My Grandfather

Stories of the war, we never actually met. He died in 1955. What do I know of you?

A teacher, then actor who finally settled for medicine. Siberian prisoner of war who recited Goethe’s Faust to keep himself and peers surviving. Somebody told the story to my grandmother, years later. Your extraordinary memory. Your good looks, two heads taller than my tiny gran.

My mother shoves a bunch of papers into my hands one day: Your grandfather’s letters from the war. In the heart space of a quiet evening, I unfold the wafer-thin paper, crisp still, yellowed, with pencil scribblings, faded. Letter after letter, we meet. Dr. Raimund Fluechter, born 1904, a man who lived with zest and passion. Loved women. Music. Life.

1940 in Denmark, it was an easy and swift invasion. You talk about theatre, performing a play. This is no war story. 1941 in Hungary, it is again music. You carry your violin around at the front. The letters speak of nothing but preparing for a concert you are going to give in Budapest, city of steam baths and good food. A touristic expose, well written. Who are you? The violin travels through the war zone. A Nazi soldier in Budapest, excited at eating fresh fruit. Playing Haendl and Teleman, classics for the soul.

Your doubts meet me on paper. What are we doing here? I want to rejoice, be proud. A few lines later we meet again, another angle. You, too, were infected. There are many Jews in Budapest, you write, wearing yellow stars. ‘Es wird einem ganz gelb vor Augen’, you say. Things are turning yellow in front of my eyes. A phrase normally used in conjunction with the colour black, indicating one is about to faint: Mir wird schwarz vor Augen. Did you faint on account of all the yellow? What does that mean? You got sick at this sight? I trace the thread of your pencil graphite with my finger, 65 year old lines, engravings, mysteries. What was on your mind when your hands held this piece of pergament like mine do now?

Suddenly you are here, explaining. In one moment of combat, it was in the ‘kettle’, a valley where we were ambushed, I lost my glasses. They were crushed, I could not see well without them. Treating and rescuing the many wounded men. It was my duty as a surgeon. I could not see well. My eardrums were shattered. Can’t relax, can’t sleep so well. We need not talk about it, I wrote to my wife, we have read Dante together, the Gates of Hell, I say no more.

Were you sad we never met? – Yes, I was, my granddaughter. – What would you have told me? – The follies, the mistakes, the juicy slice of life. I would have told you. I did not refuse cake when it was on my plate. I paid a price for it, too. Sometimes gladly. Sometimes with regret. – I heard you were a ladies’ man. I heard you broke each other’s hearts. – We gave our youth, our health, our lives, living in Hitler’s time. – Did you ever believe in him? – I am not sure I did. I am sure I did not. Sometimes I am almost sure I did… What has remained is Dante, the heartaches I could not prevent, the sorrow. We, the men. Frozen toes and bitter winters, a glimmer in the charcoal of the heart that needed fanning. To be more than an empty shell, to be man, to be a man. Done in our name. Could we undo. My granddaughter, my voice is not strong, it is pencil, faint, but legible after 65 years, a fine handwriting. No ears left you know, no eardrums, just eyes to see. We walked the best we could. We started over and over. Hitler came. The Russians came. Then later in East Berlin the Stasi came and we walked to the West, leaving everything, even my car, a Bentley, you know, that I loved. I polished it every weekend, myself. Until there was nothing left. – And now? – Telling myself in your stories, late night paper wars. I, too, was a warrior of light. I was. Even in times of confusion.

I am glad we met. Thank you for loosening the screw in my chest, the one that was too tight.

Candle fades into the dark winter night, the children long asleep.