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Albert Russo

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Books by Albert Russo
By Albert Russo
Posted: Wednesday, August 02, 2006
Last edited: Wednesday, August 02, 2006
This short story is rated "G" by the Author.
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Recent stories by Albert Russo
· The age of the pearl
· New York Bonus
· Fast food Lisette
· Souk Secrets
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American daughter discovers she had a Nazi mother

first appeared in Short Story International (USA)

For almost thirty years my name has been spelled Claudia L. Richtig, L for Lisa, or so I thought until my recent discovery, Richtig being my husband’s patronymic. My maiden name was Edelstein. I never paid any more than a cursory attention to the fact that, translated into English, these names meant respectively ‘right’ and ‘noble stone’ or ‘jewel’. That Carl, an Austrian Jew who had escaped concentration camp, unlike his unfortunate parents, was Mr. Right for me, has proven true since the day we became engaged, and this in spite of Judith’s strong and lasting opposition to our marriage. Judith, you see, is Carl’s cousin and his only surviving relative and although he’s always staunchly defended me, there is an indestructible bond that links them, which I have tried in turn to accept then destroy then again to rationalize, but to no avail. For I am and remain, in her eyes, THE ENEMY. I loathe what the Nazis did with all the fibers of my being and the more so since I myself am of German and non semitic (what used to be called aryen) origin. I can, of course, never even try to put my feelings on the same level as those who like my husband or Judith have suffered in the flesh. Nowadays, mind you, she acts in a manner that could be qualified as civilized and whenever we see each other with Carl, that is once a month - a ritual I’ve had to come to terms with, for my husband’s sake -, nothing she does or says regarding me appears reprehensible, except that I might just as well pass for a ghost. For she has an uncanny way of pretending to greet us both and at the same time not addressing me at all. After a while I wasn’t sure as to whether I preferred our initial encounters during which she expressed her antipathy straight off, warning her beloved cousin in my presence that he would be committing an abominable act if he took me for his spouse.
But as I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve learnt to take in my stride the fact that she so blatantly ignores me, uncomfortable as the situation may be. I should also add that to our couple’s immense chagrine, I could never beget children and that my husband, in spite of my repeated entreaties, has never wished to adopt any. A decision which at first I had deemed selfish and particularly cruel inasmuch as I had sensed Judith’s secret jubilation at my being sterile - wasn’t mine the blood of assassins and a godsend that it wouldn’t mix with hers? The only choice left to me was resignation.
Yet, I did count my blessings and thanked destiny - contrary to Carl, I’m a non believer - for the serene happiness we have both shared throughout the years spent together. But a new and haunting shadow has been cast over our lives which like an evil djinn has bounced out of my past and which I have vowed to eliminate lest I should be overpowered by it.. Till now I believed, as stated on my birth certificate, that both my parents had been killed during a bombing raid, and that since nobody had claimed me I grew up in an orphanage. Less than a month ago however I received a letter from the municipality of my home town in Germany whereby a woman in her early seventies has requested to meet with me for what she termed an important disclosure concerning my family background. This news came as a shock and I was torn between the thought of not lending any notice to the request and the natural curiosity that was gnawing at me every day a little more. In a way I had felt somewhat protected by the veil of ignorance which surrounded my infancy and by the distance, geographical as well as mental, that separated America, of which I had been so long a citizen, from the netherworld of my forebears. At first I concealed the letter from Carl but he soon became aware of my growing irritability and thus I showed it to him. We discussed the matter at length, careful that nothing should transpire before his cousin, the last thing I needed in these painful moments of doubt. Carl then suggested we take a trip to Europe and spend our Easter vacation there. To Judith we only revealed two of our destinations, London and Zürich, which indeed we did visit. In spite of its appearance, this chosen itinerary was not a subterfuge. I had to prepare myself psychologically and the few days spent in the British capital were as pleasant as they could be under the circumstances - we toured the city and especially enjoyed the theater. The instant we set foot at the airport of Kloten, my mood altered, for here, albeit in a different accent, I was hearing all around me what used to be my native tongue. Except in my very occasional and blurry dreams which seemed to belong to an estranged planet and which didn’t affect me more than maybe a sneeze, I could never have conceived of returning to a country where the language of Goethe would be officially spoken. We had planned to stay a couple of days in Zürich, but as soon as we got to the hotel, my nerves were on edge and turning to my husband, I blurted out:
“Carl, something tells me I have to handle this on my own. The quicker, the better. I shall take the first train tomorrow morning and you will wait for me here.”
He stared at me blankly for a while, then after he’d overcome his surprise, he just nodded and gave a forced smile which could not wipe out the look of distress in his lustrous brown eyes, those eyes to which I had immediately succumbed and which haven’t lost their magnetic attraction, rimmed as they are by incredibly long lashes.

A fine drizzle sprinkled the valleys and the mountain slopes like a gauze, bathing it in pastel hues that evoked those watercolor posters of the Belle Epoque. From the train, this washed out landscape appeared to me even less tangible than the scenes of virtual reality I had experienced at a recent communications fair.
There was me behind the window looking just as stiff and dignified as the two matrons sitting on the opposite bench - how strangely mimetism works in spite of one’s nature once you’re away from your environment! - and the images outside, unfurling as in a mute film in their placid beauty. And before I realized, we had crossed the Swiss German border. The muscles of my jaws became taut when the customs officer in his impeccable dark green uniform leafed through my passport and clicked his heels, wishing me ‘Wilkommen in Deutschland’.
We were now riding along Lake Constance and instead of admiring it, I had a sudden vision that should normally have sent a chill down my spine, yet I almost felt a certain glee at the thought of our train derailing and plunging into the lake. I was obviously already regretting my decision to go and meet that person whose revelations might alter the course of my destiny. When I emigrated to the United States and for a long time thereafter, it was considered improper to reminisce, at least in public, about the Old Country, the more so, in my case, where that country happened to be the source of history’s greatest abomination. The trend nowadays has been reversed and, like the coming out of homosexuals, going back to one’s roots has become a universally accepted phenomenon, with the legitimate aim of recovering a dignity too long trampled or reneged, but then too it has a double edge and can lead , as we are witnessing in an increasing number of cases, to the resurgence of ethnic and religious rivalry.
“You can still change your mind”, a faint voice gurgled within me. But at that moment the loudspeaker in our compartment began to crackle and the name of the station was announced. As an after echo I heard myself conclude: “There is no return!”
I hailed a taxi and read out the address to the driver then asked him how long it would take us to get there.
“Since the road is slippery, we should count about twenty minutes to half an hour”, he said, adding: “For a foreigner, Madam speaks our language quite well.”
I mumbled a barely audible ‘thank you’, for instead of feeling grateful to the fact that my memory was proving so faithfull, I became ill at ease. The word ‘foreigner’ struck me as being ominously charged and the fear of shifting into a permanent no man’s land suddenly gripped me. Was I beginning to lose my ‘Americanness’ while at the same time I would never totally recover my childhood identity - something I did not even wish to happen? How I understood why some people preferred to let bygones be bygones! All truths are not necessarily good to be unravelled. Of this, I grew intuitively more certain as we approached our destination.
“Here it is, Madam!” said the driver as we left a tree-lined alley and parked before a wrought iron gate. At the end of a garden à la française, interspersed with benches and rose bushes, stood a massive double-storied brick building in the shape of a horseshoe. It looked like a cross between a pharmaceutical concern and a prewar garment factory. In fact, it was a rest home for senior citizens sponsored by the Municipal Health Department.
I introduced myself at the reception and seconds later I was flanked by a tall bony faced nurse clad in beige, a shade that did not disparage in the stark surroundings where broad oak paneling framed the cream tinted walls.
“Frau Gruber is expecting you in the guest lounge”, said the nurse, pointing at a mid-floor landing. “She has been preparing your visit with much excitement. And although she has not given any detail - Frau Gruber is not habitually a demonstrative person -, you must be very important to her, almost like family”, the nurse commented, “so much so, that she insisted to bake herself a sponge cake for tea.”
The guest lounge stood in pleasant contrast to the lobby and the maroon tiled staircase that led to it. With its potted plants and Venitian mirrors, the ample lacquered wicker chairs strewn with cushions and the art deco frescoes ornating its ceiling, there was a definite bucolic air about it. In a corner méridienne, opposite a glass topped table, facing the bay window that opened onto a stretch of garden, sat in a very upright posture, a lady looking no more than 65. She wore an elegant navy blue chiffon ensemble with matching kid gloves and horn rimmed sunglasses. Glints of silver played over her midlong hair that fell in fingerwaves, while her cheeks, showing under a layer of rouge a grid of tiny creases, belonged to what must have been in her heyday a woman of great beauty.
Motioning me to take a seat in the wicker chair on her left, she nodded at the nurse with a slight movement of her hand. The nurse reappeared moments later with a tea tray, served us and left again the room. I complimented Frau Gruber on the sponge cake which was fluffy and sprinkled with cinnamon. She began by inquiring about my life in America and asked me if I was happily married. No questions were posed concerning my earlier years spent in Germany. As I was trying to search her eyes through her dark spectacles, she remarked:
“My vision has lately deteriorated and any sort of light, artificial or not, makes me blink, that is why I have to wear them. But I can see you quite well notwithstanding and let me tell you how grateful I am that you have accepted to make this long trip to come here. Our meeting today is short of miraculous”, she said and held her breath, then, in a hoarse and quivering voice, she went on, scanning the garden through the baywindow, “I only pray you will not hate me for what I am about to reveal to you, but, after a long, very long and excruciating hesitation, I believe I owe it to both of us.”
What I heard next seemed to have originated from an X rated tale that I can not even recount in the classical manner:

This person claims to be my mother, my own flesh and blood
but I don’t want to have a mother, still so handsome, still so lucid
the source of my life, LEBENSBORN
she says she was brought by force
to that place where she was paired off with a man
tall and blond and athletic and blue eyed
paired off like thousands of other couples
to create a pure Germanic race that would reign over the world
during the socalled thousand-year Reich
and I was supposed to be a product of that magnificent new breed
I, who married a Jew, I, for whom his beloved cousin
could never find space in her heart
you will never know how right you are, dear Judith
LEBENSBORN, a quarter million children of my generation
setting a standard for the superhuman
I bid farewell to this woman, this mother of a still-born nightmare
though I wish her no harm
no, Mrs Gruber, I am sorry Mrs Gruber
I have to catch the next train back to Zürich
don’t cry Mrs Gruber, too many tears
have already been waisted
why do you think the oceans taste the way they do

Web Site: The Crowded World of Solitude, vol1  

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