The Essential

Iris Hanika

Artwork by Elephnt

We are ugly, but we have the music.
—Leonard Cohen, Chelsea Hotel #2

There comes a time when it all falls away—the anger of youth, the sorrow you felt at the world’s injustice, and also the confidence that things would get better, maybe even good if you just tried hard enough, put your whole heart into it. There comes a time when that heart abruptly empties and you eddy down into yourself, entirely alone. Not a great time.


Sometimes he looked back. Whenever he rode a crowded subway car he’d always find himself thinking about the trains headed for concentration and death camps, how they’d been even more crowded than the one he was sitting in, and also about the absence of seats in those boxcars. Graziela had made this comparison first, describing a scene from the American film The Pawnbroker (1964, director: Sidney Lumet) in which there was a leap from the quotidian into the past, from today’s subway to the train to Auschwitz, and said she couldn’t get the scene out of her head. In fact, it made her feel disgusted with herself for two reasons: one, she found it pretentious to compare her completely comfortable and dignified life with those who’d been abandoned by civilization. But “pretentious” was the wrong word, it was too feeble; she said “impudent” might be the better word, perhaps, “hubris” might pass in this context, but it was also too weak, much too weak, entirely too weak . . . “Obscene,” that was the right word. And because she had the luxury to seek the right word, the time and ease, time to think, and the room, and her brain at her beck and call, her disgust was made even stronger, and that was the second reason. At the time he thought “obscene” was much overused and privately considered “frivolous” a better choice. He hadn’t said anything to her, just listened as she described the film’s leading character, who was nothing like her. The film wasn’t about the granddaughter of a perpetrator, even though he knew, because they’d discussed it extensively, there were no real perpetrators in her family—there hadn’t even been a Party member. There was only her grandfather, who’d been at most a soldier, strictly speaking a Mitläufer, a nominal bystander, a twenty-two-year-old officer and troop commander of the 6th Army Regiment. He’d only survived Stalingrad because shortly before he reached the city, after storming the airport at Rostov, his head had been badly wounded and thus he received the so-called “home leave” wound—a gift as it turned out, since it meant he was flown from the war zone to a sick bay in Hungary and released from combat duty post-convalescence. (After the capture of Rostov, the psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein, together with her two daughters, was murdered in a mass execution; Graziela’s grandfather hadn’t belonged to the SS Operations Forces and hadn’t taken part in the shooting, but he had assisted in the capturing of Rostov and hence had brought about the murder of Sabina Spielrein. And they had discussed all of this, specifically how it could be endured and whether it could be borne.) In fact, the movie was about an entirely different type, namely Sol Nazerman, a man burdened with survivor’s guilt. (Rod Steiger who played Nazerman was nominated for Best Actor in 1966, along with Laurence Olivier for Othello, Oskar Werner for Ship of Fools, Richard Burton for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and Lee Marvin, who won for his performance in Cat Ballou.) It was a scene from a movie she couldn’t forget—it came immediately to her eyes on every crowded ride on every train.

She’d planted the scene in him. He borrowed The Pawnbroker from the university’s media center, and watched it once more at work on his bureau’s VCR player. After that he, too, felt deeply ill in crowded trains. 

Now when he looked back, he noticed that his unease actually had disappeared, and he wasn’t ashamed of it. In the past he would have been thoroughly ashamed of himself for not being ashamed.

Not anymore.

Now he, too, could ride in an overcrowded subway car, even think about the people who once had been transported, and not feel ill. Now he could see birch trees and not think “Birkenau,” and he didn’t think that he’d become insensitive.

In the past he’d feared just such a lack of sensitivity and was constantly on his guard. He scrutinized and tested himself over and over again, and found he had undertaken every act of remembrance.


Auschwitz lives in every song,

every bush, every tree.

Auschwitz lives in every song,

and all Germans, even me.

Fiderallala, fiderallala, fideralla lala la.


He was now used to his unhappiness. (Bless his postwar birth, haha.)

To his unhappiness he was now simply used.

Fiderallala, fiderallala, fideralla lala la.

He wasn’t certain when he’d gotten used to it, most likely after his thirtieth birthday. Eons ago. Perhaps right after “remembrance” was declared the official duty of the nation. He noticed he no longer dared hope that his unhappiness would end one day and no longer made any effort to change it. It existed like he existed—it belonged to him. He couldn’t think about it otherwise, couldn’t imagine being without it, lived with it as a matter of course. Some people live in the countryside, others in the city, some have dark hair, others light hair. Some have good fortune, others misfortune, that’s simply the way it was. He belonged to those who lived with unhappiness.

In the past he’d been able to laugh about it. Nothing went right. He was a buffoon, clumsy, brooded over the smallest things, had no success with women, couldn’t escape his quirks, was nearly knocked down, and so on. Every day he was a joke, but it wasn’t funny—it was much too demanding. At least the most ridiculous thing about him had changed. In the past his misery had been concrete in certain respects. As long as he’d believed it all stemmed from Auschwitz, it had substance. In the past the cause of his misery wasn’t only the fact that Auschwitz had happened, it was also his fixation with it. He thought constantly about what he could do and what Auschwitz prisoners hadn’t been allowed to do, and that Auschwitz had a very different meaning for them. When he went to bed, for example, he thought about how they couldn’t go to sleep when they wanted, how they had no beds, they had berths—that’s what he thought about lying in bed. Invariably his next thought was how there hadn’t even been a berth for each prisoner, whereas he couldn’t have told you when he’d not slept alone in his own bed. That they couldn’t go to the toilet when they needed but only at prescribed times, and the times kept rigidly short, so that their need was dire—that’s what he thought about when he was in the bathroom; and standing under the shower, he’d think about them being led to the sauna, as they’d called it, and made to stand under a shower with temperatures they had no control over, suffering as the water switched from freezing cold to scalding hot.

All this.

For a long time this was his real affliction, the Auschwitz comparisons, and his disorder had only worsened because it was absurd. However, at some point, his distress began to fall away. Throughout, he’d worked day in and day out in the vineyards of memory and perhaps that was the reason he no longer needed to compare his every action to the prisoners of Auschwitz. As always, he did whatever was in his power to ease the survivors’ misery: so that their suffering would never be repeated, so that what had happened to them would never again happen to anyone. 

But now he saw absolutely no reason for this misery. Not in Germany.

It’s true the ubiquitous hatred of G E R M A N Y affected him occasionally, but it passed quite quickly. This hatred belonged to the national character, and he, Hans Frambach, was no less German than the others, even if he couldn’t have described precisely what that was, where this essentially existed, this German-ness (cf. Walter Abish: How German Is It.—©Walter Abish 1979, 1980, 1982). Next to such a hateful verdict he always felt suddenly young, a suffocating feeling, to be suddenly young again and full of pure, righteous hate—that was the real horror. He didn’t want to be a boy again and was glad that more than half his life was behind him.

Generally he felt fine about Germany, at least the Germany he lived in.

He’d learned to differentiate the Germany he lived in from the one he worked on.  

Really, he felt fine about Germany. The public infrastructure functioned well, no one starved, fresh commodities flowed without a hitch, and corruption took place only in executive suites, not at his low level where neither police nor doctors needed to be bribed.

What more do you want.

It had taken him a long time to admit that he liked his country. In the past it would have seemed like a betrayal. When he was asked why he worked at the Bureau of Past Management, of all places, and not in some charming archive, he answered as he always had: he did it for the survivors, the elderly women and men with eyes as deep as drill holes—you couldn’t, and didn’t dare, see to the bottom. At the same time, they appeared to be so full of life, Lebenslust, that next to them he felt dead.

And yet he knew well enough there were those who’d survived the camps without an ounce of vitality remaining in them.

The other survivors spoke of them in the past tense because most of them were already dead. Those who weren’t dead usually wanted nothing to do with his bureau or any other think-tank or memorial institution. And every day there were fewer and fewer of them.

No one had ever asked him why he chose to do this work.

People used to go pale and silent when he responded to their questions about his work; today they just nodded as if the work was self-explanatory.

Memory work, right. 

And then they changed the subject.

He’d already changed it.

At least it seemed to him that he’d changed it.

Everyday he went into the archive, carried out his work, and fulfilled his duty, preserving the records.

He knew that the SS guards at concentration camps had given exactly the same answer when they were questioned about why they’d done, of all things, this work and not some other. If nothing else, they were taught what it meant to be German, to do a thing for its own sake (Here came to consciousness, and received its plain expression, what G e r m a n is: to wit, the thing one does for its own sake, for the very joy of doing it; whereas Utilitarianism, namely, the principle whereby a thing is done for the sake of some personal end, ulterior to the thing itself, was shown to be un-German. Wagner, Richard. Prose Works, Art and Politics. Translated by William Ashton Ellis, vol. 4, p. 107, Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., Ltd., 1895, London). Furthermore, he’d learned to question everything critically, and foremost his German-ness. (He hadn’t been taught that there was a reference to joy in this citation.) Indeed, that’s where his uneasiness at the loss of his unease came from. If he questioned its loss, he would have to recognize that he, too, was another self-loathing German. He had become just another SS guard and it didn’t bother him anymore. They dwindle, they fall / the suffering people (Hölderlin, Friedrich. Hyperion or The Hermit in Greece. Vol. 2, ii. [Hyperion to Bellarmin, “Hyperion’s Song of Destiny”]). Although he could no longer refer back to something concrete, his misery was still there, and he

gave himself over to it.

Misery, as natural to him as breathing, was large, immeasurably larger than he was, but nevertheless completely dependent on him because were he not to exist—he prided himself in comparatively happy moments—the misery wouldn’t have its host animal. Actually, he knew the misery couldn’t care less about him and was as independent as it could be. But if there were no misery, he’d be nothing—he lived only on and with misery. Without it he would have been unable to define himself. It was never his; in reality it didn’t belong to him. It was not his misery but

The Misery.

If he pulled it off himself, nothing of him would remain, nothing. Utterly nothing. (He knew this. But it was no use.)



Today, if he looked back, he wondered if Graziela still dwelled on the movie scene in crowded subway trains and thought of the people who had been transported in cattle cars that led to the barracks that had been designed as horse stables for the Wehrmacht. Every time he remembered, he resolved to ask her but then always forgot. They rarely spoke about Auschwitz now and if they did it wasn’t as in the past with a lump in their throats and the feeling that they stood at an abyss, but rather clinically.

Anyhow they saw each other less often than before.


New week, same old misery. He rode the elevator up to the sixteenth floor of the Bureau of Past Management, held his plastic ID to the designated spot next to the entrance until he heard a quiet click, opened the door to the archive, and walked into the familiar reception room, a cube of cold light. Above him the ceiling’s fluorescent strip buzzed insistently, lighting up every corner of the room so that even Frau Kermer’s well-groomed blonde hair gleamed like ice. It flowed down her back to her elbows and because she took care never to let it move, she sometimes looked like a statue, a glistening reception Buddha. But mostly like a dragon at the mouth of a cave. Or the guardian of the Grail. And sometimes like the Beast of Buchenwald.

He drew the corners of his mouth up so you’d think he was smiling. You’d have no choice. He observed all social conventions—that’s why he drew the corners up, that was the custom, that’s how people smiled.

“Good morning, Frau Kermer,” he said, turning immediately to the coat rack so the corners of his mouth could drop down to where they belonged. She addressed her greeting to his back as he hung up his coat with elaborate care. Sliding a coat hanger into the shoulders, he hung the coat symmetrically on the hanger, which he then put on the rack, paying even closer attention so the coat hung as freely as possible—not touching the wardrobe and certainly not Frau Kermer’s coat. He bent down, tucked his briefcase—which had been gripped between his legs—under his left arm, and standing once again pressed the case to his belly while he combed his hair with his right hand. Frau Kermer must have been watching for she threw her grappling hook after him just as he turned away.

“Herr Frambach!” she called, pulling him off-kilter, and as she spoke he couldn’t prevent the corners of his mouth from sliding up high again. It was totally automatic.

“Herr Marschner asked if you would keep 11:30 free. He’d like very much to speak with you.”

Frambach nodded.

“When will he arrive?” he asked, simply to stretch out the conversation and make the most of his mouth’s work.

“Around 11:00,” said Frau Kermer. Frambach nodded once more. The smile that Frau Kermer did not mirror pushed itself ever more firmly into his face and hurt him. Naturally Marschner knew that it didn’t matter what time they met during work hours. It would be highly unlikely for them not to meet in the office during those hours, since every day Frambach sat faithfully at his desk from early until late, feeding one paper after another into the archive, and had no meetings outside the office. But Marschner nevertheless scheduled meetings in advance, always asking Frau Kermer to make the appointments. This was how he gave an overall impression of urgency and professionalism. And it was successful.

The heavy creases on Frau Kermer’s forehead tilted her face back down in the direction of her desk. Her work also seemed to be of great importance and her papers could never tolerate a delay. She had not responded to his smile and consequently it had not waned, which was why, as he entered the dim corridor that led to his office, he shook himself to hurl it off his face. He clutched his bag with both arms and shook once more quickly and powerfully, and again quickly but powerfully, to get rid of his idiotic smile. Now it lay in the dark on the floor already cluttered with all the other smiles he’d forced every morning to greet Frau Kermer. The cleaning woman casually swept his smiles into the corners, but couldn’t remove them because she didn’t have the proper machine. 


The Bureau of Past Management is situated in the center of the city, a city large and sprawling against the flat landscape. Compared to other cities in the nation, it’s not very old, actually quite new. Nonetheless it’s full of history. History has battered this large city with heavy hammers time and again, and it shows—especially because the city has tried to remove, minimize, lose whatever was created in each prior era. The city’s distinguishing trait is its desire to remove, minimize, lose, which one resident recognized, prophesying that Berlin “was always becoming, never to be” (cf. Karl Scheffler: Berlin, a City’s Destiny. Berlin-Westend: Reiss 1910). In the years that followed, the city truly lived its fate. And history didn’t leave behind only a wasteland, but also some really large buildings.

Sixteen stories high and nearly four hundred feet wide, the bureau’s building was erected during the city’s most recent period and wasn’t razed to the ground; instead it was completely renovated. Six elevators travel up and down the many floors simultaneously, and yet one often waits for an elevator since the bureau has innumerable employees. They need vast numbers of people because the past, which they manage, is itself vast, and it’s not a single stone they’re carrying into the future like Sisyphus, but a mountain of rubble.

All who work here meet often and without appointment in the middle of the building, if vertically considered, at the eighth-floor cafeteria. You can gain access without a plastic ID card since the doors are always open and inviting. However, you can’t pay for anything without the plastic card onto which you must first transfer a monetary value.               

The machine used for transferring value is a small rectangular pillar with two slots. You stick your card into one slot and in the other, your money. That’s what the machine eats but only reluctantly. Regardless of the value, the machine spits out the money many times over before finally slurping it down. Due to its reluctance to transfer value as advertised onto an anonymous plastic card, which is to say, to transfer the value of one thing onto another thing, this little machine is the very heart of the building in the very heart of the capital city where the country’s past and future history beat. A transfer of value is serious business, you would not want to make errors, and the value must neither increase nor decrease. However, the value of money is exact, whereas the value of a plastic card is not. Although the events of the past are documented exactly and evaluated right here in this building where so much is made tangible, their exact value at any point remains incomprehensible even when it seems within our grasp.



The bureau’s task—to research the country’s history and thereby carve a path for the future—was not initially fruitful, but as the years passed the work became as necessary as air for the country’s citizens.

Eventually the nation’s many institutions were caught up in the memory of the country’s past transgression. What had begun slowly at first, sped up at the end. After the reunification of the country (the partition having been the immediate consequence of its crime), it could begin at last to deal with its history as a sovereign nation. It was no longer accountable to other nations, only to the people left standing there who had neither institutions nor armies. They had only the memories of the terrifying things that had been done by representatives of the German people, but not by the nation in which the people now lived. The victims had aged. Not many of those who had committed the crime still remained. They, too, had become very old.

Most of the nation’s citizens were not even born at the time of the crime, or were at most just children. For them it was a childhood memory. All the same the monstrosity of their forebears’ crime weighed heavily on them, and when they approached this monstrosity, they expected nothing but to unmask their forebears and find criminals. They succeeded without a problem—it was a continuous loop. So great was the crime. So enormous it would continue into the seventh generation.

The constant disclosure of crime wasn’t nice, though it was necessary, and when it seemed no longer to be necessary, it was definitely not nice. Given that, the state remembered its obligation and resolved to take this burden away from its citizens; it would undertake as its perpetual assignment the memorializing of the crime. Casting the burden into historical monuments would fulfill the obligation, and as years went by the number of memorials grew, but the crime did not diminish—no, it was not left behind. Every place where the crime had occurred, and there were many, was designated a memorial site. To make remembrances was no longer regarded merely as necessary, but also as the nation’s most noble duty, and nowhere was it more honorable to work than in the Bureau of Past Management, which had settled in the capital city. (Of course, only the bureau’s headquarters were located in this building; its many subsidiaries were divided throughout the nation.)

So the darkness from which the nation had crawled years ago was placed under the brightest light to declare that it was essential, which was only logical—after all, it had become the nation’s reason for its existence. 

It was understood.

It was no secret and didn’t need to be discussed.

It was The Essential.

Except it wasn’t compelling any longer as it was presented on a silver platter, lit on all sides by a thousand suns. From the Blitzkrieg blitz-light was born, and the reality of the crime became a story from bygone days.



He knew this too. And the knowledge didn’t help him in this case either because he couldn’t help himself from being preoccupied with the crime of the past.

It was such a great crime.

Shocking now that it didn’t hurt. That was the essential horror and more so: for to him this was the essential thing. That this crime, that was so enormous, had stopped hurting. That that was possible. That such a thing is possible—it was terrible. And that amplified his misery.

He felt like someone who had dropped out of time. In fact it hurt to this very day.

translated from the German by Abigail Wender