German lessons

Fergus Allen

It was about 1936 when the first refugees – exiles, displaced persons – reached our boarding school. One day a group of us went out from the classrooms on to the front gravel for our mid-morning break and found an odd-looking boy standing there surrounded by his foreign luggage. A jarvey must have brought him up from the station. He was about twelve, sturdily built, with thick circular spectacles and an undefended face. His suitcases were quite unlike the fibre trunks we had been given by our parents; they were made of something like pigskin and held together with a variety of broad straps and buckles. His thick-soled shoes sported strange reinforcements and bars, and his clothes too were peculiar, made from a closely woven dark green tweed, with decorative leather insertions. (Weeks later he appeared briefly in lederhosen, but that was more than east Munster could take and they were not seen again.)

After a minute one of us (not me, I was far too retiring) tried a helpful remark like ‘Are you looking for someone?’ He responded with some faltering guttural words. Raising our voices we tried again, but it was soon borne in on us that the boy could not speak English. Here was an alien creature. At this juncture, fortunately, the housekeeper or a member of staff arrived and bore him off.

As things turned out, Hans settled in quite easily. I suppose he must have been given a crash course in conversational English behind the scenes, because it didn’t seem long before he was communicating with us and holding his own, despite some shouting and crossed wires. He was the burly mesomorphic type and he commended himself in the eyes of the games enthusiasts by the readiness with which he fitted in to the junior rugby team, where his immense energy, barely under control, helped to rout our opponents from nearby schools. He was a natural forward and I can still hear his exclamations of ‘Oh mensch!’ when the scrum collapsed on top of him.

What it felt like to be Hans is another matter. He was a stoical chap and the round face that he turned to the world was generally cheerful, but in the early months I suspect that when the lights were turned out in the dormitory, he was as desolate as might be expected. One night I thought I heard a single stifled sob coming from his bed, but my mind may have been dramatizing ordinary domestic noises. Was he a Jew? I don’t know for sure, but probably not. The question arose only because some of us (not I) had read something in the Irish Times about the Nuremberg Laws and what they meant. My guess now is that his father had been taken away as a Communist. (The school gave refuge to mothers, sons and daughters in those pre-war years, but of fathers there was no trace.) Our ideas of Jewishness were of course of the vaguest, being restricted to The Merchant of Venice and, I suppose, the Bible (though everyone knew that had little connection with life as lived).

Konrad was another matter. He came, a bringer of discord, a year or so later. Whereas Hans, when dressed in the customary school garments or stripped, looked just like the rest of us, Konrad had lightly tanned skin, dark crinkly hair, an aquiline nose and an invariably contemptuous or arrogant expression. He was about sixteen and was clearly outraged at finding himself set down against his wishes among backward Celtic clodhoppers somewhere out in the Atlantic, when his proper milieu was among the café tables of Unter den Linden. Seeing him in the changing room we noted that he was circumcised but were puzzled by his protruding navel and concluded that someone had made a botch of tying his umbilical chord. That apart we grudgingly admitted that he had a good figure. However, as well as having no time for us and sneering at our lack of sophistication, he hated having to participate in rugby and hockey and made it clear in his good but heavily accented English that he was on the field under protest and had no intention of exerting himself to help his team.

Some weeks after his arrival the case of Konrad came to a climax. A number of us were idly gossiping on the gravel one afternoon when we heard loud voices, then shouting, coming, as far as we could make out, from the dormitories on the first floor. The row continued and we turned to listen. It became apparent that the deeper, sterner, more authoritative of the voices belonged to Mr Willis, our formidable maths master, though we had never heard him quite so stentorian. But it took time to realize that the other party, the hysterical tenor, was Konrad. The exchanges – quite incomprehensible from where we stood – continued, growing louder and louder, and on Konrad’s part shriller and shriller. It sounded as though there was much repetition, with growing intensity and the thuds of someone stamping. It went on and on. We had never heard anything like it. Finally Konrad seemed to work himself into such a frenzy that his speech degenerated into an intermittent howl of rage or suffering. We looked at each other in amazed and sober silence. Were these un-Irish sounds the voice of central Europe?

That day or the next Konrad was expunged from the history books. Nothing was said. Nothing was ever said; the boy could have been the victim of a nervous breakdown after intolerable experiences in Germany, where he may have lost his father and mother; or on the other hand he may have been just plain nasty, which was what most of us thought. But we never learned what the altercation had been about. Nor did we ever hear of him again, and the ripples he had sent over the surface of school life were soon dissipated.

Other newcomers were less dramatic. A Mrs Chelewski and her fifteen-year-old son, Julian, were found to be among us one day without having been seen to arrive. They were simply present, taking part in our social activities without introduction or explanation, and speaking passable English. If any of the school’s functions were made Mrs Chelewski’s responsibility I never discovered what they were (we started by calling her Frau Chelewski, but reverted to Mrs before the end of term). When I try to visualize her, Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein floats into my mind. Julian was tall and thin and reminded me of an amiable but slightly distant greyhound, continually on the move, on the way to somewhere. He slightly resembled a film star of the day called Leslie Howard, and like Leslie Howard he was invariably considerate and gentlemanly. These qualities helped him to be accepted, but he did not appear to make any close friends; he did not have time to stop and talk. I doubt if anyone quietly asked Julian about his past; equally I doubt if he ever asked any of us about our pasts. Not that we had any worth mentioning. However, this was characteristic of our relationships with all these strangers. We had no curiosity about their earlier lives or the events that had led to their being amongst us. Our concern was only with the persons they were now, and I suppose they looked on us in much the same way.

Even more enigmatic was a young woman called Rebecca, whose surname, if I ever knew it, is quite forgotten. She was in her very early twenties, and her flawless but expressionless face was surmounted by an archetypally Germanic braid of hair. She existed in order to appear as the unidentifiable figure in the annual school photograph. For some reason she put me in mind of a book that was always to be found (because it was seldom read) in the school library, Elizabeth and her German Garden. She had the same goody-goody quality. (I am a very virtuous German fräulein, I will do what I am told, I am very grateful.) But I think she was as silent in German as she was in English. Looking back now at that distant past, I believe she had been reduced to a more or less permanent state of shock. Who knows what she had undergone before reaching the sanctuary that our school may have represented? And still the safe course was to be clean and neat and well behaved; not to attract attention; to keep one’s eyes open and one’s thoughts to oneself.

Finally, Anna, the one I knew best. She, too, was about twenty-one or -two and she became my German teacher. French was the modern language taught at our school, but it was well known that I had ambitions to become a chemist and the accepted wisdom was that to be a successful chemist one had to have German. I must digress here to explain that my interest in chemistry stemmed mainly from my enthusiasm for deriving alcohol from potatoes. I had succeeded in making just enough to satisfy the test for ethyl alcohol, but no more. No matter, a career lay ahead of me if only I could get started, and then production could begin. In the meantime, as well as studying chemistry, I must try to get Leaving Certificate in German. The term after passing my Intermediate Certificate exams I therefore found myself assigned to Anna for one-to-one tuition in German. I had no knowledge whatsoever of the language and two years in which to drag my essentially lazy self up to Leaving Cert standard.

I suppose Anna had arrived about 1937, whence I never knew. Nor did I ever ask, though I’d heard a rumour that she was a Pacifist. The meeting place for my instruction was the Ladies’ Common Room, a sunny carpeted room with long eighteenth-century windows on two sides, furniture with glazed floral loose covers and a coal fire burning in the grate. There I discovered that the language I was supposed to learn was printed in baffling black Gothic type. This took a while to get used to. And then we started from the beginning, with nouns, verbs, sentence structure and so on. Six weeks later Anna, apparently bored with the basics, started me on Schiller’s Maria Stuart. This was the equivalent of requiring a total beginner in English to translate Coriolanus. It was daunting. Deep down I was vaguely resentful at some German telling me what Mary, Queen of Scots, had been up to in terms of his overblown theory of Sturm und Drang. But quite apart from any emotional resistance, it was hard work and profoundly boring. Each day I would sit down and offer my rendering of a handful of stilted speeches and Anna would find fault with them.

She was a very plain young woman. Her hair was lank, often braided like Rebecca’s, her face large and shapeless, her lips inexpressive of anything but discontent, and her nose was bulbous, with many enlarged pores. But she had one redeeming feature: sitting on the floor as we did, on either side of the fireplace, I often had the opportunity to glance at the underside of her raised thighs, and this was an incentive to turn up for tuitions.

After a term (and two acts) of Maria Stuart, we switched to Goethe and Part I of Faust. This was better, though I was not taken by Goethe’s self-satisfied personality or the overweening confidence he seemed to have displayed in his sexual exploits, which Anna told me about at some length, covering her enthusiasm with a cloak of disapproval. But Goethe’s tone was more to my taste than what I saw as the solemn waffling of Schiller, and I got some pleasure from translating passages like

Vom Eise befreit sind Strom und Bäche
Durch des Frühlings holden belebenden Blick;
Im Tale grünet Hoffnungsglück …

But while I did so it crossed my mind more than once that reading, say, Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives might have had more relevance to my proposed studies in chemistry.

As well as these ventures into classic German texts I also had to grapple with the grammar, including such matters as the imperfect and pluperfect and the way the parts of verbs seemed to gather together in lumps at the ends of sentences. And, of course, I had to produce compositions. One day I handed over a couple of pages that I had managed to grind out in a wearisome half-hour the evening before, and Anna took them off to examine while I was finding my place in Faust. Then I heard her stir behind me.

‘What is this, Fergus? What is it that you are saying here?’

‘I’m sorry, Fräulein, my writing’s not very clear, I’ve been having trouble with my pen. I’ll –’

‘No, that is not what I am asking. What did you mean by these words? Here you have written nackt – I do not like to see that.’

‘Yes, I think I did write Nacht. That’s all right, isn’t it? I was saying something like from our bedroom we watched night falling over the town, isn’t that what I put?’ I tried to look over her shoulder, but she pulled away.

‘Then why did you choose to write nackt?’

I was still at the stage when my ear did not catch the difference between the pronunciation of Nacht (meaning night) and nackt (naked), and it took a few more exchanges before I grasped that she thought I had written the German word for naked. Nothing very terrible about that, surely, but obviously Anna thought otherwise.

‘I am very disappointed in you, Fergus. You have badly let me down. I must insist that you explain why you wrote this.’

I replied that if I had written nackt – and it was probably just my bad handwriting, or maybe I had left the capital N off Nacht – it was just a mistake and I would correct the manuscript. But she wasn’t having it.

‘No, this was not a mistake, Fergus. You were sitting down yesterday evening and you deliberately wrote nackt. That is not good, when you and I are meeting here. It is a very bad thing to say.’

I sensed the emotional temperature rising and felt uneasy.

‘Well I can only tell the truth and say that if I wrote nackt it was an error on my part and I’m sorry. And anyway I don’t think I did write it.’

‘And now you are contradicting me. What is happening to you today, Fergus? This is very worrying, and I am not sure what it is my duty to do.’

We were moving fast into an irrational zone. I began to fancy I saw clouds of madness gathering above the picture-rail of the Ladies’ Common Room. Was Anna really very stupid and perverse, or was it something else? I was just seventeen and quite a senior boy in the school – and a prefect – but I came from a sheltered background where, in my experience, adults were generally reasonable and their behaviour held few surprises. How was I to deal with this contretemps? There seemed to be no way forward.

‘I don’t know what to say. I was just writing the essay you asked for – about sunset and nightfall.’

‘I must look further into this, Fergus. I know you are trying to deceive me. I think I shall have to tell the headmaster about what has happened.’

At this point I got to my feet and went over to the window. To my chagrin I found tears of exasperation coming to my eyes. And I felt a new stab of alarm. If she did indeed go to the headmaster, what kind of tale would she spin? And if I were asked to account for myself, what would I say and would I be believed? Would he side with a respectable young woman teacher or an adolescent boy? I began to feel shaky and vulnerable. I was in a dangerous position, alone in a room having private tuition with a strange foreign woman who might accuse me of anything.

Anna must have noticed that my eyes were filling with tears, because things now started to calm down. I suspect she derived some satisfaction from my discomfiture, but what was it that had been going through her mind? What had she been driving towards? Had she been edging me towards a climax in which I would burst into uncontrolled weeping? And then?

I cannot recall now how the session ended, but end it did in a muted way and I was relieved to find myself back in the everyday world of hockey practice and beans on toast. However, I had been shaken, and all my subsequent German lessons were conducted in a more formal style, sitting up to a table. (When they were over I duly gained my Leaving Certificate in German, but I did not go on to become a chemist.)

A few years ago, reminiscing about schooldays with a friend of my own vintage, I mentioned Anna and asked if anything were known of her subsequent life; and I was told that she had married someone from Northern Ireland soon after the start of the war, had moved to the North and been arrested as a spy. That is what I was told.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 13 Winter 2003–4