How far must one go back, Sebald asked in After Nature, to find the beginning? And answered: perhaps to the morning of January 9, 1905, when his grandparents drove in an open landau to the nearest town to be married.
That was the beginning of the social being W. G. Sebald—and more, since the grandfather in the poem was his mother’s father, Josef Egelhofer, the person he loved most throughout his childhood, perhaps throughout his life. But the origins of the writer may lie elsewhere: not in a source of security and happiness—even a lost one—but in the opposite. As Sebald’s sister Gertrud says, “You only write if you have to.” Sebald had to write. Why? If we could answer that, we might find the beginning.These were the silences that demanded to be filled, the secrets he would be driven to explore.
He grew up, he wrote, with the feeling that there was “some sort of emptiness somewhere.” Already as a child he thought, There’s something wrong here. It was connected to his name, Winfried: even as a small boy he felt it wasn’t right. (And surely all this makes us think of Austerlitz.) Often he imagined “a silent catastrophe.” But what was it? No one would tell him.
In fact, there were two silent catastrophes, both of which had happened around the time of his birth: the genocide of the Jews and the bombing of the German cities. These were the silences that demanded to be filled, the secrets he would be driven to explore.
The silence was so complete that for the first eight years of his life in the village of Wertach, and for several more in the small town of Sonthofen, he had no conscious knowledge of either. No one ever spoke of Jews, either at home or at school.
Not of the Jews of Europe, or of Germany, or of Sonthofen itself, where, despite its remoteness on the southern edge of Bavaria, there had been several before the war. Georg Goldberg, for instance, an engineer in the ironworks, whose daughter had left Germany when she was barred from finishing her training as a dentist. And Dr Kurt Weigert, the director of the Sonthofen Hospital, who had been dismissed on racial grounds in 1935. He survived the war, and in 1945 returned to Sonthofen and took up his post in the hospital again. After his death thirty years later, the council erected an official memorial to him in the cemetery. Thus Sonthofen attempted, belatedly, to make amends.
Oberstdorf, where Sebald went to school, was much smaller than Sonthofen, but still had a few Jews. Most were rich retirees who could keep a low profile. For the one working person, however—the dentist, Julius Löwin—there was no hiding. In 1938 the Nazis of Oberstdorf enthusiastically expelled Löwin, together with his wife and son.
“One Jew fewer!” The Allgäuer Anzeigeblatt reports the departure of Julius Löwin and his family from Oberstdorf in August 1938. “We are sincerely happy that another of the ‘Chosen People’ has finally left us,” it ends. “There are very few Jews left now in the Sonthofen area. May the Löwins’ departure be a shining example to them.”
The Löwins emigrated to the United States, and so, like Dr Weigert, survived the war. The “few Jews left”—like the playwright Carl Zuckmayer’s mother, for instance—didn’t, in fact, follow their example. As it turned out, the wartime mayor of Oberstdorf, and also the Kreisleiter (head) of the Sonthofen area, as we’ll see, were among the more humane Nazi officials, so they too survived. But the anti-Jewish propaganda was unrelenting, and like all Jews who remained in Germany, they will have lived the twelve years of the Thousand-Year Reich in fear.
All this, in both Sebald’s towns, was buried and forgotten as though it had never existed. He was never even told that his beloved schoolteacher had been dismissed from his post for being a quarter Jewish—which became the story “Paul Bereyter” in The Emigrants. And it wasn’t only that Jews were never mentioned. Apart from Dr Weigert, and the few elderly ladies in Oberstdorf, there weren’t any left, for obvious reasons; so that Winfried grew up without ever meeting a single Jewish person. So did his sister: “I never even knew what a Jew was,” she says.
That began to change when he was 17, and a film about the concentration camps was shown at his school (as it was at Gertrud’s school as well). The plan must have been to have a sober discussion on the subject afterwards, but for Sebald this sudden eruption of death into the classroom, without preparation and after a lifetime of silence, was too much to take in. It was a nice spring afternoon, with a football match afterwards, and he “didn’t know what to do with it,” he said.
He wasn’t the only one: the school friends I spoke to had only vague recollections of the film, if any at all. This breaking of a taboo through the surface of their young lives was too horrifying to assimilate, as anyone who has seen that film can testify, even if they are neither Jewish nor German. For Sebald and his friends it was an early example of something his later work was largely about: a trauma that cannot be registered at the time or remembered afterwards.
But by now it was the early 1960s, and the atmosphere was changing. He and his friends began to talk worriedly together: What had their fathers done in the war? And 16 sixteen or 17 on Winfried himself began to change. He had always been notably intelligent, but now he began to pull away from his classmates. He became a wide, unorthodox reader, and more and more critical of accepted opinions—beginning with the Catholic religion, the unquestioned authority both at home and at school.
It was probably because of his wide reading, Gertrud thinks, that he began to challenge the conspiracy of silence in the family before she did, though she was three years older. It didn’t work. He was too direct, too critical; his father would stubbornly repeat, “I don’t remember,” and it would end in a blazing row. It never did work; Sebald could never get either of his parents to talk about the past. Perhaps if they had, he wouldn’t have had to write his books. That is what they come out of, despite the public efforts at “overcoming the past”: the private silence of German families.
And then there was the other secret, about the Germans’ own suffering at the end of the war. He would write about this too—again breaking a taboo, since Germans were not supposed to complain, given how much more serious their own crimes had been. But Sebald would speak out against any crime, whoever had committed it.
This silence was even deeper than the first: at least they were shown the film about the camps towards the end of their school years. The devastation of the Allied bombing that fell on Germany between 1942 and 1945 was never mentioned at all. Not only was the suffering too close, still worse was the shame.
They were the master race; their land would be cleansed of vermin—and suddenly they were the vermin themselves, living in cellars with rats, scavenging for the same filthy scraps. How could people survive this, how could they bear to remember it? They couldn’t. They wiped it out of their memories, and concentrated on making themselves the richest and cleanest country in Europe in record time. Because of what they covered up in Germany, extreme richness and cleanness were suspect to Sebald for the rest of his life.
Wertach was a tiny village in the Alps, and even the nearby towns were too unimportant to target (though a few bombs did fall on Sonthofen in early 1945). Munich, however, was badly hit, and for several years after the war its streets remained littered with rubble.
In 1947 Georg Sebald, newly returned from a prisoner-of-war camp in France, took his children to Plattling on the Danube to see his parents. Their journey took them through Munich. Little Winfried had never seen a city before, and he gazed in awe at the tall buildings and the huge piles of rubble between them. At both equally, because his father did not explain, and he knew he shouldn’t ask. For a long time afterwards, Sebald said, “It seemed to me the natural condition of cities: houses between mountains of rubble.” But the memory of that strange city was surely part of the silent catastrophe, which, since no one explained it, he had to imagine.
One of Sebald’s best-loved books, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, begins: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” It continues: “I know…of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth”—in which, of course, he is as absent as if he had already died.
Sebald echoed Nabokov in a letter to his friend Marie, when he sent her a photo of his sister Gertrud and his friend Sepp Willers taken six months or so before he was born. It’s outrageous, he told her, they clearly don’t miss me. And in After Nature he records a more serious glimpse into the eternity of darkness before his birth: an extreme collapse of time.
On August 23, 1943, he wrote, his mother was on her way home from Bamberg, where she had been staying with his father on leave. But during that night hundreds of aircraft flew in to attack Nürnberg. “Mother,” he went on,
got no further than
Fürth. From there she
saw Nürnberg in flames,
but cannot recall now
what the burning town looked like or what her feelings were
at this sight.
He does not explain—he never explains—but this is plainly another case of trauma, unable to be registered or recalled. The first trauma of his own life. For on the same day his mother realized that she was with child, and the child was himself. And years later, in Vienna, when he saw Altdorfer’s painting of the city of Sodom on fire,
I had the strange feeling
of having seen all of it
before, and a little later, crossing to Floridsdorf
on the Bridge of Peace,
I nearly went out of my mind.
Perhaps, like so much in Sebald, this is pure quotation, an echo of Nabokov and no more? But his mother, Rosa, did travel through Nürnberg on the 27th (not 28th) of August, and stay in Fürth; and during the night of 27th and 28th there was a huge air raid on Nürnberg: 1,500 tons of bombs were dropped and thousands of civilians died.
It was a cloudless night, and very dark, because there was a new moon, but the firestorms blazed so fiercely that a scarlet light lit up the sky as high as the bombers dropping their loads. Rosa told the story many times to her children, and it was certainly true. The only detail that Sebald changed was the fact that he and his mother were not alone, since Gertrud, aged three, was with them. She doesn’t remember the scene, only her mother’s story of it; and, rationally, the same was true of her unborn brother. Except that he was W. G. Sebald, and his imagination would be soaked in the blood of that war. Whatever was true of the handful of cells he was in August 1943, it would nearly drive him out of his mind.
Fire starts for Sebald in Nürnberg, the city whose patron saint is St Sebaldus. From there it will rage through many of his books—through Vertigo, which ends with the Great Fire of London, to The Rings of Saturn and the book after it, which he would never publish. And through many of his interviews as well, in which he said that fire was the most terrifying thing. This goes back to his childhood in a village in which many of the buildings were still made of wood, and which had burned to the ground several times. But it goes back even more to the two horrors that he was driven to write about. For they are united by silence afterwards, but at the time by fire: the furnaces of the extermination camps, the firestorms of the cities.
After Nature records a moment even earlier than the Nabokovian one: on the day before, August 26. Rosa and Georg Sebald are still in Bamberg, visiting the botanical gardens. The poet possesses a photograph of them, standing beside a pond on which a swan and its reflection calmly sail. It’s astonishing, he says, how relaxed his parents seem, as he would never see them in his own lifetime.
In 2001 he gave another photograph taken on that visit to an interviewer. We see the parents’ light-heartedness, even though Georg will soon be sent to France and may not survive. But we don’t see the pond or the swan. Or many other things. We don’t see the past in Bamberg, in which there was a sizeable Jewish population, we don’t see the present in the extermination camps or the burning cities, and we don’t see the poet. But they are all there.
Finally there was the normal beginning: his birth, on Ascension Day, May 18, 1944. The date runs through his work like a thread through a maze. Near the end of The Emigrants, for instance, in the Jewish cemetery of Bad Kissingen, we see the grave of Meier Stern, who died on May 18, 1889; in Sebald’s imagination he morphs into Max Stern, who on the last page of Austerlitz has scratched his name on the wall of Fort IX near Kaunas, where more than 30,000 deportees died: Max Stern, Paris, 18.5.44. A main model for Jacques Austerlitz was born on May 17, the day before; so was the mother of a main model for Max Ferber in The Emigrants, and Sebald gave the date to Ferber’s mother Luisa for her birthday. And so it goes on.
Sebald knew perfectly well that such coincidences mean nothing in sober reality, or can’t be shown to. But what matters about an idea, he said, is its beauty of form and its power to move; and also its mystery, which as E. M. Forster said, was the most important ingredient in a novel. In other words, coincidence worked in art, which is what mattered most to him. But coincidences were important to him in life as well, and later became almost an obsession. They show that things hang together in ways we don’t understand, he said, and we should pay attention to them; at the very least they answer our need to make “some sort of sense, which there isn’t, as we all know.”
The coincidence of events is one of the main movers of Sebald’s imagination; and his birth on May 18, 1944 is the most important and appalling example, because of what was happening in the German Reich at the same time. If there is one thing that drove W. G. Sebald to write—even more than the silences, even more than the insane memory of seeing Nürnberg on fire from the womb—it was this. He said it over and over again, in different ways: just as he was born in a remote corner of the Alps untouched by the war, and was being pushed in his pram through the flowery fields, Kafka’s sister was being deported to Auschwitz, along with hundreds of thousands of people from Hungary, from Corfu, from the whole of the Mediterranean.
“It is the simultaneity of a blissful childhood and these horrific events that now strikes me as quite incomprehensible,” he said. “I know now that these things cast a very long shadow over my life.” And, “It seems to me…unjust, so to speak, that I was allowed to grow up in this peaceful valley; and I don’t really know how I deserved it.”
When I hear these words I think that that is how all Germans should feel; indeed, how all people should feel who live through a terrible time, and could have done something, or couldn’t have done anything, like the infant Winfried in his pram. But he is the only one, or the only one I know, who suffered from survivor’s guilt, though he had nothing to do with it at all.
Excerpted from Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald by Carole Angier. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © 2021 by Carole Angier.