In the mid-1970s, I spent a year living in a fourth-floor walk-up attic flat on Aussere-Maxamillian Strasse in Augsburg Germany. The scourge of our war in Vietnam had recently ended. A break from college to travel was turning into a much longer Odyssey and this was midway through that voyage. Augsburg, about an hour’s drive north of Munich, was an industrial city. A major auto-maker’s plant was a short walk away (the tall white walls had a security tower at the entrance). But across our street, behind a hedge and chain-link fence, was a tennis club. I envied the players I watched in their pressed whites. The women, without men in the middle of the day, often wore thin sweaters draped casually over their shoulders, as though there were nothing in the world that could disturb their leisure.
A journey from the flat I shared with my German girlfriend to the Stadtmitte, the central hub for streetcars, required a 25 minute ride on my black one-speed WWII vintage bike with fat tires. If the weather were bad, or if I were in a hurry, I’d lock up (spoke lock, hardly effective but who would steal such an object) and continue by streetcar to the American Kaserne where I’d landed a job in an American Express bank. (I was the overdraft department. I explained to American GIs even younger than myself why they couldn’t keep writing checks as long as they had blanks.) During my lunch hour, my coat pockets filled with peanuts, I’d sit on the floor in the Kaserne library reading Henry Miller, Sam Beckett, Norman Mailer, and Alaine Robbe-Grillet. On the floor of that library (usually the only customer, I had to place myself away from the librarian’s watchful eye so I could munch my lunch while reading), I daydreamed of a life with mornings spent writing scintillating prose, afternoons playing tennis with undisturbable women in whites, evenings quaffing a life a few shades less bawdy than Miller’s in Paris.
My German girlfriend was an elementary-school teacher in training at the time and gone during the day. I had saved money working illegally in Australia. For the few months before taking that job in the bank, I applied Henry Miller’s advice (there is an appropriate age when his books fascinate young men: consensus has it maybe 19 maybe 20: I was 21 at the time): I sat my butt in a chair and let the words bottled up in me pour out onto paper. I did not own a typewriter. Two hundred handwritten pages later, I mailed what I called a novel to my father, who paid my sister to type it. I don’t know if they actually read it. I never read those words again. Who would want to read the rantings of a narrator locked in an attic fantasizing about unapproachable women in tennis skirts? Naïve? Yes, that was me, but not so naïve as to not see that merely heeding Miller’s advice did not a writer make.
Still. I had the luxury—or was it a burden?—of starting with a blank slate. Nothing to prove. No grudge to service. I had been just young enough to escape the dreaded Vietnam draft. Prior to moving into this flat, on a bus tour en route from Munich to Istanbul, I had spent a night at a hotel in Prague. Something about Prague’s shabby elegance, the tight-lipped paranoia of the hotel personnel, the grim brown quiet, the complete dearth of neon, the sense that one had to keep one’s head down and not ask difficult questions, lodged in me like a parasite that would lie dormant for many years before it started to eat slowly at my liver. At the time, I knew too little about history, about even my own family’s history, to diagnose this parasite.
One night, before going out, I told my German girlfriend about that stay in Prague. She grew very angry. I have a vivid memory of her actually jiggering up the doorframe barefoot like a crazed monkey, so incensed was she over the fate that had befallen her family. Her mother had grown up speaking Czech and German. Her grandmother had started a lucrative toy factory in Czechoslovakia. In 1945, with no opportunity to prove they’d done nothing wrong, had certainly done nothing to support the Nazis, and strictly because they were ethnic Germans, her grandfather was killed, their property was confiscated, and the woman and child were forced to leave home in Czechoslovakia on a train bound for Berlin (part of a forced transfer of population that by 1947 would include twelve to fourteen million ethnic Germans) with nothing more than the clothing they could carry. Their passports were taken away, their Czech citizenship revoked. Despite their entreaties, the property was never returned. They received no compensation.
It’s meaningless to say her family was part of what might be, according to R. M. Douglas in Orderly and Humane, the largest ever forced transfer of a population in human history. She did not start life with a blank slate. Her family were not Nazis. They did not participate in that butchery. Yet they were persecuted as though they had. What did she want? Acknowledgement? An admission of what had been done to her family? A return of stolen property? I’m not sure even she knew.
It is one of the ironies of history that many of these forced émigrés thrived in their new homeland—that includes my girlfriend’s mother—while their former countrymen became objects in one of the most disastrous social engineering experiments in human history.
She began her life with a deficit that will never be filled. When many years later I attempted to explain the sad predicament of my Czech relatives, she was not particularly sympathetic, to say the least.