I was going to Munich to jump-start my concert career, but there was also a larger purpose for my trip. I had to find out for myself if a whole nation could be as evil as its history. The overnight train from Paris was scheduled to cross into Germany around six in the morning. As we retired for the night, the train conductor came over to collect our passports for the customs inspection, and I asked him to wake me up half an hour before we reached the border. I envisioned myself looking out the window and seeing the pastoral French fields metamorphose into Teutonic hideousness. Before the conductor had a chance to knock on my door, I’d already been awakened by the aroma of fresh coffee. I climbed down from my bunk bed and hurried out to the corridor to look for the vendor. We’d just left a station, the engine gradually increasing its speed until it forged ahead with full power. My eyes feasted on the colorful French landscape, the inspiration for such magical brushes as Monet’s and Poussin’s. I prepared myself for the impending entry to Germany, curiosity and trepidation intermingled. After I sipped the last drop of my coffee I looked for a trash can. Just then we slowed down and entered another station. Where were we? As the train stopped, our car was too far out, and I couldn’t read the sign. Some activity on the platform was discernible, though, despite the distance. Specifically, a man sweeping the concrete.
“Can you believe your eyes?” I asked a fellow passenger. ”A Frenchman with a cleaning fetish!”
Midway through my comment a new train conductor passed by, bidding us guten Morgen, and I realized we were already in Germany. We must have crossed the border in my sleep.
Two nights in a hotel were the most I could afford, considering the accumulated effect of missing work in Paris and spending money in Munich. On the last day I’d have my audition. Gerhard Schaffer, a well-known piano professor, had invited me to play for him.
“My class is full but I liked your letter. Sometimes I make an exception.”
It was the most promising offer I’d had in a long time. In my ideal scenario I’d make a knockout impression on him, generate recommendations for a scholarship, and, who knows, maybe find an agent. The alternative was going back to my Paris routine of around-the-clock jobs for mere subsistence. Another option was returning home to Israel, marrying a doctor, and paying for a refrigerator in installments. There was no room for failure.
Munich’s train station was dark, damp, and drab—men and women in dirty green coats and woolen hats, and all kinds of railroad functionaries shouting “forwaerts” and “javohl.” “Forward” and “okay,” but in German the words sounded alarming. I hurried out and took the street tram to Schwabing. Everybody had said it was the place to be. Munich’s Latin Quarter. Cheap accommodations. Students and artists. I looked around for the bohemian flavor, but all I saw were lusterless streets, gray buildings, and homely stores. Maybe Schwabing would burst into life at night.
I picked up my music books, and made my way to the Musikhochschule. The professor had written that I could practice there, he’d leave word. When I neared the building I suddenly remembered the Musikhochschule had been used as a Nazi headquarters. It was an extended edifice at the top of massive stairs over a broad avenue, looking more like an imposing monument than an institution of learning. I began to shake. It was early spring, but the air was nippy and my coat felt thin. Professor Schaffer was a thriving pianist in his youth. Did he join the Nazi party? What if he did? It was nearly thirty years since the war ended, and still no one could explain the contrast between Germany’s refined culture, and it’s repugnant past. When you raised the question, people would say they knew nothing, they were just trying to survive. I heard it a hundred times from people who stayed in Germany during the war. Those who’d left wore that part of their curriculum vitae like a badge of honor. They made sure to tell you right away.
“Dr. Brinkerhoffer from Stuttgart, chief surgeon in the Herz Klinik. I left Germany during the war. Very nice to meet you.”
All but one man, whose honesty hit me on an empty stomach prior to an early morning medical exam. I’d just put on a robe and braced myself for my first private moment with a German doctor. A grey-haired man in white stepped in, looked at my chart, placed his thumb on my pulse, and said dryly, “We all knew what was going on and everybody who tells you he didn’t is lying.”
My blood pressure shot through the roof. Once I recovered I told him I was confident there were good Germans.
“Of course there are,” he said. “Even some Nazi party members were good people, only they didn’t have civil courage. What do you think you’d have done in their place? Joined the Resistance? It’s easy to fantasize about personal glory when you’re not about to be tested.“
On my last day in Munich I played for Professor Schaffer with the best outcome I could have hoped for, though the audition nearly went sour—all because of the cold weather and my inadequate clothing. Vanity played a role, too. To maximize the effect of my piano playing, I had put on my only pretty dress, a light turquoise thing more appropriate for the summer, with a matching pair of high-heel shoes. I was freezing by the time I greeted the professor, and as soon as I shook his hand my nose began to bleed, profusely and furiously. I ran to the bathroom and lay down. A female student handed me cotton balls. Time went by and I could hear the silence descending on the lobby. The professor had surely given up on me and gone home, I thought.
It was early evening when I emerged from that bathroom and walked to the exit in sheer frustration, my trip wasted, all my great plans thwarted. A slender young man rushed over. He told me to go to studio three on the second floor.
“Professor Schaffer is waiting for you.”
I apologized to the professor for the inconvenience. He smiled benevolently. My nosebleed gave him a welcome hour to practice. He was preparing to record the entire piano works of Max Reger for the Italian Radio. A mammoth, boring task, but, “work is work.” He said he hadn’t had an exciting student for a long time. And that Jews were exceptional musicians. The Berlin Philharmonic was an orchestra without a soul during the war. He hoped I was in shape to play for him.
I played for two hours, ending with Schubert. He kissed me on the forehead. He said he would coach me free of charge. He would also appeal to the director of the Foreign Students Scholarship Program for a grant. He thought I was ready for a concert career, though a higher degree of discipline and polish wouldn’t hurt. He could help me with both.
“Go back to Paris and come back in September.”
With an hour to kill before my train ride back to Paris, I was having a supper of cheesecake and coffee in the railroad station restaurant. I welcomed the solitary moment as there was a lot to think about. First, to mull over my reversal of fortune from a poor pianist with no prospects to a stipend student with a foremost musician as a guide. Then, to think about the cute young man I met at the Musikhochschule, Gunter, a law student doubling as a chauffer, who drove me to the station. If opposites attract, poles attract more, and the short time we had spent together was enchanting. All but one instance when he proudly said his mother hadn’t been a member of the Nazi party, which made me wonder about his father. We promised to write, and he said he’d find me a room with a piano for my return.
I looked around at the restaurant, more a tavern, reeking of sweat, wine, and sausages, and crammed with travelers plus the inevitable pack of rowdy drunks. A young woman stepped in. She was about my age, pretty, her hair in a mess. I saw her look for a free seat. One drunk pulled her arm and cursed. She brushed him aside, approached my table, and pointed to the chair next to me. I had piled my coat and bag on it to avoid just that—unwanted company. Germans join the tables of strangers in restaurants, a bizarre custom for a people who take ten years before shedding the “Herr” in favor of each other’s Christian names. I removed my belongings reluctantly and she sat down, glanced at my plate, and ordered cheesecake.
“Is that what Germans usually have for supper?” I asked.
“At home we eat Wurst,” she said. “I can’t stand processed meat. My name is Heidi. What’s yours? ”
The waitress brought the cheesecake and asked to be paid immediately, lest Heidi run off to the train to Bulgaria. I looked at her cake and realized I was still hungry.
“I’ll have another slice,” I told the waitress.
“Me, too, bitte schoen,” said Heidi. “One is not enough.”
We laughed. Then she hovered over my newspaper and asked what language it was written in.
“Hebrew,” I said.
“You’re from Israel?” she asked. “I hate Hitler.”
She explained that she was born after the war. Her generation would have never tolerated the likes of Hitler. How could they’ve taken him seriously? It was all because of those soup kitchens and the fuzzy-warm brotherhood of the masses. He made them feel Italian and they loved him for that.
She used the familiar form, “du,” rather than the courtly “Sie.” Friends had told me that in Germany, formality reins. Some even address their own parents as “Sie.” Sliding into the cozy “du” isn’t done lightly; it’s got to be earned. There’s expected to be an offer, made by the older to the younger, the woman to the man, the superior to the underling. Once accepted, they take their wineglasses in hand, link arms, and drink. Friendship! It’s a lifelong commitment. You may fight with your new friend, you may sue him, but you can’t withdraw the “du” without inflicting a mortal wound. By the same token, the scarcity of friendships produces a high quality of relationship, certainly preferable to those expeditious intimacies that begin with a bang and fade with a breeze. But watch out—if a strange man calls you “du” on the street you smack his face. And careful if you’re cheating with your boss, lest a “du” slips into conversation, exposing your indiscretion. Heidi said that young Germans disposed of the whole cumbersome process by calling each other “du” from the start.
I was happy to skip a few steps toward a friendly relationship with Heidi from Bavaria, namesake of the heroine of my favorite childhood book, Heidi from the Mountain. We talked with urgency, trying to voice as many of our thoughts as possible before my departure. As I stood up to leave, she told me she loved opera. We should go together when I was back.
As soon as summer was over, I left Paris for Munich. Gunter got me a rented room with an upright piano and an electric heater. He said there were restrictions—no visitors allowed, but he was exempt. He could come see me any day after five.
My landlord was a Greek doctor who worked long hours while his pallid, thin-haired German wife and their baby girl with a permanently runny nose stayed home. I could hear the woman type for hours on end. Sporadic sobs filtered through their living room door. We shared a bathroom, situated in the hallway between our two rooms next to the telephone. When I took a bath I could hear the doctor racing through long monologues in his mother tongue. As soon as I opened the bathroom door he’d finish whatever he was saying, and coerce me into having tea with the family. Once served, he’d force four lumps of sugar into my cup while admonishing his wife for being who she was.
“She used to play the piano!” he’d whine. “She used to be pretty! Now look at her! And to think I put up a fight for that!”
This sorry scene repeated itself often, always ending with the woman’s muted tears. Then she’d beg him to give her a few Deutsche marks so she could get out of the house from time to time. Only after she’d been amply humiliated would he allow me to excuse myself.
Gunter visited me daily, and sometimes he invited me to his Stammtisch, a cheery gathering of friends at their favorite tavern. One evening we were joined by his brother, a handsome guy with shifty eyes. The next day Gunter didn’t show up at our usual time, and I called him to inquire what had happened. He was living at his parents’ home, and his non-Nazi party-member mother answered the phone. She said he wasn’t in. No, he wasn’t sick, nor had he been in an accident. He hadn’t come to see me because it was over.
“You and him, or whatever you want to call it,” she said. “The affair. His father nearly collapsed when he heard about it. He has a bad heart.”
She elaborated with gusto. She was a broad-minded person. Definitely not an anti-Semite. But they only had two sons. They had to think of their future. Gunter was careless and immature. In time, he’ll learn. She hoped I understood. I asked if I could talk to him in person and she said that was out of the question. They were sending him to a university out of town to conclude his studies.
The Greek landlord did everything in his power to console me, but when he started knocking on my door at midnight, I decided to look for a new place.
This is how it went: I knock on a door. It opens ever so slightly, deadbolt still engaged, just enough for a pair of eyes to peek at me. They squint. They belong to the cagey lady of the house, with the face of her watchful husband close behind. Mistrust permeates the hallway. The husband asks me what I want. His tone says rejection. I say politely that I’m interested in the studio. I point to the ad in the paper as proof of my decent intentions.
“Already rented.” The door thumps in my face, locks clicking.
After a dozen such experiences, I changed my opening gambit and began by saying I was from Israel, and that I saw their ad in the paper.
A smile. Then a question about my finances. Not that they don’t think I can pay; just a formality. I tell them.
The husband: “You have a scholarship? That’s good.”
The wife: “What do you study? Music? We love music.”
The husband: “We love music. Do you play Beethoven? But it’s impossible to practice here. The neighbors, you understand. And we don’t have a piano, anyway. Very sorry.”
Husband and wife prepare for a tactical retreat.
But I need that studio. I engage them in conversation. I know everything about practicing and neighbors. In Israel (I hate playing this card, but I do) I wasn’t allowed to play between one and four; siesta hour. Hot climate. You don’t have that problem here in Germany. I promise not to practice in the evenings. Never on Sunday. I intend to rent a piano. I’ll pay for it.
The husband: “You can’t do that in a furnished apartment. It’s against the law. Furnished is furnished. Jawohl. Aufwiedersehen.”
The wife: “Alles gute.” All the best.
One down. Sometimes the husband would say he had a friend in Israel. Everybody in Germany had a friend in Israel. I figured that every Israeli must have had about twenty German friends.
Two weeks into the drill, I found myself faced with the probability of never finding a studio in Munich for love or money, both in dwindling supply as it was. So when I saw a “Vacancies, Apartments for Rent” sign on a large building in the heart of Schwabing, I raced up the stairs to the rental office.
It was my lucky day. A studio was available. The price was right. I could bring my own piano. Sign here. Then the young gentleman escorted me to my new home. We went down the spiral staircase one floor, then two, then three. I’m coming to you, Florestan!
There in the dungeon was my studio. A room without a view. After I settled in, I went up to the street to acquaint myself with my new surroundings. Identical, red-haired twins in tight leather miniskirts were chatting with a bunch of sailors. I waived at them and they laughed. I bought basic supplies and spent the rest of the day practicing the piano.
The studio had just the right atmosphere for creative work. I’d positioned a rented beat-up baby grand in the corner. I had a couch that folded out into a bed, provided the coffee table was pushed under the piano. There was a tiny kitchenette and an even smaller bathroom. I did actually have a window, though it opened only at the top and to a parking lot. My fresh air was fumes and exhaust. But I’d found my niche.
My first night there, at two in the morning, I was startled awake by a heavy knock at the door. I pulled the covers over my head. The knock persisted, and then a male voice demanded to see Ursula.
“There’s no Ursula here,” I mumbled.
“Open up, Ursula. This is Heinz.”
“There’s no Ursula here,” I whispered.
The man pleaded with me to let him in, and kept calling Ursula’s name and knocking until he gave up and dragged himself away.
The following evening Heidi took me to a party, hosted by two philosophy students. Students across the globe tend to be the same age, except in Munich. The city is a playboy’s paradise: the mountain resorts in winter, the lakes in summer, and the year-round party scene. The fun begins with Oktoberfest, continues with skiing at Christmas, then the New Year, and on to Fasching—an endless Mardi Gras with successive, all-night costume balls, which extend well into March. To get into a university, students need a certain high school GPA, but once in, their studies are free. There’s no incentive to graduate quickly. As a result, the students at that party ranged in age from twenty to thirty-five. Mostly left-wing intellectuals, intensely involved in world affairs, articulate, knowledgeable, and utterly raucous.
We discussed politics and Kierkegaard as I exercised my new German vocabulary derived from the texts of Schumann’s art songs. Holding my own against the brainy German students with their fastidious linguistic skills was a chore. I got into trouble as soon as I attempted to take part in a cerebral discussion and uttered the word “feelings.”
“Feelings?” laughed my interlocutor with a ferocious onslaught of good cheer. “That’s a primitive expression. I mean crude. Basic. Unsophisticated. Raw. Elementary. Unrefined. Hazy. Fuzzy. Unsubtle. You’re not going to make it here with that kind of talk.”
As evening turned into night and everybody got drunk, lofty conversations gave way to more mundane topics, at which point someone asked me where I lived.
“Ainmiller Strasse, 5,” I said.
He burst out laughing, and shouted through his tears, “She lives in number five, Ainmiller Strasse!”
Now a whole group of men was roaring with laughter, and one held his hand over his stomach for fear he might throw up. I exchanged a puzzled look with Heidi. She didn’t seem to get what the fun was all about either. She asked one of the men, then took me aside.
“It’s a whorehouse,” she said. “You live in a whorehouse.”
The next day I stepped into the rental office and asked the nice gentleman who had shown me my studio where I could find Ursula. He said she lived in apartment five-sixteen. I posted a note on my door, saying, “Ursula’s moved to 516, please don’t bother me.” Nobody did.
Later that day, I saw the twins with two Japanese men and I waived to them. They waved back. A few days later they knocked on my door, carrying a tray of cookies.
“For you,” said Nushka.
“We baked them ourselves,” said Natasha.
“She did,” added Nushka. “I’m hopeless in the kitchen.”
They said they were from the north, and their real names were Gertrude and Charlotte. Their pimps said Russian names were better for business. Why did they choose this kind of life? Their father died prematurely, they needed money—a familiar story, but nothing to worry about. It’s great to be twins. Munich is wonderful. Natasha said they were going home for the Christmas holidays. Did I have any plans? I said I didn’t really know anybody, and my family was too far away. I couldn’t afford the trip. Nushka said I could always go with them to their mom’s if I wanted to. I thanked her and said it was all right. We’d have a drink on New Year’s Eve.
As soon as they left, I was overcome with self pity. Professor Schaffer was going to Italy with his Rheinmaiden wife. Gunter had been all but deported by his Jew-hating parents. Everybody I’d met was packing to go home, or skiing. Worst of all, the landlord told me not to practice over Christmas lest I offend the neighbors. Despite my posture of self-reliance, I dreaded spending the upcoming holidays alone in Munich with nothing to do and no one to talk to.
Heidi came to my rescue with an invitation to her home on the mountains. Her parents would love to have me. “But don’t expect anything fancy.”
We were met at the train station by her father, a veterinarian, who was wearing lederhosen and feathered hat. He looked like he’d come straight out of a tourist manual minus the Bavarian good cheer. Heidi had warned me that he tended to be sulky, an aftereffect of his long imprisonment by the Russians during the Second World War. We drove through the sleepy village to a large barn of a house, surrounded by tons of snow. Heidi’s mother was standing by the open door, a plump woman with a round face that emanated sweetness. As soon as she saw me, she burst into tears.
“Such a schöne Meiddle,” she wept in the local slang. “Look at that long black hair. A Jewish girl with long black hair, like our Madonna. I’ve never met a Jew before.”
I didn’t know what to say. It was certainly not the moment to point out that the Madonna was Jewish. She wiped her nose, smiled, cried again, then said between sobs, “There were no Jews in our village. We didn’t know anything. I had three small children and a husband in the front. What could I have done? I feel so guilty.”
Then she hugged me and dried her eyes with a kerchief.
“Please forgive our house. It’s very modest. This is your home from now on. Do you have any laundry? Heidi brings her laundry home. I want you to bring yours. I’ll wash it for you. I’ll be your German mother. Heidi, make sure she brings her laundry, gel?”
Heidi took my hand and led me inside. There in the corner sat an ageless, shapeless old mummy of a woman, her blue eyes piercing the air with their brightness.
“Do you have a husband?” she asked me. “Don’t ever get married. You can’t trust them.”
“Oma,” said Heidi, “meet my friend, the pianist.”
She gave her a kiss and turned to me.
“This is my grandmother. My grandfather went out to the grocery store one day and never came back. She has been waiting for him in this chair for forty years.”
Heidi showed me to the guest room upstairs, a narrow space with wooden walls and church-bell ceiling. A two-by-four window, placed low for a child, overlooked the yard. I put on my festive blue sweater and came downstairs to the living room. Everything was still. I looked around. A decorated Christmas tree in lights, a few packages in red wrapping paper and shiny ribbons underneath. Burning wood in the fireplace. Heidi’s mother was busy preparing dinner. The grandmother dozed off in her chair. I went to the upright piano in the corner and began to play. Heidi’s mother stepped in from the kitchen, bits of flour trailing off her apron. The father came and stood next to me, his austere demeanor momentarily softened. Grandma opened her eyes and swayed from side to side, humming. Everybody was smiling. Heidi said, “I told you!” Her mother called the younger brother at the top of her lungs. He came down the stairs to find out what the commotion was all about. She told him to go get Dr. Schumacher. He was their most illustrious neighbor, a music connoisseur.
“Tell him to come over right away.”
Slowly the room filled with neighbors, young and old, followed by Dr. Schumacher himself. I kept on playing, Beethoven and Brahms. The doctor whispered with Heidi’s father, then asked how had I learned to play the German masters like that. Heidi’s mother beamed with pride.
“Musical gifts have nothing to do with race or creed,” Heidi said.
I finished my little concert. Everybody returned home for their Christmas dinners.
We ate a simple meal. Nobody talked much. Heidi’s mother seemed to lose her buoyancy in the presence of her husband. After dinner she gave us a basket of homemade cookies, and both parents left for mass. Heidi said she was going to open her Christmas gift, she couldn’t wait until morning. It was a record of Eugene Onegin, the Tchaikovsky opera based on a poem by Pushkin.
Heidi dimmed the lights. We sat on the couch, folded our legs, ate cookies, and listened to Onegin. What a sad story. So romantic. And hopeless. Why couldn’t Tatyana leave her husband and elope with Onegin? At the end of the record, we stopped for coffee and more cookies. We talked about music and our aspirations, men, and dreams, and love. Then we played the record again.
We listened to it a dozen times, until we fell asleep on the couch. Heidi’s mother must have covered us with blankets because I stayed warm long after the fire had gone out.
I returned to the whorehouse for the New Year’s celebration. The twins came over with their pimps, while Ursula brought her sister along. It was a lovely evening of eggnog and nostalgia, and everybody was amazed at how I played German folk songs on the piano. They thought I had a bright future ahead of me, and Nushka’s pimp said that—in the event I didn’t make it on the concert stage—I’d always have a job with him.
Word count: 4570
6 comments on “FICTION: A Whorehouse in Munich by Israela Margalit”
Wonderful story. So vivid. I didn’t want it to end.
A beautifully written and simpatico story, Israela. Thanks fir sharing it with me.
I hope your summer is a pleasant one. Here at Tanglewood it has been a mixed blessing: a few really memorable performances, and some eminently forgettable!
I’ll be back in New York in early September—at which time I hope we can see one another.
my incredibly gifted friend, I lived this. more, more
dear- This is Fascinating! You captured the simple Germany of the years after the second world war in a very sensitive way.PLEASE – DO WRITE YOUR MEMOIR. XXXX
I loved this. I am a Jewish prof. of German, who came to and fell in love with the literature through the music. My grandfather had no love for Germans, but who could argue with Schubert and Brahms?