The German Crowd amplifies the terrain of emotional violence and survival in Louise’s recent book 52 Men, acclaimed by the LARB as ‘a tad revolutionary' work of impressions united by a sensibility as in Renata Adler and Elizabeth Hardwick. For updates please subscribe at louisewarehamleonard.com. 52 Men is available in paper and on Kindle as saluted by Lemony Snicket’s comment here on Twitter.
THE GERMAN CROWD
I went to a predominantly Jewish school, my first years in New York City, and then to an International School where at orientation I fell in with two German sisters and soon became identified as part of “The German Crowd.” The sisters, aged sixteen and fifteen, daughters of a German diplomat and his wife, destined to live in Bonn and Essen, as an ear nose and throat doctor and an illustrator, respectively, were non-Jewish Germans whose teenage experiences as Germans in New York sank them into stupefied silence.
It just never ends was their difficult complaint of the weekly documentaries, movies, miniseries and tidal flow of novels, books and films about the Holocaust. In Germany one had as a child exposure to this horror of German history but not saturation. It did not surprise me that not one of our German crowd, and certainly not either of the two sisters, stayed in New York City long into adulthood but returned to Germany.
My friendship with the sisters and the German Crowd alienated my Jewish friends from my former school. I understood this. I had myself visited, at age thirteen, the refashioned remains of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. It had, on liberation and evacuation, been burned to the ground to eradicate the spread of existent and fatal typhus. Hordes of fat black flies now massed on the grassed over mounded graves of thousands like furies, following visitors from one grave to the next, swarming especially around the eyes and ears. My family stopped in the town of Celle, just sixteen kilometers southeast, where the picture perfect homes and glassy lakes dotted with swans and ducks, rimmed with red and yellow tulips, did not belie the dark current beneath the surface. Nor did the gold Swiss made travel clock selected in a Celle luxury store that would gleam in my parents’ various bedrooms for the rest of their lives. Like the Belgian writer Maeterlinck, we plumbed the depths, and crawled out with a shiny object that from then on seemed ash to me.
...and yet the treasure goes on glimmering in the dark, unaltered.
— Maurice Maeterlinck, The Treasure of the Humble
My parents — being abundantly outgoing and convivial — befriended a couple at a small public lake at Celle who opened their home to us for the night. On a lower shelf of a bookshelf in a sideroom, my brother and I discovered with the moribund radar of children for the forbidden, not a picture book on sex — as was frequently found in American homes in the 1970s — but a thick, musty and age darkened hardback the shape and size of a Book of Common Prayer in which were illustrations and sepia photographs of human ‘freaks’: people born with deformations of such proportions they were rarely if ever seen in everyday life — swollen heads, mis-sized limbs, three eyes und so weiter. Such people were the material of hinterland hospitals and asylums, of doctors’ private studies and circuses, but here in Celle this found book took on a wretched meaning and force that was not, later, undone by our witnessing of nor ambling through the Cathedral of Cologne, in medieval style, some four hours by car south, near Essen.
Nor were we unaffected by the story of Celle that came to us through the vaguely morbid and gossipy tones of our parents: how at the end of the war, American bombs derailed a freight train carrying some four thousand collected Jews and other prisoners to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The train, on fire, came to a halt in the woods outside the town of Celle. Half its prisoners were burned alive. Others managed to break from the excrement-ridden cars and flee for their freedom through the sweet smelling forest. Soon informed of this, the local people of Celle — at this time as scandalized and repulsed by the appearance of prisoners as by fellow murderers or the rabid — ran from their homes into the night to help SS Guards hunt down and beat escaping prisoners to death with their hands and weapons. They also massacred hundreds execution style before daybreak.
In the early eighties in Manhattan — it was some thirty five years after the war, and any religious attachments I had were more aspirational than grounded. I was invited to several bar and bat mitzvahs, the rites of passage ceremony for Jewish children around age thirteen or fourteen, which were held in synagogue, then moved out to a banquet or large dinner party or roller skating in, say, Roxy disco or a closed Automat at night.
Had I been invited to return to synagogue I would have gone. I have always fronted up to any place of worship — though not, after age 28, so much to the Catholics. For reasons I shall get to, I approached the Catholics at age 28 and asked if they would baptize me. It was my understanding that the Catholics believed an unbaptized human being would go, upon death, directly to hell. It was to save the heathen from this that Catholic missionaries brought God and brutality to people all over the world. When I asked to be baptized, however, the Catholics invited me first to join a year-long study of their saints, iconography, nomenclature and beliefs, meeting every Tuesday and Thursday at St Francis Church on West 18th from 6 to 9pm.
St. Francis was my local church, one I often if casually dropped into, the closest church to my rental apartment on West 13th Street. I myself was not Catholic; my father had been and said the church had a lot to answer for.
Nevertheless, I admired the dark and lurid passion of the church, its wooden slatted pews of both suffering and hope, the air inside the nave pregnant — if not immaculate
— with dereliction and sorrow. I communed there once or twice with friends, in
particular the scholarly Mr. Peacock. But it distressed me that the Catholics were willing to let me go one more year risking hell should I die unbaptized. It seemed to me that they ought to baptize seekers immediately — and when the Episcopal church I then approached for its majesty and personal connotations on Fifth Avenue and 51st Street suggested a date and time in two weeks to baptize me I said immediately yes.
I was looking for a place for my devotion. Rebellion does not happen a priori; it must be against something — and until that point I had nothing solid to rebel against. Not country, class, race, religion. I was one of those itinerants who in childhood skipped from city to city, country to country, alert to various changing and decorative national flags. During my family’s first extended stay in New York, I was nine years old and a public school student at a chaotic elementary school where the children bounced themselves and each other around the halls like the tiddlywinks I played with as a child — and first thing each morning I watched them stopped in silence for perhaps the only time during the day, behind their child-sized yellow formica and metal chairs, pledging allegiance to the American Flag. This was not unforeign — in New Zealand and Australia we children of the British Commonwealth stood at attention — hands clasped behind the back, shoulders squared — and sang “God Save Our Gracious Queen,” eyes trained on an 8x10 framed color photograph of ‘our Queen’ — Queen Elizabeth in a vivid gown and long white gloves. She lived on the other side of the planet in a castle in our real home, England. I did not feel I had a right to pledge allegiance to the American flag as I was not yet an American.
When we moved to America, we children of the underworld knew little about it. What we knew was gleaned from television, particularly Happy Days. We knew of the word and concept of ‘cool’; we knew Americans ate scooped ice cream with sliced bananas and hot fudge sauce and a cherry on top which was called a sundae, that they drank Coca-Colas with straws in booths in diners. There were also cowboys, and once we got to New York, memorization and recitation of the McDonald’s Big Mac recipe: two all beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun.
What I mean to say is that drifting through several countries as a child, I soon came to feel that my identity, at least in terms of a country, was to have no country, to be an outsider. Because of this I was thirty before I voted in any political election.
While it was made apparent to me in New York that I was not Jewish, I was also not an official Christian. I was an unbaptized child of parents who — according to the parents — had clashed over different Christian faiths and, like many in their part of the world in the nineteen sixties and seventies, essentially abandoned those faiths. At international school, meanwhile, we recognized no religious holidays and had no religious instruction. Religion was a private family affair or, as in my case, a private investigation.
I was somewhat awed by the sacred privacy of my Jewish friends and families — of a faith that was so deeply rooted and separate that it even required the study of another language, Hebrew, after school. The German sisters had attended Jesuit school, and likewise, I respected and held in reverence the slim gold cross that the youngest, Isabelle, wore every day on a thin long gold chain. The girls in the German crowd wore plain cut clothes with edges of the feminine, they wore little to no make up and never colored their hair — instead they grew it plain and long, as I did soon in an effort to be like them.
Isabelle, The German Crowd
Across from the brownstone where my family rented a duplex was a Catholic school for girls, St. Jean Baptiste, and although each day I witnessed the Catholic girls in their boxy oversized uniforms of white shirts and navy blue ties and long matching blue skirts entering, exiting and milling about on the stone steps, it not once occurred to me to speak to them or to enter the building.
Schools were like families; you didn’t just crash into one. Instead, I entered the St. Jean Baptiste church around the corner, on busy Lexington Avenue: a high set building the length of the block, set upon wide and deep black granite steps that provided a buttress or elevation of the church itself. The steps were usually empty, apart from a homeless man with long wild hair to whom my father gave five dollar bills and burgers wrapped in foil from the Skyline diner; the homeless man, father reported back, had fought in Vietnam.
Inside this church, in the off hours, the great space beneath the high domed ceiling was invariably empty yet heavy. Both impressed and afraid I would be ejected as an imposter, I crossed myself secretly and deliciously with the stained and tepid holy water at the fount, made my way around the stations of the cross, lit a wax candle near the altar (for which one dropped a coin in a slotted tin), and peeked into the confessionals which appeared to me as upended coffins in which one was buried alive with one’s sins.
The silence and spaciousness of church was rare in the city, and gave me a chance to breathe and feel sane in my aloneness. I loved, and secreted away, the small white papered booklets stuffed in the pews — simple inked illustrations of plump stabbed hearts, crying angels, crucifixes besides latinate words of passion. Anima Christi, Meaculpa, Hoc est corpus meum — which was my favorite.* At home I cut pages out for my pinboard. There, they joined images of Patti Smith singing Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.
And yet, I knew that Catholicism had filled my father with pain and rage, that his time as a boy at a New Zealand Catholic boarding school in the 1940s had been a dark spell from which he could not escape.
And only a few blocks southwest on Madison Avenue with its luxury stores, was the St. James Episcopal Church. My mother had been raised Episcopal, though where we were from this church was called Anglican. As with the British people themselves, the church was reserved and modest, of quality and restraint. It had none of the melancholy blood of Catholic churches. Its colors — if it had colors — were white and green. I slipped into the narthex and then into the back pews on Sundays. But as I spoke to no one, nor anyone to me, Sunday services didn’t hold me for long, nor did the absence of lurid booklets, and soon I was peeling away to the journal store, or to a Baskin & Robbins 31 flavors ice cream store across from the Lycee Francais on 72d Street. The Lycee had been built as a mansion out of limestone at the turn of the 19th century. Its architecture was of the high French style, bearing scrolls, cartouches, high windows and rusticated stone. In my time, it schooled hundreds of children. In 2017 it would become one of many private homes of the former Emir of Qatar.
My friend Oliver was also Christian and once at our mostly Jewish School, he and I and our friends Carter and Hannah, went through the yearbook and counted up eight Christians out of one hundred Jewish children in our class. Oliver lived in a brownstone on 92nd Street off Fifth Avenue — four stories, dark and cavernous with a fireplace that contained the ashes of a fire — the same fire, always.
His parents were almost completely absent, being on their way to a divorce, and when Oliver forgot his keys, he had to sneak behind the Brick Church next door, climb its slatted fence, jump the gap to his fire escape and climb into his sister’s room via a window on the 4th floor. The next year his sister, who went mysteriously by her initials AC, most impressively ran away — as I then understood it — to play in a punk band.
Soon, I too started sneaking into the Brick Church after school. It was a blocky red brick building in the federal style, with a white frieze, two Ionic columns and one white circular window. I was so quiet back then, and restrained, I cannot imagine a soul at the Brick Church remembering me. And yet, I became a choir girl. This was, surprisingly, a position of stealth and solitude. I made my way into a basement with linoleum floors and unvarnished wooden cabinets from which I wrestled, being not yet tall, a silky robe in what we now call “seafoam green” from a brass hook.
Upstairs, the choir was in practice in the sanctuary and I moved without notice into position, opening the hymn book and struggling to keep up with arrangements utterly foreign to me. I might as well have been a hologram, how disembodied and surreal I felt. It was a Presbyterian church, which meant little to me except that it was a mild Christian faith. The Methodists, Episcopalians, (Anglicans) and Presbyterians were all to me on one level; more severe were the Catholics, Calvinists, Quakers and Mormons. Perhaps Oliver was the only one who knew I was slipping into the church and donning a green robe and singing with the quietest voice in the room. He, too, was unbaptized.
My last day at The Brick Church was Christmas Day, when the choir sang at eleven am. Perhaps I never went back because no one noticed I was gone.
On my baptism at 28, the age Jesus was said to be when he himself was baptized by his cousin John, it was a September day in autumn, bright, cool, sunny. It was 1993 and the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost. At that time, I did not know what Pentecost was, and all I knew of baptism, or the ceremony, was that it involved water: the submerging in it, or the anointing by it. My search for baptism was not so much about looking for something, but acknowledging something that had recently occured: the awareness of some force in my life that was leading me at the same time as I struggled through that life as a series of seemingly random and difficult dramas. I wore a long loose white dress with intricate embroidery and tightly spaced fabric buttons, petite as on womens’ white dress gloves, as well as a pale green silk coat. It was my first church ceremony — apart from the stint as choir girl. It was held in alcove known as the Chantry Chapel, to the left of sanctuary with a stone baptismal font.
I had chosen the church — the St Thomas Church on 51st street and Fifth Avenue — for several reasons, one of which was its grandeur and simplicity — its reredo of an altarpiece like a cliff to God, a wall of white stone which felt to me unmatched in the city and spoke of the natural world, of an expanse such as the ocean is.
Yet it was also a romantic attachment; I had been in love for some years with a man fourteen years my senior who was married, had two children and was deeply conservative; there had never been a divorce in his family and all of his male ancestors had been Episcopal ministers. Seven years earlier, the year we met, he had prevaricated and doubted and wrung his hands and briefly left his wife with a proposal to marry me, which I accepted.
His name was Thomas, such as Saint Thomas the Church, itself named after Saint Thomas known in the New Testament as Doubting Thomas. To me, this church almost was Thomas: It manifested him, it was the establishment and utterly immovable and perfect — except not quite. It had been built in stone according to medieval principles and of Cathedral size — and yet fell short in its length.
Shortly before my baptism, Thomas, with whom, seven years later, I was still friends gave me a piece of jewelry for my throat: a small gold cross shaped almost like a flower or sprig or whorl of gold. This cross would shine at the base of my throat as I was baptized in the church that I chose both in his honor and for his absence. We were, at the time of his giving of the cross, at lunch in a New York City brasserie named Les Halles, a few blocks south of my office on Park Avenue.
One thing Thomas taught me was to mind where you spent time with a person as they would associate that place with you forever. It is for this reason that Chekhov set most of his love stories in flowering gardens. And Les Halles — like all places Thomas chose to meet me in — the Oak Room for dinner at the Plaza, the National Gallery of Washington — was a place of light and beauty. It had high ceilings and heavy white tablecloths and the gleam and ring of immaculate polished glassware. Its food was that of pleasure, prepared by a young chef who would go on to be a tv star and celebrity.
At the ceremony, elation sparked through my body, warm points of light. It was the benevolence and the gift of baptism, the fact that I needed no study of nomenclature nor idols, no exchange of money nor proof of lineage, provenance or status to be celebrated and sanctified as I was. It startled me to be asked to renounce Satan, yet I did so, and accepted also a white baptismal candle, lit for me, and now, back in its slim blue box, one of the few objects I have kept with me over the subsequent 25 years, many of which were spent in traveling.
At the end of the service, the organist poured the last movement of Esquisses Byzantine through the pipes of the church’s powerful organ. The Esquisses had been written over five years from 1914 to 1919 by French composer Henri Mulet and pressed forth in orgasmic organ waves of oceanic force — rolling and careening, exuberant then almost comically vampirically sinister. It was a toccata and a song of a life — a whole life.
I looked up and around the near cathedral — surely this was not church music? — it had something wild and fantastic about it, as if all of us in white dresses would find ourselves rising into the air or dried black roses would float singularly past us or the sun would strike our skin the ruby and emerald green colors of the stained windows.
Mulet believed that the organ and the stained glass in a church acted in concert, flooding the air both with their “embracing and imposing tones.”
Those colors of stained glass, abundant in ruby and sapphire, reminded me of the waters of a mineral cave in New Zealand — Alladin’s cave it is called or “Pool of Mirrors,” a 120 foot drop to a pool of warm acidic water the colors of gems, and of such a composition it could clean jewelry. It might as well have been “Pool of Tears” as the waters — said a stranger who came upon my family bathing in them — were sacred, tapu. The geothermal fields were long home to the Maori people of New Zealand who both cooked and bathed in various areas of the hotsprings — and our lives thenceforward, this stranger said, now scolding and berating us, were now cursed, forever.
To this we had no answer — naked and unaware as we were — and though eventually we would find this curse to play out — I personally rather think a human life is about standing up daily to life, and that no curse can defeat a man or woman or person who is entirely him or her or themself.
Like most of the places that were wild when I was a child, this cave, now restored to its Maori name, Ruatapu, has since been de-wilded — as in, bounded by a fence and viewing platform that no one shall plummet into it, and the surrounding fields mapped out for tourists with 528 wooden steps.
On the St. Thomas Church program for this day of my baptism, the 19th day of September, was written at the bottom of the page:
tu es petra et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversus te:
You are the rock, and nothing, not even the gates of hell, shall prevail upon you
And it was true. I would linger again at the gates of hell — but I would always have myself. I was the rock. I was the gold teardrop of fire burning atop the baptismal candle.
One New Year’s Eve, the German Crowd and I were on our way to a party and stopped into my parents’ place. With me were the German sisters, my German boyfriend Klaus and Isabelle’s boyfriend Michael — and I pronounced their names in the German style, which I was studying: Isabelle, Dor-o-tay, Klaus, Mi-shy-il. We were all 16, except for Dorothée, who was just 17.
We came down the stairs into the open living room where my parents and their friends were drinking. One of these friends was a New Zealander, an affable intelligent man, large, kind, father of some four or five with a neat beard and generous air. When I introduced Isabelle, Dor-o-tay, Klaus and Mi-shy-il, this decorous well read man, who worked in software design, shot up from his chair, gave a Nazi salute and called out “Heil Hitler.”
What followed was a long silence. And then the flurry of parental voices offering apologies. My friends and I had already turned to the stairs. We were up and out into the night, which was cool and brimming with moonlight and promised to us.
*My body is mine