The Prisoner
A novel by Ernst Lothar
translated from the German by James A. Galston
New York, 1945
pages 144 to 155


[…]

In former times New Year’s Eve had been Toni’s favorite day. The resident students, even those of the lower grades, were permitted to stay up until after midnight. They were served tea with a dash of rum in it. A few of the upper-grade boys, however, managed to smuggle in some genuine French champagne which their fathers had sent them from France. Toni didn’t care for champagne. After dinner there was a cabaret performance, in the course of which Toni had done some of his famous impersonations. It would have been Nesk’s turn this year, for there was another victim every year. At midnight they indulged in the old custom of casting Iead, from which they foretold the future. That is, they did as long as there was any lead. When that gave out they had to use soot for their prophecies. Toni’s future was always the darkest of all. That was supposed to be a lucky omen. The darker the happier, they said.
It occurred to Toni that Laura might drop him, but he refused to follow the thought through. He couldn’t think such thoughts any more today.

Passing the outer gate of the former Imperial Palace, his eyes fell on the large dark letters of the inscription: Justitia Regnorum Fundamentum. He had studied Latin, he knew what it meant: Justice Is the Foundation of Empires. Scornfully he nodded his head. Of all the people in Vienna, it was he who had suffered the greatest injustice. No – of all the people in the world!

In the middle of the street he struck his fist twice against his temple to discover whether he was awake or merely dreaming. Yes, he was awake and had been pushed from the foundation on which everything rested. Of all the people in Vienna, it was he who had no justice, no protection, no hope.

No, Toni said to himself at once: he did have hope! He would surely succeed in hunting out the culprit. If Laura wouldn’t help he’d do it all by himself. He was grown up. There were lieutenants who were no older than he. He didn’t need a girl to help him. He would forego rest, food, and sleep until he had found the scoundrel. Toni was thinking in the language of the heroic tales of which he was so fond. What was the name of the man in the novelette which he was supposed to have read over Christmas? He, too, had been wronged. To be sure, to lose two black horses was infinitely less than to lose one’s honor. Nevertheless, the man had been wronged and he ... At that point Toni felt again unable to continue his thoughts. Although he had read the tale of the man, whose name he could not remember, rather carelessly because it had seemed to him so incredible and he considered it impossible that a man could be made to suffer wrong all the time, he did recall that that single man had risen against the whole power of the German Reich and in the course of his struggle had lost his wife, his fortune, and his life. Everything. Did a man have to lose everything if he fought for his right? Toni stopped instinctively. Nonsense! There was a tremendous difference between him and that man who had lived in the days of the Thirty Years’ War and fought for his right. That man had been guilty of fearfully evil deeds while fighting for his right. He had set fires, laid waste the land, scorched the earth, and committed murder. That was why he had lost everything. If a man had been wronged he could not fight the wrongdoers by committing a still greater wrong!

For a moment Toni felt comforted by that thought, as if it referred to his own case. Then he realized that such comfort was ridiculous. What could he possibly have in common with a Prussian horse dealer who had fought against unjust German electors? Nothing at all. There were no points of comparison. In those days Germany had been in the hands of evil rulers who did wrong and permitted wrong to be done. Today things were entirely different! When this occurred to Toni he felt deeply and genuinely reassured for the first time that day. How could he have for a moment forgotten what he had been taught in the first lesson of his re-educational course?

Before the Fuehrer came, wrong prevailed in Germany.

The Fuehrer has come as God’s messenger to free Germany from wrong.
From the wrong of Versailles.
From the wrong of the rich.
From the wrong of the Reds.
From the wrong of the Jews.

The Fuehrer has freed Germany from wrong for a thousand years to come.

They had spoken these words in chorus every day during the first year.

The boy, standing in the old stone archway of the Imperial Palace on whose front justice had been extolled for many centuries, looked up at the Latin inscription. Although it had never meant much to him, he felt greatly comforted. Only a few years before, it had been nothing to him but a row of inanimate letters. Today, when it concerned himself, it had become pure and living truth. The Reich of the Fuehrer, whom God had sent, was founded upon justice.

Clinging to this thought, he walked through the gate and into Heldenplatz. To his left stood the white Hall of Honor with the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the flame, eternally burning for him. But a few steps away, facing each other in the immense square – two sides of which were formed by wings of the Imperial Palace, while the other two faced the grounds of People’s Garden–stood the equestrian statues of two victorious Austrian generals: Prince Eugene of Savoy and Archduke Karl. The lilac bushes which had grown there and sent forth an unforgettable fragrance every May had been removed in the spring of 1938. The square was needed for mass demonstrations, and the lilac bushes were so many obstructions.
Up there on the balcony of the New Palace the Fuehrer had stood. Toni had seen and heard him. He had said: “The present day witnesses the cessation of wrong in Austria for a thousand years to come. Austria at long last has become a lawful state.” The steely voice still sounded in Toni’s ears.

I am not going to act like one of these Viennese idiots who doubt the Fuehrer’s word, Toni thought to himself. We are a lawful state now. If some criminal takes away my right I’ll see to it that I get it back. In a lawful state that ought to be easy. He reiterated the thought until it seemed to him quite matter-of-course. There could be no injustice in a lawful state.

He did not feel like going back yet to the oppressive atmosphere of home. Tired by the day’s strenuous demands upon his strength, he sat down on the bench near the Archduke Karl Monument. It was getting dark. The faint outlines of the Vienna Woods, of Kahlenberg and Leopoldsberg, lovely in silhouette against the sky on a clear day, could still be seen in the distance. It was not cold. One’s breath was not visible, as it usually is on a winter’s day.
A man sat down on the other end of the bench and said good evening to Toni. The Viennese were friendly people, but why should an old man greet so young a lad first? Toni was struck by this fact all the more because he had met with so little friendliness that day.

“Good evening!” Toni said in return and looked at the old man gratefully. He seemed quite aged, more than seventy perhaps. And he was dressed rather strangely. He wore a black bowler hat and tan shoes. On the sleeve of his overcoat, away from Toni, there was some kind of badge. It was a light-colored overcoat, much too thin for a winter day.

“I am not intruding, am I?” the old man asked humbly.

“Not at all!” Toni’s surprise grew.

“It’s quite warm for New Year’s Eve,” the man said after a little silence.

“Quite warm.“

They sat there for a little while. Toni’s Iook went back to the inscription above the gate.

“Do you know Latin?” the old man asked.

“Yes.” Toni rather disliked the feeling that everybody seemed to be able to read his thoughts. “I had a Iook at the Eternal Flame,“ he said, pointing to the Hall of Honor.
The old man nodded. “Two of mine were in it.”

“Your sons were in the war?” Toni asked, so as not to seem impolite.

“In the first one,” the humble old man said. “One of them fell at Lutsk, the other at Lwow. Both in Poland.”

“But you have nobody in the present war, have you?” To judge by the man’s age, he probably had not, and Toni merely wanted to say something to make up for the loss of two sons.

“That depends on how you mean it. I had five grandchildren in it. Again in Poland. A little farther to the north of it. In Lublin.”

“In what regiment?”

“Not in a regiment,” the old man replied, shrugging his shoulders.

“They had been deported there.”

“Oh, I see!” Toni said with a start. A movement of the old man had revealed the yellow patch on his sleeve.

“All in Poland,” the old man said, although there was little sense in the three words.
Toni had not taken the man for a Jew. But he had had little experience. The last Jew he had talked to was funny little Biach, who on the day of the Fuehrer’s entry had been kicked bodily out of prep school, together with all the other Jewish brats.

“Here is how it was,” said the old man. “My two sons fought and died under Emperor Franz Joseph in Poland so that my five grand-children might be slain there. Or gassed perhaps.”

“I am really sorry!” Toni was rather embarrassed. He didn’t know what to do. One was not supposed to talk to Jews; and certainly not to sit on the same bench with one.

“Thank you!” the old man said. After a little pause he asked: “Are you at high school?”
The question recalled everything to Toni’s consciousness sharply and bitterly. “I used to be at the Theresianum,” he said. At once he regretted having said it. He had almost given his credentials to a Jew!

“Theresianum!” the old man said thoughtfully. “A very fine institution. A number of men of my acquaintance were there. Ziwsa. Pidoll. You are not likely to remember. Of course you can’t remember. That was long before your time.”

The names, however, were familiar to Toni. Ziwsa had been director at one time, and Pidoll had been Herr Haffinger’s immediate predecessor. “Did you have–” Toni stopped abruptly. He had intended to ask: “Did you have your sons there?” But he realized in time that the question would be nonsensical. The sons were Jews.

“My eldest boy graduated from there,” the old man said. “Baron Pidoll and I were among the curators of the Crown Prince Rudolf Foundation. That was before your time too. Long before your time.”

Toni wondered whether he had not better leave now. If someone saw him talking with the Jew he might share the fate of the woman tobacconist opposite the academy. She had to walk about all day with a placard on her chest: “I am a stinking Jew lackey!” That would about cap the climax!

When Toni remained silent the old man remarked: “If you feel uncomfortable about my sitting here I’ll go somewhere else. I thought it would be all right, since there was nobody around to see me.”

Toni felt that he could not possibly get up now. There was really nobody anywhere near. The Viennese were bound by traditions – even though it was abnormally warm for December, it was no time to be sitting out in the open. “You needn’t go away,” he said. If he knew, Toni thought to himself, what has happened to me he wouldn’t be so humble. Jews are so impudent. He’s talking to me as though I still had my honor.

The old man remained silent for a while.

“It is getting dark,” Toni said, to break the awkward silence: He had said the wrong thing again, he realized; for it sounded as if he tolerated the Jew’s presence only because of the darkness. “I mean ... “ He did not know how to continue. “Well,” he said at last, “it’s nice to sit here.”

“A beautiful spot,” the old man agreed. “Of all the places I have seen in the world, I know of none that is more beautiful. Place de la Concorde. Piazza Venezia. Puerta del Sol ... “ He seemed to visualize the locations. “Beautiful too. Very beautiful. But not to be compared to this. If one sits here in May and smells the lilacs–or used to smell them ... “ The old man fell silent.

“Did you do much traveling?” Toni asked stiffly.

“A good deal,” the old man replied. “For pleasure. And for congresses and consultations. I used to be a doctor. But I was always glad to get back to Vienna again.”

There you are, Toni thought to himself. The Jews always claim they are badly off here; and this one considers Vienna the finest place of all! “A doctor’s profession is wonderful,” he said. He had set himself a Iimit of five minutes, and he watched the Iighted clock in the tower of the nearby Town Hall. He had watched many a clock that day. Five minutes would be enough, he thought, and he would be able to get up without being insulting. True, the man did not Iook like a Jew, nor did he talk like one. But something must be wrong with him. There was something wrong with every Jew.

“Do you, by any chance, want to become a doctor too?” the old man asked.

Toni was still more at a loss as to what to say. He couldn’t possibly say to the man: “I want to, but I can’t; for today I’ve been kicked out of the Theresianum and all the German high schools, and I’ve been done the greatest wrong in all the world.” One couldn’t possibly say that to a stranger. “I always thought it the most beautiful profession,” he said evasively.

“Why?” the old man asked.

“Because one can do the most!” Isn’t that obvious? Toni thought.

“For others, you mean?”

“Of course!” The old man was probably not a doctor at all, or he couldn’t have asked such a silly question. All Jews were liars.

There was a brief silence.

“I don’t think it’s such a matter of course,” the old man said after a little while. lt seemed he had been reflecting. “In the fifty-two years I spent here in Vienna as a doctor – I got my diploma in 1885, and was forbidden to practice in March 1938 – I treated possibly fifty thousand people. I may even have saved the lives of some of them.”

“Well, isn’t that beautiful?” Toni asked when the old man failed to add the logical conclusion.

“It used to be,” the Jew said.

Perhaps he wasn’t in his right mind? It seemed to Toni that his words were not directed at him. They were addressed to nobody in particular. There were still three minutes left of the five.

“Are you afraid of something?” The entirely unexpected question, coming out of the dark, took Toni unaware. The voice had sounded so sympathetic.

“No!” Toni replied curtly. In order not to be rude he added: “I’ve become the victim of a horrible injustice.”

“Oh!” said the old man, whose face was swallowed up by the dark more and more. “It seemed to me that you looked a bit fagged and might be afraid of some illness.” Now and then a gleam came from his eyeglasses. “Did you sit down here to ponder over the truth of the inscription up there?” he asked a little later.

“In a way,” Toni replied.

“I do that, too, once in a while. I sit here when it gets dark. That’s not the only reason, but – as you said – in a way ... “

Toni did not like the “when it gets dark” and “That’s not the only reason.” Typically Jewish! The Jews always felt sorry for themselves and jeered at everything else. “I just happened to pass here,” he said, to set the man right.

“Naturally. At your age and in your circumstances everything just happens and passes quickly.”

By “in your circumstances” he means of course that I’m an Aryan. The Jews profess to know everything better than others! Toni thought. “That’s not it,” he said. “I just don’t feel like bewailing my fate.”

“I’m glad to hear that. You’d feel much easier about things if you were to determine that the words up there are not true. But that’s an intermediary state, like everything else. Infinity and eternity are the prerogatives of mathematicians and theologists. He who has studied merely medicine is content to leave it to them.”

“I don’t believe that,” said Toni. He had not grasped the meaning but felt like contradicting anyway. At first the old man has been so humble, and now he gave himself airs and delivered lectures!

“Strange. That’s what my students used to say–when I still had students,” the voice out of the dark said. “The inscription up there is nevertheless true. No matter how much we may doubt it at times, there is justice. But its apportioned–like crops, let us say. The fat years must make up for the lean ones.”

Toni realized that the old man had purposely misunderstood him. This was not a question of guilty persons, like the Jews! “But supposing,” he said, “that someone who is entirely innocent is done a terrible wrong!” He had emphasized the words “entirely innocent.” “I cannot tell you everything exactly, but perhaps you can imagine it. Not a little wrong – the greatest wrong in all the world!”

“I can well imagine that,” the voice said.

“You can? Well, what’s to be done then?” Toni asked. Let the Jew answer now – he who knew everything better!

“Wait.”

“For what?”

“For justice.”

“And how long?” asked Toni, struck by the assurance with which the old man had pronounced the last words.

“A long time. We have been waiting almost six thousand years.”

“This is nothing to joke about,” said Toni brusquely. “I am in earnest! How is one to keep on living if he knows that he has been the victim of the greatest wrong in the world and is yet unable to prove his innocence?”

“One does not live,” the voice answered. “One merely fulfills the functions of life.”

“I don’t understand that,” the boy said.

“It takes quite some time to understand it.”

“Do you mean to say that one simply keeps on living as if nothing had happened? I couldn’t do that! A man can’t live without his honor!” There is really no use discussing things like that with a Jew, Toni thought. Jews had no honor.

“Quite true,” the voice said. “But it is remarkable how tenacious is mankind, and how strong its miraculous will to live. Somebody ought to write a treatise about what human beings are able to endure. The most extraordinary things. If one were given to exaggeration one might even be tempted to say that man is able to endure the greatest wrong in the world. I’ll give you an example. A man comes home, let us assume, and finds his wife lying at the door of his flat. An old woman of seventy-six. Married forty-nine years, the golden wedding would have been celebrated in another year. Now the man finds her dead, her head crushed, and brain substance issuing from her eyes. In her hand she clutches a slip of paper on which someone has scrawled: ‘Welcome home!’ Or, let us assume again, a man looks out of his window on November 11, 1938, and sees the Gestapo pick up two of his grandsons, just as a dogcatcher seizes a couple of mangy curs. The boys shout up to the window: ‘Grandfather! Help!’ and the man runs down the stairs, but the children have already been whisked off in a green car, to be deported to Poland. ‘Why?’ asks the man, and is told in the most matter-of-course tone: ‘Because the Polish Jew Grynszpan shot a secretary of the German embassy in Paris.’ Or the man’s daughter comes with three other grandchildren and says good-by because the four of them are to be sent to a Polish death camp. They may take along food that will keep them alive two weeks. Or the man walks on the street, let us assume, on Rathaus Street where, in number 3, he has lived as a practicing physician since 1885, and a few boys no older than yourself shout: ‘You don’t need a hat, you old swine of a Jew!’ They knock off the man’s hat, throw him to the ground, kneel on him, pound his head against the pavement, and yell: ‘Just to let you know what it is like where the worms are!’ And this is witnessed by some people who have known the man and were treated by him. Let us assume with some exaggeration that he had saved the lives of a few of them. These people now look the other way. The man gets up, picks up his hat, and even brushes off his clothes. He walks into the house and up to his apartment. The M.D. sign is no longer at the door. It had to be removed because the German people must no longer be dishonered by being treated by a Jewish doctor. The man finds his rooms ransacked. Everything he has acquired in fifty-two years of hard work has been taken away. Strange people are living there. The man himself lives in what was formerly a lumber room. He is too old to be sent to Poland or to be slain in Vienna. So he lives there. The strange people in his apartment permit it. He sleeps. He eats. He thinks. He endures. Believe me, the human power of resistance is remarkable.”

The Ionger the voice spoke the harder it was for Toni to listen. Jews lie. They always pretend they are the victims. But it was because of the Jews that wrong came into the world! We were their victims until the Fuehrer came and freed us from their fangs and claws! Toni recited to himself the accepted slogans which had become as much a matter of course as the fact that night followed upon day. In the meantime, the voice had become more urgent and – so it seemed to Toni – more reproachful. He fought against it. It sounded suddenly so terribly true.

The voice stopped, Toni had time to reflect. “If that were true,” he finally said, for he wanted to confute the old man’s reproachful contention, “it would mean that there isn’t any justice at all in the world.”

“Ah, but there is!” was the reply. “You just have to picture it to yourself properly. Justice is not the proof of guilt or innocence. If for no other reason, because innocence is always invisible.”

“But what, then, is justice?” the boy asked, coming more and more under the spell of the strangely knowing, quiet, and compassionate voice.

“It is to the spirit what oxygen is to the lungs. Without it thinking would suffocate,” the voice answered.

Toni felt disappointed, as he had so often felt that day. He thought he could hear in the answer the implication that justice was a mere theory. “I’d rather not live, then,” he said.

“What are we in this world for if we cannot get our right?”

“We are witnesses,” came the reply.

“We are what?” Toni asked.

“Witnesses. To be a witness is the most important function in the world. Everything depends upon us. Upon you. Upon me. Upon the witnesses. We must be present on the day of justice. We or our witnesses. Or the witnesses of our witnesses. Listen to me! I’ll tell you something ... “ The lights in the square were turned on. “I think I’d better go now,” said the old man without finishing his sentence. When he got up the light of the nearest street lamp fell upon him. He was a very old man, delicately limbed and unbowed. Strange how much he resembled the academy director!

Toni, too, had risen. “Thanks!” he said, and quickly extended his hand.

It seemed as if that hadn’t happened to the old man in a long time. His humbleness, which he had lost in the course of the conversation, had returned and made him hesitate before he took the hand of the Aryan boy into his own thin hands. He held it a second. “I thank you,” he said. “It has done me good to be able to talk once more.” He released the boy’s hand and added: “Do you see now that there is justice? You yourself have proved it.”

“You were going to tell me something,” Toni reminded him.

“Now it’s not necessary any more,” the aged man said. He walked away, but turned around and nodded to the boy.

“Happy New Year, Herr Doctor!” Toni called after him. He followed him with his eyes and looked in his direction long after the frail figure had disappeared in the dark.

[…]