During my great-grandmother's funeral I was at one point standing behind a bush with my girl cousin; we were pressed close to each other, watching my boy cousin while he stood behind the church and pissed on the whitewashed wall.
Now he is exhibiting himself in a cage, surrounded by drunk people who are acting like animals: eating, drinking, making noise.
"Receptions are terribly embarrassing," I say.
My cousin laughs inside the cage; someone shouts that people from television are coming.
Shortly after this, I see it: The cameraman makes his way through the celebrities, and the journalist follows him with a fuzzy microphone, which he thrusts through the bars of the cage to reach my cousin.
"Tell us, why are you sitting in there?" the journalist wants to know.
My cousin starts talking about the castle in Prague, and I have no idea how this is related to what is going on; I walk away a little and gulp down the glass of red wine I have in my hand.
The air in the gallery is so hot it makes me dizzy.
A drunken Swede with a crooked pink necktie approaches me.
"Har inte jag sett dig förut?" he asks.
I shake my head.
"Du liknar någon jag känner," he says.
He winks, then belches.
"Unfortunately, you don't look like someone I know," I say.
The Swede laughs.
He laughs so much that wine sloshes out of his glass, and while he is staggering around somewhere among people's feet trying to repair the damage spreading across the polished floor I disappear into the ladies' restroom.
This is not because I need to pee; I just drink some cold water from the tap. That was my old homeroom teacher Jens Bentsen's motto: Try drinking a little cold water; sometimes it helps.
Perhaps he was right; when, at any rate, I emerge from the restroom the Swede is gone.
My cousin is still talking to the emissaries from the television network. He has gotten to the point: It was in Franz Kafka's little blue house in Die Goldene Gasse in Prague that my cousin was once flipping through one of Kafka's books and found a short story called "Ein Hungerkünstler."
This was how he got the idea for his artwork.
"What does a starving artist live on?" asks the journalist.
"Love and spring water," says my cousin.
When Franz Kafka was eating with his family as a child, he was not permitted to crunch the bones if there were bones, but it was all right for his father to do so.
Kafka was not permitted to slurp vinegar, but it was all right for his father to do so.
Kafka was supposed to cut the bread completely straight without fail, while his father always cut the bread crookedly and with a knife dripping with brown sauce.
Kafka was required to be fastidious, to eat without dropping a single crumb, but under his father's chair there were always crumbs and clumps and spills.
Kafka was permitted only to eat while at dinner, while his father often trimmed his nails or sharpened pencils or cleaned his ears with toothpicks.
My father's father was just like Kafka's.
The bones sticking out under my cousin's skin appear particularly pronounced because of the lighting in the gallery; the sight makes me think of the skeleton in the biology room's black cupboard, back at my childhood school.
Back then, Jens Bentsen was in the habit of telling us that the human brain consists of a mushy mass.
"But in your case," he said.
There was a lengthy pause for effect while he glowered around the classroom and struck his open palm with his pointer before he continued.
"In your case it is the other way around," he said.
He leaned forward a little and under his bushy brows his dark gaze slid from one face to the next.
"Your brains consist of a mass of mush," he said.
This was Jens Bentsen's attempt to be funny, but no one laughed.
Everyone feared Jens Bentsen, not least because he used punishment.
Despite the fact that it had been abolished in the sixties, twenty years before we started school.
Thirty years before that, my father went to school in Germany.
His teacher's favorite book was Schwarze Pädagogik.
Pupils in his class who had not learned their grammar had to stand in front of the lectern on one leg until the period was over.
When school was over, they had to pull down their own pants before they were whipped.
Jens Bentsen ripped a fifth-grade boy's ear halfway off when I was in third grade. This boy had called one of the boys in my class Lars Diarrhea because he had once shit in his pants when asked to go up to the board and write out the three first lines of one of Steen Steensen Blicher's short stories without any spelling errors.
And Lars was dyslexic.
I believe the name of the fifth-grade boy who had his ear maimed was Tue, but Jens Bentsen did not use his name when he spoke to him. He showed no mercy to Tue despite the fact that Tue sobbed wretchedly for his disfigured, bloody ear.
"That's all for now, Van Gogh," said Jens Bentsen.
Blood was gushing down Tue's neck as he was pushed toward the door and out.Tue never again called people by anything but their real names, yet the nickname Jens Bentsen had given Tue stayed with him the rest of his time in school.
My father got the nickname Horse Teeth during his school days as well: Back then his big front teeth protruded from his mouth. Almost horizontally.
There is a period in the life of every young man during which he feels that Die Leiden des jungen Werther was written just for him.
It was Goethe who said this.
In my father's case there was not just a single period of being unhappily in love. There were many.
It was in his youth that he suffered; as he got older he became more hardened.
Unfortunately for him, the first period occurred already before he learned to read; he was six years old and completely crushed, and he didn't even have Werther to turn to in his Weltschmerz.
The girl's name was Elise.
She was eight.
She lived in the house across from the apartment complex in which my father's family lived.
Elise had long blond braids and could play Mozart on the piano; my father had stood out on the street in the dark and listened to her playing countless times while he imagined her slender fingers moving lightly across the keys.
When Elise was nearby, my father didn't dare open his mouth for fear she would see his teeth and run away screaming.
Because his heart would start racing when his beloved was in view, and because he was breathing only through his nose, his cheeks would often take on a deep red color while small drops of sweat broke out on his forehead.
"Warum schwitzt du?" she asked.
This was on a cold day, a windy day, when my father was walking home from school and Elise suddenly appeared at his side.
What my father had dreamed of for so long had suddenly happened, but my he had not been prepared for it, and the occurrence that had become the most fantastic possibility in his imagination turned out to be the most terrible because he didn't know how he could answer her question without revealing his overbite.
He felt his face flush, he felt the sweat trickling down his forehead, he felt his bangs beginning to stick to his skin.
Elise's words churned around in his brain.
If he had been able to open his mouth without worrying, he would have said he had a fever.
"Bist du schwerhörig?" she asked.
It hadn't occurred to him at all that she could wonder about this, and in a way it was almost worse than having her see his teeth. He wanted to tell her how beautifully she played, and if he said nothing she might never speak to him again.
It was now or never.
He took a deep breath and dived into it.
"Du spielst wie die Engel singen," he said.
He should never have said this, he realized this as he said it, but it was too late.
Elise had not heard a word of what he had said, but she had seen his teeth.
She stopped and looked at my father as though he were an onion whose layers she would peel off with her penetrating gaze until there was nothing left.
She walked over and stood directly in front of him.
"Deine Zähne sind hässlich," she said.
In that moment a bubble burst in my father.
A sob filled his throat like thick porridge, and he felt he was about to choke.
My father would have liked to surrender to the urge to cry, but he caught himself and decided to end his life.
Elise’s words remained in his consciousness as an echo after she had left.
He went home with his heart in his throat, and when he got to the apartment complex where he lived he threw up in the yard.
The next day he tried to hang himself in the bicycle shed; he had heard that one of the men in his building had hanged himself in the attic because his wife had left him for another man, so my father thought hanging must be the answer to his anguish.
He had found a rope in a trashcan, but when he was standing there with the rope in his hand he was suddenly in doubt as to how he should hang himself; the easiest thing would be to hang himself by the arm, he thought, and he decided to do that while he was standing on a ladder tying the rope to a ceiling beam.
A little later, while he was hanging in the air with the rope tied to his wrist, he wondered how long it would take him to die.
His arm ached, and he hoped it wouldn’t take more than an hour.
Ten minutes later the rope broke, and he fell and broke his collarbone.
In the evening my cousin climbs out of the cage in the gallery; he walks off to the restrooms to get dressed.
When he comes back, he looks most of all like one of the handsome, rail-thin models from the fashion catwalks of Milan in his tight-fitting suit.
He comes over to me with a bottle of wine and two glasses, hands me one and fills it.
Says he's glad I came.
We drink to each other's health, and my cousin tells me that he had just arrived on the train from Germany when he spotted me at the Central Station the other day.
"You said Opa was a Nazi," I say.
"Well, yes, he was one of the bad ones," my cousin replies.
"Why?" I ask.
My cousin shrugs.
"Why didn't he get denazified?" he asks.
"Denazified?" I ask.
My cousin explains that after the war all Germans over the age of eighteen were supposed to answer a questionnaire for the Military Government of Germany; the questionnaire was a form eighty-six centimeters long, printed on both sides, comprising one hundred thirty-one questions concerning each individual citizen's National Socialist past.
"A kind of absolution," my cousin says.
He rolls his eyes.
"Perverse," he says.
He says most Germans saw the process as an endpoint that marked the beginning of a collective silence with regard to the country's Nazi past.
"But Opa didn't get himself denazified?" I ask.
My cousin shakes his head and says, "If one didn't have anything to hide, wouldn't one try to get cleared?"
"How did Opa flee?" I ask.
My cousin asks whether my father has never told me.
I shake my head.
My cousin drinks the rest of his red wine and says that it was Oma who told him about this and that she asked him to treat it confidentially.
I nod and refill my cousin's glass.
My cousin says that Opa had no idea of the extent of the destruction taking place above him during the hours he spent as a captive below the earth in Berlin.
The fall of gigantic buildings.
Mountains of bricks and burned beams and bodies.
Dust everywhere in the ravaged streets.
The fire and the smoke and the stench of sulphur.
Nevertheless he had a strong feeling that the war had already been lost.
He no longer knew what time of day it was, he feared that he was losing his sanity, and fear kept him awake constantly, so he had to dream and re-experience his nightmare with his eyes open.
Some of the horrible pictures that haunted him were pictures of naked, starved, mistreated bodies, caged like beasts; these were the bodies of those he had previously not seen as human beings at all but as animals, pests, vermin, insects, as dirt, as filth, as despicable, which must be exterminated at any price so that everything good and beautiful and strong in the Third Reich could become even better, even more beautiful, and even stronger.
The problem now was that he had begun to see the faces in his mind.
All the hollow-cheeked, emptily staring faces now suddenly turned toward him; perhaps they had arisen from their mass graves as staring ghosts, or perhaps they were really in the cellar together with him. He no longer knew what to think, but he knew they were watching him constantly, day and night. He knew that they saw everything and that nothing he said or did, nothing he tried to convince them of or order them to do could get them to stop looking.
He felt weak, powerless; he no longer felt superhumanly strong but at most just human.
He no longer felt hate, but he felt something else he had never felt before, something that to him was much more frightening and terrible than hate.
For the first and last time in his life, Opa experienced what it meant to feel empathy.
He experienced the feeling as an inner crack, almost a wound, that slowly, painfully, and mercilessly opened in him, a crack he never would have thought possible, a crack in what for the entirety of his adult life had appeared to be an impenetrably true ideology: Nazism.
Opa sat and looked into the pitch black of the cellar and was forced to remain seated.
He drew quick, rasping breaths.
His nostrils flared.
Was he crying?
Or was it just the cellar's stink of shit and piss and old blood that made his nostrils quiver?
It was at this point that it occurred to him that he would have to attempt to flee. This thought had not occurred to him previously; his only wish had been to die a quick, painless death now that he had fallen into the hands of the enemy.
But now it was clear to him that he had to get out, had to get home, had to find Oma again, regardless of whether she was dead or alive.
He had to find out whether she had stayed in Berlin, and above all he had to find out whether she had given birth.
After he had rappelled down from the restroom window, Opa stood for a few moments and felt the firm ground under his feet while he stared out over the bombed-out city.
He was overwhelmed by his newly-won freedom and felt an urge to thank someone for it.
Opa turned his face upward and for some moments considered the possibility that the old man up there somewhere behind the clouds, the man in whom he had otherwise never believed, perhaps really existed and wanted the best for Opa.
In his most desperate and sentimental moment, Opa promised himself that he would find his family and make them the happiest family in all of Germany.
If Opa had been able to hold on to this feeling, my father and his siblings would have had a much less traumatic childhood.
When Opa heard the bloodhounds barking and instinctively wanted to begin his flight, his legs would not move at first.
They trembled every time Opa took a step, and he nearly fell over.
It was early in the morning, and the street was quiet apart from the sounds coming from inside the hotel.
Through the open window the soldier's pounding could be heard.
Opa clenched his teeth.
He forced his legs to start moving, clenched his teeth against the pain, and began to run.
At the end of the street lay an U-Bahn shaft into which he ran. The shaft had been transformed into a hospital and stank of feces and coagulated blood; Opa could not see where he was.
The sign that would have shown which underground station was located there had been bombed away.
On the stairs leading down into the shaft lay a body dressed in civilian clothing. Hastily, Opa tore the clothes off the body; he barely managed to put the clothes on before he heard the dogs barking up on the street.
For hours Opa ran along the tracks in the underground tunnel system; he ran for his life until he felt convinced that he had shaken his pursuers off.
He slowed down and started walking while he gasped for breath and cursed the war.
He thought of Oma, of the last letter he had received from her, in which she had written that it would not be long before she gave birth.
He had received it in the mail at his office in the town of Łęczyca just before he fled; he had not had time to answer.
He had no idea where Oma was now.
"Łęczyca?" I ask.
My cousin lights a cigarette and says that it was the town in Poland in which Opa's office was located.
He was the commander-in-chief.
"Opa was an Obersturmbannführer," he says.
"What does that mean?" I ask.
My cousin says it corresponds to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Danish armed forces.
He says Opa was assigned this rank because he was such a good organizer.
"What did he do?" I ask.
"He replaced human beings."
"What do you mean?"
"Jews with Germans."
"How?" I ask.
"Opa sent the Jews to Chelmno," says my cousin.
He blows smoke across the table.
"Mhm," I mumble.
I'm suddenly not sure I want to hear more.