At this sort of event the audience is, on the one hand, rather specialized—we are talking about culture after all—and on the other hand quite predictable, drawn from among a small, easily quantifiable group of regulars—we are talking about culture after all. A few are recognizable public figures, almost famous, though the fame of literary critics, translators, even poets is a bit different from that of actors, athletes, or singers. Even the most celebrated poet can visit a crowded marketplace without worrying that he will be obsessively accosted, while picking out a handsome ear of corn, by a group of local youths professing their admiration and undying devotion.
Cultural gatherings are also sure to draw a number of academics—steadfastly observing the principle never to veer from their narrow area of specialization. A meeting with a French writer is attended by Romanists, a meeting with a Hungarian writer by Hungarianists. If the relevant languages are not taught at the university in a given city, then discussions with their leading artists often sit empty, if they happen at all. At a recent meeting with a Croatian writer, one such specialist, a lady in the front row—in answer to the translator about whether she needed to translate the Croatian author’s replies—glibly proclaimed, “Of course not! What for?” At the next week’s meeting with a leading Lithuanian writer, somehow I didn’t see this woman.
A separate category of regulars is made up of those one knows by sight, those with no particular fame or position, and generally with no professional ties to the topic, and yet coming often enough that their faces lodge in one’s memory. There is nothing to explain such people—perhaps they are simply interested in culture. Such figures occasionally are given some kind of name or pseudonym—at any rate, my wife and I are in the habit of doing this. Maybe we’ve also been assigned nicknames, after all no one knows our names either, and we are regular visitors at all sorts of cultural gatherings.
So we have, for example, Grandma Renia, a person who straddles two categories, since apparently her real name actually is Renata. It was her name, rather, since she recently passed away. While alive she sat in the front row at nearly every event. After her death, the frequency of our regular events fell by several dozen percent.
There is also Chuck—he is our favorite. Chuck is around six-foot-six, skinny as a beanpole, with a crown of disheveled hair that is graying beyond his years. He is invariably dressed in cargo shorts with enormous pockets, pockets that are stuffed to unearthly proportions with secret contents. What in the world does he have in there? A bunch of encyclopedias? (A theory supported by the size of the mysterious shapes.) Secret lists of Freemasons who have infiltrated the Vatican, plans for world destruction, the only existing evidence proving unequivocally who killed Kennedy, stocks of uranium capable of blowing up half the city, two canaries in identical cages, a few kilograms of flour in case of war, drinking water from a trusted source, or rocks to throw at his pursuers? There is no doubt that Chuck is psychologically unbalanced. According to bourgeois, statistical criteria, Chuck is mentally ill. He is probably mentally ill according to any set of criteria. But he is most definitely interested in culture, so we think he may be some sort of artist, possibly a writer. Not, say, an academic writer, but rather a solitary talent, a diamond in the rough, chiseled by his own hand. If he is a writer at all, then he is probably the type who tosses cow carcasses, not one who teaches creative writing. He is also undoubtedly—and will remain until the end of his short and tumultuous life—a forgotten artist, and only after his dramatic end will we realize what a brilliant guy he was. He reminded us of Bukowski, which is also where we got the nickname Chuck. Our Chuck. The Polish one.
Chuck is here. Chuck is talking to himself. Chuck is getting irritated. And I understand him. How does one not get irritated here? We are sitting at a discussion recapping the seventh week of German cinema. It has been an ongoing event. German cinema is all the rage here. A German historian is making some summary remarks, commenting bitterly, though stoically, on the latest films and, thus, the next set of traumatic historical events, since our topic for the seventh week of German cinema is the painful history of the last century. That’s a direct quote from the flyer: “The Twentieth Century—A Painful History.”
More from the flyer. There were seven films—I only watched the last one, followed by the discussion with the historian. I only came to the last film because admission was free. I wonder how many of these films Chuck attended (undoubtedly he has a more limited budget). The last film depicted so-called “exiles,” Germans relocated after the war, and their problems adapting to new realities. One of the other six films was also about this. Moving on. There was also a film about the Red Army Faction in West Germany, another about residents of the former GDR who are unable to find work on the unified German labor market (a painful history). Another focused on World War I. German troops on the Western Front, ineptly testing their chemical weapons, failed to take into account the virulent French winds. And so the nerve gas hit mostly the German armed forces, killing or paralyzing them. If the wind had blown the way it should have and merely gassed the French, I’m sure the film would never have been made. The next film portrayed the financial crisis and monstrous inflation of the 1930s. But we know who, ultimately, was burned by that crisis. I wonder whether they mention that in the film. The last film that I read about on the flyer portrayed single mothers raising children during the difficult postwar period, under the suffocating boot of the occupying Allied forces. The fathers never returned from Stalingrad. A painful history.
The historian talks, the translator tenaciously translates. Chuck is shifting uneasily in his seat. “Twentieth-century history was exceptionally painful for the Germans”—the historian informs us through the mouth of the translator. Chuck digs for something in the depths of his pockets. Any moment he is going to pull out a rifle.
My wife says she’s not surprised by that bishop who doesn’t believe in the Holocaust. It’s impossible to believe in it. None of us really believe in the Holocaust. If we truly recognized the fact that in the very center of Europe, by the common will of a civilized nation, which gave us Beethoven and Goethe, a machine was conceived and precisely planned to annihilate an entire race of people; if we could accept that, less than a hundred kilometers from our home, this plan was largely realized—then would we be able to, for example, brush our teeth or make an avocado salad? Every morning and every evening, just to brush our teeth, we must push the reality of the Holocaust out of our minds. We must deny the existence of the death camps several times a day, otherwise we couldn’t perform a single act of our trivial, embarrassing, sacrilegious everyday lives. If anyone truly confronted the enormity of Hitler’s crimes, if anyone really comprehended that a precisely and rationally planned institution gassed six million Jews, if anyone even once thought this thought to its ultimate limit, then it would never be possible to think of anything else again.
And that is why all of us, essentially, aren’t much different from that deplorable bishop. We don’t believe in the Holocaust.
The time for questions from the audience is approaching and the audience has questions. Not right away, of course. After the customary—“Are there any questions?”—follows an equally customary silence. This is how it is at every event: at first, no one has questions, but later questions inevitably arise. Most likely from relatives of the organizers or from those with a particularly strong sense of responsibility for their surroundings.
Chuck is not a relative of the organizers (Chuck is probably no one’s relative), so he must have a strong sense of responsibility for his surroundings. Chuck is wrestling with himself and so far he is losing. Or perhaps he is winning—depending on your point of view.
The audience asks. The translator translates. Sometimes the audience asks in German and the translator immediately translates it into Polish. Nothing escapes her attention. The audience is asking. Are the problems of assimilation still felt by the residents of the former GDR, twenty years after the transformation? (Yes. Elaboration.) Are any of the survivors of the gas attack (German on German) during World War I still alive? (No. But until recently there was one survivor—he was over 105 years old.) Could the professor compare the financial crisis of the ’30s with the current difficult situation in world markets? (He isn’t an expert, but he hopes that we have learned lessons and past experience will allow us to take effective counter measures—and so on.) What does the professor think about a controversial matter, about mutual relations, and—shall we say—mutual traumas? (Thank you for this question. A dialogue is needed.)
Feminists have taught us that language can be an effective tool of oppression. I am sensitive to this. My German is rather poor, but when the professor, speaking about exiles, mentions the Polish-German War, that much I understand. Just like that—the Polish-German War. Now it isn’t even the German-Polish War. (The translator firmly translates this as “World War II.”)
The professor is experienced and is calling for dialogue, so there is no threat here of extremist phrases like “Polish concentration camps.” But “Polish camps” is only an outlier of a general tendency. Germans today are exhausted by the feeling of guilt forced upon them by all of these Thomas Manns and Heinrich Bölls. The rest of the world is tired of it too. The rest of the world is even more tired of martyrology. This fatigue is particularly strong among subtle and sensitive people. No person of culture today, therefore, would write that the Germans committed some sort of crime. Crimes were committed by fascists, Nazis, or Hitlerites. And one must decide for oneself whether those Nazis were Finns, Czechs, or possibly Scots. The Germans—obviously—formed anti-Hitler resistance movements in droves. (There was even one historian who maintained that it was primarily the Jews who brought Hitler to power. I think it is perfectly logical, therefore, that after their slaughter, Hitler’s support rapidly declined among the people.)
People of culture give expression to their fatigue using a cultured idiom. This same language simultaneously creates a universal sense of security. So while the Germans still exist, fascists, Hitlerites, and Nazis have vanished accordingly without a trace.
I look over at Chuck and it occurs to me that this is not a person who has learned much from the feminists. But maybe he has picked up on this sensitivity from another source. It is certain, though, that Chuck is not a man of culture. Chuck is a typical boor who is now nervously buttoning and unbuttoning his pocket containing a hydrogen bomb made of aluminum foil, baking powder, and a mousetrap.
Now Chuck rises. Chuck gets up and prepares to ask a question. Chuck prepares with his whole body—that’s how you ask a question! Chuck doesn’t wait for a turn, he seizes it, waving his arms, legs, and hair. One glance is enough: the guy is crazy, the guy is a complete lunatic, the guy has hebephrenic schizophrenia, and in his pockets he is definitely carrying excrement which he will start throwing at us any minute now.
Chuck asks his question. Chuck asks badly. He doesn’t pause or give the translator time to translate, his gestures are out of sync, he stresses and articulates desperately. Chuck is utterly and incurably sick and that sickness takes the shape of his arms, legs, hair, and pockets. He would make a fool of himself even asking the most innocuous question. Chuck, don’t talk with your pockets full!
—I’d like to ask—says Chuck—I’d like to draw attention, I’d like to hear your opinion, I’d like to ask the esteemed professor, our respected guest, who has honored us, who willingly and so captivatingly told us about history, about the films that we had the opportunity to watch here, and I, for one, was very, and I mean very, deeply impressed, but, if I could, then I would ask whether I might pose a question.
Chuck takes a breath, the translator so far has translated none of this, and says: “Yes. Please, go ahead.” The professor smiles encouragingly. Ask, Chuck, ask!
—I’d like to ask, how would the professor comment upon a little known and rarely discussed fact, related to what we are calling here today painful history, namely, professor, the fact that the Germans gassed six million Jews?
The translator doesn’t translate and turns red. The professor smiles uncomprehendingly. A murmur spreads throughout the room. Chuck searches for something in his pockets, but apparently does not find what he now urgently needs, so he begins to push his way through the aisles. The translator wants to call out, surely to call security, shielding the professor with her body just in case, and meanwhile Chuck is getting away. Literally: running, fleeing.
—Chuck, wait! Chuck!—I yell out, but Chuck doesn’t stop, he doesn’t even turn around. Not surprising since his name is not, in fact, Chuck.
Here we go—I think. Any moment we’ll start shouting “Gestapo!” I’m already preparing to sing “God ” (in whom I don’t believe), “Thou Hast Poland” (in which I also don’t particularly believe). No one, however, jumps up, no one shouts, no one sings. One of the cultured ladies in the first row says loudly:
—Some fascist always turns up.
Probably this was the final straw.
—Run and catch Chuck—my wife says.—Someone should buy him a beer.
—Okay, I will—I reply without thinking.—And you, where are you going?
—Me?—says the best of wives.—I am going to translate Chuck’s question to the professor.
—translated from the Polish by Justin Wilmes