Nora braces against a damp chill and a dusting of snow as she heads out of her Neukölln low rise to interview Georg Weiss. Weiss is the fourth entry on her contact list, which she has carefully typed and hung by a piece of tape to the window in front of her Toshiba laptop. There are handwritten notes in parentheses about each name and where she got it. Earlier, Nora double checked the page while she sat at her desk by the window. The list is varied; a folk musician, a philosophy professor, a dental student, and today’s subject: a German academic on the far right. He doesn’t write Holocaust denial literature, but seems to enjoy reading it and sending it on to friends with pithy comments and exclamation marks in the margins, judging from the newsletters he had forwarded to Nora’s former teacher Mona Heinz, who passed her Weiss’s name.
In these first days in Berlin, 1990, Nora finds it prudent to wait at least two weeks between an introductory letter to a newspaper and a follow-up phone call. Her attempts to contact American foreign correspondents in the city have yielded little work. Some of the veteran scribes are out of town, having been sent to the Middle East to cover the troop build-up in Kuwait. So she leaves her apartment house each morning to read the International Herald Tribune at Café Untergrund, then circles back home an hour later as if arriving at the office to start her work day. The list on the window gives her structure. The days are open-ended, the potential articles as yet unformed. Every individual on the list represents no greater and no less a potential for insight. She is a student of culture. The café is less smoky at 9 am than it is at 10 am. Today’s lesson: Georg Weiss.
Nora writes down bus and subway directions to all her meetings, matching the transit map to the city map and linking the regions mentally as she emerges like a mole from the various U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations. To find Weiss, across town in a suburb at the far west end of the city, Nora takes the line marked Rathaus Spandau. Spandau is the prison where Rudolph Hess sat for two decades alone, an entire staff ministering to him until he died in 1987, when they could finally tear down the building. Berliners like to eliminate historic sites that pose a risk of becoming shrines to Nazism. Passing by Spandau on the U-Bahn seems fitting to Nora as she heads to meet what she presumes is as close to a modern-day Nazi as she will find this week.
Inside his front door Weiss is effusive about their mutual friend Mona Heinz, whom he met at a leadership conference in Vienna, and he is pleasantly inquisitive about his guest, even flattered that she has come out for a visit on a Sunday. She unconsciously assumes neutral Canadian girl persona, the one that obscures any inkling of Jewishness or even undue curiosity about his leanings. He takes her coat and offers coffee and cake. They meet alone in his study as his wife, or possibly his housekeeper, putters around in the background. Weiss leaves the room to fetch refreshments. His office has a dried out, worn look. She scans the books, multi-syllabic German titles of political science and psychology. ‘No swastikas on the spines,’ she mentally notes, mocking her own nervousness. There are family photos in chunky frames on the desk. Ornate furnishings in dark wood. Not too kitchy but not classy either. Carpeting is late 1970s. Spiessig, German middle brow.
Clinical calm is her current pose, to handle the slight buzz she feels. She loves the throat thump of meetings like this in the lion’s den. Jewish woman, young journalist, confronts German Nazi. It’s why she is in this city altogether she suddenly realizes. It’s a kick, like sleeping with a Palestinian would surely be. She thinks of her brother Michael, who once called her an ‘intellectual adventurer.’ They were hiking in the Alberta Rockies and she was less than enthusiastic about plunging into a rushing river, with pack and boots held aloft. A day earlier she had frozen in fear on a steep scree slope. “You travel the world. You’re very brave. And yet you chicken out on these physical escapades. I don’t quite get it,” Michael mused. “Wait. I do get it. You are an intellectual adventurer. It’s not physical or kinesthetic risk that turns you on, it’s emotional danger. It’s a mind rush with you. Yes. That’s it.”
That mind rush is in gear now as Georg Weiss looks into her very brown eyes and says “So. What is it about our Republikaner branch that you would like to know?”
“Actually, I’ve read a fair amount about the party platform and how it has been growing in popularity since the Wall fell,” she answers. “I’m interested in a more personal view. What makes you, a history professor, so enthusiastic about the party that you decided to get so involved? Tell me why it means so much to you, Herr Doktor Professor Weiss.”
“Well, you know,” Weiss begins slowly. “Now that Germany is reunited, it is time to raise our heads up and be a normal country once again. That is really what the Republikaners are all about. Being normal Germans once again after decades of abnormalcy. ” The accent is thick and confident. Chermans and Chermany .
“What does being a normal country mean to you? Does it mean a country free of non-Germans? The party clearly favors expelling foreigners.”
“Look, my dear. You are from Canada. Canada and the United States are immigration countries. Germany is not an immigration country and never has been. Nor is there any room here to accommodate economic refugees from eastern Europe or southern Europe or northern Africa. Especially at this time when our national resources are completely taxed by the project of unifying east and west, it would be a recipe for social instability to attempt integration of various external cultures at the same time.”
He is silver haired, urbane, with smooth hairless hands and watery large eyes. He speaks in thesis-like sentences. She is repelled by what he is saying and yet the effect on her is mildly erotic. While voicing academic jargon, he looks directly into her eyes as if they are co-conspirators. She has become, in a way, a double agent.
Weiss continues with a vocabulary that betrays no hidden bigotry. He peppers sociological arguments like banter at a dinner party, including her in his “us and them” view of the world, a string of seemingly sensible notions of citizenship and economic development.
“You know, people accuse us Republikaners of being racist. We are not racist. We are patriots who don’t believe Germany must spend the next five decades apologizing for what has happened five decades ago.
“The charges are ridiculous really. You know, some of my best friends are black — and Jewish too. I have a dear friend, a Nigerian professor. He and I see completely eye to eye on world trends. And my friend Stanley Katzman in New York would never call me racist. Stan and I agree that Israel is the Jewish homeland. And Stan and I agree that Jewish people would feel much more comfortable there, living in their home, than here, in Germany.”
His eyes are twinkling now as if she were party to an in-joke. “I believe in full rights for Turks – in Turkey,” he laughs. “I don’t think the multi-cultural model can work for us at a time when our country’s first priority must be to fuse a national identity from two parts that have been tragically separated since the end of World War II. For Germany to assume its new role as the leader of Europe, it must be very clear on its own cultural identity…”
She looks at Weiss and tries to imagine his demographic equivalent at home, a history professor at the University of Toronto whom she might interview about Canadian identity and immigration. In Toronto he would be a fringe character, his stance out of step with his education and breeding and stature. Weiss, by contrast, is the result of life in a mono-culture. He feels no shame because he has no concept of how it can be otherwise. Already at dinner parties, Nora had heard comments about Jews and foreigners that those in similar circles at home would never utter, even if they flirted with those ideas. A different threshold. We are products of place, not time, she thinks. His words are tinkling down like little brass chips on a glass surface.
As Weiss launches into the importance of local level participation, she suddenly feels cold. She thinks of Oriana Fallaci pulling off her veil in front of the old Ayatollah Khomeini and realizes that the bold excitement she experienced meeting Weiss an hour ago has dissipated. The flush from her cheeks has cooled and she is suddenly very, very tired. She has no desire to confront, or reveal, or symbolically pull down her pants and show the Nazi her circumcision. She feels just drained, and lonely, and detached. She nonetheless ends their session with vigorous handshakes and knowing smiles. And warm regards to Mona Heinz.
The sun is already setting as Nora makes her way to the suburban bus stop that will take her back into the city with its Turks and punks and aura of urban acceptance. It is Sunday and as she looks on the bus chart schedule mounted on a sidewalk post, she realizes she is facing nearly 20 minutes in the cold before the next departure. Fortunately, the bus with her number pulls up in five minutes and unloads its passengers. Before she can step up, the driver closes the door in front of her and busies himself with notations in his log book. Snowflakes are now falling and the wind is picking up. Nora raps on the door window to get the driver’s attention. He opens the door and informs her in German that she may not get onto the bus.
“But why not?” she asks, feeling warm air from the heating system meet her cheeks.
“We have 15 minutes before departure,” he answers. “Nobody gets on until three minutes before scheduled departure.”
“But I’m the only one here. It’s cold. Surely, I can wait on the bus, rather than outside,” she insists.
“Sorry, Ma’am.” The door closes in her face. She stands directly in front of the bus door for the next 15 minutes so the driver can reconsider at any time. He never relents. It doesn’t occur to him as an option. She cannot feel her toes by the time two local women with purple grey hair and woolen hats approach to board the bus. The women arrive one minute before the bus doors open on schedule for the ride out of Spandau.
Excerpt from a novel in progress about a young journalist in Berlin after the Fall of the Berlin Wall