I write mostly when I am on the road. I have been “sculpting” a short novel called " el Viaje Hindú " for the past ten years. It will probably take another decade to finish it. I have also been translating the very insightful letters of a young German immigrant who came to the United States in the 1950s. From time to time I will post excerpts documenting my progress on this page.
Here is a start…
The voice of an immigrant in America: The letters of Vera Eleanor Zahorsky, 1958-1979
I am currently translating the letters of Vera Eleanor Zahorsky (1925-2013). As a teenager in the ethnic German region of then Czechoslovakia, Vera was caught up in the tragedy of World War II. She lost nearly all of her family and became a refugee in the immediate aftermath of the war. She subsequently became a nurse, alpinist, skydiver, and spent three years hitchhiking through Canada before emigrating to the United States with her American husband, who was a captain in the U.S. Army stationed in Germany.
For twenty years she maintained an active correspondence with her friend in the German city of Mainz, Martha Panzer, which only ended when Vera suffered a massive stroke in 1980, and lost her ability to write. The letters are wonderfully detailed and reveal a keen observer of American society. In them pivotal moments of American history come alive, from President Kennedy’s assassination and the civil rights movement to the war in Vietnam. There is also much in the letters that readers today will recognize: she found, for example, that apartments in San Francisco were expensive even in the 1950s, and that the healthcare system in the United States was decidedly lacking. Fundamentally, the letters document Vera’s transformation from a “foreigner” to an active participant in American political life. Like many immigrants, she came to love her adopted country, fiercely defended it, yet never neglected her responsibility as an American citizen to fight to make it a better place for all. Given the heated political debate about immigration in the current American election cycle, her letters stand as testimony to the enduring legacy of immigrants in America.
I plan to publish selections from the letters in a book next year. Here are a few representative excerpts. The translation is from the original German.
July 12, 1958
…Mrs. Krull will remember how we were in such a hurry to leave Heidelberg. Beate Christ brought us to Frankfurt. We flew at 2AM in a Belgian plane. 96 soldiers with their families. Don was the commanding officer. Around us sat a major with five children, the smallest of whom, about three, commanded the family. Andreas had a crib. He behaved really well. It was wonderful. Our first landing was in the early morning in Shannon, Ireland. We found the green hills to be very beautiful. Pastureland dotted by small villages as far as the eye could see. The people that we saw are very similar to the Dutch with their red cheeks. Undoubtedly very tied to nature…Newfoundland, truly at the ends of the world, was our next destination. It would be easy to count the houses and inhabitants of this gigantic region. Forest and water, almost flat. The international airport is a shack…The final eight hours, along the coast to N.Y., were once again really interesting. We landed on Tuesday at 1 in the afternoon in Idlewild….It took an eternity until we were all loaded in buses. Officers always last…The bus took us through lower Brooklyn…to Brooklyn Heights and the Pierpont Hotel…We loved the view over the East River to…Wallstreet, the Brooklyn Bridge, Empire State Building, etc.—we had the famous skyline of New York completely before us. Sunset, the ships on the river, uncountable lights…
….We went to the circus (Don played babysitter). Very strange. An arena (no tent), filled with thousands of people…The Freemasons arrange everything and the proceeds are donated to charity organizations. They are also actively involved. As ushers, music bands, announcers in wonderful outfits they parade in circles, the drums and trumpets of the bands are painted with fluorescent colors and the conductor swings a glowing baton. Several drive by in streamlined cars decorated with flowers, others, waving flags, ride on horses or fill wagons like the ones we know at home from carnival. Lively shouts of greeting from the audience. An indescribable noise dominates. A lot of useless stuff is offered with a lot of vocal effort. Black flags with a white skull and two crossed bones as a toy for “pirates”, dandy dolls, balloons, stuffed animals… ice-colds, ice cream, beer, hot dogs, coca-cola—indescribable…
San Francisco, 22 September 1958
We are already completely (San) Franciscans—really, the city and its surroundings are wonderfully beautiful and appear even to Don as “exotic”. On our arrival we viewed the “golden hills” somewhat skeptically and found them rather barren. We missed the beautiful conifer forests that we left behind in the Sierras a few hours earlier. We conceded a somewhat shocked admiration to the four mile long Bay Bridge. When Don landed for the first time in the confusing freeway system he didn’t find it funny at all. One can only jump in and step on the gas…generally three lanes run on one side and the cars weave artistically from one to the other. One has to get used to it—I get goose bumps every time.
Menlo Park, 14 December, 1959
…sales methods here are really surprising. I have gotten used to two things. I don’t let anyone in the house and pay only when I have carefully inspected the things that I want to buy. As soon as you move into a new apartment the telephone starts ringing off the hook. Good souls have always saved the best opportunities for you. Right at the start in San Francisco I purchased in this way the Encyclopedia Americana for $450, and I thought that I only needed to spend $36 for it. That was a hard hit for us, but signed is signed and our savings had to suffer for it. The salesman explained to us that he wanted to use our names for advertising and in addition we had to give him the names of ten people who could be interested. Then the whole thing would cost nothing but $36 (it was a down payment). But in any case we were already completely exhausted when we signed….Since then I don’t agree to anything. I never have time or need.
March 5, 1960
I am already very much at home in California. The pure living conditions are very much simpler here. Even our financial position is bearable, especially if one compares it with that of a penniless doctor-in-training in Germany….
….One of our best friends, a very intelligent and eloquent doctor, is Jewish. He has the special gift of examining everything in a clear and non-judgmental manner. Often in the evening we sit together at the fireplace and analyze claims of contemporary relevance. The fourth in the group is his Japanese bride. Half working student, half dancer, and completely charming. Americans also have their “antis” and so-called minority groups, who should know better, not less. Not long ago the Chinese consul wanted to buy a house in San Mateo. He was told over the phone that his presence in a “white” neighborhood was not wanted. The case became known through the newspaper, and received a good deal of attention. Not only did many prominent people apologize but many also invited him to settle down in their neighborhoods. A few years ago one would not have attributed any meaning to such a case. Robert’s parents, for example, are anti-oriental and absolutely against a marriage between our two friends. They are also anti-German, and I spent an extremely interesting evening with them. The father is a well-known and rich doctor in L.A. (he has even operated in Moscow), who started out small. His present position certainly cost him more than a little sweat. In any case, now he belongs to a “set”, namely to Country Club people who pay large annual sums just to “belong”. The mother is a typical older American woman, thin, talkative, and burdened by many complexes. I consider her to be one of the poor creatures who know that they have failed in life, and nevertheless go out to fail anew every day, attempting to bury this knowledge through a certain zealous behavior. Her love for her two sons is absolutely obsessive. She pesters poor Robert to death. Even if they recognize the limitations of their parents, good children nevertheless have a love for them—and so the two don’t have it easy. We got to know the parents in San Francisco. They invited us to a meal very graciously and immediately started bombarding me about all the Nazi atrocities. When Mrs. M explained to me that she hates the Germans, I couldn’t come to express my fear that in Germany nobody would care. Apparently I controlled myself really well, because Papa M. began to speak German with me in the course of the evening and emerged as a nice, not uninteresting old gentleman. It is shocking the kind of mixed-up thoughts that even educated people often have. During the combative part of the evening, Mr. M told me… “the best German is a dead German”. What can one do? Should I completely condemn the man because in some ways he cannot think straight, or is it not better to try to recognize the good and to forgive the foolishness? After all, we all have our faults. But it’s precisely these people, mind you, who are responsible for all of our difficulties. They talk and talk and even they themselves don’t understand what they say. No wonder that the young generation is beginning to rebel. They don’t fool themselves and don’t allow anything to fool them. I often spend time with a young doctor’s wife who comes from the new upper class. Her grandfather came as a miner from England and her father is now “general manager”. He was not thrilled with his son-in-law, because his father didn’t come from “his” circle. Isn’t that crazy? I don’t want to claim that this is an American characteristic—that’s the way people are. Barbara has nevertheless become a very capable and intelligent girl—she says that ‘my parents are very liberal as long as they don’t have to prove it’.
November 15, 1960
We live in an interesting quarter. Portrero Hill is the original Russian Hill. Many old Russians live here. The grandmas go shopping in aprons and head scarves and the grandpas have beards. They barely speak English….In the last few years our quarter has attracted many artists, who have been chased away from Telegraph Hill by too high rents and new apartment buildings…
April 15, 1961 San Francisco
Every time I pick up a newspaper I get the sense that I am surrounded by the insane, but then the fact that we know so many normal people calms me again. A while ago an article by a scientist caused heated debate. The modern devil. He claimed that the average American would be willing to sacrifice 60 million people to punish the Russians for their aggression. Naturally, he said, we could build a machine that would destroy the entire world at the touch of a button, but we are not interested in that. I agree with our jewish friend (Robert), who says: “Communism or atomic war, there is no question for me, I would even hug the Pope”. It is as if some Americans are gripped by a type of insanity. They see communists—and their accusations are really often no longer funny. The John Birch Society, founded by a chocolate magnate, openly claims that President Eisenhower is a member in good standing of the Communist Party and in this respect is actually a subordinate of his brother Milton. Other prominent “communists”: Eleanor Roosevelt, Acheson, Dulles, just to name a few…
December 11, 1963
President Kennedy’s murder has shaken all of us. The painters were at our house when my neighbor, ashen and trembling, came over and said: “Turn the radio on, the President was shot”. From this moment on until after his burial, nothing was done anywhere. Everyone gathered silently in front of the television—even in the hospital there was only emergency service. I remember the election party at Stanford that we joined. On election night friends and acquaintances gathered in front of the TV and, over a hidden glass of wine (alcohol can’t be bought here), waited for the election results. We were for Stevenson, but he was not nominated. So Don voted for Kennedy, and only our best friends with us—everyone else, 20-30, were for Nixon. President Kennedy had many critics, especially among doctors, who are surprisingly anti-social—they call it “conservative”. His death united them all, and everyone was convinced that a great President had been lost…
December 11, 1963
…Some social reforms are urgently needed here. You can’t imagine the cost of hospitals. Old Americans who live on a pension or from savings cannot afford to get sick. The cost of insurance is especially unaffordable for those over 65. The law for health insurance for the elderly has been in Washington already for a long time, but the insurance companies and physicians’ (lobby) won’t let it through. They don’t want to lose the right to make as much money as they want and can…The same people who want to send the poor man off to war don’t want to do anything for him when he is sick and useless…
January 23, 1968
The League of Women Voters named me Chairman for the Rapid Transit System. My task will be to convince the voters that we need a rapid transit system. We completed a pamphlet and at the moment I am writing speeches that our speaker will deliver at assemblies. You would think that the advantages of having an electric train that connects the city quarters and the surrounding region would be clear. Americans function differently—first, they are profoundly tied to their cars and the second question is “what will I get out of it”…
December 7, 1969
We are working hard against the war. There is a letter campaign on the 12th. Letters to the President were sent to Mrs. Martin L. King and she will personally hand them to Nixon. On the 13th we have a candlelight vigil in front of the navy (base) in Long Beach and on Christmas Eve we are going to the Quaker House in Pasadena. Don joined a group of young doctors, “Physicians for a Social Conscience”. They open free clinics and bring children from Vietnam to the US for medical treatment…
May 15, 1970
You can imagine that we are very busy with protests against the war and the student murders. After many attempts we have joined a group that appeals to us: Physicians for Human Rights. So far USC has been spared brutal demonstrations. The Chancellor of the university was very clever: First, he announced his retirement. In this way, he gave himself a completely free hand and then he announced that all students have the freedom to either dedicate themselves to their studies or to be politically active. Whoever wants to become politically active can return to study at any time…the students invited us to discussions, (and) many went in to churches and spoke before diverse groups about their problems and against the war. We wrote many letters and supported candidates for peace in the elections…last weekend we were so unhappy about the political situation that we simply got in the car with friends and drove to Mexico…
Sobre El Viaje Hindú
Desde hace ya una década, había tenido la intención de escribir un relato. Estaba en Morelia cuando decidí escribirlo durante un viaje a México para comprar guitarras en Paracho, un pueblo que sobrevive gracias a las seis cuerdas. Busqué una guitarra flamenca, y amigos en San Francisco me habían recomendado un constructor en Paracho llamado Benito Huipe. La primera noche en Morelia, tomando un café bajo los arcos en el centro colonial de la ciudad, me sentí en soledad y en el anonimato en una ciudad desconocida. Quizás no sea lógico, pero esa experiencia siempre me da también la sensación de libertad; en la vida no se producen a menudo situaciones en que nada y nadie te preocupan. Aprovoché esa condición de invisibilidad a corto plazo para observar a la gente paseando por la plaza. Y para pensar. En esa sinergia de observar y pensar germinó la semilla del relato.
El relato se titula el Viaje Hindú y es la historia de un tal Sebastian Atmann, un hombre que descubre al fin de su vida que había estado vinculado a muchas personas desconocidas y que sus decisiones y actos aparentamente inocentes les habían afectado a ellos profundamente. Aunque es verdad que Sebastian causó mucho daño a otros a través de su vida, no es una figura antipática. Nunca tenía la intención de sembrar dolor, y hasta la última etapa de su vida no vio las consecuencias de sus actos. En ese sentido, podría decirse que estaba ciego. Pero eso no era verdad en el fondo, porque en cualquier momento habría tenido la posibilidad de ver. Pero no lo hizo. Más exactamente, su estado había sido de un hombre que dormía profundamente. Hasta que algo le despertara. Ese “algo” es la semilla del relato.
El relato se titula “el viaje Hindú” porque Sebastian Atmann se convierte en un tipo de “sannyasin” del occidente, un hombre que abandona su vida cotidiana para confrontarse con las verdades básicas de su vida. Y quizás, a través de ésta confrontación, para despertar totalmente, aun cuando fuera solamente por una vez y al último momento. Lo que le pasa después no cuenta. Quizás se libere del “samsara”, ese ciclo del nacimiento y la muerte y del nacimiento sin fin, o quizás llegue Sebastian al cielo, en el sentido cristiano. Pero su destino final no importa, porque lo que me interesa realmente es ese momento de despertamiento fundamental.
Yo creo que hay en la vida instantes en que podemos percibir efímeramente lo que constituye la esencia de la realidad. Son nada más que momentos fugaces, pero cuentan, y los guardamos durante toda la vida, aunque sea en el subconsciente. Sebastian describe dicha experiencia asi:
Recuerdo los veranos largos visitando la costa con mi familia, a donde siempre íbamos para huir del calor y de la contaminación de la ciudad. En noches claras y dulces me gustaba echarme en la playa para envolverme en el panorama del universo. Imaginaba las distancias inmensas entre las estrellas y trataba de proyectarme visualmente hacia ellas, pero siempre persistía una separación imposible de remontar. Y siempre me embargaba el sentido de ser casi consumido por el vacío del cielo, el sentido de que mi propia existencia simplemente se desvanecería ante el infinito si no cerraba los ojos. Pero al cerrarlos, caía profundamente y asustadamente en el universo desconocido dentro de mí, en un espacio sin fondo que me parecía tan inmenso como el que existen entre las galaxias. Y así, al abrir y cerrar los ojos, entre los dos universos insoportables, podía sentir por solo un instante el filo fino de mi existencia. Con esta perla en la mano, corría con el corazón palpitando a mi cama encontrando un refugio en la cabaña de mis padres. Y en este nido familiar me dormía, sonriendo.
En un instante, el joven Sebastian percibe que su existencia no es nada más que un hilo fino suspendido en un vacío desconocido. Pero en vez de asustarle, percibe simplemente que si, existe, y su intuición juvenil le permite guardar para sí esa pista como un regalo. La búsqueda de estas perlas de la experiencia es, al fin, parte de la educación de un ser humano.
Sigo escribiendo el Viaje Hindú, principalmente cuando estoy de viaje. No me importa si me cuesta aún diez años más para terminarlo, pero lo haré.