Herr Schmidt's classroom is the one I most dislike. Going to his class is like tearing off a scab. The war has been over for ten years. The Nazis are gone. It's 1955. Why should we have our noses rubbed in someone else's dirt just because we happen to be German? Our eighth grade is being scolded for something our parents did. It is something I don't want to hear or think about.
With his white-blond hair, pale skin, and long thin arms and fingers, Herr Schmidt looks like he lives in a cellar or a cave. He has an irritating way of drawing out his words so you are afraid he will never finish a sentence. "Ri-i-i-ight here in Rolfen," he said, "I am sor-r-r-ry to say there is the e-e-e-evil of anti-Semitism."
I'm tired of being told all the bad things about our country. Why can't he talk about the good things about Germany? I slump down and stare at my desk. It is at least a hundred years old. The carved initials in the desk are like ghosts of the students who have sat there before me. During the war the desk survived the bombs of the Americans and the English. I squirm in the hard wooden seat and catch Hans Adler's eye. His shrug tells me he is as bored and impatient as I am with the lecture.
As if it were just another lesson in grammar or arithmetic, Herr Schmidt prints on the blackboard the crimes of the German people and we copy them, each one like a scolding. All over Germany Jewish converts to Christianity were expelled from the church. When he speaks of what the church has done, Herr Schmidt looks serious and sad, as if to say, People may do stupid and even evil things, but the church? How can that be? But of course the church is not just a brick building that got up off its foundation and shook out the Jews; no, there was the pastor and those who chose him and paid him. When you speak of the church, you are not speaking of a building but of men and women. Even I know that. We squirm in our seats. Hans speaks for everyone in the class when he wriggles his hand in the air and says, "We were just babies during the war. We didn't have anything to do with what happened to the Jews." I silently agree. Most people want to be good and they want people to believe they are good, so it's hard when you're made to feel guilty for something you didn't do.
Herr Schmidt says, "I know I am reviewing what we have talked of before, but I want to be sure you understand. l tell you these things so that your generation will not repeat the mistakes of your parents and their parents."
Dieter Kroner has been drawing dirty pictures of Herr Schmidt. Now he leans across the aisle and whispers to me, "That's all Jewish propaganda." Even I know better than that. Men have stood up in court and admitted their parts in what happened. There are government records and terrible pictures of men more dead than alive in prisoners' striped suits. It is all true, but I don't want to hear about it.
At last Herr Schmidt gives us our assignment to do over the summer. We groan. When we leave today, we want to close the door on the school and not think about it. Herr Schmidt says, "In spite of the terrible things that happened during the war, there were Germans who risked their lives to oppose Hitler. I want you to find such a person and write that person's story."
We push our way out of the classroom and into the hallway, where there's a sour smell: part sweaty socks, part stale air. Students shove one another in the halls and on the stairs as if they can't wait to get the day over with and get outside. Even the teachers seem impatient. Our algebra teacher storms up and down the aisles of the schoolroom, crumpling our papers and rapping the boys on the head with his ruler.
At lunchtime we kick around a soccer ball, an old size four with most of the leather worn away. Hans gets into a fight with Kurt Niehl because Kurt won't own up to a foul, and I have to pull them apart, getting an elbow in my ribs for my trouble. I make a nice shoelace pass, the ball rising into the air in a beautiful arc, lofting right over Hans's head and falling at Kurt's feet, but just at that moment the bell rings and we have to go back inside.
As usual Hans has done no homework and is unprepared for our Latin class with Frau Lerche. No one is more goodhearted or can turn on more charm than Hans, so most of the teachers forgive him his lack of interest in his studies, especially the women teachers; but Frau Lerche is immune to Hans's charm. Although he bats his long lashes at her and gives her his most radiant smile, she's not moved. When he translates fastigium, "height," as fastidium, "disgust," he gives Frau Lerche an opportunity for exercising her considerable sarcasm. "I have reached the height of my disgust with your translations, Herr Adler," she says, which makes Hans turn beet red. While Frau Lerche launches into a discussion of the beauty of the ablative case, I sit and stare out the window as if it were a postcard from someplace I'll never visit.
Excerpted from After the Train by Gloria Whelan Copyright © 2009 by Gloria Whelan. Excerpted by permission.
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