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Photo by Atelier Reich © Stefan Zweig Centre Salzburg

Renate Ahrens

Stefan Zweig – On the Threshold

I am no longer a child. I have my own key. I heat up my lunch in the afternoons. I began reading the newspaper a couple of months ago.

A student was shot by police in Berlin in June. The war between Israel and Egypt went on for six days. The war in Vietnam has been going on for years.

On a hot day at the end of August there is carrot stew for lunch and junket with blueberries. I lay the serviette across my lap and begin to read. A court case has started in Frankfurt. It is the third in a series of court cases. Auschwitz. I’ve never heard of this word. Two men are accused of multiple murders. They were prisoner functionaries in the National Socialist concentration camp Auschwitz. These unfamiliar words aren’t explained anywhere. Apparently adults already know what prisoner functionaries and concentration camps are. I only know that this is about a war. The Second World War.

Mother’s books are arranged on open bookshelves. I am allowed to leaf through the art books and the books about foreign countries, the Atlases and the Lexicon. I find an entry under Auschwitz. Extermination camp. Of the six million Jews murdered around one million were killed in Auschwitz. Either shot or gassed. I cannot move. So many people. How is that possible?

I stand helplessly by the bookshelves. I am not allowed to read the novels. Those are for grown-ups, you are still too young. Thick books with four hundred, five hundred pages, ordered alphabetically according to the name of the author. Mother would notice the gap if I took a book. It will have to be a thin book. I run my forefinger along the spines of the books, row after row. In the middle are novels by Thomas Mann. I don’t recognise most of the other names and titles. Most of the spines are slim. I discover the slimmest at the end of the bottom row. A book by Stefan Zweig. Our teacher had spoken about him recently. An emigrant like Thomas Mann. What are emigrants? I asked. People who have to leave their country. Why? Because their lives are in danger. During the war? Before then. Chess Story. What did chess have to do with emigrants?

A novella is not a novel, so it doesn’t count. I pull it out. It’s a hardback. I like the cover with its black and white chessboard and two chess pieces. I don’t play chess, but I take the book to my room anyway.The narrator is travelling on a steamboat from New York to Argentina. A friend tells him that a young chess world champion is on board. Several pages are dedicated to the talent of this simple and smug man, who cannot do anything except play chess.

This fellow only has one thing in his walled up brain, and that is that he has not lost a single chess game in months, and as he does not even realise that there is anything on this earth of any worth apart from chess and money, he has every reason to be delighted by this.

I am not sure whether I will keep reading.

Mother comes home at quarter past three. I do not ask her about the court case.

The Second World War began twenty-eight years ago today, our history teacher informs us the next day. Who knows how it all came about? No one volunteers to answer. I read that a million Jews were killed in Auschwitz, I call out into the silence. Auschwitz is not on our curriculum, answers the teacher without looking at me. You’ve barely started the seventh grade.

In the afternoon I eat rice pudding with cinnamon and sugar. I read a short article about the court case in the newspaper. They explain what a prisoner functionary is today. Maybe someone called and asked the editor. Maybe not all adults know about such things. The two prisoner functionaries were prisoners who were made to supervise other prisoners. They are accused of mistreating and in some cases killing people. Strangling. Drowning. Beating. Did it taste good? I flinch. Mother is standing in front of me smiling. Yes. Shall we go swimming? I hesitate. What’s wrong? Nothing. Did you have trouble at school? No. The weather’s so nice, there’s going to be a storm tomorrow.

At the open baths we look for a place on the grass. Mother puts up her sun lounger and I lay out my towel. We rub one another with sun cream; mother puts on her straw hat and reaches for the newspaper. I lie on my back and close my eyes. I wonder if she’s reading the article about the court case.

Later in the afternoon, I hit my back on the bottom of the pool when I dive in at the deep end. I thought about the chess world champion. When an educated man feels something, he crawls into his shell. I get goose bumps. Perhaps I will keep reading.

Are you hurt? my mother asks. Hurt how? I look at her. It wasn’t a good dive, I mumble. Can you please stop diving, for my sake? No. It’s so dangerous! I borrowed a book from you. Don’t change the subject. Don’t you want to know what kind of book? Fine, tell me. Chess Story. I see the surprise in her face. What made you choose that? We were learning about emigrants in school. Oh. Don’t tell me that I’m too young for it. I wasn’t going to.

A group of men on the boat had started challenging the chess world champion. They have no chance because of a man,whose narrow, pointed face, which struck me while I walked about the deck due to its odd, almost chalky pallor, interferes with their game.

Suddenly I shut the book. What is it that draws this man to the game, though he claims that he hasn’t sat at a chess board for twenty, no, twenty-five years?

The narrator is as curious about him as I am: I am especially fascinated by the curious pallor of the relatively young face, with hair that is blended with white at the temples; I had the impression, and I don’t know why, that this man must have aged quite suddenly.

I read with agitation that they start a conversation with one another. Dr. B, a lawyer from Vienna, explains that he was very involved with chess. But that was under completely different, unique circumstances. What sort of circumstances? My eyes fly across the pages. Hitler […] Nazis […] listening post and spies […] Gestapo […] captured by the SS […] concentration camp.

I stop and start again. My hands are shaking. Dr. B lights a cigarette. The narrator notices, he has a nervous tick at the right corner of his mouth. […] It was only a fleeting movement, hardly a glimmer, but it gave his entire face a peculiar restlessness. I have a lump in my throat. Dr. B must have experienced something terrible.

Don’t you want to go to sleep? Mother’s voice is gentle. It’s after ten. She sits next to me on the bed and strokes my hair. The story is very sad, you’ll have bad dreams. Let me keep reading. Come into the living room, at least then you’re not alone. I shake my head. She looks at me as if seeing me for the first time. What is it?, I ask. She doesn’t answer. She smiles and kisses me on my forehead.

Dr. B was brought to the hotel being used as the headquarters of the Gestapo. People of my category, those who had important resources or money, were not sent to the concentration camps. They were reserved for special treatment. I’m scared. Mother was right.

But I cannot stop, I have to know what happened to Dr. B. He was not beaten, he was isolated. He was locked in a room. Through the window he saw a wall, he had no clock, no book, no pen, he was not permitted to see anybody except the warder, who he wasn’t allowed to talk to – there is not a single thing on this planet that puts such pressure on the human soul as nothingness.

I break into a sweat. I wouldn’t last a few days, I would lose my mind. Dr. B hadn’t lost his mind; he sits next to the narrator on the promenade deck of the ship to Argentina telling him his story.

My thoughts are falling over each other. It’s a made up story, a novella. Stefan Zweig wanted Dr. B to survive solitary confinement and escape the Gestapo. Maybe it would have been different in real life. Or did he want to show that someone who gets away isn’t wholly a survivor? I think of the restlessness in Dr. B’s face. Tension hangs in the air, the story is not finished yet. I force myself not to rush the last few pages.

Dr. B speaks of torture, the loss of orientation, the willingness to tell everything, to escape the choking hold of this nothingness. Before these interrogations they would make him wait for hours and hours, to quiet the body and mellow the soul. I tremble in fear with him when he takes a book he finds in the jacket of one of his torturers. It’s a book about chess that includes a hundred and fifty championship games. I’m just as disappointed as he is. But he starts to copy the games on his chequered bed cover with the help of breadcrumbs – My brain was rejuvenated and at the same time sharpened by the disciplined thinking. I recognised that this book was his salvation. But there was a further twist. When he had memorised all one hundred and fifty games, he began to play against himself. Both of us triumphed and were simultaneously embittered by our clumsiness when one of us made a mistake. He had a nervous breakdown from an overdose of chess, a state of madness, as the doctor explained to him later in hospital. While there he made a quick recovery, I breathed out. The doctor protected him from the Gestapo. Dr. B presumed that he had certified him as legally insane. Two weeks later he left Austria, not without a final warning from the doctor: when someone has been poisoned by chess, they must stay away from chessboards.

I know that he’s going to do it and he’ll become ill again. The next day he wins the first game against the world chess champion. Stop!, I think. The narrator tries to prevent Dr. B from continuing to play – an exalted air came over the man who was previously so quiet and calm; the corner of his mouth twitched more and more often, and his head trembled as if shaken by a fever. Soon afterwards he must end the game. He apologises and withdraws. The witless chess champion is triumphant. I wish it could have been different.

It’s almost midnight. I wonder if mother is still awake. I get out of bed and walk to the door. The landing is dark.

The last time I look at my clock it’s three in the morning. I must have fallen asleep after that. I have no dreams. At half past six mother wakes me and holds me in her arms. I cry.

On Saturdays we only have four hours of school. Unfortunately we have history. Since talking about Auschwitz the teacher gives me the evil eye. In the afternoon mother is at home, we eat tomato soup and apple pie. I don’t read the newspaper. She asks me how school was. I don’t tell her about the history teacher.

Mother had put a book on my desk. Her literary lexicon. A note marks the page where I find an entry about Stefan Zweig. Chess Story was his most famous work. It was first published in Buenos Aires in December 1942. I am shocked to read that by then Stefan Zweig was already dead. He committed suicide on the 22nd of February 1942 in Petropolis, Brazil.

This extract originally appeared in Cutting Across Time: Authors write about Authors; An Anthology of the PEN German Speaking Writers Abroad Centre, Synchron Publishers, 2012

Translated from the original text by Jen Calleja.

This extract is also available in German here.