Photo: Victor Prataviera
Sonata in Auschwitz
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Luize Valente
Translated from Portuguese by Claudio Bethencourt
1. Berlin, April 1999
It is a special date for the Germans. After decades, Berlin is once again the capital of Germany, now reunited. It is a special day for me, too. I’m going to meet my father’s grandmother: my great grandmother Frida. The re-inauguration of the Reichstag, the German parliament, happens to be on the day of my arrival.
It is not the first time that I’ve been to Berlin, although it feels like it. Right after the fall of the Berlin wall, I and some other students from Lisbon’s Law School made our way to this city. Our professor from Criminal Law organized this informal trip because he is keen on the German legal system that has greatly influenced the Portuguese one. He used to call me “Hafner”, the little German. At that time, I was barely twenty and such words neither bothered me nor affected my existence. I’ve never told my father about that. Under no circumstances was I to speak about his German past. I never dared to joke with him about that.
My father claims to be a full-blooded Portuguese man. He loves this country more than anyone who was born here. He was only five when he came to live in Portugal and he quickly assimilated the country’s language and culture. He claims not to remember a word of German. Actually, he has never been keen on learning it. He met my mother in college in the early sixties and was smitten. She fell in love with him, too. They graduated from law school, fought side by side against the Salazar’s military regime, and got persecuted and exiled to Mozambique, where my brother and I were born. He in 1968 and I in 1970. They named me Amalia in honor of my maternal grandmother. They were not fond of fado, the traditional Portuguese music. I, on the other hand, love to listen to the melancholic guitar tunes expressing pain and sorrow. Ironically, I learned to appreciate this kind of music thanks to Amalia, my grandmother. She also taught me how to play the piano, one of my greatest passions. We came to Portugal in 1974, a few months after the Carnation revolution. It was around Christmas. My father got naturalized and was able to exercise his voting rights.
I never had any contact with my paternal grandparents, Gretl and Helmut. We settled in Lisbon whereas they lived in a small town in the Algarve. In fact, the first and only time I met them was when we returned from Maputo. As I recall, my brother and I were building a castle on the living room rug when someone’s fist slammed down a table. A few minutes later, my mother quickly rushed over, picked us up by the arms, and whispered: “Wave goodbye to Grandma and Grandpa, we are heading home.” Had it been any other occasion, we probably would have pouted, but at that moment we realized something serious had happened. We just got up and left. Never again did we see our grandparents Gretl and Helmut. I erased their images from my mind. No one ever dared to speak a word about that day.
As I mentioned earlier, no one ever speaks about the past in my house. From a very early age, I realized that Germany and the Holocaust were simply topics not to be discussed. It was not exactly taboo, but it was unpleasant. At school, there were no Jews. In fact, there are very few in Portugal. When my history teacher introduced the topic of WW II in class, I simply opted to stay away from it, and spent my time playing the piano, listening to music, and organizing school protests. My father, unlike other parents, encouraged me to defend my anarchistic ideas.
My dad was not aware of my rendezvous with Frida. She is turning one hundred years old in a few days. It must be exciting to have lived in the twentieth century and to reach such an old age. We spoke over the phone and arranged to meet in an elegant neighborhood in Berlin, at the bar in the Kempinski Hotel, in Kufurstendam Avenue — or simply “Kudamm”— the most exciting street on the east side of the city. I get there two hours in advance. I have enough time to go for a stroll in the wide avenue filled with designer stores, restaurants, and cafés. I look forward to seeing the sunset. Our meeting is scheduled for seven-thirty. My first trip to Berlin with my college mates flashes through my mind. I was standing in that avenue, Kudamm, in July 1990. It was an exciting trip in the heat of summer. Berlin was the capital of techno music; the techno beat was the vibrant sound in the night clubs. A wall that had been standing in the middle of the city for decades was torn down, reunifying the two sides. None of that interested me. All I wanted to do was rave the night away in the warehouses and abandoned factories that were sprawled around the city. I remembered dancing all night with hundreds of people. The town was in a party spirit nine years ago. I was young and didn’t have a care in the world. I was oblivious to the past.
I came back to Portugal and realized my life was rather dull and boring. I thought of living in Germany. Maybe I should study music and take a break from law school. German techno had been influenced by contemporary composers such as Stockhausen. It was different and innovative. I grew up playing classical music. I decided to apply for my German citizenship. My short field trip to Berlin had made my father resent me. He was antagonistic to my visiting Germany. I did not need his permission since I was a legal adult; however, his financing was crucial. Finally, my mother intervened and persuaded him to pay for my trip. He never gave me a good reason for not wanting me to go to Berlin. Four days in Berlin? To him, it seemed we would surely get wasted in bars, stay up all night, walk around like zombies the next day in guided tours. In the end, we would come back exhausted, longing only to sleep. We could do the same in Lisbon for less money, he reasoned, after filling out the check and then slamming the office door.
He was right. That is exactly what we did. But after coming back to Portugal, I had an overwhelming urge to live in Berlin. I don’t know why. I never shared that with him. I kept my plans secret. I started taking German lessons. After studying the language for about a year, I managed to master it. I haven’t stopped speaking it since. Back then, I also developed a keen interest on issues of human rights and the migration flows that resulted from the Eastern European countries opening up. I realized that my dream of giving up everything for techno music was nonsense. I really enjoyed playing classical music. But had to admit I loved my country and wanted to fight for a fairer and more egalitarian government, just like my parents did.
A decade has passed. I graduated and moved to a new apartment where I live alone. I got a master’s and a doctorate in international law. I set up my own NGO geared towards refugees living in countries with conflicts in Africa. I am always flying to various locations, but I haven’t been back to Berlin. I have returned to Germany on at least two or three other occasions, to attend conferences in other cities. My piano is still part of my daily routine and I play it whenever possible. Music is still a great passion in my life. My life, consisting of intellectual work and a few love affairs every now and then, would have remained the same had I not arrived in my parents’ home unannounced one day. It was less than a month ago in a beautiful afternoon in March.
Despite not living there for a number of years, I still have the key to my parents’ apartment. It is good for all of us. I watch over the property while they are away, and they let me have access to the nest whenever I need it. That afternoon, I just dropped by to see if I could find a book to lend to a friend of mine. I don’t even remember the title. It was past four o’clock in the afternoon and I knew that no one would be home. My parents live in Campo de Santana, and their office is a few blocks away on Avenida Liberdade. They usually have lunch there. Cicera, the housekeeper, invariably goes to the apartment three times a week. She would come every day in the past — I mean when my brother and I still lived with our parents. Her routine is still the same: she meticulously vacuums the rooms, dusts off the furniture, and uses the dust cloth to wipe the books. Barto passed away three years ago, but we can still feel his fur resting in each corner of the rooms. Cicera was not supposed to be working that afternoon.
I rushed into the apartment as I was in a hurry. The quiet living room helped me relax my breathing. “Hello, is anybody home?” No answer, nothing but silence. I went straight to my former bedroom. The apartment is quite spacious. There are three bedrooms and an office attached to the living room by a big exterior sliding door. The spacious common area is isolated from the bedrooms by a corridor. A telephone extension is located in the hall. As soon as I spotted the receiver, it reminded me that I had to make an appointment with my gynecologist. I had to reschedule my appointment for another day. As I picked up the receiver, I heard my father’s voice. I realized he was in the office and had not noticed me come in. The office door was shut. My immediate reaction was to hang up the phone, but I hesitated for a few moments. My fingers got numb and I held my breath. My father was speaking in fluent German with a woman on the other end of line. It was my grandmother Gretl. He only addressed her by her first name.
The conversation between them was void of emotion. The tone was polite. Every now and then, the conversation would pause. I suddenly placed my hand over the phone mouthpiece to prevent them from hearing my breathing. Despite my fluent German, I was puzzled. The conversation did not make sense to me. What was happening? Who were those people that I had never heard of? “Ingeborg the wife of the industrialist passed away and had no kids. Frida was alone,” said Gretl, gradually disclosing the information. Her voice did not express any emotion whatsoever, and Herman seemed equally indifferent to her words. “Ingeborg was the one who emotionally supported Frida all these years.” She proceeded: “Now there is only you.” He remained quiet. Finally she raised her voice as if she had lost her patience. “Herman, Frida is about to turn one hundred and she wants to see you.” He gave her a curt but controlled response, as if he were speaking to one of his clients – it was quite different from the burst of anger he showed to me and my brother. My father replied: “ I’m sorry Gretl, I have nothing to do with these people. I am not part of this mob.” Gretl responded immediately. “Mob? How dare you speak like that! Frida wants to see you! You will never get it, will you? We are not to blame for anything! Your grandpa and your dad were officials! They just followed orders! They fought to build a better country for you.” My father paused, and replied: “I don’t wish to argue that. Tell Frida the truth. Just say we are no longer in touch and that I abandoned the family. Just make up an excuse.” However, Gretl insisted: “I just called you because Frida contacted me after all these years. She has been restless. Every night, she has a recurring nightmare about Friedrich and does not want to die before she speaks to you about him.” Gretl continued in a hostile tone: “You claim to be a staunch ally of humanitarian causes. Have mercy on someone who is probably going to die soon! You think it was easy for me to pick up the phone and call you? My only son, who has not spoken to me in over twenty years? Who thinks I am to blame for a past I did not choose!” There was a brief silence after her words, but to me it seemed like hours. My father sighed and replied once again in a low but clear voice: “Gretl, I am not going to look her up, and that is that. My family is my wife and kids.”
Before he hung up, Gretl made a last attempt. “Do whatever you think is right. You don’t listen to others, but only to yourself. At any rate, you have to write down her number. She still lives in Berlin. Please write down her phone number. I’m going to let her know exactly what you told me. Here is her phone number in case you change your mind.” She started dictating the number, pausing every now and then to make sure he was taking a note of each digit. I wasted no time and grabbed a pen from the drawer and wrote it on the back of my hand. They bid each other farewell in a frigid manner. They did not ask how the other family members were doing, or mention whether they would contact each other again. I waited for them to hang up and then followed suit.
My first impulse was to get into my father’s office and lash out at him with a bunch of questions: “Who are you, really? Why did you hide your German past? Why didn’t you tell us about Frida? Who are Ingborg and Friedrich?” But I restrained myself from doing that. I simply picked up my bag and quietly left.
A month has passed since that afternoon, and here I am in Berlin. I am about to meet Frida in a few minutes. My father never found out that I had been in the family apartment that afternoon. He has no clue that I called his grandmother and set up a meeting with her. I rush towards Hotel Kempinski hoping to reach there in a few strides. The closer I get to the hotel, the more I am gripped by fear. But I am not turning back now. I long to know the past, even though I know it cannot be changed.
The Kempinski Hotel was a landmark for the city of Berlin. It was also a landmark for Frida. It stood on the corner of Kufurstendamm and Fasenenstrasse, a few meters away from her former house. She still spoke about this site as “her building” although she no longer lived there. Despite the bombing in WW II, it was one of the few constructions that remained intact among the rubble. This is where Kudamm is now. Now Frida lived nearby in a more modest residence. It was about two hundred meters from the hotel’s entrance, next to the railway lines. She didn’t mind that. She just wanted to be close to “Kempi,” the place where, before the war and the city’s downfall, she used to enjoy herself. She would still go there once or twice a week to have lunch. It was a way to revisit her past, a reminder that the world was the block where she lived.
Frida was sitting at the table in the corner when Amalia arrived. She spotted her granddaughter at once. She was nothing short of exquisite – a graceful, delicate beauty. Her resemblance to Friedrich was striking. True, her great-granddaughter’s features were identical to hers, as well. She stood up, leaning against the table. They greeted each other with a handshake. Actually, Frida wanted to embrace her, but restrained herself.
“You are Herman’s daughter.” She spoke with a tremulous voice. “I’m sorry that the last time I saw your father he was barely five.” She paused for a moment. “You might even be a grandmother, too… Do you have children?”
Amalia shook her head as she moved towards the chair opposite Frida. Frida touched her gently and pointed to the chair next to her. “Sit next to me. Age takes its toll on sight and hearing.”
Amalia sat down and grinned slightly. She complimented Frida’s looks. Now they had broken the ice.
“Your phone call caught me by surprise, especially after Gretl told me that Herman would not contact me. How is your father doing?”
Amalia opened her backpack and pulled out a recent family picture. Frida immediately pulled out the magnifying glass that was in her purse and followed Amalia’s finger moving around the picture.
“This is Herman,” said Amalia. She pointed at the tall, gray-haired man on the left side of the picture. “The woman standing by his side is Helena, my mother. This is me, and this is my brother Miguel. My brother has a son called Pedro.”
She remained quiet for a while. Amalia’s German was perfect. They soon ordered two glasses of red wine and something to eat. Their conversation flowed smoothly on trivial topics.
“Your German is fantastic!” Frida mentioned.
Amalia spoke about her keen interest in the language, her previous visits to Berlin right after the fall of the wall, her work as a lawyer, her passion for music, and finally her life in Portugal. They had barely started drinking when Frida told her about the Kempi’s history. This hotel was the biggest restaurant in Berlin before the war. There were at least four hundred seats to accommodate patrons. The reconstruction, in the fifties, turned the location into a luxury hotel on the west side of the city. Despite the city’s division, the wall had not yet been erected at that time.
“This was a sign of Berlin’s rebirth from the rubble,” she added.
Frida spoke of the bombings as something out of a history book. She did not mention the horror, the anguish, the relief that she experienced to be alive and intact after each attack. The buzz that echoed in her ears, the momentary deafness, the soundless screams, the begrimed faces and agonizing looks. She did not speak about the rapes that occurred when the Russians took over the city. She simply pointed out statistics.
“There were over three hundred bombings. Initially, they were restricted to military sites. As the war unfolded, there were civil ones as well. Berlin surrendered in the beginning of May, a few days before the final capitulation on May 8th.”
She paused for a moment. That day would always remind her of her husband and what he had done. However, that would be discussed another time.
“The devastation on all sides was palpable,” she continued. “The population had left the city over those six years. The main Allies, the United States, Great Britain, Russia, and France, decided to divide the city into four sections and manage them jointly, but that did not work. In the beginning of the sixties, the wall was built, making a clear division between the socialist and capitalist sides.”
There was no dialogue. It was a monologue. Frida spoke compulsively. All of a sudden, Amalia realized that Frida was spewing facts straight from the history books to avoid any confrontation or silences during the conversation.
“Surely you did not come here to have a history class,” she said a sterner voice. She did not sound anymore like the lady of frivolous talk. “And this is not the reason why I tried to ask to contact Herman after so many years.”
Amalia bit her lips nervously and sighed heavily. And the more Frida gazed at Amalia, the more her looks reminded those of Friedrich. She really missed her son. Frida had to restrain herself from embracing and kissing Amalia. Instead, she held Amalia’s hands and invited her to come over to her house. Frida insisted on paying the bill. Then they stood up and walked across the bar towards the hotel lobby. Frida nodded her head to the restaurant staff as she and Amalia headed to the street. Her right arm leaning on her cane while the left one leaned on Amalia.
At seven thirty-five, I find myself getting into the Kempinski bar, five minutes late. The bar has just opened. The place is still empty except for the table against the wall.
There she is. She is turning one hundred in a few days. “A century,” she tells me on the phone. The image stuns me for a few minutes. I allow it to be etched in my memory. She hasn’t caught a glimpse of me yet. I manage to watch her without her noticing me. The silver hair — definitely blonde in the past — is in a bun. I spot some strands of loose hair neatly placed. She surely fixed her hair this way. She’s managed to keep good posture despite her age and a slight curve on her spine. She is wearing a pastel-colored outfit with a beautiful white scarf wrapped around her neck to match the tones of the spring season. An aristocratic air lingers around her and in her posture.
My father somehow resembles Frida. I do, too. Despite the fact that he is blonde and I am brunette, our facial features are quite similar. Once she spots me, she immediately stands up. I can hardly believe she is turning a hundred years old. I would have guessed she was in her eighties. She asks me to sit next to her. I promptly tell her she looks much younger than her real age. She says that the secret to looking younger is to start the day by having a glass of warm water with a squeeze of lime every day, but on an empty stomach. It is equally important to go for a forty- or fifty-minute walk, regardless of the season — summer or winter.
I cast a glance at her ear and spot a hearing aid attached to it. The fair skin with dark spots has more wrinkles from expressiveness than from wrinkles due to the passing of time. Her skin looks so soft that it makes me want to touch it. Her strong voice muffled by a low pitch makes me pay closer attention to the way she speaks. The sound is audible. In general, people who have hearing problems tend to speak louder. Frida starts a conversation about general issues, and I only take part in it when she asks me something. I don’t care for chat. My focus is on watching her. She is my great-grandmother. She is almost one hundred years old. I probably would have lived to be a hundred not knowing about her existence, had I not intercepted that call. I do not believe in coincidences. Frida is the guardian of my history, yet she relentlessly speaks about history. I can tell she is fully familiar with Kempi – this is how she refers to the hotel – by the way the staff treats her. They are so kind to her. I don’t care what she talks about. My ears relish just listening to her voice.
The food in front of us is practically untouched. So is the wine. As she reports some of the events of her life, I can see the hint of sadness in her eyes, despite the impersonal manner in which she speaks. I wonder when we will actually get to know each other. Who are Ingborg and Friedrich? Frida seems to read my thoughts. “You did not come here to have a history class… Well, I did not contact Herman after so many years on a whim,” she explains. She invites me to go over to her apartment in the neighborhood.
We ask for the bill. I reluctantly allow her to pay it. I help her stand up. She is thin and wears long pants and slippers to avoid any kind of accident. She is slightly shorter than me. I assume she was probably one meter seventy centimeters in height, or more, when she was young. As we exit the hotel, I let her hold onto my arm and take small but accurate steps. The other hand is equipped with a cane that helps her keep her balance.
She explains to me that she would like to show me something before we head to her house. “Do you know Paris? Kudammis is regarded as the Champs-Élyséesfor Berliners.” She says this with a restrained smile as she spews out a lot of information regarding the wide avenue where, in the 1920s, Berlin’s night life pulsated. She brags about the charming neighborhood of Charlottenberg, the urban zoo, and finally the Gedachtniskirsche, the church that never got to be restored. The ruins at the end of the street are a permanent reminder of the destruction caused by the war. “As if we needed them to remind us of the war,”she says in a whisper. We spend a few minutes in complete silence, looking at the damaged tower. I want to know what’s going through her mind. Frida actually saw the bombings; and such memories haunt her, as I heard from my grandmother Gretl on the phone, speaking of Frida's terrible nightmares. Who are these people who my father erased from my life?
I never dared to think of having relatives linked to the Nazi past. That may have been out of fear. Hearing my grandmother Gretl say that my grandfather was just a Nazi official who simply followed orders had not made me dive into the issue. But now that I stand before Frida, the “official” carries different weight and meaning. I am now side by side with my great-grandmother who lived and experienced the horrors of that war. Here lies my past.