“Herr Rudolf! Wait a minute.” The caretaker’s old wife straightened up, dropped her rag into her bucket, and limped over to the stairs. Herr Rudolf stopped and removed his tasseled hat. The snow on his shoes was melting. As a man with both a social conscience and a vague and confused attitude to professional cleaning ladies, the puddle forming around his feet made him feel very ill at ease.
“Good day, Frau Simmes.” Herr Rudolf tried to smile.
“Good day.” The caretaker’s wife dried her hands on her apron as she scrutinized the weedy little mathematics teacher without embarrassment. She didn’t like him. Even when he moved in she had taken offense at his reproachful tone when he complained that the apartment building didn’t have its own container for recycling glass, and every morning one of the daily papers described by her husband as liberal guff was sticking out of his letterbox.
“What is it, Frau Simmes?”
The old lady smoothed her apron, folded her arms, and asked triumphantly: “I suppose you know lodgers are forbidden in this building?”
Herr Rudolf felt his heart sink. “Yes, of course.” And added with assumed surprise: “Why ask?”
“Because there’s been a gentleman going in and out of your place for months.”
“Oh, you must mean . . .”
“I mean the gentleman with the blue coat.”
“But my dear Frau Simmes . . . !” Herr Rudolf acted as if he could hardly suppress his mirth. “That’d my uncle. He’s only visiting.”
“Oh, your uncle, is he? So how come your uncle doesn’t speak any German?”
“He’s an ethnic German from Russia.”
The old lady didn’t seem able to make much of this reply, and Herr Rudolf was quick to explain: “You know what I mean, the Germans who were dragged off to Siberia by Stalin, or even worse were in concentration camps. He lost his parents when he was fifteen, and forgot the language entirely.”
The caretaker’s wife still looked skeptical. “He even forgot how to say ‘Good day’?”
Herr Rudolf smiled sadly. “No, that’s because he’s scared. If every German word you speak has meant the danger of imprisonment for almost fifty years . . . well, you don’t shake the habit off just like that.”
The place smelled of food, and the sound of chattering voices came from the kitchen. Herr Rudolf hung up his coat on the rack and looked in the mirror to tidy his hair, which was sparse; to make up for that he grew it long. He knew they made fun of his hairstyle in school, but he didn’t mind any more. He had resigned himself to the fact that his qualities were on the intellectual plane, and he cultivated the eccentric appearance of an artist. Sometimes he wrote articles for specialist mathematical journals, but his great love was poetry. He wrote it in secret: serious verse about life and the essence of humanity, as well as humorous squibs on politics and everyday life. He was planning to publish his poems some day, and often imagined the ecstatic welcome they would receive from literary critics.
When Herr Rudolf entered the kitchen his wife was just cutting a loin of veal into thin slices. She greeted him with a lackluster “Hello.”
Chinese porcelain dishes containing various sauces stood on the dining table, along with a spirit burner and three place settings for a fondue. The radio was on. A pastor was saying what a good thing the November Revolution of 1989 in Germany had been. Herr Rudolf put his hands in his trouser pockets and watched his wife arranging the meat on a platter. Herr Olschewski had been living with them for the last nine months. At their first conversation he had said he was an emigrant from Kazakhstan. He paid his rent punctually, hardly ever put in an appearance, and left no mess behind him in the bathroom. Beyond that the Rudolfs took no interest in him. As a Russian of ethnic German origin he did not belong to their own cultural area, nor was he exotic; he seemed too different for them to get to know him more closely, and too like them to be boasted of as something special. Once Frau Rudolf had sighed: “If only he were Jewish!” For Herr and Frau Rudolf belonged to that section of the German population which liked to proclaim themselves friends and admirers of the Jewish people. However, the Rudolfs didn’t personally know any Jews. So a Jewish lodger would have enriched their lives twice over.
Frau Rudolf suddenly turned and asked: “Anything wrong?”
Herr Rudolf shook his head. “No, it’s just that . . .” And he tightened his lips. His wife rolled her eyes and turned to the stove. She had been familiar with this hesitant, indecisive attitude of his, seeing problems everywhere, for the last seventeen years. For twelve years of those years she had considered it cowardly, for the rest she had thought it stupid.
” . . . Frau Simmes asked me if Herr Olschewski was our lodger.”
“So what did you say?”
“I said he was my uncle from Russia on a visit.”
Frau Rudolf tasted the broth, put the spoon in the sink, and turned down the burner on the stove. Then she looked at the kitchen clock. “Where’s Cornelia this time? Ever since she reached puberty . . .”
“If they find out that he isn’t my uncle we’ll lose the apartment.”
“Why would they find out?”
“Frau Simmes could tell the housing authorities-or ask Cornelia questions, and in her scatterbrained way Cornelia will let it all out.”
“Cornelia will let nothing out in any scatterbrained way. She takes after me.”
“Jutta, please!” Herr Rudolf raised his arms. “Our apartment is at stake! Our whole way of life!”
“Oh, well, if that’s all . . .”
Frau Rudolf looked briefly at her husband, hoping he might laugh, or lose his temper, or something, anything. But he didn’t understand, or anyway pretended not to. He slowly went over to the window, looking past the straw stars made by his daughter and out into the snow-covered street. Until a year ago his wife had gone to pottery classes at the adult education center. Then four months’ work-Medea and her victims, lifesize, in thirty-six separate pieces-had exploded in the kiln, and she had thrown it all away. She’s been getting more and more difficult every day since then, thought Herr Rudolf, although I’d be happy to help her find a new interest. If only she’d at least take up some kind of exercise.
Finally he gave himself a shake and announced: “I’ll tell Herr Olschewski this evening that he must leave at the end of the month.”
“You’ll do no such thing! Do you know what Olschewski has brought us to date?” Frau Rudolf pointed to a set of Japanese stainless steel kitchen knives. “There!” Then she tapped the espresso machine. “Here!” And finally she flung open the kitchen cupboard, making the Rosenthal coffee service clink. “And here! Not to mention our vacation in Crete. Do you want us to go back to scrimping and saving?”
Herr Rudolf opened his mouth, looking pained, only to close it again with a sigh. Then the telephone in the corridor rang.
The kitchen door slammed, and Herr Rudolf heard his wife pick up the receiver.
“Good day, Frau Rudolf. My name is Neuacher. I am calling on behalf of the Local Initiative Office for the Integration of Aid to Emigrants. In the context of our project ‘A Bowl of Soup for Hermann-Germans Extend a Helping Hand to Ethnic Germans’ it has come to our notice that Herr Ernst Olschewski, a Russian of German origin, is staying with you. Would you be prepared to answer a few questions about him?”
For a moment Frau Rudolf listened, speechless, to the humming on the line, and then replied coolly: “Go ahead.”
“Does Herr Olschewski pay you rent?”
Frau Rudolf didn’t stop to think long about that. “Of course not.” There was a note of indignation in her voice. The woman at the other end of the line uttered a cry of delight. “So there are still some people around with a sense of responsibility, ready to share their bread with others! Congratulations, Frau Rudolf. Would you tell me how long Herr Olschewski has been living with you?”
“Wonderful! Please hold the line.”
Frau Rudolf could just hear voices at the other end of the receiver. “Eleven? . . . Then they’re in the lead! . . . Any more names on the list? . . . No.”
“I am happy to tell you that you have won the Good Citizens Prize in our project ‘A Bowl of Soup for Hermann.’ For the next year you will receive a thousand Deutschmarks a month for special services to maintaining ethnic German awareness.”
“But how could they know?” Herr Rudolf looked up from his empty plate. The news had quite taken his appetite away. Not only did the Olschewski problem now assume unexpected dimensions, he wanted nothing to do with a prize which, he correctly suspected, was awarded by people of strictly reactionary views. He hated any kind of patriotic-sounding German sentiments, unless they applied to saving local woods and meadows. He voted Social Democrat and was a paid-up member of the Mathematics Teachers for Europe organization. “Or do we know anyone who’s in contact with that sort of association?”
“Not us, but maybe Olschewski does,” said Cornelia, taking a skewerful of meat out of the broth.
“Never mind how they know. The question is whether anyone’s told Olschewski about this prize.” Frau Rudolf helped herself to a spoonful of sauce and handed the dish to her daughter. Her face was flushed. The prospect of the money had exhilarated her. “If it comes out that he’s paying rent we can wave good-bye to those twelve thousand marks.”
Herr Rudolf said: “Let me remind you that if anyone finds out Olschewski’s our lodger we’ll be given notice to leave.”
“Exactly. All the better about the prize. That makes it official: he’s been living here for free. The one person who can endanger us is Olschewski himself. It’ll be better if he doesn’t go to the award ceremony.”
Herr Rudolf was left speechless for a moment. “Jutta . . . ”
“Suppose I don’t go either?”
Frau Rudolf cast him a scathing glance. “You are most certainly coming!”
When Herr Olschewski came home at seven-thirty, as he did every evening, Frau Rudolf was lying in wait for him. Olschewski was in his mid-forties, tall, fit, always clean-shaven and correctly dressed. He could have been a salesmen of gentleman’s fashions or a bank clerk. On their first meeting he had said he was doing a year’s course with Federal German Mail, which was training former Russian postal officials to be German postal officials. What he really did, only Olschewski himself knew.
Frau Rudolf now struck up a conversation with him about the various associations for emigrants and exiles. He obviously had no idea about the prize, and she made him promise to tell outsiders in future that he wasn’t paying rent. The reason-“trouble with the management”-immediately sounded convincing to Herr Olschewski. However, had he known that he personally was the occasion for a public award ceremony, he would have moved out that very night.
Frau Rudolf told her husband about the conversation, and said: “His German’s not so bad anyway.”
“Just so long as it’s not good enough for him to read the daily papers.”
“Don’t start on about that again. If he does happen to hear about the prize I’ll fix it. Didn’t you say yourself, better for us to get it than some right-wing vermin?”
A week later the Rudolf family were in the Volga Cellar as guests of honor at the award ceremony. The place was sold out. Frau Rudolf had told the organizers that Herr Olschewski had to stay at home because he had a bad attack of flu. There was great agitation. They’d been counting on a speech of thanks from Olschewski to his benefactors. The program had to be changed, and the organizers wondered whether everything was all aboveboard. But their wish to present a successful evening soon made them forget their doubts.
Herr Rudolf was wearing a beige corduroy suit, his wife had bought a brightly colored jacket and skirt for the occasion, and Cornelia was tugging unhappily at an embroidered blouse belonging to her mother. Her hair was in braids. Frau Rudolf had brought all this about by announcing that while it was not in the family’s style to curry favor, they were getting too much money from these crazy folk not to go along with their ideas of how Germans ought to look, at least for one evening. A group in the folk costume of the Transylvanian Alps danced on stage to the sound of choruses from the band, and Czech beer was served at the bar. The guests’ faces were flushed. Many had rolled up their sleeves and were swaying in time to the music. When the dancing was over a young man in a smart blue, sparkly suit came up on stage, got behind a lectern, and began his speech with the words: “Ladies and gentlemen, dear children, dear friends, comrades, patriots, fellow countrymen-Germans!”
There was applause. Herr Rudolf took a deep breath. His wife assumed the outward appearance of someone entirely uninvolved. Cornelia ostentatiously sipped her apple juice.
“. . . And now let’s come to the real subject of this evening: the true victims of the Second World War. People who have lived a life of squalor and misery for forty-five years, a life of servitude and starvation, in exile and sickness-millions of German men, women, and children, from Dessau to Siberia!”
After further vigorous applause, the young man went on: “Some will say: but the Wall fell a year ago, and with it all the Communist terror regimes except for the Russian government, and that too will collapse sooner or later. To which I can only reply: the ghost of Communism may be banished, but-and I cannot emphasize this too strongly-the ghost of democracy has taken its place. For if we look at present conditions in Russia, Romania, the whole of Eastern Europe, where German people are starving and international gangsters rule, it can truly be described only as a ghost!”
The applause for this was relatively sparse, denoting not so much disagreement as the confusion of the majority of the guests as they worked it out about all those ghosts. The speaker noticed, and was quick to add: “What we Germans need is not democracy, we need potatoes!”
Everyone had now picked up the thread again, and the sound of shouts and stamping feet rose to a tempestuous roar. Suddenly Herr Rudolf turned to his wife and muttered: “I can’t stand this! I’ll have something to say about it, oh, won’t I just! And it’s all your fault. I never wanted to come!”
Frau Rudolf could not hear exactly what he was saying, and thought he was simply finding fault as usual.
Soon after that the speech was over, and an elderly lady of important appearance came on stage to ask this year’s winners of the Good Citizens Prize to come up and receive it.
“. . . the Rudolf family who have self-sacrificingly endeavored to give a new start in life to an emigrant, Herr Ernst Olschewski, who unfortunately could not come tonight because of sickness. A round of applause, please!”
As he stood up Herr Rudolf knocked a glass over, and in apologizing he noticed how his voice was trembling. He had spent the last few minutes planning a short speech to say how “distasteful, almost Fascist” he considered the address that had just been given, and declining the prize on the grounds of his moral and democratic principles.
Herr Rudolf, his wife, and Cornelia went up on stage. First the prize was handed over. A symbolic, outsize check for twelve thousand D-marks, and a hand-embroidered wall hanging showing Germany with its 1937 frontiers. Hands were shaken, cheers rang out. Then the lady of important appearance asked Herr Rudolf to say a few words. He went to the lectern and cleared his throat, but suddenly his eye fell on Cornelia, and he stopped short. She was his only child; she had her life all before her. How will the audience react, thought Herr Rudolf suddenly, if I say my piece? Will there be a scuffle? Or will we be blacklisted, and then Cornelia can never go to school with an easy mind again? You read about such things in the papers all the time: neo-Nazis, threatening letters, bombs . . .
After Herr Rudolf had said a few words thanking the organizers for the prize, he and his family went back to their seats, and a Silesian songwriter came on stage. Soon after that the Rudolf family left the Volga Cellar to the sound of the refrain: “In Breslau stands a little tree, growing juicy plums for me.”
As his wife drove the car home through the evening traffic, and Cornelia undid her braids in the back, Herr Rudolf, in the passenger seat, was making up for the speech he had not delivered out of his sense of paternal responsibility. He argued against the occasion they had just attended, he denounced it, he gesticulated and thundered against it with such fervor that his wife kept glancing at him in surprise. It was a long time since she’d seen him so sure of himself. He spoke of foreigners and tolerance, of living side by side or in a real community, of civilization and the equal status of all cultures, of a world without borders and without wars, of human beings who saw themselves first and foremost as inhabitants of Planet Earth, not the representatives of some tribe or some piece of land. He carried on like this until his wife had found a place to park. Herr Rudolf got out of the car feeling that he could keep the check, and that for now anyway he had saved his ethics intact.
Once in their apartment, they decided to invite Herr Olschewski to a lavish supper. Cornelia was sent to bed.
Frau Rudolf saw this supper as one of the things she had planned in order to give the unsuspecting Herr Olschewski what she estimated to be a proper share in the prize money. In future she would do his laundry, and cook for him in the evening, and she’d sometimes take him into town in the car. She also hoped to relieve her husband’s guilty conscience in this way.
Herr Olschewski looked up in surprise when his landlady entered his room after ten in the evening. He was sitting on his bed in pajamas, reading a book. He was even more surprised when she asked him to come into the living room for a glass of wine and some supper. When he first moved in, it had been explained that apart from the bathroom and the kitchen, the rest of the apartment was out of bounds to him. He thanked her politely and said, in heavily accented German, that he would just get dressed and then join them.
“No, no, do stay in your pajamas,” said Frau Rudolf. “We don’t stand on ceremony.”
In the living room Herr Rudolf was setting out a buffet supper of goose liver pâté, salmon, and other delicacies, along with two expensive bottles of white wine. He was whistling to himself as he did so, in high spirits, as if he had just passed an exam. The three of them drank to “our future life together.” Over supper, the reunification of Germany was discussed. Herr Rudolf thought it necessary but too soon just now, and finally it gave them another reason to drink a toast. Herr Olschewski agreed to everything Herr Rudolf said, but otherwise confined himself to praising the food. Herr and Frau Rudolf were both soon sure that they were dealing with a totally unpolitical and uneducated person, and went on to ask their guest to tell them some Russian toasts. They repeated these with the wrong emphasis, which occasioned them great amusement.
After they had wished each other good night, and Herr Olschewski had gone back to his room, the phone rang. Herr Rudolf picked it up. A male voice announced: “My name is Beppo. You have me to thank for that prize. I gave your names to the association. Must have been a nasty shock for Olschewski or whatever he’s calling himself these days. No wonder he stayed at home. Flu, was it?” The caller laughed. “Well, tell him hello from me, and you can say I’m not the only one who knows where he is, so he’d better think my proposition over again. If we don’t inform on the others, then they will inform on us.”
Half an hour later Herr Rudolf, sitting at the kitchen table, was repeating for the umpteenth time: “What the hell have we got mixed up in?”
“If only you wouldn’t be so pessimistic for once.” His wife was sitting opposite him. It was long past midnight. “What could happen to us? If Olschewski is really up to no good we’ll throw him out. Then it won’t matter if he hears about the prize or not. You just wait, it will all turn out OK.”
Next morning the doorbell rang at seven. Herr Rudolf, who was in the bathroom, jumped with fright. His nerves were all on edge. He had woken up in the middle of the night, and couldn’t get to sleep again for thinking and worrying about Olschewski. What would happen if Olschewski was a criminal? Or even worse, how was he, Herr Rudolf, to behave if he wasn’t? Wouldn’t they have to let him live here for free from now on? Would his wife give back the prize money? She’d said she might start up a small pottery studio with it-would giving up that idea mean the end of their marriage?
When Herr Rudolf opened the door and saw three police officers outside, the apartment building’s management was the first thing to come to mind. He broke into a sweat. He already saw himself in jail and his family without a roof over their heads.
“Good morning. Does a man called Rainer Fritsch, alias Ernst Olschewski, live with you?”
One of the officers took a piece of paper out of his pocket. “We have a warrant for his arrest.”
Herr Rudolf breathed again. So it was only about Olschewski! The police would take him away, and that would be the end of it once and for all! He was so relieved that he didn’t even ask what the warrant was for. He took the policemen straight to Olschewski’s room. They went in and came out a little later, with Olschewski in handcuffs. Yesterday evening’s naïve, unassuming lodger had become a figure commanding respect, a man with stern features and a cool gaze. He looked briefly at Herr and Frau Rudolf, who were standing in the corridor, petrified, and said, in faultless German: “Thank you very much for the accommodation.” The two of the officers led him out of the apartment. The third asked: “Was it you who made the anonymous phone call?”
Yet again, Frau Rudolf’s instinct for the answers that people wanted to hear came to her aid, and she replied: “Well, that depends. If he really broke the law, maybe. But we’re not informers.”
The officer smiled and nodded, satisfied. “Don’t worry, your name won’t be made public. But you did very well to let us know of your suspicions. Until the Wall came down, Rainer Fritsch was a Stasi officer. In the espionage department.”
“Good God!” Herr Rudolf looked stunned. To him, and many others, the Stasi had been the very quintessence of evil since the Wall came down, an organization comparable to the Gestapo or the South American death squads.
The policeman frowned. “But your suspicions, as expressed on the phone, did nudge us in that direction?”
Herr Rudolf looked at his wife. Without any hesitation, she said: “Yes, indeed, but they were only suspicions.”
“Hm.” The policeman seemed doubtful. All the same, he said: “Well, there was a ten-thousand-marks reward for information leading to Fritsch’s arrest. That’ll be payable to you, then.”
He left, and the door closed behind him. Herr and Frau Rudolf looked at each other. They couldn’t believe what had just happened until they had fallen into one another’s arms, kissing as they hadn’t kissed for years.
Herr Rudolf whispered: “You were splendid!” And his wife said: “Well, one couldn’t have the caller getting a reward. There’s nothing worse than an informer.”
Herr Rudolf phoned the high school and said he was sick. Around midday he withdrew from his wife’s arms, rose from the bed, and got dressed. They had been making plans for what to do with the various sums of money, and agreed that their life together must be different and better in future. But all the same, much should stay as it was.
That evening Herr Rudolf came back from the civic reception center for Russian Jewish emigrants. He had a young man with him. Frau Simmes met them on the stairs. The caretaker’s wife apologized for her suspicions about the lodger. She’d read about the Good Citizens Prize in the paper, she said, and was proud to live in the same building as the Rudolfs.
In the living room, Herr Rudolf introduced the young man to his wife. “Herr Walentin Rosen.”
“Does he speak German?”
“Did you explain that he’ll have to pay only half the usual rent?”
“Yes, of course. And that he must say he isn’t paying any at all.”
Herr Rosen wasn’t following a word of this. His new landlady beamed at him and said: “Shalom!” Then she kissed her husband on the forehead. “I’m going to call the Hasselbergs and invite them to a meal. Georg was reading the Talmud on vacation, and Almut will be just bursting with envy anyway.”
Herr Rudolf watched his wife go. She looked ten years younger. Then he looked at Herr Rosen. He was still wearing his coat, standing around awkwardly.
Perhaps I’ll even let the management know about you officially, thought Herr Rudolf. They can get to know what I’m like! And we’ll go to the Jewish community and other organizations. No one’s going to take you away from us!
From Idiots, forthcoming May 2005 from Other Press. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.