Pictures from West Germany
In postwar defeated Germany, America planned to have a wealthy nation bastion of anticommunism, creating West Germany after having poured millions in Marshall Plan aid. A travelling Spaniard in the Ruhr compares it with the poverty of fascist Spain.
Pictures from West Germany
Fernando García Izquierdo
When I began travelling in western Europe, at the age of twenty-three, I found everything so interesting everywhere that even now, sixty-two years later, I often find myself reminiscing about those years and, what is worse, troubling my listeners, including my two daughters and their husbands, with stories that do not interest anyone. A garrulous old man always boring his neighbours to be avoided like the plague.
I therefore ask the reader, at the outset, to forgive my garrulousness and, if this little tale about the West Germany of old is more than anyone can stand, please, leave it unread. I shall understand.
I first set foot in Germany in the year of the Lord nineteen-fifty-four, the twentieth day of January (I have just seen the date in my – oh, so old and so very precious! - Youth Hostel Member Card.) I had being travelling for three days and two nights from Perpignan, in France, to the Swiss city of Basel, always by the then common method, among the young, of hitch-hiking, which happened to be the cheapest too: walking along by the side of the road, a haversack buckled on your back, lifting one arm asking for a lift.
I continued my journey, in the same fashion, north from the Swiss border, and slept that night in the city of Karlsruhe, where (as before) I spent the night in a hostel for young people, ‘eine Jungenherberge’. To say that I visited this city would be excessive, for I only stayed there about fourteen hours, and what I saw of it, two main streets, always heading north towards the highroad, passed flittingly before my eyes; my thoughts were concentrated on the traffic, the possibility of getting a lift. But I remember I saw a nice tidy city, which received the visitor warmly, at first sight. The weather was cold, in any case.
My father being an important member of the Spanish ‘Cuerpo General de Policía’ in Madrid, I had been able to leave my country with a fair amount of foreign currency, which he got out of the ‘Instituto de la Moneda Extranjera’ at a very advantageous exchange rate, for the Spanish ‘peseta’ having no value at all in foreign countries, and the black market as a way of getting francs, marks, pounds, etc. was both costly and dangerous. I would not have been able to leave otherwise. We had no idea of the existence of ‘travellers’ cheques’ or any other way of carrying foreign currency.
Arriving at Cologne, I went again in search of a Youth Hostel; and there, at night, something happened which plunged me at once into the greatest state of despair I had ever known, and which nearly drove me mad. I was sleeping, with other young male travellers, in a large dormitory with about a dozen sets of bunk-beds. My bed, the top one of a set of three bunks, was situated near the door. When I woke up the following morning, I noticed that my haversack, which I had placed near my pillow, was no longer there. Full of apprehension I jumped out of bed, saw the haversack on the floor, picked it up and found that my money, which I had so carefully placed in an inside pocket with a zip, was gone. The robber had been clever enough to leave me all my coins and a couple of small notes, thinking perhaps that it would be better for him, if he left me some cash for a meal or two, while he proceeded on his way, placing quickly a few miles between himself and his victim.
My soul fell to my feet, my eyes filled with tears. The warden of the Youth Hostel advised me to go to a place in town which I could not catch. He wrote it on a piece of paper. ‘Der Studentschnelldienst. Go there. They’ll help you if you show your card from the University of Madrid.’
Walking along an avenue with a big grey river nearby I felt my anxiety mounting sky-high. What had started moments ago as a shock had been turning by minute into a paroxysm of fear and helplessness. The prospect seemed hopeless. The houses on my right looked dark, damp, hermetically closed.
‘Calm down! Calm down!’ I repeated to myself. I had to pull myself together.
Only some ten trees appeared to be standing in all the length of the tree-lined avenue, probably beeches, cold and leafless, the rest were recently planted thin saplings propped up by grey sticks.
‘Why not retrace my steps, and ask him to put me in touch with the nearest Spanish Consulate?’ Just then I perceived somebody smiling at me, a passerby. Why, a friendly gaze! one of those instances you see someone in a crowd someone you seem to recognise. Perhaps some help?
But when I turned round, gone! too late. Beyond the row of buildings an elongated green promontory, a train passing shrouded in a cloud of smoke.
Eventually I came upon a semicircular hole that traversed the elongated promontory, connecting the avenue with the city. High above the city, where it could be seen by all, was the monumental Dom, and my imagination flew back to the time when British war-planes were carpet-bombing the city, the bridge, the railway line and the Cathedral.
As I entered the tunnel, walking now in the dark, along the footway on the right, with a crowd of people rushing by, I felt simultaneously the suffocating air and the cold. Unhappy and almost sobbing, I saw people passing by, dressed in dark suits and coats, probably going to work, and I felt useless. The roadway so full of motor vehicles, noisy, belching out smoke and with the headlights on. Presently, in the distance I perceived a semicircle of light cut out against the blackness of the tunnel walls and ceiling. It was the light of day all right, and in that white semicircle I now saw the black silhouette of a man sitting on a stool. He appeared to be holding a violin against his left shoulder. As I advanced I noticed the man held in his right hand a bow, and I now heard the music. On his stool, stooping far too much, terribly overdressed. I saw his broad-brimmed hat with a round crown, his tied-up big scarf, a thick overcoat which reached the ground. I observed how everyone was dropping something on a plate held by a singer nearby, a young girl intoning: ‘Oh, mein Papa, zu mir Du warst so wunderbar!’
And I entered the old city of Cologne, so thoroughly destroyed during the war and so miraculously rebuilt, at least in part. As I trudged alone among the multitude, endeavouring to find my way to a place with a long name I could not remember (of which I couldn’t now find my piece of paper), I truly thought I was going out of my mind. I saw the people passing by, all so happy, and I knew I was no good. Only an alien! The things they did (in which they probably believed) seemed so strange to me; and what I knew, the people and the things which had formed part of my life for years, were not there and, oh!, I now missed them so much.
There is nothing so odd and so defeating for an ordinary social being, the poor chappy that I was, as the fact of being alone in the middle of a crowd. As I moved on, asking for assistance here and there in a language which I did not know and was in vain trying to utilise, I really felt like Dead Man Walking.
The streets of the city and the city in general had been irregularly rebuilt in the postwar, some parts completely renewed; some not at all, save the macadam on the roadway; and you could still see the debris where the houses had been.
In two main commercial thoroughfares the refurbishing had been so well done, all the buildings were so much of the same dimensions, all with large window panes of the same size, with plenty of neon light coming out, and the rest of the façades so wonderfully painted in such vivid colours, everything so clean and orderly, that for a moment I believed I was contemplating a scene in panomine.
And the actors and actresses of this queer play would not understand me. I remember I shouted like a lost soul when they failed to comprehend, without realising that I was getting too furious, not bothering to consider that I wasn’t understood because I mispronounced every word I uttered: and then I raised my voice still more, making a complete fool of myself and cutting myself from all contact with my fellow human beings. ‘oh to hell with it!
Of course I was crazy. I had lost all I had possessed until some twelve hours before. No money. A man without property! Who was I?
I thanked the courteous gentleman, who had in good Samaritan fashion helped me to reach my destination, and entered the place with such a long and unpronounceable name. I sat down among young people who were obviously students like myself and began to calm down. Can’t explain why. It had always been in my character, I suppose. I was nervous to the point of despair, had fallen into depression. And now I passed into elation, just as quickly. I felt sure, in an instant, that something was going to turn up. Employment.
Presently I was led to one of many tiny offices, where an official came to my rescue. I told him that much. He began offering me a cigarette. To calm me down, he said. Everybody spoke in English there. I said I didn’t smoke and went on to explain to him what was the cause of my agitation, I had to find some work, I concluded. And he supplied me with what I needed.
The job I was offered was known in the place as ‘Gartenarbeiten’. I rushed to the place indicated in the note he supplied. My employer was a man of about forty, called Helmut Koch, a landscape gardener whom I met that same morning and with whom I began to work at once.
I thanked God for the fact that Herr Koch did not speak any English, but I wondered later on whether I had not been too hasty in my expectations. For in all the days of our working together there was very little verbal communication between us. I mean, he was not a man of many words, and I don’t think we ever had a long or even medium-length conversation in all the days we worked together, about thirty-five or forty.
And yet, he was always correct with me, and we came to understand one another very well. He came punctually to fetch me in his utility van at half past seven and brought me back in the evening. The work was hard, but the two of us laboured together, and at the end of the day he paid me well, though not always the same amount. He was a calculator. It all depended on the way I had worked. I have said the work was hard, but sometimes the job, for me, was pure delight. Healthy work, fresh air. He did not talk, but that gave me an opportunity of reconsidering about my life at present and to come.
I asked him, almost at the beginning, if I could call him Master Koch, for it was not easy for me to pronounce Herr and Koch together (I used the Spanish sound J for the German H, and that was too hard), and he actually howled with laughter when he understood what I was getting at. It was almost the only time I heard him laugh. Neither did he smile too frequently. He was an escapee from the terrible Battle of Stalingrad, and I think he lost his sense of humour althogether there. Perhaps more than that. I never learned if he had been injured in the battle or in fact anything else about his past.
I only stayed in the Youth Hostel ten nights. That was the maximun allowed by the internal regulations. At the students’ labour-exchange office they had also given me the address of a students’ residence in Köln-Lindenthal, and there is where I lodged for about four months after the hostel.
University studying among the Germans implied that you had to pass a number of semesters (if I understood it correctly) and there were in consequence more holidays (or differently placed) than in Spain.
Anyhow, I first appeared at the office of the hall of residence at a time when most of the students were holidaying in their villages (end of semester) and I was very lucky. It meant for me that there were many rooms unoccupied. I was allotted a place in a bedroom for two, which satisfied me, a foreign student: though I did not register for any course.
One of the lodgers (of the room) had not gone on holiday and I understood that my stay there was to be temporary. The other student was there, Klaus, who turned out to be an excellent fellow-lodger; except that he spoke English. To him I owe the fact that I never learned German properly.
He was a law student, as I had been, and we became good pals. He even took me one weekend to Wüppertal, where his parents lived; and during the local festivities, my friend Klaus insisted that I should dance with his fiancée, which was very nice of him, but produced quite an embarrassment to the poor
guest, for I couldn’t dance for nuts.
This student was a fan of classical music and had brought to the room a portable Gramophone (designed to close and carry like an attaché-case.) He often played Beethoven and Bach, and thanks to to him I heard good music for the first time in my life; for in Spain people didn’t have the time to worry about those things and, besides, only a few rich families possessed Gramophones or even radios.
Master Koch was an enterprising man who had been able to retain a number of wealthy people as clients, from what I came to understand these were big industrialists and financiers or belonging to the old Prussian gentry, in any case, multimillionaires. People with ancestral homes, owned from time immemorial maybe (and which had been quickly repaired after the war); or owners of repaired large properties which they had bought, or had had newly-built for them. They all were situated outside Cologne, where the air was not too polluted. And there was where we exercised our trade on nice extensive grounds.
Thus transformed, in the attire of a worker in the open air (it was bitter winter), I worked morning and afternoon. I was given a square-shaped spade, brand new with a varnished handle of a yellowish hue, on which a piece of paper denoted it had been made in the land: ‘Solingen’. I placed my strong boot on the edge of the steel blade, and pushed it into the hard frozen soil. A moment later a portion of the earth or soil came balancing in the air and falling upside down on the ground. And so during the whole morning.
The housekeeper came out to call us for lunch, and I can assure the reader that in a moment I became the happiest of men, for we shared the lunch with the servants, both pretty and blond.
In this manner I earned my living for the time being and enjoyed a healthy out-of-doors life. We never lacked work, for as I have said, Master Koch was the favourite gardener among the wealthy. After turning a whole field upside down, we rammed it down with a metal cylinder (into which my employer had injected gallons and gallons of water.) We rolled it about for a while and the soil was watered. Master Koch plodded squelching along, spreading handfuls of seeds.
I was quite pleased to see in successive weeks how an infinite number of light-green specks began to appear over the black soil and eventually the green lawn in full. With the good weather, I would soon be surrounded by the colours of flowers, I said to myself; for there were shrubs and hedges already with buds everywhere. Life was indeed full of promise again.
Soon I observed that there was great inconsistency in the country’s weather. During two or three days, spring approaching, it rained heavily. My boss very correctly gave me my pay, but dispatched me off saying I would hear from him when the good weather returned. I now caught the bus in the morning to town, Town Hall, and from there I addressed my steps to ‘Die Brücke’, a magnificent British Building, of when defeated Nazi Germany had been divided into three Occupation Zones, Cologne being (then) in the British Zone.
There were in this building some big halls, where one could lounge having a capuccino coffee, reading the Bristish press of the day as well as all kinds of magazines and reviews. There was as well a library, where I became friends with a fellow of my age, called Richard, who studied economics. In the evening there were propaganda films and sometimes cultural sessions. I perused in the library Sir Winston Churchill’s last book, with which he had obtained the Nobel Prize of literature. Perusing it I learned about the man. The confessions of an anticommunist. He had verbal disputes with Joseph Stalin, then his ally. To the British leader the Spaniards owe that they remained under the boot of fascism during forty years; for the Soviet leader wanted to finish with the Franco regime, and Churchill opposed all action against Spanish fascism.
But most importantly, during those few days of continual rain, I met in the British Centre the most adorable girl imaginable, not because she was exceedingly beautiful, but because hers was an intellectual beauty, full of expectations. In short, I fell in love with her. I first caught sight of her in the library. A first-year university student, our eyes often met, each seated on opposite sides of the same desk. And once, meeting her outside, going out into the street, I talked to her. And she answered in German, for I had approached her in that language (which not many young people did.) Her name was Marlen.
We met again, at the same place I mean in ‘Die Brücke’, and I came to think that my person was not altogether indifferent to such an adorable creature, and fell more deeply in love. How I would have liked to have one day proposed to dear Marlen, to have become a couple of lovers, like other people (a Spaniard marrying a German, why not?)
Loving Marlen. But no. Merely a fleeting moment of my life. ‘Oh, Fräulein, Fräulein! Just a kiss and then I’ll go.
What could I have done? I possessed nothing. I was a lonesome migrant, my home thousands of miles away! A ‘gartenarbeiter’ without money, without a proper job, without a home or anything of interest to offer.
I went back to my gardening job. Master Koch came with his utility van to Lindenthal, at half past seven on a glorious cloudless morning. At midday, the sound of a bell coming from the house, as usual, made my employer stop working. I followed suit. We were being summoned to come for lunch in the kitchen. I asked the maiden girl to give me her name, and she replied, ‘Ich bin Ursula’, very cutely.
We changed our place of work however: another millionaire’s mansion. Those big grounds where we always worked together, not exchanging many words, but always in quite friendly terms. Until one day he took me aside for a moment and talked to me, which was almost a novelty, for this time I heard him for a long time. He looked different as he spoke, transformed into a business man. All things necessarily come to an end, he explained, and I agreed. In short, I understood that I was no longer needed. What I never got to know was if he was going to do the job ‘Gartenarbeiten’) alone from now on to save some capital, or whether another sort of garden-help was now needed; say, a woman whom he would pay less and, besides, would do the job better, for I knew nothing about hedges, growing flowers and so on, now that spring had come. Anyhow, fair is fair: he gave me double pay that day; there was an expression of regret on his face, which I thought was genuine. I packed my things: a spare pair of spectacles, just in case, a raincoat and those things which I always placed aside, he drove me back to town, we shook hands and I never saw him again.
The next morning I found my way back to the ‘Studentschnelldienst’, to get a new job, or jobs, for I never got long employment again and kept changing jobs until the end of my stay in Cologne. The labour-exchange people sent me to a large workshop in town specialised in making panels and planks of wood of all kinds and sizes (the conglomerate type.) The firm had been contracted to build part of the interior of a supermarket or department store, and a number of labourers got employed by the firm, I think, for about one month. I did the job that could have been done by a robot, if such ‘humanoids’ had then existed. I was given a special screwdriver (‘Made in Germany’) and assigned to my post, in a team. But I did not have much to do with my fellow-workers, or with the workers of other teams, carpentry, painting or whatever. Nobody told me much about what I had to do. I spent my first eight hours turning a screwdriver with my right arm, upwards and downwards, standing up or on my knees; one or twice under some furniture, stretched out on the floor, putting screws in, taking them out if something had gone wrong. When there were planks of wood or plastic panels to be placed in position or removed, somebody else did it. There was a break at midday and we ate ‘Kartoffel mit Wurst’ (potatoes and sausage) followed by pudding made of flour, potato and egg sprinkled with icing-sugar. I drank a milkshake.
At night in bed I experienced an excruciating pain in my right arm and specially my hand. My fingers were paralysed and the centre of my palm hurt terribly.
I couldn’t go to work in the morning, but after lunch I went to the place and talked to my foreman, I showed him the blister in the middle of my right hand. He paid me and took me with affection to the infirmary, where they bandaged my hand. We said goodbye without shaking hands, and I wondered about town the rest of the day. In Die Brücke I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing Marlen. Perhaps she was that day on holiday. Bad luck!
The next job I performed was that of a bricky’s assistant. I went by public transport one morning to the other side of the river and found my new employer in the least attactive zone of the region. He was building a small house all by himself. I never learned if it was his home he was building or he had been contracted by somebody else. He was a hard worker, in any case. A chain smoker, whom I almost never saw without a fag between his lips. He was a short burly fellow, very blond and rather surly, who looked like a Russian rather than West German. He told me what my job was to be. Rather simple. I would be most of the time mixing with the help of a shovel an amount of sand with some less quantity of cement. When I arrived he had built the corresponding heaps of these two elements on a square of cemented ground, near the house and near the road, for the property was a square of no more than five or six hundred feet each side. All was square there, the grounds, the house, even the head of my employer.
After mixing a few shovelfuls of the two elements, I grabbed a hose-pipe from the ground and watered the mixture, which I carried to the man, who was laying bricks and rendering walls on a low scaffolding, as the building had just been started. From where I was working to the scaffolding, there was a slope of four wooden planks. The way of taking up to the scaffolding the cement mixture was by filling a bucket shaped like a canoe, more or less. I placed it on my left shoulder and balanced it with the help of my right hand. I poured the mixture into a square container, and went back with the empty ‘canoe’ and to further mixing. It was a painful job indeed, specially for a man who was not used to carrying weights. I tried to aliviate the pain by placing my handkerchief on my shoulder, under the container of the mixture. Wishful thinking! I spent the evening after the first day, padding with all sorts of rags my jacket’s left shoulder. I hated the job all the same, but the guy paid well for my efforts and I stayed on.
One hot afternoon, I was watering the mixture I had just produced, and I had put on my jacket in preparation for going up the slope, when a big open cabriolet pulled up on the side of the road, some twelve feet from where I was. There was no wall or railing yet around the property. The driver very courteously asked me for some directions, and I told him that I was a stranger to the region. His wife, noticing that I was not German, asked the same question in English. I said I had come from Spain and only been in this country four months. At that a very blond teenage girl, springing up on her seat, in the back of the car, smiling began to talk to me with some excitement in very bad English, saying she had never been to Spain or had seen a Spaniard in her life. She was absolutely divine and I felt ashamed to be confronted by such a perfect jewel. ‘what was I doing there,’ she asked, ‘so far from any town and in such apparel?’ And what could I have responded? For I knew I must be looking like an idiot, ugly and covered with cement dust. I wondered whether she was thinking that I was a hunchback, with my padded up dirty jacket shoulder sticking out.
Talking of dirty jobs, the most unpleasant one I did those days was one which they called at the ‘Studentschnelldienst’ by the name of ‘Teppichklopfen’. I arrived at a big mansion one fine late-spring day at nine, was led through the back door to the kitchen. A woman, who could have been the cook, explained to me what I had to do and gave me a big cap and sort of dressing-gown which reached down to to my ankles. She also gave me a large yellow wicker-racket. We went to the back garden where, hanging from one tree to another, I saw a large valuable Persian rug, expertly folded into two hanging in the air over a thick double-rope.
When I was left alone with my wicket-racket facing the immense rug, I began banging upon the surface of the latter with strength, and that was all I did non-stop for about two hours, sweating copiously almost from the start. I was left alone. And never saw anybody but the woman. That is to say, as far as I knew, I only had one spectator, and that for the whole time of my banging: a rather big black dog, half-hidden among the trees, who almost never moved. he seemed curious about what I was doing. I was surprised, even afraid, at the beginning, but he did not bark, and I accepted his company as a relief. When the housekeeper reappeared I think she was pleased with the job I had done.
Indeed, she should be. For during the two hours I only stopped banging, to unblock my nose, and profit from having my handkerchief out to wipe my glasses which got clouded over with the banging. And thank goodness I wore glasses for they saved my eyes from an infection. In the proportion in which the Persian rug was turning into a colourful treasure, everything around became ugly and dusty. The lawn under the rug had changed from green to greyish white and so had the new leaves of the trees nearby.
When the woman led me back to the house I saw my reflection in a frenchwindow by which we passed, and I saw the image of a white phantom on the wiindow pane! Except that I had already taken my cap off, and there was my dark-brown hair and there was a line all along the eyebrows, which were white with dust, like the rest of my person. There was another person in the kitchen, a servant who could not stop turning her amused gaze at me.
I had a long warm shower (in my hand an excellently perfumed cake of soap.) When I was admitted back into the kitchen, a perfectly clean handsome young man, I was fed a good meal with the servant, whom I did not cease to ogle in consideration of what she had done to me before.
The woman (who indeed was the family’s cook) paid me as agreed and as I was going out alone through the back door, I saw a very elegant middle-aged lady looking at me from the top of a narrow staircase, beckoning. I climbed up, responding to the summons: in her bejeweled nice hand there was a banknote which she passed on to me, just saying ‘Guten Morgen’. ‘Danke,’ I responded.
I gathered that she had been watching me, lurking behind one of the velvet curtains at one of the windows upstairs, and had thought I deserved a tip.
I did not live in Germany long enough to learn the language or get to know the people as I would have liked. There were then two German republics, in any case, each having adopted a different system of society, each resurrected and rebuilt from the ashes, as it were, communist and capitalist. I was glad I was on the good side of the Iron Curtain which separated the two and the two Worlds. In any case I was improving my English in West Germany. In the British Centre, those days, I read English literature (Dickens, Thackeray and Mary Ann Evans, a great novelist who had to call herself George Eliot to sell her books.)
In short, I saw in the places of West Germany which I visited an immense effort at reconstruction going on everywhere. The country, as I have already said and everybody knows, had been left completely destroyed by the conflict. That is what wars are made for. Luckily the Western Powers decided at once that it was urgent ‘not to let the Germans fall into the claws of communism’, as would happen if there was poverty everywhere (except in Spain, where fascism was reigning parallel to the existence of the greatest poverty.) A great effort was made in consequence to ensure that the Germans felt the anticommunist West was helping them, and not the Russians. The constitution of a Federal Republic in 1949 had no other purpose. The United States poured billions and billions in aid. The city of Cologne had been devastated by Great Britain’s Royal Air Force.
When I first set foot in the city, there was only one big commercial street, rather narrow, with buildings which looked to me flimsy and quite garish, full of neon lights inside and a superabundance of commodities. It was necessary to build now better commercial establishments. Important thoroughfares too. New better buildings appeared: banks, shops, offices, etc. For a big capitalist success, new modern management arrived (for giant supermarkets, department Stores, counselling firms, all in order to ensure there would be commodity circulation. Experts and agents appeared to determine apparently silly things, but that were very important under capitalism. In a word, for example: on which side of the street? That was the question.
I got a one-day job of an important nature where I was given instructions to count people. A number of a team of twelve, I was given (like the others of my team) pencils and biros and blocks of paper and sent to different points of the new thoroughfare, six on this pavement, the other six opposite the way.
There were no shops as yet in that street, but the pavements were already full of pedestrians and the roadway full of traffic. Leaning slightly on the façade of an unopened shop, I was to count people. I had an open block in my left hand, a biro in the other. To see how many passers-by there are at that hour on this part of the street. You count four (four strokes), a fifth one cross the four by means of a horizontal line, multiplied by five, fifty passers-by… and so during four hours. Half an hour’s rest for lunch. Kartoffel-mit-wurst and pudding, plus Coca-Cola. During lunch I learn from my comrades, all German students, that I have been too honest. They just count the people without caring and then fill their blocks with lines and strokes more-or-less at random. Exactly what I had to do all through my second four-hour turn.
I have forgotten to say in the right place of this brief narration that sometimes my room-companion Klaus and I took the bus together from the residence to the ‘Studentschnelldienst’ in town. For he too sought aid at the labour-exhange office. Temporary employment, from time to time.
I remember quite particularly one of the jobs he performed during the holidays (‘performing’ is the perfectly correct word.) The advertisement on the board said that the applicant had to be very tall, strong and blond. And he was accepted. He became, for one day an old-time Prussian Hussar, of the time when the Kaiser was still alive and reigning. The ‘Bundeskanzler’, Adenauer, Der Alte, as he was also called, was coming for a offiicial visit to Cologne, and the Mayor of the city had organised quite a Germanic official reception. I saw my room-companion occupying a post in one of two rows of straight disciplined soldiers, uniformed ‘à l’ancienne’ and presenting arms with a false gun, as efficient as a wooden toy, And I laughed my guts out. I even told him this later in the day.
When things became more or less settled for me and our friendship had developed to the point that when we talked politics, he asked me on which side of the political spectrum I situated myself.’ I said I was nothing, but that my father was a cadre in a right-wing party. My reply seemed to please him.
The young man who had occupied my bed before me turned out to be an excellent fellow. By rights I should have left Koln-Lindenthal long ago, for I was not at all a student there. It was Johannes (Klaus’s former room-companion) who was instrumental in my staying there for so long. His father was an influential man, and it was Johannes who applied for me to stay where I was. He came often to see Klaus, and we three had interesting conversations during the days that followed.
The two and many others of the students and young men I met had been recruted into the army of the Third Reich, to defend a Germany which was dying, when they were just sixteen, or even fifteen. Each one was given an oversized uniform stained with blood and sent to the frontline. When one of the already crawling veterans was killed, a boy was given his weapon and sent ‘to contain the advance of the communists.’
‘We were told,’ Richard, my friend who studied economy in Cologne and often came to visit us, said with tears in his eyes,’ that they were to transform Germany into a nation of goatherds and shepherds.’
No more industrial Germany. No more Krups, Siemens, Bayer and weapons makers, chemistry, patents of invention. Nothing, not even banks and finance. Just the land, sheep and goats and at the most agriculture and some trade. ‘A Nation of Goatherds and Shepherds to avoid the possibility of a new World War.’
It was not to be, but the Russians were still threatening. That was why they all were bitter anticommunists. They also hated the French. The regions of ‘Alsas und Lorrain’ were Germanic. About Great Britain the feelings which my friends expressed during our ‘political’ talks were quite ambiguous. They would never forgive (they said) the Royal Air Force for the ‘invention’ of carpet-bombing. Some cities, Cologne for instance, had almost ceased to exist. Millions of Germans died. Richard’s mother had died during one of the bombings.
But about the United States of America, none of my German friends doubted it in the least. They all loved America. America! And there was good reason for that. No defeated nation (I believe) was ever so pampered by the victor as the Germans were pampered by successive United States administrations. The Marshall Plan was a case in point. As from 1945, but particularly after the nation was divided into two States by the western powers, in 1949, confirming the breakage of their alliance with the Soviet Union, the West-Germans received millions and millions of dollars in aid designed to prop up economy, industry and life in general to transform a defeated nation into a bastion against the advance of communism. That was the happy prosperous country I came to know when I arrived in West Germany at the beginning of 1954.
I do not remember now what it was that made me go to Duisburg one day in June that same year. It couldn’t have been that I planned to apply for a permanent job in one of the factories up there, where the heavy industry was mostly operating. I had never intended to obtain a factory job in my life. Industry then expanding and was everywhere operating shifts, twenty-four hours a day. That is to say, the ‘factory hands’ were engaged as ‘variable capital’ to be used as the capitalist saw fit. All the time. That was Growth for you. If you were caught in the net, you were made to work every three weeks (I think it was three) different hours. Now from six a.m. to two p.m. Then from two in the afternoon to ten at night and changing again after so many days to a new schedule: ten at night to six in the morning. To drive you nuts!
My mind and my body would not have withstood that slavery, changing all the time my sleeping hours, and everything else in fact, meals, showers, etc. Besides, I was those days planning to go to England, where I had already booked (by mail) to spend the summer, and perhaps more working again in the noble work of farming, under the Volunteer Agricultural scheme.
Anyhow, the thing to mention here is that at eight o´clock one morning I was standing on the platform of the railway station waiting for a train to take me to the north. High up in the sky, at the height of the Dom’s towers a rising sun was beginning to fold the city with its yet timid rays promising a nice late-spring day, for the sky was cloudless and even blue.
The train arrived, I got in with a haversack hanging from one shoulder and rushed to take the only unoccupied seat left by the window. Opposite me already sat an individual who looked at me and said: ¡Guten Morgen!’ Well dressed, fair-headed man apparently middle-aged.
My German had not improved that much in the four months and a half I had been living in Cologne; So I began to use what I knew of the language. I do not remember what I might have said after my own ‘Guten Morgen’, but I know I made an effort to start a conversation, and was not sorry for it. The man of course noticed I was a foreigner and told me, reluctantly at the beginning, that he came from East Germany. I don’t know why, but I instantly recoiled. This I remember perfectly well.
He was from the Red Zone, a communist! That seemed so strange to me. I had always known of course of the existence of two antagonistic states in Germany, but as I had never heard anything good about what was described as the German Democratic Republic, I began to wonder what he could be doing there. It was the first time I saw a person from behind the Iron Curtain. He told me he lived in Leipzig. We talked about the war and the postwar. Stalin had proposed to Churchill and Truman at Yalta, and then at Potsdam (my companion said) that the two systems should be allowed to exist side by side, and let the world judge which system was better, communism or capitalism. ‘The Doctrine of the Peaceful Co-existence of the Two Antagonistic Systems’, he called it. He must have noticed my scepticism, for he opened a big leather briefcase he was keeping close at hand, and passed me some pamphlets and booklets, saying I could keep them. They were about the Deutsche Democratik Republik. He also gave me his visiting card (with his home address) inviting me to go there and see for myself. The idea of going behind the Iron Curtain couldn’t have frightened me more, and in fact gave me the shivers, for I had heard of men having made that journey, who had been caught by communist agents, and and never returned unless as communist spies, having fallen into a trap, and passed on to the Soviets. Repeating that he himself and his wife would be pleased to receive me, he left the train at Düsseldorf, as did the four passengers we had been sharing the compartment with.
After Düsseldorf there was a bend of the river, east. The train began to approach the city of Duisburg. The rich Ruhr region starts there. Nothing comparable to this region existed in the whole world. Thousands of square miles making a single compact complex of factories and houses, where Nature was not allowed to enter. Duisburg, Oberhausen, Gelsenkirchen, Mülheim-an-der-Ruhr, Essen, Bochum, Dortmund and a dozen or so more towns, all together. A chunk of the ‘Mapa Mundi’ where one urban conglomerate ended the next one started, with no break or interruption at all. No greenery of any kind in the natural sense. You walked along a road and after an hour or so of seeing houses and factories, you found yourself in another town or city, the same street. All the time. Houses and factories, the same dirty façades, soot and dust. An immense, massive conglomerate of persons and matter all belonging to the wealthiest industrial corporations and bankers of the land.
As we passed the bend of the river I could see in the distance the city of my destination, the first one of a great lot, a place where life (as it appeared to me) was being smothered by a thick grey haze of smoke. A gauzy veil of several hues, but all of them disagreeably grey.
… I dreamt of my home. Madrid was a city of light, winter and summer. I had lived for close to twelve years in the district of La Moncloa, west of the city, with a hilly park on one side of the district, ‘el barrio’, as we said there.
… from the age of ten (on my arrival in the capital) I had played there, every day, in that public square in ruins, with children of all social classes, after school, in all weathers. Free like the wind!
… in the bitterly cold winter mornings we could see in the distance under the deep blue of the sky the pristine peaks of the Guadarrama Sierra, so glowing white, so real! There, they seemed so near. It seemed as if you could touch with your fingers those very mountains so far away.
… what colours! The pure snow of the peaks, under the cobalt blue of the sky. Never had I see any reality so lively and clear. The perfect colourful crystal of some Venetian statue, those vases. So used to say our teacher of literature.
As the train was approaching Duisburg, I felt like crying. The whitish circle of a hidden sun had now reached its zenith in the grey sky. Far beyond the city, where the factories could be traced mostly by long vertical lines and black smoke, save in one case, where there was a yellow-red star or flame. And there were other black lines as we moved on, nearer, this time horizontal. They were the bridges over the Rhine, linking the two sides of the city; and on the murky surface of the river there were black barges moving. Other vessels were berthed along the riverside.
The train was entering the station. ‘Achtung! Achtung! The platform was full of shadows, rushing like condemned devils, each carrying a suitcase or something. I had been glued to the window all the time, and now I picked up my haversack, and hanging it on my arm went down onto the platform and got moving on.
‘Achtung! Achtung! Achtung!’