The Wedding Present

As a young woman, I had a friendly correspondence with a German soldier right after World War II. I’ve been thinking about the silence at the core of our exchange ever since.

Illustration of a woman with black bobbed hair and dark-rimmed glasses holding a red book with flowers and bookshelves in background
Maira Kalman

During my very first term of high school, I failed elementary algebra, and as a consequence was doomed to study German. It was 1942, when the war was well under way—the Second World War, for my generation always “the” war, despite all that came after. Mine was a traditional school that claimed old-fashioned standards; today they might be regarded as archaic. Four years of Latin were required, and a choice between French and German. There seemed no need for Spanish; Cervantes notwithstanding, it gave off a faint hint of infra dig, of roiling Central and South American populations at a time when these were remote.

Together with nearly everyone else, I had opted for French. German, especially for a Jewish student in 1942, was a sinister tongue contaminated by its criminal speakers, repellent in its very substance. The massive murders of European Jews were already in progress when, in that same year, the infamous 90-minute Wannsee Conference systematized and codified the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” a concealing German euphemism among others equally flagrant. The term deportation invokes a kind of authoritarian dignity—Napoleon on Elba, say—papering over the terror of outright savagery in the abduction of millions of defenseless Jews torn from their homes. Was I to be condemned to the penalty of learning German solely for the sin of flunking algebra?

Still, the German teacher—Frau Doktor Eva Lange, Ph.D., whose doctorate was in linguistics—was contractually in place, and also the German department and its four-semester curriculum. And so the obligatory German class was filled—for the most part with flunkees from Latin, but no others (that I was aware of) from elementary algebra. A number were the children of post–World War I German immigrants who heard German at home but could neither speak nor read it. For these, the language carried no explicit threat or horror: Theirs was a pursuit of nostalgic family retrieval.

Our teacher was middle-aged and graying and German-born. She might have passed for one of the Jewish refugees who had lately escaped Hitler’s genocidal reach and were beginning to settle in parts of New York. Their children, mostly native to Berlin and Vienna and Antwerp and Paris, were being pressed by the speech department to erase their accents, while in our class, in that very hour, Doktor Lange was urging the perfection of our German. The ubiquitous ch was particularly difficult for American tongues. It was this offensive consonant, placed somewhere between phlegm and a sibilant, that was mocked in anti-Nazi wartime movies. Under Doktor Lange’s tutelage it, and also the umlaut, had a place of honor. She hoped to lure us into the sonorities and ingenuities of the language. She surprised us by teaching the dazzling phonetic morphings of the “High German consonant shift.”

Every tongue guards its personal habits. Latin is seductive—the consummate logic of its syntactical cases, the mercurial dance of the ablative absolute. It retains muscle in its ruins (Cicero) and tragic beauty in its posthumous throes (Virgil). The subtleties of the Greek middle voice, neither active nor passive, roam through The Iliad and The Odyssey. And Hebrew, an ancient yet living language newly revivified, has the elastic trinity of its three-letter root, which, when prefixes and suffixes are attached, can alter past and future, perspectives and relationships.

But what of German? Its compound words—noun hooked to noun, concept to concept—contain, romantically, unnamable emotions, wisps of unidentifiable yearning, literary implications, philosophical hints: Fernweh, Weltanschauung, Bildungsroman, Doppelgänger, Weltschmerz. Mark Twain satirized these multisyllabic paired ideas as “alphabetical processions … marching majestically across the page.” A latter-day addition to such expressively linked constructions—for instance, Volksschädlingsverordnung, literally “Decree Against Folk Pests”—flourished as Nazi lingo. Might this have been the species of German they spoke at Wannsee while plotting the ghettos, the camps, the forced marches, the skeletal hunger, the typhus, the ditches, the shootings, the selections, the gassings, the burnings, the self-heaving fields of ash— the deliberate devisings of cruelty? Every language carries its own history.

By the end of the war, in 1945, more was emerging from that history. In the movie houses, between the feature and the cartoon, a film of a British bulldozer pushing gargantuan heaps of twisted corpses was shown again and again. Studies recording scores of witnessed atrocities began to proliferate. The term Holocaust had yet to take hold, and when it did, it filled a void: War implied combat by two or more armed forces. The Jews of Europe were neither combatants nor enemies. They were, or had been, fellow citizens.

Yet few of these burgeoning disclosures had fully entered public awareness; nearly two decades passed before the meaning of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and all the others became rooted in popular discourse. My high-school years, from 1942 until Germany’s defeat, were mainly untouched. During the summer break, groups of classmates—those not vacationing or working as camp counselors—met to write patriotic letters to American soldiers. Food rationing was imposed, but no one went hungry. The lack of nylon stockings was lamented. Young men were drafted by the thousands.

And despite my conscious resistance, my immersion in German deepened. I remember an attempt to mimic a folktale, here and there utilizing, or so I hoped, the High German consonant shift: Zipf, zopf, tip-tapped a cane. Though my effort to write in German was everywhere speckled with syntactical errors, Doktor Lange was nevertheless kind to it. Her only comment was this: “Zu viele Fehler auf der letzten Seite”—“Too many mistakes on the last page,” ignoring all the rest. I remember painting posters for the sparsely populated German Club; was I becoming softened? I mastered much of the grammar: Aus, außer, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, zu, gegenüber are prepositions that take the dative. At commencement I won the German Prize. It was a 19th-century history of German painting, a lavish art book, the colors brilliantly true, printed on exquisite linen paper. As I later learned, there was no graduate German Prize; there never had been. Doktor Lange had paid for this treasure out of her own pocket.

In college I read Hermann und Dorothea, Goethe’s epic poem; Minna von Barnhelm, Lessing’s comic play; Maria Stuart, Schiller’s drama in verse—humanist classics all—while in Europe the stench of the chimneys still lingered. Germany was in collapse, its bombed-out cities in ruins, its people dazed and demoralized. Berlin, where swastika banners had lately hung in their hundreds, was cut in two, half parceled out to the victorious Soviets. Hitler had promised conquest and Lebensraum; instead, Aryan zeal was muzzled, Aryan belief bludgeoned. And meanwhile I was steeped in Goethe, Lessing, and Schiller.

It was then that my correspondence with Karl Gustav Specht began. Precisely how it happened I can no longer recall, but I surmise that it came about through one of those postwar exchanges, Americans writing to their foreign counterparts, who replied in their own language. Each would enrich the other’s skills. Each knew nothing about the other. But at the very start, Karl Gustav Specht told me that he was a soldier who had been at the Eastern Front. A soldier? This meant the Wehrmacht, the so-called regular army, soon to be exposed as a force as fully implicated in overt criminality as the SS itself. The Eastern Front? This meant Stalingrad, the battle that devastated and routed the German military—fatally short of supplies, its straggling troops unfed and shoeless and dying in the Russian cold, more than 700,000 killed, wounded, or captured. (Supply trains elsewhere were at the same time industriously moving their human cargoes.) On May 7, 1945, the Germans officially surrendered to the Allies, and on May 9 to the Soviet Union.

To Karl Gustav Specht’s introductory greeting, I wrote back politely. Beyond this one biographical datum—his presence at the Eastern Front—nothing else of his experience appeared in his letter. Nor did I pursue more. My own circumstances spoke for themselves: I was an American student with a literary bent who was attracted to foreign languages. I was also attracted to Karl Gustav Specht’s voice, impressively bookish and high-minded. If I stripped him of his recent history, I might think of him as kind and enlightened. An idealist. A humanist. But he had no irony, or avoided it, and his tone, even when it carried a smile, was clear of humor. He was above all earnest. And it was plain that he delighted in our exchanges; so did I.

Looking back at a distance of decades, it seems perverse—even lunatic—that a young Jewish woman in New York was corresponding, in a friendly way, with a soldier loyal to his national duty, a German who had only a short time before served at the Eastern Front, who belonged to the nation that had conceived and carried out the Decree Against Folk Pests. Of which I was one. And still I knew nothing: not his age, nothing of his family, no inkling of his inward thought. Of his outward thought I learned much: art, philosophy, Roman history, his mastery of languages, English and French and Greek and Latin. We had the Aeneid in common; we could speak feelingly of infelix Dido on her pyre. At the center of it all was an unnamed silence.

But once, only once, he had written, “Ich hasse keine Rasse.” “I hate no race.” It was a sentence that was left floating like a wayward mote in the middle of a vacuum.

In June of 1945, one month after Germany’s surrender, my brother graduated from dental school, and was instantly sent, as a second lieutenant, to Camp Grant, in Rockford, Illinois, to join an Army medical unit. He was 22, and was assigned to housing for unmarried officers. Abutting Camp Grant, some distance away, was Camp Hampshire, where German prisoners of war were interned. Camps like this were scattered all over the Midwest, partly to keep the prisoners away from the bigger cities, and also to supply farm and factory labor at a time when such workers were scarce. The Germans were paid wages identical to those of the Americans. They ate identical meals, and feasted on whatever they wished from an abundantly stocked camp canteen. There were manifold entertainments—movies, some in German, supplied by public libraries, and performances the prisoners organized for themselves. They were permitted, on their honor, to frequent restaurants in the center of town, where Jim Crow routinely turned away the Black American soldiers of Camp Grant. German friendships with the local population were mushrooming. Following their release and repatriation, several thousand former prisoners returned to become American citizens. Intermarriages abounded.

On a blizzardy midwinter night, when a pelting of sleet was blinding and ice smothered trees and roads and footpaths, my brother received an apologetic telephone call from Camp Hampshire: It was an emergency. The alternate dentist who was to have been on duty was not to be found; it was not my brother’s turn, but would he come immediately? A German officer, an Oberstleutnant, was in howling agony. Half his face was swollen, a throbbing molar was festering, the pain was unbearable.

My brother was shaken: He had pledged to serve and succor and heal and repair and renew. But here, unexpectedly, was a Nazi soldier, a lieutenant colonel no less, one who had commanded obedience, and was himself obliged to obey—to do what? What was the nature of his complicity? Had he ordered the ditches to be dug, and the naked women with their little ones lined up on the brink to be shot and tumble in?

A below-zero blast stung my brother’s eyes, and the dental offices were a long and miserable trek away. A suffering man was waiting for him, a man dedicated to the credo that a Jew was a Folk Pest, no different from vermin. Zyklon B, a common pesticide, the gas used in the death camps, was manufactured by the German firm IG Farben, a conglomerate that included Bayer, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. Although Bayer lost the trademark in 1918, its name was still commonly used for aspirin, a popular remedy for toothache.

Were these brutal associations in my brother’s thoughts? I cannot say, but he knew what he must do.

He followed his skills and their urgencies. He injected the anesthesia. He spoke to the patient as he would speak to any patient, reassuring, explaining the procedure to come. He wrote prescriptions for post-care medication. When all of these ameliorations were completed, and the unendurable pain was relieved, the German broke into shamelessly grateful sobs.

And then my brother did what he had known he must do. He exacted his punishment.

Ich bin Jude,” he said.

My correspondence with Karl Gustav Specht moved on with, on my part, a kind of self-conscious interest in its disparities, and perhaps the same on his. But my life was beginning to alter, and our exchanges were becoming leaner. In 1952 I married, and they came to a close.

As the years elapsed, my curiosity about him waned—he was distant, after all, from everything that mattered. And then, as the histories of the Nazi period accelerated—a flood that has not ebbed even now, eight decades later—and as more and more was revealed and recorded and analyzed and weighed on the scales of the unimaginable, the unlikelihood of those letters from a defeated German soldier took on a less innocent cast.

Owing in part to the Marshall Plan, the postwar American aid program, Germany had wholly recovered economically, and was prospering as a model democratic polity, enacting conscientious public demonstrations of guilt and remorse in hundreds of declarations, memorials, textbooks, and reparations both to the state of Israel and to individual Holocaust victims or, if any had survived, their family connections. But what had become, in this new Germany, of Karl Gustav Specht, with all his intellect and cultivation? How had he turned out in the aftermath of the Eastern Front?

The increasing intensity of my desire to unearth him took me by surprise. I thought I might track him down, if he had left some notable trace, in a volume of The International Who’s Who—but which one? In the public library I leafed diligently through a heap of possibly relevant dates, from 1947 on into the later years of what might have become his future. His name was nowhere. I asked a friend traveling to Germany to look him up in the telephone directory—but of which city? Futility; the vacuum held. Yet I declined to believe that the Karl Gustav Specht whose mind I had known and appraised would not have distinguished himself in some publicly recognizable way.

illustration of German WWII soldier in helmet and uniform carrying rifle against gray background
Maira Kalman

I was by then overridingly obsessed with the Holocaust; I had been reading history after history—William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, Lucy Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews, Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, and more. I was encountering scores of oral survivor testimonies, many on film, recounting merciless slaughters in broken voices. Belatedly, I uncovered, through Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and archive in Jerusalem, the fate of my own elderly great-aunt, my grandmother’s favorite sister, whose many lively and witty letters in Yiddish had been preserved for half a century in a satchel in the attic. I learned that she, together with the entire Jewish population of Bobruisk, a medium-size city in Belarus, had been marched in the night to an airfield, where they were methodically shot.

When the internet arrived, everything long unknowable leaped into instant life. Here, on Wikipedia, is what I found:

Karl Gustav Specht was a German sociologist, university lecturer, and developer of gerontology and medical sociology as academic subjects in Germany. He was primarily involved in the scientific training of graduate social economists. His approach was characterized by the theoretical analysis of sociological facts and their integration into empirical research. He counts as one of the founders of inter-disciplinary geriatrics in Germany; as early as the 1970s, he initiated studies in the sociology of aging in light of the challenging demographic changes of that period. He was also a pioneer of medical sociology in Germany and its connection to conditions of poverty. He held the Chair of Sociology at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, and developed a large number of projects on rehabilitation research at the Institute for Empirical Sociology as well as the Institute for Liberal Professions.

But he was long dead. He had lived only to 64. There was no mention of family, early years, marriage, children. There was no mention of the war. His final residence was listed as St. Moritz, Switzerland, suggesting a retirement enjoyed in luxurious resort surroundings. What particularly struck me was that this man who went on to have an eminent career had been a mere six years older than the diffident student who had toiled over all those nonconfrontational letters—and hadn’t he answered in kind? And wasn’t he in truth a successor to the humanist sensibilities of Goethe, Lessing, and Schiller? After all, he had devoted his intellectual and professional life to an active compassion for the elderly, the ill, the needy, and wasn’t this at least spiritually kin to “Ich hasse keine Rasse”? If he had lived, would I have wished to pick up where we had left off—and would he?

In 1945, as the ragged and beaten Wehrmacht was running away from the triumphant Soviets, and when my correspondent was inconceivably remote from the renowned academic he was to become, another sociologist destined for prominence was gathering notes in Theresienstadt, a holding camp for Jews awaiting shipment to Auschwitz. He was born Hans Günther Adler in German-speaking Prague. But since Hans Günther was also the despised name of the regional Nazi satrap, a deputy of Eichmann, for the greater part of Adler’s life he was to be known only by his initials, H.G. At Charles University, drenched in German high culture, he studied music, literature, and philosophy; he began writing poetry, a vocation he never abandoned.

Three years after Hitler’s absorption of Czechoslovakia in 1939, with Prague under SS command, Adler was sent to Theresienstadt, and from there was transferred briefly to Auschwitz and then on to two consecutive camps, each a satellite of Buchenwald, where he was put to hard labor. A pernicious German social invention, Theresienstadt was an organism whose every part fit securely into every other part; it was also a gradual disposal mechanism, which could be slowed or sped up at will, depending on bottlenecks in transits to Auschwitz. Despite grinding deprivations and life-draining losses, it was not openly designed as a death camp. With its infirmary, itself a funnel to the freight cars; its well-stocked library of confiscated books; its conscientious schoolwork curricula; its self-generated lectures and concerts and performances, it signified a Jewish will to preserve, even here, a remnant of civilization. At Wannsee the decision was made to name it an old people’s retirement facility. Authority ostensibly lay with its Jewish governing body, the Council of Elders, charged with overseeing the welfare of the inmates, but also with supplying lists of the names of each new contingent of Jews to be sent “to the East” when thinning-out was called for.

One such occasion occurred on June 23, 1944, when representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross, under pressure from the Danish Red Cross, were permitted to enter Theresienstadt to assess conditions there. Escorted by SS officers, they were led to observe only certain specified areas, where they witnessed functioning shops, newly planted gardens, barracks recently painted, no more than three persons in any living space, a children’s opera (Brundibár, performed by the children themselves), a cabaret, even an ongoing soccer game, all set in motion by edict of the SS. It was a carefully coerced hoax, a Potemkin village impersonating normality. The daily reality was far less harmonious: a density of overcrowded housing, with its victims sleeping on straw-covered floors or confined to freezing winter attics; food meager and rotting; contagion rampant. Whether the Red Cross delegates were genuinely deceived or were willing to be deceived, they nevertheless gave their approval to what was deemed a model Nazi ghetto. When the visitors departed, the transports resumed. Of the 15,000 children in Theresienstadt, only 100 survived. Of the overall population sent to the death camps, 4 percent were alive by the end of the war.

Adler arrived in February 1942, together with his wife, Gertrud, a physician and medical researcher, and her parents. Except for illicit snatches of opportunity, he was separated from Gertrud, who looked after the infirmary, and to whom he confided in anguished poems and clandestine notes everything he saw and felt and understood. Of his first weeks in the barracks, he recalled:

For me this place was the worst of all; nowhere else did my soul suffer as much as it did here. Nowhere else did I encounter such abysmal horror. For the few who managed to live through it, Theresienstadt held a grip on their lives forever. It amounted to the most genuinely diabolical span of falsehood stretching over the terrible abyss that existed. It was the most hellish ritual mask that death ever wore.

Laboring as a bricklayer, Adler made sure to avoid any connection with the Jewish administrators, sullied as they were—however under duress—by supplying the SS with Auschwitz-bound quotas. Nor did they ultimately evade the same fate. Yet Adler, not unlike others, left his mark on that falsehood. “If one is honest,” he reflected, “one also recognizes oneself in the curse of guilt, if one grasps and understands the evil, and if one knows that one is entwined in its mechanisms as both perpetrator and witness.” The term perpetrator may be too grimly grotesque. But Adler did participate in “the most hellish ritual mask that death ever wore.” He took an interest in the upkeep of the library; he delivered literary talks. The original manuscript of one such talk on Kafka survives and can today be read in toto. Remarkably, Ottla, Kafka’s most sympathetic sister, was in his audience. Afterward, she approached him privately and thanked him “on behalf of our family.” She, too, was sent to the East.

On October 12, 1944, the month’s consignment quota caught up with Adler and his family. Gertrud’s father had already died, but the remaining three, among thousands, were taken to Auschwitz. Minutes after arrival, Gertrud’s elderly mother was selected for the gas. Unwilling for her to perish alone, Gertrud chose to go with her.

In April 1945, as the American victors neared and the SS fled, Adler escaped from the work camp and later returned alone to Prague.

Adler’s definitive work of sociology—Theresienstadt 1941–1945: The Face of a Coerced Community—was completed in London. Recognizing that the postwar Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia would impede his newly recovered freedom, in 1947 he made his way to England, where he met and married Bettina Gross, a sculptor who was an earlier refugee from Prague. Each of the novels he wrote during this period—The Journey, Panorama, The Wall—was a metaphorical representation of all he had seen and endured, evoking the unsettling, surreal nature of these experiences while omitting the names and exactness of events. They are strikingly different from his rigorously factual, source-dense, and data-driven Theresienstadt work, published in 1955 to world recognition, drawing letters from Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem. Peter Filkins, Adler’s American translator and biographer, describes it as “part history, part sociological study, and part psychological analysis … encyclopedic in scope yet riveting in its underlying narrative; relentlessly objective and quantitative in its research, yet searing in its moral indictment.” Publication instantly brought Adler the notice and acclaim that his novels and poetry and other literary enterprises would not receive for decades. Speaking invitations increased, carrying him not only out of obscurity, but out of a refugee’s thin economic circumstances. His success as a popular lecturer was championed by the Frankfurt-born philosopher Theodor Adorno—himself a refugee from Nazism who had sought haven in California and in 1949 returned to Frankfurt as a founder of a movement to remake Germany’s political culture. It was in Germany that Adler inaugurated a lauded radio series of literary essays.

And it could have been in Germany at this very time that, if we are tempted to imagine it, the two renowned sociologists might have met: Karl Gustav Specht and H. G. Adler, so different in experience, so alike in background. Both were intellectuals of rare prowess and initiative; both were the product of German high literary culture. Both were impassioned by the theoretical analysis of facts and their integration into empirical research. Both were moved by an almost visceral need to illuminate a societal darkness—yet here they also differed: One intended to ameliorate present discontent, the other to record harrowings that would forever be too late to erase.

But Adler was also a poet and a novelist, and Karl Gustav Specht was not. Is it possible that this disparity may drill even deeper than the stony truth that one belonged to the nation that devised Auschwitz, and the other was a numbered item in a freight car to Auschwitz?

Rasse—that wicked word in Nazi dress—why did my correspondent not follow where it would inexorably take him? After all, he must have known, or intuited, or divined, or deduced: New York, a city of Jews. He had tripped, all unawares, into its net. The lottery of language exchange, an admirable educational venture, had thrown up—out of a huge and variegated student population—a member of that Rasse.

Is this what had made him mum?

In 1941, the German troops, Karl Gustav Specht among them, pushing toward Moscow in their drive to swallow the Soviet Union and finding an aggregate of vulnerable Jewish towns in their path, set out to implement the Einsatzgruppen, ubiquitous mobile Jew-killing squads operating in the merciless wake of the invasion. Karl Gustav Specht, participant or not, was witness to, or had knowledge of, such mass shooting sprees, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered, some cut down in pits and ravines, others asphyxiated in gas vans.

Was this what had made him mum?

At the very end, when our correspondence had died out, not gradually but abruptly, I finally thought not.

About two weeks before my wedding, in 1952, a package came from Germany. It was flat and rectangular, protectively and multiply wrapped to keep it from harm, clearly a thing of value: a wedding present from Karl Gustav Specht. With it came a note, all goodwill and conventional good wishes. I was startled and touched; it was the nearest either of us had come to the personal. It addressed not a set of thoughtful and mannerly literary observations but the very heat of a life in the act of being lived. Or so I felt at first glance—a wedding present!

What emerged from the layers of its many windings turned out to be yet another art book, as thickly paged as Doktor Lange’s cherished make-believe graduation prize, but in every way physically inferior, reproduced on cheap, low-grade paper, apparently the product of wartime scarcity. And though Doktor Lange’s gift was brilliant with color and movement and arches and porticoes and living human figures in all their historic adornments, here was only black ink slashed like knife wounds over every inch—etched drawings of devastation, geometries of ruins. The captions described Cologne, one of the most bombarded of all German cities, a nightly target of the British Royal Air Force during what came to be known as the Battle of Britain. The famed medieval cathedral survived, but schools, post offices, hospitals, churches, universities, newspapers, hotels, cinemas, apartment buildings, department stores were all destroyed, and 20,000 people died. A normally functioning city decimated. A city buzzing, war or no war, with untrammeled dailiness, undone.

Karl Gustav Specht’s “Ich hasse keine Rasse” shrank in the face of these stark black scratchings. Why, then, had he written those self-exculpatory words? Written them once only, in a fleeting moment, no more lasting than an intake of breath? I understood why. He had seen all along that I silently suspected him—accused him—of guilt, and he was denying any guilt; he was defying even the imputation of guilt. And now he was telling me the reason. Atrocity canceled atrocity.

I shut the book of black scratchings. I never acknowledged its arrival. I never opened it again. If he was not delusional, then he was a deliberate liar; if he was not a deliberate liar, he was hard-hearted; if he was hard-hearted, it was because he was stripped bare of imagination’s charity and insight’s clarity. Were the retaliations of war—the Blitz was simultaneously bombing London, targeting especially its Jewish East End—the same as the gruesome inventions of the death camps? Was the war-shattered everyday life of Cologne to be equated with insidious Theresienstadt, the corridor to Auschwitz? Did Cologne annihilate the meaning of the abductions and the confiscations and the shootings and the gassings and the crematories?

These questions have led me, for more than half a century and well into the 21st, to contemplate an aging puzzlement. My correspondent was no commonplace thinker; he had risen to be a successful sociologist. How could a man of learned intelligence, of elastic perception, have fallen into so terrifying a contradiction? As for “Ich hasse keine Rasse,” even now these syllables dangle untethered, with no context before or after, lurking alone in their enigmatic vacuum. And if, now and then, he thought back to our old exchanges, as I did, did he make of them an analysis of facts to be integrated into empirical research? Or did he see, did he truly see?

No, said the wedding present.

I cannot recall what became of it. After so many years, could it be disintegrating up there in the attic, alongside my grandmother’s favorite sister’s letters from Bobruisk?

This article appears in the September 2022 print edition with the headline “The Wedding Present.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.