Barbara Honigmann was born in 1949 to Jewish parents in Berlin. Having fled to Britain during the Holocaust, her parents returned to Germany after the war, in order to partake in the building of an anti-Fascist, equal state in East Germany. In the early eighties, shortly after the birth of her first son, Honigmann sought to reconnect to her Jewish roots. In 1984, she left East Germany and moved to Strasbourg, on the French side of the Rhine. Honigmann described the move as a triple death leap: from east to west, from Germany to France, and from assimilation to Torah-Judaism. The story presented before us depicts a single day in the early eighties, which Honigmann spent in East Berlin in the company of the renowned Kabbalah scholar Gerhard Scholem and his wife Fania. In this short story, Scholem serves as both the real historical figure and a metaphor to the complex relationship between the sacred and the secular, tradition and progress, Israel and Germany, and the Jews and Germans after the Holocaust. In order to do so, Honigmann uses small words and simple sentences, but even these barely manage to hide her hope for some kind of spiritual depth and her recognition that this is the only world possible for her.
Translated by: Katy Derbyshire
We stood with Gerschom Scholem at the grave of his parents and brothers in the Jewish Cemetery in Berlin-Weißensee. It was cold – it was December. Gerschom Scholem and Fania, his wife, were wearing light coats, having just arrived from Jerusalem. Scholem ought to have known how cold Berlin is in December, he’d lived here long enough, born and brought up here. But that was probably too long ago. It was 1923 when he left, because he thought there was no place for him in Germany.
We cleared the grave of old leaves and twigs, branches and half-trees, and of the overweening ivy that clambers across all graves, from one to the next, from grave to tree and from tree back to grave, consuming and engulfing everything until the entire stony order grows back into a forest and not only the bodies of the dead, but also the entire work of commemorating them goes back to earth. ‘You’ll need an axe to visit an ancestor’s grave, to slash your way through the accrued time,’ said Scholem.
The gravestone said:
born 1863 in Berlin died 1925 in Berlin
BETTY SCHOLEM, née Hirsch
born 1866 in Berlin died 1946 in Sydney
born 1895 in Berlin
killed 1942 in Buchenwald
born 1893 in Berlin died 1965 in Sydney
Scholem told us about his father, his mother, his two brothers, the one who had become a communist and been killed in Buchenwald, and Erich, who had emigrated to Australia. He introduced them all to us one after another. And then we stood silently for a little while, perhaps for the length of time in which we might have said hello and shaken hands. Scholem said a short prayer. He said it very quietly, in a whisper.
Near the entrance, on the way to the grave, was a building site. We couldn’t tell what was being built and everything looked the same as always, but still a large section of the path was blocked off with a rope, with a flag hanging from it proclaiming: ‘Beware: Building Site’. Fania Scholem simply took down the rope with the flag, just the way you use the handle of a door as you pass through, and walked straight across the marked out building site, and Gerschom Scholem called after her: ‘Can’t you see the path is blocked off?’ But Fania answered: ‘I’m not going to let a rope stop me from taking my path! Can’t you see there’s nothing to see?’ Scholem shook his head but he did follow her along the forbidden path across the invisible building site, although not without replacing the rope behind him.
Outside the cemetery gate, a black chauffeur-driven Mercedes waited for Gerschom and Fania. It had been provided by the Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Germany in the GDR, which had invited Scholem – provided for the day, in other words, by the politician Klaus Bölling, or perhaps it was still Günter Gaus.
We drove to Schönhauser Allee. Scholem wanted to buy a pig-leather briefcase like the one he’d had in Berlin back then. You can’t get them in Jerusalem and he had loved that briefcase and always wanted one later but never found one. So he wanted to buy one now in Berlin. Scholem and Fania, his wife, started out by entering the shop through the wrong door and were sent back out to use the correct door, with the word ‘Entrance’ written on it. Then they failed to take a basket at the correct point in the self-service store and were reprimanded again. They didn’t even notice, though, because they were talking loudly, which presumably also annoyed the saleswomen, who reluctantly showed them a handful of bags. Fania lost her temper over the unfriendliness and the constant rebukes, but Scholem asked her to restrain herself. In the end they bought a briefcase and were very happy, because it had been such an old wish and was now fulfilled at last, after so many years.
Fania Scholem spoke German. But where did she pick it up? Her native language is Hebrew, later she spoke Polish, Yiddish, Russian, and then learned English and French, but not German. So how did she come to speak German now? ‘She somehow breathed it in from living with me,’ said Scholem.
Then Scholem sat on the rocking chair at our house. He had read all our letters at Aunt Eva’s place in Jerusalem, and he told me not to go into the kitchen and make coffee because we’d only lose precious time for our conversation. He asked questions and told stories, and we asked questions and told stories.
What stories he told, a thousand tales from German and Jewish and German-Jewish history, from old, new and old-new history. About the Frankists, the Jewish messianic sect in Poland where the followers later all converted to Catholicism; he was working on them at the time. And about Walter Benjamin’s friend Noeggerath from Berlin, whom he hoped to find out more about during his visit. Then he railed against the Lubavitch Rebbe, telling us he had proved the rabbi had forged an allegedly historical letter; he was appalled by that kind of behaviour, as a historian. And he told us about the Complete Archive of German Jewry, now held in the GDR State Archive in Merseburg, and how he went there for the first time and saw it with his own eyes, and about the library of the Jewish Community in Berlin, the former huge library at Oranienburger Straße 68. And we said that’s where it is again now, except that it’s not huge any more, it’s tiny, but on the same street, in the same building. That was where he borrowed his first books of Jewish knowledge, said Scholem, and we said: same here. And that was how it all began, he told us, and we said: same here.
And then Scholem told us about the library’s fate. After the war, he had come to Berlin on behalf of the Israeli state to find the library and to take it over to Israel, if possible. Jewish books were not destroyed by the Nazis. On the contrary, they were collected and catalogued by ten Jewish scholars employed especially for the purpose (only the two of them who were married to German women survived). Later, the entire collection was relocated to Prague because the Nazis assumed that city would not be bombed, and after the war, after the Nazis’ victory that is, the collected books were to demonstrate their triumph over the Jews, just as the temple treasures taken from ransacked Jerusalem once did in Rome. The Czechoslovakian government, which found the collection in Prague after the war, regarded it as their property and offered it up for sale all over the world. And so the books were scattered here, there and everywhere, nobody knows where. Here and there, you can find one book or another in a library or a used bookstore in some city of the world. Scholem found a few of them on his travels to all kinds of cities and countries and bought them, and they’re now in his house. The collection is said to have included five hundred very valuable Hebrew manuscripts, two of which Scholem discovered in Warsaw. ‘The books fared no better than the people,’ said Scholem. He wrote a report on his research but never published it.
Later we went to the Berolina Hotel, where we wanted to invite Scholem and Fania, his wife, to dinner. After telling us how the Frankists had married into the Polish aristocracy after their conversion to Catholicism, thus fully ‘Jewifying’ it, and after laughing over that, Scholem said to me and Peter, my husband: ‘It says: Exile yourself to a place of Torah (. . . and do not say that it will follow after you, that your colleagues will make it yours. Do not rely on your understanding. Pirkei Avot, 4:14). Jerusalem would be good, New York would be good, London would be good, anywhere else would be good, but Germany is no longer good for Jews. Nothing more can be learned here, so there is no point in staying, it is far too hard. How you could get there I don’t know, but I’ll think about it.’
They both refused to eat meat. They didn’t keep strictly kosher at home, they said, but here in Berlin they’d rather not have any meat. There was no fish at the Interhotel, though, so we could only invite them to a dried-out egg salad. Scholem and Fania talked loudly and laughed loudly, and I felt the disapproving glances from all sides at the uninhibited old couple.
The chauffeur from the Permanent Mission was waiting outside the hotel, and they got in the car in the end and we stood for a little while by the open car doors and said what a wonderful day it had been, and Scholem pointed at the pig-leather briefcase again and said it had been a great success for him, and then: ‘Auf Wiedersehen. Well, who knows if we will see each other again…’
The next day, we ran to the library on Oranienburger Straße and took home all of Scholem’s books. They really were shelved – he had complained about it to us – next to the books of the ‘German nationalist’ Schoeps, a writer from whom he felt very far removed.
We soon received post from Scholem too. He sent us a book about the Frankists that had just come out and asked us to give it to the Jewish Community library in his name once we had read it, and we did just that.
A few weeks later, a friend called me and said she had heard ‘something stupid’ on the radio. I didn’t understand what she wanted to tell me, but then she said Gerschom Scholem had died in Jerusalem that day and his burial was the next day. That was on 21 February 1982.
He was 84 years old when he died. But for me, he had only just been born. For years and years, Gerschom Scholem was nothing but writing. The letters of his name on book covers and above magazine articles, writing following on from an asterisk in texts, looked up at the back of a book, in notes. Or sometimes, when he was mentioned by one person or another, the sound of a name, that strange name.
That name had now appeared as a person, as true reality, speaking loudly in a Berlin accent, a long tall man with protruding ears, all that mysticism on our rocking chair. He had made the journey of his life one more time, one more Berlin–Jerusalem round trip, wearing a light coat.
It is cold – it is December, three years later. I am sitting in the Petit Café on Avenue du Général de Gaulle. So it is not New York and not London but France, and I’m sitting here thinking of Scholem in Berlin. The café is empty, only the three Arabs at the next table who always sit there, whom I know quite well by now because we have talked a few times, and they’re very friendly even though I told them straight away that I’m an israélite. The only thing they didn’t understand was why I don’t speak Hebrew (it’s so similar to Arabic), and so I had to explain that my native language is German and that I come from Germany and live here now because there are as good as no israélites left there, and then they asked: Why’s that?
After Scholem’s death, soon afterwards, I went back to the cemetery in Weißensee, to the grave of his parents and brothers. I wanted to perform some act of remembrance and I took the same path we had walked, took down the rope with the flag and walked right along the blocked-off path just like we had done before. Then I was back at the grave and there I saw it, beneath all the names of his family, his name. It says:
GERHARD G. SCHOLEM
born 1897 in Berlin died 1982 in Jerusalem
Most people only have one grave. Gerschom Scholem has two. One in Jerusalem and one in Berlin. He lived in both cities his whole life long, I suppose. That’s why he has a double grave. That was the kind of life he lived.
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