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 mornings 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
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, Mikis 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.
Whats 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 couldnt have been
a Nazi even if hed wanted.
So what happened to him?
He was only a quarter-Jew,
so he wasnt bothered too much. He was a soldier in the Wehrmacht he
could not have become an officer and probably got killed on the Eastern
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 dont 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 wasnt really
feeling angry, not when Tzvi cited Hanna as his authority.
Tzvi was silent.
Didnt 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. Brigittes 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 wouldnt argue with you
about that, said Tzvi.
Its good that theres
something you wont 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 Ill leave you
alone. Tending the fishpond, which was located just by the entrance to the
kibbutz behind a stand of young eucalyptus trees, was Tzvis 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
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.
Didnt 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 havent forgotten. But its been a long time since you talked
I havent felt the need, he
said, now moved to tears. I stopped covering that stuff after Leon died.
Of course you do. And Ive
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 isnt 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
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 thats right near where this
Hemme lived, mention only one.
Well, there are probably
other people who will recognize the mistake. Youve been out of the spotlight
for a while, were on vacation, and its been so lovely, so peaceful lets
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 Lessings 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 Devils 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 didnt
understand all of it, but what she did understand and she gave him some
examples didnt 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.
* * *
Youre 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
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
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.
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
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 womans
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 Mikis
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
* * *
A few days after receiving Brigittes 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 hadnt
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 womens 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
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. Wassermanns 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
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
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.
Mikis 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 dont need
much to arouse them; the sight of a breast or of a tuft of pubic hair was
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 Brigittes 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
* * *
Brigittes 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 wouldnt, 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
didnt 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.
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 hadnt thought of the coincidence.
No, its 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? Im sure
well find out more about him as the days go on, but
But probably not about how
he was in bed. But you dont really care about him, do you? You just changed
the subject for some reason.
Youre right, he conceded.
I think I know the reason,
but it doesnt matter. Lets 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 havent pursued him fanatically
You know about me and
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
When he told Tzvi about these
misgivings, he got nothing but rebukes. What are you saying? Tzvi demanded.
Arent you excited about fighting our enemies? After two thousand years, isnt
Our enemies? Sure, Miki
said. But my enemies are the Nazis, not the Arabs. There are plenty of Nazis
who didnt 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
As usual, Tzvi was silent for
a moment when Miki brought up something of his wartime history. But not for
long. You dont 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 cant give them the chance. I know you werent here during the war
our war but wait until youve been here for a while, talk to people who have
dealt with them, and youll learn about what the Arabs are like.
But when you say the
Arabs, thats just like saying the Germans or the Jews. You cant talk
about a whole people that way.
Sure you can. Just wait
until youve been here for a year.
All right, Ill wait.
Dont get me wrong, Tzvi
added. Im not saying that we shouldnt hunt Nazis. But thats 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
Secret operations? Whats
the point? If were 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 youve been through.
All right, so Im naïve.
Maybe after a year I wont 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
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 Ive told
you rape jokes, she said. If I cant do that, then Im more of a victim that
I otherwise would be.
Its all right for you, or
perhaps women in general. But a man must be careful.
But you yourself have
written a whole article that its all right for non-Jews to tell Jew jokes.
Theres 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 dont 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,
Tzvis 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 dont want to, he
said, I dont want to hurt you again. But it will be different, she said,
Im not a virgin any more. I dont 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 didnt rape that girl, she said after he had told
her the story.She chose you. Many women friends have told me that
its 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.
Wasnt that because you
Its 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
And? she asked skeptically.
I didnt follow the
adolescent equivalent of that law, and that was my transgression.
Its an interesting theory,
she said just before going into the bathroom, but I dont 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
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 uncles 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
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
Miki felt his mind agitated, like
a stormy sea. He was now afraid to open Brigittes 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 mothers 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
hadnt 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
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 Bechmeyers 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 Brigittes 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 Hearts in the Highlands that a British
soldier had taught him. Well, his heart was in the lowlands, those of Lower
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 didnt need a condom. He didnt understand. She laughed at his ignorance.
Its 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 couldnt possibly go
back, she said with a sigh, and thats 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.
Thats 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. Im going to cry, so youd 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 islands
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 Wilners assistant and demanded an immediate appointment for her.
Im 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
* * *
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
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 teachers surprise, that he had
not completely lost his touch on the piano. He spent the night at the
apartment, in Brigittes 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 Mikis
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 Mikis music teacher. And if it turned out
that she had a beautiful daughter who was Mikis age, well, that was fate.
Look at him, she said, hes so in love that hes glowing. Isnt that
beautiful, after what weve been through?
Of course Leon relented. It
was agreed that Miki would live, for the time being, with Frau Bechmeyer, in
what had been Renates 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. Mikis 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.