As a new track for the blog, I will post chapters of a translation I am working on for We Are Prisoners (Wir Sind Gefangene), an autobiographical 'confession' by Bavarian author Oskar Maria Graf (1894-1967). Look for a new chapter each week!
Though a contract to publish is not in the works, and I haven't secured individual copyright, I do assert all claims to intellectual property for this translation. I find the work is in such need of a new translation - which hasn't been made since the first one in the 1920s - that I am posting chapters here until other arrangements are made. (And yes, the irony of this decision should not be lost on those continuing to read later chapters in the blog...)
(Part I - The Early Years)
Chapter 1. A Changed Life
On that May afternoon when our teacher suddenly entered the room, came up to my sister Anna and me, and told us that we should go home because our father was very ill, I felt no emotion whatsoever. Out on the road we spoke very little and kept a serious facade. Basically, we were pleased to be through with the dull arithmetic lesson. We were good at our lessons and enjoyed going to school, but I disliked arithmetic. There was no element of surprise in it; everything was clear and straightforward.
It was a marvelously clear and sunny day. The meadows around us were fresh and green and dotted with flowers, the apple trees on either side of the road were in full bloom.
When we reached the village a peasant woman met us; she stopped and said, “Go home, your father is seriously ill; He is in a bad way.” We quickened our pace. At home somehow it was silent. We went into the kitchen, which also served as the living room, and saw Mother handling some bottles on the stove. She just said, “Go up to Father,” and burst into tears. We put down our satchels and went upstairs. When we entered the room we began to cry. We didn’t know why. I didn’t feel any sorrow, I just had a slight sense of dread. The room smelled strongly of medicine and perspiration. My brother Eugen sat by the bed in his uniform and gazed incessantly at Father. Theres and Emma stood behind him. My eldest brother Max stood against the wall and stared at us. Maurus was leaning against the window, and Lorenz whispered to us, “Go to him.” His face was swollen from crying.
We timidly approached the bed and said together, “Father.” The sick man lay motionless and had a gurgle in his throat. His face was strangely yellow and sunken. My younger sister leaned against the bed and sobbed again, “Father.” At that he moved his head a little and gazed at her silently. Everyone looked at him and then began to cry aloud. Eugen wanted to put his arm behind Father’s neck to help raise him. But at that moment the dying man uttered a coughing sound, his body became straight and stiff, his face twitched and the whites of his eyes stood out terribly. Death had come.
Lorenz ran to the door and called out, “Mother!” We all stood around the bed sobbing and folded our hands. Only Max remained calm. Our mother came in and approached the bed, crossed herself, cast a sorrowful glance up at Heaven, folded her hands, and softly murmured a prayer while the tears streamed down her wrinkled cheeks. After a while she crossed herself again, bent over the dead man and closed his eyes. Meanwhile, Theres and Emma lit the two candles that had been left there after the priest had given last rites; they fetched some holy water and sprinkled it over the dead man. With a sorrowful voice my mother began to say the Lord’s Prayer, and we all joined in, one after the other. Then we left the room and went down silently into the kitchen. The funeral was arranged, the body prepared, and a priest secured to conduct the service. By six o’clock the hearse was parked at the door, and the coffin was loaded into it amid loud lamentations and driven to the priest’s. We, along with many of the villagers, walked behind it with bowed heads and said our rosaries. When the coffin was placed in the chapel, people came up to my mother and the eldest siblings and extended their hands. They looked with pity at the younger children and said to us, “Poor children” or something similar.
The next day we were awakened by solemn bells, which tolled throughout the morning. The Veterans Club flag was lowered three times into the grave, and guns were fired nearby, for my father had served in the war of 1870-71.
We had lunch at the inn and the relatives and cousins came, too. All kinds of stories were shared about my father, and people recalled what he had said on this occasion and that. In the afternoon the whole family with all the relatives went down to the lake and drank coffee together in a restaurant. It all seemed like Sunday to us, and we children really enjoyed it – only now and again we thought of our father and felt sad for a fleeting moment.
From that time on everything was different at home. We had a flourishing bakery and a grocery store and a confectioner’s as well, some meadowland and forest, four cows, a horse, and usually four of five pigs in the sty. My mother’s home had been a large farm, and my father was a baker. When they married the house had been quite small; now because of my father’s love of building, it had grown to quite an impressive size.
My departed grandfather, Lorenz Graf, who had been an accountant, dreamed all his life of such a house. But as he never prospered in his wretched business, he began to count on some swift stroke of luck. He played the lottery in those days with great passion, often spending his last penny in this endeavor, to the distress of his large family. But he only became poorer, and when he died the property was in debt and in ruins.
Towards the end of his life my father lost his health, and Max took partial control of the household when he returned from military service. His manner in exercising authority was curt, brusque, and rough, provoking violent arguments while my father was still alive. Once even, the old man grabbed a knife and made for his son, all the while cursing. My mother flung herself between them.
After that the two did not speak to each other, and Father began drinking. He ordered Affental wine on draft, sat all day grumbling on the sofa, and gulped down glass after glass. He had his meals alone so that he wouldn’t see Max. The two avoided each other as far as they could, and when one was obliged to speak to the other there was such bitter quarrelling that we children always screamed and ran away. After these scenes we generally found our mother broken down and in tears. Father went out, got drunk at some inn or tavern, and did not come home till late at night.
We all hated Max. When he entered the house something alien came with him. He tormented us with sharp, biting words. Gentleness was unknown to him, he was always quick to strike. With his hand, with a dough mixer, with anything nearby. Eugen, the only one of us who was his equal in strength, was serving his term in the army. Lorenz, or ‘Lenz’ as we called him, worked with the journeymen at night, Maurus was learning the confectionery trade in Karlsruhe, and Emma was being taught dressmaking in Munich. Theres, who came next to Max in age, stood apart from the rest of us. In the morning she delivered bread with the horse and cart, and for the rest of the day she worked in the house. Max did not take issue with her since she knew how to deal with him. The two took no notice of each other, but they were bitter enemies.
After our father’s death the younger siblings became closer. Lenz read Karl May books a great deal, and secretly ordered sporting rifles to shoot pheasants, hares, and squirrels during his delivery rounds in the morning. He hid them in the breadbasket and roasted them at night with the help of the journeymen. At first I was not initiated into this ritual. Only after I had to accompany Lenz once did he lead me into the woods, fetch his rifle out of a hole in the rocks and tell me everything. I was excited. Another sporting rifle was ordered for me right away from Solingen. These deliveries were always addressed to our village shoemaker. We paid for his silence with bread.
As time went on we were no longer content with this solitary sport. All the boys our age in the village were initiated, and on Sundays we scoured the woods. Everything that crossed our path was shot down. Anyone who felled an animal with the first shot was awarded the “Hunter’s Prize,” which meant the rifle that had been bought communally became his sole property. Gradually our dealings became known. A policeman came to our house. We lied up and down, but there was a terrible row between Lenz and Max, which ended with Lenz going to town to look for work and never contacting us again. Later, after wandering the length and breadth of Germany in truly romantic fashion, he boarded a ship in Hamburg and sailed for America.
About this time I left the vocational school. Now I had to help at night in the bakery. Max kept a sharp watch on me. I was thoroughly intimidated and for a long time did not rebel. But on Sundays we would destroy the new park benches installed by the local Restoration Society – of which Max was a representative – tear up young trees, or set fire to a haystack. Something within us drove us to do these things. We actually regarded them as our appointed task and couldn’t be dissuaded. “Lenz must be avenged,” I always said. Something must be done. We hated the villagers. At that time we read The Downfall of the Seminole Indians. How unspeakably beautiful was the ending: “The last of the Seminoles bends over the dead chief, cuts open a vein and drinks his blood, which cries out for eternal vengeance. Then he goes to the Sioux tribe and joins in the struggle against the white men …”
There were three of us: Martin, a school friend of mine, my sister Anna, and I. One day we met in a cornfield outside the village. I outlined the plan for vengeance, and the other two knelt down, raised their hands solemnly, and said, “I swear.” We had agreed that if one of us betrayed anything, he would suffer the worst. Then we set to work. The miller had left his iron plough standing in the field. We took it apart and threw the pieces in all directions. The innkeeper by the lake was building a little wooden hut on the Etztal Hill. We slaved away for four Sundays—constantly interrupted by innocent people on their walks—until we had loosened it from its foundation and it went crashing down the hillside. That was a gigantic achievement; the trees in the way were broken, earth and stones tumbled after it, and the wooden monster rolled on with terrifying force. At the bottom of the hill people scrambled as if there were a fire, but they could do nothing. We were out of the way long before this, and were playing innocently at home, building houses with empty boxes in our yard.
Once the mayor left his foals out in the pasture. We made a channel to divert water from the stream nearby to the meadow, made a fire in the middle of the field, and drove the animals over the fire and through the water until their coats steamed. Then we moved away the willow fencing, and the foals galloped away in terror. It was not till late at night that they were discovered, trembling and terrified, on a narrow rocky path in the castle grounds.
We stole the tablecloths off of the tables in the inn garden and burnt them; we destroyed the finest beeches and oaks, so that they withered. People always said, “It’s the baker’s brats again!” But when they actually spoke to my mother, she said, “Nonsense! It’s impossible. Come, how could such little children do that!” Strangely enough, Max heard little or nothing about it.
Something must be done! Our vengeance was far too slight. In our minds nobody was really hurt by it.
Once again we ordered rifles. We started hunting again, only this time we left what we shot lying where it fell. One journeyman had been sentenced to three days in prison on account of the affair with Lenz. He wanted nothing more to do with us and always threatened to beat me at night. What could we do but keep it all secret? Every Sunday we renewed our oath as we gradually suspected danger on all sides. After a time the ceremony became a bit more romantic. I was the chief, and after my sister and Martl had taken the oath, we joined in eating a stick of ‘Andres Hofer Fig coffee’ that we had stolen from the shop. It tasted horribly bitter and gave us a stomachache, but exactly because the stuff was so nasty, we regarded it as a kind of conspirators’ communion bread. For some unexplained reason, we called the fig coffee ‘Claro’ because it sounded foreign and Indian and was printed on the cigar boxes in our shop. Sometimes when we met on weekdays and one of us had an inkling of threatened danger, we whispered to one another, “We have to eat Claro again!” The words were understood and no further questions asked.
We had to work hard. In the evening I was woken up by the journeyman – in the winter at eleven o’clock, in the summer at nine. We worked right through the night. At six in the morning Mother counted the loaves and put them in my basket, laid rolls on the top, and filled the knapsack for Anna, who was already waiting in the kitchen yawning sleepily. And out we went into the cool morning air until midday. Anna continued her rounds the whole afternoon. I had to help make cakes. I beat egg whites beside Max, mixed the batter and kneaded the shortbread dough. At five o’clock I was allowed to go to bed. That was the regular day’s work. For Easter, Whitsuntide and Christmas time it was often much longer. In addition I had to chop wood and cut chaff. And all the time Max’s threatening voice, like the crack of a whip: “Hurry, hurry, hurry! March! March!” For this work Mother paid me five marks a week in summer and in winter three every Sunday. At Christmas and on my birthday something was put into the savings bank for me, and I could see it entered in my book. But Max mustn’t know anything about it. He had his own ideas about me anyway. When he returned from military service he said in his offhand way, “The boy must go to sea!” He cut a bow for me and wanted to teach me to shoot, but it was badly made and the archery practice soon stopped.
Then I was to learn to play the zither. As soon as I got home from school I was to start practicing. Always the same, first learning the notes, and then finally the melody, “Rosebush, Elderblossom.” But I didn’t learn a thing, even though the discipline was strict. I bribed the tailor who was giving me zither lessons with bread and money for beer. He gave up trying. The zither was a torment to me and I hated it. One evening as Max was going out and I was supposed to the tailor’s, I hid behind an adjoining fence until my brother was out of earshot. Then I opened the zither case, put in sand and stones, and dropped the despised instrument into a neighbor’s fishpond. The next day when I was asked to play, the zither was not to be found. I told lie after lie and was severely beaten in the end, but I was free. From that time on, discipline was exceedingly strict. Fortunately, however, I left school soon afterwards and worked at night.
Things went on like this for two years. Gradually our Indian campaign of vengeance came to an end. One of the journeymen had a book entitled How to Become An Inventor. I read it, and my life took a new curve. I ordered technical books through the same shoemaker who took our rifle deliveries. I began to sketch. All my writing materials were hidden in the garret. I invented something – it was a bootjack. I sent the drawing to a patent office in Kassel. A reply came in the form of a most encouraging letter that gave me great hopes. But it said I must send seventy-five marks.
Seventy-five marks! My heart skipped. With that sum one could earn thousands, once the patent was registered. I showed the letter in strictest confidence to Theres. She was also set aflame. We shared the secret with Mother. I received the money and sent it off. In five weeks I found myself the owner of a German Imperial patent, sent printed prospectuses in all directions, and awaited the result, confident of victory. Every day I went to the shoemaker’s. Nothing but rejections.
One firm asked for a sample. Curse it! A sample! A sample! That meant another sixty marks, and once more Mother and Theresa secretly gave me the money. The sample arrived at the shoemaker’s and - it didn’t work. One rejection came after another. Theres just smiled. I took comfort. Even Edison did not become a millionaire overnight. I must stick to it. I must be indefatigable.
A new plan! An honest man wrote from Mecklenburg that all patent agents were frauds. He would do the job for the low price of eighty marks—he enclosed an exact and honest statement—and would promise to refund the money if the invention did not sell. There really are still honest men in the world, I said to myself.
My second invention was set in motion. The drawings were sent to Mecklenburg by registered post, and again within five weeks the second patent was secured. A self-pulling cork. Something that everyone would buy. It would sell in the millions!
This time I wrote personal letters to the manufacturers. I wrote very politely. Refusals. I wrote in a yet friendlier style: “Dear Mr. Bayer, I have an invention which I am sure you will be able to profit from in your factory. I shall be glad to dispose of all the rights to you for the small sum of a thousand marks. Yours most sincerely, or Yours faithfully, or Very cordially yours, Oskar Graf, Inventor.” Refusal! I chose this formula: “Sir, I have invented a very sellable article. I enclose a sample. I will dispose of all the rights to you for five hundred marks; I would also accept less. Please take it off my hands. I would, in fact, accept three hundred marks. Yours sincerely, Oskar Graf, Inventor.” Refusal. Or no answer at all. The wretches would not even give me fifty marks, not even thirty. The world simply refused to recognize my genius.
About this time Maurus came home from Karlsruhe. He brought books with him. A stack of Jugend magazines, a volume of Heine, Stifter’s books in the Reclam edition, a volume of Uhland, Lessing’s dramatic masterpieces, Napoleon’s [Love Affairs and Mistresses,] Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, The Lady of the Sea, and Viktor Scheffel’s Novellas. He spoke High German with something of a Swabian accent, told me of a book about the Emperor Wilhelm II entitled He, and read Shakespeare to me. This he did with such passion, such intensity, as to spur my ambition. I began to read his books. But within a few weeks Maurus quarreled with Max and gave everything up. After a fight, with bloodshed, tears, and cries of rage, he packed his trunk and went off to Bamberg.
A cow fell ill. Four pigs died. The horse died of colic. The mayor lent Max a book called The Veterinary Doctor. I read it at night. Slowly my interest was aroused. Moreover, I was turning over in my mind what profession I really wanted to pursue. Again a cow fell ill. The district veterinarian came and gave us a lecture in the byre. That was the nudge. I made up my mind: I will be a veterinarian.
The cow died. “Infection,” said the veterinarian.
Infection? What is that?
I ordered Diseases of the Cow from Parey’s in Berlin as the first book for use in my future profession. It was a dark blue, thin and elegant little volume with fine gilt lettering. There!
I read and read. Suddenly I was stuck. There, among all the other words and just like them was: ‘immune.’
But what did it mean? What did it mean?
I wrote at once for a dictionary of veterinary terms. And then I set out to learn it by heart. From A to Z. Every delivery round with the bread was filled with recitations of the most outlandish words. If by chance the district veterinarian drove past, I took off my cap and ran some distance behind his machine, heart beating rapidly. For this man was something of a god to me; his head must be packed with what he had learned by heart!
After Diseases of the Cow came books on horse breeding, diseases of the dog, and the different breeds of poultry, then the sheep’s scab, and finally even books on breeding fish. All of the siblings were ambitious, and each of us was spurred on by the desire to outdo the others and to master our environment. Not one of us could bear to be behind anyone else in ability. What you have learnt is your own, I thought, and perhaps you will astonish your future teachers. I remember clearly how I began reading books with Maurus. We competed with each other in our reading, and I was filled with triumphant pleasure when I could say, “Ah, you haven’t read that yet! That is something quite different.”
The semester’s courses at the Agricultural College in Pfarrkirchen were announced in the newspaper. I made my plans: I will begin there and finish at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Munich. I did not want to go to a veterinary school. That was not good enough. It must be something with “University” in the title. I read my vocabularies aloud on the way to customers’ houses and before I went to sleep, and it was extraordinary how the driest material was tinged with emotion for me. Upstairs under the lead roof a fine collection of books was packed in a large cardboard box. Every day before I went to bed I climbed up to the garret, listened with a beating heart to make sure that nobody was coming upstairs, took the box out slowly, stroked the smooth cover of my books, and picked one out. I never went to sleep until I had put the precious treasure under the mattress, for if it had come out that I had the books, I should have been beaten till I couldn’t stand. In the first place the books cost a terrible lot of money, and secondly since the failure of my zither lessons, my orders were simply to be a baker. It was settled.
The weeks slipped past. My secret consumed and tormented me. I must say something. At four o’clock in the morning Mother came downstairs and put on the water for coffee in the kitchen. I always repeated the same complaint to her. The journeymen were rough, they beat me because I often fell asleep. One of them once threw a heavy sack onto my head, so that my whole body shuddered. But it was no good. Max shouldn’t hear anything about it. My mother always cried when I complained and said with annoyance, “If only we could have some peace and quiet for once.”
But – something must happen. It must!
“Today I will tell Maxl that I want to go to Pfarrkirchen. You must tell him. I simply won’t be a baker! I don’t want to. Each of the others has been allowed to learn something: Eugen was sent to the Business College, Maurus went to Karlsruhe and now he is a confectioner; Max just turned Lenz out, and he means to get rid of me someday, “ I wailed. Every day the same complaint, tough and bitter.
It wore my mother out. Her face grew more and more gloomy and she looked at me helplessly.
“Hm – I don’t know! Veterinarian. That’s nothing for you! A baker can always earn his wage – there is always something to eat, “ she argued. But it was no good. I was as obstinate as a mule. The term at Pfarrkirchen began on September 15th. I grew more and more insistent, but day after day no success.
“He’ll beat you up, then you’ve had it,” Mother said referring to Max.
“Even if he beats me to death, I will never change my mind,” I replied stubbornly. Meanwhile, nothing happened. I had an idea. I wrote to Eugen. The brute couldn’t do anything to him. There also wouldn’t be a fight or an uproar because Eugen was in Augsburg serving in the army.
I wrote, “Dear Eugen, Because nobody at home will listen to me, and because I believe I have the ability if I’m allowed to study, I am writing to you with a request to make it possible, as only you can. If you don’t help me I shall go to the dogs at home. I would like to go to the Agricultural College in Pfarrkirchen on September 15, and then to Munich to the University Veterinary Medicine, for I want to be a vet. But I can’t tell Max – you know that. He would only give me a good beating, the brute. But I must be a vet, or I shall go to the dogs. So do help me. Just write a good, strong letter to Max. He is afraid of you, but he will only beat me. But don’t tell Max in your letter that I wrote to you, or he will beat me for that, too. I will send you something to eat, if you help me. Your loving brother, Oskar.”
A few weeks later – it was September 8th already – I came home from my bread rounds and spoke softly and discreetly to Mother beside the stove, “Have you seen anything? Hasn’t Eugen written yet?”
Mother spoke so loudly that I had to calm her down, “If only I could have a little peace and quiet every once in a while! – Just go on as a baker – you will earn a much better wage.”
Max heard her. It was his habit to sit at the writing table in the next room about this time of day, and the door was open.
“What’s that?” he asked roughly.
“Oskar wants to be a vet, and the term is just about to begin, he says,” answered my mother plaintively. My whole body was trembling. I was gripped fear. My heart beat loudly. I stood there and waited. Something was playing out now that would be decisive for the rest of my whole life. As I stood there I quickly pictured my time in Pfarrkirchen almost as clearly as if I were already there, leaving my residence and going to lectures every day in my Sunday clothes.
Then Max suddenly got up and stood in the doorway and said, “What do you want to do?” He gestured threateningly and shouted, “You stupid fool, you listen to me! – What good will it do you? Schatzlpeter has been studying eight years now and still has nothing to show for it! – I’ll cure you of your studies!”
And that was the end of that. Actually I was glad the whole process ran its course so easily, without coming to blows or an uproar. But I was filled with rage towards Max, and I swore bitter revenge.
I went on working at night in the bakery, also toiled by day, and gradually lost interest in veterinary medicine. It was strange that after every instance of such tension and enthusiasm, my energy always withered and leveled off. And a new search began. The dust lay thick on my inventions under the floor of the garret; my books on veterinary medicine lost their fascination and rotted under the iron roof.