In memory of Max Blatt, b. February 1907, Lubaczowa – d. October 1981, Melbourne
1. History and fiction
It was 11 November 1918, the day the First World War ended. The city of Breslau was the second most populous city in the defeated German empire, a city soon to be proclaimed the capital of the Prussian province of Lower Silesia in the Weimar Republic; and, from November 1918 until 1945, a politically volatile frontier city between Poland and Germany, eventually to become once again the Polish city of Wroclaw. This was Max Blatt’s boyhood home town.
I make no claim for the historical truth of the fragment that follows, but it is possible, for Europe is full of bits of old paper, that there is a document somewhere recording this brief encounter between my old friend and mentor Max Blatt and Rosa Luxemburg. Nothing official in one of the great archives, to be sure, but a letter to a friend, perhaps, or a postcard, a note tucked away in a shoebox under the stairs. Unknown and forgotten. Stored with the trivial memorabilia of the dead. A document of no significance in the great scheme of history that was unfolding that day for Europe, a day indeed on which our so-called civilisation of the West still pivots unsteadily.
That other piece of paper that does exist, cherished in a great archive, the piece of paper declaring the cessation of hostilities in the First World War, was famously signed in France at eleven o’clock that same Saturday morning. It was only later that day, or possibly even the following day, that the working people of Breslau heard the news of the Kaiser’s humiliation and the empire’s defeat and capitulation. Most went to work as usual that Saturday morning, or stayed home, or did the washing, or the shopping, or just slept in. There was no school on Saturdays. It was a day on which Max was accustomed to help his father sew the fancy stitching on boots and shoes in the front room of their apartment at 14 Fischergasse. But on this day he was permitted to take time off from helping his father to visit a school friend who was unwell. This was an unusual freedom for Max.
2. A letter
You are silent these days on this subject, so let me remind you of some of the details. The number 21 tram came along and you got on. You were 11 years of age. At this time of day the number 21 tram was always crowded with workers. You stood near the door holding the cold brass rail. You were without gloves. A tall woman was looking at you. She was some years older than your mother. The woman gave you a small smile when your eyes met. She looked tired and was very pale, but you saw her at once as interesting and kindly. Not beautiful, but confident and possibly a person of authority. She stood out among the drab familiar crowd of working men. You had never seen her before. She was warmly dressed against the November chill in an overcoat with a fur collar and was wearing a hat, a russet scarf at her throat. She was not a worker. You were too shy to return her smile and you looked away, abashed. You wanted to look at her again, to meet her eyes and to see her smile, but you didn’t dare. She got off the tram at Wachtplatz, two stops from where you’d got on. You watched her walk away. She was carrying a black leather briefcase, like a man’s. You turned so that you could keep watching her until the tram turned into Friederich-Wilhelmstrasse and you lost sight of her.
On the tram coming home from your friend’s place later that day you saw a crowd of people in the square. The square, Wachtplatz, was dominated by the great brick edifice of the cigarette factory. The crowd was being addressed on the island opposite the cigarette factory by a speaker who was standing on a box. A man was standing behind the speaker and a little to one side, as if he was there to look after her in case of trouble. You saw at once that the speaker was the woman who had smiled at you that morning. When the tram stopped you got off. You crossed the road and stood at the back of the crowd. You wanted the woman to notice you, but at the same time you were afraid she would notice you. She was explaining to the crowd that she had been released three days earlier from the strict regime of Breslau’s Kletschkau Prison, to which she had been transferred from what she called her easy life at Wronki Prison, to serve out the last four months of her term.
Her tone in speaking of her time in the two prisons was ironic, her manner, despite her worn appearance, cheerful and amused. Almost as if she was speaking of having returned to Breslau from a holiday in the sun at Wronki. She was telling the crowd that she had been imprisoned for doing exactly what she was doing now, here, in Wachtplatz, addressing a public assembly without a permit from the authorities. People laughed and clapped and one or two called out words of encouragement to her. Two policemen, who were standing on the footpath outside the cigarette factory, keeping the crowd from encroaching on the tram tracks, looked at each other and smiled. The atmosphere among the people in the square was carefree and relaxed. You asked the man next to you who the woman was. The man turned and looked down at you. ‘Why, that’s our Rosa Luxemburg,’ he said. ‘You’ll not see another like her.’
She wasn’t lecturing the crowd, she wasn’t talking about having a correct attitude to politics or war or social idealism or revolution, but was telling the people that even in prison they could be free in their minds as she had been. She seemed to be confiding this information, as if she knew personally each of the people standing in front of her listening to her. They might have been her friends, people who would understand and appreciate her meaning at once. ‘A robin’, she said, the recollection brightening her expression, ‘landed on the wall right behind me and sang me a little song.’
You were captivated by her and longed to become one of her trusted friends. You wanted to be trusted by her, just the way you found yourself trusting in her. In a strange way that you did not understand, you felt that you had known this woman for a long time and had even been waiting for this moment to meet her. You decided to get on the tram with her when she left the meeting in the square, so you stayed until the end. But she didn’t get on the tram. She went to a parked car with the man who had stood behind her. You watched them drive away towards Stadtgraban, where the car turned left towards the river and Königs Brücke. And that is where you lost sight of them.
From time to time you took the number 21 tram in the morning after that, but you never saw her again. Then a year later you recognised her picture on the newsstand in Wachtplatz and read that she had been murdered in Berlin.
Although in the years that followed you were to witness, and were yourself to become the victim of, what our friend Olek calls ‘the catastrophic confrontation of your utopia and idealism with the mill of the twentieth century, the mill smashing people, ideas and dreams’, it was the brutal murder of this woman who had smiled at you on the number 21 tram that morning when you were a boy of 11 that remained in your heart as a place of eternal mourning. And in your resistance to the totalitarianisms of those times, you strove to behave in a manner that you believed Rosa would have approved of. As a boy of 11, in her smile you understood your potential as a man to have been acknowledged. And eventually it was her idealism that became your own. You believed in that. There was or you identified a private bond in it, a kind of secret oath known only to yourself, an oath unspoken but sacred.
It was the kind of thing we can’t but believe in. Which is why such a belief remains our secret. We can’t explain it. It is as if it has been implanted in us by a force outside ourselves. It is an irrational conviction. We don’t want to admit it to our comrades. For we and they are rational people and have outwardly sworn allegiance to one form or another of dialectical materialism. We believe in the Enlightenment. We are not ruled by superstition.
But the faith lies in us till our end—as if a small child has been placed into our care and we cannot deny it without denying our own humanity. And wasn’t it this that Rosa gifted to you in Wachtplatz on that portentous Saturday? Not her theories, but the humanity of her longing, the melancholy of the little robin that came to sing to her in the window of her prison cell. Wasn’t it your love for that woman that survived your disillusionment with the human project, as you called it? Broken, you said, by the Gestapo in that same prison in Breslau where she had lain. But I saw in you the hope she had given you. You never could deny that hope. God knows, Max, you invested that hope in me. It was your consolation. And that is what I saw in you, what inspired me and made me love you, and what has made me believe in you and be guided by your memory and your example all these years. •