Arts & Culture

Sebald, Stuttgart and an Unexpected Letter

I received a note in my mailbox today from a friend. I want to post part of it because it is about a street not far from where I’m living right now. Included with the letter (in the mailbox) was … Read More

By / October 24, 2008

I received a note in my mailbox today from a friend. I want to post part of it because it is about a street not far from where I’m living right now. Included with the letter (in the mailbox) was a roughly photocopied Yiddish newspaper:

Here’s a part of the Yiddish newspaper I told you about at the Weindorf. Sorry for the bad quality of the copy and my scribbling; I hope you can still read it. The paper has never been transcribed or published after 1945 and has probably never been read outside of the camp in the Reinsburgstrasse where it was published in Dec. 1945. In this camp around 1500 mainly Polish Jews lived from `45, after being freed from concentration camps, until around 1950. The atmosphere between the German population of Stuttgart and the Jewish DPs must have been quite tense, culminating in a raid by the German police and the US military police in March 1946. In the raid, Szmul Danzyger, who survived Auschwitz and only returned from Paris the day before to see his family again for the first time, was killed by a shot in the head.

Included with the Yiddish newspaper is a speech made by W.G. Sebald to the Literature House in Stuttgart in 2001, not long before he died (the speech was published in the December 20th, 2004 issue of the New Yorker). In this speech, Sebald, a German-born writer who lived in England the last thirty years of his life, deftly leaps from his own past into the larger German past of the poet Hoderlin (who wrote about Stuttgart on several occasions in the 18th century) to the post-war event described above to a postcard he found at the Salvation Army store in Manchester. The postcard is a remarkable Sebald moment: typically in his writing it’s these little details of history that reveal so much. The postcard is from a British girl visiting Stuttgart only weeks before the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. She writes that she’s met amiable people in Stuttgart and that she has “been out tramping, sunbathing and sightseeing, to a German birthday party, to the pictures and to a festival of the Hitler Youth.” What I love about Sebald is his obsession with history: how the past is never far from us, is somehow still happening, repeating itself like a dream (or nightmare). Sebald not only wrote about these things, but his writing somehow captures the feeling of memory invading us at unexpected moments. I’ve noticed it here, felt it when walking down a street in Stuttgart, now glossed over, now clean and even and orderly. Walk down Reinsburgstrasse to buy some bread, to visit the doctor, and an image might come to me of rubble, homelessness, devastation. I look into the faces of old people and wonder what they were doing sixty years ago; the kinds of choices they made in a reality I can barely fathom. Were they here when Szmul Danzyger was killed? Then the thought occurs to me that even though Germany has rebuilt its cities so well, somewhere the shooting of Szmul Danzyger is still happening, be it in Sudan or Afghanistan or Gaza or Georgia. I think this walking down Reinsburgstrasse or Marienstrasse or Konigstrasse, among the shopping malls and Turkish kebab stalls and art museums: the fires of history are constantly ablaze, and they’re fueled by human suffering. And the mind remembers this suffering, keys into it in unexpected moments: sometimes as dream, sometimes as literature, sometimes as a letter left in a box.

 

Jonathan Garfinkel, author of Ambivalence: Adventures in Israel and Palestine, spent the last week guest-blogging on Jewcy. This is his parting post. Want more? Buy his book!