76. Voice from the coffin

By Peter Fraenkel

It is the only time I’ve conversed with a man in a coffin.

My mother and I had gone to the main railway station to greet him. We had to walk the entire length of the train without finding him. It was only when we got to the luggage wagon at the very end that we saw two porters carefully manhandling a coffin and from within it a hand waved to us.

He seemed surprisingly cheerful. But, of course, he knew luck had been on his side: he had survived a plane crash that might have been the end of him.

Gerhard was an artist and the Nazis had declared his paintings entartete Kunst –decadent art.  He was banned from exhibiting. Like many in Germany he must have thought their regime would collapse within a few weeks.  Many other governments had done so in those last years of the Weimar republic. This one didn’t. It coped with dissent by murder.

After some hungry months Gerhard agreed, reluctantly, to paint something more acceptable – but preferably something that would not make him want to spit at himself.   He painted a view of the Annaberg – Mount St. Anne. This was a site celebrated by the Nazis for a victorious triumph of heroic Teutons over Polish sub-humans.  The Poles, on the other hand, claimed the battle had been ‘indecisive’.

Perhaps that painting of an uninteresting–looking hill was not quite enough to demonstrate his enthusiasm for their new Germany. He chose a further step that he probably thought morally neutral but fun: flying.

The Nazis were hoping to create a new generation of “air minded” Germans. Under the Versailles treaty Germany was banned from having an air force. But gliders were not banned. He joined a club to learn to fly a glider. It seemed fun and yet not compromising morally.

I don’t know what went wrong. I don’t think he did either but on one of his first solo flights the glider nose-dived and crashed.  He ended up in hospital far from home, with a cracked spine and in severe pain. He was encased in plaster of Paris in a coffin to hold him rigid to give his bones a chance to mend.

He asked to be moved to his hometown in Upper Silesia where his family and friends would find it easier to visit. That required a change of trains at Breslau.  And that’s where my mother and I came to see him lying stiff in that coffin.

But no. He wasn’t a stiff.