Letters From Berlin

Friday, February 27th


Albinoni’s Adagio was the high point for me. 2 violins, 1 viola, 1 cello. St. Bernard’s Church, Cracow, Poland, old and chilly, but beautiful acoustics. More visual stimulation than a person can absorb in a day, paintings, sculptures… a stuffed church. It was the centering I needed to be ready for the next day.
Jarek had accompanied me the night before to the stop from which the minivans leave for Oswiecim. 7 zlotys. For breakfast I had an orange and the last of the now 3 day old pastries which Jarek bought on my arrival. I walked to the van. I got in and took the front passenger seat. Plenty of leg room. I recognized the young man across the aisle, sitting with his travel companion on the bench directly behind the driver. He had been at the concert the night before. Handsome and long haired, wearing a Hard Rock Café - Kobé jacket. I assumed they were Japanese. They were from Tokyo, not Kobé; they had been studying architecture in Bochum.
The road out of Cracow seemed very circuitous to me, but then, with everything being unfamiliar, nothing going very far in a straight line, (no grid), and with snow falling pretty seriously, I had no way to tell direction from the sun.
I was glad to be in a van. A train was the other option, but somehow a train, even a Polish commuter train, felt too spooky. On the other hand, as we got farther out of town the roads got worse. I reassured myself. “This guy looks like a very experienced driver.” Still, there were no seat belts. I imagined a radio report:‘Tourists dying in a rolled over van on the way to one of histories most tragic sites…’ I told myself to breathe deep and easy. “This is not bad, I have driven in far worse.” Was my mother’s ghost visiting me with her fear of driving on slippery roads?
After not quite an hour and a half, through some very beautiful, snow covered, pine forests we arrived in the town of Oswiecim. A black sign with white letters pointed the way to Auschwitz Museum. Through a small park and then through the parking lot. The museum is basically the remains of the concentration camps. Unlike Sachsenhausen, where a separate museum contextualizes the site beyond the point of distraction, this museum was done right.
A film was to be shown at 11, so I had 20 minutes to wander through the grounds on my own. After the film two English speaking guides came to divide the waiting group into two sets of 15.
I went with Magda, we left first. Though the other guide was a very handsome and intelligent looking man, I forwent the aesthetic pleasure.
We walked out of the reception hall into the cold, windy day. Snow continued to fall. We stopped before passing under the gate where the original iron ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ still worked its twisted humor on all passers-beneath. The camp we were entering, Auschwitz 1, was originally a Polish army installation. Brick barracks. Here and there signs explained things. I listened to Magda’s voice. Her knowledge surpassed her language skills. I don’t mean to say she couldn’t explain things, but that she was well versed in her subject. Her tone always had a certain reserve, coupled with a bitterness, a contempt for the barbarousness of her western neighbor. An anger with a different flavor than any concentration camp memorial would ever have in Germany. Move some of the sadness into anger.
I recalled Bozena’s father. Tattooed forearm. An Auschwitz survivor. “I only speak German when I have to. When East German colleagues come to visit me at the ministry of mines, they always compliment me on my German. I defer. They persevere, and ask me where I learned it. I say softly, the University, hoping they will drop it. Anxious to make connections, they never fail to continue, Which one? (They can never leave well enough alone, as if speaking German could only be perceived to be a good thing). I say Auschwitz. Unnecessary conversation stops there.”
We entered some of the barracks. It was explained that some were originally one story. The camp prisoners added the second stories. We saw the wall of death - a brick wall before which hundreds of people were shot, and the gallows, where one day 9 were hanged. These were the only two reconstructions. Everything else I saw remained from then. We saw the basement where prisoners waited to be executed. A room where people were tortured by being deprived of light. A room where many people were crammed in so that they suffocated - only one small hole for fresh air. Four closet sized rooms in each of which four prisoners would be forced to stand all night. No room to sit nor lie.
In some of the barracks thing had been preserved from the Nazi’s warehouses of materials confiscated from their victims. Tons of human hair, saved to be sent to factories in Germany to be used to manufacture mattresses. Hair shaved from the heads of women on arrival. Bushels of eye glasses. Piles and piles of shoes. Pretty beat up. Most of the good ones had been taken for use. And countless unimaginable prosthetics. And suitcases. Unlike other items, the suitcases were not anonymous. Each had a name and the address of what had once been the home of its owner.
We left the barracks, and were led to the gas chamber, a low ceilinged room where canisters of Zyklon B were dropped in from overhead. The ovens for cremating the bodies were in the same room. Iron tracks on the floors used to guide wagons to the ovens.
This was where Auschwitz began. Then we had lunch, and went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The expansion. This is the place we know from the movies. The front gates remain. The vastness remains. Hundreds of primitive brick chimneys still stand where the wooden barracks used to be. Few of the 300 barracks remain. Barracks is too generous a word. Most of the barracks at Birkenau were horse stables, prefabricated in Germany, shipped to Poland, and set up in Auschwitz-Birkenau to hold 90,000 prisoners. The wood didn’t hold up. Only a dozen or so were preserved.
It was a cold windy day. The snow blew between the few remaining barracks, often blinding us. It was a perfect day to imagine the horror of this place. Designed to efficiently kill eleven million. I have never been anywhere where evil seemed more concentrated. More people died here at the hands of the Nazis than anywhere else. Only the outcome of the war kept the total at Auschwitz from being 11 million.
Most people arrived here and were sent straight to the gas chambers. Told to remember where they hung their clothes so they could find them after their shower. Herded about by special groups of camp inmates, special groups which too were systematically exterminated. Every two months because they knew the system of “the final solution” too well. These special groups herded the arrivals into the showers, and then later piled their corpses and loaded them into the ovens.
Only a small minority survived the day of arrival. Those who “lived” in the camp were tattooed. They were kept to perform slave labor
I saw a memorial installed where the ovens used to be. The nazis destroyed the ovens before they abandoned the camp. Except for the oven which one of the special groups succeeded inblowing up with chemicals smuggled in by women who worked as slave labor at the IG Farben plant. The memorial was in the language of every country from which victims were brought to Auschwitz. It was the only place in either of the camps where I saw German. From the memorial I walked the train tracks back out of the camp, back to the taxi. The driver was a Pole who had lived 25 years in Chicago. Only in Chicago could he have spoken so little English in 25 years. Others waited for me inside the warm cab. I thought about thousands in vertical stripes and, if they were lucky, wooden clogs. The same vertical stripe that Willi Smith would make fashionable in the 1980’s. I walked out over the train tracks that brought so many in. Most of them were told as they entered: “The only way out of here is through one of the chimneys.”
The snow continued to fall, as human ashes once fell on this neighborhood.

pscully on 02.27.04 @ 05:33 PM CET [link]

Wednesday, February 4th

2 Sauna Stories (to be continued)

Two Sauna stories.

He was not my type at all. Looking at him I thought, all those steroids can not be good for you in the long run. His upper body was too well developed. Muscles were large. Veins bulged. His nipples were very defined, and stood up. He walked into the sauna and sat next to me. His thighs were too massive to see even his pubic hair as he sat next to me. It was too crowded for the usual male behavior of spreading our knees far apart to hang comfortably and publicly. There wasn’t that much knee room for those of us on the upper bench.
The usual rule is silence. Germans as a group tend to prefer silence and solitude. Lärm ist zu vermeiden. He spoke to me, quietly.
Did I have kids?
I don’t either, but I would like to. At my age, I’m 45, you’re about that, too?
Yeah, 50.
Yeah, well at this age, I start to think, I don’t need to go anywhere else, when you are young you think you should travel all over the world.And I have traveled. But now, I don’t know if it is mid-life crisis but I start to think that where you live is very important. Who wants to go start all over again? Meet all new people. Travel is ok but…Where are you from?
The United States.
Yeah, I spent a month in Hawaii, but you know, I am a Berliner, born here, and I wonder, am I afraid of commitment, or … this is pretty philosophical, isn’t it? But why am I still alone, and why don’t I have any kids? Anyhow, I’m normal, hetero. And you?
I’m gay. But I have thought about having kids. Maybe adopting.
I have heard of lesbians who go out, get laid by a guy just to get the sperm, and then never see him again, just to have a kid.
That works better for lesbians than for gay men.
The heat is getting to me. I’ll see you next time.
My name’s Patrick.
Norbert. Until next time, Patrick.

A different night.
I went into the steamroom. The same mixed gender and naked steamrooms at Elixia that I earlier judged as surprisingly asexual. Well, maybe the one at Hermannplatz, but even there I think my judgement was premature. Subsequent visits proved I was wrong to have judged so hastily. Here at Pragerplatz, things are more upscale, more gay men, and fewer immigrants. There is an occasional woman in the steamroom, but the club must be half gay men. In this steamroom, the gay mating dance is not unlike that which I have observed, and joined in, back home. You scratch your pubic hair, lift your balls, and/or stretch your dick. Notice if anyone else does the same. If no one moves a hands toward his crotch, it means there are probably no players in the room. At least not any starters.
Well, this night, a man, not German, sat down across the way, and laid his penis up along the crease of his thigh toward his hip. This unusual positioning caught my attention. He noticed me noticing him. As he looked at me, naked across from him, his head started to emerge from its foreskin. Of its own volition. That was a good sign. His eyes led him into the dance. He didn’t need his hands, his body already betrayed high interest. There were others in the room, but no other players. He smiled to me. I positioned myself so that of all the men in the room, only he could see my nascent erection. The others would have to shift to see. Smiles continued to pass between us, as did time. We danced a “no hands” dance. Eye contact provided all the stimulation we needed. My eyes and body followed him to the dry sauna. Our flirtation continued there, sublty, full of playfulness and attention, among guests coming and going.
“Universe to Patrick, Universe to Patrick! Pay attention!” I paused suspended in time. I realized how much I had missed this sexual energy in recent times. I missed sex with Mauricio, wondered how that, along with his affection, had faded. Wisely, I think, I had given up on trying. I could not continue one-sidedly to try to revive passion and affection. “Steamroom to Patrick, come in please!” Remembering an adage from years ago with Contactworks: “The monkey who has missed his branch, and the man who has missed his chance, can not be helped.” I left those doubts and returned to the moment; to enjoy the sauna and the flirtation.
The heat built up, and after a while, he left to cool off. There is a row of four showers near the sauna. The one at the far end is actually a high bucket full of cold water. You pull the cord, and it douses you. At the near end it is a flat spout with only cold water. In between are two broad showerheads directly overhead with hot and cold controls. The entrances to these four stalls are visible from the sauna. He disappeared into a shower. I saw water splashing out of his stall, and also from the shower stall beyond. I went to cool off, too. Not willing to brave either cold only option, I waited for my playmate to step out from his shower. Standing not five feet from him, enjoying the proximity, enjoying the definition of his small, lean body, the water pushing black hair from his brow, enjoying the fullness of his pendulum, not lifting, but full. He stepped from his shower to let me enter. As I stepped under the water his left hand slyly and gently grabbed me and squeezed firmly, twice. The blood resisted being squeezed out, and I started to get fuller. Seeing that no one was looking, he dropped to his knees to touch his lips and tongue to my rising erection. Praise Jesus! I exclaimed to myself.
He rose up again, almost as suddenly. He stepped back, grinned, and left me under the water. After a moment I stepped out, to let him re-enter the falling water. A man emerged from behind the divide of the adjacent shower. There was no more privacy to steal. I went back to the steamroom to cool off. Ten minutes later we stood side by side under the lockerroom showers, and shared grins like two mischevious 14 year olds. After dressing I went to give him my telephone number, but he was gone.
The next night, after my swim, I saw him again. I sat next to him at one of the foot baths, and filled the sink with very warm water for my feet. We talked. I told him I had hoped to give him my phone number, but he had disappeared too soon. He smiled, and said he would like to have it. As our conversation progressed I thought, is the universe playing with me? A dancer from Rio de Janirero. What are the odds? What am I supposed to notice here?
I am reminded of another message from the universe, a few months back. When I was first aware of feeling the absence of tenderness from Mauricio, an e-mail came to me out of the blue. A distant admirer, a Minneapolitan now in California, telling me that he had always admired me, but had kept his distance because the timing had never been right, I had always seemed to be in a relationship when he wasn’t. Now he was telling me that he hoped the timing would one day be right. He had gone through the trouble of tracking me down when he was back in Minneapolis, and wanted to be in e-mail and phone contact with me. I realized; this is the kind of attention that I am missing. I should be getting this at home. The universe was holding a mirror up so that I could see that something was wrong in my life.
Like Bullwinkle, I keep finding messages in a bottle.

pscully on 02.04.04 @ 01:40 PM CET [link]

Tuesday, February 3rd

Museum Piece

I went through a program a couple of years ago called IRCL. The institute for renewal of community leadership. There I met Maureen Bruce. I came to admire that she got ideas, and manifested them. She seemed to just sort of look around, think about what needed doing, and then applied herself. This is an approach to life that I try to embrace, and I was encouraged to see someone who so clearly does what I aspire to do.
Last week I went to a lecture at the Berlin’s Schwules (Gay) Museum. One of the things I think I should do, when I return to Minneapolis, is to start a queer museum. I have often wondered about a queer community center for the Twin Cities, and thought: There is District 202 for youth, why not a center for queer adults?
Well, the night after the lecture night I did not sleep as soundly as I usually do, and it occurred to me, in the middle of the night, that a museum would be a geat way to approach a queer community center. Berlin’s Schwules Museum does a really wide range of stuff: they currently have an exhibit on lesbian and gay life in Berlin since 1945, they organized the exhibit on persecution of homosexuals by the Nazis that was at the Minneapolis YWCA last fall, and in February they open an art exhibit by 15 different queer contemporary local artists. This museum in Minnesota could function as a kind of queer cultural center, and take advantage of things like the Tretter Collection and Quatrefoil, without having to amass its own collection.
Anyhow, that is all for the future, near future, but it got my mind spinning. The impetus for it all was the lecture and discussion. The theme was the persecution of homosexuals in post-war Berlin.
In a nutshell, the persecution of homosexuals that the Nazi’s started did not end with the war. It continued for decades afterward, and was sanctioned by the post-war German government. Practically the only real improvement was that the penalty for the crime of being homosexual was no longer death. Gay men who had been persecuted continued to be. Homosexuals continued to be considered criminals, and were subjected to raids, intimidation, harassment and ultimately even prison. Further, they were not eligible for compensation paid to other victims, nor even for participation in official holocaust victim groups. It did not help that in post-war Germany the US had a huge influence in society and government. The McCarthy era’s homophobia had its impact in Berlin, too.
During the evening I heard men tell stories of how in the first years after the war they were too hungry to worry about reestablishing gay life, or even finding a boyfriend. They emphasized that circumstances of the times need to be remembered to understand gay life in that time. I was moved to hear of a man getting a job in a cabaret the year after the war, playing for Russian soldiers, helping a female friend get a job there as a singer, having a successful coworker in the cabaret who never spoke of his life in the concentration camps as a gay prisoner. Another told of how the revival of art after the war was so important to maintaining spirits for continuing on. And how mundane some of the first art exhibits were. Someone else explained why he thougt it was not logical for homosexuals to expect solidarity from other groups victimized by the Nazis.
This got me to wondering, the post-war era is when I came into the world. I was born in 1953. How has the reality of gay life in Minnesota during the time I was a child impacted me? One thing is clear, the repressive era of my youth has engrained itself in me in my internalized homophobia. And homoerotophobia. I notice that I have to consciously overcome feelings of shame when I talk about sex in front of a mixed audience. The more the group is like me, the easier it is. So, with a group of radical faeries, I feel no shame. With a group of all gay men, probably very little. Still, even then, I am aware that some gay men have very different norms when it comes to sex and relationships, but my presumptions in an all gay male group is that my perspective is ok. With a mixed group of queer and straight folks, the setting makes a big difference. As it does with a mixed gay and lesbian group. At Queer Boy'z Nite at Patrick’s Cabaret it was pretty easy to tell myself, “If not me, in a setting as safe as this, then what fag ever? and then when, if ever?” before a mixed group. With that I could get over my shame, and could tell stories about sex.
So, that makes these letters from Berlin complex for me to write, if I get personal about sex. Even if I looked at the list of everyone who has signed up to receive them, I would not necessarily recognize names from e-mail addresses. Even if I had a list of the names, what would I make of names I did not recognize? Such thoughts are the legacy of being born gay, during the Eisenhower era, the McCarthy era. I may never be free of the shame, but I think that by acknowledging it, I make progress.
In my head, I know that this is not just a gay issue. A BBC reporter interviewed me in 1997 in Belfast. She was interested in the myth of Adam and Eve, and in deconstructing how it manifests today. Her theory was that the vast majority of people come to see themselves as failures because they have not managed to duplicate this myth of one man and one woman for life.
I remember performing Queer Thinking at Illusion Theater about the same time. Just before the show started I saw two of my cousins, Janet and Gail, in the audience. I was mortified. I was about to tell all of these old secrets. Many of them family related. I took a deep breath, told myself that they were there because they wanted to hear these stories, and I headed out onto the stage.
Janet broke the ice at the Q and A after the show by saying she dreamed some day I would do this show for a family reunion. Dream on, Janet. For that, I would have to have been born forty years later. Or, maybe next year, in a program at the Queer Museum of Minnesota.

pscully on 02.03.04 @ 04:17 PM CET [link]

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