statistiche gratuite The teacher - Il professore

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Indietro

Stefano Carloni

THE TEACHER - IL PROFESSORE

This story is a work of fiction. Any reference to facts, characters or actual events is purely coincidental

Day One

Germany, November 7, 1945

I awake with a jolt. “An air pocket”, I think as I look out the window. The Black Forest stretches below the Douglas C-47 Skytrain. We're about to land in Stuttgart, now under control of the US Army, as well as the rest of West Germany. After all, this part of the trip was short and comfortable, less than two hours. Much shorter and comfortable than the trip from New York to London, on a C-54 Skymaster streaking at top speed: that airborne giant, capable of carrying up to 50 soldiers and 5,200 kg of cargo, brought me as the only passenger, for sixteen hours, from one side of the Atlantic to the other. While I rest back in my seat, I think back to the events that led me to become the most important payload in the history of the United States Air Force, with the exclusion of Little Boy...

 

***

 

Washington, State Department, November 5, 1945

The Vice Secretary of State had thoroughly cleaned his glasses before speaking to me: “Mr. Tancredi, you are certainly well aware of the esteem and gratitude the US government has for you, acknowledged by, among other things, your speedy granting of US citizenship ...”

“With all due respect, Mr. Vice Secretary” I cut him short, clearing my voice, “I don’t think you brought me here from Tucson with an escort worthy of a head of state just to renew the gratitude of your government for the ‘Constantine’ affair …”

“You’re right. The truth is we still need your services. Now more than ever.” He rose from the hardwood desk and looked out the window overlooking the Potomac. “Hitler is dead, and we won the war. As you know, the Potsdam Conference, in addition to sanctioning the division of Berlin into four sectors, confirmed our jurisdiction over more than half of Germany. Now we must rebuild the country ... and here’s where you come in: Fausto Tancredi, teacher in Philosophical History at the University of Tucson.”

“You need a philosopher? I thought you needed new rulers.”

“Good rulers can not be improvised overnight, let alone in a country ravaged by twelve years of terror and ideological conformism. We must de-nazify the minds and hearts of the Germans before filling the seats”, he sighed. Then he turned, staring with a mixture of fear and hope. “In a castle in the Black Forest we have gathered a group of scions of the German military elite, who still enjoys a certain prestige among the population. If you can teach them the rule of law and respect for human rights, we will repeat the experiment on a larger scale, and we will create a new leadership for a liberal and democratic Germany.”

I jumped in my chair. “Mr. Vice Secretary ... do you know that I am Jewish?”

“I know,” he said, his eyes shining like steel. “And that makes you the ideal person for the job. Accepting you, for those kids, will be the first step on the road to amend. I’m counting on you, Professor Tancredi.”

He held out his hand. And I could not help but shake it.

 

***

 

Germany, November 8, 1945

The Neuschwanstein Castle, built by the “mad king” Ludwig II of Bavaria and inspired by Wagner’s operas, had been requisitioned by the US Army, in what had ironically been named “Operation Dionysius”. I arrived there with a convoy of three jeeps and twelve military escorts, led by a very talkative Italian-American.

Bedda matre! Is it true you come from Castellammare of Stabia?” exclaimed Private First-Class Vince Costello.

“Yes” I agreed with a slight smile, “my father was the headmaster of the grammar school there. He came to America with his wife and son, so he didn’t have to swear allegiance to the fascism.”

“And he was right! Now I understand why you are a teacher: like son like father, or something like that ... Anyway, be accuorto with the Major. He doesn’t like intellectuals.”

Major Burt “Bull” Hogan, the garrison commander, a giant with a drooping mustache and blazing eyes, was not the kind to waste time on pleasantries. “I know what you came here to do.  Those queers at the State Department think a dandy nerd is sufficient to create many little sausage-and-sauerkraut George Washingtons...”

“What would you prefer?” I instinctively retort. “Doing what Winston Churchill suggested, flatten Germany and turn it into a huge potato field?”

The major stops and grimly stares at me: “Do whatever you want, but keep in mind that I’m in charge of discipline here” and walks away.

Later, I meet the young people gathered for the occasion in the vast courtyard. They’re about twenty, between sixteen and twenty-one years old, equally divided between boys and girls. The boys wear black high-neck jackets with gold buttons, the girls white blouses and long pleated gray skirts. For a moment I seem to have gone back a century in time: in the United States no young person would wear a clothing like that, let alone on a college campus. Immediately they make it clear that they are hostile towards me: just when Hogan introduces me as their “new Philosophy teacher”, they stare at me with contempt and move away, leaving me alone. Maybe I will not be sold into slavery as Plato, but if a good beginning makes a good ending, I'll have to work hard to gain their trust.

At lunchtime I kindly decline the major’s invitation to eat with the soldiers and I sit in the lounge reserved for the kids. My decision does not go unnoticed: while I’m busy eating my stew, two girls about ten meters away from my table start chatting and looking over at me. One of them approaches (the other trying in vain to stop her), and she turns to me with a hesitant voice: “M-Mr Tancredi ...”

“You can just call me professor, Miss ...”

“Bette ... Bette Müller,” she says, nervously adjusting the eyeglasses on her bulbous nose. Then she adds: “Mr. Tancredi, are you of the same id-ideology as Ludwig Wittgentstein?”

“Both shy and obstinate”, I think to myself. “I should say not. Wittgentstein and I are definitely on opposing sides in many ways.”

“Y... you mean that you like women, sir?”

I stop for a moment in surprise, my fork paused in mid-air, but I quickly recover. “Yes. More precisely I like a woman: my wife Melinda. We've been married a year, we’re expecting a baby, and I love her, very much.”

“S-sorry to bother you, please excuse me,” whispers Bette, moving quickly away. She returns to her friend, who stared at us the whole time, eyes open wide, and exclaims triumphantly: “Did you hear? I told you he is not a degenerate!” before realizing she is the focus of the shocked looks of everyone present...

Suddenly the other girl turns to the door, covers Bette’s mouth with her hand and whispers: “Hush, Jenny is coming!”

“Jenny” is obviously a leader of this group: tall, slender build, blond hair, not cut short or kept in braids or buns as the others, but cascading in a long fall, with a proud bearing and the burning eyes of a Lutheran preacher that sweep across the room and head toward the two unfortunate. I leave my cherry pie half-eaten and approach the trio. “Good morning, Miss Jenny. Would you like to join us in a little philosophical discourse?”

“My name is Geneva von Westphalen” she coldly answers. “We do not fraternize with invaders. You have locked us up here against our will, and told us that if we try to escape we will be shot in the back; so we'll stay here nice and quiet, but we will offer no cooperation.” Then, pointing to her friends, she orders, “Helga, Bette, let’s go!”, and both follow her muttering “Ja, ja.”

Pfc Costello has evidently taken a liking to me.  After helping me take my luggage in the room assigned to me – close to those of the young Germans – he insists on being my guide in exploring the innermost rooms of the castle and introduces me, one by one, to his 415 fellow soldiers crammed into the west wing. I take this opportunity to ask him why I haven’t seen any soldiers in the areas frequented by the kids.

“Major Bull had to order us to stay away from the Krauts” he tells me in a low voice. “At the beginning e’ fimmine were screaming like crazy when they saw some of us, especially the colored guys, you know, the blacks, and the guaglioni threatened to create havoc defending them. They were afraid we would rape them ... after we busted our asses from Normandy to the Ardennes just to free them, breed of ingrates!”

At dinner time I meet up with them again, in a room adorned with plaster reproductions of famous Greek and Roman sculptures. Some girls listen in revered silence as their leader illustrates the magnificence of Galata killing his wife and himself. “Admire what force, what serene composure transpires from his face, what severity, what majesty! In the hour of defeat he stands undefeated on our horizon of sense, high above the plebeian mass that nonetheless crushes him ...”

“... and that his descendants, five centuries later, will subdue. My compliments, Miss von Westphalen,” I ironically comment, clapping my hands. “After all, what does Mephistopheles say in Faust? ‘All that exists deserves to perish’, and the power of Rome could not be an exception.”

I try to take the opportunity to convince them to discuss with me the Toynbee's theory on the cycles of civilizations, but to no avail. Jenny simulates a yawn. “Toynbee? It took him six volumes so high to repeat what our Spengler had already said in one small book.” Then she faces me with her hands behind her back and a wry smile on her lips: “And anyway, what things of interest can you tell us, the messenger of a people without history? Can you perhaps boast of someone comparable to Hegel or Heine, to Mozart, Bach or Beethoven? What can you oppose to the cultural superiority of the Germans?”

It’s a moment, the fatal moment that passes between the perfect clarity of mind and a blind rage. I grab her by the shoulders, hold her tight intentionally to hurt, and shout in her face: “Where was your cultural superiority in Auschwitz, where were Hegel and Bach in Treblinka? I'll tell you: they were burned along with the dead in the ovens, they climbed up the chimney along with the smoke! ...”

Her surprised face shows that she clearly doesn’t understand what I'm talking about. A boy intervenes, tearing her away from my grasp, hugging her and taking her away, while the other kids look at me in horror. The major immediately calls me into his office and warns me not to make his job even more difficult inciting “those wild beasts”. Sure a bad start...

 

 

Day Two

Neuschwanstein Castle, November 9, 1945

Last night I dreamed about my father. I was at his bedside, and again I heard his last words to me: “My son, America looks just like you: it is a young and strong country, which loves freedom and hates compromise, half-measures and injustice. Be grateful to the country that welcomed you, love and protect it; but never forget who you are, and where you come from.”

I had just woken up and was washing myself when I hear an insistent knock on my door. I finish toweling off and open it.  It is the young man who defended Jenny the night before. I know all about him, as well as the others, but I play dumb. “Good morning, what do you want?”

“I am Franz von der Schulemburg, son of the great General Mathias von der Schulemburg heroically fallen at Stalingrad” he proclaims proudly. “I should kill you immediately” he continues holding back his anger, “but first you must answer me: what the hell happened in Auschwitz and Treblinka?”

“If you want to know” I answer seraphically “come to the classroom in an hour. In the meantime, I will dress and have breakfast. I don’t want to die on an empty stomach ...”

The young man snorts, then walks away. “Fine” I think, “we are making progress.” I get dressed, calmly have breakfast, and at the agreed time enter into the “classroom”, a vast reception lounge furnished with twenty desks and chairs arranged in two long lines, a desk and a blackboard. Surprise! They are all there, boys on the right and girls on the left, Franz and Jenny occupying the two front desks. I sit down, and immediately Franz stands up, addresses the room with a sweeping gesture and announces: “You see, Mr. Tancredi, we're all here, and we expect an answer.”

“And rightly so. Auschwitz and Treblinka are two of the many places where the defunct Nazi regime built a series of camps for the concentration and extermination of the Jews rounded up in occupied countries during the war. Jews arrived to the camps piled into trains, and the children, elderly and the sick were immediately sent to «take a shower» in sealed rooms, where deadly gas was introduced ...”

It’s like a punch in the stomach. I know that feeling well, because it had the same effect on me the first time I was told. The boys widen their eyes, many of the girls put their hands over their mouths as if to hold back the vomit. “... meanwhile the young and strong were forced into hard labor until, starving and exhausted, they were also put into the gas chambers. Jewelry, gold teeth and hair were taken from the bodies, and then they were finally sent to the crematorium.”

“Not true!” exclaims Franz, visibly upset. “It’s not possible that the Germans have done such a thing! This is war propaganda, even though the war is now over!”

“Unfortunately, Mr. von der Schulemburg, this is the factual truth, as shown by reports of the Soviet, American and British officers and soldiers entering the camps, and also by the requisitions and testimonials of the survivors. Contra factum protestatio non valet, said the ancient Romans” I say dryly. I pause a moment, then make the lunging stroke: “And now let us ask ourselves: what kind of character did a political system have to possess which did these things unbeknownst to most of its citizens?”

For a long minute there is a deathly silence, but only a minute.  Then the harsh voice of Jenny resonates through the hall. “What you have told us is horrible, and I understand your reaction last night ... but the Americans bombed our cities, destroyed our most beautiful monuments, they killed thousands and thousands of innocent civilians, so you don’t have the right to rise up on your pulpit and sermonize at us!”

“Jenny... Miss von Westphalen is right,” says Franz, worsening things. “Americans would have exterminated us all if they had the power.”

“It's true!” another boy rises up. “And Russians? We had to flee from Leipzig when they arrived; they hanged men from lampposts and gutted women with bayonets. I saw them with my own eyes! And weren’t they your allies?”

Bette is red in the face and has a trembling voice: “O-our housekeeper told me that M-Moroccans in the wake of the French troops have ra... raped hundreds of women, in Italy. If g-gassing people is evil, what is th-this?”

The room is filled with voices in agreement; it's all a succession of “it’s true”, “that’s right”, “you preach good and practice evil”.  Then Jenny gets up, waves her right hand, and everyone is silent. “It is useless for you to pose as a philosopher, Mr. Tancredi: we know very well that the horrors described by you, and the countless others we could add, are nothing but the product of this modern era, the era of the triumph of technology, industrialization and standardization, just as Professor Heidegger has taught us.”

“You speak of Martin Heidegger, the famous professor of Freiburg?”

“None other”, Franz intervenes. “Even now as he's locked up in the dungeons below,” pointing his finger at the floor, “he is still a master of thinking, and dwarfs you in his sight.”

The kids rise and exit neatly from the room, but I barely notice. So, they were students of Heidegger, the existentialist, and now he is locked up in this same castle! An idea flashes through my mind.  I run to Major Bull and am able to convince him (indeed without too much effort) to free the illustrious “guest” from the dungeons. When he appears in the courtyard wrapped in a black coat, a triumphant chorus of “hurray!” is heard among all the young people along with much thoughtfulness and expressions of esteem. I cautiously approach to greet him: “How are you, Herr Heidegger?”

“Obviously I feel better here and now than during the past days in that cell” he says sarcastically. “I think you had good reasons to pull me out of there ... and don’t tell me you did it for pure humanitarianism!”

“Here we go”, I think to myself, “it’s like that time at the carnival, remember? Three balls and three throws, and if you knock down all the cans you win the teddy bear. Take careful aim then!” “Obviously not, Professor Heidegger. I did it for the intellectual pleasure of asking you some questions. For example: don’t you believe that your inaugural address at the 1933 rectory has prompted more young people to enlist in the SA rather than studying the Presocratics of Diels?”

He responds with an embarrassment that you could cut with a knife, while the kids stop shouting. “As you certainly know, I resigned from that office after just one year ... and I don’t regret it. However,” he continues, inflating his chest, “that speech was directed solely and exclusively to the rebirth of the real being of the German people, and more generally of the real being of the West, a work for which I believed then, and still believe, is necessary to return to drink at the springs of Greek wisdom.”

“I know your thoughts on the subject, Herr Heidegger,” I reply. “I read Being and Time three times during my course of studies. But just for this reason I wonder if you have faithfully handled the works you analyzed, as when you translate the term ón in Parmenides with “Being”, instead of “body”, or when you transform the Aristotelian tò ón esti kathólou málista pánton into “that of ‘being’ is the most general concept of all...”

“Hermeneutics, such as interpretation of texts written by Others, constitutively belongs some degree of ambiguity,” he parries, “I do not understand where you are leading ...”

“I am leading to ask, Professor Heidegger, if you do not believe, at least ex post facto, that your «philosophy of concrete existence», of the «here and now», with which you justified your adherence to Nazism, and led many of your students to do the same, is ultimately based on a colossal and tragic blunder. What do you think, Professor?”

It’s done! He who aspired to be the Führer of philosophy flounders, stands with his mouth open, doesn’t know what to say; and the kids, his students who revered him as a god, are also in awe, wondering if by chance, they have for years revered a false and lying idol ... Then suddenly the unexpected, the unpredictable happens: two soldiers approach, grab the little man and strip away his jacket and shirt, leaving him bare chested in the already wintry air, while other soldiers form a circle, keeping away the young people with their rifles. Major Bull comes forward, pushes me away with his arm and says, “You have tried and failed, now leave the interrogations to those who know this job.”  Turning to the old man, he begins to bark: “Is it true that during your term of office you’ve urged your students to burn books written by Jews? Is it true that you’ve sent letters to Berlin to persuade the Nazi leaders to remove Jewish faculty members or liberal thinkers from their positions? Answer me!”

The major repeats the questions two, three, four times, relentlessly. Martin Heidegger remains in silence at first, then suddenly collapses trembling and moaning: “I have acted for the good of the German people ... just for the good of the German people ...” The soldiers take him by the arms, trying to stand him up, but he is clearly no longer in charge of his own body and he falls back to the ground. Finally they drag him away, while the kids loudly scream “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles.”

This is too much. I follow the major into his office and confront him. “Don’t you realize what you’ve done? I was winning on all fronts, I was gaining credibility in their eyes, and you ruined everything! Watching your display of brute force is the most anti-pedagogic thing that could happen to those kids!”

“That's enough!” Bull says, banging his fist on the table. “I’ve already told you: I'm in charge here! I agreed to your request to take that old fool out of isolation because I thought you would unveil him for what he is, and instead the little teacher starts dancing the minuet ... that's why I can not stand you intellectuals! You talk and talk, and don’t achieve anything! And as for pedagogy” he warns, pointing a finger at me, “you have nothing to teach me, Mr. Know-it-all. The cycles of civilization? For me it’s a rehash of Nietzsche and his eternal return, those pagan whims which led Germans to declare war on the whole world. I give you an advice: go back to Tucson, to your beautiful pregnant wife, and leave to those like me to put these people back in line.” He calls a guard to kick me out, but I leave by myself.

At the door I meet Pfc Vince Costello. “I told you, professor, the major is like that ... Your colleague is in a bad state: the doctor spoke of “severe depression” and ordered his immediate recovery in the Badenweiler sanatorium, the best equipped in the region for these cases. The convoy has already left. However, if I can do something for you ...”

I have an idea; it is desperate, I know, but I'm desperate. “Costello, would do me a big favor?”

Dottò, at your disposal,” he says, beating his chest.

I take him to my room, scribble a message on a sheet of paper, and beg him to take it immediately to the radio room and make sure it is transmitted with the highest priority, without letting the major know. He reads the message, scratches his head doubtfully, and mutters: “ ‘AAA Wanted: midwife with references who won’t throw the children out with the bathwater – Serious applicants only’... I’ve never seen an ad like that, but if voscenza wants it, I’ll do.”

At 9:00 pm the Esszimmer is completely desolate. A soldier tells me that the kids have all decided to skip dinner. I also don’t have a great desire to eat, but I learned long ago that the brain doesn’t work on an empty stomach, so I swallow down some beef stew with potatoes (what monotony, the German food!) and go back to my room. Suddenly someone comes from behind me and puts a bag over my head.  Another person in front of me holds a knife to my throat and whispers in a male voice: “Shhhh.”

The two force me to sit on the marble floor and hold me tight, while a third person grabs my left arm, tears down my shirt sleeve and presses something that leaves a wet and sticky mark on my skin, like a snail’s slime. Then they loosely tie me up with a rope and flee silently as they arrived. It takes me less than a minute to free myself, but I see nothing.  I go into my room, carrying with me the bag and the rope (I don’t want a soldier to see them and suspect something), look at my arm in the light of an acetylene lamp ... and I’m petrified.

 

 

Day Three

Neuschwanstein Castle, November 10, 1945

After a sleepless night I go into the dining room. This time “they” are there, and from the looks they give me I understand that they already know what happened last night. I should think so!

From the door, I immediately notice Franz sitting and reading a book.  When our eyes meet he does not bat an eyelid. I call out in a loud voice, “Franz von der Schulemburg!” and move towards him at a slow pace, trying to understand where the ''little bird” is hiding that could tell Hogan what is happening in there. Perhaps from that skylight up there? In that case...

Franz gets up, his book – The Life of Cato of Utica – falling to the floor. I circle around him, forcing him to turn around and continue to face me. Now I have my back to the skylight. I speak in a low voice: “Is it a biological determinism that pushes you Germans to write upon the skins of other peoples?” and I show him the ink inscription on my arm: Knecht der neuen Herren, ‘servant of the new masters’. “That is how the SS tattooed prisoners in the camps.”

“Are you calling me a Nazi?” he asks, raising his fists, while the others fall silent out of fear. “How dare you! My family has an ancient and noble tradition. My great-grandfather commanded the Saxon troops in the Battle of Klissow, while your ancestors, with all due respect ... “

We are interrupted by the arrival of Bull, who completely ignores me and turns to Franz grinning: “Mr. von der Schulemburg, following a search of your quarters we found this object” and pulls from his pocket a medal, swinging it before his eyes. The boy reaches out to grab it, but the major’s fist is quicker to clench; he throws himself against that mountain of muscle, but a push knocks him to the ground (Jenny pales). “The Allied Control Committee has banned the granting of awards in any way related to the deceased Nazi regime, so this medal is immediately and definitively confiscated.”

“It's the Iron Cross of my father!” shouts Franz getting up. “He was awarded that medal for his heroism in battle. It's the only thing I have left of him, you can’t take it from me!”

“Mathias von der Schulemburg was a Nazi,” Hogan continues relentlessly, “and on 30 November 1941, under the command of Sturmbannführer Rudolf Lange, shot one thousand Jews deported from Berlin to Riga. The question is closed!” and he walks away. Franz remains stunned for a few seconds, visibly struggling to keep from bursting into tears; then he exclaims: “... but he was my father!” and runs out of the room. Jenny chases after him shouting “Franz!” and the other kids scatter like sheep without a shepherd. I also leave, and to hell with breakfast; I just hope that the reply from Foggy Bottom arrives soon.

I spend the rest of the day in the classroom, not because I hope that someone will come, but to remind myself what I came to do in this country. Pfc Costello calls me for lunch, but when he tells me that all the young people decided not to eat I decline his invitation.  He comes again at dinner time, and on my second refusal he sadly shakes his head. Around midnight I head to my room, and in the usually dark hallway, I hear a voice well known to me reciting in Old English, “To be, or not to be, that is the question: whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles…”

I never thought that voice, having been so sarcastic during these days, could hold such melancholy within. Following it, I find myself in an empty and bare room, and I see Jenny standing in front of a window, eyes half-open. “... and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep....” There is a small noise and she shudders, opens her eyes and turns around alarmed: “Who's there?”

“It’s me, Fausto Tancredi, don’t be afraid, Miss Jenny,” I say, taking a few steps forward, knowing full well that attempt to reassure her is inappropriate.

“I already told you that my name is Geneva von Westphalen,” she says, again cold and defensive. “Jenny is dead forever, buried under the rubble of the cathedral of Cologne ...”

“All right, Miss Geneva von Westphalen” I lift up my hands in a conciliatory gesture and try to change the subject. “By the way: is there any relationship between you and Jenny von Westphalen who married Karl Marx? But maybe you have never heard of her ... and your name, Geneva, where did you get that from? It doesn’t seem a common name for a German woman.”

She sighs and raises high her eyes. “On the contrary I know her well: my beloved father, the Lord welcome him into his peace, was her nephew. It was he, when my mother died giving birth to me, who named me Geneva: he had hoped in vain for a male child, and was angry with the Western powers and the League of Nations which had humiliated our people, so he chose a name for me to forever remember the two calamities of his life.”

I remain silent for several minutes, thinking about how many tears she must have cried, cursing herself for “sins” that were not hers. She too is silent, then suddenly exclaims “Well? Are you finished already?”

“What are you referring to?”

She is standing before me with her head hung low, her arms hanging at her sides, her fists clenched, her voice resolute. “You continue to interrogate me. I’ll answer any questions, I will satisfy all your unhealthy and idle curiosities ... provided you stop harassing my friends. After all, I am the one who insulted you ever since your arrival,” she raises her head and her gaze pierces me, “so continue! I will endure any humiliation.”

For a moment I have the uneasy feeling of being Scarpia in the presence of Tosca; but we're not in the theater, and I never liked opera. I cross my arms over my chest and ask: “Are you willing to do so much for Franz von der Schulemburg, your boyfriend?”

In a split second her face takes on all the colors of the rainbow and her resigned composure goes belly up: “H-h-h-how did you know? Who told you that? That vapid goose Bette, perhaps? I’ll tear her hair one by one, I ...”

I have to block the door with my body to stop that cute tropical storm. “Neither Bette, nor any of your friends betrayed you. It was enough for me to read the files ...”

“The files? What files?”

“Those found by American troops in Berlin, at the Gestapo headquarters” I tell her, pushing to the center of the room. “Hitler kept all of your families under close control. There are very detailed notes about you and Franz: your both being born in the exclusive district of Cologne, two hundred meters away from each other; your friendship starting from childhood, the attendance of the same course of study, the promises of eternal love exchanged in a park in the summer of 1942, the evening getaways from home, in defiance of the curfew, to head to the cathedral and exchange, what did the report say? Ah, yes, «embraces and other lascivious acts»...”

“That despicable mediocre painter!” she bursts out angrily. Then, she adds blushing: “We didn’t do anything wrong ... they were just kisses...”

“Anyway, after my arrival, your behavior has only confirmed what I already knew. Franz intervening to save you, your leaving to console him, your continual helping one another in provoking me ... it wasn’t necessary to have studied the psychology of emotional events to understand that you are soul mates.”

“You said that Gestapo controlled our families ... Did you read the file of my father?”

I nod grimly. “On 22 June 1943, agent W stated that while hiding behind a wall, he spied you and Franz walking together on the Königstrasse, Mr. Kurt von Westphalen attacked him, hitting him with a stick and screaming: «Don’t touch my little girl, you bastards!»; W shoved him and ran away. This is the last report of the file.”

“My father died that day,” murmurs Jenny. “They found him in an alley, dead of a heart attack. And I thought he hated me ...”

She collapses to the ground sobbing, I sit next to her and give her my handkerchief. “Thanks” she says giving it back, then tries to smile: “Let's talk about something else, okay?”

I understand that she wants to remove the sad thoughts from her mind. So I tell her the story of my life: the moment when my father told me that he had decided to emigrate to the United States, so not to submit to “that ignorant lout, the son of a blacksmith who became our leader”; our departure on the steamer, with Vesuvius retreating farther away through the fog and my childish tears; the early years in New York, the fightings at school with the Irish boys, while my mother worked as a seamstress and my father broke his back unloading goods at the docks; and then my studies, the conferring of the PhD, the call to Tucson as an adjunct professor, my meeting with Melinda ...

“She was the secretary of the rector.” I relive the scene as if it were today, lulled by my memories. “She helped me fill out the employment forms... and it was love at first sight. She introduced me to her parents immediately, and after eighteen months, as soon as I got my professorship, we were married.”

Jenny looks at me with her head leaning on her right shoulder, puzzled: “Melinda? That doesn’t seem a common name for a Jewish woman.”

“In fact, she wasn’t born Jewish. She’s the daughter of a Baptist minister.”

“Gott! And how did you get married?”

I pretend to be amused: the racial laws were in force in the Grossdeutsches Reich until the day before yesterday, and before that perhaps things were not much better. “Well, in the United States there’s always been more tolerance than in Europe on these matters,” I explain patiently, “and both of us were little interested in religion, so we got married in front of an official appointed by the mayor, who officiated the ceremony and recorded our wills in the municipal archives.”

“I should have known,” she snorts in disgust. “For you Americans, marriage is a business contract like any other, full of clauses that regulate everything: how often you make it, how many children you can have, how to divide up your assets in the case of separation ... You Americans don’t hold anything sacred; you’re so ... materialistic!”

“Hey, wait a minute,” I react angrily, “the excesses which you talk about are rare, the stuff of upper class, customs spread also among the aristocrats of your people, except the insolubility of the bond …  Also, I already said I'm Italian by birth; I received my American citizenship just a year ago, thanks to ‘Constantine’ ...”

I bite my tongue, but it's too late. “You got your citizenship thanks to a Roman emperor?” asks Jenny. I turn my face away, but she pulls me by the sleeve and insists: “Come on, don’t be the Cumaean Sibyl!”

“‘Constantine’ was the code name used by the Central Command of Wehrmacht to communicate with the troops stationed in Italy” I tell her, looking straight into her eyes, “a cryptographic system based on ancient Greek. The War Office instructed me to decipher it and I was able to, allowing the generals to better plan the landing at Anzio, and thus saving the lives of thousands of American soldiers.”

“And sending thousands of German soldiers to the next world before their time!” she cries, jumping up and returning to be the same old Jenny. “You didn’t think of that? Or you just didn’t care? That’s right, you hate us!”

“I do not hate you,” I say, pulling myself up, “even though I would have reason to ... But it wasn’t Americans who started this war: that did Mr. Hitler, Mr. Mussolini and Mr. Hirohito. The United States of America just ended it.”

“By destroying our country, putting our people in chains, humiliating us, ruining our lives! But we won’t give you the satisfaction of adorning your triumph!”

I try to calm that flood of insults, to grab her by an arm, but she hits me on the cheek with her right hand (that’s right, it was written in her file that she had excellent grades also in martial arts) and wriggles away. “It's late, Mr. Tancredi,” she sighs, “it's too late for us Germans, too late for philosophy, too late for everything ... and also to continue to argue with you. I just want to go back to my room, to sleep, and perchance to dream.”

She moves away. And I can not do anything but repeat to myself how stupid I am.

 

 

Day Four

Neuschwanstein Castle, November 11, 1945

“Ah, Melinda, how I love you” I whisper into her ear, while she holds me in her white arms repeating “Ulysses, Ulysses, listen to the sirens ...”

"My love, I'm sorry to contradict you" I tell her softly "but Ulysses has never listened to the song of the Sirens: he has put wax plugs in his ears"

I try to close her mouth with a passionate kiss, but she moves away from me and insists: “Listen to the sirens, Fausto ... you don’t want to give in to that witch?”, and she points to something behind me.

I turn and see ... what? Lady Death, hooded and dressed in black, grinning few steps away from the thalamus.

“What do you want?” I cry jumping up. “Why are you here?”

“Why am I here?” says the dark lady. “Don’t you know? I am here to reap!” and with her skeletal hands she raises high a long scythe.

“No!” I shout with all my might, while the darkness of those empty eyeholes surrounds me...

I find myself sitting on my bed, sweating and panting. I look over the large window: to the east, the pink-fingered Aurora shines on the mountains. A bad omen? My mother believed in these things, but I've always considered them silly superstitions ... until now.

I buckle up my shoes the best I can, feverishly slip into my shirt, and wander around the room. There's something under the door: it’s a small white envelope. I open it, pulling out a paper finely penned with elegant calligraphy and read, while a growing feeling of anguish overwhelms me:

 

“Mr. Tancredi,

This evening we all met in council, and decided to implement our long-prepared plan. Do not try to get out of your room, as it would be useless: the door is solid wood and we locked the bolt. We do not want to survive the death of Germany, the end of our beloved homeland. Forgive, if you can, our contempt, our lies. Go back to your wife, raise your son with love, and forget us. As with the dead of Parmenides, we yearn to the cold, the darkness and the oblivion.

Geneva von Westphalen”

 

“Dammit!” I throw down the letter and grab the handle. It doesn’t open! And the bolt is on the outside! I give a shove to the door; nothing. Again, and again, and again ... and while my shoulder starts to hurt badly, I think back to all the obvious clues, precise and consistent, that I’ve had before my eyes for three days, without ever being able to see them.

What did the barbarian do to free himself and his wife from slavery? How did Cato of Utica die? What do all the losers of history do, when they cannot resign themselves to adorn the triumph of the victors?

The howl of a siren fills the air, I hear shouts and the clatter of boots coming from the courtyard. I throw myself against the door again, redoubling my efforts. My shoulder starts bleeding, but I insist, I insist ... and suddenly the door gives way and opens. I almost fall to the ground, run at breakneck speed along the hallway; and while I run, I can almost “see” with my ears what is happening down below.

The kids are in front of the main doorway, arranged in two rows; Franz and Jenny, of course, are leading their respective groups. He cries out, “Open up and let us out!”

“Or what?” Major Bull grins, his hands on his hips. On all sides, hundreds of men armed to the teeth block any escape route.

In response, the two kids, in unison, shove their hands into their pockets, pulling out black capsules and put them to their lips. A moment later, eighteen other hands repeat the same gesture.

“Cyanide,” says Bull stifling a curse. “Where did you get this?”

“It was in a briefcase, we found it in one of our rooms the day you brought us here,” says Franz. “It belonged to an SS doctor, appointed by Reichsmarshall Göring to administer it to the officers stationed in the castle. They fled at your arrival, but we will not flee! We will be strong where they were weak!”

“You've taken everything from us: family, country, freedom, dignity” accuses Jenny. “You’ve only left us a miserable biological existence, a life that we don’t want to live!”

“And so you all agree?” mutters the major, bitterly chewing. “Even you, Miss Müller?”

There are only two flights of stairs left, only two ... Bette Müller gulps, but her voice doesn’t tremble. “I've never been neither particularly beautiful nor particularly clever ... but at least for once, at least in death, I’ll be equal to my companions! We will be all the same!”

I jump the last three steps, through the vast halls. Still a little more... just a little more...

“As an officer of the US Army” declares Hogan, “I can not submit to any blackmail.” Then he raises his right arm and, turning to his men orders: “Load up!”

I emerge into the vast courtyard; no one notices me. Jenny’s right hand reaches out to Franz’s left, they meet, shaking spasmodically. “They are going to shoot us,” she murmurs. “We will be faster,” he answers.

“Aim ...” orders the major. “No!” I cry, butting him with my head into the pit of his stomach.

“Mr. Tancredi!” says Jenny. She takes a step, but Franz’s hand, clasped with hers, keeps her back. “Hold your positions!” cries the young man.

“H-hold your positions!” She repeats in a choked voice. “Hold your positions!”

“Jawohl!” the answer comes from eighteen pegs of wood.

We both roll onto the ground, but Bull is quicker to get up, and his fury explodes like a thunder: “Tancredi!”

My shoulder is on fire and every muscle aches, but now is not the time to cry about it. “Order your men to lower their weapons! Let me do my job! “

“Get out of the way!” he roars, pointing to the dormitories. “No one here needs you, Mr. Nietzsche!”

Maybe it is the angel of despair that has invaded my body, maybe it’s the pain that pulsates like a hammer in my head, certainly I’m no longer in control of what I say; and perhaps, when the danger is greatest, is just that what saves. “I'm not a Nietzschean, major! I am an Aristotelian!”

The major looks at me surprised and asks: “What?” and then, enunciating the syllables, I scream: “I-AM-AN-AR-IS-TO-TE-LI-AN!” I catch my breath for a moment, then declare: “Unlike Lacedaemons we do necessary and useful things in view of the good things, we work to be able to rest, and make war in order to live in peace: from the Treaty on the politics of Aristotle, Book VII.”

Silence: Hogan stares at me dazed; the kids look at me breathless, a girl (Bette?) barely holds back laughter. I understand that for them it’s not important the fact that I’m Nietzschean or Aristotelian, and not even their individual lives, but something far more important: whether it is reason or power that rules the world.

A scream breaks the silence: “Major, Major!”

“What do you want?” he growls.

Pfc Vince Costello, breathless, salutes him and hands a sheet. “A cable for you from Washington, sir ... with instructions to read it here on the spot, loud and clear.”

“Give it here.” The major snatches the paper from his hands, clears his throat and begins to read:

 

“To Major Bartholomew J. Hogan, commander of the ‘Milwaukee’ detachment, 101st Infantry Division of the US Army

 

Mr. Major,

Having received unpleasant news about the not good relations entertained by your troops with the German citizens housed in Neuschwanstein castle, after long talks with the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense, and having acquired their approval, I am writing to clarify the following.

The German citizens currently housed in the castle, placed under your jurisdiction and responsibility, are to be considered in all respects VOLUNTEER GUESTS, allowed to participate in a philosophical seminar led by Professor Fausto Tancredi by our expressed appointment, and not as prisoners of the United States. To subject these young men and women, no longer children and mentally healthy, to a compulsory process of re-education and moral amends for crimes they have not committed and that are in no way attributable to them, is in fact repugnant to the sacred principles of freedom, independence and personal responsibility, before God and our fellowmen, on which our forefathers built this democracy that I unworthily serve.

These German citizens are therefore free to choose, at any time, whether to stay or leave; in which case it will be your duty, sir, to ensure that they are led to Stuttgart airport and handed over to the local military authorities, who will take care of transporting them to the destinations they desire.

I have trust in your competence and your sense of duty to ensure that these provisions of mine are fulfilled in a timely and complete manner.

God bless America.

 

The President of the United States

Harry Spencer Truman

 

Washington, November 11, 1945, 0:55 am”

 

A shudder goes through twenty one hearts. “00:55 am... what time is it now?” asks the Major turning to Costello.

“7:05 am, sir”

“7:05 am! Considering time zones... ten minutes ago,” murmurs the giant man. He ruefully approaches me, then straightens his back and salutes: “My apologies, professor. I hope that, if one day the power of Washington will decline, we may be questioned by people like you. Excuse me again, sir... I wish you a good job. “

“Thank you,” I say, holding out my hand.

He shakes it and turns to Franz: “Whatever your decision, Mr. von der Schulemburg, in my office I have something for you. The protocol of the Allied Command in effect prevents the bestowing of new Nazi honors, but it says nothing about the possession of those from the past. “

“Thank you,” the boy replies, his attitude thawing a little.

A small voice and a hand rise from the group: “Major ...”

“Yes, Miss Müller?” he snorts impatiently.

“Christmas will be here in forty-four days” Bette whispers. “If we decide to stay here to study, at that time, could we visit our families? Just for two or three days...”

Major Hogan scratches his chin thoughtfully, then raises his head and says “Well, the President said you are free to come and go as you want, so ... it’s no problem.” Then, turning to his men: “At ease! Return to your posts! And you, Costello, follow me!”

“Aye, sir!” he exclaims, happy as a clam. While they move away there is one last riddle to be solved. “Major, what's the J. stand for?”

“It’s for Jonah,” he says, looking back and greeting me with his right hand. “Next year in Jerusalem.”

He is smiling under his mustache. I also smile. “Shalom aleikhem.”

The kids throw their capsules to the ground, step on them, and burst into thunderous applause. Franz and Jenny embrace each other, they kiss. Then they parade in front of me one by one; the boys shake my hand, saying “forgive us, Professor,” the girls bow and repeat “forgive us, Professor ... yes, forgive us.”

“Miss Geneva von Westphalen ...” I murmur, touched.

“My name is Jenny,” she smiles brightly.

Now they are all lined up again and waiting. I look at them and tell: “Of course I forgive you. I have already forgiven you even before coming here. Otherwise, I would not have accepted this assignment.” Then I exclaim: “So, do you want to follow me?”

“Yeaaah!” they shout in chorus, raising their fists to the sky, and happy heading toward the classroom.

 

Historical-biographical Notes

- Johanna Bertha Julie Jenny, Freiin von Westphalen (better known as Jenny von Westphalen or Jenny Marx) was born on February 12, 1814 in Salzwedel in Saxony to Johann Ludwig von Westphalen, a former liberal public servant and first baron (Freiherr) Westphalen, already a widower and with children, and by Caroline Heubel. In Trier, where her family had moved in 1816, she met and attended regularly throughout her childhood and adolescence Karl Marx, who was four years younger than her (Karl considered Baron von Westphalen a "paternal friend", to the point of dedicating his doctoral thesis to him), sharing with him the love for literature and philosophy. A very cultured woman of uncommon beauty, after having rejected numerous suitors in 1836 she was secretly engaged to Karl, whom she married on 19 June 1843 and with whom she had seven children: Jenny Caroline (1844-1883), Jenny Laura (1845- 1911), Edgar (1847-1855), Henry Edward Guy (1849-1850), Jenny Eveline Frances ("Franziska", 1851-1852), Jenny Julia Eleanor (1855-1898) and a child born and died in July 1857 before to be given a name. She followed her husband in his troubled and erratic life, actively collaborating in her work and, according to some scholars, influencing her political theory. She died in London on December 2, 1881.

Her brother Edgar von Westphalen (1819-1890), childhood friend and schoolmate of Karl Marx, left for Texas, where he tried in vain to found a communist community; once he abandoned the project he decided to return to Germany, where he held, among others, the position of member of the Communist Correspondence Committee in Brussels.

Of Jenny's two half-brothers, the first, Karl Hans Werner von Westphalen, was born in 1803 and died in 1840; the second, Ferdinand Otto von Westphalen (1819-1890), was the Prussian interior minister from 1850 to 1858.

- Johann Matthias von der Schulenburg or Schulenberg (Emden of Magdeburg 1661-Verona 1747) was a soldier, patron and art collector. In 1702 he fought in the Saxon army against King Charles XII of Sweden during the Great Northern War and was defeated in the battles of Klissow (July 19, 1702) and Wschowa (February 13, 1706).

His descendant Gebhard Werner von der Schulenburg, born in 1881 in Pinneberg, was an art historian, journalist, novelist, playwright and diplomat in Italy. He tried in every way to avert the alliance between Mussolini and Hitler, which he did not appreciate, and whose anti-Semitism he did not accept (he was indeed clearly pro-Jewish). He participated in the Valkiria operation together with his cousin Friederich Werner von der Schulenburg (German ambassador to the USSR) who was a victim of Nazi repressure, while Gebhard managed to escape to Switzerland, where he died in 1958.

- Martin Heidegger was born on September 26, 1889 in Messkirch to a Catholic family and completed his first studies in Constance and Friborg with the Jesuits attending courses in theology, later departing from Catholicism. Achieved in 1915 the free lecturer at the University of Freiburg in Bresgau and became assistant to the philosopher Edmund Husserl in 1916, with the publication in 1927 of his main work Being and time he completely detached himself from the teachings of the master, to whom he succeeded in the chair the following year. In 1933, after his election as rector of the university, he joined the National Socialist Party and on May 27, on the occasion of his official assumption of office, he delivered the speech on “The self-affirmation of the German university”, in which the recall at the beginning of Greek philosophy it intertwined with the themes of German power, will and destiny, for which he hoped for a new "beginning" (Anfang) through the work of the Hitlerian regime. During his rectorate, Heidegger actively intervened in the university’s nazification program. He behaved ambivalently towards his Jewish students and colleagues affected by the racial measures: he helped some of them to find accommodation abroad, but he denounced others; his Catholic pupil Max Müller lost his teaching because he declared himself "not a National Socialist", while the extent of his involvement in the expulsion of Husserl, to which he did not object, is still controversial. Resigning from office in 1934, he continued to hold academic courses until 1944, when he was drafted into the people's militia (Volkssturm). In 1945 the Commission d'Épuration set up by the French Military Government after the occupation of the city, also hearing the opinion of his ex-friend and colleague Karl Jaspers (whose wife was Jewish), intertalked him from teaching within the framework of the denazification program of the German state and society; the following year, plunged into a serious nervous crisis following the repeated interrogations to which he had been subjected, he was treated in the Badenweiler sanatorium. Reinstated in the teaching staff in 1949 thanks to a new positive opinion from Jaspers and the intervention of Max Müller, he continued to hold courses and conferences and to write books - among which “The Question Concerning Technology” stands out, in which a quotation from the poet Hölderlin is reported: "Where danger is, grows the saving power also" - until his death in Freiburg on 26 May 1976. The debate on the reasons for Heidegger's adherence to National Socialist ideology is still heated: his defenders attribute it to human opportunism, while the critics (among whom Victor Farías stands out) have thought of identifying its origin in the radical rejection of Western metaphysics and rationality in favor of a "turning point" (Kehre) towards a poetic and pre-rational listening to Being in its many historical-concrete "epiphanies".

- Martin Franz Rudolf Erwin Lange was born on April 18, 1910 in Weisswasser, in the district of Rothenburg, in an evangelical family. He studied law in Jena, where he joined the "Germany" student association, in Munich and Halle, graduating from the University of Jena on 12 December 1932. On 4 November 1933 he joined the SA to facilitate his career, but after hiring test at the Gestapo Central Office in Berlin, in 1936, he decided to switch to the SS. He became Untersturmführer (second lieutenant) on 6 July 1938, on 9 November of the same year he was promoted to Sturmführer (lieutenant), and on 20 April 1940 Hauptsturmführer (captain). After a period of training in the Gestapo Central Office in Berlin, where he became a 3rd class councilor, in May 1938 he was transferred to the command of the Vienna State Police to carry out the annexation of the Austrian police apparatus; returned to Ber-lino on September 17, 1940, he became deputy head of the police station. Following the formation of the contingents of the Ein-satzgruppen (operational groups) of the Security Police and of the SD (Sicherheitsdienst, the secret service of the SS) in charge of exterminating the Jewish population of the occupied territories of the USSR, Lange, which on the 20th April 1941 he was named Sturmbannfüh-rer (major), he was "sent to the East"; having become senior commander of Einsatzgruppe A, which entered the Baltic area following the Wehrmacht troops, he temporarily headed Kommando 2 of this special unit. From 3 December 1941 Lange was commander of the Security Police and of the SD for the general district of Latvia; in that capacity, in November-December 1941 he led the massacres of Latvian and German Jews near Riga. On November 9, 1943, he was appointed Obersturm-bannführer (lieutenant colonel). In early 1945 he became commander of the Posen Security Police (Sicherheitspolizei), and at the same time had to assume the post of senior commander of the security police to the Supreme Commander of the SS and Wartheland Police. He reached his new place of employment when Posen was now surrounded by the Red Army and had been declared a fortified city; injured during the temporary reconquest of the Sipo offices, he was promoted to Standartenführer (colonel) of the SS on January 30, 1945 and, by decision of Hitler, on February 6, 1945 he received the German gold cross. He died shortly after in combat in Posen.

- The German city of Cologne (Köln) was established by the Romans in 49 with the name of Colonia Agrippina on the hometown of Agrippina Minore (daughter of Germanicus and wife of Emperor Claudius). During the Second World War it was bombed 261 times by the British Royal Air Force. Particularly relevant were the attacks of May 30, 1942 (which went down in history as “Operation Millennium” as for the first time the RAF Bomber Command managed to bring 1,046 aircraft to the target); of June 28, 1943, which caused 4,500 civilian victims; and of 9 July 1944, which in 77 minutes killed 4,377 people and destroyed a 1,900-year-old historical and artistic heritage. Despite the British use of a large number of incendiary devices with white phosphorus and penetration bombs in order to interrupt the water pipes used by firefighters to extinguish fires, the presence of the Rhine and numerous channels prevented the occurrence of the phenomenon known as the "firestorm" (which instead devastated centers such as Hamburg and Dresden); despite this, 90% of the city center had been destroyed at the end of the conflict. The Catholic cathedral (official name: church of Saints Peter and Mary), begun in 1248 and completed in 1880, was hit 14 times, but did not collapse; restored after the war, in 1996 it was included in the list of the patrimony of humanity drawn up by UNESCO.

- Neuschwanstein Castle (literally "New Swan Castle") was built at the end of the 19th century in Sch-wangau, near Füssen, in southwestern Bavaria on commission from King Ludwig II, also known as "the king crazy”, who spent all his heritage in the company, as a personal retreat and homage to the genius of the musician Richard Wagner, whom he particularly loved. Extending for 6,000 square meters spread over 4 floors and numerous towers, up to 80 meters high, it is located at the foot of a mountain, not far from a lake, on the edge of a vertiginous gorge and in front of the castle of Hohenschwangau ("County of high swan"); in fact Ludwig called his new residence "New Hohenschwangau Castle", and it was only after his death that it was renamed in the current way. All the rooms are decorated with Wagnerian motifs, with the exception of the throne room (never completed due to the premature death of the sovereign), which instead features decorative motifs inspired by Byzantine art; noteworthy are the Singers' Hall, with a view of the fortress in the background, dedicated to the “Tannhäuser”, and the courtyard decorated with scenes from the “Lohen-grin”. Despite the order given by Ludwig to the caretaker to forbid access to the curious after his death, a few weeks later the castle was opened to visitors. Used as a setting in many films, such as Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Rapun-zel, it is still one of the most visited places in Germany, all year round.

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