A Place Nowhere
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Birte Kont
Translated from Danish by Nina Sokol
It was the last class that Tuesday. Danielsen, our history teacher, entered the classroom and put down his briefcase. Went to stand in front of the lectern and looked across the classroom. Then he turned toward me and said loud enough for everyone to hear it, “You’d better skip the class today because we’re going to be talking about the history of the Jewish people.”
He didn’t say that! Yes, he did! No, did he really say that?
In earlier times, I would immediately have gotten up from my chair. Would have bowed my head and dragged myself across the classroom hoping that the floor would open up and swallow me.
Now I dug my feet into the floor and moved all the way back in my chair, could feel the hard wood against my back. Then I folded my arms across my chest and gazed at the little man who looked like he had just shrunk and vanished inside his suit. And in a shrill voice that surprised me, I said, “I’m allowed to know what happened. I am, after all, Jewish!”
Then I suddenly realized it: the Jew in me had jumped out of my mouth and was now standing as large as life in front of the entire class!
No one said a thing. My heart was pounding. Everyone turned around. Everyone looked at me. Marianne, who sat in front of me, placed her hand on my arm.
Danielsen looked at me through his round horn-rimmed spectacles and continued to clear his throat over and over. You could never be sure where you had him. When we hadn’t properly prepared for the lesson he would bark like a little terrier. But he was also the kind who would say, with fervor in his voice and an eagerness that would make the spit fly from his mouth in every direction, that we were never to drink hot tea without first blowing on it! Marianne’s mother, who was a nurse, had let it slip that he recently had been to a rather nasty medical examination.
My blood was boiling and for the first time I wasn’t the one who looked away.
Then he turned on his heels and went up to the chalkboard and pulled down the world map:
Babylon. The Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish uprising on Masada. The Crusades and the banishment of the Jews from Spain. The pogroms in Russia and Poland, Hitler and Nazism.
Uncertainty could prick like the cactus in my windowsill. I had always carried this uncertainty in my body. A word here. A word there. Words that didn’t make sense. Words that didn’t have anything to do with me? Words that had everything to do with me? Uncertainty became certainty. Nightmare became reality. That had to be why it practically put my mind at ease to learn that Jews across the globe for two thousand years had been blamed for all the evilness that had happened in the world. That had to be why the knowledge that Jews everywhere had become everyone else’s scapegoat gave me a feeling of near triumph.
But a second later that feeling of greatness reversed into the very opposite.
“For no other reason than that they happened to be Jews,” Danielsen said.
Now he was referring to the Night of the Broken Glass. It had that name because the streets were flooded with shattered glass after the Nazis had ravaged Jewish shops and synagogues. Then Hitler and the Nazis seized power across Europe. The raids. The outbreak of the Second World War. The concentration camps.
Danielsen said that it was most likely due to coalition policies that what happened to the Jews in the rest of Europe didn’t happen to the Danish Jews. “At least we know that almost all the Danish Jews managed to flee to Sweden during the autumn of 1943. And the fishermen risked their lives when they sailed the Jews across the Sound.”
When the bell rang, Agnete, Marianne and several of the others formed a circle around me. Her eyes shining, Agnete’s lips moved as she tried to tell me something. But my thoughts had already left in advance and were on their way home.
Danielsen came over, too. He placed a hand on my shoulder and in a low voice asked me to follow him. I put the history book in my school bag, waved to Agnete and Marianne, and trudged behind him in the hallway. Some meters further on he opened a door to the back staircase through which I also slipped before the door shut with a clicking sound. All at once the steps out there seemed never-ending. I dragged myself up the stairs, leaned out from the bannister and looked up into a landscape of glass, steel and concrete. Surfaces and edges, window panes and bars spread out, criss-crossing one another as in an abstract piece of art.
I winced and when I turned my head and looked down into the abyss of the staircase my head began to swim. Still, I continued, placing one foot in front of the other, going up and up following in the heels of Danielsen. He stopped at a landing and opened an orange door which led to a passageway with more doors. They were blue. He selected one and I followed him across the threshold. Were there more levels of hallways and rooms outside of one another? The interior of the school, the assembly hall, from the ground floor all the way up to the glass roof with balconies surrounding it on every floor and doors leading to the classrooms, was like the stomach of a gigantic whale. This was where we would meet for the morning song. By and by we would separate between the ribs of the whale until the last bell of the afternoon would make us ride its wave and wash us back to the world. I was now in a small office. Danielsen pointed to the armchair by the window and asked me to take a seat while he went out to get something.
I looked around. There was a bright-colored poster hanging on the wall above the bookshelf. Chagall, it said in black letters. I recognized the motif. A couple floating as one body in the air across the roofs of the city’s houses, away from Vitebsk?
Danielsen returned with two steaming cups of tea. He handed me one of the cups and asked me to be sure to… but I already knew that.
Then he sat at his writing desk and cleared his throat. He was sorry about the unpleasantness he had had to confront me with that day, he really had assumed that I already knew all about it. He blew on his tea and took a sip. But then he had seen by the look on my face that it must have been the first time I had ever heard about it. He was sorry about that. And if there was anything he could do for me while he was still there at the school… He was waiting to get admitted, yes, he was soon to be hospitalized.
He had been talking into space. Now he opened a drawer and took a notebook in his hand. Turned around and handed it to me.
I got on my feet and took the notebook.
He was still looking at me.
“If you could write a little bit down, in fact, that’s what I usually do myself,” he said, giving me small smile, “just some scattered impressions, that which you heard today must have…”
He interrupted himself and remained silent for a little bit. Meanwhile I sat gripping the mug to warm up my freezing fingers.
Then he spoke again. As a history teacher he couldn’t imagine parents — not to say anything bad about mine; they had no doubt had their reasons — he couldn’t imagine parents who would allow their child to grow up outside of history, so to speak.
“Historyless.” He turned the word in his mouth showing clear signs of unpleasantness, cleared his throat and continued, “To be historyless! That is like a vessel without a compass. History itself has taught us that! And if there’s anything you ever want to talk with me about, just let me know!”
The last words were said with the same fervor as when he spoke about tea.
I took a different route home. Everything was covered in frosty snow. The sunlight sparkled in the trees, through the hedges and on the rooftops. The snow had transformed the residential neighborhood into a dazzling white fairy tale landscape. When we said goodbye, Danielsen had said he would inform my mother about what had happened today. He even had the feeling that my parents had been merely waiting for the right moment to broach the topic. And he said he hoped — giving my hand a warm squeeze — that his effort would prove useful and beneficial for the conversation that undoubtedly lay ahead between me and my parents.
Pogroms and gas chambers. The Jews’ escape to Sweden. As I tried to transform the bustle of thoughts that filled my skull into questions I could ask, I had crossed the park and was now standing in front of the stream. Something was lying on the lumpy ice and I had to squat to see what it was. It was a dead bird, a sparrow. It lay on its side a little distance from the bank. I reached out for the dead body of the bird. It had frozen into the ice. Only its head and one of its wings was sticking up.
That evening Father sat at the dining table looking at some of his old photographs. I walked over to him. Looked at the furrows on the skin of his face, I sought traces of the things I had heard about at school that day. Right now it was all distant and unreal. In front of him lay a pile of photographs which he had spread across the table.
“Look!” he said as he pointed to a picture of some racing cyclists, “there I am, and can you see who the others are?”
“Isn’t it Kay Werner and Evan Klamer?” I asked.
“Yes!” he nodded, smiling up to both ears. “And who is he? The one standing next to me and smiling?”
“It resembles Gunnar Nu Hansen.”
“It is Gunnar Nu! Ah yes, that was a great period!”
Mother entered the dining room.
“Are you sitting there again looking at those old pictures?”
I turned around and looked at her. But there were no signs of history to be seen in her face, either.
Night after night after that, I waited for Mother and Father to call for me and say that there was something important they wanted to talk with me about. I would secretly study their faces for signs, for a crack in our everyday life. And Helle’s. She had to know. My hope died for each day that passed. Monday night Mother and Helle went to the hospital to visit Grandma. I realized that what I was waiting for would never happen.
But then Father called for me. I was to immediately come into the living room and, with my heart pounding all the way up in my throat, I ran in there.
He was standing in front of the TV, pointing at the screen and saying that something would be coming on which I must see: sex education.
Then he left the living room. A little later his footsteps could be heard going down the cellar staircase.
I trotted back to my room and sat down at my writing desk. Danielsen’s notebook lay in front of me and on the first page I wrote in capital letters NORA!
Tikøbgade Street, number 8, first floor to the left, Tove had said. That was where Nora lived with Mikkel, as the baby boy was called. It was in Nørrebro, according to the map. And I was now on my way there.
For weeks I had biked into Vesterbro. Always during the afternoon when people had returned from work. I always made sure to be back home before my parents returned from the shop. The streets looked like one another, narrow, dark and worn streets where the houses loomed and where it teemed with dogs and cats and small shops and all different kinds of people.
I wheeled my bike through the crowd, down one street and up another, dizzy from all the exhaust coming from the cars and all the noise. The clamor as from a thousand voices echoed in my head. I had a vague memory of where the street was but had of course forgotten the name of it. The only thing I had to go on was a mere mailbox. A mailbox where the “B” was missing.
Tilkøbgade was a dead end street. Number 8 was at the very bottom, by the elevated tracks which passed close to the house at the top. I parked my bike against an iron grille that surrounded a small garden for the apartment on the ground floor. Inside the grille a baby carriage stood on the grass.
I went into the hallway, took a deep breath and rang the doorbell.
Nora's face lit up when she saw that it was me. But as she stood there in her tight brown dress, her arms hanging down along her sides, she practically became one with the battered, brown-colored door frames.
“Well, I’ll say!” she said with a dry snap in her voice. “Sure you’re not too refined to come out here?” She leaned a little forward, pointing toward the baby carriage in the yard. “In your circles that sort of thing is gotten rid of!”
“Nora, if you only knew… they know nothing about me coming here, Tove was the one who gave me your address.”
Then she pulled me inside and hugged me.
“Sit down in the living room! I can hear Mikkel’s awake, I’ll just get him.”
The living room faced the street and was airy. There wasn’t that much furniture. Through the window pane I saw Nora pick up Mikkel from the baby carriage. On a shelf next to the window there were a number of photographs. Next to a photo of Lasse there was one of Helle and me.
Mikkel had been given something to eat and was sitting on the floor playing. Nora and I sat down on the couch. I could no longer withhold the words.
“Did my mother and father also go to Sweden?”
Nora nodded. “They were lucky. Not everyone managed to get across.”
She lit a cigarette, blew out some smoke and said, “Shortly after the government was dissolved, the country was in a state of emergency. That was in 1943, at the start of September. At the start of October, the Germans let it leak out that they were planning a campaign against the Jews. There were raids and a number of Jews were caught and sent to Theresienstadt. Your family doctor hid many Jewish families in his office at night. Including yours. And along the entire east coast of Zealand the fishermen organized major relief work by sailing Jews to Sweden, several thousands.” Nora took in another whiff of smoke. “Then you could once again be proud to be a Dane.”
“Your mother and father were told to drive to a harbor someplace up north. A boat would be waiting for them there. But when they got up there they got quite a shock. The fishermen weren’t willing to let your sister go with them. You must understand that it could have jeopardized the lives of everyone on the boat. If they had gotten caught, that is. But your mother refused to leave Helle behind, she was only six months old. So they gave her an injection. But there were many who weren’t allowed to take their babies with them. Your cousin Ralfi had to live with a Danish family who hid him.”
“Cousin Ralfi had to be hidden? Do you know he died?”
Nora breathed in as she said yes.
For a moment none of us said anything. Then she continued, “It was all very dramatic. As they were crossing, the engine suddenly died and Helle woke up and started screaming. The Germans were in the vicinity, you see, so the others threatened to throw her overboard.” Nora crushed the cigarette in the ashtray. She lit another cigarette and drew the smoke into her lungs.
“Yes, your eyes are so big, but they managed to get across and later got to Stockholm. Then, after the war, it all came out what had happened to the Jews all across Europe.”
“Where do you know all that from?”
“Your mother had been so strong and brave through the whole ordeal. But when the nightmare was over she broke down. The doctor sent her to a sanatorium, a place in Jutland. Meanwhile I moved in with your father and sister. She was about two years old. I got close to your father back then.” She paused before continuing. “He hadn’t had an easy life with his father, your grandfather.”
“I never knew him.”
“Did you know your father had an Orthodox upbringing?”
Nora coughed a few times and nodded.
“When your mother returned from the sanatorium they agreed to put it all behind them. The future was all that mattered. Your father built up a new business and your mother helped him. But she was still very fragile and I stayed with them for a while. Mrs. Sand also came over to help get their day-to-day routine to hang together. Then you came, the new little hope of the family.”
Nora sent me a little, crooked smile.
“But you weren’t like your sister. And if anyone was having a hard time of it, then it was her. You couldn’t help it, of course, but Helle felt that you took all the attention away from her so your mother tried to compensate for that. You were pretty and extroverted and she was shy and toothless. She has been jealous of you, always.”
“Yes, you were a rebel no one could get to shut up. You asked questions and demanded answers. No, they couldn't get you to shut up. .”
Nora took a last whiff of the cigarette bud and crushed it in the ashtray with an impatient movement of her hand. “What could you possibly know? No one ever told you anything.” She took another cigarette from the package, held it in her hand as she sat looking at it. Then she lifted her gaze. “But that which had once been dangerous was no longer dangerous. Still, the fear remained in them. The fear that your mother fed your sister. In your mother’s eyes, Helle would always be a vulnerable little baby whom she would have to protect with her very life. She has never properly let go of that.”
I nodded. My whole body felt aflame. “I know that. Helle is my mother’s right hand. And do you know what? Marianne from my class is going to sew my bat mitzvah dress. Last week I tried it on with the pins still in it. Mother and Helle came into my room and lavishly praised Marianne. But when I left the room with her and came back, I saw Helle bent over my writing desk. She turned around and said that Marianne had written my essay. Of course, I said that that wasn’t true but she kept saying that it wasn’t my handwriting, I wrote in script writing. I said that I was practicing writing like Marianne, her “j”s and “g”s had loops, and you don’t use that in script writing! And do you know what, Nora? She wouldn’t believe me! I was so angry that I stamped my feet on the floor. But I’m the one who’s helping Marianne with spelling and commas. Her grades in written Danish have gone up from a 7 to a 9+! And the worst of it is,” my voice cracked, “my mother… immediately took Helle’s side. She didn’t even ask me!”
Nora had been sitting, patiently listening, holding her cigarette in her hand. When I paused, she let out a sigh of frustration and lit the cigarette. Then she said, “That's nothing to make your teeth clatter. The most important thing is to have a clear conscience, that you can look yourself in the eye. Because if you can do that, then you can look the whole world in the eye. Remember that!”
Mikkel came over and whimpered. Nora put down the smoking cigarette on the edge of the ashtray and lifted him up on her knee. Cradled him in her arms.
“Incomprehensible, isn't it?” she said to him. “Here you are, this beautiful baby, and your father doesn’t know you at all.”
“Who is he, Nora? Mikkel’s father?” I asked, and couldn’t make out the glance she gave me.
“I might tell you some day. But for now, all I’ll say is that when Mikkel grows up, one day he’ll have to make a choice. If he wants to amount to anything, then he should choose his father’s surname. But if he’d rather live it up, it would probably be wisest to take an ordinary name like Jensen. There are advantages to everything!” Nora said and laughed. Then she grew serious again. “That story has done more damage to the soul than your parents would care to admit. I’ve always said to them that they have an obligation to tell you kids your family history. But they believed it was safest for you not to know.”
When I got home I went to the bathroom. I turned the key in the lock that I was only allowed to lock if I wasn’t going to take a bath. Safest for us not to know! My knees were shaking and I sank down on the bath mat. Could I trust Nora? Had my mother pushed Nora away because she had talked about the war? Or were there other reasons? When I asked Nora what was going on between her and Mother, she said, “It’s not the first time we’ve been on bad terms. I’ve always been frank with her. But your mother’s always come around again. And I’m sure she will this time, too, if your father lets her. I grabbed hold of her when you were going to the Jewish school. They shouldn’t take you out of that school again! Nothing would be gained from that other than that you’d get confused. But your father insisted on it. You and your sister were to be nothing but Danish.”
“But that’s not how it is at all.”
“But you have to understand that they felt they had to keep a low profile after what they went through! All they wanted was to forget about it. They partied. Good grief how they partied! Your mother was really out showing off her ocelot coat! But the fear was in their bodies and that wouldn’t go away on its own.”
Nora fell silent and shifted on the couch.
I said, “Whenever I come home too late, Mother always looks like I’ve risen from the dead. And once when they didn’t come home at the time they normally do, I ran all the way down to the big intersection to look for them. What if they never came back home? When I saw Father turn at the corner I started to cry. ‘How foolish! A big girl like you!’ my mother said. Then I was ashamed of myself. They could drive off again, as far as I was concerned! And do you know what, Nora? When it’s dark, Helle doesn’t dare walk alone from the bus stop by herself. Then I bike down to the bus stop to get her!”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. You’re going to manage just fine!” Nora said, lit another cigarette and sat for a long time staring at the smoke. Then she got up and walked out of the living room.
Shortly afterwards she came back with a bottle in her hand. Poured a little into her glass and emptied it.
“‘I guess we can talk about it,’ I said to your mother. But she wouldn’t speak up. She heard what you and I were talking about that night. But she’s sure to come around again!” Nora said as though to convince herself. Put out the cigarette in the ashtray and poured herself another glass of schnapps.
“You know your father’s principles, he won’t budge an inch. But one thing’s for sure, he’s got the right connections! The next day he called your mother to say that there was a two-and-a-half bedroom apartment ready for me. And then she quickly got me installed in here. She washed the entire apartment, polished all the windows. Filled my refrigerator with food. Do you have any idea what it means for someone like me to be able to say, ‘My refrigerator’?” Nora looked at me with starry, shining eyes. “Your parents have always helped me. I’ve always paid every dime back. But ever since I’ve moved in I haven’t heard a word from your angel of a mother! But she’ll come around again.” Nora’s voice had grown grainy.
I was to visit Nora again. Or come by her new job, she was working at the bureau of the Danish National Archives now. Then she’d help me look for information about my family, it would be good for me to know more, she thought.
But how was I to see Nora without Mother discovering it? My angel of a mother who, as she said on the telephone, had an eye on every finger. It made me think of “The Angel of Light,” which was one of the songs we sang at the morning assembly. Didn’t she know that? Didn’t she know that her Jewish, non-Orthodox hands had been returned to favor by the Angel of Light? And that the diamond ring that always sat on her finger had an otherworldly shine to it? “Shining color from above”? It surrounded her hands and everything they touched. In my mother’s presence I would get sucked in, in my mother’s presence I was trapped in a teeny tiny idiotic and ignorant present. How could I not see Nora?
Without thinking about it, I had begun to undress. Got to my feet and took off my pants, socks and underwear. Left them on the bath mat and climbed into the bathtub. Turned up the faucets, didn’t put the stopper in. I lifted the shower head from its cradle, leaned my head back against the cool enamel of the bathtub, and passed the jets of water across my body. The lukewarm jets felt gentle on the skin, like the brush of an angel’s wing that made me forget everything, and little by little made me float.
I closed my eyes, letting the Water Angel take me upon its wings, all the way up to “The Angel of Light.”
Helle studied psychology and for several days she had been looking at me in a strange way. So one evening when we sat down for dinner I decided that I might just as well make a clean breast of it.
“I’ve found out where…”
But Helle broke in, “Mother says that you’ve started talking in your sleep about angels, water angels. Have you started drinking holy water instead of water from the tap? ?”
“Mind your own business, you fat…!”
“Now, now, girls!” Mother entered with a bowl of cucumber salad and sat down at the dinner table.
Helle began helping herself to the food, but continued in that teasing tone, “And I guess you don’t think anyone knows about your little secret!” There was a pregnant pause. “But it starts with a J” – here there was another such pause – “and then comes P…” My hand squeezed the fork so hard that my knuckles turned white.
I was lying in my room. Trying to settle down and read.
The sickle moon came into view above the apple tree. I stared up at the star-filled darkness and thought about Nora. When we talked, it had all made sense in my mind. Now it was strangely unreal, as though it had absolutely nothing to do with me. Was Helle really jealous of me?
I let my fingers slide across the wall where I had fastened a postcard from Lasse with some thumbtacks. A square with plane trees. A landscape of lavender fields. He had been confirmed. In France it was called a “communion.” He had sent a picture of himself where he was standing in front of the church with his broad shoulders and looking handsome in his navy colored suit. He was staying at a place for the treatment and rehabilitation of polio. His father was teaching at a school close by. Lasse wanted to study literature, he said.
The last time I had taken the bus to his house was shortly before I turned fourteen. The farewell made me choke. I fixed my gaze on his shirt pocket as we tried to talk as though he wasn’t moving to France. He was looking forward to it.
“I’m going to see the house where Marcel Proust lived. It’s a museum now. Blue. The house is in Illiers Combray.” He pronounced the name in French, “Illeeyers-Combray.” And with an awkward movement he placed his hand over mine. “You should come down and visit us.”
But that would be inconceivable, Father said.
Nora’s words returned. In my mind’s eye I saw a boat that sailed from a harbor. A wake of foaming whirlpools. A sense of drowsiness settled over me, a warm wave that rolled through me. And as the warmth spread through my body, I felt something take shape in my skull, something I was to do. But just before I grasped what it was, I had fallen asleep.
Tormented, I opened my eyes. The sun was stinging. I got up and got dressed. Took a mouthful of tea and walked with Agnete to school, but I didn’t really wake up until later in the day.
It was Saturday afternoon. I parked my bike in the carport and locked it. When I went inside the house, Mother came out to the hallway. “Where have you been?” she asked, overly nonchalant as she looked at her reflection in the mirror and straightened her hair with both hands.
“Just out biking.”
“You’re lying!” She turned around and looked at me with a strange sort of delight shining in her eyes. “You were at Nora’s. We saw you and followed you in the car. It’s not the first time, is it? Is it?”
I looked at her without blinking. I had been to visit Nora four times, and I intended to continue doing so.
“But today was the last day you’re ever visiting her, just so you know!”
I ran to the bathroom. Slammed the door behind me and turned the key.
I decided to start with the mirror. But when I peered into it I sneered at myself. I was just about to cry.