Looking for the truth? Go to the theatre.

Last night I went to a small Berlin theatre to see a one-woman play called Blonde Poison.

It’s about Stella Goldschlag, a German woman who collaborated with the Nazis to send hundreds, if not thousands of people to their deaths.

Using a poisonous cocktail of good looks and charm, she infiltrated hiding places and revealed them to the Gestapo.

Ferocious in her pursuit of victims, she was a dream come true for the Führer and his followers.

Blue-eyed and blonde, she epitomized the Aryan ideal.

Except for one thing.

She was Jewish.

Yes, you read that right.

Stella Goldschlag was a Jewish woman who embodied Nazi terror.

It’s an uncomfortable thing to write. Especially here in Germany, where the horrors inflicted on six million Jews are omnipresent – carved, literally, into the pavements and our consciousness.

The notion of a Jewish woman engineering the brutal deaths of her own people is something we might prefer not to think about.

Except, of course, that we must.

Because whether you consider her a monster, a victim of one, or something in between, Stella Goldschlag was a real person.

And real people do grotesque things. Most of the time, without considering themselves vile.

In the production I saw at the Brotfabrik, Stella Goldschlag is brilliantly portrayed by Dulcie Smart as an old woman waiting for a journalist to come and interview her.

As she paces nervously about the stage, counting down the minutes until she can put the coffee on, we witness an extraordinary pyschological range, which reveals not only the intelligence but also the empathy of the actress, who flits seamlessly from one state of heightened emotion to the next.

We see the girlish traces of vanity and vivaciousness and the suggestion of how they could have morphed into tools of treachery and deceit.

The flickers of innocence and pride as she recalls the way her father used to call her “Pünktchen” – and tell her she was destined to become a star.

We learn that Stella Goldschlag continued to betray Jews even after her parents were murdered at Auschwitz.

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Dulcie Smart as Stella Goldschlag Source: Brotfabrik

We watch in horror as her thoughts advance unrestrained.

She speaks of the mortification which must be experienced by those who get spinach stuck in their teeth. To tell them or not to? That is the question.

She is proud of her clean, white smile and examines it frequently in the mirror.

Her anti-Semitism is expressed in the disgust she has for the hooked noses and black hair of her fellow Jews.

Is she mad or bad or both, we wonder.

A victim or an engine of a totalitarian regime?

You will leave the theatre with an unsettled feeling in the pit of your stomach.

Embrace it.

It’s the sting of a painful truth.

Despite our enormous appetite for it, there is no such thing as a single story.

No one embodiment of monstrosity.

No defined point at which democracy erodes.

No real wisdom that can fit into 142 characters or less.

We may be closer to the truth in the theatre than on Twitter.

But even then, the sign of a good production is one that reminds us that in a functioning democracy, the absolute truth is allowed to elude us.

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‘Men are absolutely useless’ says LSH

We were holidaying in Ahlbeck, a seaside town near the German-Polish border. It was our last night and we were in an Italian restaurant, waiting for the enormous pizza we’d ordered to go.

All of a sudden, a look of panic spread over LSH’s face, and he began tapping his pockets frantically. Then he emptied the contents of his bag on the table.

“I don’t have my wallet,” he said.

“It’s probably in the apartment.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Go back and check,” I suggested. “I’ll wait for the pizza.”

I couldn’t wait to tear into its cheesy, spinachy goodness.

It came moments after LSH had left. The heat from the box radiated through to my fingertips as I crunched through the snow back to the apartment. Giddy with greed, I expected to find LSH sheepishly reunited with his wallet, and ready to crack open a few bottles of the local beer we’d bought in Edeka earlier.

Instead I found him stony-faced.

“It’s gone,” he said.

We turned the apartment inside out, tearing open drawers, accessing nooks and crannies we hadn’t known existed. We even turned the couch upside down, as if we expected the wallet to tumble out with a guilty “alright, you got me!”

“I had it in Edeka,” LSH said later, miserably munching a cold slice of pizza. “I paid with exact change. I must have set it down when I went to pick up the bottles.”

“We’ll go back first thing tomorrow morning,” I said. “But until then there’s nothing we can do.”

“All my bank cards,” said LSH. “My BVG travel ticket. My Trinity College graduate library pass.”

“It’s expired,” I said gently. “We moved away six years ago.”

“The existing pass is required for renewal,” LSH said tersely.

The romantic, gorge-ful evening we had envisioned was slipping away.

“I just have to sleep it off,” said LSH, and went to bed, leaving me to nurse a flat regional beer.

The next morning the snow sparkled under brilliant sunshine. It has to be in Edkea, I thought, though I was careful to conceal my optimism.

The shop had just opened. A young man sat at the till.

“Good morning,” I said. “We’ve lost a wallet. And we think we left it here, on this very ledge, last night. Could you check to see if you have it?”

He shook his head vigorously. “Nope,” he said. “No wallet here.”

“Go to the department of lost items,” the customer behind us chipped in.

“Oh?” I said. “I didn’t know such a thing existed.”

“It’s in the town hall,” he said.

“This is very odd,” I said as we made our way down a long and narrow yellow-walled corridor, passing glass cases that featured posters outlining the requirements for passport photographs due to come into effect in 2004.

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How LSH and I feel about women everywhere

“It is a sleepy town,” said LSH.

We found a door labeled “Office of found items” We could hear a radio on in the background.

We knocked.

There was no answer.

A young woman swept past us on her way into another room.

“Can I help you?” she asked pleasantly.

“Sure,” I said. “We’d like to declare a missing wallet.”

“You’re in the right place,” she said, sympathetically. “But the office might not open for another few minutes. Why don’t you just take a seat?”

“Thanks,” we said.

We sat down outside the Lost and Found office, and became aware of a male voice coming from it.

We agreed that this time it wasn’t the radio.

“I’ll knock again in a while,” I said.

Fifteen minutes later, the same woman emerged again from her room.

“Still no answer?” she asked.

We shook our heads sadly.

Forty-five minutes later, during which time no one had actually entered the room, we knocked again.

“Come in,” said a gruff voice.

An old, bearded man was sitting at a desk. Judging by his expression, he was not happy to see us.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“My husband has lost his wallet” I said.  “Has it possibly turned up here?”

“No.”

“Oh, that’s a shame. Perhaps we could report it missing?”

The request appeared to pain him.

“I’ll need your ID.”

“It’s in my wallet,” LSH said helplessly.

The man sighed.

“Perhaps I can give you my passport instead?” I suggested.

He agreed, reluctantly.

He typed my details –  painstakingly slowly – into the computer.

I asked if I could provide an e-mail address so he could contact me if the wallet was handed in.

He squinted at the computer.

“There’s no box on this form for an e-mail address,” he said. “There has to be a box.”

“Oh, hmm perhaps you could just take a note of it then?” I asked.

He continued to gaze at the screen.

“Actually, there is a box,” he said. “So you can give it to me after all.”

He printed out a document to confirm that LSH had lost his wallet.

We thanked him profusely and left.

“I’m going to have to cancel everything,” LSH said, crestfallen. “So many phone calls.”

(We hate phone calls.)

On or way back, we passed Edeka again.

“Come on,” I said, suddenly determined. “We’re going back in.”

We passed the young man at the till and made our way up and down the aisles until we found another member of staff: this time, a woman stacking shelves.

“Excuse me,” I said, with a hint of desperation in my voice.

“My husband thinks he left his wallet here last night. Is there any chance it’s been found?”

She smiled.

“What does it look like?”

“It’s black!” LSH blurted out. “Bulging with receipts.. a ton of cards!”

She nodded.

“And look,” LSH said, brandishing our document from the man in the town hall. “We’ve even got an official document declaring it missing!”

She glanced at it, bemused.

“One moment,” she said.

She disappeared to the back of the shop and came back with the wallet.

LSH clapped his hands together in adulation. I called her an angel.

She looked at us with the kind of sympathy reserved for the deranged.

“You’re welcome!” she said and returned to her tins of soup.

As we left the shop, passing by the young man at the till, LSH turned to me and said:

“Katzi, men are absolutely useless.”

“Go on,” I said, happily.

“The tosser at the till, swearing blindly that he didn’t have the wallet. He didn’t even look. Or ask someone!” He paused, then continued, “that old man in the town hall: zero help!”

“Yes,” I said. “I can certainly see where you’re coming from.” But then, for the sake of diplomacy I said, “Not all men though. You, for example, are alright.”

“Katzi,” he said.  “I’m the one who lost my wallet!”

“True,” I said. “And I’m the one who got it back.”

We crunched through the snow back to the apartment, singing the praises of women everywhere.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Why I want to get naked at Teufelsee

A little while ago, LSB and I were cycling through a forest. The sun was glistening through the leaves. The air was sweet. All you could hear was the crunch of tyres on the path.

Somewhere along the way, we took a wrong turn and found ourselves at a lake. A sign told us we had arrived at “Teufelsee.” Naked men and women were lounging on the grass reading magazines, while others stood knee-deep in the water, patting their arms with water before diving in. Up a little hill, a young and bare-skinned couple was embracing. Unmoving and perfectly entwined, they reminded me of a Renaissance painting.

“This is wonderful,” I said to LSB as we walked by some middle-aged men and women chatting together; their breasts and penises exposed as naturally as my hands or feet.

“It’s nice,” he said, and pointed to a group of ducklings, which were creating tiny ripples as they paddled behind their mother.

Image source: Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Freikörperkultur – or free body culture – thrived in Communist East Germany, where people knew a thing or two about being denied personal freedom. The movement spread to West Germany and now even in a united and free Germany, nudist areas are relatively common.

A few months ago, I was writing a news story about nudist bathing spots in Munich. “It’s not right,” my young, male editor said.  “What’s not right?” I asked.

“Imposing yourself on others,” he said. “I don’t want to see some…” He paused.

“…Fat people.” I think he had wanted to say “ugly” too but stopped himself.

If words have a smell, these reeked of privilege and prudishness.

That, coupled with the recent click-whorish delight he had displayed while creating a photo gallery of women posing for a sexy Alpine-themed calendar under the caption “Farm girls calendar shows pick of the crop” made me see red.

“People don’t exist for your viewing pleasure,” I said.

He scoffed. “I don’t want to be confronted with some .. naked person when I’m walking down the street,” he said.

Poor man, I thought. Imagine his horror when he realises not every woman looks like the Alpine farm girls. Or that men get old and have saggy flesh and that someday, he will too.

I read the following quote recently, which sums up perfectly what I want to say:

“It is illegal for women to go topless in most cities, yet you can buy a magazine of a woman without her top on in any 7-11 store. So you can sell breasts, but you cannot wear breasts, in America. ”

It is okay to post naked pictures of women on the internet, as long as it generates clicks and income for your website. It is not okay to meet one in real life. Particularly if she doesn’t conform to your ideals.

And here is the saddest part.

Even though I have promised myself I will, I have reservations about going nudist bathing at Teufelsee. I dread the idea of meeting someone I know, or alarming somebody with my less-than-perfect body.

Because in spite  – or maybe because of – of all the education I have had; the material comfort and political freedom I enjoy,   somewhere along the way, I failed to learn that my body has to please nobody but myself.

The ninetenth-century novel that sheds light on 21st century backwardness

I finished Fontane’s Effi Briest on the train back from Warsaw. Maybe I shouldn’t have. The tale of a young girl who marries a much older, politically ambitious man doesn’t end well. I burst into tears while reading the final passage. LSB, well used to my delicate sensibilities, patted my back and let me blow my nose in his scarf. Then I hid my face in his coat to avoid the stares of my fellow passengers.

Image source: Wiki Commons (c) H.-P.Haack

Image source: Wiki Commons (c) H.-P.Haack

*Spoiler Alert*

On the surface, it’s easy to see why I found the story upsetting. 17 year-old Effi is married off to Baron von Instetten, who was once in love with her mother. They move into a creepy house in the middle of nowhere. A huge shark carcass hangs in the entrance hall and Effi is scared by the strange sounds coming from an empty upstairs room. Instetten dismisses her fears and spends most of his time travelling and pursuing political ambitious in Prussia. Lonely and shunned by all but a good-natured apothecary, Effi descends into depression.

She gives birth to a baby girl and recruits a suicidal woman to nurse her.

Enter Major Crampas. He’s a married man with a reputation for infidelity. He makes advances on Effi and implies that her husband is using her fears of the haunted house to “educate” her. One night while taking a sledge ride, Crampas kisses her. It’s a nineteenth century novel, so either the rest of the affair is glossed over, or it doesn’t go any further than that.

In any case, the years go by and things improve when the family moves to Berlin and Effi can finally bid goodbye to the creepy house with the shark carcass. But while Effi is away breathing in sea air to increase the chances of bearing a son, Instetten finds old letters from Crampas in her sewing box.

Instead of being heartbroken, he’s mortified at what society will think of him. He challenges Crampas to a duel and shoots him dead. Then he banishes Effi and deprives her of seeing her daughter. Years later, when he grants a single visit, Effi realises that her daughter has been poisoned against her. Her health declines. Eventually, Effi’s parents take pity on her and allow her to come home. She dies full of remorse at age 29.

That was the bit that got me. Effi dies believing herself monstrous. Despite the fact that she was undoubtedly the victim of a stifling, money-driven, image-obsessed society with a questionable understanding of a woman’s worth, as well as of sexual consent.

Now we get to the crux of it. I wasn’t just in floods of tears because of Effi. After all, she’s fictional!

What made me really inconsolable was recognising that young women these days are still being subjected to outrageous social pressures. And that many, like Effi, accept the blame for things which are not their fault.

Let’s take the fact that Effi’s parents have control over her sexual and marital fate. Nineteenth century craziness, right? Not really. A recent documentary followed the purity movement in the United States, where apparently one in six girls takes a pledge to stay a virgin until she marries. Specifically, it followed the troubling phenomenon of “father-daughter purity balls” where teenage girls, many of them much younger than Effi, pledge that their father will be their only boyfriend until they marry.

What about power dynamics in relationships? Did young Effi really have a choice when the sleazy Crampas came on to her in the sleigh? A video on Upworthy which went went viral last week features a young woman promoting what’s dubbed “consent culture.” She details in crystal clear language what consent is and what it is not. She argues that in some cases, consent is impossible. For example she says, “you can’t get consent from someone you have power over.” Well over a hundred years after Fontante wrote Effi Briest, campaigners still need to spell out that some relationships are by their very existence, exploitative. Echoes of wealthy, manipulative Crampas preying on young and vulnerable Effi are all around us.

Finally, let’s consider the image-based culture Effi is subjected to. She’s paraded around society, where she is expected to display flawless beauty. Last month, 17 year-old singer Lorde took to Twitter to express her frustration that a publication had doctored an image of her to correct her skin blemishes. “Remember flaws are ok :)” she tweeted to her 1.46 million followers.

If only that, and the other important messages Fontane was sending us, would actually catch on in the 21st century.

On pens and penises

Meet Gilbert and Gubar; two ladies whose collaborative feminist treatise The Madwoman in the Attic opens with the question “Is the pen a metaphorical penis?”

I’ve had a long look at my black felt tip. It doesn’t appear virile- though of course that ejaculation might be premature.

For decades, academics and journalists have been considering women’s place in the world. They have been characterised as angels, whores, monsters and mothers. In the name of progress, their gift in writing has been likened to a product of the male reproductive organ.

In western society, traditional notions of a woman’s place in the home have become taboo. Of late, the idea that a woman might choose to become a fulltime mother rather than a professional has been rendered unthinkable.

The reluctance to accept that a woman may decide on motherhood over career advancement was exemplified by a New York Times article by Jack Ewing published last week, which meditated on the surprisingly small number of German women who return to fulltime work after availing of the government-paid 12-month parental leave.

The writer laments the fact that “Despite a battery of government measures … only about 14 percent of German mothers with one child resume full-time work, and only 6 percent of those with two”. He goes on to cite example after example of corporate bodies where only a tiny proportion of women have ended up at the top. Part of the problem, he muses is that “most schools still end at lunchtime, which has sustained the stay-at-home-mother image of German lore”.

While it’s worthwhile to draw attention to gender disparities in top corporate positions, the discourse that surrounds it – while well-intentioned – does a good job of enforcing the idea that women remain passive beings with little control over the course of their lives.

Ewing expresses the misgiving that “when it comes to empowering women, no Teutonic drive or deference seems to work”. Far from promoting any egalitarian cause, such speculation denies women the right to make life choices outside of a socio-political narrative, which subtly yet forcefully dictates that having a career is more worthy than caring for a child and that empowerment can only be measured in economic terms.

Germany is a good example to focus on to illustrate the point. Government measures strongly support the mother in the workplace – she is allowed 12 months parental leave with pay and is guaranteed her job back at the end of it. Although it’s probable that a larger proportion of mothers return to part-time work, the fact that only 14% go back to a fulltime career is indeed surprising.

In the absence of financial and political disincentives however, the fact that is continuously over-looked, is that women are opting not to return to work. Instead of being respected as free agents, those that make this choice are treated as victims of a social order which is portrayed as significantly less than the sum of its egalitarian parts.

For true parity to exist, the Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus mantra must be debunked. Ewing describes Germany as “one of the countries in most need of female talent” (my italics) but doesn’t define what he means by the term. If male and female talent aren’t viewed with equality, the prospect of a roughly 50:50 breakdown of gender in all sectors of professional life is unrealisable.

Furthermore, unless it’s accepted as equally scandalous that the proportion of male nurses is equivalent to that of female corporate executives, a discussion of gender can never be detached from a social weighting in favour of money.

Were society’s priorities reversed, public discussion might centre around the outrage that a man’s right to parental leave is considerably more restricted than a woman’s, that a boy’s emotional development is stunted by the expectation that he will advance up a corporate ladder and that the male body is no more than a military tool.

While you can’t spell “metaphorical penis” without pen, as I look again at my black felt tip I begin to think that Gilbert and Gubar might have been feminists equipped with rather (pardon me) fertile imaginations.