- 1 -
My first semester over as an exchange student at the Technische Hochschule in Darmstadt, I decided to try to visit the Riemanns during the semester break. Sybille Riemann was the sister of my gramma’s dear friend back in the States, and she and her husband Walter wrote they’d be “honored” if I could spend any holiday time with them at their “modest little abode” in Tuttlingen, a small town in Swabia, through which the baby Danube ran. They’d lived there for many years and somehow survived the war, though Mrs. Riemann was Jewish. I’d been warned not to go near that subject if I ever visited them.
After some delay in the phone system badly disjointed by the war, an operator connected us. Mrs. Riemann and I were equally surprised to hear each other’s voices. Hers was couched in pretty standard High German with no trace of a Swabian accent I’d been warned to expect. She sounded quite excited at the prospect of my coming. “The sooner the sooner,” she said with genuine warmth. We agreed on the day after tomorrow so they could take care of little things, prepare my quarters properly; and I’d have a chance to gather my stuff together for the journey.
“My husband will meet you at the station – only one train comes from Stuttgart at that hour. So not to worry, they’re won’t be any chance of a mix-up. Walter, I should warn you, will arrive on his pet motorcycle and look quite imposing in his goggles, not to mention World War I leather flyer’s helmet. It’s a big machine so he can easily tie your belongings on behind you. You’ll still have plenty of room to enjoy the ride back to our house. Just be sure to hang on tight! He’s something of a menace, but the French police just stop traffic and wave him right through,” she laughed.
“The French police?”
“Yes, dear boy. We rejoice we’re in The French Zone. Many of our friends are in the occupying business and are also looking forward to meeting you. You may be their first American who is not in uniform. So ta ta now, have a safe journey and don’t forget to enjoy the drama of the Black Forest on the way down. But I beg you: we have plenty of cuckoo clocks so please resist bringing us one as a gift! Oh, I almost forgot, there’s one bridge you cross that will make your heart skip if you look down. But we’re told it has been inspected and remains entirely safe. The Nazis never got around to blowing it up.” She hung up with a soft click before I could say anything else. From the brief exchange, I thought if Walter were anything at all like his wife I’d be right at ease.
- 2 -
I made sure I was at the station in plenty of time for the morning express to Stuttgart because I was traveling third class, no reservation, and wanted to grab a window seat. I’d forgotten that third-class compartments had wooden benches: the seat I hurriedly slid into was splintered. What did gramma used to say? Something about traveling with sandpaper for life’s rough edges…
The compartment filled quickly, and I opened the window for air. Though the little plaque nailed to the window warned, “Do Not Lean Out,” I promptly did. People on the platform, waiting for the local, were sitting on their suitcases, wiping sweat off their weary faces, gulping down drinks. Fellow travelers who’d entered behind me were already breaking out sandwiches. I’d forgotten about food altogether and tried disguising my sudden hunger. An old man unwrapped a newspaper, tore a sausage free of the links that fell out, and handed it to me.
“Sorry,” he said, “there’s no mustard.”
“Well, next time see that there is!” I risked saying, nibbling at it gingerly, relieved he began shrugging his shoulders, laughing.
Our little joke went over badly with a woman who whispered to her companion behind a gloved hand, but loud enough for me to hear, something about “the young having lost all respect.”’ The old man merely closed his eyes and promptly took a nap.
Heidelberg was our first stop. We crossed the Neckar River in light mist and the storied hill on its north side, the Philosophenweg, where famous minds were said to have argued serious matters, sometimes coming to blows, even duels, was nothing more than a soft charcoal line in an artist’s sketch. Beneath us, running to join the Rhine to the west, the Neckar seemed coated in oil slicks from the coal barges lumbering by. A lone woman on the back deck of a tug looked up from hanging wash on a line. I couldn’t get the window down in time to wave, which relieved the women in our compartment who’d continued their whispering.
From the station, I made out the flying buttresses and gargoyles hanging down imposingly from the famous medieval castle overlooking the river from the south bank. In what was turning out to be my favorite course – the one humanities course we science majors were obliged to enroll in— Professor Breiter had mentioned the Nibelungs’ presence all over this landscape, tracing their peregrinations on an old map he’d managed to salvage somewhere – “like Indian tribes in your West, albeit even more ferocious,” he’d said.
Some verses of the text came to mind so I took out a pad and began scanning them when the old man, suddenly jolted awake, poked me with his umbrella: “You ought to use our stop-over here to put your feet on holy ground, young man.” He took my pad and scribbled his address on it. “Next time I’ll put you up, serve you my best mustard. Meanwhile, my regards to your people in America. If they rent you out as a grandson I will be happy to negotiate a visit. My only grandson, you see, was killed in the damnable war.” He put his hand down hard on my shoulder and squeezed.
So much for passing as a native, I grumbled to myself, and forced the window open to watch him slowly make his way to the exit, several times doffing his cap at passing ladies. The train started up just as I hailed a vendor, and hastily got myself a bottle of lemonade he thrust through the window.
Finally, the conductor came along, which started up a heated discussion over the train’s continuing route by the women across from me. Perking up, because I was suddenly confused about the next stretch, I leaned their way a little. It seems the train was about to be rerouted over Karlsruhe, not proceed directly on to Stuttgart. The women began protesting that “such shenanigans” wouldn’t have been tolerated in The Third Reich; and furthermore, that we were already running some minutes late. “It is such a scandal,” the older woman spat out, but no one except her companion joined in. I myself wondered if the route change meant I’d miss my connection to Tuttlingen, assuming we made it to Stuttgart at all.
“Well, nothing’s guaranteed anymore, that I do know,” the conductor said. “But I will try to find out just how late we might be into Stuttgart, my good man.” He punched my ticket and left.
- 3 -
Rumors started flying up and down the whole car – we were transporting lawyers and judges to the newly constituted German Supreme Court, to be situated in Karlsruhe; the tracks had given out south of Heidelberg due to negligence; the Americans were sending through a secret shipment of Nazi gold to Swiss banks…. Exasperated, the older woman looked my way and said, “Why doesn’t our Ami here just drop another atomic bomb and put us out of our misery?”
Chanting verses from the Nibelungenlied I’d been reviewing back at her, I toasted her with my lemonade for good measure. She grunted something about my impertinent impudence, but when she jumped up to retrieve her belongings from the rack overhead I beat her to them. I took the bundles and suitcases down, hers and then her companion’s, who also pointed to a lampshade – “Please, this also,” she scowled – and, politely as I could, helped them into the aisle where they proceeded to push through the car and finally out of sight. The three other people in the compartment settled back, stretched out, and the man with one arm carefully unwrapped a bar of chocolate and gave me a chunk.
“Takes all kinds, you understand,” he said.
“Sure enough,” I said, relieved. “Where are you headed, may I ask?”
“Well, I’m sort of a refugee myself,” he said plaintively, “but maybe my sister in Karlsruhe will put me up for a while till I can decide some things.” He paused to wolf down the rest of the chocolate bar before carefully pressing out the wrapper on his knee and returning it to his pocket. “Before the war, I’d been learning the machine tool trade, but with this gone…” – he pointed to the stump of his arm – “well, I’m open to suggestions if you have any.” I shook my head slowly and told him a little about my circumstances. Thinking I’d doze a little to fend off my anxiety about making the Stuttgart connection, I let slip that I was more or less a student at the TH, which everyone understood to be the Technische Hochschule. He sat up abruptly.
“Holy Mother of God!” he said. “What a bloodbath!” The Heidelberg newspaper he pulled out of his rucksack had the story splashed on the front page. “Don’t suppose you care to read about the latest developments?”
A few days before the semester ended, a student had been found murdered on the back side of Darmstadt, and the grisly details were starting to leak out. For some students, particularly those who’d fought on the Russian front and somehow survived, it was just another death they seemed to be able to shrug off. Everyone passed the many editions of the Echo around, the local paper, but it was clear the investigation would take a long time so most of us stopped waiting for the next edition and went back to our studies.
“Not hardly” I said softly, and gently pushed his newspaper aside. “Think I better get some rest now.” Closing my eyes, I prayed I’d really fall asleep. I could see, before slipping under, that he went back to the paper, running a finger under some bit or other. When we ground to a stop at Karlsruhe, I jumped up, sweating and chilled. My chocolate provider had already moved to the rear of the car to get off. The whole compartment was empty, and I thought I might have it all to myself for the zag back east, then across and down toward Stuttgart, when I heard the conductor shouting. “All out for Stuttgart! This train is being held over in Karlsruhe. Hurry to track 4: use the underpass, and please see you take all your belongings.” He assured me when I met him on the platform that we’d make up the lost time. I’d not only make my connection, but the new train would continue on to Tuttlingen so there’d be no need to change trains again. “In the new Germany you will be in Tuttlingen,” he thumbed the timetable, “at exactly the same time you’d have arrived in the old.” The train on track 4 started whistling, so I quickly thanked him and bolted. In short order I found an empty compartment, relieved to be able to stay put all the way to Tuttlingen.
- 4 -
Stuttgart came and went with no disasters. Spookily, no one else joined me for the last leg. I could pace around the compartment to stretch, get the buzz out of my legs at any time. The landscape began rushing by the window the harder I strained to stare out.
Early evening came on, and I hoped for enough light to see what Mrs. Riemann had promised would be the most beautiful part of the journey – through deepening valleys, along pristine streams, under and over gracefully arcing spans, a final cut through the heart of the Black Forest, then on into sleepy little Tuttlingen with its umbrella of red-slate rooftops. I couldn’t be sure whether or not I dreamt the final stretch of the route, wondering how anyone living in such a landscape could have ever dreamt of…
Stuart Friebert published three books in 2014: his 13th book of poems, "Floating Heart" (Pinyon Publishing), his 10th translation volume, "Puppets in the Wind: Selected Poems by Karl Krolow" (Bitter Oleander Press) and "Stomach of the Soul, Selected Poems of Sylva Fischerova" (in cotranslations with the author & A.J. Hauner/Calypso Editions.) Black Mt Press will publish his story collection, "The Language of the Enemy," in 2015.
His work appears in Offcourse #56 and #58.