Apropos Opa

Julia Butschkow

Translated by: Peter Sean Woltemade

Original text: "Apropos Opa "


Artwork by Florence Gagnon

I was much too shy to greet grandparents I had never met, so I stepped behind my father when my thin bent-backed paternal grandmother exposed her teeth in a big smile and said a lot of things to me in a language I did not understand.

Nevertheless, it wasn't so much my grandmother I feared; I'd seen her twisted fingers and yellow teeth before in other variations, in other elderly people.

For example in my Rudolf Steiner day care centre, behind Nikolaj Church, where one of the pedagogues, who always smelled of oil soap and bean paste, had fingers that resembled branches on a tree and teeth that resembled lumps of amber.

It was my grandfather about whom I was skeptical; he was frightfully broad-shouldered, terribly big.

His thin white hair stuck straight up in the air when he poked his head out the door and looked at his pale Danish grandchild; in my eyes he resembled a forest troll.

Opa was enormous, seen from down at my five-year-old's frog vantage point; his rough skin reminded me of cliffs, and his hair resembled an ancient kind of silver-white moss that grew not only on his head but also out of his nose and ears and over his eyes.

I imagined how his entire back was covered with white hair under his urine-yellow shirt and brown corduroy jacket.

***

The first year I had German in school, my father took me along to Germany again.

When Opa heard that I didn't speak German, he became furious with my father.

For his part, my father had decided never to speak as much as one German word to me because he wanted to prevent me from understanding what Opa said.

It all ended with Opa insisting on spending a few hours alone with me in the living room even though my father was not enthusiastic about this.

"I'll be right out in the kitchen," he said.

I had no idea what was about to happen.

When Opa had closed the door to the living room, he locked it with the key.

He took his handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his forehead while he cleared his throat.

Then he looked down at me; I sat in the armchair and looked up at him.

His white hair bristled; his gaze was dark behind his bushy eyebrows; he grimaced with exertion.

He stood in the middle of the living room with Eva Braun crawling around on his shoulder.

Opa mumbled something incomprehensible while he turned and walked over and opened a locked wooden cupboard.

He took out a bottle; then he took out two glasses.

He poured one full, drank it empty in one draught.

Then he filled the other and handed it to me.

"Trink," he said.

He filled his own glass and emptied it again.

The liquid in the glass was sweet and much too strong; I only sipped it while Opa emptied a number of glasses.

Finally he set the bottle aside and got a book out of his cupboard.

It was leather-bound and worn and had yellowed pages; he handed it down to me.

"Deutsch lernen," he said.

I opened it to one of the first pages and saw that the book was an ancient Norwegian/German dictionary.

The letters were ornate and faded; I didn't understand anything of the Norwegian even.

"Schwierig," I managed to stammer.

Opa laughed.

He shook his head and again mumbled something I didn't understand.

He brought a chair over and set it next to the armchair.

He sat down next to me and took the book from me.

Now he began from one end, starting with a.

"Apfel," he said.

He looked at me, expectantly.

"Apfel," I said.

Opa nodded.

We continued like this for a little less than an hour; then he gave up.

We hadn't even gotten to b.

Opa handed me the book.

"Buch," he said.

"Buch," I repeated.

"Lesen, studieren, Deutsch lernen," he said.

I nodded.

"Gut," said Opa.

He took Eva down from his shoulder, held her in one hand while he stroked her back with the other.

"Das ist Eva," he said.

"Das weiß ich," I said.

He looked at me, nodded, and pinched my cheek. It stung, but I said nothing.

"Sehr gut," he said.

He gripped Eva firmly and then placed her on my head.

The fear crawled down through my body; I had never had a rat sitting on my scalp, had never so much as touched one before, and now I began obsessively thinking about whether it might decide to gnaw a hole in my skull.

Evidently the situation amused Opa.

He clucked to himself while he emptied a few glasses.

Afterward he picked up Eva and set her down on one of my shoulders.

Now it was my neck, my throat, for which I feared.

But Eva seemed to be at least as frightened as I was; she immediately darted in under my hair. It seemed to me that she was shaking.

Opa stood there nodding; then he patted my head and went over and sat down on the sofa with another full glass, which he quickly managed to empty, after which he fell asleep.

I sat with the dictionary on my lap and the rat on my shoulder and looked over at him.

The big body in the brownish clothes, in the worn slippers; the white, rebellious hair.

He snored.

Eventually I plucked up my courage and lifted Eva off of my shoulder and set her down on Opa's big belly; he did not wake up.

Cautiously, I snuck across the living room, unlocked the door, and went out into the kitchen, where my father was sitting with a glass of beer, reading Der Spiegel.

When he saw me, he got up and sat down again.

"What happened?" he asked.

"Nothing."

My father looked as though he heaved a sigh of relief.

"Didn't he do anything?"

I shrugged.

"He tried to teach me German."

My father shook his head.

"He didn't scold you?" he asked.

I shook my head.

Laid the dictionary on the table.

"He gave me this," I said.

We sat down.

My father laughed his inward laugh.

Then he told me about the time Opa taught him to read.

***

Opa had laid a book on the table and made my father stand at the table and look down at the book.

"Lies," said Opa.

My father was in one of the first grades at school; he laboriously started to spell his way through the words.

"Nein," shouted Opa.

My father was wet with sweat; he hated Opa's rage.

Opa had settled himself in his armchair while my father stood with his back to him and looked at the text.

"Lies," shouted Opa.

The letters flickered on the paper; my father's eyes stung; he bit his lip to keep himself from starting to cry.

Opa had told my father that he would not be permitted to leave until he had learned to read.

My father felt dizzy and nauseous; his mind was a complete blank.

Opa waited in the armchair while my father just stood and stared down at the text.

Eventually Opa gets up and gets a ruler out of a cupboard.

He stands next to my father and looks at him for a moment before he slams the ruler down on the table so hard that it breaks.

"Lies," he shouts.

Then he hurls his entire arsenal of German epithets at my father's head.

My father’s hands are shaking; sweat is running down his temples; he clenches his hands together.

His mouth is dry; his throat is dry; he feels that the blood is disappearing from his head.

And then, suddenly, it happens: He begins to read.

The letters stop flickering; they gather themselves together, order themselves as words that lay themselves on his tongue and free themselves from his lips one by one.

My father feels that his brain is exploding from overexertion; sweat is streaming along his hairline and down under his shirt collar; his torso is trembling.

He just manages to read seven lines before he faints.

 ***

My father took a good swallow of his beer there in Oma and Opa's kitchen when he had finished telling me this and said, "That's how the old man taught me to ride a bicycle, too."

***

My cousin wants to know why I started working at the clockmaker's shop, but I don't want to tell him that my life has stopped like the old gold watch that's lying in a drawer in the back room of the shop, waiting to be repaired.

Before I started working at the clockmaker's shop, I was studying literature at the university.

But I don't tell this to my cousin, who's no doubt terribly well-read.

I don't feel like admitting to him that in the course of my time here in the clockmaker's shop I've replaced Sartre and Hemingway with the gossip rag Se & Hør.

"This is just an extra job," I say.

I don't say this is the only kind of job I would be able to have, a job where I can sit and stare straight ahead, watch the hands go around on the clock faces, watch people walk past out in the station hall, watch a little section of the world go about its usual business, while I myself sit in safety behind the clockmaker's thick glass walls and watch.

***

Ironically enough, the first attack came in the middle of an examination on "The Concept of Anxiety."

Within a few moments my mind became completely blank, and I could hardly remember my own name.

On my way home I was gasping for breath and felt convinced that everyone on the street was turning around, giving me odd looks, laughing.

During the following weeks I felt strangely paralyzed.

It suddenly seemed threatening to me to go out and shop for food, so I stayed home, living on canned food I'd had standing untouched in my kitchen cupboards for years.

All I did, aside from drinking and eating and going to the toilet, was lie in my bed and look up through the sloping ceiling window at the sky, where the clouds raced past as though they needed to get somewhere on time, as though they were in a hurry; the clouds stressed me.

***

One day I pulled myself together and went to see my doctor.

She asked me ten questions and checked off my answers on a form.

After twenty minutes I was standing on the street with a prescription for both anti-anxiety pills and antidepressants in my hand.

I'd been told to take it easy because of the anxiety, which was caused by moderate stress-related depression.

When I called my father and told him about this, he talked me out of taking the medicine.

So I decided to take matters into my own hands.

On my way home I shopped at Super Brugsen on Christianshavns Torv.

That is: grabbed oatmeal, packages of spaghetti, wine, and canned food off the shelves; paid as quickly as possible, with shaking hands and downcast gaze; hurried home.

Locked my door.

Lay in my bed and felt like a terribly failed human being and cried every day for more than a month, without contacting anyone, until there was no more canned food, oatmeal, spaghetti, or wine in my kitchen cupboards.

***

The day I'd run out of food, I got up, bathed, took five headache pills, and put on some nice clothes and lipstick.

Forced myself to go out, get on my bicycle, ride to the central train station, and go into the clockmaker's shop where a girl with whom I was studying at the university had told me some time previously that she had just given notice.

It was the boss himself who was standing behind the counter.

Fortunately, he didn't look at me oddly; on the contrary, he hired me immediately.

He said it gave him a good feeling to know I'd studied with his previous assistant, who had been so sweet and stable throughout all of her years working at the clockmaker's shop.

"You look like such a person, too," he said.

He smiled.

I smiled.

If only you knew, I thought.

We shook hands and agreed that I'd start the next day.

The work at the clockmaker's shop quickly became a routine for me.

It fit nicely with my new isolated lifestyle.

***

My life must sound terribly banal to my cousin; I therefore avoid saying more about myself and hurry to ask him what he's doing.

To begin with he brushes this question aside and says he's doing a little of this and a little of that, but when I press him it emerges that he's an artist.

"Within multiple genres," he adds.

He produces pictures and installations and performs, sings, and plays music.

On one occasion he stripped on Strøget.

He looks around the shop, and I'm suddenly ashamed of myself: ashamed of just selling cheap watches, standing behind a counter and killing time.

My cousin fishes a flyer out of his bag and lays it in front of me on the counter.

"My next exhibition is here in Copenhagen," he says.

My gaze glides over the text and the picture of him; he's been photographed nearly naked.

I feel a chill.

He resembles a corpse.

"Hunger artist?" I ask.

Instead of answering, my cousin asks me whether I'm planning to attend the reception.

He leans over the counter, smiles.

I shrug, nod.

My cousin winks at me before he picks up his bag.

"See you," he says.

He exposes his canines in a smile before he disappears into the crowds of the central station.

***

When I'm alone in the clockmaker's shop, I sit down on the chair behind the counter again and stare straight ahead.

My heart is pounding; I can feel it distinctly inside my blouse, my fingers are shaking a little bit, and I'm taking breaths slightly faster than when my cousin came into the shop, which could well be a sign that an attack is beginning.

To ensure it doesn't escalate, I take the bottle of pills from my bag and swallow one of them with a little cold coffee I have under the counter in a cup.

It always takes twenty minutes for the pills to take effect, but it's calming in itself to know that when the minute hands on the clocks in the shop have jerked forward twenty times my breathing will again be calm, my fingers will no longer tremble, my body will feel pleasantly heavy and calm and warm.

One can never predict why or when the anxiety will come, but I have a feeling that this time it has something to do with my cousin.

As a child I lay in my bed in darkness in the evening when my cousin had come to visit and had gone home; I lay under my comforter with my eyes closed and thought I could perceive the boyish smell in my bedclothes.

The smell was fresh and sweet; it reminded me a little of grass and a little of earth and a little bit of apples.

I lay and smiled in the darkness and tried to find my way into a dream in which my cousin's hand accidentally brushed my thigh when he was walking past.

It gave me chills all over my body and created a heat that finally overpowered me and washed me away into sleep.

It has been many years since I have felt anything like that.

***

For a time I was sleeping with a guy named Morten or Mikael or Mikkel—he was studying psychology at the university as my father had done when I was a child.

Morten or Mikael or Mikkel invited me to a café one day, and when we were sitting across from each other with our cups of steaming tea he leaned over the table and asked, "What's behind your smile?"

I smiled at him and said there was nothing behind it: It was only a smile: I was simply happy.

He leaned back a little and said he believed I was hiding something behind the smile, perhaps a great sorrow.

"Thanks for the tea," I said.

The next day I broke up with him.

***

Every time I've been on my way to falling in love, I've thought about a passage in Karen Blixen's Seven Gothic Tales.

There is a part of "The Dreamers" where the red-haired Englishman Lincoln Forsner confides to the old teller of tales Mira Jama that he's been in love with a whore named Olalla but has realized what the strange, blissful condition of being in love really means:

It's the beginning of an irrevocable farewell; it's the cock crowing.

***

It's strange to think about the fact that it was here at the central station, on one of the platforms, that my father first set foot on Danish soil; that was over forty years ago now.

Back then it took my father only a few days to decide that he wanted to marry Bertha, his pen pal in the yellow coat.

In her he saw an opportunity to leave his German past behind, become integrated into Danish society, and become a Danish citizen.

He got work in a little office in Kongens Enghave, married Bertha, grew a mustache, started parting his hair on the side, and bought three suits.

He learned the language quickly; Bertha became pregnant; the future looked bright.

Until things went wrong.

Things went wrong when Bertha found another man. His name was Niels Åge; he was Danish, Danish to the core, much more Danish than my father could ever become, and he was also much more well-to-do than my father, who had no real education beyond that provided by his studies at the police academy in Potsdam, which could not be used for anything in Denmark.

One day when my father came home from the office and called to his wife, no one answered.

When he walked through the living room, it was empty.

When he walked into the kitchen, there was a brief note on the counter that said, "It's over."

In the course of the afternoon, Bertha had moved into Niels Åge's house on Strandvejen, and she had taken their newborn son with her.

My father was beside himself.

He felt that his entire newly created world had begun to wobble.

At that time he was still a German citizen, and despite the fact that he did what he could to seem exemplary Bertha would only let him see his son once a month.

And she had the Danish authorities backing her up.

My father often had nightmares about being sent back to Germany and never being allowed to see his son again.

But as the years passed Bertha began to soften, as she saw the advantages of having a babysitter who was always willing to take over.

After the divorce my father started driving a taxi in Copenhagen, and he liked his new job.

He enjoyed sitting behind the wheel all day and just driving through the city.

In this way he got to know the capital city, got closer to Copenhageners, and maintained his skills in Danish.

He lived in a rented basement apartment in Classensgade but was practically never home.

The only thing he saw any point in doing was driving and keeping on driving.

Some days he worked seventeen straight hours.

It was on one of his drives that he met the next woman in his life.

Her name was Sonja, and my father fell for her when, with a sweet smile, she asked him whether it would be all right if she smoked a joint in the back while my father drove.

My father nodded and smiled at her in the rearview mirror, and before Sonja got out of the taxi my father had given her a slip of paper with his telephone number on it.

The next day Sonja called and invited my father to go to a Bifrost concert at Christiania with her, and it was here that he got stoned for the first time.

The next morning, when he woke up with a naked Sonja next to him, he decided to let his hair grow and grow a full beard.

He had never had as much fun as the previous evening at Christiania.

Sonja believed in open relationships, at least until she proposed to my father.

Suddenly she wanted him to cut his semi-long hair and get some education and a proper job; she felt the urge to start a family, to have children and a house and a car, preferably a Mercedes.

This was what started my father's alarm bells ringing; he wanted to be free.

Free to be with all the women with whom he wanted to be, free from being subject to a single woman's demands, free from the risk of being cheated on by a woman again—if there was going to be cheating, he wanted to be the cheater and not the one cheated on.

It was at this time that he met my mother.

And got her pregnant.

***

At Café Norden, my father drinks the rest of his cappuccino and asks whether there's anything else I want to know before he leaves on his trip.

"How did Opa flee?" I ask.

My father looks at me for a long time without saying anything.

Then he catches the waitress's eye and asks for a whisky.

He leans back a little and crosses his arms before he begins to tell me what happened.

***

The morning after my father's birth, Opa was awakened by light shining in his eyes.
          The soldier who was guarding him had switched on a naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling.
          When Opa's eyes had become accustomed to the light, he saw to his fright that there were other prisoners in the basement.
          Their hands were bound behind their backs as his were, but none of them moved; their eyes stared straight ahead lifelessly.

The soldier started to laugh when he saw the expression on Opa's face, and Opa could smell alcohol on his breath.

Because of this, he plucked up his courage and asked to have a last wish granted. He asked to be allowed to shit on a real toilet before he was shot.

The soldier spit in his face but nevertheless pulled him upright.

With a machine gun prodding him between the shoulder blades, Opa tottered off with the soldier on his heels, out of the basement and along some dusty corridors in a bombed-out hotel that was being used as a temporary prison.

Most of Berlin was in ruins at that point, and the Russians were closing in on the centre of the city hour by hour.

***

In the Führer bunker, between Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate, Hitler ate one of his last meals while he revealed to his secretaries the most effective and certain method of committing suicide.

"The best way is to shoot oneself in the palate," the Führer said.

He explained to his wife, Eva Braun, that this would result in the crushing of the cranium while one would feel nothing oneself.

"Death is immediate," Hitler explained.

But the women shivered at the thought.

Eva Braun declared that she would prefer to take poison.

"I want to be a beautiful corpse," she said.

She drew a brass capsule containing an ampoule of poison from a pocket in her elegant dress.

"I wonder if it will hurt," she said.

Hitler shook his head and explained that taking cyanide was also entirely painless.

The poison paralyzed the central nervous system and the breathing organs, and death would occur within a few seconds.

***

In the restroom, Opa hurried to take his clothes off.

The rope around his wrists had been untied before he was shoved into the restroom, and even though his hands were shaking he managed to tie his clothes together and fasten them to the cistern.

He climbed up on the toilet and wriggled out through the little window.

Using the tied garments as a rope, he let himself down the wall of the hotel while the soldier pounded on the door of the restroom and shouted, "Butschkow!"

***

It's strange to think about the fact that at this same time my Danish grandparents were drinking coffee in their sun room in Himmerland and discussing whether they should have brought in the potatoes that were in a box outside the back door.

Though their sleep had recently been interrupted by air-raid sirens and distant bombing, my maternal grandfather reassured my pregnant maternal grandmother every night by saying that while the occupation had caused the Danes a lot of grief, this grief was minor in comparison to what was going on in other countries.

My grandfather believed that the Danish people were strong and not easily beaten down; he reminded my grandmother of the big gatherings at which they had sung Danish songs and cultivated nationalistic sentiments together with hundreds of other Danes.

He reminded her of the jokes and ditties that were circulating among the Danes and were often aimed at the Germans.

In the darkness of the bedroom, he whispered a verse into her ear:

 

When children steal, it's mania.

When adults steal, it's kleptomania.

When countries steal, it's Germany.

 

My grandmother laughed and began to calm down a little despite the air-raid sirens.

My grandfather kissed her forehead and sang her to sleep with a song to the tune of "Lili Marlene" that they had often sung in the company of friends:

 

First you take Goebbels by his wingbone

Then you knock Göring's head against a stone

After that you hang Hitler with a strap

Right next to von Ribbentrop

By killing just these four men

Peace can be restored again

 

My grandfather brushed the hair away from my grandmother's damp forehead and assured her that it was only a question of time before the war would be over.

***

Only minutes passed before the soldiers outside the door of the restroom discovered that Opa was gone and called in several soldiers with dogs whose blood smelled of rot and of blood.

***

"That's a German," says my maternal grandfather.

His retriever, Goldie, snaps up the salami he has laid on the carpet.

Matador is my grandfather's favourite television series, and he has therefore taught Goldie the trick the hog farmer teaches Kvik on Matador.

My grandfather has trained Goldie only to bite the sausage Germans.

"You're damned smart," he says to the dog.

He lets it lick his mouth.

"You let the sausage lie if it's a Dane," he says.

According to my maternal grandfather, he and my maternal grandmother live in the heart of Denmark.

My maternal grandfather loves everything Danish.

His favourite dish is roast pork with parsley sauce and rødgrød med fløde for dessert.

I'm sitting on the floor in the living room playing with Legos; my grandfather is in a wheelchair.

During the occupation, he was shot in the right buttock; he himself says that he was a freedom fighter, but my grandmother says this isn't entirely true.

She says he only once printed an illegal poster my grandfather's pupils subsequently posted at the school where he taught.

She says the shot that hit him in such an unfortunate spot was not intended for him at all but hit him accidentally and might even have been fired by a Dane.

"That's a German," my grandfather repeats.

Goldie eats another piece of sausage off the carpet.

"Those damned Germans," he whispers.

He throws a whole handful of sausage Germans on the floor. "They're all Germans," he hisses.

My grandmother's red-checked apron appears in the doorway.

"Now, now, H.C." she exclaims.

She shakes her head but isn't entirely able to conceal her smile.

"You know I've said it before."

"Said what?" he grumbles.

"You shouldn't do that when she's here," my grandmother says.

"Who?" my grandfather mumbles.

My grandmother rolls her eyes and nods toward me. My grandfather looks as though he has just now discovered me.

"Well, well, are you here?" he says. He stares down at me, and I end up shaking my head. There is a book about a troll who can make himself invisible by putting a white twig in his mouth. If I had had such a twig, I would have used it. Despite the fact that I am only five years old, I know that the blood in my veins has something to do with the war because my father is a German. In some way that I do not entirely understand but can very strongly sense, I bear part of the blame for my grandfather's lame leg.

***

"A Nazi," says my cousin.

"Our grandfather was a top Nazi," he says.

He is sitting in a cage in a gallery in central Copenhagen, naked.

Perhaps he is attempting to resemble a prisoner in a concentration camp; his bones are sticking out under his skin.

I do not know what I should say about what he is sitting in the cage and saying; instead of answering, I concentrate on standing up straight in my stilettos and smiling at all the unfamiliar people crowding around the cage.

I have never given much thought to what my paternal grandfather did during the war, and I have certainly never imagined it that way before: that I am the grandchild of an out-and-out Nazi.

Julia Butschkow

Published works of fiction by Julia Butschkow include three novels, Lunatia (2004), Apropos Opa (2009), and Aber dabei (2013); a volume of poems, Lykkekomplex (1997); a play, Sidespor (2001); a commissioned story for the National Gallery of Denmark; and the short story collection Der er ingen bjerge i Danmark (2011).

Peter Sean Woltemade

Peter Sean Woltemade is the translator of books including Stefanie Ross's novel Nemesis: Innocence Sold(AmazonCrossing, 2016). His work has appeared in Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Newfound, Pusteblume, Storm Cellar, The Brooklyn Rail, the Cossack Review, The Missing Slate, and Wilderness House Literary Review.