the same way if they had a chance. We can’t give them the chance. I know you weren’t here during the war – our war – but wait until you’ve been here for a while, talk to people who have dealt with them, and you’ll learn about what the Arabs are like.”

“But when you say ‘the Arabs,’ that’s just like saying ‘the Germans’ or ‘the Jews.’ You can’t talk about a whole people that way.”

“Sure you can. Just wait until you’ve been here for a year.”

“All right, I’ll wait.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Tzvi added. “I’m not saying that we shouldn’t hunt Nazis. But that’s not a job for Tsahal. My dad told me that Ben Gurion has just formed a new establishment for intelligence and secret operations, and hunting Nazis will be one of their jobs.”

“Secret operations? What’s the point? If we’re going to fight our enemies, it should be openly. If I were to find Hemme, I would shoot him point-blank, face to face.”

Tzvi laughed again. “Sometimes you amaze me, how naïve you are, after what you’ve been through.”

“All right, so I’m naïve. Maybe after a year I won’t be so naïve.”

*      *     *

Later that afternoon, as they were returning to their hotel room from the beach, she said to him, “I already told you, I think I know why you suddenly changed the subject from the real Axel Hemme to the wrong one.”

“You probably know me too well. Why?” he asked.

“Because you brought up rape as a joke.”

He assented with his silence.

“But you know that I’ve told you rape jokes,” she said. “If I can’t do that, then I’m more of a victim that I otherwise would be.”

“It’s all right for you, or perhaps women in general. But a man must be careful.”

“But you yourself have written a whole article that it’s all right for non-Jews to tell Jew jokes.”

“There’s no comparison.”

“All right, Herr Doktor Michael Wilner, Doctor of Philosophy, please explain the difference.”

“The difference is that while Jews have been victims, Jew does not equal victim, and a non-Jew need not be a potential victimizer of Jews. But a rape victim, who by the way may also be a man, is a victim by definition, and any man is a potential rapist.”

“Any man? Not you!”

“Perhaps you don’t know me too well, after all. I will confess something to you.”

*      *     *

By the middle of spring, when he had been at Refadim for a year, Miki still felt no sense of hatred for the Arab people. Meanwhile he had gone out to the fields, at least once, with most of the girls in the eleventh and twelfth grades, except for those – perhaps a quarter of the total – who were voluntarily saving themselves for a later time, or for someone special, and whom the boys disparagingly called the vestals.

It turned out that, according to an unwritten but generally known rule, experienced boys were expected to initiate the tenth-grade virgins fresh from completing sex education, and the time for that was spring. The Song of Songs again: “for behold, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone… Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away…”

Not that it rained much around Refadim, which was near the northern fringe of the Negev. Its prosperity depended entirely on artificial irrigation. And so, going out to the field could go on all year round.

But there was no poetry, Biblical or otherwise, in the actual mating; the arrangements were prosaic, almost businesslike. “Would you like to be my first one?” a relatively pretty girl named Sara, who had not spoken to Miki before, asked him matter-of-factly one evening in the dining hall. He agreed, but when they got together she seemed to want to get it over with as quickly as possible, without being the least bit ready. In three attempts – he had brought three condoms – he was unable to penetrate her even once, and each time he filled the condom outside her. She did not seem unsatisfied – she had, after all, gone through the mating ritual – but he felt ashamed, and decided that he would have nothing more to do with virgins, rule or no rule.

Until he was asked by Ruti, Tzvi’s younger sister. Tzvi was his best friend in the kibbutz, the only one with whom he felt completely free, so that he could not refuse her. Ruti was neither pretty nor shapely, so that he would have to imagine Brigitte in order to get aroused, but she had a sweet personality and a nice smile. But when the time came, for some reason the fantasy that came into his mind was not of himself with Brigitte but of her being raped by the Kirghiz soldier, and he entered Ruti so forcefully that she screamed in pain, loud enough to be heard by several people, and by the time they came her thighs were covered with blood. She had to be helped to the dispensary, where Shulamit, the nurse, fortunately knew how to deal with such matters.

He thought that Ruti would be traumatized by the experience, but she smiled at him every time she saw him, and a few weeks later suggested that they do it again. “I don’t want to,” he said, “I don’t want to hurt you again.” “But it will be different,” she said, “I’m not a virgin any more.” “I don’t think so,” he persisted. She turned away with a pout, and never smiled at him again.

Within a short time most of the other girls stopped flirting with him, seemingly in solidarity, and Tzvi became hostile to him as well.

*      *     *

“But you didn’t rape that girl,” she said after he had told her the story.“She chose you. Many women friends have told me that it’s often difficult with a virgin, even a willing one. And she wanted you again!”

“But I felt as I had raped her. And I was, in effect, shunned by the kibbutz, at least by my age group.”

“Wasn’t that because you rejected her?”

“It’s the same thing. The kibbutz people think that they are modern and progressive, and in many ways they are, but the environment where they live is that of Abraham, and it leads, unconsciously, to Old Testament attitudes, just as you find among the Bedouins. In Deuteronomy, if a man rapes a virgin, then he is required to marry her, not to mention to pay her father fifty pieces of silver, and is not allowed ever to divorce her.”

“And?” she asked skeptically.

“I didn’t follow the adolescent equivalent of that law, and that was my transgression.”

“It’s an interesting theory,” she said just before going into the bathroom, “but I don’t believe it.” And she shut the door behind her.

*      *     *

Nili did not join the movement – or non-movement – of solidarity with Ruti. Over time, no doubt growingly aware of her distinctive beauty, she had been developing a nonconformist individuality, and her sexual appetite became, if not more passionate, at least more sensuous: she acquired a taste for lengthy kissing and caressing before the minimal undressing – made all the more minimal by the fact that she now favored skirts over shorts – necessary for the act. She became selective in whom she went out with; she consistently refused Tzvi, while Miki was her favorite. It seemed to him that she now limited her choice to those boys, apparently few in number, who had the necessary patience to indulge her newfound taste. By May she did not seem to be interested in going out with any boy other than Miki.

So, while he felt isolated, he was not lonely. And there was always Hanna.

Then, in June, with the end of the school year approaching, not one but two fat letters came for him from Germany on the same day. One was from Brigitte. The other was from Leon. Until then he and his uncle had been exchanging postcards; Leon wrote his in Yiddish, with an occasional Hebrew phrase tossed in, but Miki, who had never learned to write in Yiddish, wrote in Hebrew, the language of his schooling in the DP camp.

With his mother he had spoken Polish, but since losing her he had lost the use of that language. In their social group in Poland, it was common for the women to speak Polish and the men Yiddish. He had discovered in his reading that this was not a unique occurrence: in Buddenbrooks the women spoke German while the men still spoke Plattdeutsch, and in How Green Was My Valley the same was true of English and Welsh.

This was the first time that he was receiving a full letter from Leon. It must be important, he said to himself. He opened his uncle’s letter first.

He was not used to reading Yiddish, and he did not read every word, but he got the two important pieces of news. One was that Leon had met a woman, named Fela, whom he was going to marry. The wedding would be in August, in Hanover, and Miki had to come. Of course he would go! The kibbutz would have to give him leave for an occasion such as this.

The other was that his uncle and his new aunt would not be going to Israel after all. Leon had been delaying his aliya while waiting for his health, greatly compromised in the Nazi labor camps, to improve; this was the main reason that had been living in the mineral-springs resort of Bad Harzburg, and Miki with him. But now he and his wife-to-be decided that their future was in the New World, and that after the wedding they would move to Montreal, where Fela had relatives. Montreal, Leon explained, is in Canada, which is in North America, but they speak French there, and since he had studied French in high school in Poland, he would be able to go into business there without having to learn English, which he had been unable to do despite years of trying.

What this meant, Leon went on, was that they might not see each other for a long time, and he would like Miki to spend the whole summer with him. In case he had any trouble getting the necessary leave from the kibbutz, he was to let him know by telegram, and Leon would get in touch with the deputy secretary general of the kibbutz organization, who was a childhood friend of his (something Miki knew but had forgotten).

Miki felt his mind agitated, like a stormy sea. He was now afraid to open Brigitte’s letter. He would be back in Germany in a little over a month, and be able to see her again. What if she had written him that she, too, had met someone? They would still be friends, of course, but he would no longer feel those lips, those breasts, those cheeks that he missed so much.

He thought that he would put the letter under his pillow, sleep on it and read it the next morning. But his impatience got the best of him.

When he unfolded the pages, he found another photo, this one black and white, of Brigitte standing, seemingly on a stage, in a dark-colored, short-sleeved, knee-length dress – not particularly revealing, but very flattering – and high-heeled shoes. She looked very grown-up, and unbelievably beautiful. The inscription was the same as before: Miki ♥Brigitte. He then looked at the last page, and saw that, over her signature, she had written “loving you as always.” He breathed a sigh of relief.

She had definitely decided, with her mother’s encouragement, to enroll in the Academy of Music and Theater after finishing the high school, and the Abitur was not necessary for admission. She would specialize in acting, but study singing as well, so that she could also perform in operettas or perhaps even in American musicals. She had just seen a beautiful film titled Showboat, which was based on a stage musical, and she thought that in the near future such musicals would be produced in German theaters.

She had been offered the stage job on Norderney once again for the upcoming summer, and, while she hadn’t decided yet whether to accept it – she had thought about hiking in the Harz – it was likely that by the time he received the letter she would already have decided, one way or another. Whatever she did, she would write him about it.

He was in a quandary. Seeing Brigitte would, of course, be a major part of his summer in Germany. But where and how? He might well be going in a month or so – not enough time for an exchange of letters, especially since had to ask for a leave and wait until it was granted. Telegrams, perhaps yes. Should he send her one? He did not want to influence the plans she was making, but his plans depended very much on hers.

He decided that he would surprise her. He would show up Frau Bechmeyer’s apartment in Bad Harzburg; he would want to visit his piano teacher anyway, if only to tell her that he had unfortunately had no chance to practice, but that the music she had taught him, especially Bach and Mozart, was always in his head and in his heart. And he would find out about Brigitte’s whereabouts. If it was Norderney, then he would go there without letting her know, and perhaps go to see her backstage after a performance. He imagined the scene so vividly that he found himself bursting with desire. He would have to seek out Nili as soon as possible.

The approval of his leave came directly from Yitzhak, the secretary of Refadim (who was the husband of Shulamit the nurse), with no need for going to a higher authority; survivors like Miki usually received the benefit of the doubt in such matters. In the meantime, Leon had made the travel arrangements by telephone and telegram. Miki would go by ship from Haifa to Venice and take a train, first to Vienna, where Leon and Fela would meet him, and then to Regensburg, where Fela lived, and where they would spend a little time. As little as possible, Miki thought. He remembered the Scottish song My Heart’s in the Highlands that a British soldier had taught him. Well, his heart was in the lowlands, those of Lower Saxony.

His departure from the kibbutz was generally – and pointedly, he felt – ignored. The only ones who bothered with a farewell were Nili and Hanna. With Nili this took the form, naturally, of a walk to the fields, specifically to the olive tree that had become their special place. Once they lay down on the grass, she told him that he didn’t need a condom. He didn’t understand. She laughed at his ignorance. “It’s the calendar,” she said, “or rather my calendar. You can look it up in Bakhur uvakhura; just look for ‘Ogino’ or ‘Knaus’ in the index.”

Her last words to him were, “Save some of the kisses of your mouth” – the Song of Songs, yet again! – “for when you come back.”

“For you,” he replied, “I will always have kisses.”



Hanna told him that she envied his going back to Germany.

“What do you mean?” he asked, surprised. “What keeps you from going back for a visit?”

“I couldn’t possibly go back,” she said with a sigh, “and that’s what I envy: that you, who went through so much more than I did, are able to go back.”

That was when he finally told her. “There is a girl there, and I love her.”

“That’s wonderful! And you never told me!” He smiled sheepishly. “Is she a German girl?”

“One-eighth Jewish. But very German, in the best way, just like you.”

She kissed him on the forehead. “I’m going to cry, so you’d better go before you see me.” And she turned away from him.

No one saw him off when he took his duffel bag to the bus stop to catch the bus to Tel Aviv, from where he took a sherut cab to Haifa.

*      *     *

Brigitte had changed into street clothes, a short-sleeved white mini dress with a pleated skirt and open-toed platform sandals. Miki remembered that she had a hair appointment.

When in Norderney, Brigitte would have her hair styled by the same hairdresser who had done it when she was a novice actress. He, too, had prospered over the years, along with island’s tourist traffic and the German economy in general. Nonetheless, Brigitte Wilner was the only one of his clients who was truly famous. But he made no fuss over the fact; he never asked her for a photograph to hang on his wall, and she had to make appointments like anybody else. Miki had, at first, doubted that; he wagered Brigitte that, should she choose to do so, she could use her fame to have a session anytime. To test his hypothesis, he called the salon in the guise of Frau Wilner’s assistant and demanded an immediate appointment for her. “I’m sorry,” he was told, “I have no opening today.” Brigitte then took the phone and explained that this was her husband, the writer, collecting material for an article.

One of the charms of Norderney was precisely that it took its celebrity visitors in stride, just as it took ice storms, floods, and shipwrecks. Since the days of the kings of Hanover, its streets and beaches had seen the easy mingling of poets and politicians, nobles and entertainers. Heine had been there, and Bismarck, and Robert and Clara Schumann, and Jenny Lind, and Kafka. No one made a fuss over them.

Another factor that made Norderney the Wilners’ favorite vacation resort was its history of friendliness to Jews, until such friendliness was made moot by the Nazi regime. (Miki, a few years before, had heard some coarse anti-Semitic humor from a sailing instructor, but the man was not a local.) While other East Frisian island resorts, such as Borkum – the home of Ludwig Münchmeyer, the notorious Lutheran pastor and later Nazi propagandist – and Wangerooge, flaunted their anti-Semitism by calling themselves purely German, Jews thronged Norderney from all over Central Europe. There was even a synagogue built specially for the visitors, since the few Jews who lived there did not form a community but belonged to the one of Norden, on the mainland.

But these factors of a social-historical nature were secondary. What drew them to the island, about every other year, was its beauty, and the personal ties that they had forged with it. It was where she had found her acting vocation, and where they woke up one morning, eighteen years before, with the knowledge that they would remain together.

*      *     *

In Venice, Vienna and Regensburg, he tried to make himself enjoy the sights, but he was impatient for northern Germany. Fela turned out to be a lovely woman, considerably younger than Leon, and Miki thought with glee that he soon might have some little Canadian cousins.

At last they got to Hanover, where Fela and Leon would be living during their remaining time in Germany. The morning after their arrival, Miki, on his own at last, took the train for Bad Harzburg.

Once he got there, things worked out exactly as he had hoped. He went to see Frau Bechmeyer, who welcomed him effusively after the initial surprise, and found out that Brigitte was already in Norderney. Renate, moreover, had moved to Frankfurt. He discovered, to his own and his teacher’s surprise, that he had not completely lost his touch on the piano. He spent the night at the apartment, in Brigitte’s bed, and though the sheets were freshly washed, he thought that he perceived her smell.

The next day he undertook the long journey, by way of Hanover and Bremen, to Norddeich, where he managed to catch the last ferry to Norderney. The tourist office informed him that there would be a performance of Minna von Barnhelm, with Brigitte Bechmeyer as Minna, that evening. She had had wonderful reviews, the woman at the office told him as she sold him a ticket.

As he sat in the audience, raptly watching her on stage, it took him a while to recognize his Brigitte. Her hair, which he had known only as a long, flowing blond mane, had been done with a permanent that left long ringlets – in the rococo style in which the production was done – covering the sides of her cheeks. Watching closely, he recognized in those cheeks the barest remnant of the adolescent puffs that he so loved to kiss. He surmised – correctly, it later turned out – that perhaps the director had decided that this coiffure would help the seventeen-year-old Brigitte portray Minna von Barnhelm, who was in her twenties, more convincingly.

When he went to see backstage she gave off, after the first look of surprise, the strange sensation of having expected him. She introduced him, almost matter-of-factly, to the cast and crew as her boyfriend, Miki Wilner, saying nothing about his having come from Israel.

When he told her that, with these curls, he had barely recognized her at first, she said, “Then I will use this style when I need to be incognito!”

She had a room in one of the mid-rank hotels by the beach, and there they spent their first whole night together. The year and a quarter of separation – five seasons, an eternity when one is young – melted away into timelessness.

By the next day he knew that he was not going back to Israel; his life was here, in Germany, with Brigitte. He would finish the high school in Bad Harzburg and then study – perhaps philosophy – at Göttingen, which was barely a forty-five-minute train ride from Hanover, where Brigitte would be. He was sure that Leon would understand: he, too, was in love, and had changed his plans for the sake of his beloved.

After an exhaustingly passionate three days he returned to Hanover. But when he told Leon of his decision, his uncle was not so understanding after all. “You want to be with a shiksa? And a German one? What do you think my friends will say?” Miki felt shattered. “Who matters more,” he asked, “your friends or your flesh and blood? Besides,” he added, “you will be in Canada, and your friends are in Israel.” “But they will still be my friends,” Leon insisted.

It was Fela who took Miki’s side. She had spent the war in hiding, with a gentile Polish family, and she could testify to the kindness of gentiles. She also reminded Leon that, as he had told her, it was he who had chosen Frau Bechmeyer, who was a friend of a friend of a friend of his, to be Miki’s music teacher. And if it turned out that she had a beautiful daughter who was Miki’s age, well, that was fate. “Look at him,” she said, “he’s so in love that he’s glowing. Isn’t that beautiful, after what we’ve been through?”

Of course Leon relented. It was agreed that Miki would live, for the time being, with Frau Bechmeyer, in what had been Renate’s room. Leon would pay the expenses.

Brigitte took a few days off from Norderney to attend the wedding with Miki. She dressed simply, so as not to upstage the bride, but, with her hair still styled à la Minna von Barnhelm, she looked dazzling.

*      *     *

When she came back from the hairdresser, her hair was in what she still called her incognito style, which she preferred for travel. They were going home the next day.

After lunch, she tied a kerchief around her hair and they spent their last afternoon on Norderney sailing around the island in a motorboat they had chartered. Miki had, over the past six years, sporadically been taking sailing lessons – the last of which had been two days earlier – during their Norderney vacations, but he did not feel ready yet for a solo voyage on a sailboat.

After a seafood dinner at a harbor restaurant they withdrew to their hotel room, where they had planned to catch up on their reading. Miki’s books were waiting for him on his nightstand, and Brigitte got her outline out of the safe and placed it on hers. But somehow they got distracted.

The celebration of their two decades as lovers went on until it was too late for any further reading. That could wait until the next morning.

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