ANYWHERE BUT HERE
100 Years 1914-2014, from the roof of the Maxim Gorki Theatre
Paul Klee’s ‘Angelus Novus’ is floating over Berlin, struggling against the wind with outstretched wings, its eyes staring. I am lying on the roof of the Maxim Gorki Theatre, staring back. So much has been said and written and thought about this angel. So much has been read into it. Walter Benjamin described it as the ‘angel of history’. And me? What do I see in it? I see 1920—no more and no less. We are both of the past. My eyes, like the angel’s, are wide open. I think we share the same confusion about the present.
For me, time isn’t divided into chapters; it’s a spiral, cast in a single piece of metal, and there is something leaden-tasting about the time that saw the creation of ‘Angelus Novus’. The twenties! I want to live in 1920s Berlin too! I suppose that means I’ll still be living here in 1933. The thought releases a barrage of images.
I take a flying leap. Whenever I think back to the beginning of the twentieth century, I skip the first thirty years. I was born in Stalingrad and, for some reason, I always get stuck there.
Lying on my back on a sleet-wet roof in Berlin, I call my grandparents.
Where were we in 1914? I know all about the Second World War—the numbers on people’s arms, the heroes of the Red Army, flight and hunger, Aliyah to Israel. But the only thing I know about the First World War is that the dictatorship of the proletariat was proclaimed as a result—and that we were living somewhere nearby.
My grandparents fight over the telephone receiver.
Grandmother: Where were we? Odessa.
Me: And what were we doing?
Grandmother: Teaching, printing. Respectable professions.
Me: Any rabbis?
Grandmother: I just said so! Scholars.
Grandfather: Give me the phone! We were in Orgeyev. My father’s father was a miller there.
Grandfather: Hm. Romania.
Me: Why didn’t any of us fight in the First World War. Was it because we were Jewish?
Grandfather: No, because we were Moldovans.
Grandfather: Nikolai II said, ‘Being a Moldovan isn’t a nationality; it’s a hobby.’ We didn’t have to fight.
It makes no sense to me. Or, as the Germans say: All I understand is railway station. I smile. This language, the German language in which I write and think and tell jokes, is so full of the history of war. The soldiers of the First World War were so desperate to get home that you could say what you liked to them—all they understood was railway station. Now it’s just a phrase people shoot from the hip.
I hang up the phone and stare into the sky over Berlin. How will I answer the question when my grandchildren ask me. What was 2014? What was Berlin like in 2014?
Strangely enough, one of the first images that flashes into my mind is Bohème Sauvage, a club night with the theme ‘1890 to 1940’. They’ll only let you in if you look the part. You exchange your euros for Reichsmarks and gamble them away on poker tables or drink them away at the absinth bar. Long pearl necklaces get caught up in high-flung arms. You dance to a neo-swing band and specially employed dancing instructors zip around, making sure you’re getting it right.
Berlin is smoky parties where we kiss people and think we’re kissing history. It’s nostalgia for a time we never knew—it’s imagining ourselves out of the present.
Alcohol runs over our bare legs and we throw artificial furs over them. We do our hair in the old style, try to look the way people used to look. When we lose an arm-wrestling match at the bar, we cry, ‘This is war!’
I breathe out into the cold sky over Berlin and climb down from the roof. On the way to my favourite bar at Hackescher Markt, I pass Angela Merkel’s flat and greet the policemen who are standing guard.
I want to get lost. On this island that is Berlin, I spiral my way between the museums, looking at the bullet holes in the columns and façades.
Just because we’ve exported war, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
Berlin is turned backwards like Paul Klee’s angel, bewildered by the ruins of history, propelled into a future it isn’t ready for.
Berlin is everything except being here now; we are drowning in history. I’ve heard we learn lessons from history. I think it must be a rumour.
Just look about you.
Stand in front of the Maxim Gorki Theatre and turn 360 degrees. When you get back to zero, try to see the present. Try to see now.
You are a historic figure. Welcome to the writing of history.
Tr. Imogen Taylor