From Tanga, a Girl from Hamburg

Arnost Lustig

Translated from
Czech by Marci Shore

Translator’s Preface

Tanga, Dívka z Hamburku (Tanga,
a Girl from Hamburg
) is one of many works––including
Dita Saxova, The Unloved, and A Prayer for Katerina
Horovitzova
––by Arnošt Lustig set during the
Second World War and its immediate aftermath. Lustig, himself
from Prague, is a survivor of Terezín (Theresienstadt)
and Auschwitz, and Tanga in many ways reflects larger
aesthetic traditions of both Czech and East-Central European literature.
The text is without disciplinary boundaries. History, literature,
and philosophy blend seamlessly, and ultimately storytelling is
inextricably intertwined with broader existential reflections
on human values and the meaning of love and sensuality in a time
of horror.

The novel takes place in 1943 at the prison
in the Terezín ghetto. There the narrator, a sixteen-year-old
boy at the time, meets the twenty-year-old Tanga, a circus artist
and prostitute. Tanga is not the “prostitute with a good
heart” of American film and literature; rather she emerges
as a philosopher-prostitute figure––saucy and composed,
sensual and defiant. Throughout their encounters, corruption and
innocence, love and brutality, sex and war are yoked together,
and this drastic yoking of antitheses is itself among the book’s
most poignant themes. It is a story of coming of age and of death,
and most powerfully a story of the human potential to find the
beautiful in the awful.

At the essence of the book is the way Lustig
plays with the Czech word kurva––a pejorative
term meaning whore. (This expression appears also in
Russian as kurva, in Polish as kurwa, and in
Yiddish as kurve and has its roots in the Slavic for
chicken.) The word has a distinctly vulgar connotation
in Czech––the kind of word one is not supposed to use––and
part of the power of the text derives from the way in which this
word itself is transformed and transcended by its invocation almost
as a refrain. The effect is a paradoxical idealization of Tanga
as a prostitute: Tanga is a whore even as she comes to embody
all that is beautiful and noble, all that is redemptive in the
midst of horror. She has the power of redemption not only in spite
of who she is, but also because of who she is.

The narration is retrospective, and the reflective
voice of the adult narrator is juxtaposed with the dialogue of
his former, sixteen-year-old self. Time collapses and at times
diverges again as these two voices move closer together and farther
apart. The language Tanga and the narrator speak is at once philosophical
and colloquial, colored characteristically by the use of diminutives.
Czech tends to be a hyper-diminutized language. Not only personal
names, but also other nouns and even adjectives have diminutive
forms, and often in more than one degree. For example, the narrator
speaks of his attachment to a certain písnicka
(the diminutive from the word písen meaning “song”)
the Germans were playing (translated here simply as “song”);
and Tanga tells him, “Horses don’t commit suicide, hosícku.”
The latter word is the vocative diminutive from the colloquial
hosa, meaning “boy” (or “bloke” in
British English), translated here as “baby” (although
perhaps more literally rendered as “little boy” or “my
little boy”). English modifiers such as “little”
or “cute” often fail to capture the subtlety and nuance
effected by diminutives in Czech; and in this sense, among others,
there is never transparency in translation.

The excerpt that follows is comprised of two
short sections taken from the end of the novel. Tanga and the
narrator have just spent their first night together. It is also
their last, as Tanga has been summoned to the next transport to
the East––that is, to Auschwitz.

• •

She stood the candle on an upsidedown glass on
the windowbeam and looked at me. “Who knows how many horses
they’ve already killed.”

“They prefer killing people to horses,”
I said carelessly.

“I hope that before they kill my horses a
couple of people will break their necks on them. My little mare
was still a virgin. She was fast and slender and beautiful like
an Arabian princess. I can imagine how the Bedouins would care for
her––like a colt in a tent with carpets covering the ground,
they would feed her on camel’s milk. I gave her a name: Dancer
from the South. I started teaching her to wear a halter from her
first month.”

All at once Tanga looked as if she were preparing
for a trip around the world to see where and what kind of horses
were galivanting about. Or did she look as if she were setting out
on a trip around the moon? She was looking at the stars. Something
radiated from her, something that people around her did not understand.
She was a woman capable of giving more when she could decide that
for herself. Only she knew all that she would prove able to give
away. She knew more about the essence of a woman and the essence
of a man than I had ever heard from anyone before that time or afterwards.
She felt what those people feel who are endowed with everything
that makes a person from an animal and everything that returns him
to an animal.

The stars seemed white. They were playing The March of Emperor
Franz Joseph
in the German officers’ dining hall behind
the wooden enclosure in the park. Whenever the doors opened, music
and the voices of the officers entertaining themselves burst out.
Then the night turned black again.

“They’ve already lost almost a hundred divisions,”
I said.

“Do you know what a major of the Wehrmacht once said to me?
That I have animal magnetism.” She laughed for a long time
and cracked her knuckles. There were echoes of perhaps seven crackings.
Maybe in her mind that wild and pleasant night, the afternoon, a
piece of the morning returned to her. A man in a beautiful draped
coat with buttons sewn on tightly and the military colors of a Wehrmacht
officer. “It’s no longer even true,” she said.

She treated me as her equal. That last night next to Tanga I had
the impression that I grasped better what it was that comes to pass
among people, why they were the way they were, where the sense of
things was lost and where it reappeared. For Ervín Adler,
Tanga was a whore from beginning to end, and in this opinion he
was not alone. What was the difference between such a tramp and
a bitch sniffed by all the dogs on the block? In Adler’s mind
I was the kind of person who, if she were to want him to, would
let her spit into his mouth (if not something still worse).

From the officers’ dining hall came the playing of a bugle.
It occurred to me then that at this moment perhaps Tanga, too, could
see herself with the local German officers, who in her mind may
have been many things, but they were not cowards.

She knew they could fight, even if they had lost a hundred divisions.
And perhaps it would have taken only a little more for her to be
dancing and singing among them. Maybe she was even a little envious
of the Czech girls for what they could offer the German submarine
sailors, returning from the darkness of foreign seas and slaughter.
She knew a few Czech girls, singers and dancers, who offered amusement
and rejuvenation to German sailors after long, water-bound abstentions.
They didn’t even need to trouble themselves with translating
from one language to another when they quickly managed to learn
the most important words in German. In connection with this she
didn’t use the word “fate” or “fortune,”
although both were contained in what she said. In the flame of the
candle, which was growing smaller, I saw that she was thinking of
people who had forgotten her, as she had forgotten them. Did she
want to imagine their lost faces, among them those of her mother
and father, her cousins, the former girls from the cabaret? She
was a Jewess on her mother’s side, an Aryan on her father’s,
like Luster Liebling, Mischling des Ersten Grades.(1) Let
them do whatever the hell they wanted with that.

“Do you remember last September when there was that glow during
the night?” she asked.

“People said that something exploded on the sun.”

“Afterwards there was the transport.”

In her eyes there flashed an uncertain memory and at the same time
the strength to overcome it. I made a wish for her––that
she would meet a horse in the East. Or that in her next life, which
she believed in like she believed in the devil, she would become
a horse. In her eyes there was the flicker of the candle, light
and the longing to stroke a silken back and moist lips, to breathe
in the honeyed scent of a horse’s breath and perspiration.

Midnight was approaching. In a short time the officers’ hall
would become quiet. The officers and their guests would go to sleep
so that in the morning the officers could wake up fresh for the
transport.

Midnight passed. Adler could laugh hysterically at the wisdom or
superstitiousness of whores. Or write them off as being all alike.
Or laugh at the idea, which someone still believed, that hell was
in volcanoes, from which fire whipped and yellow lava spewed. Tanga
began to sing to herself ––perhaps she missed the singing
coming from the dining hall. She knew the hits of Peter Kreuder’s
orchestra––a couple of which I had learned as well from
Schilling: “Deine Rosen die blühen.” . . . They always
ended with “Lilli Marlene.”(2)

I could think what I wanted about them––as
people, perhaps until the end of time, as long as the world is the
world, will think––but this song attached itself to my
heart. No one could say anything to me against it. It didn’t
matter to Tanga, either, that the Nazis were singing it.

“Behind the beam here, in tar
paper, I left a rolled thousand-mark bill,” Tanga said. The
candle grew still smaller and the wick lengthened so that the candle
burned more quickly. “I want you to know.”

“Take it with you.”

“I’ll keep it here in case I come back. After the war
I could buy a horse.”

“A thousand marks could be useful to you anywhere.”

“I’ll leave it here as a talisman. For a horse.”
She smiled. “As my mother used to say: Nichts zu haben
ist ein leichtes Leben
. Having nothing is an easy livelihood.”

Then she smiled again. “In the caravan Brüller had a saying:
You can take my advice, I no longer need it.”

Perhaps she believed that the most valuable thing she left here
would bring her back again. She must have known that those who remained
behind would search every spot of ground on the chance they should
find even a small piece of forgotten food. And afterwards, the people
who came here would search even more thoroughly until there would
no longer be anyone left here. For a lot of people this would be
a new gold rush. Who knows what Tanga might have left behind in
Hamburg?

“I could sign up to go with you voluntarily,” I offered.
“They’re always missing someone to fill the count and
have one of their own people who would be glad to stay.”

I don’t know if she had been waiting for me to say this (or
if just for that reason she had told me that snakes always travel
in pairs), or if I offered too late. She never would have said that
she was giving something without getting anything in return, or
to what kind of boundaries her giving extended. She smiled at me
from very close. I saw myself in her pupils. The candle was now
so small that the dripping wax covered the outside of the glass.
The shadows lengthened. It grew dark.

“Horses don’t commit suicide, baby,” Tanga said,
and afterwards: “Do you know that a horse is capable of a love
that some people don’t even dream about? It’s a love for
himself, too, but he doesn’t want to be alone.”

     • •

“You and I,” I said.

“You and I,” she repeated.

In the west it was still dark. A pale silver spread from the east.
At four it began to get light, and the stars faded. Tanga had prepared
her dress for the trip the night before. She had bought it in Hamburg
at a flea market for fifty marks. It was black, with imitation Venetian
gold coins and a string of beads, the kind that hang from the saddles
of camels or Arabian horses. Likely the question of whose dress
it had been before didn’t interest her. The dress smelled of
naphthalene, of faded perfumes. It was crocheted from a black silk
thread, like lace, with a black waist petticoat, and made a rustling
sound that was no longer provocative.

She was looking at the dress. There was something different about
her. A hope for something flashed in her eyes, a hope that hadn’t
been there before. I imagined her, walking away in her high heels,
her figure gently curved. But I saw the past as well and tried to
smuggle it into her future, for myself. She spoke less than she
had in the evening. Listening to me, she nodded uncertainly. She
was immersed in her own thoughts. In her eyes there was distress,
something older people have in their glance when they’re reflecting
back on their youth, on happiness, and on the days when they had
once felt joy to be alive.

“I have to dress for my next life,” she said.

“You have pretty blue eyes,” I said.

“You won’t forget me?”

“How could you think that?”

“I’m not yet so old. And I wouldn’t want to be either,
as everyone will have forgotten me. You’ll only be one among
many. The last in line.”

“You’re not so awful, either,” I said. “No one
will forget you.”

“We all need to forget. Do you know what love would do to you
if you weren’t able to forget?”

“Why should I forget?”

“Why don’t you ask why you shouldn’t?” She smiled.
“It’s only one of the many things you must or must not
do. One of the many yeses and noes out of which our lives are woven.
What we go towards and what we run away from. The faithfulness of
the unfaithful and the unfaithfulness of the faithful. You wouldn’t
suspect how deeply this has settled into me. The good and the bad.
The possible and the impossible. Reason and madness. Sometimes I’m
afraid to remember, just like I’m afraid to forget. But fortunately
nothing lasts forever. Take it lightly.”

“You’re the smartest woman I’ve ever been close to.”

“You lie almost like a rabbi.” She didn’t stop laughing,
although a bit nervously.

“I heard that horses will find their way safely home, even
if you take them one thousand kilometers away by train or car.”

“It’s true. The only time a horse won’t find his
way home is when he’s mentally ill.”

“How can you tell that?”

“When he stands all day with his legs crossed, for example.”
She pulled on black stockings. Then lingerie. She had cute, evenly
proportioned buttocks, that kind of womanly symmetry men find appealing.
For some reason she smelled like cinnamon. Or an old perfume that
her lingerie had absorbed. In an instructive way, by memory, she
fastened the hooks of her brassiere on her back. She took down the
dress from where it was hanging. Maybe in that dress she was still
riding in the circus ring, with a belt beaded of gold sequins, reminiscent
of the five points of a star turned inside out or the little bells
on a decorated saddle.

Tanga was gazing into the receding darkness in the west, into the
mountains still hidden by the night fog, older than water and stone
and fish and birds and older than time. Suddenly she had the most
expressive eyes. Fatigue after a sleepless night. The endlessness
of possibilities, which would not end until the last of them was
lost in her.

“It’s going to be morning,” I said.

She yawned. “Yeah.”

“Fortunately it doesn’t look like rain. I hope it won’t
be windy.”

“We also have to know when to stop,” she said. “Shouldn’t
one stop with the best?”

“Perhaps that no longer applies. And not because of me.”

“A horse knows when his performance is ending. He doesn’t
know the past or the future. In that respect he’s better off
than people are. Maybe where I’m going they’ll be selling
good circus horses.”

Her voice was stronger than it had been at night; it sounded as
it had in the evening. She laughed again, like a man. In that sound
was contained the night, the days that had come before, all the
days and nights of all her twenty years and the hundreds or thousands
of years which, during a night or a few moments, every woman passes
through. In spite of that, or just for that reason, she appeared
as if everything were finally in its place. In her eyes new words,
new speech, ceased to gather.

“In Poland they must have horses with pedigrees.”

“Sometimes an exotic head is important. I would buy him on
the spot.” She laughed her long, inexplicable laughter. “For
the time being I don’t need to worry about making money. I
can always sell my body, right? Although it occurs to me: whose
body is more valuable?”

“Yours,” I said immediately.

“You’re even more foolish than I am. That could be dangerous
for both of us. I’m glad to be going finally. No one has to
go twice.”

She grew old even before she pulled the dress over her head. She
fastened the buttons starting from the bottom. She was no longer
looking toward the mountains. Perhaps in her mind she saw the devil.
He was in her shadow, in my shadow. In the darkness that was receding.
In the way she showed her teeth when she smiled; in the way I answered
her with the same, short smile. In the way it grew light, even though
it was still impossible to see the shadows; in the railway tracks
to the east; in the hills, which––by the time morning
came––she would no longer see, because she would be far
away. She fastened the last button around her neck. She slipped
on tall riding boots. I didn’t tell her while she was dressing
how often I would think of her. She was no longer sitting up. Perhaps
she felt sick. Everything that made her a prostitute had melted
away. She no longer needed it. She was thinking about what the elderly
think about before they die, about how long it would last. Or she
was thinking about nothing. She was beautiful and indifferent and
dignified.

I helped Tanga with her suitcase to the front of the Hamburg barracks,
to the other side where people were embarking. By the bakery on
the way there we met her friend, Harry from Amsterdam, who became
famous at the Firemen’s house with an imitation of a coloratura
soprano and the hit “Für Jugentliche verboten.” .
. . After all, that’s no ideal. . . .(3) The mountains were
already clear of mist. We heard the clinking of trains. The locomotive
drawing its breath. The shunters creeping under the wagons. They
were preparing the train, fifty closed cattle cars for five thousand
people. Eventually they attached the locomotive. I gave Tanga her
suitcase, and she took it with firm hands. She seemed to me beautiful,
wise, and unaffected. She didn’t feel wounded or repentant.
She did not cry.

Tanga, Sona Grossová, already nameless because in that moment
she became a number, on the transport list and on the piece of cardboard
on a string around her neck, walked away standing tall, as if she
were entering the circus ring. She no longer had a rash. She was
pale to the point of whiteness, almost transparent. She did not
turn around, because she believed that it brought bad luck, as did
returning. All of her things had gone into one piece of luggage,
on the side and top of which she had sketched the number 63 in lime.
She raised her head and began taking longer steps. I walked alongside
her for a few meters. She still looked as if she were setting out
on a trip around the world.

“Adieu,” she said like the French do when they’re
saying goodbye, most often when someone has died.

“We stole one night from them,” I said.

“Yes, we did,” she answered.

“So until next time,” I said.

“You have sad eyes,” she said.

“Sad eyes?”

“Love has sad eyes.”

Kepler, the camp overseer, just like Ervín Adler, declared
that Tanga, Sona Grossová, was merely a whore, branded from
top to bottom. Die schwartze Lorelei.(4) She made her living
with her legs, surviving on margarine and sugar. The question of
whether she had the right, as she believed, to do with her own body
what she wanted, or to refuse to let anyone do to her what she didn’t
want, lingered in the air after her without an answer. Anyone who
had nothing didn’t interest her, the overseer determined. Like
an obliging woman she adapted to the rhythms of others. If she found
it amusing to feign love and passion like a lover, for a night,
an hour or a minute, for very little or a lot or as a gift, for
nothing, that was her own affair. It made the overseer laugh that
she took along her myrtle green bathing suit. Maybe she would have
the chance to show off in that in Poland? What did she expect in
the East, a spa? In June 1943, when they imprisoned her in the local
prison in Terezín, the overseer suspected Tanga of having
stolen his vulcanized fiber suitcase, before she proved to him that
it was hers. (She had bought it in Hamburg in January 1939 for her
sixteenth birthday in a shop on the old street where the rope-makers
worked, in the Saint Paul red-light district, between the brewery
and the police station, opposite the street walkers who beckoned
and waved and with a smile and a pretty dress invited customers
behind the large windows of low houses. They were like live, adult-sized
toys of all shapes––with their brooches and gold tinsel
and sometimes with an eagerness that all but discouraged.) On top
of lingerie in a pocket on the side of her suitcase she still had
a bill with her name and Hamburg address. According to the overseer,
Kepler, she only knew about horses because her father had fed them.
She used to bring him hay, and after the quack and the horse-trainer
at the circus raped her, she ran away from home. She knew what people
said about her. Perhaps she even found it a bit flattering. In some
ways we were similar. She didn’t want to be like the prison
guard and the overseer and the people who prayed that the next twenty-five
years would go by as quickly as possible because they had nothing
to miss. When on June 11, 1943, I began my sentence with Adler,
the overseer confiscated a book from me that Vili Feld had loaned
me in Terezín: Van de Velde, The Perfect Marriage,
instructions from a Catholic gynecologist on how to rid married
life of boredom, not to mention other difficulties of a shared life.(5)
(With a citation by a different scholar, who claimed that prostitution
began only with the appearance of marriage. As long as everyone
could sleep with everyone else, whores were nonexistent.)

For that reason I felt no sympathy
for Kepler when in September 1943 he went to the East with the next
transport, together with his young wife and three-month-old child.
And even later, after we had all gone to the East, I didn’t
regret that he had gone up in the chimney. Did it seem to me that
he deserved it? It took me years before I could forgive him.

 

(1) Mischling
des Ersten Grades means “a person of mixed race of the first
degree” or “a first-grade human mutt.” The German
term
Mischling usually refers to dogs, but in the Nazi era
was also used in reference to “non-pure” persons. Here
it is a sarcastic allusion to Nazi racial categorization.

(2) Deine
Rosen die blühen refers to a German song titled “Your
Roses Are Blooming” (most likely with sexual implications).
“Lilli Marlene” was a major Weimar-era hit about a girl
waiting for her man at night under a street lantern “by the
barracks gate.”A film was later made under the same title,
in which this song features prominently.

(3) The German
title should be spelled
Für Jugendliche verboten and
means “Not for youngsters” in the sense of being forbidden
to those underage.

(4) Die
schwartze Lorelei means “a black Lorelei.” The latter
word refers to a woman depicted in a fairy tale who represents metaphorically
female seduction. Past Bonn on the shore of the Rhine there is a
rock called the Lorelei rock. According to folklore, a woman appears
on the rock and sings, so causing the enchanted fishermen to lose
their concentration and crash their boats on the rocks, consequently
drowning. Lorelei, hence, implies a dangerous seductress, and a
black Lorelei implies a dangerous, non-Aryan seductress.
Schwartze
is actually a nineteenth-century spelling; the modern spelling would
be
schwarze Lorelei.

(5) The English
reference is Theodoor H. van de Velde,

The Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique, translated
by Stella Browne (New York: Random House, 1967).

 

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