Wednesday, September 22, 2004 +

Alexander Granach

From There Goes an Actor, translated by Willard Trask:

Suddenly Father threw the first handful of dirt on “Little Pity” and everyone did the same, and Father began to recite Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. But he did not get far. After the first words of the prayer, he broke off and said, quite simply, as if he were sitting over a glass of tea: “My son, this is against the rules; it should not be the father who says Kaddish over his son. You should have said Kaddish for me.” And the rest of the prayer was lost, for now everyone began to cry and sob aloud like a chorus, and the silence was broken by a storm of tears and lamentations. . . .

“Now do you understand why I don’t treat you like little children and pupils?” said our rabbi[‘-teacher, Schimshale from Milnitz, for whom you would do absolutely everything’]. “One can never know who is the pupil and who the teacher. One day one of you will be a great teacher and I his pupil. Now you sit and watch me and listen to me like real men, and I feel as if it were only yesterday that I first went to cheder. Then one day I went to bed a child and the next morning I got up with a beard, and now I have a roomful of children of my own. And now it is too late to learn a trade. Look at the carpenters, the cobblers, the tailors, the bakers. They don’t have to hold out their hands”—he used actually to have to go begging every Thursday, and he suffered from it. “Learn a trade, quickly, for tomorrow or some other day you will get up and find hair on your faces and have children yourselves and troubles, like me and your fathers”. . . .

In Kolomea I immediately went from one bakery to the other, and for the first time in my life spoke the bakers’ password, “Uschitz.” And the journeymen answered, “Lemschitz.” I believe that these two words of comradeship are corruptions of ohneschutz (“without shelter”) and nimmschutz (“take shelter”). Journeymen bakers frequently “traveled,” particularly in summer. In winter they settled down somewhere and earned a small salary, but with the coming of spring you would meet hundreds of baker-birds on the roads, and you called out “Uschitz” and were answered with “Lemschitz,” and you felt a homey bakery warmth and solidarity on the road. . . .

Then came the day before Passover, and I bought myself a new suit and a shirt and collar and a wide red Windsor tie with black dots like Czerniakoff, and kid shoes with rubber heels as I had envied Rosenkranz his rubber heels the year before. . . . Funny, now that I had that which I used to envy someone else for having, I longed to have someone envy me too. A curious emotion: you not only want to get what you desire, you want to be envied for having it, besides!. . .

Then suddenly one evening I was on the stage—an experience that I have never forgotten. I had never before been so conscious of my body. I could feel my fingertips and my scalp, my toes and my heart, but especially my stomach. The other members of the cast were no longer my personal friends or my enemies, but real relatives, my family: grandfather, father, mother, brothers. Then from the packed ranks of the spectators there came a something that is hard to describe. It was as if, from their eyes and their ears, from their breathing and their attention, there came an invisible force that penetrated me, that strengthened me, that poured into me, that I sent forth again intensified. The spell that I had felt the first time I went to the theater came over me now from a far different source, hypnotized me and bound me. At last! I tasted it, I relished it and now came the great hunger, the great thirst: theater! theater! theater!. . .

One evening in the theater something very exciting happened: The play to be performed was Chasja, the Orphan. Chasja comes from a Ukrainian village, is young, healthy, and very pretty, and she tells people exactly what she thinks. Her poor village father brings her to her rich relatives in the city, where she works hard as a maid and waits on everyone. She falls in love with the son of the house, a good-for-nothing. Now they are all dressed up and in great excitement. They, on the stage, are going to the theater! Then Chasja sees the son of the house, with whom she is in love, steal a gold brooch and hide it. The aunt wants to wear the brooch, and everyone looks for it. There is great confusion. Suspicion falls on Chasja. Now the wicked aunt asks Chasja if she knows where the brooch is. She says, “No!” “Swear by your dead mother that you do not know where it is!” But Chasja will not swear by her dead mother. The aunt is now convinced that Chasja is the thief, seizes her by her two long blond braids, ties her to the bed with them, and screams, “Where is the brooch?” And Chasja says, “I don't know!” And now the aunt gives her a left and a right and repeats the same question and gets the same answer and goes on hitting the poor orphan again and again. Chasja kneels there, tied by her braids, taking the blows and looking proud. The house is in tremendous excitment. We all hate the aunt and sympathize with Chasja. Now the aunt bellows even louder: “Where is the brooch? Where is the brooch?” and boxes the poor orphan’s ears without ever stopping. And suddenly a man who is standing near me in the gallery pulls a revolver out of his pocket and shouts out louder even than the people on the stage: “Beast! Untie her this minute or I’ll shoot you down like a dog!”

The blows on the stage cease. The house is in tumult. Everyone turns and looks at my neighbor, a devil-may-care youth of about twenty, who now was white as a sheet, has pocketed his revolver, and is trembling with excitement. . . .

The cloth wall has already been lowered. The lights are turned on in the house now. Groups are quarreling, arguing, all at once;—the young man has disappeared! Chasja’s poor father—Motje Schtrachl, otherwise Jidl Guttman—is standing before the curtain; he raises his hand. Little by little the people quiet down, and he begins to speak very softly: “My dear listeners, may I say something?” Some clap, others call: “Speak up, Guttman, speak up, Motje! Quiet! Quiet!” Gradually there is silence. And he begins again: “My dear friends, it is a hard thing for me to step out of my character, but I must say a few words in explanation.” And he begins, gently and quietly, like a father explaining something to his children: “You know that Madam Fischler is married to the famous Dr. Fischler and has a father and mother—God be thanked, and may they live to be a hundred and twenty! But art demands that, for this evening, she is an orphan. You know too that Madam Rosenberg has six children and is the best mother in the world and has a heart of gold—but art demands that tonight she is the wicked aunt and hits Madam Fischler. I myself am the president of the Bnai Jakob Synagogue—but art demands that this evening I am Motje Schtrachl, Chasja’s poor father. And so I could go on and tell you who all of us are in real life, and who we are obliged to be for art’s sake. Every afternoon around five o’clock you can see us all sitting in the Cafe Abazia, and we are the best of friends. Even our children are friends. And Madam Rosenberg and Madam Fischler are particularly intimate friends. Now here’s a young man—I’m sure he has a good heart, but he doesn’t know all these things I have been telling you—he gets excited and threatens to shoot his revolver. I ask you: Is that right?” “No!” shouts the house. “Throw him out! Bravo, Guttman! Bravo, Fischler! Bravo, Rosenberg!” Again and again there are shouts and thunderous clapping. The poor old father, the actor and president of a synagogue, Jidl Guttman, raises his hand, and there is quiet again: “Well,” he says, “shall we go on?” And again there is a thunder of applause and agreement and cheers! And the house is darkened, and the play begins again where it had stopped. Chasja’s wicked aunt, Madam Rosenberg, who is a mother herself and has a heart of gold, again asks Chasja, the orphan, who is really the wife of Dr. Fischler and —thank God—still has her parents: “Where is the brooch?” And she answers more loudly and strongly than before, “I don’t know!” “What, you don’t know?” says the wicked aunt and the good mother, Madam Rosenberg, and grabs Chasja the orphan, Dr. Fischler’s wife, by her braids, ties her to the bed again, just as before, and shouts threateningly, “Where is the brooch?” And Madam Chasja, the orphan, cries, “I don’t know,” and Aunt Rosenberg gives her a left and a right again! And again Chasja cries loudly and with pride, “I don’t know! I don’t know!” and lefts and rights land on her ears again and again and again!

So, that evening, because of an excitable young man, who surely had a good heart, the delicate, beautiful Madam Fischler was beaten twice over! Poor Madam Fischler.

But thought I, for art’s sake it is worth it to be beaten twenty times over. And it was a marvelous evening! . . .

I joined a group of carpenters who were heading for Bavaria. When I arrived in Munich, suddenly the placards announced the murder of the Austrian Archduke in Serbia. Austria declared war. The old Emperor said: “I am spared nothing.” The town seethed with excitement. Every half-hour there was a new extra. Notes were published, the kings and kaisers of Europe sent telegrams beseeching one another not to declare war. One could not make head or tail of it. No one wanted war, and everyone plunged into it.

I went to a theater and found some actors there whom I had known in Berlin. They bought me a ticket back.

Berlin was drunk with war enthusiasm. Students and soldiers entering the Army, half of them in civilian clothes, sang songs. The Kaiser shouted in the public square: “I know no more parties, only Germans! And now we shall trash them. I did not want this war!” I understood nothing of it at all.

I went to the theater. Everything was in confusion. Some of the actors were already in uniform. My best friend, Wangenheim, was one of them, and when I parted from him in the evening he asked me suspiciously whether I was not really a spy. Suddenly I was a foreigner. My best friend no longer trusted me. Rehearsals were interrupted—it looked as if the stream of life had stopped running—as if the whole of life had suddenly come to an end.

I went to the Austrian consulate, where I was accepted for military service. I was given orders to join the Austrian Army and a free railway ticket home.

Berlin suddenly swarmed with all sorts of news, gossip, rumors, spy scares. Two “nuns” were arrested—but they were not nuns, they were two disguised Russian officers who were trying to kill the Kaiser. The poor Kaiser! Every minute there were new extras, new decrees. Suddenly we heard that Belgium intended to betray Germany. But the German armies were already there. The fortress of Luettich (Lige) was stormed single-handed by General Emmich. The papers praised the general in verses:

Up then spoke Emmich:
“By God, I'll take it!”

There were other funny poems in the papers:

Every blow a Frenchman
Every shot a Russian
Serbs must die-ie-ien.

Ha, ha, ha, how funny! I was ready to leave and went to the theater to say good-by. My patron, Gersdorff, had fallen at Lige. I was deeply affected. Many actors were already in uniform. Reinhardt was at a rehearsal, serious and preoccupied. Suddenly the comedian Viktor Arnold appeared. The short, stout, whimsical man who, as Georges Dandin, wept real tears with his audience—he wept for grief, while his audience wept with joy and laughter; the eternal actor with the clown-mask of genius. He rushed on the stage, threw himself at Reinhardt’s feet, and wept desperately: “Herr Reinhardt, what now, what next? The world is destroyed, is going to ruin, this beautiful world, the deluge, the end of the world!”

Arnold the comedian sobbed and wept, no one could quiet him. He has taken home. When he was alone again, he broke a windowpane, cut his throat with a splinter of glass, and bled to death.

The kings and the kaisers lied when they said that they did not want the war! They had prepared it and created it and sent their people out to mutual slaughter. Here was a comedian, an artist, a man who felt in his heart the destructiveness of war. He had really not wanted it! He really could not bear it, the war, and he preferred death to living in a world in which men who believed in God, who had the Scriptures, who were the heirs of the great spiritual treasures of culture, could find no other way out but to shoot bullets into one another's skulls and stick bayonets into one another's bellies.

The great-hearted actor, the comedian who, laughing himself, made others laugh, Viktor Arnold, left such a world of his own free will. Alas for the artist Viktor Arnold, and alas for a beautful world! . . .

We formed in a wood, and there were handed over to a Captain Czerny. He was a short, robust man, with several medals; he spoke with a Czech accent and was notorious in the entire regiment as a torturer and tyrant. He had the platoon commanders and officers come forward at once, delivered a strong, rather drunken speech, and made the platoon commanders give some rifle drill to demonstrate their ability and show him the quality of the men.

A Lieutenant Schalk, from Gratz, who had been in the trenches since the beginning of the war—his mind was weakened and he had a perpetual tired smile—could not give his commands loudly enough. Captain Czerny bawled him out before the men, calling him “dung heap,” “milksop,” and “shirker.” Another officer with a Jewish name he called “Lieutenant Matzoth” and had the bugler play reveille in his ear to wake him up, because, in the captain's opinion, the man was still asleep.

Then when my turn came and I gave a couple of commands—it is true that I did it a little theatrically, I acted a little; in those days I went at everything as if it were a role—he instantly asked, “Hey, you latrine-platoon leader, what are you in civil life?”

“With your permission, Captain, I am an actor.”

“What are you? An actor, a Mr. Mimic, a clown, a stage fool?” he bellowed, as if I had murdered his only child. He doesn’t care much for the theater and actors, I thought. He bellowed on, “You barnstormer, you—in civil life you make fun of the Army, you play a colonel with a red nose—and here you want to be a reserve officer? You’ll be a turd as long as I’m captain!”

He yelled and bellowed, and I stood stiffly before him, looked obediently into his little, dancing, impudent eyes and thought, There’s a part, there’s a part—boy, boy, if I could only play you!

Suddenly some shrapnel burst over our heads—an artillery shell hit not far from us, directly upon a sitting group, and another and another. The wood had been found by the enemy artillery. The noise of the guns was uninterrupted, and columns of smoke kept rising into the air. Men screamed, crawled into hiding. But Captain Czerney was still cursing the theater. We were the only ones left standing. He scrutinized me sharply; I stood stiffly and did not stir. I would show him that an actor and a Jew was no coward. “Dismissed!” he yelled and disappeared himself.

I ran to a moaning man from my platoon who was calling my name desperately. There he lay, behind a rock, covered with blood and dirt, one hand pressed to his side, gasping, “Help, help me!” I undid his coat—a shell splinter had torn him open on one side; bloody, clammy things were falling out of his body, and I tried to hold them back with my bare hand. They gushed over.

I yelled for the stretcher-bearers. The shells kept landing. Not far from us a small donkey carrying two stew kettles was lifted into the air by the pressure of an exploding shell and was buried, the shattered bones together with the soldiers’ soup, under a heap of rubble. I still kept my hand against the open, damp place in the warm body that was already dead.

After a while the firing stopped. Stretcher-bearers came and laid a heap of flesh and bones with glazed eyes on a stretcher. The stretcher was bloody and dirty too. They took off his identification tag. An hour ago this thing on the stretcher had been a healthy, living man. I could not take hold of anything with my hand for weeks.

That was our first day at the front, before we had even seen the enemy, to say nothing of turning our bayonets round in his guts as the shaky general from the moth balls had told us the old Kaiser wanted us to. It had begun. While our own captain was cursing and reviling us as if we were patricides and infanticides, the enemy was killing us from the other side. We were in the middle. It was a fine prospect for the comman man! . . .

The Italians were now standing fully exposed in their trenches and in front of the barbed wire, shouting and beckoning. “Ol qua, Austriaco, vieni qua. Pane, aqua, vino, bella Italia! Vieni qua, vieni qua.” They shouted this for hours on end, and we wanted to go, but did not dare.

Then Slezak took the shirt he had found in the Italian’s pack the day before and fixed it on his rifle and planted it in front of our trench, and another stuck his rags of shoes on his rifle and did likewise, a third a handkerchief, a fourth a bit of canvas, a fifth a pair of dirty socks, a sixth an empty pack, a seventh his underdrawers. And in two minutes the whole battered trench, as far as you could see on either side, was decorated with these grotesque, comic flags, which only soldiers in their deepest need could have thought up.

The Italians yelled, “Bravo, bravissimo, Austriaco,” and laughed and beckoned and shouted again and again, “Come on, come on&mdashvieni qua, viene qua, Austriaco,” and began to throw things, and we ducked and were terrified. But they were not hand grenades. They were cans of food! Canteens of water! And bread—the enemy threw us real bread! We could not believe our eyes.

The men were suddenly alive; all their weariness had vanished. Both trenches shouted long explanations to each other in strange tongues. Our Rumanian shouted back in Italian and translated: “They say we have nothing to fear and want us to come over.” What an importance he suddenly attained among us! He became our interpreter, our mouthpiece, our leading man! Yes, everyone gets his big moment.

He stood up fully exposed, kicked aside a cheval-de-frise, and started off; a few others went with him. To left and right men did likewise. Some of them still clutched their rifles. The Italians knocked the rifles out of their hands and were just as frightened and excited as we were. And we all shouted at once, and we all threw our weapons away and held up our hands. But the Italians did the same. Then we all ran toward their rear together and suddenly slid down a rock hill.

There a detachment of Italians was encamped, several hundred soldiers. They jumped up, thought they had been surprised by the enemy, and yelled and ran with us. They ran with their hands in the air, alongside of us. Thousands of men, Italians and Austrians, were running with their hands up, frightened to death. A huge mob, an Austrian and Italian army, ran, panic-stricken, up and down the hills of that desolate rocky country. And no one knew who had captured whom!

Slezak was at my side. The Italians were afraid of him because he looked so big and strong. Several of them fell upon him. I shouted for help in German.

An Italian sergeant appeared, quieted the men, and, running over to our side, said in German, “Do you speak German?”

“Yes,” I said.

“My name is Stern from Naples. We have a brewery.”

“My name is Granach, from Berlin - I'm an actor.”

We introduced ourselves as if we were in the drawing room or traveling on a train, all the while running for our lives!

Then we ran into some Italian reserves. You could see wagon trains. Italian officers yelled and cursed, fired their revolvers into the air, stopped the racing herd, explained that it was we, the Austrians, who were prisoners. The hordes began to calm down, and Stern from Naples, whose father had a brewery because he had married the daughter of a brewer from Munich—for which reason he, an Italian sergeant, had been able to tell me all this in German—Stern took leave of me now with these words: “Well, congratulations! You have the stink behind you! I still have to take all that offal in the face.”

We were now separated from the Italians and got into formation and were taken still farther toward the rear.

On the way we saw a familiar sight. An Italian company stood in a field. An officer gave the command in Italian: “Helmets off for prayers.” An army captain blessed them, just as we had been blessed before we were sent in. For their weapons and for our weapons, prayers went up to the same God! What a dilemma!

“Even God has a hard time during a war,” said Slezak. “Who is He to help now?” . . .

Occasionally a prisoner would go mad and disappear. About that time, one suddenly dashed through the camp naked, dancing and shouting and laughing—he was caught and taken to the first-aid station; then we heard that he had been sent to Florence. In Florence there was a clearinghouse for prisoners who had gone insane. They were exchanged through the Red Cross and sent to a sanatorium in Switzerland.

I had been in the camp ten months, and a great restlessness and yearning came over me. Eight months at the front, ten months in camp —I had not seen a woman for eighteen months! I had wild dreams and abscesses, and, as if that were not enough, there was always Domenega with his rounded girlish figure and his coquettish child’s eyes! No! No! No! Something had to happen!

Slezak was still constantly with me. He was now extremely proud of me, ever since he had seen me on the stage. Of all the men in the camp, he remained the friend with whom I shared my secrets. One day I went for a walk with him and unfolded a brand-new plan: I would go mad one night! Whatever happened, he would be the only one to know that it was not real insanity. All I wanted was to be sent to Florence, and from there, through the Red Cross, to Switzerland. Once in Switzerland, I would simply jump off the train, confess that I had played a trick, and be a free man—able to act again, to follow my old profession, see women, instead of vegetating here.

Slezak was depressed over parting from me at first, but the plan was so wonderful, and he was so proud that I had entrusted no one else with my secret, that he promised to keep it to himself.

I began by speaking to no one. Domenega was hurt and stopped coming to visit me. When anyone spoke to me, I looked away and gave some senseless answer. I did not shave, sat by myself and shammed. I began falling down. The men looked at me suspiciously. Slezak came, full of anxiety. He told me that people were already whispering jokes about me, kept asking him what had come over me. “Good, Slezak! You know nothing. Tonight I’m off. Don't betray me. Now scram!”

That night about two o’clock, when everyone was in a deep sleep, I commenced to scream fearsomely. I began by demolishing my bed, throwing things around, tore off my shirt like Paul Wegener as Franz Moor.

“The graves give up their ghosts,” I yelled.

Everyone woke, men tried to quiet me. I hit anyone who game within reach. They grabbed me. I resisted with all my strength, was finally overpowered and tied.

Suddenly I was really screaming and crying. I no longer knew whether I was acting or had really gone insane. Really crazy, flashed through my mind; you’re really crazy, something within me said, a normal man doesn’t think such things. You’re crazy, my boy, the voice within me said. I began to feel horribly sorry for myself, completely miserable.

The stretcher-bearers came with a stretcher and carried me to the first-aid station. It was daylight now. Slezak stood by, weeping with me. Neither he nor I knew whether I was acting or really crazy. However that might be, I was certainly ill.

The doctor came, nodded as he read the report, remarked that mine was the eighth case that year, wrote down the particulars. I was shaking with real anxiety. When everything had been attended to, and he had even signed a railway pass to Salerno for me, he asked, “What is his occupation in civil life?”

“The theater—actor,” said Slezak proudly.

“What, an actor?” the doctor burst out, looked me in the eye as one horse thief looks at another, and went on: “Commediante! Povero misero! You're not crazy! Really clever of you to think this up! Untie him! Let him go!”

I was taken by surprise, got confused, stepped out of my role, and begged, “But, Doctor, really I am crazy, I am insane!”

Whereupon the whole room burst out laughing with the doctor, and the latter triumphantly explained: “There you are! A really insane person always insists that he is perfectly normal. Take him away!”

He gave me a kick in the behind, and I was back in the camp courtyard, so ashamed of my defeat that I got a real case of melancholia.

But for a few days I was the sensation of the camp. Everyone came to congratulate me on the performance I had put on for the men that night. Everything would have gone perfectly if my professon had not betrayed me. On the other hand, if I had not been an actor, I could not even have made the attempt. Even the Italians laughed about it, and called me “Grande Atore” (Grand Actor).