Translated by Sarah Death
from Issue 22
I want to write about the Place as I see it just then. And just then in this story is the time when a young man and a young woman, who have just got off the train on the road from Auschwitz, are living, working and dreaming, just here. It’s also the time when I, their first child, see the world for the first time and so see the Place as it will forever appear to me. It’s the Place where the drifting ice floes on the Canal perpetually slip beneath your boots, where the first roach forever lies expiring on the quayside, where the fresh carp bream Mom has bought from the lift-netters on the shore of Lake Maren is still flapping in the newspaper on the draining board, where the first shy blush of shame has burned itself into my cheeks, where Mom and Dad forever press their young bodies into the soft sand of Havsbadet, smoking and talking and touching, and you hear the eternal thud of bare feet on the creaking wooden piers and trampolines and the shrill sound-carpet of shrieking children and seagulls and the soporific sighing of the waves on the sand and the wind through the pines.
It’s a world in which everyone who exists right then, right there, will always exist, albeit only in disconnected fragments of vivid sensations. What’s seen for the first time has no history, no movement, it doesn’t change, it can’t be changed. The same apartment blocks, the same paved streets, the same barberry hedges, the same railroad bridge, the same station plaza, the same people moving beneath the rowan trees. Though over time open wounds of concrete and tarmac, highway interchanges, and port terminals have scarred the landscape, the fragments still lie there untouched.
Scattered and disconnected, but untouched.
In the lives of the two new arrivals, a place like this no longer exists. A place where they made the world their own, as I did.
Had there been such a place, they would have talked about it, would have given me a sense of its smell, its taste, taken me there, told me about the people who once lived there.
But they tell me nothing.
Where there must once have been a place like this one, there is now only silence.
Silence and shadows.
Whatever fragments of such a place lie hidden somewhere – and no human being lives without such fragments – someone or something has crushed them all too carefully and buried them all too deeply, in too-wide expanses of darkness.
You who have survived Auschwitz are all damaged, whether it shows or not, and whether you care to admit it or not. Some of you deal with the damage better than others and are able to build a new world on the ruins of the old one and see all kinds of horizons opening up, and after a time no one can see or even suspect where you come from and what you’re carrying with you – but no one is safe from the shadows.
For many, the shadows come later in life than they do for you. Sometimes right at the end, as momentum is inexorably lost and it gets harder not to stop and look back.
I try to understand why your shadows come so early, but I don’t find very much to understand.
You just happen to get off at the wrong station on your road from Auschwitz.
Yes, I think, in the end, that the Place has a part to play in this.
It’s too small a place for someone like you, with too few people who appreciate where you come from and what you carry with you, with a factory too large and too dominant to free oneself from, with too few exits to a future other than the one already mapped out, and with a horizon that never really wants to open up.
The place where I make the world into my own is also the place where the world turns its back on you.
And the place where you finally turn your back on the world.
It never becomes a home to you.
Not the way it does to me.
Homelessness is an underrated hell for people like you, I think.
Homelessness and the confusion of languages.
The one has something to do with the other.
To be at home is to be understood without having to say all that much.
I don’t think any place can replace the place where we put our first words to the world, and share it with other people, and make it our own. I know there are those who think such a place can be recreated anywhere, at any time, but I don’t believe that. I believe the place that has shaped us will keep shaping us even after we’ve left it and made our home elsewhere. Or rather, we can only make our home elsewhere if some kind of link lives on with the place, the people, and the language that shaped us.
But for people like you, there’s no such link. The place that shaped you is no longer there, nor the people, nor the language, nor even the memory. Between you and the world that you once made your own towers a wall of pain that memory cannot penetrate.
So you must make a home in a place where you aren’t understood, no matter what you say, and where you’re deprived of every link with the place where you first put words to the world and didn’t have to say all that much to be understood, which is my definition of being at home, and just about Améry’s definition too. “Home [die Heimat] is the land of one’s childhood and youth,” writes Améry. “Whoever has lost it becomes a loser himself, even if he has learned not to stumble about in the foreign country as if he were drunk, but rather to tread the ground with some fearlessness [einiger Furchtlosigkeit].”
Améry makes much of his homelessness, of the fact that not only has he seen his home desecrated and liquidated by the Germans, but the Germans have forever turned that home into a hostile, alien place and by so doing transformed the whole world into a place of loneliness and lost bearings. Perhaps Améry’s homelessness is made worse by the fact that his language is also that of the perpetrators, but I don’t think there’s too much difference between you and him. The confusion of languages doesn’t reside in the language.
“How much Heimat does a person need?” asks Améry.
“The less of it he can carry with him, all the more,” he replies.
A home can certainly, to some extent, be replaced by other things – memories, objects, smells, tastes, dreams, hopes, promises – but it presupposes that somewhere, sometime, there was a place that was a home.
If no such place has existed, or if the links to it have forever been ripped up and broken and you haven’t been able to carry with you anything at all, I imagine that in the end homelessness can become unbearable.
Göran Rosenberg was born in 1948 in Sweden, where he is a well-known author. In 1970, he left academia to work as a journalist for Swedish television, radio and print. He is the author of several books, including the highly acclaimed Det FiMorade landet (“The Lost Land”).
Sarah Death is a translator, literary scholar, and editor of the UK-based journal Swedish Book Review. Her translations from the Swedish include Ellen Mattson’s Snow, for which she won the Bernard Shaw Translation Prize. She lives and works in Kent, England.
excerpted from Göran Rosenberg, from A Brief Stop on the Road From Auschwitz. New York: Other Press, 2015.