By Timothy Sommer
Looking southeast, the early morning sky betrayed no sun, and the stars told their old story: Cancer, a faint sketch to the left, Gemini high and to the right (look for the constellation shaped like a turd, that’s what the old Professor had told him). It didn’t take long for him to find his favorite — tiny and bright Canis Minor, named by Ptolemy who, like Berger, was a man of multiple nations and languages.
That was something good that had come out of the camps, he thought. A cranky old Bolshevik with one dead eye had taught him all about the heavens. Everyone called him Professor Shitpants, but Berger just called him Professor.
Near the horizon, he found Monoceros, dim and named for a unicorn (his mind scratched at a nursery story his mother told him when he was a child inAugsburg– or had it been about Centaurs?). And over there, of course, Castor and Pollux, blush-colored giants, for some reason they always made him think of bullies.
Looking southeast, the sky gave no hint of the day that had already touched bruisedBritain, pompousRome, brilliantBerlin. Those places were out there, somewhere, even if Berger’s very best squint could not reveal them. So instead, he stood shin deep in the warm spring waters ofLong Islandstudying the shimmering sky, ignoring the noise of his fellow seamen.
The ability to be entirely alone even a crowd, take a breath or eight and be at peace in your own space, that’s something else he learned in Ravensbruck. You had to, or you would lose your mind.
Unlike the Professor, they had released him. Unlike the homosexuals, the newspaper editors, the jazz musicians, the gypsy wine sellers, Berger walked out through the gates. A fat little man, fat but strong, neck as big as his waist, had stood on a box and asked who spoke English, who had lived inAmerica. After Berger raised his hand, they pulled him into the commandants office and asked him to say a few words. Shortly thereafter, they let him go. The old fairy magician, the math teacher who wrote strange plays, the economist who had dined with Hindenburg, the clown from theBudapestcircus, they all stayed.
Looking southeast, the sky, which had been bound seamlessly to the blackAtlantic, had begun to distinguish itself, to draw a horizon, to assert its own identity from the wet planet. A deep ink-blue was visible above the pure dark beneath it, and this made Berger think of Genesis, God was dividing the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament.
Hapt, Dasch, and Quirin, young men with Old Testament names, were his mates on this strange mission. Not a fanatic amongst them, but all shared the ability to speak English more or less without an accent. The first thing they needed to do was dig holes and bury the boxes they had brought from across the sea, but the wet Amagansett sand was as hard as concrete, so this took a while, with a lot of cursing and not a little blood along the way. Once the work was completed, badly, Berger and the others walked into town.
Looking southeast, the birthing morning sky was bursting with pastel pink, flaming orange, magnolia yellow, and clouds that shouted halleluiah. The four seamen, now in civilian mufti, passed no one on the way to the train, but just south of the station they stopped in front of a store window. It was a pawnshop, a great potpourri of orphan objects. Each of the group grinned and laughed, staring at these pieces of American life: tarnished trumpets and adding machines, wedding rings and communion dresses, prayer shawls and peacoats, magazines full of pictures of movie stars whose noses came straight off their foreheads like greyhounds, toy bicycles missing toy wheels, single encyclopedia volumes separated from their brethren. They stayed so long at the shop window that they almost missed their train.
Looking southeast, the sun had dissolved in the wide, bright yellow of the morning haze. Berger, Dasch, Hapt, and Quirin climbed on the6:57train to Penn Station.