The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 7, No. 2


by Peter Schneider

Uncovered There'd been no shortage of signs. For the past several months, any of us who happened to run into Burk had doubts whether it really was him. We'd all changed, but Burk was different in a different way. Burk! The slightly crazy guy with the rapid-fire speech, the fastest cross-country runner in school, the tall, lanky man with a twinkle in his eyes who tried his luck with every woman that caught his fancy but then chose not to follow through even when fortune smiled, the nighttime daredevil whose outlandish antics kept us all on pins and needles on our way back from the pub: high-wire acts on the railroad bridge over the Dreisam, crossing the feeder road on his hands—come on Burk, that's enough, Burk what are you trying to do, okay Burk, we believe you goddamnit, what else do you want to prove! This Burk of legend—half fool, half hero—had disappeared a long time ago. What bothered us about the new Burk, however, the newly famous Burk, wasn't the fact that he had changed on the outside; it wasn't the usual combination of weight gain and hair loss and the jettisoning of earlier ideals that forty-five-year-olds discuss when they bump into each other after half a life. In fact, on the surface Burk looked pretty much the same; if anything he weighed even less than he had before. No, it was more an inner transformation that bothered us, as if he'd grown gaunt and stiff on the inside. Later on, I found out that every one of us had been concerned in some way or another—as well as completely baffled—by his refusal to smile or let on the least hint of surprise when he ran into one of us after many years, by his reluctance to engage in small talk, by his evident disdain for the clichés people resort to when they meet old friends on the street: Hey buddy I see you're still alive and kicking. How are things? Still running? You mean you haven't quit smoking? Any kids? There's a place for lines like that. But Burk looked down on anyone who used them with an impatience verging on disdain, as if the other person hadn't thought long enough about what he was saying. Somehow, Burk had become unapproachable or—as some would have it—arrogant. Gone were the high spirits, the wonderful, dangerous recklessness of the old Burk. Instead, there was this new quirk of finding fault the minute you engaged in conversation: your question was wrong, your statements rash. His voice seemed locked in a kind of permanent reproach, as if he were gripped by a compulsion to judge. After we had all looked in vain for some explanation, Matthias put it this way: Burk had strayed under the power of some force that compelled him to measure his life and ours according to a standard beyond the reach of mortals.
          As I thought of all the things I might have said to him after that last telegram, I searched and searched for some way out of the tunnel that he had overlooked, some way back that he had missed—but I just wound up going in circles.
          After all, if anyone could have stopped his fall, it was me. I could have warned his wife, his children, most of all Burk himself. I could have reminded him about the strange remark that once escaped his lips after four glasses of Lorettoberg wine, how from time to time he was afraid he might blow up himself and/or the rest of the world—I can still hear the "and/or." But now I've come to the conclusion that I could no longer have stopped him, or rather that I no longer wanted to. When somebody becomes derailed by an obsession like Burk's, with that degree of self-righteousness and arrogance, then you have no choice but to let him go his own way.
          Still, none of that really hits the mark. The fact is that up to a point, Burk and I had traveled the exact same path. And when we reached an impasse where I, like everyone else of my generation, wanted to move on as quickly as possible, Burk got stuck. He went straight to the roots of a story that most of us had heard in one version or another and immediately tried to forget. I'm convinced that we could have become as obsessed as Burk if we had pursued that story or any one like it as relentlessly as he did. And if we had, then Burk wouldn't have become so possessed. But faced with Burk's example, we preferred to remain ignorant.


The first time Burk told me about the scene that seems to have inspired his future life project was back in eleventh grade. His family used to put on home concerts in his father's large villa at Sonnhalde—many of us know the house from drinking sprees with Burk whenever he signaled that the "coast was clear." At the family concerts, Burk played second violin while his father played cello. The first violinist was Professor Carstens, a colleague of Burk's father who held a leading post in the psychiatric clinic in E. Initially the only thing Burk noticed about this man was his violin: a genuine Stradivarius. One time Burk had been allowed to hold it and play a few measures; later he decided to become a psychiatrist himself, since they could evidently afford such beautiful and sinfully expensive violins.
          Over supper after one such concert Professor Carstens regaled everyone with a story along the lines of "What can happen when you steal an apple." He had been out for a walk one fall evening when he spotted an apple tree. Following an old custom from the hunger years during the war and just after, he stopped to look for fallen fruit, and as he was bending over the ground he was startled by a voice from above calling him by name and title. He looked up and saw an elderly woman perched in the apple tree, waving at him energetically. Not until she climbed down did he realize the picker was his former maid. She took hold of his hand and refused to let go, then in a moving if somewhat confusing speech went on to tell him it was high time she thanked him for all he had done. Because back then, during the bad times, Professor Carstens had saved her life: by giving her a clean bill of health for a psychological exam he had kept her from certain death.
          The "funny" thing was, the professor continued, that he could no longer remember the certificate in question, which was certainly false according to the "norms" of the time, and which undoubtedly would have jeopardized his name as a psychiatrist. After all, there were so many things you had to sign, while trying to maintain as decent a balance as possible—anyone who hadn't felt those pressures for himself couldn't possibly imagine what it was like back then. "But that's the kind of wonderful surprise that can happen," Professor Carstens concluded his story, which he had obviously told before, "when you steal an apple!"
          During the painful silence that followed, Burk asked: "And how many people didn't you give a clean bill of health?" Evidently his father considered this question insolent, because when Burk repeated it a little less emphatically, his father hissed at him in a tone of parental reprimand: "Don't you have anything better to talk about?"


We'll never know how things would have worked out with Burk if the musical friend had answered his question with a halfway compelling response. At that time it wasn't difficult to satisfy whatever curiosity a sixteen-year-old might show for such matters. Indeed, over the next few years, Burk seemed to have forgotten all about "the subject." He never called attention to himself in history class with similarly obstinate questions. Other things were more important: our madcap drag races down the snow-covered roads in the Black Forest, ski weekends at his father's cabin, homemade eggnog, the intoxicated nighttime slaloms—not to mention summer training for the 5,000-meter run: Let's hear it for the Junior Champion from Baden for the year 1965! Hip, hip, hooray for Burk! Burk ostentatiously refused to engage in the sexual swaggering commonly found in men's locker rooms—in fact, he openly declared it disgusting. We took our revenge by making fun of Burk and resorting to vulgar humor. We joked about his figure, how difficult it was for him to hug his girlfriend with his apelike arms that hung down to her knees, or how he had to stand her on a stepstool or lift her thirty centimeters in the air just to kiss her. With outstretched thumb and forefinger we demonstrated the presumed disproportion between Burk's height and the length of his cock. All in his absence, of course, since Burk was too big and too quick with his fists: nobody willingly chose to spar with him. Later on I learned from some of the girls in our class and from Burk's ex-wife that they found qualities in him we never noticed. They liked the contrast between his shyness and his physical size, loved his long eyelashes and dark, melancholy eyes, were impressed by his courage and persistence. There's evidence that Burk came in first not only in cross-country meets but also in the sexual races. Still, his love life seemed ruled by an unlucky star. With the two or three women he truly loved he seemed to have set off a type of rescue reflex, which, as his ex-wife put it, tended to evolve into a run-for-your-life reflex. Evidently he had trouble with commitment when it came to matters of the heart. He never confessed his love until he had been abandoned.
          Nothing during his years at the university gave any indication of his later obsession. As a student of sports medicine in F., he was neither brilliant nor particularly ambitious, but as a cross-country runner he was the pride of the university and, as mentioned, the heartthrob of certain women who were less interested in finding a man than a lanky-legged son.
          I have no idea what Burk did during his long period of study abroad in the United States and France. He experienced the American version of 1968, though the political movements of the period appear to have interested him only marginally, and by the time he came back to F. all that was left were the Maoist and terrorist offshoots. Toward the end of the seventies there must have been some event I don't know about: some incident or experience that caused him to return to the question he had posed to first violinist Carstens.
          He was already working in the field of sports medicine when he decided to go back to school and study psychiatry. In a seminar taught by a professor about his own age, he chose a paper topic no one else seemed interested in: the role of German psychiatry in the Third Reich. Instead of confining himself to the relevant literature available on the subject—mostly written in English—Burk surprised his professor with the suggestion that he analyze psychiatric records in the nearby town of E. The professor hesitated before giving his approval; he didn't know anything about the records, and wasn't sure they still existed.


Burk drove out to the clinic and asked to see the patient files from the Nazi period. The head of the clinic claimed they weren't there and had either been stored somewhere else or destroyed. But Burk found two witnesses who had looked around the basement just a few years earlier. At that time I was working as a reporter for the local paper and helped get the editorial staff interested in Burk's project. After our paper launched a full-fledged campaign, the director of the clinic finally confessed that the archives from the Nazi period had been "found in a previously inaccessible room inside the basement." The director was forced to resign, and Burk returned to E. equipped with a research request issued by the university. On his first visit he discovered that the archives, which were shelved in perfect order, had not been touched for decades. Burk began his work by looking for some clue, some trace of the violinist Carstens. He spent a long time combing through the patient records before coming across the professor's signature. It turned out that his worst fears were surpassed: the family friend with the Strad had affixed his signature to hundreds of psychiatric reports that were tantamount to death sentences. The young Dr. Carstens had declared scores of mentally retarded people, epileptics, and so-called asocials "useless mouths to feed," and sent them to the places of extermination, while the brains and organs of the murdered were returned to Dr. Carstens for further research into the diagnosed "diseases." Burk retraced the path of those who had been condemned to die, following the tracks that led to the transfer stations and the extermination sites; he deciphered the orders and laws that "legalized" the killings-the entire unutterable "foreign language" of state-ordained mass murder.
          At first he confined his focus to Dr. Carstens, but over time he expanded his investigation to other doctors whose names appeared in the basement records. He determined that nearly all of Dr. Carstens's colleagues were accomplices. A handful had remained loyal to their oath as doctors or to their basic sense of decency and had refused to carry out instructions, citing valid excuses or flimsy pretexts. Evidently not one of these suffered any serious penalty for refusing to comply. After months of hard work, a highly organized killing machine began to take shape before Burk's eyes, a vast project of "hygienic" murder that engaged the entire medical staff, from professors and doctors to attendants and caretakers.
          His paper appeared in a small facsimile edition; experts considered it a scholarly sensation. Although the crimes Burk had brought to light by focusing on the specific example of the psychiatric clinic in E. were more than thirty years old, virtually no one had attempted any systematic investigation or portrayal. This paper was Burk's first academic success, and many prominent authorities urged or even demanded that he continue.
          Within a few months I began to notice the first signs of change; Burk was developing a new way of speaking. His delivery was still a little too fast, and he still tended to stumble over his words, but a new tone had crept in, which within a few years would gain the upper hand—an unnaturally slowed, seemingly emotionless speech, with jabbing accents punctuated by a forefinger that Burk occasionally thrust forward like a fencing foil. Even innocuous expressions made him pause, as if he were searching for the right word. It took me a while to realize that these pauses could actually be a way of avoiding the right word, which he kept on the tip of his tongue, but which he refrained from pronouncing because it would have had the force of a straight punch to the face.
          I also experienced his new habit of answering a question with another question or by correcting the way the original question was posed. When I asked him whether he intended to continue his research, he looked at me full of reproach: Did I seriously think that after that kind of work it was possible to go back to everyday concerns and the struggle for a tenured position at the university? When I told him how frightening I thought the results of his research were, he immediately responded by pointing out how superficial my reaction was. Anyone who got worked up about the Nazis' euthanasia program but kept quiet about the experiments currently being conducted by geneticists in the pharmaceutical laboratories had no right to say anything. No matter what I said or asked, I had the feeling my statements were being weighed and found too light. He struck me as a traffic cop of feelings, poised to direct every spontaneous impulse of curiosity or indignation, as if he possessed some perfect standard for propriety—the right questions, the right thoughts, the right feelings. It was as if Burk could not allow any statement on the topic that hadn't been ennobled by the same arduous labors he had performed in the basement of the psychiatric clinic.


A wave of coldness came between us and almost forced me to go my own separate way, but I remember that for a brief time the chill dissipated. Using Burk's own jargon, I managed to formulate a question that prompted some catchwords for his next research project. He had come across a diary and numerous letters written by a euthanasia doctor named B.—a man responsible for thousands of killings who described his activities in daily letters to his wife, in between "my dearest Muttilein" and "Küssli." As I listened to Burk and the gruesome passages from the letters he could apparently quote from memory, I struggled against an inner shudder, a shiver somewhere between disgust and horror, against the reflex to stop my ears. Burk was right: in our nine years of history at school we hadn't learned a thing about this. Nor had we studied it in our seminars at the university, and the newspapers had taught us next to nothing. In short, the infamous "darkest" chapter of German history had remained dark because so many of the perpetrators were still among us, in high-profile positions, and they made sure it stayed that way. But did this mean that I, that we were all obligated to pursue this knowledge as zealously as Burk? Didn't I have a right to a basic defensive reflex; wasn't I allowed to not want to know more; couldn't I at least take a break from it all?

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