Baker's Hours

Baker's Hours or 'Wia die Wuiden' (Chapter 2)

In the first installment for We Are Prisoners I mentioned the fact that the work was first translated in the 1920s (immediately after the book's publication in German), so I thought I'd provide a rationale for a new translation and the second chapter already more than provides that rationale. The original translation was by Margaret Green for Alfred Knopf (and which I am consulting as I work on my own). It strikes me as hurried at best and profoundly negligent at worst. Graf's language is simple. He's recounting his own life growing up in a small town in Bavaria as the first chapter makes clear. He calls the work "A Confession" not a memoir for reasons that the reader can deduce on his/her own. The translation in contrast strikes me as overly convoluted in language and outright incorrect both in terms of German meaning and proper English usage in numerous places. One specific place will illustrate what I mean - the middle paragraph of the second page of Chapter 2. For some inexplicable reason, Green translates 'wie ein Wilder gearbeitet' as 'worked like a n---' Yes, the N--- word.

'Wie ein Wilder" is an idiomatic expression in German (and in Bavarian which I've provided at the top in the plural) and is used in just such a context. Literally, "Wilder" could be translated as wild man, savage or native - or more idiomatically as 'like mad' as I have done here - but the word certainly carries no specific racial reference, much less can it be interpreted as a racial slur. It would be the equivalent of reading "She slaved over a hot stove" in English and taking the liberty of using a racial slur to translate it into another language. Why it would occur to Green to translate it thus, and how the editors at Knopf would let it pass is beyond my understanding, regardless of the word's usage or prevalence in the 1920s. 

Silly me, and I thought addressing Graf's encounters with anarchists and socialists in pre- and post-WWI Munich was going to be the challenging part...


Chapter 2 - Events

Time passed. Winter came, and the village rooftops were covered with snow. Christmas was approaching. There was a great deal of work to be done. I had to roll shortbread the whole day with Max, then cut out the shapes, lay them on greased tins, and bake them. Whole baskets full of cinnamon stars, butter fingers, and marzipan were ready by the evening. At ten o’clock I could go to bed; at twelve o’clock the journeyman woke me for the night’s work. My head was heavy, and I was more asleep than awake as I plunged my bare arms into the dough to knead it. If I dropped off, I was jogged awake and beaten. And that went on night after night. At six in the morning I tromped through the snowy darkness with my loaded breadbasket and delivered bread to the distant villages. About midday I came home drenched through and through.  I had some food, changed my clothes, and was then required to help Max make confections for Christmas trees. And so the weeks slipped by. One night I fell asleep and fell into the dough. The journeyman set upon me and beat me with his bony fists. I snatched my arms out of the dough and ran howling to Max to complain. Startled out of his sleep, he sprang out of bed and threw punches blindly, so that I rushed downstairs again in terror and went on working and crying. “Ha! I guess he showed you!” scoffed the journeyman, and shoved me at every opportunity, so that I went on kneading, without thought or care like an animal. It can’t go on like this, I thought each night and yearned for a way to escape.

On Christmas Day work stopped. The journeyman went into the city. There was punch in the parlor, and each of us received a little present. And one could sleep the whole night through. At last, after the New Year, the Christmas festivities came to an end. There was less baking to do, and less work by day. I had to go into the forest every afternoon to cut wood with Max. The snow covered the ground and trees. Max spoke very little, but he climbed the trees and sawed off thick branches. It was great fun for him to watch the snow fall on me as he shook the tree. Sometimes he laughed a little when I shook the snow off and shivered.

At the end of February Maurus came home from Bamberg. He took over what little baking there was, and I had to help him. For some reason or other Max avoided him. They hardly spoke to each other.

And so now I had a different superior the whole day. At first we got on well together. Maurus told me about his books again, about other places, and sometimes even joked around with me. I grew more attached to him.

If Max was out, we worked more hurriedly, got done with everything quickly, and then sat on the bench in the bakery while Maurus began to read Henry IV to me. But I had difficulty in understanding the lines, though he often explained the jokes quite fully and bluntly, and gave me encouragement now and then. To escape a beating I often laughed loudly, which gave him great pleasure.

Now there was very little work at night. The other journeyman, a surly fellow, left us. He had stolen too much bread. An old, grey-haired man had come from the city and was drunk most of the time. But he was a good baker, and because he very seldom struck me, I worked well with him. He gave me a new name every day, and played all kinds of tricks on me. When he was tipsy he sang old songs from his reservist days. He would                     often lay in the oven pit and bawl as though he were spurring on a horse,  “Whoa, whoa – gently, Vogel, gently!” Then I helped him up, and he kissed me so that his smutty face left a mark on my cheeks. He stood unsteadily and called out in a loud, hoarse voice, “Here I stand! Major Vogel! General Vogel. Of the High Order of Knighthood! Decorated with the Order of Max the Ox! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!” The house resonated with his voice. He embraced me affectionately and thanked me for being so kind to him.

“Little Oskar” or “Little Siegfried” or “Little Aloysius, “ he always said. “I will never forget you! You are a good fellow!” And I was touched. I worked like mad and did all that I could for Vogel. Those were happy nights. During Vespers and mealtimes the journeyman snored away on the bench, and I read stories about Indians and travel books, and woke him when it was time to start work. Around four o’clock, when my mother arrived, we had generally finished. The maid came down and attended to her work in the stables. We had coffee, and at six o’clock I had to set out on my delivery rounds with Anna.

Our time together on the open road was the most pleasant for us. On the way home we made up stories to tell each other, in which we – the main characters – lived on a giant ship in the Pacific, surrounded by fabulous wealth and inconceivable luxury. Sometimes the stories took a dramatic turn. There were fights with hostile pirates, whom we promptly subdued and punished with extraordinary cruelty. If there was anyone in the village whom we hated, he was brought into the story and somehow or other taken prisoner. Then we enacted a terrible vengeance.

On bright Sunday afternoons Maurus and I would go off on our bicycles and find a quiet, sunny place in the forest, where he read aloud to me. I grew more and more familiar with Ibsen’s plays, Kleist’s stories, and especially Shakespeare, which we read again and again. Then there were the Russians – mainly Tolstoy – and Heine and Lessing. Maurus read with feeling, and it revived my enthusiasm for our literary rivalry and the triumphant feeling of knowing something that the other had not read. I persuaded Anna to read books, too, and our delivery rounds lasted longer and longer. Then Max would often beat us.

One day when we came home Maurus and Max were quarrelling. We didn’t know what it was about. They shouted louder and louder, and at last it came to blows. There was a terrible fight, and Max would not let go till Maurus was leaning against the wall, covered with blood. Then Max went upstairs and put on his best clothes, for it was Tuesday and he had to go to choir practice. There was no winner in any case. Anna and I went to Maurus, looked at him intently, and clenched our fists, “He’ll have to pay for that, the brute!”

Maurus sobbed with rage, but then pulled himself together, and washed himself off at the fountain. That same evening he went to the city, and for a long time we had no news of him. Max was now sole master once again; he knew how to get rid of any troublesome sibling. Eugene went to America at the end of his military service, and my sister Theres followed Emma’s example. She, too, learned dressmaking in the city.

The household had changed. Besides Mother, Anna, and myself, there was a maid, Vogel the journeyman, and Max, whose orders were obeyed almost without thinking.

Fate even came to General Vogel one day. He went into the city and got so drunk that he fell asleep in the train and travelled on as far as Tutzing. There he hired a carriage late at night, and arrived at our house at two o’clock in the morning. He was not in a condition to work, and I could not get through everything alone. There he lay, snoring. Every now and then he made a coughing noise. I had to wake Max, and we baked the bread. The next day Vogel was dismissed. He cried like a child, for he liked being with us. But things couldn’t go on like that. A new journeyman was hired. He beat me more than any of his predecessors. I had no one to help me, no one to whom I could complain about my nightly torment. Max must not be allowed to know anything about it, Mother always cried softly and helplessly in response to my wailing, and Anna couldn’t help. There was only one person in the whole house who sometimes understood me: Leni, the maid. And though I hardly noticed her sympathy, nevertheless I was conscious of it.

One morning I was leaning against the kitchen cabinets with a bleeding head and crying quietly to myself. Mother just said, “If only we could have a little peace and quiet once in a while,” and went into the shop. That upset me even more. Leni came in and was going to the fireplace when she saw me.

“What is the matter, Oskar? Are you bleeding?” she asked as she came up to me. “He has beaten me silly,” I said. Leni went to the fireplace shaking her head. “The brute!” she said, with her back towards me. It was only a word. But there was something in her voice that I had never known before, something warm and comforting. When she was going out of the kitchen again she stopped beside me and said in the same tone, “With us it was Father,” and then disappeared. I went to the fountain and washed myself. Her last brief words revealed to me someone who had similar experiences and who understood. It was as if someone came to me out of the silent darkness and said, “Look, I suffered the same!” Happiness surfaced in me, and an unspeakable comfort.

Every day when I came home from delivery rounds, I had to cut chaff with Leni. She fed the machine and I turned the flywheel. We were glad when we were alone on the threshing floor, started up a conversation, and shared our experiences in a warm, friendly manner. We looked in each other’s eyes and then lowered them, without knowing why. Once – I don’t know how it came about – I flung myself helplessly on Leni’s breast and embraced here, moaning again and again, “Leni! Leni!” and kissed her passionately. She was horrified and resisted earnestly, but she was not angry. I saw her flushed face, and her bosom rose and fell. I wanted to hide myself completely in her arms, but she pushed me away and said, “Oskar? Why, Oskar? – What s the matter? – What has come over you?” I let her go, pulled myself together rapidly, and stood there panting, ashamed and confused. She stroked my forehead and spoke with motherly gentleness, “It’s just not possible.” For the moment I did not know what to do and jumped up hastily, seized the handle of the chaff-cutting machine and turned the flywheel faster and faster. When we had finished I ran hastily down into the bakery without looking at Leni again. At dinner as we sat across from one another at the table we lowered our eyes, and afterwards I slipped out quickly. Nothing further arose between us. We remained good friends to the end, and though Leni was a woman of thirty – industrious, sensible, and very pious, too – she was still aware of all my pranks and helped me out of tight places when there was a threat of trouble from Max. After I was allowed to go to bed, I often stared secretly out the window for hours, because Leni was busy washing below. That was the extent of my love.


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