Author: Friedman, Bruce Jay
Date published: January 1, 2012
When the phone rang, Max Wintermann jumped, as if he'd been struck on the head from behind. These days, everything unsettled Wintermann. A car exhaust. A gust of wind. God forbid, a knock at the door, although, chances are, the visitor was a gypsy who lived, or more correctly existed, on the floor below.
"Yes?" he answered tentatively, holding the receiver as if he'd pulled it out of a hot oven.
"Is this the voice of the celebrated Max Wintermann?"
"This is Wintermann. Regrettably, no longer celebrated."
"You are, to those who matter. This is Josef Goebbels."
There was a hesitation, as if the name alone might not be sufficient identification.
"Reichminister of Propaganda, and Editorial Director of the Volkischer Beobachter, the last being central to the purpose of this call."
"I'm honored, Herr Goebbels, to speak to the editor of The People's Observer. I'm a long-time subscriber."
"I 'm delighted to hear that. We make no claim to Higher Thought. But we try to deliver an engaging mix of entertainment and a sprinkling of the political."
A sprinkling, thought Wintermann.
The rag was nine -tenths anti-Semitic screed, the other tenth gossip and cartoons, many of them grotesque depictions of the Jews. Big noses. Spittle on the lips. A leer directed at prepubescent girls. It was an engaging mix, all right. Though he made an effort to ignore the publication, he found, to his shame, that the gossip columns were irresistible; an occasional feature was amusing. No doubt he would burn in hell for this filthy pleasure, but there it was.
"Many of us on the staff are fans of yours. As a young student in Heidelberg, having just had an essay of mine criticized, unfairly I thought, I returned to the dorm, picked up a Wintermann collection, read it, and was transported to a place I wanted to be. This is satire. I told myself. Not the university brand. This is how I will learn."
"I am, of course, flattered, Herr Goebbels."
And in a sense he meant this. It was a depressing philosophy, but he had always believed that a fan was a fan. Needless to say, he hated every bone in the man's body, and the ground he stood on. Yet there was no denying the Reichminister's prominence. It disgusted Wintermann that this mattered to him.
"May I share a secret with you?" asked Goebbels.
"I have witnessed the Führer himself chuckling over one of your essays . . . one of the earlier, lighter ones, I might add."
"This is beyond my comprehension."
"I saw this with my own eyes. And I tell it to you in confidence. I trust you not to share it."
"Of course," said Wintermann.
And who was left to enjoy this "nugget?"
His mother's death, many years back, had, in a sense, spared her. His father simply disappeared. A walk along Mulakstrasse ... a patrol car pulls alongside ... he is asked to step in . . . then a void, as if he'd never existed. One by one, family by family, friends and acquaintances had disappeared, a number of them spirited away in vans in the dead of night ... in his very building. The awful siren, as the vehicles sped off. His building was like a toothless crone. For the most part it was uninhabited ... a few Poles, some junior officers. . . .
His teenage daughter still lived with him. Uneasily.
"Are you being treated well, Herr Wintermann? The account we arranged at the grocery store. . . It has worked out decently, one hopes."
"And there have been no irritating interrogations? . . . No abuse on the street? ... I issued a directive that you and the child needn't wear an armband?"
"We have been treated fairly, Herr Goebbels."
"Has the home schooling been effective for your daughter?"
"She's getting along nicely."
"I shouldn't wonder," said Goebbels. "With Max Wintermann as her instructor. Has she shown a penchant for creating literature?"
"That has been disappointing," said Wintermann. "She has the tools . . . but there is a lack of focus."
"These are troubled times. But she's young. She'll come round."
"And now," he said, his tone more formal, "The business at hand. The board would like you to do a satirical piece for the Beobachter. One with the Wintermann touch, which of course, is redundant. Each time Max Wintermann puts pen to paper, the result is unique . . . and often memorable."
"Once again, Herr Goebbels, I'm flattered. But I'm afraid what you ask is impossible. The quality that you admire requires a particular state of mind. It's been several years since I've so much as approached a typewriter."
"The Olivetti. How well we all know it. A nation is in its debt. But forgive me, Herr Wintermann, we both know that great satire often arises out of discomfort, if not actual pain. And even if this was not the case, we've gone out of our way to make you comfortable. . . ."
"It has been much appreciated."
"Then I don't understand."
Wintermann cleared his throat.
"No doubt this is delicate," he said, "but Kristallnacht put an end to any hopes I had ..."
"I can't believe," said Goebbels, cutting him short, "that you've allowed some sophomoric incident, dreamed up by underlings, to interfere with the work of a genius. I can assure you, the offenders have been properly admonished."
"I was saddened," said Wintermann, simply.
"In a way, I 'm happy to hear that. You will use that grim outlook of yours as a spur to catapult you to new and greater satirical heights. I become weak when I anticipate the results."
Goebbels prepared to hang up, then paused. "Few know this, but as a young man I dreamed of being a writer ... a Max Wintermann. I wrote eight novels, each one an unpublished failure. I stopped when it became clear that only one among millions is born with that priceless gift of yours. One that only the heavens can grant. By some fluke, I finally published a novel . . . Winter Storm . . . you probably know it."
Wintermann was aware of the novel, but hadn't read it. He struggled to find a way of saying this gently. Goebbels rescued him by pushing on.
"It was well received, but in my heart I know it's a pedestrian effort. ... To mention it in the same breath as 'a Wintermann' is blasphemous."
He clicked his heels.
"Three thousand words. Monday morning. Forty-eight hours should be sufficient. You will be paid our most generous fee."
"Forgive me, Herr Goebbels, but to put a time restriction . . . '
Goebbels spoke as if he hadn't heard Wintermann.
"If there are any difficulties ... If your daughter, for example, should be jostled by one of our inexperienced and, shall we say, randy young officers, please call my private number."
He raised his arm.
Through a dry mouth Wintermann repeated.
"Ten o'clock sharp," said Goebbels.
Oddly enough, what rankled Wintermann most was Goebbels' claim that the publication of his (ninth) novel was "a fluke." He was perhaps the second most powerful figure in Germany. Lived there a publisher who would dare to say, "It's not quite for us." It would not surprise Wintermann if the eight unpublished novels were suddenly "discovered" and brought out with great ceremony.
But to dwell on Goebbels' "literary" career was to celebrate rubbish. Hypocritically, Wintermann did read- or glance at- the Beobachter. But to write a sentence, two words, for the tabloid, was of course out of the question. Better ask him to piss on the graves of the forlorn army of Jews whose great number had not yet been established. It was bad enough that he had accepted "protection" for himself and his beloved daughter. A man with an ounce of courage would have told the Reichminister what he could do with his offer.
Shove it up your ass, Herr Goebbels. Then come and get me if you like. Tear off my balls. But you will not get a single word . . .
And to his daughter:
Run . . .it doesn't matter where . . . be swift . . . and never stop.
Yet he had remained silent. Compliant.
Though it was difficult for him to be in the same room as his battered Olivetti, Wintermann did not lack for ideas. There was one thought that nagged at him, virtually calling out for his attention. It was no secret that Hitler protected a small number of Jews he found useful. A master tailor. An arms merchant. A man with great surgical skills. Wasn't Wintermann, in his way, one of the select few? A human bone Hitler had thrown to Wintermann 's passionate fans.
It fascinated Wintermann that throughout the war years- and before-Hitler supported a psychiatric institute in Berlin. There were three hundred practitioners at work there, some of them Jews who had been spared. Half worked on eugenics. The others practiced conventional therapy. At root and in the overall, a psychiatrist's goal was to make a troubled patient feel more comfortable. It took little effort for Wintermann to imagine a Third Reich psychiatrist counseling a guilt-ridden Nazi official:
"What is your work?"
"Each day I dispatch at least five hundred Jews to a Tabor camp' . . . the equivalent of sending lambs to slaughter."
"Is that your assignment?"
"You do your job well? "
"Then I'm puzzled. What is it that troubles you? "
The scene virtually satirized itself and hardly called for the touch of a master. Wintermann needed only to record, almost literally, such a session. The Wintermann of old would have tossed it off in an afternoon, nap included.
Not for a moment did he consider proceeding- but the notion, for all of its absurdity, required a light touch, what some had called, clumsily, a style that was "Wintermannesque." Could he still produce this? In his present state, his "touch" would be that of an elephant's feet.
And yet Goebbels, though he hadn't quite put it this way, had suggested that the very act of making a start, even out of pain, would force him into the literary posture he sought and help him to regain his touch, one that he prayed had not disappeared entirely.
Still, to entertain a nation of Jew-hating Nazis was unthinkable.
Goebbels called late at night.
"I hope I'm not interrupting your labors ..."
"No, no, Herr Goebbels. I was preparing for bed."
"I won't offend by asking how you're coming along. Did the Pope call Leonardo with such a concern? But I wanted to assure you that there will be absolutely no editorial interference in your work. No politicizing. Not a sentence will be altered. In case I hadn't made that clear. You have my word on this."
"I appreciate that, Herr Goebbels."
"I thought you might. Have a good night. And Heil Hitler."
Wintermann rasped out, "Heil Hitler."
A restless night was not out of the ordinary for Wintermann. But the one that followed was an ordeal. As he tried in vain to align comfortably his arthritic bones, there was a thought that nagged at him. Oddly enough, it had nothing to do with the gruesome consequences of refusing the Reichminister. He forced himself, made an almost physical effort to chip way at the edges and to confront the true state of his mind. And then, it was almost as if he 'd wrestled a powerful adversary to the ground. His need to publish. That was it. His need to be heard. It had been several years since he'd had a word in print. The silence, the inability to share his ideas with even the most vile audience. This is what had defeated him. Some might say his silence was courageous. But with no outlet, no forum, no means to be heard, his life seemed pointless. He treasured his daughter. But was that a reason to exist? His long silence hastened him to the grave. Past triumphs were of no interest to him. His time on earth seemed pointless. He yearned for a turn in the spotlight, even a final one. Only by seeing the name Max Wintermann in print would his life feel verified.
Goebbels had assured him that not a word of his would be altered. For some reason, and on this one point, he trusted the greatly feared Reichminister.
The story, still unwritten, would stand alone. Untouched. The editorial matter? The cartoons that spit on the Jews? None of this was his responsibility. His story would be pure, isolated, contemptuous of its surroundings. Like an honorable man, standing upright among thieves. A stately tree in a scorched forest. No longer would he feel smothered by silence.
Sleep was out of the question. He approached the Olivetti with a familiar apprehension. He had felt it at the height of his powers. In many ways it was welcome.
The fear of making a start.
And this, after a virtual lifetime of story-telling.
With trembling fingers, he tried a sentence. It was gibberish, but it was useful. The inadequacy pointed the way. He tried another, then several more. The sensation he felt was much like swimming, after a long absence from the water. The stroke was there.
In short order, he surprised himself by working cleanly and effortlessly. The piece was finished, in not much more than an hour. He put a hand to his chest, to make sure the exertion, mild as it had been, had not brought about a heart attack. He read his work. He was experienced enough to be his own editor. Quickly, he saw there was little need to change much of it. He felt confident that he had produced what others had called "a Wintermann."
He delivered the manuscript at the appointed hour, then stood before Goebbels, cap in hand, his head bowed slightly, while the Reichminister reviewed his efforts.
To think I have to wait anxiously for the approval of a literary pygmy.
As he turned the pages, Goebbels, for the most part did not change his expression. At one point he did snicker. Wintermann could not tell if this was an expression of amusement or contempt.
When he had finished reading the manuscript, Goebbels set it aside, pushed his chair back and kicked his short booted legs up on his desk. Then he rubbed his eyes.
"There is something I don't understand."
"Yes, Herr Goebbels."
"I was under the impression that I had asked for 4a Wintermann.'"
"As you did, Herr Goebbels."
"I made myself clear on this point?"
"You did, indeed."
"Then why, may I ask, do you give me THIS?"
He picked up the manuscript, then slammed it down on his desk. His eyes bulged. He had spittle on his lips, much like that of the cartoon Jews that he ridiculed.
"This is not 'a Wintermann,'" he went on. "Why not call it what it is." He picked up the manuscript again and waved it in the other man's face.
"Smell it. This is shit."
"It's but a draft, Herr Goebbels."
"Never mind. I defy you to show me one touch of Wintermann in these pages. One speck ... a crumb. . . ."
"If the Reichminister would be so kind as to point out the inadequacies. . . . They can be fixed. . . ."
"They cannot be fixed."
In a moment of relative calm, he said. "As satirists, we both know that what is born disfigured, remains that way.
"All of it upsets me," he said, gathering heat. "It stinks in its conception, its execution . . . every phrase. To think I wanted once to sit at Max Wintermann 's feet. This is an insult to me, to the Beobachter, to the Third Reich itself . . . For the Führer to see it besmirch our pages. ..."
Shuddering at the possibility, he handed some cloth material to Wintermann.
"Here. Take this"
Wintermann glanced at it.
"But these are armbands."
"One for you . . . and one for your daughter. A car will pick you up at seven tomorrow morning. ..."
"Where will it take us?"
"To the countryside, of course," said Goebbels, with a thin smile. "The fresh air will do you both good. Take along only essentials.
"Guards," he cried out.
Two uniformed Gestapo officers came running forth. Each took one of Wintermann 's arms and began to lead, then to drag him off.
The soft-spoken Wintermann could not recall the last time he had raised his voice. But now, twisting his head toward Goebbels and with the roar of a dying lion, cried out "VONCE." It was one of the few Yiddish words he remembered. It meant "cockroach."
"Vonce," Goebbels repeated to an adjutant, when the struggling Wintermann had been removed. "What does it mean?"
"Some Yid trash."
"Still, it has a nice sound to it. A military bounce. For the time being why don't you address me as such."
"Of course, Herr Goebbels . . . Herr Vonce."
"I like it. Vonce. Herr Vonce. Vintage Wintermann, if you ask me."
Bruce Jay Friedman's latest book, Lucky Bruce: A Memoir, was published in October 2011 by Biblioasis. Previous work includes fiction (Three Balconies, About Harry Towns, The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman), plays (Scuba Duba and Steambath), and screenplays (Stir Crazy and Splash). "The Man They Threw Out of Jets," Friedman's second published story, appeared in the Antioch Review in 1955.