Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 196: Vincent Sheean, Aufenthalt in Rosenheim (#200)

Vincent Sheean, "Aufenthalt in Rosenheim" (1938) from Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1938–1944:

To go along with their series on the American Civil War--The Civil War: The First/Second/Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It--the LoA has two volumes on World War II reporting. As with the Civil War memories, there's something interesting about stripping out our post-hoc knowledge of the events and wondering what it looked like to those living through it.

So here, while delayed ("Aufenthalt") in Rosenheim, Vincent Sheean observed the demonstrations of anti-Semitism in this city of 21,000 people (if I'm reading this correctly). As he says, his guidebook points out the architectural style of the place--oriel windows and arcaded footwalks--but the anti-Semitic bulletin boards seem just as common. To me, this is the central metaphor and problem for Sheean: how can a country's ideological architecture, built over centuries, be so added to or overwritten by this Nazi anti-Semitism?

Now, today, if you were to write about anti-Semitism in the ramp up to World War II, you'd talk about the endpoint (Holocaust), the outbursts of violence (Kristallnacht, etc.), the creep of racial discrimination into schools and society (the Nuremberg Laws, etc.).

What you probably wouldn't think of is what Sheean notices: a bulletin board with pictures of Germans who "bought from Jews"; a list of Jewish businesses (almost half of them crossed out); photos of conspiring Jews--Einstein, Fiorello La Guardia ("The Half-Jew Mayor of the Jewish World Metropolis"). Only at the end of this description do we see that this bulletin board includes a reference to the Nuremberg Laws.

The second half of this piece is Sheean's attempt to puzzle out "How, actually, can such things be?" How have the Germans fooled themselves into thinking the Fuhrer doesn't want war? How have they been convinced to behave like "gangster children"? Sheean falls back on an idea of Bernard von Bülow, that the Germans are immature politically, partly because the nation-state form was so late coming to Germany. And he ends with a hope that, after this madness passes--"when the torture of the coming years is over"--Germany's valuable contributions will go on.

Which gives the story a strange dissonance, since that opening about anti-Semitism is never returned to explicitly. And while we can see Sheean as thinking pretty clearly about the future--"the torture of the coming years" shows that he knows that things are going to get worse before they get better and that war is probably coming--there's no idea here that these anti-Semitic bulletin boards are leading to the camps.

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