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from the February 2016 issue

The First Thing I Saw

The first thing I saw when jolted from sleep was my father throwing books out of the window. He was dressed in the clothes he always wore at home, a sleeveless white undershirt and meticulously pressed dark blue trousers that matched the suit jacket he carelessly draped on a hook in the wardrobe as soon as the front door shut behind him. I’d woken with a start, it was night. In the harsh light, Father was standing at the window. He took one book after another from a pile and checked it briefly before tossing it nonchalantly into the garden four stories down. Then he leaned out of the window and launched a few scornful words after the books at the two men waiting in the darkness below, who could be easily told apart by their placating calls after every toss.

My mother stood in the room behind my father, talking to him insistently and calling him “Kortschi,” the affectionate form of his first name, Karl, in Hungarian. It was a diminutive she rarely used since they spoke to each other in Hungarian only when in a harmonious mood, very different from the times when they would suddenly switch to Serbo-Croatian and simply hiss words at each other, words we could not understand, but which we knew were bad words. As a result, for us Serbo-Croatian always meant discord and presaged days of gloomy brooding that always followed their arguments. But at that moment she was thrilled with him, as if she had just rediscovered how passionate he could be. I don’t believe I ever saw her as rapturous over him again as she was then, when she tugged him half-heartedly away from the window, seeming all the while to hope he wouldn’t let himself be calmed down very soon.

Woken by the commotion, I begin to cry. Books are far more precious than vases or glasses or china. They are the noblest things one can own. The two shelves in the living room, which flank the radio and the record player, are loaded with them from top to bottom, and Father lobs them into the garden in a high arc as if they were worthless trinkets. And yet, he is cheerful in his fury, which Mother stokes with her reproaches, and I’m forced to laugh in the midst of my tears, like when my sisters emptied a large glass of water out of the window just as Mrs. Eder, of whom all the children in the house were terrified, happened to be passing underneath. We were poorer than our neighbors, but our parents had told us never to let Mrs. Eder bully us. Our family was also poorer than the families of all my father’s coworkers, because he was the head of the Counseling Center for Displaced Persons and so had to spend more time worrying about mankind than about his own family.

Father was never loud but a deep rage slumbered inside him and it was at ten o’clock that very night, as others were falling asleep, that it was wakened. It was a terrible and exuberant fury and, by sending the books sailing out of the window, Father showed those trying to catch them below how profound his contempt for them was. Mother explained to my two sisters who had come running in their nightgowns and stood in the corner, initially frightened and then amused, and they then explained to my brother, who in turn explained to me that the two men whingeing in the garden had souls of shopkeepers and were demanding that Father hand over all the books he had received, studied, and reviewed in his newspaper so they could be kept in the archive that Father himself had founded. We often had to deal with such shopkeepers, small-minded people with no idea about anything beyond bean-counting.


Mother’s voice sounded dusky, hoarse, and Father’s was muffled from thousands of cigarettes, but they both spoke a dialect, which, I only realized later, after I’d started school, seemed foreign compared with the city’s way of speaking. My parents said gake and googies when they meant cake and cookies; they said Dyrol and Durkey rather than Tyrol or Turkey. O’s and A’s echoed deep in their throats whereas they rolled their R’s in the front of their mouths, up against their teeth. I hadn’t noticed it in the housing development where we lived because most of the other families had originally come from South Tyrol, Silesia, or the Sudetenland, although they were now residents of Austria or even Salzburg going back two or three generations. And at home there was a constant stream of people from many countries; for years our doorplate was engraved with not only our name, but also with Counseling Center for Ethnic Germans. That’s why I was familiar with the rough, brittle, uncertain, rumbling, angry, pleading voices of people who identified themselves as Dobrujan, Carpathian, or Bessarabia Germans, as Transylvanian Saxons or Banat Swabians and who each had their own language. Some favored diphthongs like an extended Ä, which produced a dissonance that was not unpleasant. For others, it was the sibilants that made their speech fluid and lent it a confidential tone.

I sit under the table and listen to the way they speak, these nameless, faceless men, of whom I see only their dark trousers, their hidden, tightly tied footwear, their scratchy socks, and occasionally a section of their bony white legs. Or I lie in bed in my room and the singsong of their speech lulls me to sleep, I am rocked on their sentences which are almost always about places they have lost, legendary cities they were forced to leave or fabulous cities they longed to settle in, about Werschetz, Eger, Bruntál, or about Toronto, Philadelphia, Buenos Aires.

The only one whose shoes were not hard, hidden, and tightly laced but instead soft and narrow was an older man whose face I knew because we sometimes met him when we children went into the city with our parents. He was graceful, he minced rather than walked, had silken white hair, wore a light-colored suit that was worn thin, almost transparent, in spots, and always kissed Mother’s hand if she was there. He spoke German, but with a comical coloring. He was, where he had come from, a professor of music in the conservatory, Father said. What a refined man, Mother said. His name was Béla Miller and he was the first Hungarian in my life.


On some evenings Father put on his jacket and black shoes, polished to a high shine, but did not leave the apartment. This meant we were expecting visitors and one did not receive company in slippers. Mother had spent the afternoon in the kitchen and shooed away anyone who wanted to get in. Then she withdrew into her room and reappeared twenty minutes later, as if surrounded by a halo of light, wearing a red and black dress that everyone said suited her perfectly and a chain of corals around her neck. In the kitchen simmered a large pot of Serbian bean soup, spiced so generously that you never knew with the first taste if it weren’t perhaps too hot, and yet it tasted better with every spoonful. Or tightly packed yellowish green Sarma rolls—cabbage leaves filled with minced meat and served with sour cream—would be steaming in a container of clear Jena glass.

On edge, Father paced through the apartment, in his left hand a cigarette pinched between two crooked fingers sprinkled with bluish shrapnel scars. From the festively laid table in the living room he took the clear bottle filled with an aromatic liqueur called Pushkin that was served with a bright red cherry. He poured a decent slug into his glass and tossed it back in a single gulp. Then he grimaced and rubbed his stomach below his ribs. On his night table there were always one box and one tin of pills: the ones in the first were called “Rotter” and turned the water red when they dissolved; the ones in the second were called “Rennie” and they had to be sucked. Father stood in the living room, rubbing his stomach and softly cursing the visitors who, naturally, were late again.

My sisters, already big, served themselves dinner from the prepared dishes and retreated into their rooms shortly after greeting the guests. My brother, three years older than I, lingered for a while and, renowned for his intelligence, let the visitors test him. He obediently named the highest mountains and longest rivers on earth until he became bored and left the room after bowing politely. I, however, enjoy slowly growing tired in the midst of all the voices and sinking into a kind of pre-sleep in which I listen to the voices billowing through the room; I lean back somewhere off to the side or sit on my mother’s lap, my head resting on her shoulder, and by keeping as still as possible, I try to delay for as long as I can the time when they will get up and carry me to my room.

Once they had, I’d wait in bed until the conversation in the living room grew loud or the sound of laughter reached me, then I’d run to the door and open it a crack so that I could listen as I fell asleep: the comic singsong of Mr. Stützenbach, who kept his thin mustache neatly trimmed and who occasionally pulled a small, worn brown leather notebook from his vest pocket and leafed through it casually before telling one of the several hundred jokes he had in his repertoire; or the lawyer Sitzwohl who always winked at me conspiratorially with his left eye when our eyes met and who didn’t speak often, but when he did, he spoke at length and was rarely interrupted; or Mrs. Reitter, an old woman with a deep voice who wore a black hat cocked on her white hair and who was said to have been the first sophisticated woman in the Bačka before she was displaced, because she smoked cigarettes, never married, and had traveled to Egypt alone before the war.

The voices swell and recede in a continuous rolling surge that rises to a tempestuous roar and furious bluster when the men begin arguing and the women can only calm them briefly because once they’ve worked themselves into a rage, they soon start shouting again—traitor, Nazi, Communist. From time to time someone called Father a Communist and once he even went to court because a shopkeeper had called him a Communist in one of the displaced persons newspapers. That said, Father believed Communism was not a good thing in itself, but was a just punishment, the fitting punishment for all those greedy, lying jackasses who on top of it all put on airs of being pious Christians. 

From Das erste was Ich sah. © Paul Zsolnay Verlag Vienna 2013. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2016  by Tess Lewis. All rights reserved. 

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