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About the Dispensable and the Indispensable


About the Dispensable and the Indispensable



August 7, 1941

In a quiet summer evening in the war year 1941, several men and women were engaged in conversation around a round white table beside a large lake. It had been a very hot day and they appreciated all the more the gentle cool breeze that arose from the water and swirled around their feet. Not one of them could bring himself to say goodnight and to go up to bed. They had come together at this quiet country house, some by invitation, some by chance, with their host and hostess and, after the noise and bustle of the city from which they came, they relished even more the deep stillness which emanated from this small, quiet country place. "How nice it is," said one of the guests, the legal counselor to a large Berlin firm, as he gently laid his hand on that of the hostess, "that, in the middle of the war, you can live in such deep stillness and quiet enjoyment, and in so much tranquility, that you can share it with us hectic city dwellers without feeling it in the least diminished. What are you missing? The things that our wives have to stand in line for hours for you get freely from your garden, your farmland, and your dairy barn any time you want them. When the air raid sirens interrupt our much needed sleep and drive us into the cellars, you just keep on sleeping. I doubt that you've ever had an air raid alarm here."

"No," said the hostess, "we haven't had one yet. But, my dear friend, I think you're judging our lives here too much by appearances. An hour where we can sit together quietly like this is a rare occasion for us. The garden and the livestock which, according to you are so magnanimous to us, need care and want to be fed every day. Those hours which your wives spend in lines at the stores, we have to spend in the garden sowing and hoeing, weeding and picking, in all kinds of weather, in the hot sun as well as the rain. Just like you, we rush from morning to night to get the chores done. But with one difference, work you don't finish on a given day can be taken care of the next day. In our case, berries that don't picked in time and grass that gets mowed too late, spoils!"

"You're right," said the attorney, slightly ashamed of himself, "I spoke too superficially — just like a typical city dweller! I should have realized that the neatness and order that we're admiring in your garden and fields today is the result of an enormous amount of labor. And yet, the urgent effort that you just mentioned must take place only in the summer, isn't that right? In the winter you can all sit around quite relaxed, let it storm and snow outside, and have all the time in the world, something we city types never have, for yourselves and your interests."

"Oh!" said the hostess, almost getting emotional, "Oh, I'd rather we didn't have this quiet dead time, because it really is a dead time! Our busy summer time suits me ten times better! Because then you can forget how lonesome it is living here and how rare an hour such as this is, where we can exchange a word with close friends! You said, my dear friend, that this war hasn't required any sacrifices from us. But, if I had to tell you what I miss the most, it would be our car! Before the war, when the winter quiet got on our nerves too much, we could take a ride into the city to visit friends. We could express our views and get new ideas. Now we're always alone. For at least seven months, we don't see or hear a soul. We're alone, alone, alone! Just imagine, we never go to a movie, we never go to the theater to get our minds off these gloomy thoughts. It's six miles from our town to the train station and, in the winter time, the roads are often barely passable. Of all the things we've had to give up, the one I miss the most is our car."

She remained silent for a moment and then said more quietly, "It sounds cowardly, but once in a while you have to get away, to get away from yourself and your troubles. That's got nothing to do with us as a couple," she said as she reached across the table to touch her husband's hand. "We all know what conversation is like between married couples: we understand each other without saying a word. But we need to talk once in a while, to speak our mind — just as we're doing right now."

For a minute, they all sat quietly listening to the gentle noise of the reeds being moved by a breath of air that just as quickly died down. The pale shimmer of the stars lighted the moonless night just enough so that each person could barely see the outline of the others, but no more. They spoke more freely than they would have in daylight, when every movement in the other's face was instantly readable.

"Getting back to the car," said the man of the house as he freed his hand from that of his wife. "I've often asked myself what my brave Suse might well miss the most in this war, or even if she misses anything at all. She accepts everything that life brings her, the good and the bad, with such a matter-of-factness that I often think she is completely unflappable. And now I find out that it's the car… As for myself, I must admit that this war has taught me that I am quite a materialistic person. I miss so many things that I can hardly list them all. Starting with cigarettes, through my beloved coffee, and ending with meat. At first it was hard to decide which loss grieved(?)* me the most, but now I know. It's the meat."

"But that can't be possible, when you have so many vegetables and fruit!"

"And yet it is possible! I know it's disgraceful, but I must admit that I've sometimes dreamt at night about a roast beef or a big leg of lamb! When I wake up from these dreams, I think longingly of those times when I would take a slice of meat out of the refrigerator and early in the morning, while everyone was still asleep, I would eat directly out of my hand — I ate meat the way others eat bread. Even so, for me it could be worse. The women in the house always say they don't care much for meat and push their portions over to me. But still, a lot of little servings don't make a real serving for a serious meat eater. You can't satisfy a lion with sparrows!"

"You truly are a materialistic person. I never would have thought it of you."

"It certainly would be much more refined," admitted the man of the house, "if I dreamed of tomatoes or apples instead of a beef filet. But there's no accounting for taste, and when I miss meat it's not just out of pure gluttony. Instead, it's that meat suits me. It empowers me and makes me creative. When I've eaten meat, work goes like clockwork. Whereas on a meatless day, life is much more difficult and just mopes along. So I can definitely say I truly miss meat, while tobacco and coffee are more like pretty adornments that can easily be dispensed with."

"Yes," said the heavy-set neurologist in the darkness, "the things that people convince themselves are essential for their existence are amazing. For two weeks now, a female patient has been after me to certify that silk stockings are a necessity for her health, and a lot of them at that. She is now so firmly convinced that she can't be seen by anyone without having silk stockings on, that she's already developed quite a decent complex over it…"

"And are you going to prescribe stockings for her, doctor?"

"Not me! After the stockings there'd be something else. Shoes, or a fur coat, or even whipped cream. No, I've hidden behind her husband and the two of us are now piling so much social work on her that she will forget all her complexes soon enough."

"And you, chubby cheeks, what do you miss the most?" called the voice of the artist out of the darkness. "Your red wine or your Brazilian cigars?"

"Neither of them," said the doctor, laughing good-naturedly. "It is something quite different, something that I would never have predicted, and something that I can't even hoard! Yes, my dear children, the thing I miss the most is a daily bath. In the evening, when office hours and patient appointments have pushed the clock to around 11 or 12, and when that little bit of time left for sleep has likely been interrupted by a medical emergency or an air-raid alarm, I've still got to be at the sanitarium no later than nine. That means I've got to be out of bed no later than seven. And what could be better than, with all that lack of sleep(?) and fatigue, to get into a nice quiet bath. In the past, I've stinted myself on sleep so that I might lie in the tub for quite a long time. How often, there, in that warm water, did the impenetrable become clear, the difficult become simple, how life itself became, to a certain extent, warm and peaceful. What a way to start the day that was! And now—? No, I really miss my daily bath!"

"I can certainly understand that!" called out the very elderly spinster, enthusiastically. "Of course," she continued by way of explanation, "I've never gotten to the point of having my own bathtub. But I've always liked very much those good soaps. And, once in a while, when I've had one or two Marks left over, I've bought myself a couple of bars of soap and put them in the closet. So now I have the great good fortune that I still always have a very small piece of good soap. And on Sunday mornings I wash myself very carefully with it and you can't imagine how Sunday fresh I feel after that. It's just as if I'd become young again. That must be the way it is with your Sunday bath Herr doctor — you can certainly bathe once a week, can't you?"

"Yes, I can," admitted the heavy-set doctor remorsefully, "actually even twice, because the water is usually still warm on Sunday. I certainly want to improve myself too, and just as you enjoy your little piece of soap on Sunday, so, in my bath, I don't want to think of those five days when I can't bathe, but rather to enjoy those two when I still can."

"I," said the painter quietly, "I miss nothing so much in this war as the light. You can't imagine how sad these darkened, dreary cities make me, in whose streets a gray mass of people press silently past each other. Even when I sit in a brightly lit room, in an attempt to escape this depressing darkness, I still can't achieve the unalloyed enjoyment of the light. All I see is the mostly somber-colored blackout curtains on the windows. I stare at them and think of the darkness outside, a darkness which is not the natural, living darkness, garnished by stars, as it is here in the country, but rather a dead lightness, something extinguished, and dead. Cities must be bright!"

He was silent for a moment, and then he asked, "Doesn't it seem almost fantastic to all of you that, less than two years ago, all the cities radiated brightness. Each street was filled with lights. On many of those streets there were so many lights that there were no shadows. Light streamed out of the store windows; the curved(?) neon tubes forming the company names were mostly green, red, and bluish; all the windows were bright. From my window, I could see into other open windows. I could see people walking around in their rooms, talking with each other, and over everything were those rotating light wheel advertisements on the roofs and a golden bottle of champagne poured out pearls of light and never became empty. How closely each person identified with the people, and what(?) commonalities were created by those golden bridges which the light beams created. Now, everyone burrows(?) for himself alone and, like evil conspirators, we steal silently through the darkness. Light, and light alone, is the thing I miss the most!"

The artist fell silent, but the young girl said quickly, "I'd like to be able really to go out again with young men and dance until the wee hours. I like to chat with them, to laugh, to fool around, to flirt… I'd like — oh, a thousand things! I like simply to be in high spirits and young — and for that you need young men! Yes, they're sometimes here on leave, but then they're not really here with us. They're always thinking of 'out there' and one might be in the midst of the nicest flirtation, but, when the news comes on, they're mentally off somewhere else. As if they were sitting on their tank 300 miles away instead of on a nice plush sofa in a cafe next to us! No, I don't give two hoots for everything you old folks have talked about. What I want, finally, is to once more be able to really laugh with young men! That's what I miss and nothing else!"

They were all a bit livened up by these brilliantly and enthusiastically spoken words. They smiled, and heard in that fresh young voice their own distant youth calling from afar.

Then, the very old spinster, sounding almost a bit jealous said, "God, Tilde, how good you young girls have it nowadays. The kind of thing you just said we couldn't even think, let alone actually say! Young men — heavens, so easily in the plural! At most, we were only permitted to think of one and then the talk of engagement already got serious — and he already had a moustache and sideburns!"

"Naturally," said little Tilde, saucily. "And, because the selection was so limited, you didn't get your share Aunt Agathe. Here's where I prefer our method!"

"Me too, Tilde, me too," said the old aunt. "Except that with my 82 years it's a little late for me, don't you think?"

They all laughed. But, when it got quiet again, the attorney said, "Now we've all said what we miss the most in this war. All except you Frau Veronika, who have remained steadfastly silent. Make your confession too! What is it, is it something to eat, or something to drink? Is it a bath? Clothing, stockings? Dancing, the theater, a car? Or something else?"

They all waited. Then, in that star-lighted, reed-whispering night, came the gentle quiet voice of Frau Veronika, "No, it's not any of those things. I miss just one thing — and that is my son who is now fighting somewhere out on the eastern front."

It had gotten very quiet. And, even more quietly than before, the voice said, "When I wake up in the morning, it's still as if I need to go into his room to make sure that he gets to school on time. Of course, he went directly from school to 'out there'. And then it all dawns on me again, and I start calculating how many days it's been since he wrote and that a letter from him must be coming today. And so the waiting for the mail begins. And, during my day job, and when I'm waiting in line in front of the stores, and when I get something or don't get something, I never think of those little things but rather I think only of the fact that he's out there fighting for me and everybody else. And then I would give everything that I have or could wish for, I'd give everything if he would just appear before me just once, for one single minute, and say in his own way, 'Everything's going smoothly. This deal's goin' to make it.' And then maybe there really will be a letter from him, and am I ever happy! But then the waiting starts all over again, even though I know that, at the earliest, the 'real' waiting can't start for another week. But I miss him so much! I know it can't be any other way, that it has to be like this, but that doesn't make me miss him any less, isn't that right?"

She became quiet. And for a long, long time they were all quiet. Then the hostess said, "Naturally, you're the only one who's right, Vroni, and all of us here have behaved rather shabbily with our cars, roast beef, baths, and other things we absolutely can't do without. I don't know how the rest of you feel, but I've learned a lesson and not just for this evening. Good night to you all. It was my wish to learn again to tell the difference between big and small things. But I'm probably incorrigible — just like the rest of you!"

*This document was transcribed from the original handwritten document by Erika Becker of the Hans-Fallada-Archive, Carwitz. A few words could not be identified with absolute certainty. They have been marked with a question mark (?).
[Translator's note: In the translation, the (?) notation (there are 5) is placed immediately after the English word most closely identified with the corresponding word in the German original. For a precise determination of the questionable words the reader is referred to the original German text.]

© F.A.Z. Electronic Media 2001 - 2008

Translated by: Otto Hinckelmann, July 28, 2008

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