By Uwe Johnson
Translated By Damion Searls
The following is excerpted from Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl, translated from the German by Damion Searls and forthcoming with New York Review Books. Set between August 1967 and August 1968, each chapter represents a day in the life of Gesine Cresspahl, a thirty-four-year-old German émigré to Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In addition to recounting her daily life in New York, Gesine shares stories with her ten-year-old daughter, Marie, of her upbringing in a small German town; her experiences living through WWII, Soviet retribution, and Communist East Germany; and her enterprising father, who appears in the chapter below.
May 3, 1968 Friday
Now that the Communists in Prague have their $400 million from headquarters safe in hand, almost, they can admit that it wasn’t as bad as all that with the delayed wheat shipments from the Soviet Union. On the contrary. The latest reports have it that deliveries are coming in even bigger than requested—here the New York Times chides herself. The US government tries a different tack and speaks openly of its interest and sympathy in recent developments in Czechoslovakia, which “seem to represent” the wishes and needs of the Czechoslovak people; it is considering the transfer of gold to a Communist country, despite its own dwindling gold reserves, and in an election year no less. At the May 1 Parade, Dubček, unmoved, sends special greetings to the Soviet Union, “whence our freedom came and from which we can expect fraternal aid”—he doesn’t want to stir up trouble, he wants to smooth it down on the other side. Maybe the ČSSR can use USSR dollars to purchase manufacturing licenses in the US. And as for the US government offer, that is irresponsible and unacceptable. All right, all right, playtime’s over.
The town of Jerichow was surrounded by wheat fields, with Baltic fish nearby, but was short of food. The townsfolk of an earlier time could have helped one another out, tradesmen swapping with townsman-farmers; now that refugees were being put up in rooms, attics, and barns, there wasn’t enough bread. The military commandant wanted to be not only a good father and provider but a proud one, and he ordered the unclaimed harvest brought in.
The mayor went about it differently, decreeing that:
1. owned a scythe
2. could use a scythe
should report to Town Hall, Room 4, henceforth to be called the Labor Office. As of July 12, the office had been notified of eight scythes in all of Jerichow, most of them reported not by their owners but by malicious neighbors. Ten times as many people as scythes turned up for the mowing, almost all of them women, refugees one and all, and they all claimed to know how to mow, they’d brought little children along too, to tie the sheaves, to steal the grain. It was a motley crowd, dressed in rags, some intending to tackle the stubble in the fields barefoot, all of them gaunt and weak with hunger. A bottle of clear water and the prospect of a handful of grain—that was their lunch. Cresspahl remembered how a scythe tore a heavy swing from your shoulders. He mustn’t sigh in front of these people. He led this heap of workers out of town on foot to a field that had once been part of one of the landed estates, mowed one length for them, along the side of a hundred-meter square, then took off his jacket and turned around to look at them. The mower women were a long way behind him, the children running around with sheaves even farther back, and now he lost a whole morning showing them, again and again, how to plant their legs against the ground and shift their weight so the swing of the scythe wouldn’t pull them off their feet. And the children, including children from town, couldn’t get how you can twist a skein of stalks under your elbow into a cord that you knot on the bottom. One of them, his Gesine, was so eager she had two left hands. By midday he had little more from his team than the promise to keep trying. “Cresspahl’s bunch of cripples,” the people of Jerichow called them, but on the second day there really were too many sheaves to count at a glance, even if the stubble looked a bit like a choppy sea. And the dummies who’d responded to Cresspahl’s decree were paid, half in cash and half in grain from the previous year’s harvest, weighed out daily in Papenbrock’s granary. For a while there were Jerichow townswomen who would have been glad to turn up with scythes they’d forgotten about, or just to tie sheaves.
Then some of the women were assaulted by K. A. Pontiy’s comrades and didn’t return. One was found too late, in a hawthorn hedge, with a shattered jaw, and she died while being transported to the hospital. Transported meaning carried in a horse blanket, a heavy load for four women. K. A. Pontiy refused to be responsible for men under other other Kommandaturas—he was already having a fight with the commandant of Knesebeck. A soldier had come back to quarters there with wounds from a reaping hook all down his arm and on his back, and said something about a Fascist attack, but it had just been children defending their mother against him. Pontiy started a hunt for Hitler’s Werewolf resistance forces in Jerichow, and Cresspahl was ordered to be shot several times over. Then came the reconciliation, and Pontiy solemnly declared himself prepared to give the volunteers an escort from among his men. Then the women refused to go to work under such protection. K. A. Pontiy ordered the harvest brought in at once.
There were still men on Jerichow’s farms, and they had harvesting machines, but Cresspahl had trouble getting them onto the nobility’s fields, this time for legal reasons. The von Plessens had sowed the fields, the estates had always managed them—wasn’t it theft to reap the harvest there? In Jerichow, as elsewhere in Mecklenburg, it was considered a sin to let wheat rot on the stalk; the departed owners’ anger was still more frightening. Finally Cresspahl was able to talk them into saving the wheat, for its owners as it were. So now they cleared the fields outside the leased areas and guarded the grain that wasn’t theirs at night with bludgeons and dogs (for which they didn’t pay the new tax). Those who stubbornly refused had their machines confiscated by Cresspahl as soon as they’d finished their own harvest. And he had an easier time finding people to operate the machines once he stopped distributing ration cards to any family in Jerichow without at least one member working. (When the mayor arranged a card for Gesine on the grounds that she was working and Mrs. Abs got it for her son, this was seen as cheating.) The machines were felt to have been taken by force, and the work was not performed with the zeal promoted by ownership, so the equipment broke down more than usual. Cresspahl could talk all he wanted about benefiting the town—people felt it was being done for the Russians. It didn’t help that Red Army soldiers could be seen racing their horses up and down the roads. Worse yet, a detachment showed up in a field in the Jericho housing development and traded their two worn-out nags for a horse that was hitched to a cart, like during the war, at gunpoint. The cart could still be moved, if twenty people leaned against the spokes, but no more work was done that day. Gesine came back to town that evening leading the Russians’ sick horses, which no one had wanted to bring in, and waited for Cresspahl outside the Kommandatura door. Cresspahl was already inside, busy negotiating the return of a tractor that someone from the Red Army had “borrowed” because the commander had needed it to take him to Gneez on official business and had forgotten it there. K. A. Pontiy was somewhat uncomfortable, there was also the matter of some cans of diesel oil, and he mentioned Ukraine, just in passing. In Ukraine, you know, people carried the wheat to the threshing together, they didn’t need a vehicle, and women and children pulled plows there too, and you know what else, the milk production from the cows didn’t markedly decrease until after four months, cf. the lessons learned from Swiss husbandry. After listening to this instructive cultural information, Cresspahl repeated his question. – Tractor? What tractor?: K. A. Pontiy said, confused for a moment, at a loss for longer.
He saw the horses Gesine had brought back as a sign of good faith—the return of Army property—and he waved her around the corner onto the Bäk. But the child wanted new ones in exchange, – Novye: she said, scared though she was of making a language mistake, and Pontiy kindly explained to her that these horses weren’t novye, nothing like the fine Ukrainian breed! Cresspahl tore the reins out of the child’s hand and left the trampled front garden of the brickworks villa without saying goodbye. When it was dark, K. A. Pontiy paid his mayor a visit and threatened to have him shot if he didn’t ensure that the town had enough to eat.
What troubled the commandant was the idea of anyone comparing the state of things under the Russians with that under the British. At one point he asked Cresspahl point-blank. My father decided to let Pontiy stew about this for a while and called English rule over Jerichow manageable, if not benevolent. They had managed things well because they knew when they were leaving. They’d lived on the supplies at hand, which were obviously enough for eight weeks. When they left there was no more coal for the trains, which couldn’t take milk to Gneez or bring back potatoes. They’d forced Jerichow to shut down the gasworks, which had damaged the furnaces; its workforce had wandered aimlessly around the fields, unskilled there, depressed. Even the bakeries were without fuel. The British had generously distributed sugar and salt and oil from their warehouses, and the villages and farms had faithfully tried to deliver their quotas of beef cattle and milk. The British had given Cresspahl access to the government bank to pay whatever he needed to—wages, past-due bills. Even school had been open under them, two days after they got here. They were trying to leave behind a good impression of Western methods to make it harder for the Soviets to do the same. Even from a distance, they won hearts and minds by supplying electricity to Jerichow from their Herrenwyk power station, and Pontiy was not happy to hear this. Cresspahl half expected an order to build an independent supply of electricity for Jerichow, but first things first: his job was to supply the people of Jerichow with food, as well as the British had done, and, within four weeks, better.
The Jerichow mayor’s office contracted with the Fishermen’s Association in Rande, represented by Ilse Grossjohann, for the delivery of at least two crates of fish per day. (This was the old association that the Nazis had dissolved, reestablished by the kind permission of the British.) What Grossjohann asked in return often changed: sometimes the fishermen needed sailcloth, sometimes nails, sometimes lubricating oil for the engines, and Cresspahl couldn’t always manage to find these things somewhere in Jerichow to confiscate. He told the town’s commandant nothing about this trade, and Pontiy didn’t mention it either, but after a week had passed, Pontiy’s jeep appeared in Rande one morning, and the Red Army soldiers demanded the “fishes for Yerrichoff.” Ilse Grossjohann had learned something about the law from her time with Kollmorgen, and moreover she’d been a prosperous fisherman’s wife for three years, and she insisted on the terms of their agreement, force majeure or not. Before Cresspahl could lodge a complaint, two bundles of fish—flounder, gurnard—were delivered to his door: his cut under Pontiy’s socialism. He sent the fish to the hospital; he arranged a new loading point with the Fisherman’s Association, though even so Pontiy beat him to it often enough.
Cresspahl was offered deliveries of both milk and beef cattle from the administrator of the Soviet Beckhort farm (formerly the Kleineschulte farm). The farm needed baling twine, crude oil, and leather for machine belts. Cresspahl could picture the cows—tough old bags of bones—but he agreed to take them sight unseen. It was a complicated transaction. The town had to loan Alfred Bienmüller out to Beckhorst, so that he could repair the motor and combine, which needed the oil and the leather, but by that point Bienmüller’s business was the Jerichow Kommandatura’s official repair shop, and K. A. Pontiy’s trucks took precedence, especially the one he was planning to exchange for a convertible, to the Knesebeck commandant’s advantage and disadvantage, in the interests of reconciliation. Bienmüller applied for a propusk to go to Beckhorst for family reasons, and Pontiy had no choice but to sign it and have it stamped. Milk was in short supply in town because both the local cows and the ones confiscated from the refugees had been herded together onto seven farms, which made deliveries to the Red Army, not the district offices and the independent municipalities, and the Jerichow Kommandatura had a reputation, even among the well-disposed, for being self-sufficient. Pontiy didn’t get milk from Beckhorst. One night Bienmüller took a walk along the coast and the next day he repaired the farm machines and the night after that he planned to escort the truck full of milk canisters back to Jerichow. At the edge of the woods, the mayor of the village met him and told him that he was having an argument with the Soviet administrator and needed the milk for the refugee children in his village since the farmers were now tamping butter into barrels. Cresspahl did not invoke force majeure, he recast this part of the deal into a trade of salt for butter, and he sent the twine from Papenbrock’s supplies. The cows got as far as the Rande country road, then the Red Army herded them into their little hideaway on the Bäk. At least that’s where Klein the butcher had to slaughter them, not in his own yard where people might have seen them; his shopwindow stayed empty. In late July it had been a long time since there’d been the hundred grams of meat per person in town. Cresspahl couldn’t even get the daily half-pint of milk per child that he felt was essential (as did Pontiy. But Pontiy took as much as he wanted from the dairy, each time with the comment that he too had children in his stronghold). Cresspahl would have preferred it if the foreign commander had stolen the Germans’ food out of hatred, as punishment, on his own account; he couldn’t come to terms with the game Pontiy made of it, with his soulful nichevos and gentlemanly shustko yednos.
Cresspahl ordered every poultry owner to deliver one egg per day. These eggs would be handed out only in exchange for coupons from children’s ration cards. All he got were complaints about stolen chickens, especially from the buildings whose backyards adjoined the Soviets’ green fence. He didn’t need to go chasing down the chickens, he could hear them on the Bäk, a street that had earlier been much too fancy for poultry keeping. Because the thieves sometimes left the hens’ and roosters’ twisted-off heads behind in the miraculously undamaged coops, the Jerichowers began to kill their own chickens without authorization. Cresspahl could forbid it. And Cresspahl could stuff his pockets full of hard-boiled eggs at Pontiy’s banquets.
It wasn’t so much that he was afraid of anyone “going a bit hungry”—it wasn’t a hardship yet, that would come in winter. It was that he couldn’t keep the talk under control, the vague, insidious rumblings, not even malicious, just resigned: that nothing made any sense, everything was falling apart, it was all for the Russians. This talk might flower into panic, enough to make the supplying of food to town collapse.
The mayor decreed, “The town of Jerichow has sufficient potatoes from previous years’ harvests to meet its current needs,” and forbade the harvesting of new potatoes until August 15, 1945. This was taken to mean that he clearly expected a potato shortage and was actually trying to warn the town, in his heart of hearts he was a Mecklenburger after all, on the Mecklenburgers’ side—and the Jerichowers stole their own potatoes under cover of night, hid them in their cellars, and introduced them as a new currency for use with the refugees. The Jerichow Kommandatura stopped a group of workers on their way to the wheat fields one morning and made them dig up new potatoes, and it wasn’t even late July yet. Of course the mayor couldn’t prohibit the Soviets anything; he didn’t begrudge them their enjoying the taste of fresh new potatoes; but he didn’t appreciate their making him look ridiculous when he was trying to keep the town fed.
And so he started doing business on his own again, something that hadn’t been allowed since the victors had arrived—“The US has been holding $20 million of Czechoslovak gold bullion since the end of World War II as security for the return of confiscated American property. The folks in Prague are offering 2 million as compensation and settlement. The US is demanding 110 million. Whose turn is it to bid?”—and he turned one of Alfred Bienmüller’s electric motors and a set of rubber tires in Knesebeck into a business transaction, equivalent exchange values with the help of a considerable addition of window glass and motor oil, and in Rande he didn’t find the harvest truck he’d planned to make drivable again but he did find maybe a pile of freshly dug potatoes, the dirt still on them, and a couple of hundredweight of wheat, in factory-fresh sacks. Civilians were not allowed to accept foodstuffs or items of daily use from Soviet soldiers. But he’d given his word for the window glass, and the workers who’d dug potatoes for the Soviets had been allowed to take home from the Bäk two big pots of rich meaty stew, and he hadn’t been able to get any of that for the hospital.
Meanwhile he had managed to accomplish one thing, to the considerable consternation of the military commander. When K. A. Pontiy acted yet again like the crazed Queen of Hearts and threatened Off with your head!, Cresspahl could now nod pleasantly, as if in agreement, but without giving an inch. It was like with the Cheshire Cat, whose head was to be cut off because it wanted only to look at the king, not kiss his hand. But only the cat’s head is visible, and the executioner refuses to cut off a head when there’s no body to cut it off from. The King insists that anything that has a head can be beheaded, and don’t talk nonsense, while the Queen says that if something isn’t done about it in less than no time she’ll have everybody executed all round,
in less than no time, Gesine!
is he going to shoot you, Cresspahl?
and the cat’s head stays up in the air and the executioner comes back and the cat has disappeared, head and smile and all.
Excerpted from Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl, published by New York Review Books. Copyright © 1970 by Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt. Translation copyright © 2018 by Damion Searls. By arrangement with the publisher.
Published Oct 12, 2018 Copyright 2018 Uwe Johnson