Skins Beneath the Skin
Today, as in years past, the temptation to camouflage oneself in the third person remains great: He was going on twelve, though he still loved sitting in his mother’s lap, when such and such began and ended. But can something that had a beginning and an end be pinpointed with such precision? In my case it can.
My childhood came to an end when, in the city where I grew up, the war broke out in several places at once. It began with an unmistakeable bang—the broadsiding of a ship and the approach of dive bombers over the Neufahrwasser dock area, which lay opposite the Polish military base at Westerplatte, and, farther off, the carefully aimed shots of two armored reconnaissance cars during the battle for the Polish Post Office in the Old Town of Danzig—and was heralded closer to home by our radio—a Volksempfänger, “people’s receiver”—which stood on the sideboard in the living room. Thus the end of my childhood was proclaimed with words of iron in a ground-floor flat of a three-story building on Labesweg, in Langfuhr.
Even the time of day sticks in my mind. From then on, the airport of the Free State near the Baltic Chocolate factory handled more than just civilian planes. From the skylight in the roof of our building we could see smoke mounting duskily over the Free Port each time there was a new attack and a light wind from the northwest.
But the moment I try to remember that distant artillery fire from the Schleswig-Holstein, which had been retired from active duty after the Battle of Jutland and could no longer be used as anything but a training ship for cadets, and the layered sounds of the Stukas or Stutzkampfflugzeug, “dive-bombers”—so called because high above the combat zone they would tip to one side, then lunge down on their target, releasing their bombs at the last moment—I am faced with a question: Why go back to my childhood and its clear and immutable end date, when everything that happened to me between milk teeth and permanent ones—my first day at school, scraped knees, marbles, the earliest secrets of the confessional and later agonies of faith—all merged in the jumble of jottings that has since been associated with a person who, no sooner had he been put down on paper, refused to grow and shattered all manner of glass with his song, kept two wooden sticks at the ready, and thanks to a tin drum made a name for himself that thereafter existed in quotable form between book covers and claims immortality in heaven knows how many languages?
Because this as well as that deserves to be part of the record. Because something flagrantly significant could be missing. Because certain things at certain times fell into the well before the lid went on: the holes I left uncovered until later, growth I could not halt, the linguistic give-and-take I had with lost objects. And let this, too, be said: because I want to have the last word.
Memory likes to play hide-and-seek, to crawl away. It tends to hold forth, to dress up, often needlessly. Memory contradicts itself; pedant that it is, it will have its way.
When pestered with questions, memory is like an onion that wishes to be peeled so we can read what is laid bare letter by letter. It is seldom unambiguous and often in mirror-writing or otherwise disguised.
Beneath its dry and crackly outer skin we find another, more moist layer, that once detached, reveals a third, beneath which a fourth and fifth wait whispering. And each skin sweats words too long muffled, and curlicue signs, as if a mystery-monger from an early age, while the onion was still germinating, had decided to encode himself.
Then ambition raises its head: this scrawl must be deciphered, that code cracked. What currently insists on truth is disproved, because Lie or her younger sister, Deception, often hands over only the most acceptable part of a memory, the part that sounds plausible on paper, and vaunts details to be as precise as a photograph: The tarpaper roof of the shed behind our building shimmered in the July heat and in the still air smelled of malt lozenges . . .
The washable collar of my primary school teacher, Fräulein Spollenhauer, was made of celluloid and was so tight it put creases in her neck . . .
The propeller-shaped bows in the hair of the girls on the Zoppot Promenade when the police band played its snappy melodies . . .
My first Boletus edulis . . .
When we were excused from school because of the heat . . .
When my tonsils flared up again . . .
When I swallowed my questions . . .
The onion has many skins. A multitude of skins. Peeled, it renews itself; chopped, it brings tears; only during peeling does it speak the truth. What happened before and after the end of my childhood knocks at the door with facts and went worse than wished for and demands to be told now this way, now that, and leads to tall tales.
When war broke out to a spell of glorious late-summer weather in Danzig and environs, and the Westerplatte’s Polish defenders capitulated after seven days of resistance, I, that is, the boy I apparently was, gathered up a handful of bomb- and shell-splinters near the Neufahrwasser dock, which was easily accessible by tram via Saspe and Brösen, and traded them, at a time when the war seemed to exist only in radio bulletins, for stamps, colored picture cards from cigarette packets, books both dog-eared and hot off the press—including Sven Hedin’s Voyage Through the Gobi Desert—and heaven knows what else.
An imprecise memory sometimes comes a matchstick’s length closer to the truth, albeit along crooked paths.
It is mostly objects that my memory rubs against, my knees bump into, or that leave a repellent aftertaste: the tile stove . . . the frame used for beating carpets behind the house . . . the toilet on the half-landing . . . the suitcase in the attic . . . a piece of amber the size of a dove’s egg . . .
If you can still feel your mother’s barrettes or your father’s handkerchief knotted at four corners in the summer heat or recall the exchange value of various jagged grenade- and bomb splinters, you will know stories—if only as entertainment—that are closer to reality than life itself.
The picture cards I so eagerly collected in my boyhood and youth were obtained with coupons that came in the packs out of which my mother tapped her cigarettes after closing the shop. “Ciggies,” she called the accessories to her modest vice, and celebrated the nightly ritual with a glass of Cointreau. If the mood was upon her, she could make smoke rings hover.