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The Red Countess

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Hermynia Zur Mühlen

2. Supplement to The End and the Beginning1

Hermynia Zur Mühlen

Note de l’éditeur

For a serialized republication of her memoir in the socialist women’s magazine “Die Frau“ (October 6, 1949 — April 20, 1950) Hermynia Zur Mühlen removed the final chapter entitled “Zdravstvui Revolyutsia” in the original and substituted the following pages after “The old Imperial Austria disappeared into the shadows of the night, and I never saw it again.”

Texte intégral

  • 1 Reprinted in Nebenglück: Ausgewählte Erzählungen und Feuilletons aus dem Exil von Hermynia Zur Mühl (...)

1This book was written twenty-two years ago. It has thus reached a respectable age — one by which many of its contemporaries have already vanished from the scene. Had it been a product of the “good old days” (which, whatever century we ascribe them to, were in all likelihood held by those who actually lived in them to be the most terrible and most dangerous of times), it would have been easy, with the help of a little make-up, to restore a certain youthfulness to it. But the history of the last two decades has made any such innocent swindle impossible.

2A woman friend advised me to write a continuation of the book and I went along with her suggestion without giving the matter much thought. In order to find out whether the book still had some life in it and was more or less deserving of being sent out into the world again, I reread it for the first time since correcting the publisher’s proofs. With mixed feelings, pleasure being still the strongest of them, I was able to ascertain that, like most of my books, it had little prospect of finding a publisher, and that it was, therefore, still very much alive. I realized with far less pleasure, however, that I could no longer write a continuation of it in the same vein as that in which the final chapter had originally been written. That could be due, among other things, to the fact that until 1917 everything in my life was a personal experience and was therefore easy to portray. In contrast, the second half of my life has not been rich in purely personal experiences. The world of the impersonal has left almost no space for these, and such personal experiences as there are seem quite insignificant.

3After I had made several unsuccessful attempts to earn my living by sewing, language teaching, and typing, someone suggested that I should take advantage of the knowledge of foreign languages I had acquired painlessly in my youth and use it to translate books into German. I would never have hit on this idea by myself. I had always disliked translations, and besides I did not know that translators were paid. Still, aside from my distaste for reading books in anything but their original language, the idea appealed to me. I could not remember any time when books had not been the most important and satisfying thing in my life. Add to that the fact that I had come to know the other side of life chiefly through books and that these, especially the New Testament and the novels of Turgenev, had had a very strong influence on my development. As a result, I overestimated the effectiveness of books and was thoroughly convinced that through the work of translation I might help to make the world a better place. The desire to do so seems to have been always very strong in me. I still recall the childlike megalomania that inspired me, on the eve of my fifteenth birthday, to write in my diary: “Tomorrow I shall be fifteen and I have still done nothing to improve the world.” Today I must unfortunately acknowledge that a good part of my passion for improving the world has to be attributed to a very strong and still lively contrariness.

4My father — I still cannot make up my mind whether he was a disillusioned idealist or a hopeless cynic — used to reduce me to despair in my youth when he would counter my admittedly excessive optimism with a bitter Spanish saying about dogs that change only their collars but otherwise remain the same. Unfortunately, having developed a passion for history books at an early age, I often had to concede that he was right, for indeed much of what I read confirmed the view he held: it was always so and, with certain modifications, will always be so. Nevertheless, with the impatient and insufferable assurance of youthful converts I believed that in a not too distant future a peaceful, better, and more just world would come about. In this unshakable conviction, I began my work as a writer.

5My first substantial piece of work was a translation of the Russian anti-war novel, The Yoke of War, by Leonid Andreyev.*120 This appeared in 1917, first in the feature pages of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and then with the Rascher publishing firm in Zurich. At the time, this publisher was bringing out a series of anti-war books — by Andreas Latzko,121 Leonhard Frank,122 Henri Barbusse,123 Rudolf Jeremias Kreutz,124 and others. After this first translation there followed further translations of books by Upton Sinclair, Galsworthy, Zangwill and then, as the first major work of my own, the fairy-tale collection Was Peterchens Freunde erzählen. This work was written in Frankfurt am Main, where by 1919 my second husband and I were living.

6On our arrival at the Frankfurt Railway Station, with two dogs and very little money, the red flag was flying over it, heartwarming and full of promise. When we left the same station again on April 1, 1933, once more with two dogs and very little money, the flag flying over it was the Swastika.

7I knew Frankfurt well from an earlier time in my life. It had been one of my father’s favourite cities. But how different the city I was now living in was from that of the past. Not only because the city itself and its inhabitants had changed so fundamentally, but because in the past we used to stop off here in order to break a journey and stayed only a few days, naturally in a good hotel. We visited the sights of the city and were in the pleasant position of going round the then famous fine stores of Frankfurt and making purchases without having first to ask anxiously: “How much does it cost?” Now, however, I was simply a tolerated individual whose bobbed hair provoked disapproval in many. Now, I belonged in that class of persons who are told, in a not particularly friendly tone of voice: “Wait” or “I don’t have time today. Come back tomorrow.” I had to learn, here and later on in other places too, that cities and people are quite different according as one drives through the streets or goes on foot (not by choice but of necessity). They are not less interesting or worse, but one does get to know them better, and that does not always redound to their advantage. But that is also how it is in our relations to other people, especially in politically uncertain times, when you so often have to hear the excuse: “What can be done? We are going through a time of transition.” Or, “You have to get on with your life.”

8And the years after 1919 were indeed, as can be seen now with the wisdom of hindsight, a time of transition. Looking back on them, we can now discern the signs that foretold the horrors to come — and we can see how easily the latter could have been avoided. But how many really wanted to recognize the signs? It was a time of slogan phrases and, if I may coin an expression, slogan thoughts — one of the most dangerous things that exist. There were those who explained that one had to let Hitler have his head and that after him would come… About what would come afterwards there was no agreement. A large part of the German people held the view, as I just said, that “one has to get on with life” and above all that “Auch Hitler wird mit Wasser kochen” [“Even Hitler will cook with water” — i.e. will have to acknowledge reality and act pragmatically — L. G.] Later the excuses were far less innocuous, and Hitler did not cook with water but with blood, and millions who had let everything happen because, after all, one needs to get on with one’s life, had to die.

9As I had no intention of making any concessions and as my husband, who was Jewish, was in particular danger, we seized the first opportunity to cross the frontier, with two dogs, yet again. Even if one lives a rather secluded life, after fourteen years one has acquired many friends, likeminded companions, and acquaintances, albeit their number had been shrinking noticeably, in the last years, with every passing week. At the station, where drunken hooligans were rampaging around, only two people showed up to take leave of us: a young (Christian) worker, who was later slaughtered in a concentration camp, and a young (Jewish) actor, who disappeared without trace after the Germans occupied Belgium.

10I often see the troubled faces of these two young men in my mind’s eye. I feel I share responsibility for their death and reproach myself with the dullness of my feelings at the time. Everything else, the entire fourteen years spent in Germany, is now shrouded for me in thick mist.

***

11Every railway station in Germany had been hit by a snowstorm of pamphlets urging boycott of Jewish stores, and it was a relief when we finally crossed the bridge with the two crazy-looking Bavarian lions and got to the other side of the border. We continued to travel through the same countryside, but it looked quite different. The sky seemed more blue and the sun more golden. The first leaves were sprouting on the trees, fresh, delicate, and green. The conductor did not bark at one — not, at that time, yet — but encouraged us to go and get ourselves some coffee and cake.

12In Vienna, which I had not seen for twenty-seven years, I received the same welcome as in Frankfurt. From the station we drove in a rickety taxi with an ancient driver, not to the charming little town palace, in which almost half a century before I had come into the world, but to a flea-ridden boarding-house on Alserstrasse. Still, even though I hate fleas and they love me, not even they could destroy the feelings of hope we experienced after crossing the border. (My husband was convinced that it was only thanks to the dogs that we had crossed so easily, for who could have suspected that a couple with two dogs were refugees?) Now we were driving through a city where there were no swastika banners, past people who did not have the fixed expression of the Germans on their faces but had the appearance of being real people. We had seen so many horrific things on the other side of the border that everything on this side made a deep impression on us and I immediately got the idea that the people here had to be warned. We had to write the truth about National Socialism. We had to do it day and night, when it was convenient and when it was inconvenient. Somehow we had to get the indifferent to open their eyes to the frightful truth — and to the terrible danger threatening Austria. But I was not very successful in this enterprise. Only very few newspapers — among them the Arbeiter-Zeitung125 — agreed from time to time to publish an anti-Nazi short story. Most wanted humorous stories. When one features-page editor explained that he did not want anti-Nazi things and that I should bring him entertaining little sketches that would make readers split their sides laughing, I flew into such a rage, that I went home, sat down at my desk and in three weeks wrote my anti-Nazi novel Unsere Töchter die Nazinen. It took a good deal longer to find a publisher for it. This novel had a strange fate: every publisher who was given a copy to consider, declared he was willing to publish it — on condition that certain passages were altered or eliminated. Each one of them was bothered by something different. But I was unwilling to make the equired changes, since I believed they would give a false representation of the way things truly were. Then I took the novel to the Socialist Schiller Marmorek,126 who with his infinite helpfulness and genuine friendship did much to make our lives easier. (In my first youthful enthusiasm for socialism, I had imagined all Socialists to be like him.) I shall always think of him with love and gratitude. He read the novel and recommended it to Julius Braunthal.127 Braunthal did not let himself be put out by certain esthetic shortcomings, which must have marred the book from his point of view, and he agreed to publish it. Naturally, I was delighted, but our correspondence took place at the end of January 1934. February came,128 and the manuscript disappeared without a trace. After the assassination of Dolfuss, the book was finally put out by the publishing house of Gsur,129 without any changes, only to be banned two weeks later at the behest of Von Papen. Proceedings were taken against me, the only effect of which was that from that time on I received a monthly visit from a detective, who inquired in a friendly manner how I was getting along, said: “You haven’t gotten up to anything, have you?”, politely kissed my hand, and left. The good man must have been very well informed, moreover; about a month before the Anschluß he advised us to move to Czechoslovakia where the climate, he said, might well be healthier for us. Even after the Liberation the unfortunate little book still could not find a publisher. Although the spirit of National Socialism is by no means dead, publishers once again prefer humorous novels.

13I had always loved the city of Vienna: the gentle light that somehow was able to make even ugly buildings seem beautiful, St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the Church of Maria am Gestade, the Danube (when you could catch a glimpse of it), the lilacs, which bloom more beautifully here than anywhere. If I think back on it now, however, I see only strange figures and scenes — the feature-pages editor who, when the whole land already lay under the shadow of the swastika, asked me to provide him with humorous sketches that would make readers split their sides laughing; February 1934; community halls that had been destroyed; a man being carried on a stretcher to be executed; I hear a voice on the radio: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, we will play the Horst-Wessel song”; I see the first episodes of looting in the Mariahilf district of the city, but also the old driver who made the sign of the cross every time we passed a church and shook his fist at every swastika banner. He was taking us to the railway station, once again with the two dogs, on the day marked for Hitler’s entry into Vienna. Perhaps it was thanks to them that we were able to drive unimpeded on the same street along which, an hour later, Hitler’s grand entry parade was to pass. I can still hear the cries of “Sieg Heil” that poisoned the air. Now the swastika flag was flying over the Vienna railway station too and a frenzied, no longer human mass of people — the women were the most feral — was behaving even worse than the crowd in Frankfurt-am-Main.

14Once again, for me, as for countless others, a world had collapsed. The personal was no longer of any interest whatsoever. I remember only a grey landscape and a grey train travelling through it, without hope, into a grey world.

***

15It was late at night when we arrived in Bratislava. The town was already overflowing with refugees and we were told at the train station that there was not a room to be had anywhere. We called several acquaintances, but they were all so alarmed and suspicious that they pretended not to know us. There was nothing for it but to wait, with the two dogs, in the miserable railway station. For what exactly, we ourselves did not know. But, as always, I was convinced that something would turn up. The something soon appeared in the form of an anything but confidence-inspiring man who, for an appropriate payment, offered to find us a room. He took us to a quite remarkable hotel. The following morning, when I opened the door to the hallway a young woman came by wearing only a cross and boots and singing merrily. The detective who appeared shortly afterwards could not get over his surprise at our staying in that hotel.

16He did not disclose the reasons for his surprise, but found a room for us a few days later, albeit in a hotel opposite the railway station which, rumor had it, would be immediately bombed and shelled if war were to break out. On a small hill opposite, stood a lone tree, which I immediately considered my friend. It stood quite alone there, vulnerable, helpless, destined to be struck by the first bombs. For the moment, however, it was being struck only by the first rays of the sun and by a wind out of the North. Whenever I hear the name Bratislava, I immediately see that lonely tree on the hill.

17The more threatening the situation became, the more the hotel became transformed into a kind of barracks and the more the entire city took on the air of a besieged fortress. All those who could leave left and as most of the inhabitants, even the poorest, had relatives in the country, almost nobody remained behind. A city suddenly deserted has something uncanny about it, something ghostly, as though the plague has swept through it and destroyed every living thing. The stores were all closed, in the better parts of town at least; the trams were no longer running. Trenches were dug in the fields beyond, and on the Danube embankment there was no sign of life except here and there poor, frightened-looking women pushing prams and abandoned dogs with labels round their necks saying that the owner had been drafted and could someone please take care of them. The only heartening thing in those days was that most Slovaks were ready to fight against National Socialism, partly in all likelihood out of nationalist sentiment, but still, they were ready to fight. But then there was Munich, and demoralization set in.

18I fell ill and the doctor insisted that I not remain in the city. We moved to Piestany, where, as luck would have it, our lodging was directly opposite the “Brown House.” Piestany and its neighborhood had always been a focal point for the Hlinka movement130 and at that very moment — Hacha131 had already taken over the Czech government — an armed Slovak uprising broke out and was spreading rapidly. Moreover the Hlinka leader Tuka132 had settled in Piestany, after his release from prison, as the guest of the Jewish operator of the spa, who, incidentally, had also provided accommodation free of charge for Tuka’s wife while Tuka was in prison.

19The villages lying within three or four kilometers of the Austrian border were occupied by the Germans. As the soldiers came in, some of the officers ostentatiously carried copies of the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung,133 clearly intending to demonstrate that they were not Nazis. As most Slovaks still refused to speak German at that time, you could see how the Germans, time and time again, turned for help to Jews. The SA, however, crossed over from Vienna and in broad daylight stopped Jews on the street and dragged them away. Some were able to buy their release, others disappeared without trace. At first the Slovaks would not allow Jewish women to be forced into sweeping and cleaning the streets, on the grounds that the Mother of God had been a Jewish woman, and when an old Jewish woman, who had been a Socialist, died, half the place lined up behind the coffin and the red flag. Jewish businesses were protected from looters and in the church the priest delivered a sermon against National Socialism. In contrast, dark and sinister like an embodiment of evil, the priest in the neighboring community went about only in the uniform of the Hlinka Guards, delivered wild, rabblerousing, anti-Semitic sermons, and had Jews shut up in the cellars of his vineyard. They were released by other Slovaks. In those terrible times there were always exemplary demonstrations of simple humanity. But the border was too close and the resistance to evil, even of the good, was too weak. Within a few months, Slovakia too was a lost land, dragged into the witches’ cauldron in which the Germans were brewing the ruination of a world. I tried to portray all this in my novel Came the Stranger. That book is really a piece of reporting and almost all the characters that appear in it are people I knew or at least observed, like the priest in SS boots and the true heroine of my novel, Marianka.134 The events recounted in it were in part witnessed by me personally, in part told me by eyewitnesses. Let me emphasize that I tried to portray all this. My literary talent is not sufficient to make the reader feel the horror or to communicate the indescribable coarseness and meanness fascism unleashed in people. If it was hard for me to do so in a novel, how should I be able to do it here, in a few pages.

20Friends who were more worried about our fate than we were ourselves arranged for us to get an entry permit for England. This time the journey was longer; it took us by way of Hungary, Yugoslavia, Italy, Switzerland, and France. In these incredibly beautiful summer days, the countries through which we travelled by train gave an impression of peacefulness. The corn was ripening and would soon be ready for harvesting. What kind of harvest would it be, we asked ourselves anxiously. The whole journey was a farewell to a world that was condemned to death. Our awareness of this cast a shadow over everything and made the most beautiful landscapes nightmarish. There was a quality of unreality about everything. The brilliant, flower-bedecked pastures of Yugoslavia seemed to belong to a fairy tale: everything in them was still in bloom, but within a moment a curse could fall on them and the flowers would all wither. And there was something else besides, something that concerned us personally. There was a time when we would simply get off the train whenever a village or a little town seemed especially charming and spend a few hours or even days there. Now everything was subordinated to the need for haste. “Keep going, keep going, keep going,” the wheels seemed to say. The only purpose of the journey was to get to the next frontier, for today it was still open, but who was to say what would be tomorrow. And we had only transit visas, we could not stop anywhere.

21We stopped off for a while — two weeks — only in Paris. The dog’s papers — alas, there was only one dog now — were not in order. For me, certainly, each day that we were able to spend there was a gift. The sky arched so high over the city that one could breathe again. Wherever we went, we came upon something especially beautiful, and everything had its own particular charm. It seemed amazing that anything like this still existed. We also met up with old friends and acquaintances, who had been in Paris for some time and were already completely at home there. But then the papers came and we had to get on the road again.

22After having had to hoof it in many cities where once I had been able to drive or take taxis, I had real anxiety about finding myself in London again. Hadn’t I always been told by my parents that it is impossible to live in London unless you have a lot of money and that we, for instance, were not rich enough! In addition, my memory of a winter’s stay in that city was of stone, stone, and more stone. For some reason I had apparently forgotten about all the beautiful parks. But when we finally arrived in London, it wasn’t so bad after all. With few exceptions, the people we had to deal with were friendly and helpful; neither the police nor the authorities gave us any trouble; and we had the same rights as every Englishman. Almost nobody seemed to assume that refugee meant the same thing as thief or robber and murderer. And in the British Museum, that wonderful island of calm, that treasure-house of the mind, one was entrusted unquestioningly with the most precious books. There was also so much here that strengthened one in the conviction not, to be sure, that man is good by nature, as youthful idealists since Rousseau’s time have maintained, but that he can be good. The basic decency of people, unmarred by arrogance, unimpaired by cowardice, together with humor and good manners, which even the war failed to alter, seemed like a miracle. There were so many examples of it. I was most impressed by the fact that German airmen who had been shot down — and who only a few moments before had been trying to set cities on fire and destroy them — were treated no differently from their injured victims. Here they were not mistreated or murdered. In the country the farmer’s wife would bring them the inevitable comforting English cup of tea and arrange for medical help even if her husband or son had to travel a long way to get hold of the nearest doctor. In a gesture that is infinitely characteristic of this land, the downed airmen would also be given cigarettes. In the city too, of course, the enemy airmen were treated like human beings. (We spent the entire period of the war in London, including the eight months when the city was being bombed virtually day and night.)

23When I think back on the war years, I can barely understand those people who, as long as they were here, did their best to outdo each other in loud expressions of admiration for England and the English, but as soon as they returned to their homeland completely forgot that Hitler and his henchmen would be lords of all Europe had England not resolved, without a moment’s hesitation, to continue the fight after the collapse of France. It goes without saying that they were also fighting for their own freedom and their own very existence, but because of that, they saved Europe and made amends for much of what they may have done wrong. That ought not to be so easily forgotten.

24Our last stop, for now, is a small English village, odd and charming at the same time, as only English villages can be. Fourteen miles from London, it is truly the country. I could not ask for a better place to spend the time that remains to me. For years now, I have no longer been seeing the world through the eyes of some one who walks around in it, but only through my window. Still, in the country, this is not so bad. I have always been moved by the desire to see what lies on the other side of things and now, in our modest quarters it has been vouchsafed to me to do that. On the one side, through the window of my study, I see a large meadow in the middle of which there is a little cluster of holm-oaks. Three horses graze and take their rest there. A stream, which with the spring rains becomes a river and announces that fact loudly and with much beating of waves, flows by in front of the window. In spring it is alive with waterfowl of one kind and another, in summer with lovable little English rascals who wade in it and dirty their clothes to their heart’s content. A steep bank rises on the other side of the stream. Many trees grow on it and in these are the nests of those strange English birds, which have something to sing about all winter long and are so tame that they come right into your room, or would do were it not for the cat.

25On the other side of the house stands the monument to the fallen of the First World War. Many names are inscribed on it, heartbreakingly many names. On our way here we saw similar monuments in every village. One does not like to think how many such monuments there are in the entire country, for there are only thirty small villages in all England with no dead to mourn from the First World War. The monuments to those who fell in the Second World War will carry even more names. And the monuments to the fallen of the Third…

26On moonlit nights, the monument gleams white and ghostly, a silent warning, a silent reproach. What have we done, what are we doing to combat the criminal madness that is already, once again, talking of war, provoking war? What have we done, what are we doing to awaken, finally, respect for humanity in people, to make it clear to all that other human beings are not there to be dragged off, tortured, humiliated, deprived of their freedom in every possible way — no matter what the cause in the name of which these things are done?

27In this struggle, every person of good will will be needed. And it will end in victory, if all Europe, indeed the entire world is not to be enslaved.

28As I write these words, a wild storm is raging, the trees are swaying and groaning, the stream is roaring louder than ever. And the clouds are scurrying across the sky. A storm of ruin swept over the world, but there are also spring storms that announce new growth and development. In these I place my hope and faith as ardently in my old age as I did in my youth. Everything can be different, everything can be made good, if only we truly will it.

29And then it will not be the end that comes, but the beginning.

Radlett, early February 1950

Notes de fin

1 Reprinted in Nebenglück: Ausgewählte Erzählungen und Feuilletons aus dem Exil von Hermynia Zur Mühlen, ed. Deborah J. Vietor-Engländer, Eckart Früh and Ursula Seeber (Bern: Peter Lang, 2002), pp. 243– 55.

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