On April 4th, 1948 the sovereign state of Judenstaat was created in the territory of Saxony, bordering Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Forty years later, Jewish historian Judit Klemmer is making a documentary portraying Judenstaat’s history from the time of its founding to the present.
She is haunted by the ghost of her dead husband, Hans, a Saxon, shot by a sniper as he conducted the National Symphony. With the grief always fresh, Judit lives a half-life, until confronted by a mysterious, flesh-and-blood ghost from her past who leaves her controversial footage on one of Judenstaat’s founding fathers—and a note: “They lied about the murder.” Judit’s research into the footage, and what really happened to Hans, embroils her in controversy and conspiracy, collective memory and national amnesia, and answers far more horrific than she imagined.
Simone Zelitch has created an amazing alternate history in Judenstaat—available June 21st from Tor Books.
GERMANY was the birthplace of Jewish culture. A thousand years ago, we planted roots in Ashkenaz that flowered and brought forth the fruit of the Enlightenment embodied by the fabled Moses Mendelssohn and the Age of Reason.
THE CATASTROPHE—the great CHURBAN—which recently befell the Jews of Europe has demonstrated with new urgency that THE RIGHT OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE TO A HOME IN GERMANY IS IRREVOCABLE.
WE DECLARE that from this moment, the 14th of May 1948, under the establishment of Allied Forces, that the German territory once designated Saxony will henceforth be JUDENSTAAT.
PLACING OUR TRUST in the future, we affix our signatures to this proclamation, and commence with our national project. The very place we faced our death is where we’ll build our lives.
Thus, the ghosts of 1948 surface on the editing machine in black and white montage: washed out faces of survivors, signatures on a declaration, flat-bed trucks, a lot of rubble. No audio. Given all the footage Judit had to edit for the Fortieth Anniversary Project, it was easy to roll through the film and make her cuts. And somehow, she was supposed to find something explosively prophetic, something worth keeping. Not this old stuff. The heavy feeder cut and spliced, and the cells floated somewhere else.
But those cells weren’t the specter haunting Judit. It was her husband’s ghost. That specter stretched its long legs on a work bench, and leaned in to watch her. Its gray eyes were assessing.
Judit said, “I know what I’m doing.” There had been a time when she’d been too self-conscious to address the ghost, but Hans had been haunting her for three years.
The ghost of Hans Klemmer never spoke, but its presence worked on her as sharply as her living husband’s. It engaged her in a phantom conversation. It didn’t like those cuts; it took a hard line against editing. It noticed things she didn’t, like cells littering the floor, and it took stock of those cells as though she were an executioner. Every time she cut a frame, she slit a throat.
“It isn’t what they’re after,” Judit said. “Everyone’s seen the footage of the signing back in secondary school.” How could silence not feel like rebuke? She could only say, “I don’t have time for this. I’m on a deadline.”
But Hans was dead. Maybe she could shake off Hans Klemmer’s specter like a sinus headache. She kept a box of aspirin in a drawer and took two now. That helped sometimes.
And sometimes not. Why did Hans haunt her in the archive? She never saw the ghost anywhere else. The specter should have haunted the Opera House, where he’d been murdered. It would create a public spectacle. Isn’t that what specters are supposed to do? To the extent that one could be rational about a ghost, she found its presence difficult to fathom.
Worse, it kept staring, judging. The living Hans had loved her, and this ghost had her husband’s form, but it never touched her. It just stared. Did she want it to go away? It made things difficult. She said, “How can I work when you look at me like that?”
That was Judit’s question to answer. After all, she was the archivist. Hans was just history. At least he was now.
* * *
They were still naming things after him, the Klemmer Regional Concert Hall, Klemmer Memorial Park, and so on. Because Hans died on Liberation Day, every May 14th he was remembered. Then there was the statue of him by the Opera House, with the wavy hair, the baton, and the flying coattails. The first time Judit saw the ghost, she’d thought it was another statue that someone put in the archive as a joke, but who would hate her that much? Then the statue moved its head and yawned. She’d dropped her coffee.
That was the trouble. There was what some clever historian might call cognitive dissonance between Hans and Hans, between the noble statue and the ghost. And there would always be the statue because of how he’d died, three months after he’d been appointed Judenstaat’s first Saxon conductor.
The occasion was momentous. To have this ethnic German— orphaned in ’46—raise his baton before the premiere orchestra of the Jewish state in celebration of its liberation by the Soviets, how could it help but feel like one of those ruptures that draws a line between one age and another?
The national anthem sounded new again:
“Risen from ruins and turned towards the future Let us serve you for the good—”
Then Hans froze. He slumped forward, crumbled into the podium, and fell down with it.
* * *
Germans killed him—angry unrepentant Saxon Nazis who marked him for assassination as a collaborator with the Jewish state. Of course a lot of people hated Hans. Judit hadn’t been there that night, but she knew hundreds of survivors of the camps had picketed the Opera House when Hans had been appointed. Before the murder, there’d been those phone calls, late at night, with thick, strange silence on the other end. After a while, Judit and Hans had let the phone go on ringing, or Hans would pick up and leave it off the hook under a pillow. Could she remember dates and times? Could she remember if there’d been static on the other end? Or other voices in the background? Why hadn’t she and Hans reported those calls to the State Security Police?
Those were the kinds of questions she had to answer during the weeks when she was a public widow, escorted from place to place by a polite Stasi agent who also stood by her bed at night. She was pumped full of so much Valium that there wasn’t a clear distinction between days of interrogation, and nights when she would find herself in a nightgown that she didn’t recognize, and she told them everything she knew and cursed her own precise and nimble memory for detail that persisted even when she was sedated.
Once they found the men who did it, she was left alone. She took to wearing Hans’s old duffle coat. It served as camouflage. Still, she was sometimes invited to memorials, especially on Liberation Day. Judit’s mother, Leonora, took an interest in such things. Last May, she’d dragged Judit to a performance given in Hans’s memory at the Opera House, a choral recital by Saxon children, and she kept whispering to Judit how wonderful it was to see that not all of them hated us, and how important it was to teach them young, before their minds were poisoned by their culture.
“I wouldn’t know, Mom,” Judit said. Why had she agreed to come?
“Well, maybe you and Hans never had children of your own, but these are your children, honestly, Judi, and that’s what matters. Don’t you agree? Aren’t they your children?”
What could Judit do then but stare at the program with its silhouette of Dresden’s restored castle and the Opera House’s dome? Below, in flowing script: “The Fire Returns: A Dresden Season to Remember.”
* * *
What was the point of memory? Nothing surprised her. Even now, with the lights switched off, her touch was automatic—drawer open, film into the feeder, and before she even looked down, she knew just what she’d see, the long-shot of workers climbing the scaffolding of that same opera house. It was the first structure rebuilt in ’49. Old news, and worthless.
If she remembered everything, then how could she find—what did it say in that press release about the documentary—explosive footage? She ought to experiment and fumble for a change, move her hand a little to the left. There was an unmarked case.
She slipped the film into the feeder. And what was this? A Soviet production, surely. Hand-held camera, by the look of it. Rubble and ruins, and another one of those eternal flat-bed trucks of camp survivors, and Leopold Stein again. He stood before a crater that was once the site of Dresden’s Great Synagogue. Stein’s mouth was moving, obscured by the beard that gave the footage a date: pre-’47. She knew what he was saying, what they’d written in that declaration, that Germany was Jewish at the root, that if the Jews needed a home it was right under their feet. This was their monument. This was their prayer-house.
Old news. But there was something about those enormous hands of Stein’s, big as boxing gloves, tracing a circle in the air and resting in a bridge below that beard. Old beard. Old bombed-out crater, blurry Soviet liberators with their rifles. She switched off the machine.
Judit froze. Her eyes stayed on the empty screen.
“So you don’t like that story?”
It wasn’t Hans’s voice. It wasn’t her intern, Sammy Gluck. It had to be a Stasi agent, but not the one who made regular courtesy visits.
Something creaked, then creaked again deliberately. Judit turned. It was so dark that she could make out no more than something darker. Then, that high, coarse voice again.
“You better like it. You know what I risked to get into this fucking fortress?”
Not Stasi. Without warning, the sharply living presence backed her into the work bench, and he slammed something onto the table and a pile of footage toppled over. So did Judit, nearly. Then he was gone.
He’d left a note. She switched on the viewer. The bulb was dim but steady. The text itself was written in the neat copybook handwriting of a child.
They lied about the murder.
After liberation, most refugees pass through Germany and move on, but Jews remain. Some live in Displaced Persons camps near Munich but the greatest number concentrate in the Soviet sector. The German state of Saxony is home to close to a million Jews who survived the concentration camps or sought a temporary home in the Soviet Union through the war and crossed the Czechoslovak and Polish borders. They occupy crude barracks built on the grounds of Saxon spas, or castles expropriated from their German owners.
Although the refugees are under U.N. auspices, the true administrators are the Bundists, the Jewish Socialists and trade unionists who’d spread through Eastern Europe in the years before the war. Most survivors are not interested in politics, but they know where their bread is buttered, and who serves the strongest coffee.
Above a coffee urn, a banner: We are here. The credo of the Bund: a refrain taken from the Ghetto Partisans.
The coffee that the Bundists serve is, as Leopold Stein says, “as strong as an ox, as rich as a Rothschild, and as black as the soul of man.” Not that Stein believes in souls, but if history dictates that souls are black, then who is he to argue? Stein lived out the war underground with the Free French in the Rhineland and has emerged with his shirtsleeves rolled up his hairy arms to build a Jewish state in Germany.
Stein has a cloud of ill-kept hair. He is never quite clean-shaven. He’d grown a beard in hiding and it came in gray. In some surviving images, he peers out through all that hair into the camera, embarrassed at his resemblance to a rabbi.
* * *
Yet famously, Stein says, “Why pray at all?” He always adds that Moses Mendelssohn was drawn to enter Germany two hundred years ago through the gate reserved for Jews and cattle, and when the guard asked him his trade, he replied, “Reason.” In these unreasonable times, that’s what Jews bring—intolerance of nonsense, pragmatism, deep generosity, and vision.
Stein came of age after the Great War when Jews from Poland flocked to his hometown of Munich. Although it used the Hebrew alphabet, their Yiddish was almost completely German. German burned inside their Yiddish like light refracted in a lantern. Surely, Germany lived inside those Eastern Jews, ancient Ashkenaz where Emperor Charlemagne invited Jews a thousand years ago and where they’d brought their gifts from East and West and flourished until driven into exile.
Those Jews returned. And all the while, the Germany Stein knew, the Social Democratic Germany, receded. He felt a persistent urgency, a wild compulsion that made him travel through the country to form alliances and hone his argument, and even all the way to Vilna for an international conference of Yiddishists and Bundists in 1929. He urged them with all the passion of a man with a fixed idea to build a Jewish state in Germany.
They laughed at him. They listened, but they laughed, those poets and linguists who had no use for states at all, or Socialists who’d walked out of the Third International or who stayed and then regretted it and who had weathered years of fixed ideas. “Young man,” said one delegate in stately Litvak Yiddish, “If I were you, I’ d take a walk around the park and calm down. For what do we need a country?”
Stein had an answer, but it wasn’t one they would be ready to accept. Not yet. He would quote Comrade Stalin on the National Question. Here were a people with a common culture. All that was missing was a land.
“Then go to Moscow,” someone countered. “I hear they treat Jews well there if they stay on their leashes.”
“I’m not a Russian,” Stein said in his insistent German, a language any Yiddish speaker understands. “I’m a German. So are you. Come join me there.”
That started a back-and-forth so fierce and hostile that Leopold Stein felt battered and invigorated. Afterwards, a few delegates came up to him and asked if he’d written a position paper laying out his platform. They went to a café and kept on talking until the place closed down. By 1945, all of those people would be dead.
* * *
Now 1947, in Schmilka Camp, Stein fills a coffee urn at a water pump. In a camp outside of Gorlitz by the Polish border, Stein at a long plank desk below a banner: We are here. The credo of the Bund. The very place we faced our death is where we build our lives. That’s what it means, to live in Judenstaat.
Stein in a work shirt and dungarees, holding a spade over his shoulder. In Munich, his hometown, Stein filmed with a hand-held camera by American occupation troops as he walks none-toosteadily through the milling crowd, overwhelmed by the force of his own logic, and the camera lingers on two men who share the Bundist newspaper, A Home. “No Hope for U.S. Visa in Bavaria. President Truman Urges Surviving Remnant: Go to Saxony!”
Beside Stein, Stephen Weiss, Auschwitz survivor, bird-of-prey demeanor. Weiss is not a Bundist. Weiss is not a brawler. Few images of Weiss survive, though his early prominence is not disputed. Where there is a Stein, there is a Weiss. History demands it. Weiss is the editor of A Home. Yiddish and German are two of his eight languages, and he shares with Stein the common language of a fixed idea. He was born in Vilna. Talent and ambition led him to Berlin. Then, following what he thought were sound instincts, he crossed the border to Vienna, then to Budapest, and at the prospect of induction in a labor battalion, he chose to stay with distant relatives who promised him a job at their printing press in Warsaw. This was in 1939.
Stein knew Weiss before the war when their paths crossed briefly in Berlin. Weiss had been a different man then, a kind of aesthete, always with a cigarette in a holder, babbling and posing. Now, the cigarette is gone. He looks like an emaciated owl. No one can match Weiss’s single-minded energy, nor can they understand what drives him.
Stein, Weiss, a crowd of adolescents, and row after row of boots. The film stock, rare and near decay, is not officially catalogued. The boots are laid out on a long table. Stein’s people have stuffed each boot with a note. The young men remove the notes in a hurry, papering the raw dirt as they measure the soles against their feet, and swap them with their neighbors. All the notes are printed in bold German typescript: We are here. The credo of the Bund. You have your boots. Now, don’t go anywhere.
Yes, all of this is well documented, the continuity of Ashkenaz, the people and the nation, through generations of development and then expulsion and renewal, and the stirring of a revolutionary Age of Reason, and finally the Churban. What monument will mark what they have lost and have survived? Their lives themselves will be that monument. Is Stein naïve to open negotiations with Soviets and Americans and keep the country nonaligned? That is the work of Stephen Weiss, who arranges meeting after meeting.
What would become of the Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidjan on the Manchurian border, or of England’s failed experiments in Palestine and Uganda? Their failure is fresh proof that the Jewish state is right under their feet, and fascists fear Jews for that very reason. Yes, Leopold Stein can be very persuasive. Surely he emphasizes humiliation of the enemy. Truman may not be drawn in that direction. Stalin is another story.
There will be opposition from some quarters, opposition that can only be overcome if they act quickly, before forgetting starts. Forgetfulness will be the enemy. A promise is revoked and then renewed and then revoked so many times that when they approach the checkpoint, Stein and Weiss cannot be sure that the guards who meet them there will follow orders.
The orders are to raise a flag. Now, speculation: the night before, Stephen Weiss laid out the materials, and by the light of a Primus stove, he patched together the design. He knows the cloth; he knows the thread. He unfolds the flag that afternoon; in spite of careful preservation, it is in danger of unraveling.
Weiss does not believe in flags as a rule. He has lived under too many of them: the crest and crown of the Hapsburgs, the doubleheaded eagle of the Russian Empire, the optimistic flags of four republics, the Soviet flag, and, of course, the flag that brought him close to death. But this flag, he believes in.
Of course, a man who’s lived under so many flags can never claim a country. Such is the nature of a Cosmopolitan, opportunistic, cynical, and ultimately loyal to no one but himself. Weiss’s role is a cautionary tale. But here is documented fact. That day, at an army checkpoint in 1948, Stein and Weiss meet at an arranged time with the Soviet officers who have a quiet conversation with the guards and lower the red flag of liberation. Then, they raise the new flag, constructed from the uniform Weiss wore in Auschwitz.
Blue and white prison stripes; in the center, a yellow star. The flag of Judenstaat.
Excerpted from Judenstaat © Simone Zelitch, 2016.