Is this novel the story of two ethnic German lovers, she remaining in Sighisoara, he deported to Stalino, or is it the story of one of the most tragic years of the twentieth century? The two narrative strands reinforce each other in a novel in which everything is cast into doubt: sisters, brothers, the white of snowdrifts, the black of coke, Nazism and Communism . . . One of the few books in Romanian literature in which you can discover what life was like in Transylvania’s Saxon community, whose numbers fell drastically after the Second World War, during the Ceausescu regime, and in the nineties, On Either Side of the Tunnel is a novel of multiculturality and memory
They had noticed that the train travelled by night, while by day it halted in deserted places. Somebody voiced the opinion that it was so that they wouldn’t know where they were going. Each said what he thought. They didn’t have anybody to ask. The first time they were told anything official was when they arrived at the Ungheni border crossing. But this only after the train had stood stationary for hours, then manoeuvred, then stood stationary again, hours in which their hopes were kindled. Dim bulbs faintly lit the perimeter of the station. At one point, their carriage was uncoupled from the train that had left Sighisoara. On a parallel railway track, they saw pulleys lift the train on which they had come, carriage by carriage, and lower it onto a wider-gauge track. “Europe ends here,” Otto found himself thinking aloud. They hoped their turn would come too. With the train in motion, time passed differently. But their carriage lingered on the normal-gauge track by which they had come. After a while, they saw “their” train set off, departing without them. They began to hope. Maybe an order has come to take us back. Maybe they’ve realised that they arrested us Romanian citizens by mistake and they’ll take us all back. They almost started to believe this explanation. In timid hope, they even opened a bottle of palinka, passed it from hand to hand for each to take a swig. But they had not set out on one of those journeys where it is recommendable to hold out too much hope.
They saw them walking over to the steps of the train carriage, he with two huge wooden suitcases, she with a smaller one, Fritz Adlef and his wife. That was his name, Fritz, the translator from Sighisoara, who had learned Russian at the front.
“We’ll be going with you from here. They’ve decided that this carriage should go to a different camp, so it is going to be joined to a different train. A train will be arriving from the Banat any minute.”
Their hopes died.
“Where are we going?”
“I have orders not to tell you, but I can’t see the point. You’re hardly going to go there on foot. Or to want to go to the baths in a different camp.”
The tension had broken.
“We’re heading to Stalino.”
“Well, why don’t you say so, brother?”
“Do you know where it is?”
“Of course I do! My mother-in-law goes there on holiday every year. Hot springs, parks, squirrels.”
Some of those in the carriage caught on straight away, joined the game of fantasies, just for the sake of seeing the amazement on the faces of the younger girls.
“Mark my words: if they’re not waiting for us with a red carpet in the station, I’ll file a complaint with Central Command.”
. . . and the jokes flowed, the predictions about the comfort of the rooms, the food on the menus . . . others started to comment that they wouldn’t accept just vodka, they wanted cognac too, with liqueurs for the girls.
The arrival of Fritz Adlef and his wife altered the atmosphere in the train carriage somewhat. Not only because Sonia was a consummate beauty, to whom every eye turned, but also because they now had someone they could question, which all of a sudden made the journey more bearable.
Fritz was flattered that he was seen as important both by the Soviets and his compatriots. At the front, he had commanded just a platoon, but an entire complex of factors had led to the circumstance of his picking up Russian, and now look how knowledge of a foreign language brought the translator a privileged status! Like the occupation of conveying messages, his status was somewhere in the middle, however, neither harshly oppressed like the other deportees, nor equal with his Soviet superiors. But the fact that the people in the train carriage with whom he was to travel to Stalino had accepted him from the very first and granted him their respect made him light up inside. The first consequence of the calm that had now been established was the search for a solution, the steps to be taken in order that Sonia might be sent back to Sighisoara. She was far too delicate, far too beautiful, far too elegant and attentive to her clothes (she had left home wearing her most beautiful winter clothes, selected for their comeliness rather than their durability) to survive for long in the camp where they were going. Fritz Adlef had been at the front. He knew what it meant not to be able to wash every day, to have eat whatever there was, to be cold all the time. But a thought had already occurred to him and he would have examined it on every side had not two deportees who spoke Romanian made their way over to him.
“What about us, Mr Fritz? What are we doing here with you, rounded up for no reason?”
Sonia spoke Romanian and understood the finest nuances of the language: “Was there a reason why we Saxons were rounded up, Mr Maior?”
(In Sighisoara, everybody knew almost everybody else.)
Sonia’s husband lightly pinched his wife’s calf. He had no idea they were being looked down on by the two Romanians.
“Please, darling, you shouldn’t speak sharply to those people. They’re disconsolate enough as it is.”
“Are we any better off?”
Her voice was as sharp as a razorblade. She hadn’t washed, changed, drunk her milky coffee, the last time she brushed her teeth had been in Focsani Station, and her guts could hardly wait to find an excuse to spew out their discontent: “What business did we have with Hitler? Was I the one who made him do all the things he did? Did I ever kiss his arse? Did I say he was a genius and there was none like him?” (Even back in Sighisoara, Sonia had taken delight in quarrelling in Romanian.) “Did I ever attend a swastika meeting? Why take me from my home? For what? By what right?”
Sonia was furious by now. There was silence in the train carriage. Fritz had stood up, too, planting his feet slightly apart to steady himself; he placed one hand on her shoulders and kept repeating to her: “Bleib ruhig, bleib ruhig, bitte!”
In another corner of the train carriage, Fröhlich Maria stood up:
“What about me? What am I supposed to say? My husband died at the front, an officer in the Romanian Army, because that’s where he wanted to enlist. From the very start, he said that Hitler had dangerous ideas and that only opportunists, fools and cowards followed him. If you had any sense, if you’d ever read a book, if you thought for yourself and didn’t always wait for other people to tell you what to do, there was no way you would have followed that psychopath. Why was I taken from my home, with my sons, one ten years old, the other eight? They slept next to me in bed for three nights before I was arrested. One of them would be touching my hair, the other clutching my arm. They kept telling me what they would do without me, by themselves with Opa and Oma. It would have been hard for me without them even for three days, let alone in a situation like this, when we don’t know when we’ll be going back or whether we’ll ever go back. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody in the world.”
The eyes of many now turned to Friedrich Geiger. He had been one of the most active followers of Nazism in Sighisoara. He preached what had fascinated him the most about the Nazi ideology: the superiority of the German race; he thought himself a perfect Aryan specimen: blond, blue-eyed, athletic. He had preached the superiority of the German race, but he had not been recruited to any programme similar to those in Germany and Norway. In Sighisoara it was hard to find blond, blue-eyed women to breed Aryans. The few who matched the prototype were stupid and didn’t want to, they didn’t understand the importance of a pure German race, untainted by the blood of the Jews, who got everywhere, not only in banking and commerce, but also in German beds. Lepers. When he tried to talk to them about SS leader Heinrich Himmler, about their own Saxon Andreas Schmidt, the stupid women didn’t understand a word. Their minds were full of Ion or Janos. He tried to give a lecture in the Sander Hall about the Lebensborn project. How many came? Precisely eight people. How to enlighten them if they didn’t want to be enlightened?
“Yes, I was a Nazi sympathiser. I don’t deny it,” said Geiger, accepting responsibility for what he was known in town to have done. “If I am to be made to do hard labour for it, then so be it. A real man must face up to destiny. But I don’t agree with what Frau Fröhlich said about only cowards, fools, and opportunists following the Führer. I’m not part of any of those categories. I followed him because this world needs a pure German race. In other words, it needs order and precision. Germany is Europe’s clock. For God’s sake, don’t you realise that? Put oakum in the mechanism and see if it works after that. On the table, on the wall, in the cupboard, in the sideboard, it can be untidy. You don’t have to dust and tidy every second. But the clock on the table, on the sideboard, on the wall has to remain a clock. I followed the Führer because he was the one who said loud and clear what the Jewish and the Gypsy danger meant. Do you know how fast the Gypsies breed? Some know, but you who lived up there in the Castle, you have no idea. You bring here, let’s say, five families. Let’s say twenty people. A year later? Double. Two years later? Twice double. Three years later? Thrice triple. ‘So what?’ some will say. Well, you see? Only now are we talking about fools. Those who say, ‘So what?’ The know-nothings who don’t realise that the Gypsies, once they multiply more and more, they dominate you, grin at you, swear at you, impose their way of life on you, their customs, their unruliness, their filth, their din. If I want to live in orderliness, in my own town, my own street, without beggars, without dilapidated houses, without commotion, without smoke and garbage everywhere, the only means of achieving it is to thin out the Gypsies; naturally I thought Hitler was right. Naturally I saluted the programme for our demographic increase. Let any one of you look me in the face now and say: ‘You’re mad, you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re wrong!’ Well? Come on. I can hardly wait for Mrs Fröhlich to tell me that they are people too, that a Christian accepts his neighbour as he is. I can hardly wait for us to examine the word ‘neighbour’ in its every facet, but also my needs, not just the Gypsy’s.”
Nobody said anything in the train carriage. They thought differently depending on the situations they had encountered in their lives. They would have been getting themselves into a discussion that was different from their debates on the Richttags. Which were also about order, but their order, the Saxons’, about who had not tended the graves and why, who had not collected the rubbish from the autumn garden, who had not attended a funeral, which schoolboy on his way home had not said hello or had dropped litter or an apple core on the pavement. Never did they discuss Romanians or Hungarians or Gypsies at their meetings. The Richttag was about their order alone, the Saxons’. They had come to Transylvania from somewhere else, from the centre of Europe. They had built high walls and fortresses and they defended themselves. They had crafted and defended their way of life and their order. But were they pure Germans? Did Stalin have any right to take them for Germans and avenge himself on them for everything Hitler had done? But was this Hitler even a German? Hadn’t he been born in Braunau am Inn? In Austria. What did Hitler understand by German? Blond hair, blue eyes? Could anybody deny there were Russians with blond hair and blue eyes too?
But now they were in a train carriage together. And on a journey, it is wise to avoid arguments.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth