"WHY ONLY NOW?" HE SAYS, this person not to be confused with me. Well, because Mother's incessant nagging...Because I wanted to cry the way I did at the time, when the cry spread across the water, but couldn't anymore...Because for the true story...hardly more than three lines...Because only now...
The words still don't come easily. This person, who doesn't like excuses, reminds me that I'm a professional: had a way with words at a young age, signed on as a cub reporter with one of the Springer tabloids, soon had the lingo down pat, then switched over to the Tageszeitung, where Springer was the favorite whipping boy, later kept it short and sweet as a mercenary for various news agencies, and eventually freelanced for a while, chopping and shredding all sorts of subjects to be served up as articles: something new every day. The news of the day.
True enough, I said. But that's about all I know how to do. If I really have to settle my own historical accounts now, everything I messed up is going to be ascribed to the sinking of a ship. Why? Because Mother was nine months pregnant when it happened, because it's sheer coincidence that I'm alive.
And already, again, I'm doing someone else's bidding, but at least I can leave myself out of it for the time being, because this story began long before me, more than a hundred years ago, in Schwerin, the ducal seat of Mecklenburg, nestled amid seven lakes, priding itself on postcards of its Schelfstadt district and a castle bristling with turrets, and outwardly left unharmed by the wars.
Initially I didn't think a provincial burg that history had crossed off long ago could attract anyone besides tourists, but then the starting place for my story suddenly acquired a presence on the Internet. An anonymous source was posting biographical information, complete with dates, street names, and report cards, a treasure trove for someone like me who was under pressure to dig up the past.
I'd bought myself a Mac, with a modem, as soon as these things came on the market. For my work I need to be able to snare information wherever it may be wandering around the world. I got pretty good at using the computer. Soon terms like browser and hyperlink were no longer Chinese to me. With a click of the mouse I could haul in stuff that I might use or might end up throwing in the trash. Soon, out of idleness or inclination, I began flitting from chat room to chat room, also responded to the most idiotic spam, checked out a couple of porno sites, and after some aimless surfing finally landed on sites where old unregenerates but also freshly minted neo-Nazis were venting their venom on hate pages. And suddenly-entering the name of a ship as a keyword-I clicked my way to the right address: www.blutzeuge.de. In Gothic script the "Comrades of Schwerin" were strutting their stuff. Something about a martyr. Dredging up the past. More ludicrous than disgusting.
In the meantime it's become clear which martyr is meant and what he's supposed to have shed his blood for. But I'm still not sure how to go about this: should I do as I was taught and unpack one life at a time, in order, or do I have to sneak up on time in a crabwalk, seeming to go backward but actually scuttling sideways, and thereby working my way forward fairly rapidly? Only this much is certain: Nature, or to be more precise, the Baltic, said yea and amen more than half a century ago to everything that will have to be reported here.
First comes a person whose gravestone was smashed. After getting through school-the commercial track-he apprenticed at a bank, finishing up without attracting undue attention. Not a word about this phase on the Internet. On the Web site dedicated to Wilhelm Gustloff, born in Schwerin in 1895, he was celebrated as "the martyr." The site did not mention the problems with his larynx, the chronic weakness of the lungs that prevented him from proving his bravery in the First World War. While Hans Castorp, a young man from a good Hanseatic family, received orders from his creator to leave the Magic Mountain, and on page 994 of the novel was left to fall as a volunteer on Flanders Field or to escape into a literary no-man's-land, in 1917 the Schwerin Life Insurance Bank took the precaution of shipping its industrious employee off to Davos in Switzerland, where he was supposed to recover from his illness. That locale's remarkable air restored his health so completely that death could get at him only in another form; for the time being, he did not care to return to Schwerin and its lowland climate.
Wilhelm Gustloff found a job as an assistant in an observatory. When this research station was converted into a Helvetian foundation, he was promoted to recording secretary of the observatory, a post that gave him time to supplement his income by working as a door-to-door salesman for a company that offered household insurance. Through his moonlighting, he became familiar with all the Swiss cantons. Meanwhile his wife Hedwig was not idle either; as a secretary in the office of an attorney named Moses Silberroth, she did her job without experiencing any sense of dissonance with her Aryan loyalties.
Up to this point, the facts offer a composite portrait of a solid bourgeois couple. But, as will become apparent, the Gustloffs' way of life merely appeared to be consistent with Swiss notions of gainful employment. Secretly at first, later openly-and for a long time with his employer's tacit approval-the observatory secretary exercised his inborn organizational talent: he joined the Nazi Party, and by early '36 had recruited about five thousand new members among German and Austrian citizens living in Switzerland, had established local chapters all over the country, and had had the new members pledge their loyalty to someone whom Providence had thought up as the Führer.
Gustloff himself had been appointed Landesgruppenleiter by Gregor Strasser, the man in charge of Party organization. Strasser belonged to the left wing of the Party, and two years after resigning all his posts in '32 to protest his Führer's cozy relationship with industry, he was included in the Röhm Putsch and liquidated by his own people; his brother Otto saved his own skin by fleeing Germany. At that point Gustloff had to find someone else to emulate.
On the basis of a question posed in the Graubünden cantonal parliament, an officer from the Swiss Aliens Police interrogated Gustloff as to how he envisioned carrying out his duties as NSDAP Landesgruppenleiter in the Helvetian Confederation. He is said to have replied, "In all the world, I love my wife and my mother most. If my Führer ordered me to kill them, I would obey him."
On the Internet this quotation was challenged as apocryphal. In the chat room sponsored by the Comrades of Schwerin, this and other lies were characterized as fabrications by the Jewish writer Emil Ludwig. It was claimed that, on the contrary, the influence of Gregor Strasser on the martyr had remained in force. Gustloff had always put the socialist element in his worldview ahead of the nationalist element. Soon battles raged between the right and left wings of the chatters. A virtual Night of the Long Knives took its toll.
But then all interested users were reminded of a date that allegedly proved that the hand of Providence had been at work. Something I had tried to explain away as a mere coincidence elevated the Party functionary Gustloff to a participant in a celestial design: on 30 January 1945, fifty years to the day after the martyr's birth, the ship named after him began to sink, signaling the downfall of the Thousand-Year Reich, twelve years-again to the day-since the Nazis' seizure of power.
There it stands, as if hewn into granite, that damned date on which everything began, later to escalate murderously, reach a clima...