A FEW THOUGHTS ON THE RAILS
The railroad tracks in Germany no longer speak. The gaps that once yielded k-k k-k--k-k k-k and the complex syncopations of rail crossovers have been replaced by unitary tracks, welded and polished. The newer trains, the long-distance intercities, are virtually soundproof, separating the passengers from the landscape, comfortable and fast. The intercity from Berlin to Hamm, where I had to change to go on to Geseke, only made four stops: Magdeburg, Braunschweig, Hannover, and Bielefeld. Comfort and speed come at a price, however.
In 1951, when I was five, I lived in Germany for a year. My father had returned to claim reparations and to develop business contacts. Among my favorite sounds was that of the tracks between Dortmund and Geseke, a sound that continues to bring forth a flood of feelings and memories. K-k k-k--k-k k-k means childhood to me; it means neat grey-brown houses, stinging nettles, bows and arrows, garden slugs to be dissolved with salt. It means home and safety and being with my father. The smell of the locomotives with their enormous wheels and pistons remains as well.
I returned to Geseke in October 1995 to meet a group of Germans who had for more than six years undertaken to research and commemorate the former Jewish community. One afternoon, I was imitating the sound of the tracks for Marianne, my hostess, when her husband Franz came in. "Ach, die alte Eisenbahn," he said immediately without having to ask what we were talking about. His look was far off. He, too, had been momentarily transported to another time, into memory.
In Poland, the tracks are still the old ones, and I suspect that memory is closer to the surface. As I traveled from Berlin to Oswiecim, Auschwitz, I passed through towns and villages that were as I remembered Geseke, German villages on Polish territory. Every so often I would see one of the old wooden boxcars sitting forlorn and abandoned on a railroad siding. They are small and have lovely curved roofs. I was reminded of what Wolfgang, my host in Berlin told me the first day I arrived. Wolfgang is an ecologist who has traveled widely in Poland and knows it well. His impression is that Poles who live in former "German" territory have a less careful and respectful relationship to the land than those who live more in the Polish heartland. It is, he thought, as if they do not yet fully believe that the land belongs to them and will not be taken back. Could it be those German houses which dot the flat expanse of flood plain east of the Oder that they (supposedly) inhabit so uncomfortably? I have no way of assessing Wolfgang's observations. These are not irredentist speculations although they very well could be.
Of course, the fact that memories are closer to the surface in no way means that they are better dealt with. The Poles, for all their genuine suffering and grievances, are not notable for having faced their anti-Semitism. And, continuing blood feuds are the result of memory. The slogan, "Never forget!" is an ambiguous one. Nevertheless, for those who want to forget what they did and saw, the obliteration of external cues is a comfort. More solid German housing stock was demolished after the war than was destroyed by Allied bombing. Was there an unstated, unconscious motive? The world is reinvented, and future generations need never bother themselves with "that history."
But, it doesn't work that way. The ability to live in a state of suppressive amnesia, which characterized Germany through the 1960s, was severely undermined by the '68ers, members of the next generation who asked uncomfortable questions.
Living in the modern world, it is easy to believe that we are ahistorical beings existing only in the present. We forget where we came from. Hearing the sound of the tracks took me back to family comforts. But, knowing what I now know, I also realize that those crammed into boxcars also heard the steady k-k k-k--k-k k-k as they headed for their final destinations.
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