My first night in Berlin, I walk without a map for almost an hour in the dark thinking about my grandmother. She was nineteen when she left Copenhagen to come to Kleinheubach and marry the handsome young Nazi she loved. The streets are as wide as they are empty, and the loneliness of the hour whispers to the city’s last century of enigmatic eradication.
I have the sensation of being followed. But when I turn around, I see only street lamps and dark leaves reaching over a wrought iron fence separating me from a complex with a small star of David emblazoned upon the iron door. I number the tombstones through the bars and remember: here, the ghosts are new. Evil is only as lately buried as my grandmother’s first love. And yet, the ones who came after are still here, clamoring for something else that is neither forgetfulness nor forgiveness. It is springtime in Europe, and the city lives. Young people who paint or sculpt or print or sing and are not necessarily from here open their doors to makeshift galleries in their living rooms. They sit on their stoops smoking while the paint on their jeans dries and greet me in Spanish. As midnight approaches, young people wheel their bikes away from the war memorials to an open field where Drum & Bass booms to the stars. They salsa dance with strangers on shadowy subway platforms until the sun creeps up on commuters.
Creativity is like an infectious growth in the open wounds of war blown wide open by peace. It is the audacity to draw new lines on the old map.
Every generation imagines itself to be born into what it calls “modernity,” even though “modern,” like “civilized,” is purely a relative term. Contemporaneity is a circle irrelevant of time and space. When we come into being, we draw a circumference around ourselves with what we think is wisdom’s compass, label it “hindsight” and pinpoint our present selves at the circle’s center. We make the limits of our history whatever we think we can see. Whatever is outside that circle cannot be fathomed. In an age that prides itself on information, we millennials have distanced ourselves from the information provided by personal and familial histories just as we have been brought up to distance ourselves from the anguish of our ancestors as if they were actors blown to smithereens on a movie screen. To our seemingly mapless generation, illusions play out illusory scenarios: People of the past are not real, and things that did not happen to us did not happen at all. "You are all a generation perdue." Gertrude Stein once told Ernest Hemingway. "That is what you are. That's what you all are . . . all of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”
All of us young people who did not serve in a war nonetheless serve war still, lost to the ideology which brought us screaming into this world. To a fault, we are Oedipal. Conscripted to legacy, no matter how treacherous that legacy may be. Under the false auspices of a Pax Americana, we cleave to the center of a circle we perceive to be safe. We call ourselves “expats” and fly off to Berlin with trauma coiled in our suitcases, yet feign to traverse the diameter to our destiny. Ever since the big bomb, we have forgotten how to be lost like Ernest and F. Scott were lost because we cannot remember what it is to be Gertrude, that is, found. After nuclear incineration or Nazi solutions, the maps of troubled youth handed down to us are neither blank nor perdue, merely radioactive. So long as we ignore whence the lines were drawn or where they are trying to lead, we will never get to wherever it is we think we are going.
The next morning, the sun bleats. I sit at an outdoor café eating brötchen and reading expatriate stuff (Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem). Then, I meander to the East Side Gallery on the eastern bank of the River Spree and touch it: The Wall. Once, back in New York, I met a middle-aged woman from Cologne in a Tibetan Buddhist sangha on Fulton Street, who told me that, as a teenager, she’d blown lines of cocaine off the loosened bricks of the Berlin Wall the night it was torn down. If evil can be banal, then why not goodness? “I don’t know why,” she said, talking more to the thangka of Green Tara hanging above me, “but whenever I think about it, I feel like there’s a giant black cobra curled inside my intestines.” She touches her womb, not her gut. “Just here.”
For someone born during the Reagan years, a wall between East and West Germany has never existed, except as a relic. But as with all history set in stone, every day, there erodes more and exists less; walls that have torn down can be rebuilt and enclosed within museums. I stare at Leonid Brezhnev kissing Erich Honecker and think of that tank that drove off a museum plinth in the Ukraine while a mosquito punctures my ankle. The leaders’ lips lock in acrylic on concrete beneath an inscription spray-painted in explicit Russian: “My God, help me to survive this deadly love.”
After the sun sets, dressed in all black (like some pupil of Heidegger), I go to a fashion party in an abandoned Nazi swimming pool. There, I meet a German boy studying Chinese politics with olive-speckled eyes.
Before my mother died, she told me that her father, my Japanese grandfather (whom I’ve never met), was a kamikaze pilot. When his plane went down, he was derelict in his duty to die. Instead, he clung to life in the form of a piece of his plane, a wing floating nearby. For two weeks, he drifted on his broken wing across the South Pacific until he washed up on a Japanese-occupied island. Then, quietly, he was sent home.
When I looked it up, I found that Kamikaze means “divine wind.” From then on, that’s exactly how I understood that war—divine wind rattling around concentric Pacific and European theaters in the round. Our grandparents’ war was so great, so terrible, that its scale of destruction has never been matched because it cannot be matched; it changed the way wars were fought. Yet human beings did not learn not to fight; the pawns of power simply returned home to their families broken inside and inadvertently passed on their nuclear traumas to their post-nuclear children who passed them covertly on to theirs—us.
The boy with the speckled olive eyes and I ride bikes all afternoon. In Treptower Park, we smoke a joint at the foot of the Soviet War Memorial, gazing up at its Communist colossus. The bronze soldier stands twelve meters tall. He holds a German child in one hand and a sword in the other and crushes a swastika underfoot. We toast to his bravery with a bottle of three Euro wine and I sink my chin onto the blonde Neoconfuscianist’s shoulder as the sun goes sliding into the western bank of the Spree.
The next day, he winds our bikes through the streets to the Kunsthaus Tacheles in the Mitte, an artist’s commune that the city is desperate to evict, condemn, and renovate. “Tacheles” is Yiddish for “straight talking.” Every inch of the place has been tattooed by angry artists. We climb the hollowed-out staircase of what was first a department store in the city’s Jewish quarter, then a Nazi prison, right to the top where the Belarusian painter Alexander Rodin nests in his studio like an eagle. Canvases, like thoughts, close in the eyrie on all sides. Glass bottles, brushes, and a broken wheelchair clutter the half-smashed grey and black tiles. We stand in front of an enormous pointillist triptych—Destiny Part I, it’s called—and stare at the two-meter high Black Forest-colored hand protruding from the central panel. A little hand is painted inside the big hand, pointing to the lifelines crisscrossing the trunk of the giant green palm. Dusty light filters into the studio sideways. My German’s olive-speckled eyes turn the color of pits. “Do you believe in Destiny?” he asks. I answer the only way I can think: “I’m not so sure.”
We go to Mustafas Gemüse-Kebab, but I can’t eat a stuffed Berliner because, like my Japanese ancestors, I am a vegetarian. The queue wraps around the block. Kids on skateboards slide, laughing, all around us.
“Is there anything else in Berlin you’d like to see?” he asks. “The Cave of Letters,” I reply.
A few hours later, next to the famous memorial to the murdered Jews, he kisses me. My nose begins to bleed.
Blood is blood. My father’s childhood friend, who is Jewish, told me once that as a boy playing with G.I. Joes in my father’s backyard in Bergen County, my grandmother would often come out on the porch, wipe the SPAM off her hands using her apron, and say, “World War II was a tough one because both sides had a cause.”
Blood is blood. Because my kamikaze grandfather injured his back when his plane went down, he did not have to return to active duty. Discharged to a firebomb-flattened Tokyo, he opened an izakaya in Gotanda and married my grandmother. When my mother was born, somewhere in the countryside, where the dirt was still charred, they planted a sakura tree.
Blood is blood. Because my grandmother had been spotted leaving the Nazi headquarters in Copenhagen by her brother who was in the Danish Resistance, when her fiancé was killed in action, she was not able to go home. She was stuck in Western Germany when the Allies overran it, which is why my grandfather, a young American lawyer working in the administration of the occupation, was able to write home to Tennessee, “Dear Mom and Pop, I met a nice Danish girl today . . .”
Blood is blood. Nazi. Kamikaze. Jew. Palestinian. Syrian. Yemeni. American. All sides everywhere have a cause and an effect, extending into infinity in both directions. Not a closed circle, but a loop with its throat slit by an open, tangential line. For that is Death’s purpose, to facilitate Life, as Life’s purpose, sooner or later, is to facilitate Death. War, whether personal or national, is an external force that forces us, however perceptibly or imperceptibly, to grow and change. To be human is to destroy what we will eventually rebuild, walls, which we will in turn eventually destroy. Before the babies comes the boom. A woman is ordained for motherhood only so long as she bleeds once a month.
There are tears in the olive-speckled eyes when he packs me into a taxi outside the hotel and waves goodbye as the car wings away down a wide boulevard. At a red light, I see him turn left, tugged towards the Brandenburg Gate, on his way to a year abroad in China. Is this how my grandmother said goodbye to her German soldier when he shipped out to the front? She never spoke of him to anyone. I do not know how or where he died.
Back in London (where I live, because, like my mother and grandmother, I am incapable of living in my own country), I dream that I do. Smoke rolls and billows, crushing me like a wave whilst he stands on a far shore watching and trembling with the weight of knowing. There are airplanes and explosions. The ether is laced with light, fire, and children’s tears. Cruelly, his hand is ripped from mine during the maelstrom of history. A giant ash plume races along its murderous course into the heart of the congested city. Sandals pattern out panic in the dust while human bodies stack up terrifyingly fast inside the heaving walls. Where is he? Suddenly, a hand, giant and green, hurtles through the darkness and the smoke, grabs hold, and pulls me up.
Suddenly, they are all here with me, in my crisscrossed palm, sweaty and pitching, on a thin mattress in Upper Addison Gardens. The road to the roundabout stills into silence. An elm scratches my window. A fox stirs, then ceases. We lie here looking at one another, each of us in the other’s palms, like none of it ever happened. Even though, all of it already has.
K.E. Knox writes fiction and creative nonfiction. She has published two books with Bloomsbury and lives in New York City.