I can’t sleep. My furnished apartment in Freiburg, Germany, has a TV that broadcasts a single channel, in German, and since I’m too tired to read but too wired to rest, I tune in for half an hour. I speak nicht Deutch—just a little Yiddish—but can still make out the tail-end of a news program on an Auschwitz survivor, replete with images of rawboned prisoners and the eminent entry gate (“Work shall set you free”); a preview for a film called Female Agents in which be-lipsticked vixens gun down unsuspecting Nazis; and the start of a sitcom called Tel Aviv Rendezvous in which a guileless guest shows up at a Shabbat dinner with nonkosher wine.
It’s six hours earlier Brooklyn, New York, so I call my husband to tell him about the triad.
“What is it,” he snickers, “the atonement channel?”
In the sunniest spot in Germany, rain clouds roll in, discharge, and retreat. It’s July, and between short daily storms, the sun blazes. One learns quickly in the federal state of Baden-Wurttemberg to travel with protection: sunscreen and sunglasses. A windbreaker and umbrella. Shoes that won’t soak through and subsequently squeak throughout the day.
I have a bag packed with such supplies on my mile-long walk to the University of Freiburg, where I instruct an English-language writing seminar. Through the canopy of trees above my head, the sky is intermittently yellow and gray, heartening and menacing. On Günterstalstrasse, the city’s main axis, I pass open-faced bakeries, one after the other, whose honey-sweet smell is absorbed into my clothes. I am lured in like a bee and because (yahoo!) I’m in Europe, I order a slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie for breakfast and sit at the window and smile unwittingly at passers-by.
The view is aggressively adorable: trolleys glide along cobblestone streets amidst buildings the shade and shape of lemon meringue. Narrow water-filled canals, vestiges from the Middle Ages, crisscross alleys and abut sidewalks. It seems every window has a box neatly packed with flowers, and everyone, old and young, narrow and wide, rides their bicycle.
I sip espresso and watch folks outside cluster at the crosswalk. I try not to think about how I jaywalked the day before and an elderly man berated me—all consonants and knitted brows. (Reproach requires no translation.) Nor do I dwell on a German friend’s supposition that the man said this: “Ordnung muss sein.” Order, he’d said, must be maintained.
I let a piece of pie dissolve in my mouth and try to decide if it’s more sour or sweet. It is impossibly both. I note that I should do this more—make a meal of dessert. Perhaps I’ll start baking in New York, despite my wee aisle kitchen and temperamental oven. Even though I don’t own proper bakeware. Even though I’m not so good at following directions.
Above the rooftops, the Black Forest seems to float, a wooded island in the sky.
I never expected my 92-year-old grandmother to sanction my trip to Deutschland. In fact, I held off telling her that I’d accepted a summer teaching post in part because I didn’t want to upset her. Grandma has a brain tumor. She is prone to passing out.
When I finally confessed a week before leaving—at top volume due to her near-deafness—she barely blinked. I assumed she hadn’t heard me.
“Germany,” I shouted again. Nothing. I’d stunned her into silence. Like so many Jews in the Diaspora, Grandma’s family fled pogroms and shed their Ashkenazic surname. She and my late grandfather, who helped build our local synagogue, ensured that I was thoroughly versed in the Holocaust.
“I feel guilty,” I offered, hoping to diminish her disappointment—or assuage my fidgety conscience.
Grandma puckered her penciled-on brows and shooed at the air with her hand.
“Forgive and move on,” she said. Then took an uneasy sip of water, a drop of which dribbled down her chin.
At the University of Freiburg, where philosopher and Nazi Martin Heidegger rose from professor to chair to rector, my students discuss their short stories-in-progress. Subjects vary from loosely true to admittedly contrived: domestic abuse, amateur sex, Satanism, heartbreak. All have signed up for the class to learn how to write fiction, to learn about plot and structure and endings and beginnings. They want to master language. (Cue Heidegger: “Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.”)
The students’ drafts are raw and rough. Some are overdramatic and don’t convince us. To the writer of a knife-throwing protagonist, one classmate gripes, “That wouldn’t happen in real life.” Other narratives lack tension. “Where’s the obstacle?” I press. “What’s at stake?”
Most of them hail from the States: Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Texas. A few are German. One’s from South Africa.
That afternoon, Nadja, a department assistant, takes the group on a walking tour. She points out popular beer gardens and cheap restaurants and a cinema that shows English-language films for only four euro. She guides us to the famous Münsterplatz, the center of the city, designed around the mammoth and intricate red sandstone cathedral. We tip our heads back and marvel. Gothic spires pierce the clouds. Gargoyles poise on the edge of the roof as though bracing to jump.
A student who studied the church’s construction in art history points out the statues adorning the façade: prophets, saints, demons, imps. She notes that several of them feature “attributes.” Like St. Catherine, who holds a wheel, the device with which she was tortured and killed.
At cafés along the periphery, diners schmooze under umbrellas and an accordion player pumps vaguely familiar songs. Nursery rhymes, maybe. Show tunes? The sky is graying over. Nearby, a guitarist croons Red Hot Chili Peppers and several students, American and German, chime in.
When Nadja pauses to plot her next move, I ask if we can go see the synagogue.
Temple, I offer. House of worship. Church for Jews. I point to the street sign at the corner: “Platz der Alten Synagoge.”
“Oh!” Her face lights up with understanding. Mine does at being understood. Then she shakes her head. “It was burned down.” The war, she says. The sign is merely pointing to where it used to be.
Saturday and cloudless: U.S.-born, German-based Emily takes me on a hike along the Dreisam River. Locals loll in the sunshine. Women go topless. Kiddies swim nude. All around us, the forest swells skyward, interrupted only by mounds of vineyard.
“Isn’t it charming?” says Emily. It’s not charming: it’s Eden. Ducks bob on the current and egrets wade in the shade. “Here,” she says. She’s picked a wild raspberry off the vine. Now a blackberry. I swallow. Everything is so delightful.
Isn’t there some kind of Biblical story like this? A community that gets too complacent or comfortable, too incautious, and God strikes it down?
We emerge from a tunnel in which someone’s graffitied “Fuck the police” and into a cloud of white fluff: seeds drifting on the wind. The hope of a new plant generation.
Emily tells me how the German population is in serious decline, how deaths are outpacing births. There’s an incentive, she says, that provides men with a year of paid paternity leave for every child they produce.
“A year?” I shout. She laughs at my enthusiasm. My husband and I plan to have two—maybe three with that kind of offer. “Fully paid?” I fill my lungs. Freiburg. Why not? The rent is so much cheaper. Healthcare and education are practically free. Not to mention that the city’s eco-friendly even by Brooklyn bohemian standards: vegetation sprouts from rooftops and solar panels decorate storefronts and farmers’ markets pitch tents nearly every day. The Green Party has a stronghold here.
In the sunlight, the bellies of floating seeds glow like fireflies. We could hike through the Black Forest every day and bike along the Dreisam. My husband, I think, would love it.
On a nearby bench, an elderly woman watches us. She is old—older than the war.
The sight of her fills me with suspicion. Church bells echo through the trees. A duck buries its head in the stream, revealing only its tail and pedaling feet.
Dinner with friends at Oma’s Küche, Grandma’s Kitchen. I feast on spinach-and-cheese-filled crepes and sweet white wine from a local vineyard (There are English-language menus! I wouldn’t even need to know German to get by!).
Afterward, we wind our way through the university square, past a clock tower and a Starbucks and a jewelry store with crystals twinkling behind the glass. It’s the weekend of the Schlossbergfest, a summer music festival, and as I climb a hill into the edge of the forest, I bump into a few of my students buying shots from a veil-wearing bride-to-be—a tradition, I’m told, that helps new couples pay for their wedding. The Americans don’t have words enough to translate how much they love it here. What’s not to love? I say.
The festival is packed. Locals and tourists and teenagers and retirees crowd around performances and beer stands, clapping and smoking and shouting to be heard. We push our way through the mob to a paved pathway, which takes us to a slightly less congested section in back. On stage, Van Halen look-alikes croon Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.”
“Germans love American rock,” someone says.
We stake seats at a wooden picnic table, and I seek out beer, and though I can’t understand what the vendor says through his discolored teeth, I pretend I do. The stein is twice the size of a stateside mug, and I walk extra slowly so as not to disturb the foam.
“So cheap,” I say when I get back.
“No,” I’m told, “you got the cute girl discount.” When I turn around, the bartender is giving me a hyperbolic thumbs up. It’s too dark for anyone to see me blush.
I am simultaneously ashamed and proud to know every song the German Van Halens cover: Aerosmith, the Eagles, Creedence Clearwater Revival. After my second stein, I am singing them aloud.
Everyone’s giddy by the time we tumble down the mountain, past the university, and into the desolate residential streets that are supposedly safe. (I’m a New Yorker: to me, dark, empty areas spell danger.) The forest is my guide: if I keep it on my right, I’ll eventually find my way home. In the full moon, the canopy looks impenetrably black and formidable. My shadow overtakes the sidewalk. I note how the air tastes purer and more oxygenated than it does at home, how I’m so used to inhaling exhaust fumes (toxic!), how this town is inconceivably quiet—no sirens! no honking horns!—how I could live here, I could totally live here, why couldn’t I live here?, how I could write and teach and grow tomatoes and get a dog—two dogs!—and send my kids to the international school and there’s something shiny on the pavement, something glowing, and when I bend down, I see it’s a cobblestone-sized plaque, a brass “stumbling block” at the base of a residential driveway.
Here lived Robert Grumbach. Born 1875, arrested, deported to Dachau, then to Gurs. Beside it is a brass memorial for his wife: Hier wohnte Berta Grumbach.
I’d read that some residents in victims’ homes protested the installment of these Stolpersteine when a German artist first proposed the project in the 1990s. The value of their property would depreciate, they said. And who wants to be reminded of the genocide every time you go in and out of your house? It wasn’t the current tenants’ fault that certain groups were scapegoated. That the Grumbachs slipped away.
Beyond the metal gate safeguarding the property, two Volkswagens sit head to toe. There’s a figure watching me from in the upstairs window. Or maybe it’s just a curtain shifting in the breeze. I rub my heel on the brass to help it shine. I am still humming “Comfortably Numb.” I am waiting for the rain.
This essay appeared in Indiana Review 33.2, Winter 2011.
Anna Cabe (Non Fiction Editor): There is a well-worn tradition of travelogues, of American writers observing and commenting upon the foreign lands they find themselves in, but Courtney Zoffness’s “Up in the Trees” manages something miraculous in its few pages. With impressionistic but telling strokes, Zoffness, informed by her Jewish family’s own experiences with anti-Semitic violence, gives us a picture of a Germany still reckoning with its sins.
Courtney Zoffness won the 2017 Arts & Letters Creative Nonfiction Prize and the 2016 American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and her work has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Common, Washington Square Review, and elsewhere. She’s received awards from The MacDowell Colony, The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Vermont Studio Center, and The Center for Fiction, where she was an Emerging Writer Fellow. She teaches at Drew University.