To J.S., a great teacher.
The German soldier took off his helmet and set it down on the grass. His black hair, drenched with sweat, stuck to his neck and temples. He crouched by the riverside, cupped some water in his hands and splashed it on his face. I focused my gaze back on his neck, through the sights of my .22 long rifle.
Behind him, the chrome parts of his Zündapp motorcycle shone bright in the sunlight. This was what we were after, with my buddies of the Cize maquis: his motorcycle. The Wehrmacht courriers drove by almost every day, on this remote Road 83 between Besançon and Lons-le-Saunier, most often two or three of them, but sometimes a lone one. We had waited patiently, surveying from the cover of the woods this stretch of road that we knew well, between Mouchard and Arbois, and on this afternoon of September 1943, this was finally our chance.
He had appeared alone at the end of the curve. He had slowed down at Arsures bridge, then turned on the unpaved road and followed the river up to the edge of the woods, where he had shut his engine off.
We had quickly taken up position: Léon and René with me, Marco hanging back to spot any incoming vehicles on the road. I was the best shot among the group; I was the point man. Once we had reached the correct distance, I signaled to my buddies and lay down sideways in the wet grass. Still under cover of a patch of bushes, I cocked as silently as I could the modified Lee-Enfield rifle that we had recently received in an air drop and with which I had trained at our Montgriffon headquarters. Then I rolled onto my stomach and got the target in my sights.
I had just softly laid my finger on the trigger. I was about to begin the long inhalation that would, a moment later, allow me to shoot without shaking, when suddenly – incomprehensibly – a male voice rose in the silence of the woods: Morgen muß ich fort von hier, the voice sang, und muß Abschied nehmen.
Even before I saw the soldier's lips moving and understood that it was he who had begun to sing, I recognized the song. The tune and lyrics, in a fraction of a second, transported me back to the living room of my parent's house in Ville-d'Avray near Paris: me running after my friend Yehudi, my mother shouting “Boys, be good!” when our horsing about disturbed the quiet of the room where Yehudi's father, a German violinist, and mine, a French engineer, played chess while from the HMV 78 rpm gramophone rose Richard Tauber's low and mellow voice: Oh, du allerschönste Zier, scheiden, das bringt Grämen.
Yehudi and his father had become our neighbors during the summer of 1936. I was 12 years old, Yehudi was 10. At first I had thought that he was a girl: he had long, curly black hair, a thin frame and a pale complexion, and he seemed shy. I had kept my distance on that first afternoon of July when he and his father had first visited us, but my mother had nudged me toward him saying: “Boys, why don't you go play in the garden? I will call you later for snack.” I had remained stunned, faced with the contradiction that I saw between such a delicate creature and the fact of being a boy, a condition proudly and roughly claimed by myself and by my equals both at school and in the various sports at which I excelled. It was Yehudi who had held his hand out to me, while the adults watched us with wide smiles. So I had taken his hand in mine and said: “Come on, let's run!” while leading him toward the garden.
He had followed me, but once outside, it appeared that he did not like the same games as I did. I was fascinated by anything involving a ball: I could play tennis alone against the garage door for hours, dribble my basket-ball while counting out loud to a thousand, or cross the garden like a soccer star, evading again and again the bushes/defenders before scoring between two trees while a crowd of squirrels roared madly in acclaim. I – already – liked war games: running under enemy fire, throwing pine cones as grenades, dying heroically while protecting imaginary comrades-in-arms or leading the final assault to conquer, finally, the porch where Mom usually had snacks waiting.
But Yehudi did not like action, he liked characters. As he had established that first day (in his almost perfect French diction to which a touch of German accent added only the lightest of murmurs, a humming, like a secret whisper), the games that interested him required some preliminary organization. First, there had to be a dramatic situation: for instance, a young man in love with an opera singer, or a Golem that escapes from the control of the young rabbi who had given him life. Then, something had to be at stake in the interaction between the two characters: the young man tries to convince the opera singer to requite his love, the young rabbi tries to prevent the Golem from destroying the entire city. Only after the frame had thus been established and the casting determined, could the game begin. Playing then was mostly dialogue: I knelt in front of Yehudi, who took haughty, coquettish airs, and listed the reasons that should make him respond positively to my amorous advances, racking my brains to come up with anything; or while I advanced threateningly, gargantuan, toward a massacre of sinners, Yehudi tried to hold me back, arguing for the redemption of humanity, whose members where certainly imperfect but also capable of goodness. In the end, when the scene seemed to have exhausted its dramatic potential, there was always a troubling moment: “You devil!” said the opera singer in a flutter of eyelids; or “My Golem!” said the rabbi, his hand still holding my dreadful biceps; then there was silence.
Our bodies remained frozen in the position in which the ending drama had left them. Yehudi's glittering eyes remained nailed into mine, and I felt strangely, vertiginously pulled toward him. I stood there, breathless, wanting to squeeze him against me. Usually, it was at the precise moment when I decided to act out on this impulse that Yehudi would jump away laughingly, shouting teasingly: “You won't catch me!” and darted away. I ran furiously after him and that is how we ended up barging in, overexcited, in my parent's otherwise so quiet living room.
“Boys, be good!” shouted my mother, so we calmed down. I took Yehudi by the hand and we sat next to the chessboard to follow the friendly battle that took place on it. My mother brought tea and cookies and Richard Tauber's tenor voice lulled us, soft and melancholic: Tomorrow I must leave far from here and say farewell, Yehudi translated for me, Oh my most precious treasure, what pain that we must part.
In this instant, laying down in the cold grass, the butt of my rifle squeezed against my right cheek, I saw as in a dream – or rather felt like the impression left by a dream, in the morning, when its events are already disappearing from memory but still remain, warm and deep, the emotions that it had inspired – I saw again these summer afternoons in Ville-d'Avray.
Suddenly, the soldier who was singing in the sights of my rifle appeared to me not just as an enemy in uniform, but as a young man about my age: a young man alone by the side of a river, in a clearing bathed with sunlight, who was far from his home and who sang, with a deep, gracefully measured voice, the same song that had so moved me in my disrupted childhood.
For him too, maybe, this song evoked the memory of someone or somewhere; or maybe he sang only out of a sort of insouciance because in the midst of war and suffering, there still remains time to be young and sing love songs.
Whichever it was, I now had a problem. Because this young soldier so similar to me, with his black hair like Yehudi's and his tenor voice like Richard Tauber's, I had entirely lost the desire to kill him.
I shot a glimpse toward Léon who was covering me from behind a bush, an antique Model 1892 revolver in hand. In his eyes I thought I saw a confusion similar to mine. It now seemed improper, even indecent to murder this young man in order to steal his motorcycle. To shoot him coldly from behind, without him having any idea of what was happening – in the very moment in which he was forgetting who he was and what he was doing there. The worst, for me, I think, was his wet hair shining in the sunlight, that summer sunlight that radiated onto the whole clearing, in this quiet spot of the forest of Revermont: one would have thought that we were on holidays, taking a trip to the river, among friends, not that we were at war.
I never found out if Léon really shared this feeling of mine: that evening, we felt uneasy and spoke of other things and a few weeks later, he was arrested by the Wehrmacht. Maybe what I had seen in his eyes was only him worrying about the time that I was wasting, when we knew at any minute other German soldiers might appear on the road. As for myself, seeing Léon like this, looking away for a moment from the young German soldier, I was brought back to the situation that we were in. We were there for a reason that had nothing to do with my feelings, nor with anyone else's.
I set my eye back in the sights of my rifle, I inhaled deeply and in the middle of a controlled exhalation, I shot.
Today, for my first class of the year, I showed my sixth-grade students a VHS featuring Richard Tauber in Heart's Desire, the 1935 English film that gave its worldwide fame to the song Morgen muß ich fort von hier.
“But sir, this is our first German class!” exclaimed a daring soul from the back row. “How are we supposed to understand anything?”
First, I asked them to only look at the images: what is happening? We are on a train, there are mountains passing by outside the window, other travelers are listening intensely to the song. We can already guess a part of the story, can't we? We can very well imagine the rest. Then, I played the excerpt a second time, asking the students to focus only on the melody: is it happy? is it sad? quiet? energetic? What feeling is the singer expressing? Melancholy, maybe: add this to the moving train, what do you thing his song is about? Imagine! Which words do you think would feature in such a song? The most daring students started coming up with ideas and I wrote a list on the board: as could be expected, the words “leaving”, “sad”, “suffering” came up, as well as others from the same lexical fields. Once everyone had contributed, the blackboard was full. Acting casually, I added the corresponding German words while saying them out loud: “to leave” is “Verlassen”, “suffering” is “Grämen", etc. And finally, I played the song a third time and watched the students' faces light up, one by one, when they recognized in the song the words that they had guessed.
“You see, actually, you already understand German. You just have to use your imagination. We'll talk more about it next time.”
The students left the room mumbling, some visibly upset, others excited by the new horizons that had just opened up before them. As for myself, while gathering my materials, I thought of Yehudi who had been the one to suggest this little ploy, when I had told him that I would be able, this year, to project video recordings during my classes. Yehudi always comes up with this kind of idea: be it on stage or in real life, he is always encouraging everyone to discover, or uncover, themselves through their imagination. He says that by imagining we actually remember who we really are.
I found Yehudi again in New York City, in 1950, almost thirty years ago. He and his father had left for London, at the end of that summer of 1936, from where he had sent me a postcard; then I had received another one, two years later, with a picture of Ellis Island. Each time, the postcard was blank, with only Yehudi's signature at the bottom, underneath the word “Love,”. Love, comma. Then, nothing. My father had died in the war in 1940. Nazi occupation had laid its leaden weight upon us for four long years.
In 1950, I had finished my studies and obtained my certification as a German teacher, so I decided to take two months to travel America. Before I took my first posting, I wanted to discover the country of our “liberators”, them nice fellas with perpetually bovine jaws who had shown up one fine day, just in time to take part in the final victory. After crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary, I had directly continued on a Chicago-Denver-San Francisco-Houston-Atlanta loop, enjoying the services of the Greyhound company and seeing much thriving farmland. As a conclusion for my trip, I had organized to spend two weeks in New York City before taking the boat home. In the cultural capital of a country that many where I came from thought of as culture-less, I had pleasantly spent most of my time in museums – admiring the matchless collection of Asian art at the Met, most of the best European modern art in MoMA – and in theaters, on and around Broadway Avenue. It is there that one night, under the guise of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, I suddenly saw appear on stage my friend Yehudi.
I recognized him instantly, in spite of his make-up. I was seized by a violent shiver. It seemed to me that the play should have stopped then and there to let us meet again, but on stage, the action continued, unconcerned. Hypnotized, I continued looking at this unreal Yehudi bustling about in front of me. While he devoted himself to unveiling Blanche DuBois's secrets, I kept scrutinizing the face and movements of the actor, in the futile and yet irrepressible hope to catch a glimpse, under his appearance as character, of what he had become in life.
When the play ended, I left the theater in a daze and walked randomly the streets of Manhattan, for a long time, without knowing exactly what the question was to which I so crucially needed an answer. The next night, I was again in the audience, and the next night again, my heart still beating, my mind still searchingly empty.
The third night, when I came out into the street, Yehudi was waiting for me on the sidewalk. His make-up hastily wiped off, a black coat thrown over his costume, he was standing motionless in the midst of the moving crowd, piercing me with his eyes. I walked slowly toward him and, without a word, took him by the hand.
“Come on, let's run!”
And running we went into the night, weaving our way through the crowd, like two children happy to find each other again.
A little later, we sat in a nearby nightclub that was vibrating with the sound of Charlie Parker's saxophone and told each other about our lives between then and now, just what was needed, the essentials. Sitting face to face in the subdued, pinkish light, only a few words, a gesture, were enough to understand each other. The war was far away and yet we both carried in ourselves its indelible mark, like an education, a silent strength.
In the end, after much hesitation, I told him about the German soldier that I had killed in the clearing between Mouchard et Arbois, on a sunny summer day. I told him of the memory, of the feeling that had come over me when Richard Tauber's song had resounded just when I was about to shoot. And when I was done, leaving between us a deafening silence that was even intensified by the brassy tears of After You've Gone, is when Yehudi leaned slowly toward me and kissed me for the very first time.
(First published in Easy Street, 2016)