by Denise Milstein
July 29, 2016, Hotel Pupik
I. WHAT IF
I know he walked these streets until the age of 10.
Even before arriving in Vienna, I prepared myself not to search for him. Because of fiction I thought I could get beyond the fact that I don’t know where he lived, which street, which house, whether it’s still standing or was bombed and replaced by one of those awful looking post-war buildings.
But immediately I see a bald man with bulging muscles, the body of a swimmer, and I feel him close, as though he might challenge me to a free-style race at any moment. When I hear a loud voice in the supermarket, and I see hands gesturing like his, telling a crude joke, I feel him close. Close enough to give me one of those ribcage crushing hugs.
He hugged so hard, the hardest of anyone I’ve ever known.
I’ve walked for days through this city, but it wasn’t until this morning that I broke down in tears.
It will sound trite.
A school, a paper dinosaur puppet with hinged joints stuck on the window. And a playground with swaying swings and no children.
Because I don’t know the details, the ghosts are everywhere. Because I don’t know which specific street, it could be any street, every street, where my grandfather and I are crossing paths, he a child of 10, me, 42, intersecting now, again. A shadow, a breeze, the whiff of another time – almost imperceptible, the familiar sparkle in my peripheral vision. I see him everywhere and nowhere.
One uncommonly hot day for Vienna I go to Donauinsel, the artificial island that sits in the middle of the Danube to control floods. I am with a Mexican friend, and we watch amused from the elevated train as the Copa Cabana sign comes into view. Forgive me, not Copa Cabana but Copa Cagrana, a play on that notorious Brazilian beach and the nearby Kagran district.
There, beyond that sign, lie a series of docks jutting out into the water, and a row of kitschy restaurants, one of them Mexican. We joke about how he’s had to come all this way to land up at a Mexican restaurant. But the menu is in fact Greek, and so is the waiter: an unsmiling man with a perverse but good natured gleam in his eye who, by the end of the night, is calling me by name, taking my hand, and talking about the contemporary tragedy of time. He means no time to sit and chat after dinner; no time to come up for a breath from these little screens we’re all glued to.
As the sun sets, I watch the rose gold water spray up with each bomb dive into the river, I see it gild the swimmers’ bodies. After dinner we amble along the riverbank and I give in to my desire to jump into that water. Night has fallen by then and
once I dove into that water
it wrapped around me like silk.
I would have swum for hours, the confetti reflections of the restaurant lights just ahead of my stroking arms, always unreachable.
Afterward I walked, dripping, past groups of older folk sitting on beach chairs all along the edge of the island. They spoke Greek and I could tell they were watching the Aegean sea, not the Danube. They reminded me of my grandfather: immigrants like him. But I resisted the impression. Here in Vienna he was never an immigrant.
He found refuge in Montevideo, along the banks of the Rio de la Plata. He married into tango and never taught his children German because even the language sounded like a crime to his Lithuanian wife. He was pulling himself up by his bootstraps, as had his Galizian ancestors when they migrated to the glorious center of Austro-Hungary. They were all raising themselves by their bootstraps, which is a meaningless expression because what does it really mean if there is nothing higher than the ground you stand on? Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps then is akin to levitating.
My grandfather levitated.
Then he fell out of a window and landed in a hospital bed for months. He studied the Spanish-German dictionary his brother brought him and when he came out, he became an upholsterer. As a little girl I would brag to my friends about the red velvet chairs of the national theater. I still see him upholstering them one by one. And still, though less and less often now, when I walk into the apartment of an old Jewish family in Montevideo, I recognize the fabric on a sofa, on an armchair. Velvet gold paisleys on a cream background. Soft vines in green and brown shades. But it’s always the texture I recognize first, my fingers caressing the material his hands worked.
After he died we found a letter in a locked drawer of his desk. In it was the acknowledgement that, after years of hiding in Berlin and in Paris with his mother and two sisters, his brother Ziggy had died in Auschwitz. Two round watermarks blurred the words on the page, the same distance apart as his eyes.
I passed the Jewish museum twice and ignored it. The third time I entered. In the archive of Viennese Jews murdered in concentration camps, I found the name of my great-uncle, the date of his deportation, and four more persons with the same last name. One had the first name of my great-grandfather, the others, a woman in her 30s and two children, I could only guess, may have been relatives. Their address was in the document, Krafftgasse 4, and I decided to find the place.
I considered then, what if none of my hypotheses were correct? What if every induction, every deduction, built on a wrong assumption? I said to myself: In that case, maybe I could write a story about it. Then I asked the objecting world: How else shall I fight against the oblivion that wraps around me?
This I know: I’m here because he survived. It is my privilege to walk through this city, my life in my hands.
And truth? Is it also my privilege to riff on the truth?
I walk up the Maria-Theresien-Straße from the university, and cross the Donaukanal into Leopoldstadt. On a corner not far from Krafftgasse is an ancient upholsterer’s shop. Judging from what I see behind the shop window, it is 50 or 60 years old, maybe more. I reach a small park with a stand of trees so tall they must have already been there 100 years ago. Past it sits the building where they lived, these possible relatives. A plaque on the wall states the building was bombed during the Second World War, then re-built. I stand on the opposite corner and watch the building. I steep in it – the echoing street, the stone smell, all awash in monochromatic light – until I have made the place home.
There’s no wind, only a light summer rain, the sky so overcast I could almost reach up and pull the clouds down over my face, to cry in peace and privacy.
I stay there past the tears, collecting strange looks from passersby. The lost seasons pass before my eyes and I bow to each one in turn. I leave memory where I found it, indefinite, reverberating, and just out of reach.
II. DEAR PRINCESS OF STEINSCHLOß
When I arrived to this valley I didn’t know much about you. I’ve been told these fields stretch like bedsheets below your clifftop castle, which remains invisible behind trees and more trees rising among chanterelles up the steep mountain slope. Mornings I write in the hay loft of the dairy barn. Its massive double doors open onto one baroque tower of the Schattenberg castle, a small mountain facing yours, the field, a perfect tree. The tower is perfectly intact, though its castle, not visible from the hay loft, is in ruins. Wrapped in a blanket, I contemplate the landscape and drink my tea. In the afternoon, when Dora comes to the piano, I move back to my perch in the farmhouse. Every day these past two weeks, from my windowsill, I’ve watched the remains of the Schrattenberg castle get washed clean. The clouds roll in from the west by early afternoon, sounding a warning in low tones. By dinner time the entire valley is under water. The rain seeps layer by layer into the castle: from the WWI hospital that went up in flames, to the ornate rooms Napoleon used as headquarters, to, underneath it all, the rugged medieval foundations. Low clouds remain through early morning, stretched into fleecy white ribbons that cut the hills in half.
This morning, a thick fog, the scent in the air so sweet I thought: I will swallow it whole. But when the wind came, I let it pass through me.
Later on, a gap in the clouds pours light on a hill. A woodpecker taps out a message in Morse code.
Who hid here? I ask at breakfast from across the long table. The area was an outpost of an outpost of a concentration camp, they tell me. Neighbors saw neighbors doing forced labor on their fields, a difference between them they knew but misnamed. Gazes avoided. They chose to turn their cheeks, didn’t the bible direct them? Turning one cheek, then the other, yes that other. But the boys were saved, they say. The boys were marched out at the last minute, toward a battle that ended before they arrived, so they turned back. Saved from the carnage, but where was it not? Their memories built in uneven layers that left cavernous holes. You might call it denial princess, you must have seen it before, the price survival extracts. My unforgetting you might call spite. The lone refugee walking by the Mur river, not a ghost.
And yet, as I step out into the garden, the limpid air, the naïve colors, they nourish me.
By noon the sky is almost smooth, like the sand on an ocean beach at low tide. A series of arcs remain where the waves washed up. A rhythm in space and time, it gives rise to a pattern you cannot predict. The joy lies in seeing it emerge, says Kamilla. Her enormous drawings replicate this process: a curved line intersecting another over an expanse of paper, or one tiny shape repeated to produce collisions that give rise to unplanned figures.
Today is the day I will come find you. Up, up, up the mountain I go, to the summit, to the ruins of your medieval castle. Along the way I hear bits and pieces of your story, princess, and you trickle into my consciousness and settle in. Breathless from the climb, I see a fragment of your castle peek from behind the trees. Just past the next curve, I’ve arrived, but the stones seem to be piled up haphazardly. So different from the intricacies of the Schrattenberg castle down below. Quite an ant hill of a home you lived in princess, I must say! Until I turn another corner and walk through a perfect stone arch, then another, and another. From the inner courtyard, I turn around and see how they frame the landscape, consecutive crescents in exquisite balance.
Dear princess: It’s been almost a millennium since the cornerstone was laid. Tell me: For what future, against what future, did your ancestors build this?
The story goes, seven beautiful sisters – the sisters of stone – and of course, endless suitors. Evenings filled with music and flirtations. The knight they liked most was posed a challenge: Capture the moon by its horns and tether it to our castle, then you shall have your pick of princesses. The young man laughed, but the princesses looked on, impassive, until he realized the joke was on him. He fumed, lurking in the shadows until late in the night when he saw, walking across the courtyard, wrapped in a shawl, the most delectable of the stone damsels.
Dear princess: Was it like nothing for you to have the whole world at your feet, and then to feel it grabbing your ankles? To have the world (in the form of a resentful warrior) crawl under your skirt, rise over your shins, force open your knees,
(unmentionable covered by a swath of white)
(a thick foamy ribbon cuts the mountain in half)
Never mind princess. See how we play with clip art down here, at the foot of your mountain? On Georg’s canvass, the corn lady from the cereal box – lacquered eyes and all – pops out of the hill. Tools and farm machinery break through the idyll. Ads compete with abstraction. The scenes fragment like my memory. Bits of modernity intrude here and there to remind us that we are incapable of looking at the landscape for what it is.
But you may say it out loud princess, we all do now: Violated. Raped. And no more men allowed in the castle after that.
(Nine months later you gave birth to a future knight.
The crest of the brotherhood that followed:
a moon tethered by its horns.)
Tell me, princess, after that fateful night: Did you and your sisters acquire x-ray vision into the future, could you see the ruins ahead? Did you think you willed them by walking across that courtyard?
I feel a presence at my back. I think I can hear the answer from the heights of your broken pride: When you are young you hardly have any perspective on the future, the inevitable disintegration of your world. You don’t realize that you live in a sandcastle, and that the tide will rise.
III. WHAT IF (a coda)
In the morning we start again. The children make up a new board game. Later we’ll make a quick trip down to the pond, to swim while it’s still warm. I sit at my window and listen as Susanna’s bass clarinet traces a third castle, undiscovered, in three dimensions. It hangs glimmering over the field between my eyes and the mountain. The new slats on the stable door stand out, raw against the weathered ones. We cook for the musicians on their way from Vienna for tonight’s concert.
Gerlind takes the drawings from yesterday, the day before, the past weeks, and turns the world inside out. Her pencil lines trace our daily life, toys, unmade beds, Karin at the stove. On canvass they give rise to every possible color but the one we all might agree on.
Make of disagreement a liberation. Open my eyes.
I’ve told the story of my grandfather to you, princess. Still, you will not want to hear the end, in which it turns out that I don’t find him, or that it was the wrong family. You will not want to know this was all fabricated. You might object: But what you experienced in that neighborhood, was it not real? What you saw and felt there. The upholsterer’s shop, which was a memory of his future from his past. And that building, the mother, the boy, the girl, taken; is the anguish of it not real? Is the view of the Votivkirche as you walk back toward the river any less majestic? What of the greenness of the park against the desolate streets that surround it?
Oh princess. It is all real, you are correct. Vienna will always be the place that could have been, and this, my ode to tracelessness, to the family I never knew, which may never have been.
I’ll tell you princess, with all due respect to memorializing efforts: That walk will remain with me, and not the white box dropped on the Judenplatz where a synagogue used to stand in the middle ages. The official monument is a sealed tomb and nothing to me, no feeling, just an eyesore and the square ruined forever so that even the children playing around it seem like an insult,
unless you would rather, a lightness.
The children I mean, so alive
as opposed to the ones in my head.
Inside that building sized box is the same book, over and over again, unreadable. It’s for you to interpret, like Karin’s collages of film stills, the frames superimposed to break down a gesture into slow motion; the neurological work of creating a narrative undone. Like a tunnel of repetitions, it begs the question, then leaves the question:
Must the square always be blocked, never to be trafficked again, never to recuperate its vibrancy? Which one is true? Which one false? Which one imagined? How do you build a history where there is no history? And what is this gesture I see re-enacted, repeated, in layers?
Contrite. Contrived. Ripped out, then returned as a blank stare. For whom?
I wander through the ruins of your castle, considering the lines that were drawn. Would I have accepted them then, and why should I accept them now?
A few hours later, back in Schrattenberg, we sit under the awning of the barn to watch the rain until night falls. On the way back to my house I see the albino cat lurking by the ruins, then I hear Napoleon’s steps. Lightning hits one of the castle towers. I go to sleep and dream my stories in the shattered night.