It is the hat that is particularly sad. It is shapeless. The brim saucers your face and the scarf wound around the crown is so wide and nondescript. It is the hat of a middle-aged woman – you are in your mid-twenties when this photograph is taken – the hat of a woman whose relationship to clothes is utilitarian. The kind of woman for whom being underdressed on a winter’s night is more than idle neglect; it is a deficiency of character, a sign of moral loucheness. And that is not you. You are a young woman who has been known to come home at seven in the morning having spent the entire night dancing the tango. And then changed your blouse, fixed your lipstick, and headed back out to work in the offices of the Carl Lindstrom Company, manufacturer of gramophones and Parlographs.
The hat frames your face badly. It turns it into a white canvas with rudimentary features. I wonder is it the shame of wearing such a hat that makes your smile in the photograph so non-committal? Or is it being forced to pose for a camera? To focus and still yourself when you are so used to moving? And your Jewish eyes. Old wounds not healed, new ones opening. An ancient mistrust. The man who requested this photograph, who wants you to include it in one of the hundreds of letters you will send him over a period of five years, described you when he met you on that humid night in Prague – the 13th August 1912 – to be precise, as having a ‘Bony, empty face that wore its emptiness only’. Or is that just how he sees you – as we all see you – as something blank to be written on?
What is it that you do not want the camera to see? Your commercial school training that had to be cut short when you couldn’t pay the fees. Your job as a secretary. That ridiculous flicker book you made to illustrate the workings of the Parlograph. Or is it your father’s abandonment of the family to live with his mistress when you were fourteen. You took the tram when you were sent across town to get money from him. The juddering motion of the tram making you conscious, for the first time, of men around you. The tight lips of your mother when you arrived back with your cheeks flushed from the cold air on Fredrichstrasse. Or is it your father’s return home after his mistress died, his absence of three years spliced out of family history, never to be mentioned again?
Your family – the Bauers – are a respectable Jewish family from Upper Silesia now settled in Berlin. All shipshape and above board when that man, the one you corresponded with for five years, commissioned an investigation into your family by a private detective. Your father, Carl – a moderately successful salesman of women’s corsets – and mother, Anna – daughter of a dyer. Children: Elsa, Ferdinand (Ferri), Erna, Felice (you) and Antonie (Toni). No mention in the report of father’s three-year dalliance, sister Erna’s illegitimate child, Ferri’s light-fingered ways. Documentation of life is not life. But you always knew that.
What you loved most were dark mornings, hot tea in your cold hands, black bread, the clack of your shoes on the empty pavement, the journey across the city to work, your brain whirring through to-do lists with gusto. The small satisfactions of achievement and well-earned rewards—dancing the tango, a new jumper, a cake from the Café Muller at lunchtime, office gossip, planning for holidays – even your mother unable to find fault.
All it took was one misstep – 13th August 1912.
Dinner in the house of distant relations in Prague. On your way to a wedding. And all your life, before and after, compressed into a myth-sized shell in which you become paper, blank white, perfect to write on. Skin like parchment, stretching from your long face to your wide neck. Everything about you so plain, so ready to take ink.
Afterwards you marry. You have two children. You leave Germany and go to America. You run a store selling knitting ware. You bury your husband. And then, when you need money, you take a ladder from the yard and climb up to the attic in search of an old tan suitcase, cracked here and there, worn to cardboard at the corners. You pull the case down. The lock is stiff and rusted but snaps open when you press it. Inside are over five hundred letters. The first is dated September 20, 1912, and the last was written on October 16, 1917. You have kept these letters for nearly forty years, slightly soft and musty smelling now, lugging them across continents, when so much else had to be thrown away. The letters you wrote in response were destroyed years ago.
Sitting on the cold linoleum floor in the kitchen, you leaf through them one last time. First bored, then irritated, but finally shocked into the kind of emotion that the woman in your photograph was never meant to have:
You are at once both the quiet and confusion of my heart; imagine my heartbeat when you are in this state.
A brief rip in the outer fabric of self that tears red right to the centre of a gene that has not been lost in pogroms and plagues, but repressed for thousands of years until now, in one moment, it is activated.
And then you lock the suitcase and pick up the receiver of the Bakelite phone and dial the number scribbled in the margins of a 1955 picture calendar hanging on the wall and, to your surprise, you get straight through to Schocken Publishers in New York. You tell them you are ready to sell the letters. The man who wrote them has been dead for thirty years. You can still recall his pale hands and tall, thin gait, but a precise image of his face evades you, has always evaded you.
The last photograph I see of you is an imaginary one. In it you shuffle slowly along the street, past flashing traffic and the odour from diners, past laundromats and drug stores, an old Jewish woman in a brown coat, wearing flat-heeled boots and a misshapen hat. The film in the Kodak camera is colour, but you are still in monochrome. No one passing by – the student on his bike, the businessman in a hurry, the young secretary in twin set and nylons – registers you. But it is hats, such as the misshapen one you are wearing, that understand the future. Such hats that have no affectations, no ornaments to lose, no signals of self beyond the self, no pride to cloud reality; it is such hats that can smell burning in fresh spring air, that are unafraid to taste hate.