An Old Man's Secret

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
It's 1923 in Weimar Germany, a country that is down on it's knees. Karl Wieland is hungry and impoverished and his only chance of improving things is a job in far-away Danzig. But to start it, he has to get there yet he has no money for the train ticket. Deciding to risk it, he boards the train anyway and finds himself sharing a compartment with an elderly Jew. Then the ticket collector comes along...

Submitted: August 27, 2012

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Submitted: August 27, 2012



An Old Man’s Secret

“Dietrich, now I have something very important to tell you. The thing is, I am no longer a young man; I’ve one foot in the grave already and the other is fast slipping in and…”

“Granddad, don’t talk like that!”

“Please, don’t interrupt me; I need you to hear all of this. Like I said, it is important. The thing is Dietrich, I have a secret; a secret that I have kept for over forty years. In all that time I have told no one but I feel, as I near the end of my life, that it would be wrong for it to die with me and so please my grandson, hear my story, hear my secret, hear my shame…

“It all started in the year 1923 when Germany was at the lowest point in her history. We carried money around in suitcases in those days and no one could find either food or work. I, as a young, strong and able man should have been one of the first to find a job, but in my hometown of Oldenburg there was absolutely nothing to be had. Things were getting pretty tight when a telegram arrived from your great-grandfather’s elder brother Uncle Philipp who had at that time a construction company in the city of Danzig which – as I am sure you know – is now called Gdansk and is in Poland but then was still part of the German Republic. Anyhow, Uncle Philipp said that he had some building work for me if I wanted it and so naturally, I jumped at it and send a cable saying that I would start for Danzig right away.

“Whilst one problem was solved though, I was immediately faced with another, namely that Uncle Philipp had given a start date of two days hence and the only way to reach Danzig at that speed in those days was by rail, (for road travel was still very slow), but such were our family’s impoverished circumstances that even between us we could not muster together the price of a third class ticket. Thus it was that I was forced to chance it and ride stowaway on the night train. I stole down to the station ten minutes before the train was due in and when it arrived I climbed over the fence, crossed the tracks and hid by one of the first class carriages. Then, when no one was looking, I opened the door and climbed in just as the train began to pull off. Finally, I made my way into an empty compartment and settled down in a corner, my father’s best overcoat draped over me so as to hide my shabby clothes.

“Now I had chosen the first class carriage for several reasons. Firstly, they were generally emptier and so if caught and one is unseen by other passengers, there was always the chance of bribing the guard, who let’s be honest, wouldn’t mind something tangible in his pocket like a couple of good sausages to take home to his wife. However, being first class, it was also true that the guards were less-likely to check tickets, trusting the well-heeled far more than their lower class fellow travellers. Finally, there was the fact that should I really find myself in need of money, then first class pockets are generally more rewarding to pick than any other. Thus it was that I chose first class and settled myself in a nice, warm, empty compartment when what should happen but an odious, hook-nosed Jew should open the door and enquire if the seat across from me was free. Gone in one fell swoop was any hope of either bribing a guard or picking a pocket, (for it is well-known that no one guards his wealth so well as the Jew). Anyhow, this Jew placed his bags on the rack above my head and then, dropping his newspaper, bent down at my feet to pick it up, before sitting across from me by the window, and nodding a curt ‘Hello’ by which I knew that he wished to start a conversation. I however, was in no mood for talking with anyone, particularly one of his race, and so I merely nodded back and pulled my coat further around me, pushing my hat down over my eyes and pretended to sleep.

“Oh yes Dietrich, I can see that my language and attitude towards those people embarrasses and offends you, but you are a child of a different time and back then that is how we felt: we really did hate them and blamed them for the terrible state that our great country had been reduced to. Experience and history have since taught me to revise some of my opinions but in telling this story I must revert to the attitudes and mindset of my younger self, for otherwise you will never be able to understand accurately the story that follows.

“But to return to that train heading east on that chilly September night. I was huddled in the corner trying my best to feign sleep whilst the Jew was sat across from me reading a copy of the Berliner Tageblatt and smoking a cigar, blowing rings of fine blue smoke into the air. Then, just as he had finished and was stubbing out that cigar, my worst fears were indeed realised and there was a knock on the door and then a second later in walked an official of the Deutsche Reichseisenbahnen proclaiming loudly, ‘Tickets from Oldenburg please!’ Well, what was I to do? I feigned sleep and he went across to the Jew and punched his but then he returned to me and tapped me on the shoulder. There was no choice but to continue my charade, hopeless as it was, and so I gave an elaborate yawn, looked at him quizzically and after he had repeated his demand began frantically searching my pockets declaring several times that, ‘I was sure I put it there,’ and ‘Wher on earth can that have got to?’ Inwardly though, I knew that the game was up and my fate was to be unceremoniously dumped off the train at the next stop, this night to be spent on a chilly platform with the Danzig job lost, when, to my abject surprise, the Jew spoke:

“‘Sir, is that not your ticket by your feet?’

“I bent down and looked and there, to my absolute astonishment, was a valid first class ticket for that train from Oldenburg all the way to Danzig! I picked it up, my mind reeling as to how it had come to be there and then I handed it to the guard who punched it and wished us both a pleasant journey before leaving the compartment and shutting the door behind him.

“When he had left I looked across at the Jew and smiled. He smiled back and then said, ‘I shall solve the mystery for you, yes?’

“‘Excuse me?’ I replied.

“ ‘You have no ticket and furthermore, no money to pay for one. You climbed aboard this train illegally; do not try to deny for I saw you. Actually I saw you waiting by the fence before the train even arrived. No, no, do not worry young man, I do not think ill of you for it. These are desperate times are they not, and although people are not criminals by nature, they are sometimes forced to commit criminal acts in times such as these. But that still leaves us with the ticket that you now have in your hand, no? Where did it come from you ask to yourself? Well, that ticket, I bought it. I saw you waiting by the fence and thought to myself, “Now Isaac, here is a man that you can help.” And so I went to the booking office and I bought an extra ticket. Then I watched which compartment you entered and after a few minutes, I entered it myself. The dropping of my newspaper as I was stowing my bags was really a ruse so that I could leave the ticket at your feet.’

“And as he said that, he waved his copy of the Berliner Tageblatt and that smiled again.

“‘Well, err, thank you, sir,’ I said, still in some shock and more than a little ashamed at my former ill opinion of this kind benefactor.

“‘It is nothing, nothing at all, but please young man, what is your name?’

“‘Karl Wieland, sir.’

“‘And I am Isaac Ahasver Laquedem. Now Herr Wieland, since it appears that we are to be sharing this compartment for some distance, would you please join me in a glass of vodka or two?’ And with these words he pulled out an entire, unopened bottle of the stuff.

“‘I’d err… be glad to sir, I mean… Herr Laquedem…’

“‘Isaac to my friends, Herr Wieland, Isaac to my friends.’

And so it was Dietrich that we drank together that evening, the Jew and I. As the train rolled and rumbled its way across the Fatherland we polished off the entire bottle of vodka and drink, as we all know, loosens the tongue like nothing else and so whilst at first I was still defensive and reticent to speak, by the fourth glass I talked freely and was relating to Herr Laquedem my life’s story and that of the entire family as well. I told him all about our miserable existence, of how father had been slain at Passchaendale and how my sister Helga had recently died in childbirth. Then I spoke of our poverty, of the lack of work in Oldenburg, of the filthy two cramped rooms that we all shared and then finally of Uncle Philipp’s telegram and the building job that awaited me in Danzig if I could get there in time. He was sympathetic and spoke kindly yet with an air of experience that made me trust him all the more yet also wonder about his own life and so when I had finished and the courage of the alcohol was coursing through my veins, I asked him to tell me his personal history as well.

“Isaac, who at this point, like me, was quite drunk, sat back in his chair and smiled. ‘I could tell you,’ he said, ‘but I doubt that you would believe me.’

“‘But why not?’ asked I.

“‘Because my story is fantastic in the extreme.’

“‘But fantastic things happen to people everyday. Why should you not be one of them?’

“‘That is true Karl, but even so, I know that you still will not believe me.’

“By this point, my curiosity had naturally been piqued and I was desperate to hear this Jew’s tale and so I said, ‘Believe or not, I like a good story, so please Isaac, tell me yours and I promise to listen to it all without derision.’

“‘Alight then, I shall tell it to you, but Karl, I warn you, my story whilst not a normal one, is real to me and I do not want it laughed at. Do you promise this solemnly?’

“‘I promise.’

“‘Fair enough. Well, I was born you see, in the city of Emmaus which is in the country of Palestine no less than one thousand nine hundred and twenty three years ago…’

“I made a noise as if to express disbelief but he put his finger to his mouth and said, ‘You promised to listen, Karl.’ I nodded in shame and was silent and so he continued. ‘My father was a shoemaker by trade and I was the second of his three surviving sons. As tradition states that the family business always passes to the eldest son, when I came of age I was with the rudiments of a trade but with nowhere in Emmaus to practice it. As luck would have it though, I had an uncle in Jerusalem with a shoemaking business but whose wife had given birth only to daughters and so it was agreed that I work for him and, when the time came, inherit his business and thus it was that I went to live in the Holy City, under the shadow of the Temple itself.

“‘Now, I had been working in Jerusalem for a few years when one day a condemned prisoner walked past our shop carrying the cross upon which he was to be crucified. This was not a rare occurrence then you must understand; they crucified a lot in those days for Pilate – the Roman Governor – was a harsh man and the Jews were rebellious, but for us locals who cared little for politics, it was merely a distraction and source of amusement and we all liked to watch and taunt those about to die. Now, on this particular occasion I’d had a drink or two earlier on with some friends and so when this prisoner – a mad holy man from Galilee named Jesus – staggered past I decided to provoke a laugh and so I picked up one of the shoes from our shop and thwacked him on the arse with it whilst crying, “Go on quicker, Jesus! Go on quicker! Why are you loitering?!” Well, this indeed caused all the crowd to roar with laughter, but the prisoner, he simply looked at me with sad tortured eyes and said, “I shall stand and rest but you shall go on until the last day.” Immediately I felt ashamed of what I’d done, for I saw him to be a wretched thing indeed, but at his reply the crowd simply laughed all the louder and so naturally, I joined in with them.

“‘At the time I thought nothing of that mad man’s words, not even when some of his followers started claiming that he’d risen from the dead and was the long-awaited Messiah. However, about ten years after the event, I began to wonder. People had started to say how well I was looking for my age and my wife, eight years younger than I, now looked my contemporary. At first I thought it pleasant to still be considered handsome, just a mere coincidence, but as the years continued to pass one by one and I still never aged a day then I began to understand what that Jesus had meant when he’d said that I would “Go on until the last day.”

“‘In one respect of course, it was good. No one wishes to either grow old or die after all and by cursing me it seemed as if this Jesus had saved me from both. Was it in fact a blessing that he’d given me? I enjoyed the fact that my contemporaries were fast becoming wizened old men whilst I still drank and looked like a man in his prime. But as each year passed it became more and more difficult; people noticed more and began to talk. When it became impossible to tell who was the older – my eldest son or I – then rumours started about witchcraft and dark magic and I knew that I had to do something. I deliberated long and hard, as naturally I was loathe to leave my family and prayed in the temple for the Lord to lift this burden from me, but in the end, the decision was made for me by fate. The Jews rebelled against their Roman masters and defeated the legions soundly at the Battle of Beth Horon. The Romans of course fought back, but the terror that they produced was nothing compared with that inflicted on the Jews by Jews. In Jerusalem the Zealots and Sicarii both vied for power, murdering each other left right and centre. The Holy City was becoming a dangerous place to stay in and when rumours started of a new Roman campaign against the rebels I ordered my family to pack up and move back to my father’s house in Emmaus, telling them that I would follow in a few days time after I had cleared up all my business affairs. But of course, I did not follow and instead I stole off that very night to Alexandria, leaving them to believe that I had been murdered by the Sicarii for my disloyalty to Israel.

“‘And so I went to Alexandria where I stayed for some years amongst the Jews of that place, from a distance observing with horror the senseless slaughter, first at Jerusalem and then Masada. But I could not settle in that city, nor with the people of my race who all reminded of the family that I’d left behind, and so I moved down the coast to the province of Cyrenaica – part of what the Italians now call “Libya” – and there I met a local girl whom I fell very much in love with and so I married and began a shoemaking business in Cyrene. They were happy times and I had two daughters with this lady and indeed I thought that my woes were over when what should happen but up rose a man called Lukuas – one of many a false Messiah to have plagued the Jews, oh how I groan when I hear of each new one – proclaiming his kingship and urging all good Jews to follow the commandments set in the Torah and kill all the inhabitants of the land who are not of the Chosen Race. And so it was that one night they came, my own countrymen, and slaughtered my wife and daughters before my very eyes, sparing me only after administering a sound thrashing accompanied with the exhortation, “Thou shall smite them, utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: Neither shalt thou make marriage with them!” It was then that I realised that my people were doomed, like I, to suffer for many an age. Sick of them and their anger and hatred, I left for the West, journeying across the Mauretania.

“‘I sojourned in that land for over two hundred years. At first my grief meant that I stayed alone, immersing myself in shoemaking as a means of forgetting, but time is the greatest of healers and when it came time for me to love again, I married the daughter of a local merchant, (for after working so hard for so long, I was by now a wealthy man), and together she bore me five children. Once again I thought that happiness would finally be within my grasp, but as in Jerusalem all those years before, my curse crept up on me and my family grew old whilst I did not. Realising that I would have to part from all that I loved again, I stole away one night with tears in my eyes and headed for the desert just as Moses had once done so that I could talk with the Lord and find an answer to my afflictions.

“‘I travelled south to the land of the Berbers and then out into the scorching sands. At first I felt like killing myself in that desolate place, but I could not do it, realising that running away was no answer. Then I simply sat and waited. How long I stayed there I do not know, (time has little meaning to one such as I); I existed on just a little water everyday brought to me by some curious locals who thought me to be some kind of saint, but in that heat and loneliness I spoke with the Lord and with that prisoner whom I had mocked all those years before. There I learnt that it was indeed my curse to wander the earth until both my debt and my people’s debt had been paid in full, I the Scape Goat for all the Jews. My fate was to be a lonely one; no more should I marry or beget children for all I would lose and furthermore, as the centuries passed I would be in great danger of copulating with my own descendents unwittingly. But there too did I learn that if I accepted my lot with grace, then there was much to be gained also: eternal youth, time to do all that I’d ever dreamt of. Finally, I learnt that the life of a hermit did not suit me and so I returned to the world, renewed and wiser.

“‘And from that time on I have wandered the globe. I have learnt to live without women and family and instead have found joy in new places, new experiences, being able to observe man through the ages and in chance encounters such as tonight. And so that is the story of Isaac Ahasver Laquedem, (although naturally, I have been known by other names throughout history as well), the Eternal Wanderer. Now whether you believe it or not, Herr Wieland, is entirely up to you…?’

“I looked across at that strange Jew and tried to believe him. I imagined myself growing old and dying whilst he stayed young and healthy, traversing the globe on trains such as this, and for a moment I envied him. But then I thought of his loneliness and eternal restlessness and a wave of pity swept over me. That would be a terrible fate for any man! But was his story real? My head said ‘No’ but my heart cried ‘Yes!’ ‘Do you have any proof?’ I asked him.

“He smiled. ‘No proof is absolute of course, for any artefact I produce I could easily have stolen from a museum. However, I do have this which may convince you a little. It was in my pocket when I left Jerusalem.’ He opened his shirt and took from around his neck a medallion. I examined it; it was a coin from the reign of the Emperor Nero. On the back was a picture of the Jewish king Agrippa.

“‘When will it end?’ I asked.

“Isaac Laquedem looked up to the sky and sighed. ‘The Lord alone knows that; when my people’s debt is paid, but to me that account was surely settled centuries ago, perhaps during the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition, or in the pogroms. But that is my opinion, evidently He thinks differently…’

Silence envelopes the room.

“What happened after that, granddad?”

“Dietrich, we were both very drunk and I can’t clearly remember. We may have changed the subject to something lighter, I seem to vaguely recall discussing who was favourites for the Viktoria football championship but I am not sure. The fact is that soon afterwards I fell asleep and in the morning when I awoke Isaac Laquedem had gone.”

“So, that is your secret granddad, I promise to remember it…”

“No Dietrich, wait! I have not finished yet! The story is not yet told! The fact is you see, with time I forgot all about that Jew on the train and his impossible tale. When I awoke I thought about it and knew that it couldn’t be true – as he’d said, the coin could have been stolen from any museum or bought from an antiques dealer – and so I just passed him off as a generous, crazy drunk and let him slip from my mind. Anyhow, the years passed and I became, as you know, a National Socialist and indeed, I was that enamoured of Hitler and all that he stood for that I volunteered to join the SS and was accepted. Now, as you know, it is not always fitting to talk about what we did during those strange days; I myself recoil in shame when I recall some of the acts that I committed, some out of peer pressure, some following orders and some out of pure enjoyment. War is different to other times Dietrich and unless you’ve been through it yourself you’ll never understand. Anyhow, much of what I did during the war I’ve recounted to you over the years but I am afraid that I’ve never told you the whole truth. For you see, I always told you that between the June of 1941 and the October of 1944 I was stationed on the Eastern Front, have I not, Dietrich?”

“Yes granddad, that is what you told me.”

“Indeed, it is. However, it is not entirely true, for when it became clear that we would lose the war against the Bolsheviks, then our regiment was moved to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp where I worked as a guard for eight months carrying out the Final Solution until we were transferred back out to the front.”

“You did what?!”

“Yes, to my shame Dietrich, I did. Day after day I unloaded trainloads of men, women and children and led them to their deaths in the gas chambers, killing scores of stragglers with my own gun. There is no excuse for it, but I cannot deny it.”

“I don’t know what to say, I thought…”

“Many people think, Dietrich but not logically. The Final Solution happened and someone must have helped carry it out. Well, why not your grandfather as opposed to someone else’s? But anyhow, I must proceed as I need you to hear this. One day I was unloading a train from the Warsaw Ghetto when someone called out to me. ‘Herr Wieland! Herr Wieland!’ I looked around wondering who it could be and who was it but that mad Jew from the train, Isaac Laquedem, now shabby and starving but not aged a day from the evening we spent together despite the fact that twenty years had passed. ‘Karl, it is me, Isaac from the train!’ he cried, trying to reach me. ‘Karl, I know what happens here and I don’t want to die! Please help me as I once helped you!’”

“What did you do?”

“I ignored him, pretended not to hear and he was pushed back into the line by one of my colleagues. Then the whole trainload was herded into the chamber and the door locked behind them. Within minutes they were all dead, yes, him included. I know because I later checked for his body.”

“But granddad, why?! He helped you, why could you not lift a finger to help him? That’s disgusting, it’s inhuman…”

“But Dietrich, you don’t understand, I did help him. It would have been very easy to call him to me and put him to work as my personal servant; my heart wanted to do that, but then that would have changed nothing. The Jewish debt you see, could only be paid when he died, and so by killing him I hoped to stop all the slaughter and hatred that I saw all around me. With him finally at rest, I hoped that the world would hate the Jew no longer.”

“I understand what you’re saying granddad, but I don’t know, I don’t know…”

“Dietrich, that was the last train that entered Auschwitz. Minutes later the news came through that the Bolsheviks were on the doorstep and so we stopped the killing and started burning all our papers and erasing any trace of the existence of the Final Solution. As soon as Isaac Laquedem died, the Jews stopped dying.”

“It could have been a coincidence, granddad. The Russians were there anyway, whether he died or not made no difference.”

“Perhaps so, perhaps not, only God Almighty knows that one. But there, I have told you my secret and so at last I can rest. However, I still see some doubts in your face, so please, have this and keep it with you always as I have done.”

Karl Wieland takes something from around his neck and hands it to his grandson. It is a coin from the reign of the Emperor Nero with a picture of the Jewish King Agrippa on the rear. Dietrich turns it over in his hand and wonders.

“I took it from his body after he died and have worn it ever since. It is the last remaining evidence of the Wandering Jew, Isaac Laquedem, may he and his people now enjoy some peace.”

Copyright © 2008, Matthew E. Pointon

Written March 2008, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

© Copyright 2019 Matthew E Pointon. All rights reserved.

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