Sneak Peek: Judenstaat by Simone Zelitch

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Judenstaat by Simone ZelitchOn April 4th, 1948 the sovereign state of Judenstaat was created in the territory of Saxony, bordering Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia.

Forty years later, Jewish historian Judit Klemmer is making a documentary portraying Judenstaat’s history from the time of its founding to the present. She is haunted by the ghost of her dead husband, Hans, a Saxon, shot by a sniper as he conducted the National Symphony. With the grief always fresh, Judit lives a half-life, until confronted by a mysterious, flesh-and-blood ghost from her past who leaves her controversial footage on one of Judenstaat’s founding fathers–and a note:

“They lied about the murder.”

Judit’s research into the footage, and what really happened to Hans, embroils her in controversy and conspiracy, collective memory and national amnesia, and answers far more horrific than she imagined.

Judenstaat will be available June 21st. Please enjoy this excerpt.

1

GERMANY was the birthplace of Jewish culture. A thousand years ago, we planted roots in Ashkenaz that flowered and brought forth the fruit of the Enlightenment embodied by the fabled Moses Mendelssohn and the Age of Reason.

THE CATASTROPHE—the great CHURBAN—which recently befell the Jews of Europe has demonstrated with new urgency that THE RIGHT OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE TO A HOME IN GERMANY IS IRREVOCBLE.

WE DECLARE that from this moment, the 14th of May 1948, under the establishment of Allied Forces, that the German territory once designated Saxony will henceforth be JUDENSTAAT.

PLACING OUR TRUST in the future, we affix our signatures to this proclamation, and commence with our national project. The very place we faced our death is where we’ll build our lives.

Thus, the ghosts of 1948 surface on the editing machine in black and white montage: washed out faces of survivors, signatures on a declaration, flat-bed trucks, a lot of rubble. No audio. Given all the footage Judit had to edit for the Fortieth Anniversary Project, it was easy to roll through the film and make her cuts. And somehow, she was supposed to find something explosively prophetic, something worth keeping. Not this old stuff. The heavy feeder cut and spliced, and the cells floated somewhere else.

But those cells weren’t the specter haunting Judit. It was her husband’s ghost. That specter stretched its long legs on a work bench, and leaned in to watch her. Its gray eyes were assessing.

Judit said, “I know what I’m doing.” There had been a time when she’d been too self-conscious to address the ghost, but Hans had been haunting her for three years.

The ghost of Hans Klemmer never spoke, but its presence worked on her as sharply as her living husband’s. It engaged her in a phantom conversation. It didn’t like those cuts; it took a hard line against editing. It noticed things she didn’t, like cells littering the floor, and it took stock of those cells as though she were an executioner. Every time she cut a frame, she slit a throat.

“It isn’t what they’re after,” Judit said. “Everyone’s seen the footage of the signing back in secondary school.” How could silence not feel like rebuke? She could only say, “I don’t have time for this. I’m on a deadline.”

But Hans was dead. Maybe she could shake off Hans Klemmer’s specter like a sinus headache. She kept a box of aspirin in a drawer and took two now. That helped sometimes.

And sometimes not. Why did Hans haunt her in the archive? She never saw the ghost anywhere else. The specter should have haunted the Opera House, where he’d been murdered. It would create a public spectacle. Isn’t that what specters are supposed to do? To the extent that one could be rational about a ghost, she found its presence difficult to fathom.

Worse, it kept staring, judging. The living Hans had loved her, and this ghost had her husband’s form, but it never touched her. It just stared. Did she want it to go away? It made things difficult. She said, “How can I work when you look at me like that?”

That was Judit’s question to answer. After all, she was the archivist. Hans was just history. At least he was now.

 

 

They were still naming things after him, the Klemmer Regional Concert Hall, Klemmer Memorial Park, and so on. Because Hans died on Liberation Day, every May 14th he was remembered. Then there was the statue of him by the Opera House, with the wavy hair, the baton, and the flying coat-tails. The first time Judit saw the ghost, she’d thought it was another statue that someone put in the archive as a joke, but who would hate her that much? Then the statue moved its head and yawned. She’d dropped her coffee.

That was the trouble. There was what some clever historian might call cognitive dissonance between Hans and Hans, between the noble statue and the ghost. And there would always be the statue because of how he’d died, three months after he’d been appointed Judenstaat’s first Saxon conductor.

The occasion was momentous. To have this ethnic German—orphaned in ’46—raise his baton before the premiere orchestra of the Jewish state in celebration of its liberation by the Soviets, how could it help but feel like one of those ruptures that draws a line between one age and another?

The national anthem sounded new again:

“Risen from ruins and turned towards the future

Let us serve you for the good—”

Then Hans froze. He slumped forward, crumbled into the podium, and fell down with it.

 

 

Germans killed him—angry unrepentant Saxon Nazis who marked him for assassination as a collaborator with the Jewish state. Of course people hated Hans. Judit hadn’t been there that night, but she knew hundreds of survivors of the camps had picketed the Opera House when Hans had been appointed. Before the murder, there’d been those phone calls, late at night, with thick, strange silence on the other end. After a while, Judit and Hans had let the phone go on ringing, or Hans would pick up and leave it off the hook under a pillow. Could she remember dates and times? Could she remember if there’d been static on the other end? Or other voices in the background? Why hadn’t she and Hans reported those calls to the State Security Police?

Those were the kinds of questions she had to answer during the weeks when she was a public widow, escorted from place to place by a polite Stasi agent who also stood by her bed at night. She was pumped full of so much Valium that there wasn’t a clear distinction between days of interrogation and nights when she would find herself in a nightgown that she didn’t recognize, and she told them everything she knew and cursed her own precise and nimble memory for detail that persisted even when she was sedated.

Once they found the men who did it, she was left alone. She took to wearing Hans’s old duffle coat. It served as camouflage. Still, she was sometimes invited to memorials, especially on Liberation Day. Judit’s mother, Leonora, took an interest in such things. Last May, she’d dragged Judit to a performance given in Hans’s memory at the Opera House, a choral recital by Saxon children, and she kept whispering to Judit how wonderful it was to see that not all of them hated us, and how important it was to teach them young, before their minds were poisoned by their culture.

“I wouldn’t know, Mom,” Judit said. Why had she agreed to come?

“Well, maybe you and Hans never had children of your own, but these are your children, honestly, Judi, and that’s what matters. Don’t you agree? Aren’t they your children?”

What could Judit do then but stare at the program with its silhouette of Dresden’s restored castle and the Opera House’s dome? Below, in flowing script: “The Fire Returns: A Dresden Season to Remember.”

 

 

What was the point of memory? Nothing surprised her. Even now, with the lights switched off, her touch was automatic—drawer open, film into the feeder, and before she even looked down, she knew just what she’d see, the long-shot of workers climbing the scaffolding of that same opera house. It was the first structure rebuilt in ’49. Old news, and worthless.

If she remembered everything, then how could she find—what did it say in that press release about the documentary—explosive footage? She ought to experiment and fumble for a change, move her hand a little to the left. There was an unmarked case.

She slipped the film into the feeder. And what was this? A Soviet production, surely. Hand-held camera, by the look of it. Rubble and ruins, and another one of those eternal flat-bed trucks of camp survivors, and Leopold Stein again. He stood before a crater that was once the site of Dresden’s Great Synagogue. Stein’s mouth was moving, obscured by the beard that gave the footage a date: pre-’47. She knew what he was saying, what they’d written in that declaration, that Germany was Jewish at the root, that if the Jews needed a home it was right under their feet. This was their monument. This was their prayer-house.

Old news. But there was something about those enormous hands of Stein’s, big as boxing gloves, tracing a circle in the air and resting in a bridge below that beard. Old beard. Old bombed-out crater, blurry Soviet liberators with their rifles. She switched off the machine.

“Why stop?”

Judit froze. Her eyes stayed on the empty screen.

“So you don’t like that story?”

It wasn’t Hans’s voice. It wasn’t her intern, Sammy Gluck. It had to be a Stasi agent, but not the one who made regular courtesy visits.

Something creaked, then creaked again deliberately. Judit turned. It was so dark that she could make out no more than something darker. Then, that high, coarse voice again.

“You better like it. You know what I risked to get into this fucking fortress?”

Not Stasi. Without warning, the sharply living presence backed her into the work bench, and he slammed something onto the table and a pile of footage toppled over. So did Judit, nearly. Then he was gone.

He’d left a note. She switched on the viewer. The bulb was dim but steady. The text itself was written in the neat copybook handwriting of a child.

They lied about the murder.

Copyright © 2016 by Simone Zelitch

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