by Robert Lynn Berman
It usually rains in May but today there is a cool breeze blowing across the canal and I can feel the soft blond hairs on the back of my hand trying to dance under the warmth of the sun. There is an itch on my lower arm and while I scratch lightly I resist the urge to unbutton at the wrist and slide the sleeve above the elbow and really scratch with the sharp nails on my right hand. Less than an hour ago the faint stirring of a really annoying twitchy tingle began.
But before the itch we should introduce the mosquito, the flea, or the nasty tick who may have implanted the need to scratch. I am a tour guide hired by various cruise lines to take a number of rather loquacious tourists to see a number of interesting sites in Bamburg stressing the beer halls, very good restaurants, and above average pricey tourist attractions, and most certainly at least one architecturally superb Church. As we had just completed walking down one particularly picturesque block of rather expensive perfume and jewelry shops I pointed to the street to our right and said that is the Judenstrasse, the street of the Jews. I said that it was hard to believe that before the Second World War, Bamberg had more than four thousand Jews. Now there are less than three hundred Jews. The polite lack of conversation spoke volumes. Someone did speak very quietly but I did hear her and it was not what I wanted to hear but what I expected. “How horrible,” she mumbled.
What is horrible I thought is that you are still blaming me for what happened.
What I said was, “it was a terrible time. I wish it had never happened, but I would like to tell you all something and please I am not complaining and I am certainly not being vindictive. My father’s name was Franz Victor. He was born after the war. He was cursed as a Nazi all during his childhood and thru much of his adult life. He tried to be the most tolerant of men. I am his only child. I was born in 1980. I am not now nor have I ever been a member of the Nazi party. I am apolitical and intend to raise my children the same. My grandfather, Karl Heinrich, was in the Waffen SS. My father said he was a very bad, very cruel man. He was killed during the campaign in Stalingrad. With all respect, most of you see me as having Nazi sympathies and hating Jews. Please, I am neither. If I might be so brash, I would like the world to forgive us. I am a German trying to live. Please, forgive me and please do not judge me.”
There were the appropriate number of clucks and tsk-tsks and I knew I would get more than the normal number of Euros. I did for a moment feel a twinge of guilt almost like a nagging itch, for using the drama of generations past but just for a moment. At the foot of the bridge, I released my group for an hour to shop and explore. I did tell them if any wanted to return to the ship earlier they could follow the path to the right at the end of the bridge and it would guide them back to the boat docking area.
Enter the mosquito, the flea, the tick, except he is a human male using a beautiful hand carved cane which he balanced against the bench as he sat next to me.
“My name is Isaac Blen . I am in your tour group.”
“You were walking a few hundred feet behind the others but I kept you in sight by that cane. You are American or Israeli, yes?”
“Yes, dual citizenship. “
He was a good looking man, slim, with long brown hair down to his shoulders. His nose was remarkably straight, almost Romanesque. His face was very Semitic with deep-set-gray-green eyes. The problem was that his body, his looks, his physical charm seemed to decry the 5 character grey blue numerical tattoo on his upper left forearm.
“You seem very young to carry a number from a concentration camp.”
“It is a tattoo I had done on my 30th birthday at a parlor in a Tel Aviv back street. It is the number my Aunt carried. It reminds me to not forget. But please, I am not wearing it to flaunt your past. It is not for you. It is my reminder.”
I felt mildly embarrassed. If I had realized he was a Jew I would have smiled directly at him. It is a smile the persecuted gives the persecutor to get recognition. ”Do you really understand any of my needs?”
“Your need for forgiveness or your need for extra Euros?”
“Have you ever thought if I had the one I would not have to beg for the other.”
He put his hand on my arm. It was not warm nor was it cold but it was very pleasant. I realized I could pursue this conversation and perhaps the two us could at least have lunch or dinner together.
“I want you to fully understand that if you want individual forgiveness it will take you more than your lifetime to get. You are absolved from such a horrendous task. No one, not God, not me, wants you to waste your life. “
“All I want is forgiveness from something I did not cause. I hate being told I deserve to suffer because I’m German.”
“So now it stops and the rest of your life as you see it begins.”
“But,”I said ,”What is the cost of forgiveness”?
If a grown man’s eyes could indeed twinkle there was a miniature reflection of tiny lightning bolts flying from left to right across his eyes. Not up and down like bolts of lightning going from ground to sky but east to west across each eye. Perhaps the heavens were laughing over my folly.
What I wished for was a cessation of itching on my arm. As if reading my discomfort he said, “There’s no point in raising your sleeve to scratch. If you think you have been given a tattoo something like mine, who knows? Perhaps you have. I certainly did not give it to you if it is there. What I have given you is forgiveness…even the need to seek forgiveness is gone. And on that note while I have enjoyed talking with you, now I shall return to the ship.”
He rose from the bench, smiled, stepped off with his cane and began his slow walk across the bridge.
The damned itch under my sleeve was becoming very demanding but I realized I neither cared if it was a simple rash or a series of numbers in blue ink. What I did understand is that memory is the curse of forgiveness.