Novel by Artur Becker,
Germany was like heartburn. You'd wake up at night and sit bolt upright
in bed as if behind a desk, head held high, to escape the heat in
your gullet. No, maybe not with head held high, there were lots of
questions to answer in this country, and they weren't exactly easy.
At least not when they were aimed at someone called Antek Haack.
© Hoffmann und Campe Verlag, Hamburg 2003
Berlin - Los Angeles (Villa Aurora) 2005
Translated by Isabel Cole
The first question came in Friedland, in the still-functioning border
transit camp. The office walls were hung with strange geopolitical
maps: here East Prussia, Danzig, Breslau and Silesia still belonged
to Germany, even though the maps had been printed after 1945.
"Do you know someone you can stay with?" asked an official
in a synthetic sweater from C & A. "If not
Of course he knew someone. But if not
he would have been put
in a home for ethnic German returnees. Antek Haack's fate would have
been a former rural brothel in Ahausen, Allertal. The brothel owner
had moved and taken his entourage with him, said the official in Friedland.
But - as per committal No. 2575257 and with a one-time support payment
(welcome money from the German government) of DM 150.00 (plus DM 30.00
in bridging money) - Antek was sent to Bremen. He'd claimed he was
registered with the police in Bremen, residing there with a certain
In reality he still hadn't gotten up the nerve to knock on her door.
Instead he'd found cheap lodgings in a former freight depot. The whole
sixties-era building complex, adjacent to the main train station,
was being used by young artists who regarded Antek Haack with suspicion.
"When are you going to show us your pictures?" they asked
He told them he wasn't a painter and art wasn't his thing, which only
made the young artists even more skeptical and curious. "You
think you're a genius, huh?" was how they rewarded his honesty.
The first three months were an ordeal. One time he pulled himself
together and painted a picture with black paint, a Zen picture, a
circle with a dot in the middle on a white background. When he got
a chance he was going to show it to the young artists to prove that
he was one of them. But he was afraid of making a fool of himself,
and so he avoided them like a Turkish cleaning lady.
At some point - unfortunately he hadn't destroyed the picture - his
first and only painting fell into the hands of a twenty-five-year-old
girl called Flora. Or rather: at a small party in his flat she dragged
it out from under his bed.
"You don't have to hide your work," said the girl, and after
studying it for a long time she suddenly pronounced: "That's
really good. I mean it! You have talent. But - how should I put it
- it's too expressive. Maybe you could try to paint a little more
biologically, you know: back to the organs!"
He promised her to do his best in the future, and was finally rid
of the young artists.
He had satisfied them: Antek Haack was the guy who painted Japanese
circles and dots and lived with no toilet or shower in two rooms that
must once have been the tracking station, a kind of control tower
from which the loading and unloading of the freight cars was monitored.
The quickest way to reach the showers and toilets in the administrative
building was with the elevator; the stairs were like the Minotaur's
labyrinth. If you got lost in there, it could take you hours to find
your way back out.
But the hardest question was the one he had to answer at the employment
office: "What is your profession?"
The Polish word "economist" sent the bureaucrats at the
employment office into a state of panic: they thought they were dealing
with an economic expert from Brussels. Antek hadn't mentioned the
fact that he didn't have a degree.
And Germany had ticket-takers like sand on the rivershore. You had
to take a ticket with a number on it at every single government office.
That kept chaos from breaking out and gave the petitioner the feeling
that he wasn't waiting in vain. In vain - never!
"Well! What's your name supposed to be?" Ultimately that
was the most awkward question in Friedland. "It says Antoni in
your passport? You stand out like a sore thumb as it is! I can't change
your last name, it's German, after all. Your documents confirm that.
But you can spare yourself some trouble by Germanifying your first
name. How about Arnold? It's a one-time opportunity - and free of
Antek Haack accepted the kind offer without hesitation and was often
addressed as Herr Arnold at the employment office. It doesn't matter,
he thought to himself, Herr Arnold isn't as bad as Adolf - though
it nagged him that he hadn't been quick-witted enough to suggest Adolf
to the official back in Friedland: what of it! Whatever my passport
says, it doesn't automatically mean that that's who I really am! he
thought later. These days who can claim with one hundred percent certainty
to know who he is? Maybe we're all goddamned Klingons!
But it couldn't have worked out better. With a new last name it would
be harder for Brzezinski to find him. Other questions he had brought
with him from Bartoszyce acquired a whole new meaning here in the
Federal Republic, the old Reich: Why did I beat up Teresa's poor husband
and encourage her to follow me to Bremen? Was it sheer desperation,
because it didn't work out with Beata and me? Was it hatred of Brzezinski?
Will he really hunt me down? Get rid of me? And will Teresa even manage
to get a passport in Bartoszyce? And if she does, what am I supposed
to do with her here?
Actually the visa requirement shouldn't pose an unsolvable problem;
Antek had sent Teresa an invitation and pledged in writing that he
would cover all costs incurred by her visit, especially in case of
illness. And they would have to get married immediately so that Teresa
could get a permanent residence permit. Did he realize what that meant?
On the day of his departure for West Germany he had handed Teresa
three thousand marks from his share of the sale of the brickworks,
which ought to be enough to bribe everyone in Bartoszyce, not just
the police officer Zbysek Muracki and his colleagues, who were responsible
for passport matters. But would Teresa really spend the wretched money
for that? Maybe she was long gone, phoning him from Detroit, and he
didn't even notice? With three grand, a bit of luck and brains, a
woman like Teresa could be in the USA already, taking language courses
and creating a new, American, life for herself.
Antek had one consolation left, a slight one, but nothing to be sneezed
at given all the pesky questions that kept him awake at night: he
didn't have to learn the language all over again. Either at the university
or at the Otto Benecke Foundation or at the adult education center.
He was a bit handicapped, putting it mildly, but still he belonged
to his new people, because he had papers. The only awkward thing was
maybe that he had a better command of Polish. Spoken and written.
But now, for better or worse, he was here in Bremen, as physically
present and photogenic as a naked shop dummy: a man with an accent
from the East.
The Solidarnosc era was passé, and it was no longer in to be
a Pole: all Antek Haack could say for himself was that his name was
Arnold and that the employment office had found him quite a good job,
even though economic miracles had stopped happening in this country.
Antek's first, official workplace was a home for the mentally handicapped
in Allertal, an hour's drive from Bremen's main train station: You're
neither an economist nor a ticket taker! In other words: We have a
job for you! From now on you're a nursing aide - and if you refuse,
your allowance will be cut! the employment office wrote him after
he had been unemployed for three months.
He was happy about the job. All he was annoyed about was the Universum
TV set from Quelle he'd bought with his first paycheck. The thing
turned out to be a lemon: all the channels featured his old films
from Kino Muza. He never turned it on.
West German movie theaters were comfortable, and great importance
was attached to punctuality, as there was at work. There was one thing
he liked: they sold beer in the movie theaters here, and you could
even smoke. And the actors' voices were dubbed by Germans, while in
Poland there was nothing but original versions with subtitles.
So he could have been perfectly happy, if it hadn't been for Brzezinski.
At any moment he could be eliminated by his agents, even in broad
daylight, in the middle of a crowd in the big city. Brzezinski was
a scumbag incapable of letting bygones be bygones. For him every case
was always current, even if all the suspects had long since been put
out of commission. A good bloodhound never gave up, and that was what