Moment Fiction // Cuba
1936: He has been called “distinguished gentleman” and “filthy Jew”; the former is better, of course. Turn by turn he has been treated with civility or contempt.
“Der gnadige Herr” was how they had referred to Benno in the office, but lately in the street he has been “pig” and “dog.” Respect or disdain is his lot. His own behavior does not change; what changes is the attitude of those whom he must deal with, the officials and the harbormaster and the porters and the maids.
The last are the least likely to refuse his proffered tip. The porters, too, will carry bags for whoever hires them, though he foresees a moment when no porter will be willing to carry bags for Jews. This too will come to pass. It has not happened yet. He makes a habit of providing a pourboire to those who assist, and it’s remarkable, he thinks, how even those who scorn him have a pocket for the folded bill and palm for the bright coin.
The one Benno now approaches is wearing a clean uniform, and his pants are pressed. The shoes could profit from polish; the cap could have its braid improved, and there is a weariness about the eyes and broken nose and ill-trimmed beard of the customs official. Upright in a wooden chair, he holds a clipboard and pen. He is perhaps forty years old, a man of brown complexion with a yellow tinge. He sits at the side of a desk. Another customs officer—an older man, but not, it would seem, senior in the hierarchy of harbor administration—stands two feet behind. This one smokes a cheroot. He has a sheaf of paperwork, a pile of forms, and scrutinizes every document requested, then passes it with a flourish to his superior. It is two o’clock.
The room is full. They have dropped anchor at the harbor’s mouth; tenders wait below. Gently, the Lohengrin rocks. The authorities in Cuba have, he understands, an elaborate entrance procedure, and although it is a nervous moment, he himself is calm. This is the sort of negotiation at which Benno has long been an expert; the steamship’s lounge has been transformed into an immigration office, and first-class passengers are examined first. Second class and the poor people in steerage crowd the hallway in long lines. The family Hochman, by contrast, has been sitting in the first-class lounge at ease, awaiting inspection, their luggage at their side. His wife, Ilse, and their son Johann and Johann’s wife, Gisela, and their two-year-old boy, Peter, who holds a lollipop with which he has been bribed, cajoled into silence: These form his traveling party. The ship’s manifest has listed them as Familien Hochman, and they are listed that way also in the ledger the official consults: five persons with visas in order, four adults and one child. They have sailed from Hamburg without incident and are wearing not their best, because one must avoid display, but proper clothes.
The air is warm. Their suitcases and steamer trunks and hatboxes and briefcases make an imposing pile. The steward has arranged them and, at the command of a third customs official—a younger man who smiles at Gisela with frank flirtatiousness—opens a suitcase and three steamer trunks and one hatbox for inspection. This procedure takes some time. He pokes through the shirts and the boxes of books and closely examines the jewelry and Gisela’s white peignoir.
Benno wishes his Spanish were better, or that they might speak English here, of which he has an adequate command. Nonetheless, he understands what the officials are asking, and in a respectful manner deals with their requests. He produces the family passports, the customs declaration forms, the photographs and letters that announce his profession as a banker and, from his cousin, promised sponsorship; he has medical letters also, a file of attestations, and between the letter from his cousin and the letter from his doctor he has inserted a sheaf of bills as if for the purpose of storage. The official sitting at the desk does not examine him further or alter his professional demeanor but stamps the papers loudly, systematically, and when he hands back the folder, there is no money inside.
“Gracias, senor,” says Benno, and the man says, “De nada,” and waves him and his suitcases and family out of the salon, two porters shouldering their luggage, and down toward the gangplank, where liberty awaits.
“Muchas gracias,” he repeats. Past the line of those awaiting permission to disembark or, instead, refusal, they walk in single file. One woman reaches out to touch his sleeve, as though he might confer on her the power of acceptance, the gift of immigration, and she has, he notices, dark brown eyes like his Ilse and a body not yet bent from toil, but he shakes her off.
Bright coinage, he tells himself, the coin of the realm. The pfennig and the peso and the dollar and the pound. The franc and rentenmark and lire and ruble and kroner and bank draft and letter of credit and gold. When inflation was rampant, in Berlin, his dog Till—named for Till Eulenspiegel because of his high spirits and his way of getting into and then out of trouble—killed the neighbor’s hen. A hen is expensive because of the eggs it delivers, and in any case a dog cannot be permitted to forage in the neighborhood without liability. Eulenspiegel’s pranks were merry; this one cost his master dearly, and was not a prank.
So in order to be beyond reproach, Benno offered compensation for the bird. He and his neighbor, the Prussian lawyer Otto Wohl, settled on a value of three hundred thousand Deutschmark, and he filled a wheelbarrow with the money and told Johann to wheel it down the street and deliver payment. Johann obliged. But twenty minutes later he was home again, his mission not accomplished, because he said Herr Wohl claimed the price of eggs and chickens had doubled in the interval, since last night when the hen was killed, and now the proper payment must be six hundred thousand. This amount he would accept.
“Throughout his life he had wanted for nothing, and the cook and chauffeur and the two gardeners had been very well behaved, until one winter morning the cook refused to cook for them and the chauffeur would not drive.”
Benno remembers feeling handled, dealt with, but he told his son: “We have no choice” and added three hundred thousand additional marks to the sum in the wheelbarrow, covering it with a sheet so the money would not blow away and no one in the street or park would see what bulked beneath. Again, Johann returned—with a long face this time, saying, “Papa, he wants eight hundred thousand now, he says that is the rate.” During the lunch hour, therefore, he filled the car’s boot with money and drove the two doors to Wohl’s gate and said, “My final offer.” His neighbor knew he meant it, and accepted the eight hundred thousand marks for a single chicken, and while he was delivering packets of bills and watching the man count them Benno decided, and remembers, now, deciding, he would leave. It was not so much the sum itself—a million marks were worthless and would be two million in the morning—as the insult of the thing.
Like any other Jew, he has grown used to such behavior, the little and large humiliations in the daily course of business—the levies and the household taxes and the papers he must carry and, as of Hitler’s ascendancy in 1933, the brown shirts and the boots. More and more there is suspicion and paperwork and, once the Third Reich was established, a set of procedures to follow and the sense of no longer belonging to a world where he until this moment had belonged. The family Hochman has lived in Berlin since the middle 1600s, and they have grown prosperous; a great-uncle was a tax collector and also a deputy mayor. The banking business proved excellent, the house was large and well appointed, his parents and then he himself went to the opera weekly and, if not the opera, to concerts. Throughout his life he had wanted for nothing, and the cook and chauffeur and the two gardeners had been very well behaved, until one winter morning the cook refused to cook for them and the chauffeur would not drive. It is a common story, not one that needs repeating, but Benno can remember standing by the servants’ entrance of the Wohl residenz and handing over stacks of bills and telling himself, Das ist genug. Enough. This is a family saying, having to do with chocolate cake and the amount of cream it is proper to serve, but the tedious business of watching Herr Otto Wohl tally Deutschmark while he stood at attention is something he cannot forget. Why this should be the case is not entirely clear to him, but that his poodle Till should be thus fined and penalized—why the dog should be treated as a criminal for behavior that could well have been predicted and was wholly normal—seemed like a warning: It is enough. You must leave.
This, of course, has taken time. The incident with Till took place in 1931, and it is now October, 1936. For five years, with the kind of patient planning that had made him, once, successful, and is now required not so much for success as survival, Benno made his preparations for escape. The dog is dead. His parents, too, have died. That had been a great sorrow, but they passed on in the fullness of time, at 82 and 83, and would not have countenanced departure; in some sense, therefore, the death of his parents was a blessing in disguise. Had his father, who believed that everything was still in order and the Fuhrer would grow moderate, stayed alive, he himself could not have left.
In May of 1933, Johann married Gisela Bing from Hamburg. They have a child now, the boy Peter, and lovely Gisela has promised her mother-in-law that, once they settle down again, she plans to have another. Her family is in the import-export business, furs from Russia and bristles from China, and therefore Johann travels frequently and, because of a connection in Havana, made it possible to go to Cuba—with, of course, the aim of America later. It is their promised land. They could all perhaps have sailed for America directly, but the Lohengrin was bound for Cuba and then Panama and Brazil, and it seemed advisable, once they secured a passage, to take what was on offer and not wait. What funds he could transfer have been transferred to correspondent bankers in New York; what furniture and paintings he could send he has sent.
The house is sold. Benno regrets the sale but not the transaction, which had been properly managed. To have retained the house, he knew, would be impossible in exile, and it is better to have completed a sale at no great loss than to have been foreclosed. There is writing on the wall, he told his partners in the bank, and although not precisely the biblical sentence it is much in the same vein. In the Book of Daniel the prophet declares, “Mene, mene, Tekel, Upharsin: You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” In the Third Reich, they weigh you in the balance and place a thumb on the scale; they are the ones who are wanting and what the government now wants is everything, all the ownership papers and entitlements and property he so carefully amassed. They will not be content, he knows, till there is nothing left.
On the dock, his cousin waits. There is also Gisela’s cousin, with a white straw hat and cane. There is Gisela’s nephew, who has brought an additional car. They have not seen each other for years, and the reunion is glad. His cousin Rudolf wears a thin moustache and pomaded hair as if he is a native, a citizen of southern climes. “Wilkommen, wilkommen,” he says.
There are tears and handshakes and embraces and introductions; there is general rejoicing on the dock. He hears laughter and weeping as if from a distance, although those who greet him crowd near. They are all together in Havana’s harbor now at last, and the sky is blue and weather warm and Benno allows himself to breathe the fragrant inrushing compound of flowers, salt water and smoke. He feels a strange unsteadiness, as if while he is standing still, the paving stones beneath his feet are nonetheless in motion, like the constant waves.
“He does not fully register the things he sees, the men on donkeys and the fastened wooden shutters and delicate filigreed balcony ironwork as though they were in the Alhambra or Madrid, the pink and yellow buildings in the late-afternoon sun.”
With his handkerchief, he wipes his face. The family has landed, the family is safe.
“A good trip?” Rudolf inquires.
“Ein gute Reise, ja,” says Johann.
“You must speak Spanish in this country,” Gisela’s cousin offers. “Or, if you prefer it, English.”
“My name is Rodolfo,” says Rudolf, laughing merrily. “It’s what they call me here.”
Young Peter has managed to retain his lollipop, although diminished by sucking. Rudolf-Rodolfo pats him on the shoulder.
“You cannot imagine,” says Benno, “how relieved we are to be in Cuba. And to have left Germany.”
“We will return,” Ilse declares, “when this madness is over. When the madman is finished.”
He does not tell her what he knows, and she perhaps has also understood but refuses to acknowledge, that the wahnsinn will not be over soon and the madman not finished. This is clear. There will come a time, perhaps, when all will be forgotten and therefore all forgiven, but that time is in the distant future and they are not young.
“A cigar?” Rodolfo offers. “We have good tobacco here.”
“Ganz gern,” says Benno. “Thank you.”
Gisela’s cousin produces a light. They are standing in this place, he tells himself, as though the world were normal, as though things have not changed. Inhaling, he feels once again that his balance is uncertain, that he remains on deck unbalanced and should be holding the guardrail, except there is no guard rail, and the cobblestones beneath his feet are solid and unmoving although he feels them move. He studies his cigar. When the first ships came from Europe to Havana, they brought cobblestones as ballast and left them at the harbor while they loaded up again for the homeward journey with cotton and sugar and tobacco and, later on, rum. The cargo on the outward journey was cobblestones and slaves; the cargo on the trip back home was cotton and produce for profit; this is the way of import-export, and it has always been so.
He puts his arm around his wife, who does not know or pretends to ignorance—it is Ilse’s way, her habitual procedure with a subject that causes confusion—about the slave trade and the misery, and thinks these thick-armed men with ropes, who are making fast the tender and have long poles and grappling hooks, are happy, happy, happy, as he himself is happy now to be standing on this paving in what William Shakespeare called the “brave new world.”
Benno puffs. The smoke settles his stomach, a little; it is, as Rudolf promised, a very good cigar. Peter points at the black men with wonder; he has not seen negroes before. He asks his mother why they look the way they look, what costume they are wearing, and she leans down to explain to him that this is not a costume but the color of their skin. The red bandanas at their neck are what they wear to keep themselves cool in the sun. While he is listening and looking, gazing idly at the crowd and the small boats at the harbor mouth, the head of the family feels—no better word for it—flooded, awash with relief. Benno has not recognized, had not permitted himself to recognize (and here, he knows, he is just like his wife, a fist clenched against confusion) how difficult the trip has been, how nervous although outwardly calm he had felt with the customs officials and men who examined their luggage, and is seized now by the need—an overmastering desire—to leave the port behind. He tips the porters lavishly; “Gehen wir doch,” he urges his cousin. “Let us by all means proceed.”
This they do. Three automobiles await them, and after the bags have been loaded there is barely room for the party, but they squeeze together hotly and make a slow processional through the place he must now call home, Havana not Berlin. The fort above the harbor is hewn from what looks like white rock. “Morro castle”—Rodolfo points. “It is very well positioned, nein? There is also one in Cartagena and, of course, San Juan. Everywhere in South America and on these islands at the harbor’s mouth they build a fort.” Benno yawns. He is, he understands, exhausted, and though he can manage to keep his eyes open he does not fully register the things he sees, the buildings and the men on donkeys and the women in black and shoeless children everywhere, the roof-tiles and the fastened wooden shutters and delicate filigreed balcony ironwork as though they were in the Alhambra, or perhaps Madrid, the pink and yellow buildings in the late-afternoon sun. There is a smell he cannot place, beyond the smell of horse-droppings and dead fish and drying ocean-brine, and when he asks Gisela’s cousin the man says, “Sugar cane.”
The sea-wall is called Malecon; it has been recently built. Waves batter it, but gently, and Rudolf-Rodolfo says before this wall was put in place there were daily floods. They discuss the voyage out, the hardships of the journey, and though there were in truth few hardships and a sense, now, of deliverance, it is also true that this small town with men in sombreros and women in shawls and a three-legged dog now limping past is not where Benno planned to be or, arriving, plans to stay. When his papers have been processed and his turn comes for the trip to New York, he will take an additional trip. He is not so old or weak, he tells himself, he cannot start anew; he is sixty-three years old and though his means have been diminished, he remains a man of means.
“Maria brings them mangoes and papaya and a plate of fried plantains and a saucer full of olives. With the exception of green olives, he thinks, all these foods were strange to him two years ago.”
They make their way through town. His wife says, “I rejoice.” He himself does not rejoice; he is not feeling fortunate; he remembers keenly the pantry of the house they sold, with its hanging sausages and wheels of cheese and jars of herring and bottles of beer, the abundance left behind. In the library there had been bound red-leather volumes of Goethe and Schiller and Lessing and Schopenhauer and Winckelmann and Fichte and Heine and Nietzsche and Kant, and they repose there, still, for the new owners to open, while Benno and Ilse and their son and his wife and child bounce jarringly out of the center of the city to an area called Miramar that Rodolfo tells him is welcoming to Jews. “Thanks be to God,” says Ilse. “We have landed. We are safe.”
“How is Tante Elsa?” asks Rodolfo.
“How is that foolish son of hers? What is his name, Fritz?”
“No longer so foolish. They are in Paris.”
“And who remains?”
“Niemand, no one. Or only a few. Only those who cannot leave. Who are too sick or old to travel, or who still believe there can be an accommodation…”
Rodolfo shakes his head. “Your house?” he asks.
The architect Tessenow had been a friend or, if not a friend precisely, someone with whom Benno felt comfortable and would take a schnapps. Eight years ago he and Ilse had decided their home could be improved, and he hired Walter Tessenow to make suggestions and drawings and also to install new terraces and a proper portico and a fountain on the grounds. In 1928 they made enlargements to the property; the work took months. There were men whose expertise was stone and others who were good with wood and others who were plasterers and painters; the young man Tessenow employed as Clerk of the Works now works as an architect for the Third Reich. His name is Albert Speer. Benno can remember still the steely gaze, the nimble hands, the way the upstairs maid Frederika fluttered and was flustered each time young Albert drank a coffee from the kitchen and returned his cup. Always he had pencils in his shirt pocket, sticking out of it; always the Clerk of the Works wore a brown cloth cap. He can remember asking Speer why he consulted the drawings so seldom, and can remember the clerk’s answer, not pronounced with insolence but an unnerving confidence: “There are plans and plans. The world is a map in your head, Mein Herr, a garden to walk through with every pond an ocean and each stone bench a mountain range and the porte-cochère a continent. I do not need,” said Speer, “to look at Herr Tessenow’s drawings when I have them all”—he touched his fingers to his eyes—“right here. Inside.”
This had seemed remarkable, but now that they are driving through the streets of Miramar and seeing palm trees and smelling saltwater it is as though the map in his own head has been inscribed in actuality upon the actual world. Young Speer had had a point. What Benno sees around him is the city of Havana and men driving carts; what he sees in his mind’s eye is Berlin and the district of Charlottenberg, the linden trees in snow. He sees his office in the early morning, clerks standing at attention, the lamps lit. At dusk, when the day’s work is done, the clerks line up again, their hats in hand, while he extinguishes the desk lamp and is helped into his overcoat and bids them each good night.
He wants to sleep. He had slept well enough on the Lohengrin, or at least for a few fitful hours each night, but whenever he awakened he sensed Ilse also wakeful, her eyes open on the pillow and staring at the stateroom wall as though it were a cell. Benno takes her hand. He repeats what she said, soothingly, “We have landed. We are safe.” She smiles at him, as no doubt in the next car Gisela smiles at Johann and their son Peter, who will finally have finished the lollipop he sucks on and who therefore asks for another. In the third car travel their belongings, the books and clothes with which they will begin once more, for it is passing strange to have been from a family that for three centuries were residents of Germany and to be now again a wandering Jew.
In Rodolfo’s house there are beds for them all, and the luggage is distributed. The house is stone and stucco, and the courtyard has a shade tree beneath which a long table has been laid for celebration with a white lace cloth. Rodolfo’s wife, Elizabeth, has also grown older and stately in the fashion of a southern lady—dressed in this hot weather as if she might instead catch cold, or feel a chill; she wears a scarf around her shoulders that they call here a mantilla, and she orders the servants in Spanish to offer up refreshments.
She and Ilse are happy together, talking about the old days and the school they had attended, and a shopping trip they took once to the city of Bremen, although Ilse is two years older, and they had known each other only glancingly before. Benno sighs. Tomorrow, perhaps, says Rodolfo, I will show you a nearby apartment, but tonight of course and as long as you wish you are our guests. On the verandah in the garden, as the preparations for the meal are being completed, he lights a second Upmann: firmly packed. While the children and their cousins gather in the living room and discuss in animated fashion whatever it is they discuss, he finds himself adrift again, as though still on the Lohengrin’s deck and seeing on the wide Atlantic Ocean only the tops and the white spume of waves. Because he is a prudent man, and needs to know the strength and weaknesses of those he deals with, or who deal with him, he has read Hitler’s Mein Kampf. It is furchtbar, awful. It is very clear what Hitler plans, and his plans are mad. Rodolfo smokes beside him, and Benjamin endeavors to explain. He misses the home in Charlottenberg, the comfort and solidity of what he left behind, the concerts and music lessons and schul for Johann and the large Sunday breakfasts, but he is not deluded: it was time, even past time, to go. Herr Schickelgruber is the very devil, and he will make of Germany a hell.
“When she bends to inquire if he wishes one more cup of tea or perhaps a cup of coffee or a glass of beer or rum, the edge of her left hip comes up against his arm. He does not withdraw his arm.”
Days pass. Months pass. A whole year passes while they wait, and what news they have from home grows worse. The laws and the levies increase, and he thanks his lucky stars that passage on the Lohengrin had been available, because it is less easy now to leave. The mail comes only rarely, and the letters confirm his worst fears and suspicions; the bank is declared by the authorities bankrupt, and his partner Robert Strasfogel has disappeared. The Strasfogel family moved to their house in the country, and then the house burned down. By the second year in Havana, there are rumors of work camps in the countryside, and of forced relocation; there are stories of Hitler’s police.
Maria Fuentes, who now cooks for them, is an island beauty. He is past the age where such things matter, but if he were not 64 and soon to have his 65th birthday, he would no doubt have pinched her bottom or caressed the warm curve of her breast. He watches Johann watching her with a kind of curiosity; does his son, he wonders, take Maria into bed? It would be no surprise. She is laughter-loving, it appears, and generous with butter, and if she were an upstairs maid in the old days in Berlin, it would have been expected that she serve her young master also at night so he would be a practiced husband later on. That had been Benno’s own form of instruction, his way of learning the ways of the world, and it would have been a pleasure to be 17 again and embracing this Maria in the watches of the night. But all such thoughts now are, he knows, mere idle speculation, and it’s Ilse instead whom he lies next to, lightly snoring when she sleeps.
“Mehr Shakespeare als Shakespeare” is what they say of the brothers Schlegel, who have translated the playwright; “It is more Shakespeare than Shakespeare.” So he finds himself repeating, “Brave new world, that hath such creatures in it” in silence while watching Maria slice onions or dice fruit. She does so with an abandon that is somehow also precision, her black hair flipping wantonly with the movements of her neck. The apartment they have rented is a pleasant one, with views of the water and shade from low trees, and when she arrives each morning to prepare the midday meal, she smiles at him becomingly and makes a little curtsey. His Spanish has improved, of course, but the rapid-fire Spanish with which she converses with others in the family’s employ, or with those tradesmen who come to the door, is not something he can understand; the sing-song lilt of it and the way she hums while washing and drying the dishes is an enchantment for Benno, a reason to be grateful every day.
Nonetheless he mourns the old cold country he was forced to leave. The family Hochman makes excursions to the countryside of Cuba—to Matanzas and Villa Clara and Ciego de Avila, to Artemis and Mayabeque and Cienfuegos and Sancti Spiritus—where there are farmers and cane fields and a sense that nothing changes or will change. They do this out of restlessness, naturlich, but also from curiosity; it is wise to know the place they now call home. This is a sizable island. There are hills and even mountains and dark groves of trees—not like trees of the Alps or the Schwarzwald, of course—and a rocky shore reminding him of the North Sea and the beach at Worpswede, except that the water is warm. They picnic by a river and watch women in bright yellow clothes immerse themselves in the current and listen to them chant what sound like spells from Africa, and at ceremony’s end there are dead chickens everywhere, their heads and feet ready for crows. He thinks of his dead poodle, Till, and how the single hen Till killed has brought them to this place.
They are sitting on the porch. It is mid-afternoon. Palm-fronds rattle in the breeze. Maria brings them mangoes and papaya and a plate of fried plantains and a saucer full of olives. With the exception of green olives, he thinks, all these foods were strange to him two years ago, and when she bends to inquire if he wishes one more cup of tea or perhaps a cup of coffee or a glass of beer or rum, the edge of her left hip comes up against his arm. He does not withdraw his arm. Her hip is both bone-solid and flesh-soft. He looks at Johann looking and understands his son as well will miss the comforts of this island haven, the good humor of its people, the way that they have settled in and been received. Gisela is pregnant again. She will have, Benno hopes, a second son, but a daughter, too, would please him in this brave new world.
“Senor?” Maria asks. He nods. He tells her with his now nearly fluent Spanish that he will continue drinking tea and requires nothing else. From the lemon tree behind him comes a rustling; birds alight. There they settle, preening, and call to each other repeatedly, with always the same notes of the same song. The lissome cook need not take off her clothes in order to stand naked; she is the very picture of warm yieldingness while she lifts the teapot and, for the two men, pours. The image, Benno tells himself, is straight out of a canvas by the painter Paul Gauguin; it is a woman in the tropics, of the tropics, and fecundity is everywhere; he wishes he were young again, but he is not young.
“They learn about the camps… He cannot close his eyes at night without the image of a pile of shoes, or gold from teeth, or bodies flung against a wire fence to leave for the foraging dogs.”
In Havana there are churches where the bells toll loudly, and the Presidential Palace is always, when he goes to town for business, loud with sound: music and laughter and traffic and the cries of hawkers in the streets. Dogs bark; the donkeys bray; the roosters greet the dawn. But there is silence also while he takes his constitutional and walks to the sea-wall, then back to the apartment, considering the bulletins and headlines in the paper and what the other refugees discuss in the cafés. On November 7, 1938—this news travels quickly, for once—he learns of the death of a German Embassy Official, Ernst von Rath, in Paris, and learns the name as well of the Polish Jew Herschel Grynszpan who shot him, and then took two days to die. On November 9 and 10, they hear of Kristallnacht. It is furchtbar, it is wahnsinn, but the terror and the madness are what Benno has for years predicted, and the shattered glass and shattered lives come somehow not as a surprise. Hundreds of synagogues and thousands of places of commerce are burned to the ground; in Berlin and in Vienna there is nearly nothing left.
So once again he tells himself he must continue traveling and remove to the safe haven of New York. At sixty-five, he knows, there will be little further opportunity; he must take what is on offer, a third country to call home. Rodolfo and Elizabeth and the others who made them welcome in Cuba urge the Hochmanns not to leave; there is no danger here, they say, or at any rate small danger, and a government minister has promised that every enterprising gentleman who helps with the investment and supports the infrastructure will be protected by the government they help. There is a man called Lansky—Meyer Lansky from America—with plans for casinos and nightclubs, and the future of Havana is a future of prosperity; why not, asks Rodolfo, remain?
Again they embark from the dock by the fort; again the Morro Castle looks down upon them whitely, mutely; again there are high waves. This time the journey is rapid, not slow; they are going not a hundred miles to the city of Miami and, above it, the port of Fort Lauderdale, where they will land and go through customs with, he is told, no trouble. This he in part believes. Again Benno stands by the railing, staring at the meerschaum and the green declivities where wave-tops crash upon themselves and fall and recover and rise. The waters of the Caribbean in hurricane season are fierce, but today is a calm crossing, although he feels in his stomach the familiar pitch and the roiling tumble of motion at sea. He prepares but then thinks better of it and does not light his cigar. Birds follow the wake of the vessel, feeding on the food-scraps tossed from portholes or the galley-waste; fish leap in the near distance, and he sees a school of what a sailor tells him are dolphins: ballerinas of the deep.
Johann stands beside him. “The promised land,” muses his son. “At last.”
“At last,” Benno repeats. “Those fish are marvelous.”
“Are you looking forward to it, vati?”
He spreads his hands. He studies them. The fingernails are yellow, and the veins are prominent, with liver spots everywhere above the knuckles: an old man’s hands. “It is your promised land,” he says. “For me, it is the place I hope to die.”
Johann is shocked. “Don’t say such things.”
“Why not? It is only the truth. Even Moses made accommodations, yes?”
“Except he did not reach the promised land. He pointed the way only, but you have brought us here. And tomorrow we will be in America, and sooner or later they enter the war.”
He touches his boy’s shoulder, his boy who is a man and has now a son of his own. “We must hope they do not wait too long. Till the moment when no Jews are left to save.”
“Franklin Roosevelt will help us.”
“Are you certain?”
“Doch, doch,” says Johann, “of course.” But his voice registers no certainty, and they look out at the water together and watch the dolphins leap.
Johann and Gisela and their two sons, Peter and Frederick, move to a new house in Larchmont, in Westchester County, and he and Ilse move as well to an apartment in Larchmont, which will be their final home. He sits in the Stonecrest Apartments, in the south-facing window, and sometimes when he shuts his eyes he sees the cook Maria with her brown cheeks and black hair approaching, her arms outstretched and hands full of fruit. Her smile is the smile of satiety, her neck wet with sweat. He has enjoyed the years in Cuba, the safe haven of Havana, but with the clarity that sometimes still can come to him, Benno knows his family belongs now in this country, where they will have a future that is different and in some ways better than had been the past. It was an effort to settle, it was a large risk and wager, but the risk was worth it and the bet has paid off handsomely even though he has grown old and weary with the effort of escape. On the profits of this particular wager, he himself cannot collect. For himself it is too late, of course; he will live in exile with Ilse, listening to music and drinking his schnapps while she takes a Campari and soda, a pair of refugees. But when they ask him—and people ask him often in the library or at the bank—if he will return to Germany when the war is over, he tells them he has no such plan or any such desire. His grandchildren are Americans, not Germans, and that is a good thing. In this country everyone has been an immigrant, and the Statue of Liberty holds up her torch in the harbor like a beacon for the free. How is it possible, he asks himself, that the country he was born in—a country with such culture, so many great composers, thinkers, writers, painters—could be so primitive and evil, so bose and corrupt?
The war goes on. He listens to the radio and reads the paper carefully, and with Johann discusses the progress of the Allied forces. When D-Day comes and General Dwight David Eisenhower lands with the annihilating power of the American army, Benno is gratified and knows the war will end. Though it is not of course correct to view initials in this fashion, he thinks of D-Day as Dwight David-day, and likes to make a joke of it, and he repeats the joke to his grandsons although they do not laugh. More and more he can hear himself laughing at the sheer relief of it, the unlikely result of survival when it did not seem likely that the members of his family could prosper and survive. Spooning sugar in his morning tea, and stirring it, he thinks how fortunate he was to sail to Cuba before the near-total embargo, and when he and Ilse if it is fine weather walk the paths of Manor Park and look at the Long Island Sound, its sailboats and inquisitive ducks, he tells himself that they are lucky, lucky, lucky to have escaped from Germany when the wahnsinn was not yet total, and his good wife reminds him it was foresight in addition to just luck.
They learn about the camps. They read about Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Auschwitz and the liberation of those few who survived them; the horror stays with Benno for his final years. He cannot close his eyes at night without the image of a pile of shoes, or gold from teeth, or bodies flung against a wire fence to leave for the foraging dogs. He will live this way years longer, wearing vests and suits that have grown too large for him, and on his wrist the watch from Patek Phillipe he can neither wind nor read. Rodolfo and Colonel Battista, he learns, have learned to trust each other, and have good business dealings, and with a flash of his old insight Benno knows his cousin is making a mistake.
Nicholas Delbanco is the Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Michigan. He is the author of twenty-nine books of fiction and non-fiction. His most recent novel is The Years, and his most recent work of nonfiction is The Art of Youth: Crane, Carrington, Gershwin, and the Nature of First Acts.