Please, show me…

Please, show me…

the Way To the Central Station

The Russian-Jewish author Ilya Ehrenburg was only a child as he for the first time noticed something worrying about German punctuality. While visiting Germany around the turn of the last century, his mother told him that German trains always arrive exactly according to the time-table. First he didn’t believe her, but when the train shortly after, just as she had said, arrived at the correct moment, he became extremely anxious and started to cry. For toddler Ilya this was the omen of the coming fascism. In his head the young Ehrenburg had created the picture of a Nazi long before the world had seen the shadow of Hitler.

As a very young Swede, almost 30 years ago, I lived in the vicinity of Frankfurt am Main. Hardly more than 25 years had passed since consistent carpet-bombing had changed this once beautiful city into ruins and ashes. Der Römerberg with its historical middle-age buildings had now again been rebuilt and the bank-towers had began to grow in to the skies. I was fascinated by the mountain landscapes of Spessart, the great number of old half-timbered houses, and I was enthralled by the beautiful music. But all the same I was shocked by the distance to the people, or at least the distance I felt – I was not used to address most people with Mr and Mrs, Miss and… Doctor. To my luck, however, I was met with great understanding and the young foreigner seemed to be easily forgiven for every small mistake committed. They probably chose to see my limited knowledge of both language and culture as the most likely explanation for the obvious lack of basic etiquette.

The society I lived in was characterized by one-legged war-victims begging on the streets – not leaving anyone a chance easily to forget the recent past. American soldiers, whose presence had the same background, were often openly commented on with more or less racist slurs; the threats from the Baader-Mainhof gang was highly present; and the 68-generation – long before many of them started to take their seats in comfortable management-chairs – still fought for a fair and equal society. Yes, it was all long ago; we were in the midst of the cold war and the country was split: what today is referred to as the new federal states of the united Federal Republic was still called ‘The Zone,’ and this zone, The German Democratic Republic, DDR, wasn’t far away, only a few kilometres.

The Fulda Gap, through which the feared attack from the communists most likely would come, was right around the corner, somehow exiting, like a spy novel, but also a bit frightening. Oh yes, the train from Frankfurt Central Station arrived on the minute, almost on the second according to the time table. All trains were punctual: everything run smoothly and perfect. ‘Ordnung muss sein,’ it was called. One day the ticket inspector told me off; he was probably close to throw me off at the next station, all because I had had the cheek to fold ”das Dokument” – the holy document or should we say the ticket. To my luck a black American soldier, only by being present, started to irritate him even more and diverted his attention away from my serious crime against state property. Quietly I wondered what this brave official might have been occupied with during the war. I surely was a bit shocked by this demonstration of rules and discipline.

No doubt, I certainly feared this ticket inspector as much as I feared the communist border guards, when I occasionally crossed through the zone to Poland to see friends there. One time they found ‘pornography’ in my bag. OK, it was only an English youth magazine – short stories about young love – but what did it matter; for the East German guard it was an important discovery of…’suspicious western propaganda.’ The journey ended in a border-town police cell. Curious as I am, I had obviously used the waiting time for the next train to Warsaw looking too eagerly around at the fascinating architecture of the old railway station. After all, who knows? I could have been a spy, couldn’t I? After two hours on a wobbly wooden chair eight heavily-armed guards escorted me back to a train just about to depart; again I could leave ‘the zone’ behind me and enter the much friendlier Poland.

Twenty years passed before I again became a regular guest in Germany. I had spent the meantime in Denmark and had found that this little fairytale nation – squeezed in between Germany and my native Sweden – much better suited my personality and temperament. Here I had found people who accepted me as I was, who were friendly and tolerant; here they faced life with an open heart. ‘Problems? It will sort itself out tomorrow.’ ‘OK, we lost the international football game…but so what? We have had a few pints and lots of fun. What does it then matter that the others run off with the final scoring?’ As lots of other Swedes I fell in love with this relaxed approach to life and general joviality. I thought at last I had found out where I belonged. Of course I could never become a real Dane, but Copenhagener I was; I felt it with all my heart.

But times change. The small tolerant kingdom has disappeared. The tolerance and openness towards strangers, me included, that I once loved so much in this country is gone. I can’t recognise the people I once knew: gone is the humbleness; now they feel they are ‘something’, and this ‘something’ is nothing I admire. The Danes have got people like Pia (the chairwoman of the ultra-right Danish Peoples Party) and they got Krarup and his cousin – two extreme Muslim-hating priests, both with a seat in parliament. Helped by their constant access to some of the asylum-seeker-bashing tabloids these two (self appointed) servants of the Lord are allowed to spread their homemade gospel of intolerance and distorted interpretation of Christianity.

The debate is now dominated by new tunes. ‘For what do we need the strangers? Close the borders! Throw out the foreigners! And, why stop with the ‘Muhammedanians’ (derogatory for Muslims); why not include the Swedes and the few Germans who have had the cheek to cross the border? The bloody Krauts shouldn´t try once again. They couldn´t win the war, so why should we now voluntarily allow them the right to…buy the country? No, we must preserve the Danishness.’ ‘Danishness’ funny word actually. OK, I am not much of a fan of Danishness or patriotism – as little as I am one of nationalism and racism. No, I don’t feel at home any longer in my little Denmark.

Two times I have seen ‘Schindler’s List;’ first time was in the Dagmar Cinema in Copenhagen. It was a shocking experience, but not so much because of the film itself. How can anybody in this well-informed society be surprised by that? How can anybody be shocked by a film telling a story that we all have been told so many times before, a story nobody should have been able to avoid? What shocked me was the audience. The modern trend of regular TV tin-laughter had obviously pre-programmed the audience to see this movie as just one more piece of entertainment – comedy and action all in one. Gestapo searched a family’s home; one Jew was discovered hidden in a piano; and it all resulted in joyful laughter from the amused crowd. All this has etched itself deeply in to my memory. I couldn’t find this episode funny – as little as I could any of the many others which also were laughed at. I felt like sitting in enemy territory.

A few months later I had the opportunity again to watch the same movie, this time in an old synagogue in the Hessian town Schlüchtern, the old home turf of the Brother Grimm. This evening I remember as one of the most moving of my life. Schlüchtern’s Jewish population didn’t need their synagogue any longer as they had all been exterminated 55 years earlier in the probably darkest time in the history of mankind. The synagogue – as had happen in many other small towns in the area – had been converted into a culture house, a place where, among other activities, films of a special character can be shown. The one who wants to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger and his Terminator better take the next train to the close by Frankfurt.

I have seen quite a few synchronised films, most of them hardly first class. What made this one even better than the original was not only the very high quality and perfection, but also the fact that the language all of a sudden was the genuine. There was a deep sense of dignity in the air as the audience found their seats and the reactions of these people continued to make a strong impact on me. In the darkness of the hall I could hear sobbing people. We were sitting in the victims’ sacred shrine watching this movie and I saw nothing degrading in that. In all its brutality it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I have often thought about this thereafter: how can two groups of audiences be so different? Are there people who have forgotten to be human? If so, why precisely those in this little country in the north?

Every day when I hear Danish politicians angle to the worse mentality of the people I know where I can find peace. I only need to turn on the ARD or ZDF channels to hear the German president speak about the Nazism as the common inheritance of the Germans. ‘Memorials shall remind us about our special responsibility to fight racism and anti-Semitism,’ he tells the German people and continues: ‘For me every attempt to repress the Nazi crimes from our memories is a special kind of intellectual cowardice and cowardice is the last thing I expect from my people.’ The Germans confront their past as no other people; everywhere they talk about xenophobia and racism. The question is always: How can we combat this hate? How can we create an accepting and tolerant society? Even the police officers union has come forward, openly telling that racist attacks, committed by its own members, have taken place. The Association of Critical Police Officers (in what other country does such an organisation exist?) has demanded that its own members do something about xenophobia in their own ranks. From these peoples’ looking into their own dark sides others could learn a lesson. It would be a lot nicer to listen to than these constant attempts to talk to the darkest sides of the human soul.

All nations have collected their own historical stains. Some of them are darker than others. Who for example earned huge fortunes by transporting captured Africans as slaves to America…? This event is one of the darkest chapters in world history, one of the biggest crimes against an other people ever committed. No, Germany and the Germans are unfortunately not the only ones with a blemished reputation and a dark history. But at least they are the ones most aware of their own nation’s past, they work hard to overcome it and their nation do everything possible to create a democratic basis for peaceful co-existence with their neighbours.

It is obvious that this search for reconciliation comes from both sides. Ignatz Bubis, the recently deceased chairman of the Jewish Central Council of Germany, represented the opinion that young Germans must know their history but have no responsibility for it: ‘I can’t forgive them as they are not guilty.’ Now the Jews pour back into the country, and not only they want to go back; thousands of people with falsified Jewish identification-documents try to follow them. The huge problems caused by these falsifications are generally denied; they are not a political issue as nobody wants to risk that only one innocent Jew, because of an unjustified accusation of fraud, would be denied admission.

Here in the kingdom, however, the anti-German feelings still are thriving. Prejudice against the ‘Krauts’ is common and happily adhered to. Again and again I hear demeaning, disdaining comments about the straight backs of these our southern neighbours and about their ‘military discipline.’ It’s like the Danes seriously believe that Bismarck’s Prussia und Hitler’s Dritte Reich both still exist.

Only recently, close to the border, I had the pleasure to meet a North-Schleswig mother and her coming, cross-the-border, German daughter in law. The wedding was soon to be and they were both happily looking forward to the big event. On this background it was strange for me to hear this mother say, it would have been much easier, had this coming daughter-in-law been a Muslim with headscarf than something as ‘terrible’ as a girl from the other side of the border. This coming marriage was definitely not popular in their local community. Is that what we would call friendly co-living across the borders in modern Europe? Is that what we would call harmony?

No, even if most people won’t believe me, I can assure them. German trains are today far from punctual: they are almost always late and it happens regularly that they have just been cancelled – without any explanation and even without telling waiting passengers. The ticket inspectors don’t tell us off any longer for folding our tickets but regularly enjoy a joyful and friendly chat with their customers; and the earlier DDR border guard, who today owns a convenience shop in Dresden, also sells romantic magazines for the young generation. Denmark is not the country I got to know 25 years ago. Germany is no longer the country I once left. ‘Keep Denmark clean; help the Swedes to the ferry,’ is a call I often have heard. Could you instead please be kind to show me the way to the Central Station; I rather find the next train to Hamburg.

Original article in Berlingske Tidene May 14, 2000: