Germans flee the besieged city of Danzig in 1945. Poles driven out of eastern regions controlled by the Russians move into the homes hastily abandoned by their previous inhabitants. In an area of the city graced with beech trees and a stately cathedral, the stories of old and new residents intertwine: Hanemann, a German and a former professor of anatomy, who chooses to stay in Danzig after the mysterious death of his lover; the Polish family of the narrator, driven out of Warsaw; and a young Carpathian woman who no longer has a country, her cheerful nature concealing deep wounds.
Through his brilliantly defined characters, stunning evocation of place, and memorable descriptions of a world that was German but survives in Polish households, Chwin has created a reality that is beyond destruction.
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A literary critic, essayist, novelist, and illustrator, Stefan Chwin is one of the most acclaimed writers in Europe today. Death in Danzig is his first novel to be translated into English. He lives and teaches in Gdansk, Poland.
| August Fourteenth |
IT WAS A LONG TIME before I found out about August fourteenth, and not even Mama was convinced everything happened the way they told the story at the Steins'. Mr. Kohl, who'd worked in Anatomy ever since the Institute was founded, was reluctant to talk about it; he had too much respect for the men who wore white uniforms draped over fine English woolens, who used monogrammed silk handkerchiefs to wipe their gold-rimmed spectacles-too much respect to...
Zeiss lenses, wiped calmly and deliberately as the men stood in the vestibule, next to the porter's window....On summer days the grass would be dusted with yellow pollen from the flowering linden trees on Delbrück-Allee, next to the Anatomy Building, where the cool, shaded air from the Evangelical cemetery mixed with the dry piny breezes that drifted off the morainal hills. Every morning at eight o'clock, a black Daimler-Benz would pull up to the entrance of the Institute, just before a crowd of somberly dressed young women spilled out of the streetcar coming from Langfuhr. They would march along the wall of the cemetery and a few minutes later pass by the porter's cubby on their way to Block E, where they would don white bonnets and pale blue aprons with the ties crossed in back...
So even Mr. Kohl had his doubts concerning what he'd heard from Alfred Rotke, the swarthy orderly who glided up and down the underground corridors of Anatomy like an Elysian shadow clad in a rubber apron, forever searching for something among the copper vats used for soaking the white sheets needed to cover the long, rectangular marble slab table, the table that was cold to the touch and always felt a little damp, the table on wheels that was rolled under the large round lamp with its five milk white bulbs, in room 9 on the ground floor of the building at Delbrück-Allee 12.
And although Mrs. Stein was ready to swear that everything had happened exactly as people said, Mr. Kohl merely tilted his head back, his eyes flickering with tiny sparks of irony, and squinted at her condescendingly. He didn't mean to offend her, of course, but what could he do about the fact that he, as one of the initiated, knew more about the matter than she did? In any case, she had made up her mind and wasn't about to let anyone or anything change it. Stepping off the pier at Glettkau onto the boardwalk by the hotel, Mrs. Stein tapped the tip of her white parasol on the wooden planking as she said to Mr. Kohl:
"But it couldn't have happened any other way. He had no choice. This was something stronger than he was-the man was powerless. He has to be forgiven..." "Powerless?" Mr. Kohl arched his eyebrows. Because even if what they were talking about had occurred, the sheer ambience of the Anatomy Building-the rows of windowed doors with their rattling panes of iridescent crystal; the enameled plaques, as solemn as gothic sarcophagi, engraved with the names of the rooms; the somber stillness, accentuated by the soft squish of the orderlies' rubber soles moving across the green linoleum and the occasional clamor of nickel-plated kettles and tin trays that filtered up from the basement like music from some gigantic kitchen-all that created enough tension without Mr. Kohl's wanting to make matters worse with dubious speculations concerning things impossible to understand. And even if what Alfred had told him when they ran into each other at Kaufmann's on the Lange Brücke was true, Mr. Kohl believed that the wisest thing to do was keep quiet, because there was something about the event in question that he didn't fully grasp, though he'd seen quite a few things in his time; for instance on the retreat from Metz, and later during the counteroffensive at Strassburg, where people he thought he knew well, people of whom he would never have said an ill word, were suddenly transformed, as if the skin had peeled off their faces, baring their wet, shiny teeth. No, Mr. Kohl knew all too well that people change, but not to that degree, and not here, not at Delbrück-Allee 12!
If it had happened to one of the students, or for example to someone like Hanemann's assistant, the prosector, Martin Retz-exactly, if something like that had happened to Retz-Mr. Kohl would have just nodded knowingly at the fragility of human nature and the frailty of human nerves-but Hanemann? Doubtless there were secrets lurking in him as well, invisible even to the keenest eye among all the doctors so caught up in the teachings of Bleuler (not to mention the eye of the porter behind the milk-glass pane, who saw only light-colored hair, a dark silhouette, and then a hand returning the key to room 9), but after all, there was a limit to how much a human psyche could be altered. And what could conceivably happen to one of the young men from Thorn, Elbing, or even Allenstein who had come here following their passion for delving into the secrets of anatomy couldn't possibly happen to someone who had been here for years and who had supposedly studied with Ansen in the hospital near Moabit, where he had apparently seen quite a few things himself.
In any event, nothing on the fourteenth augured anything unusual. The students sauntered down the stairs and settled on the oak benches outside the door marked with a Gothic A. Ernst Mehl (son of the iron wholesaler in Marienwerder) arrived a few minutes after two, sporting an impeccably tailored smooth corduroy jacket and yellow leather shoes and carrying a pince-nez; he was accompanied by Günther Henecke, whose father owned a cotton warehouse and wholesale grocery on the Speicherinsel. They were soon joined by others whose names, unfortunately, Alfred Rotke couldn't remember. The students spoke in hushed tones, and it was clear that their muted, nervous laughter, which faded whenever they glanced at the door to Hanemann's office-for the moment still empty-was meant to stifle the uneasiness they felt despite the fact that none of them was there for the first time.
In fact, they were speaking so quietly-mostly in whispers and muffled exclamations-that all Prosector Retz could make out was the odd Latin word mixed in with some vulgar German and a few snippets from assorted operettas (inspired, no doubt, by pleasant memories of Heinrich Mollers's Hamburg troupe, which had come to town the previous week) that caught his ear as he passed through the middle of the corridor, carrying the implements that would be needed in room 9. More and more students gathered outside the door with the enameled plaque and its row of black Gothic letters. Canes with knobs of brass and ivory gleamed from an umbrella stand garlanded with a wrought-iron lily, set in the dark corner behind the oak railing, while coats steamed on the black rack mounted over the pale green, faux-marble wainscoting, their collars still dewy with fog. The loudest laughs echoed nervously off the vaulted ceiling until they were lost in the din rising from below-the clatter of copper kettles, the clanging of slick sheets of tin, and the clinking of nickel-plated instruments.
Hanemann-according to Mrs. Stein-appeared on the stairs a few minutes before three. The students rose respectfully and returned his greeting. A moment later Martin Retz entered the corridor, wearing his bone-buttoned jacket, a little too large, and smelling of Riedlitz cologne, and even though he walked with the same solemnity as Hanemann, there was nothing in him that inclined one to nod one's head.
Martin Retz....How many times had Mrs. Stein seen him standing by the railing on the end of the Zoppot pier, turned to the sea, seemingly oblivious to anyone and everyone, though on summer and even autumn afternoons so many people flocked to the piers and landings to take the air or to stroll along the promenade by the Casino. No doubt his melancholy came from lingering thoughts about his mother, who had lain dying for weeks at the hospital on Weidengasse, her eyes fixed on the ceiling, unable to hear what her son was asking when he came every few days to visit, always with a bouquet of flowers, but, really, men shouldn't simply give in like that! Mrs. Stein, who took her daughters for a dose of sea air at four in the afternoon even in cold weather, interrupted her discourse on the life-giving properties of iodine as soon as they set foot on the landing, when she saw how perplexed the girls were at the sight of the slender gentleman standing on the end of the pier, dressed in his dark jacket with the bone buttons, staring off into the distance oblivious to the wind that was tousling his hair. "My dear girls," pronounced Mrs. Stein, her voice marked with admonition and warning, "Mr. Retz is a Melancholic."
So Martin Retz was a Melancholic, and whatever he said about Hanemann was bound to be permeated with Melancholy, which-Mrs. Stein knew for a fact-discolors everything that crosses our mind. A Melancholic-and Hilda Wirth, Retz's landlady on Johannisberg Strasse, who woke him every morning with a cautious knocking, would undoubtedly confirm the diagnosis. After all, who else would lug around that small plaster-cast face wrapped in a scrap of rabbit fur and tucked inside a black leather bag, that nacreous mask of an unknown girl, which Mrs. Wirth had seen in his room one afternoon resting on the shelf of the mahogany dresser? Why would someone so steadfast and even-keeled, who went to such pains to make sure his tie clasp and cuff links always matched-why did a man like Retz keep that little plaster face on his dresser? After all, what was so special about it? Just a plaster cast of some anonymous girl's face-a girl who might have been his younger sister, but clearly wasn't. (Then again, could Mrs. Wirth-wise though she was in the ways of the world-really be faulted for not knowing that thousands of identical masks graced bedrooms and salons throughout Alsace, Lorraine, and Lower Saxony, not to mention central France?)
Copyright © 1995 by Stefan Chwin
English translation copyright © 2004 by Philip Boehm
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced o...
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