March Breezes

Marie Luise Kaschnitz

Translated with an introduction by Hal H. Rennert


In standard histories of German literature, the post-World War II generation of German writers is said to include few women. One reason for this is the assumption that women should be excluded from the process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or the coming-to-terms with the past. The presumption here is that women did not have to come to terms with the Nazi past because they were excluded from the Nazi political process. But were they?

Marie Luise Kaschnitz (1901-1974) was born into an aristocratic family in Karlsruhe in southwestern Germany. She was the author of several novels and radio plays, and she also wrote poetry. In 1955, she received the Georg Büchner Prize of the German Academy for Language and Literature.

"Märzwind" ("March Breezes") was written in 1952. The topic of the story is the hanging of a Polish forced laborer in a German village, but the broader theme can be described as the 'everydayness' of Nazism, or what Manfred Durzak has called, in connection with another story by Kaschnitz, the Wirklichkeitsvergiftung, or poisoning of reality, in Nazi Germany. The story can also be read as proto-feminist, in that it explores the lack of solidarity between the two women characters.

The German text can be found in M.L. Kaschnitz's Gesammelte Werke, Vol. 4 (Frankfurt am Main. Lusel Verlag), 110-118.


The execution is supposed to set an example. That is why all Polish forced laborers have been ordered to the place of execution. From early in the morning on they gather in small groups, accompanied by their guards. They can see from far away that the hill is occupied by the troops and that the black limousines with small flags on their windows have already arrived. Therefore they believe that a mass execution awaits them, but then only two of them are chosen to execute one of their fellow countrymen. The others are supposed to pass in review, single file, looking up at the corpse, when it's finally over. Meanwhile they stand in a semi-circle among the bare trees, their pale faces turned to each other, shivering, whispering.

Because an example is to be set, the more spectators the better. For this reason, the participation of all children above the age of ten has been ordered; they are to bear witness to the sanctity of the racial laws. But the local farmers are not in agreement with this measure. They sent their children into the forest to collect branches, put them to bed or locked them up in the barn. There isn't a single child on the hill at the edge of the forest. Of the adults only those who received a directive are present: the mayor, the clerk of the court, the policeman, the farm woman who had lodged the complaint with the authorities, Gruber, the miner, born in Bochum, in the Rhineland, who had immigrated only last year, his wife Martha, nee Pzycholl, who is originally from East Prussia and was the lover of the condemned man.

These people are standing around in small groups. They'd like to be far away, but they have been put in place by the polite police lieutenant and don't dare move. They stand on the road at a point where it disappears into the forest. Between them and the spot where the gallows has been erected are several hefty tree trunks. It is foggy, so that later on, they will find it difficult to follow all the details of the procedure.

Martha Gruber, the mistress of the Pole, buttons her black, woolen gloves only to unbutton them again. She is wearing her dark blue dress with a jacket, off the rack, pre-war material, but still in good condition and a small hat, old-fashioned, but which in comparison to the church-going hats of the peasant women looks like the latest style from Paris. Her face is damp from tears, but there is no connection between her present state of emotion and these tears. She is crying because it is the thing to do, not because she is despondent. Only a few minutes earlier she had seen Stanislaus,the Pole, up close, for the first time since the day, months ago, that they'd gone into the vineyard together. The Stanislaus of that day was young, strong and beautiful. The Stanislaus of today is emaciated, sullen and pale he acts as if he has never seen her before. He is a stranger. No one cares about a stranger.

Martha Gruber, forty years old, is self-possessed and healthy. A year ago she settled into the village with her husband. At the time, the meager iron ore contained in the red earth started to be extracted through a large mine shaft dug into the vineyard. Having spent all of her time in the city since her wedding day, Martha Gruber hates this valley. She is afraid of the mountains which rise above the village like a wave that is about to collapse, threatening to crush all life below it. She hates the sullen evening sky and the west wind that persistently fills the valley with its wailing. From the corner of her eye, she looks at the muddy, bottomless paths and the miserable village street where there is no movie theater or coffee house. She is contemptuous of the people who live here and who, in her eyes, are rich and humorless, dishonest and devious.

Martha Gruber casts a look at the woman from next door, this show-off, this cowardly bitch. There she stands with her goitered neck, her bulging stomach on which her fingers move the rosary with little clicks. A few weeks ago Martha Gruber would still have liked to choke her. But now she is content to note that her enemy trembles with fear, that her nose is red and that she will soon lose all of her teeth.

The soldiers are now stirring. Something is being carried over to them, a board, a ladder or something like it. This, at last, sends a shock through Martha Gruber. She can no longer see Stanislaus, she doesn't want to see him, luckily she is nearsighted and can't make out anything except the uniforms of the soldiers and the uniforms of the prisoners, the damp trunks of the beech tree and the bright March sky above the forest. She, too, will pray for Stanislaus, but not here, not now. She will see him before her the way she first met him, carrying the scythe on his shoulder, sun and sweat on his beautiful young face. He will sit across from her at the kitchen table, close enough for their knees to touch and he will devour her with his eyes while over the radio, news of victories and raucous marching bands can be heard.

The farm woman sighs briefly. Her husband stands beside her. He is tall, almost a giant, but his back is bent, his arms dangling and in his eyes there is a fearful and hungry look. He is not nearsighted, he can clearly see that everything has been prepared, the rope has been pulled through the hook, the ladder leaning against the tree. He stares at it, but he senses the presence of his wife beside him, and something contracts in his chest like a vulnerable animal. He is old and shabby, and his wife is in good health, terribly vibrant and powerful. In spite of this, for some time already, he hasn't been able to stand her. He goes his own way, aware of the darkness and danger of this.

They are waiting for something, the miner Gruber says suddenly, just to break the silence which makes you freeze and feel miserable. Nobody answers, but from afar, from the depth of the forest, emerges a dull hum, the sound of a powerful car engine rapidly approaching.

Soon it will happen, the farm woman thinks, and her lips move with a sudden, involuntary vehemence, making a series of smacking noises. Holy Mary, Mother of God, have mercy on us. Martha Gruber, the miner's wife, now stands right in front of her and the farm woman sees her curly hair under the crooked little hat. It's her fault, the farm woman thinks. She wanted her pleasure, just like a girl, just like a young woman. She went into the city to have a permanent. She sat in broad daylight in front of her house with her hands in her lap. Blessed art Thou amongst women... The farm woman is so preoccupied with her thoughts that her mouth opens all by itself, and these words come out of her mouth, and can be heard, loud and clear.

The mayor spins around and looks to his left and right. Why don't you be quiet, he says angrily. He addresses her by her first name; they are all on a first name basis in this village; they are all related somehow. It's unnecessary to pray aloud, especially there where he stands. A year ago he resigned his membership in the church, although he has neither the strength nor the independence of an atheist. But he has adopted the way of thinking and the way of expression of the party, and when he recalls a few of the party's slogans he feels strengthened and uplifted.

Stop it, he says again, because he sees that the pale lips are beginning to move again. He has been angry with Ida, who is one of his nieces, ever since that evening in the fall when she came to tell him that there were crimes against the racial laws committed in the village, ever since that evening when he reached for the telephone receiver, thus tipping the mountain that would crush a human being.

Step back, the officer calls out with a muffled voice. He is a member of the Gestapo and his sole task is to exterminate people on the basis of their birth or convictions. But he has the pleasant demeanor of a mortician and his subordinates are very fond of him.

The black limousine careens around the corner and stops with a jolt. The mayor who also happens to be the local party boss and fuhrer of the peasants snaps to attention. He has gained considerable weight of late and his brown uniform is stretched tight over his stomach. He remains standing for a while with locked knees and an unblinking gaze. Then he is called over to the car where he gives his report.

Martha Gruber listens to him speak but doesn't understand a word. It is impossible for her to make any connection between the events of the past and those of today. She thinks about the evening when her husband first brought Stanislaus home. Her husband went out, leaving her sitting there with the Pole. She spoke with him in the language of her childhood, pidgin-Polish, which he could understand fairly well. They talked and laughed. He had the smell of childhood about him, the open spaces of the East, the bright colors of the festivals, the tinkling sound of the sleighs, and the whitish dust clouds of the roads in hot August. She hadn't done anything to draw him to her. Suddenly he was there, like a memory of something, a long forgotten word. She suddenly felt like the girl she had been at his age. They looked at each other with that dark desire to be released for a moment from the oppressive, strange landscape, from the irrevocability of their fate....

He isn't the same, she thinks. The moment appears to her like a series of events unfolding on a screen, a frame from the terrible newsreels of the war to which one cannot relate in any way. The film rolls on, the mayor steps back, and the men who arrived in the car walk into the forest.

Ida has stopped praying. It isn't my fault, she says suddenly; they all look at her with contempt. She doesn't dare keep praying. She thinks, I didn't want to have anyone die. I simply meant to give that Gruber woman the message that she too has to work the way we do. Ida starts crying and feels a certain relief in doing so. She doesn't know that in this valley, not too long ago, another woman who refused to grow old was drowned in the mill creek with a stone tied around her neck.

In the forest someone begins to speak, reading something. He speaks loudly, but no one at the road can follow what he is saying because at this moment the miner has a coughing attack he is unable to control. He coughs in fits and his eyes begin to have a glassy look. He caught the cold yesterday at the drafty shed of the brick works when he fondled the little breasts and slender hips of twelve year old Anna with his coarse hands, blowing his warm breath into her face. He has been doing such things compulsively ever since last year. That is why he doesn't want his wife to accompany him; that is why he must divert her attention. He doesn't want to; he can't help himself. Other men his age take up activities of their boyhood years, putting fruit seeds into the ground or collecting stamps. He too is taking up the activities of his boyhood. Only he never collected seeds and stamps, but instead he was creeping around little girls, in lustful silence.

The mayor tries to slap Gruber on his back, thinking he has something stuck in his throat. He doesn't mind this coughing because it helps to pass the time, these terrible minutes until it's all over. Soon they'll walk home. Today the villagers will be excited, but by tomorrow they will start to forget. The mayor keeps slapping the round back of the miner as if he wants to beat him up. Then he suddenly notices that he himself is freezing and that his teeth are chattering like window shutters in a storm. The execution is taking place in the year l942. There isn't any reason yet for the mayor to have doubts about a German victory or to fear the revenge of the Poles. What is bothering him is a ghost rising in mysterious ways out of the conscience of his childhood and out of the thinking of those people that he fights and patronizes. Because of this ghost he sometimes slinks around like a beaten dog in spite of his official power. It is because of this ghost that he associates the life and death of the Pole Stanislaus in a crazy, contradictory way with the life and death of his only son.

With bulging eyes the mayor stares at what is now taking place in the forest. Everything is ready. The prisoners standing in a semi-circle, the soldiers facing them on the other side. In the center is the gallows a horizontal beam nailed to two tree trunks. Against one of the trees the ladder leans, held by some prisoners. Flanked by two soldiers the young Pole now crosses the forest clearing with firm steps, his head raised.

No one can hear the steps of the condemned man because of the blowing wind and because the forest ground is wet and mossy. But to the mayor these steps are like hammers pounding at his heart.

Now, now, now, he thinks. It must be now that my son is dying out there in Russia. It is a crazy, childish idea. It is an intoxicating idea for someone who carries within him an image, an enormous, blurred image of millions of marching boots, shiny flags and stretched-out arms, of the surging flood of life swallowing up the sacred sacrifice.

Of that small group of people on the road the mayor is the only one who watches as the Pole Stanislaus is executed. The glasses of the fat city clerk are opaque with condensation; the miner's eyes are full of tears from coughing; the neighbor woman is still fighting nausea and holds her handkerchief to her face. It would be good to tell about the woman who once was the lover of the Pole, it would be good to say that she screamed full of anguish, regret and compassion. But she doesn't scream. She stands perfectly still, her eyes closed with a smile for her young lover.

And then it's finally over and done with. The Poles walk past the gallows, slowly, stumbling and in silence. One after the other look up at the corpse as they have been ordered to do. Many of them are filled with thoughts of revenge, and some are whispering something like God have mercy on his soul. No one is thinking about the crime of disgracing the race but they all sense suddenly that the March breezes are gloriously flooding the valley and that they are men with blood in their veins and wind in their faces. I didn't want this to happen, the miner thinks, as the many feet begin to move, as the cars start to roll and voices are raised. He sighs and starts to shuffle after his wife who arranges her little hat, getting ready to walk through the village full of spite and hatred for the people who, from their windows, will look at her as if she is a venomous animal.

I didn't want this to happen, the mayor says to the city clerk whom he joins as they walk down the steep road. He raises his voice; he wants it heard and he wants it passed on. He wants it to be some kind of re-assurance, a small attempt at bargaining with destiny for the life of his son, of whom there is no news and who has, in fact, been dead for two weeks, lying in the icy waters of the Pripet swamps.

Smoke comes from all of the chimneys of the village, the people are eating lunch, they talk and commiserate. Up in the forest, the young Pole lies in his hurriedly dug grave, black loose forest soil on his beautiful, contorted face. He has lived twenty-two years, three years in this village in which he was now hanged. He worked for a peasant and sat with him at his table even though it was forbidden to feed the prisoners. He had given the wife of the peasant a hand and carved toys for the children for Christmas green peacocks feeding at a trough and colorful fishes that moved like snakes.

His home town was a small village close to Cracow in Poland. I've been told that it has a long, wide village road with creeks on both sides, white-front houses and a wooden bell tower, that there is a river with high banks on each side, and that the forested river canyon is full of lilies-of-the-valley in the spring and mushrooms in the autumn. There are huge built-in brick stoves in the peasant homes with pictures of saints on the walls and the big marriage beds are piled high with embroidered pillows and blankets. But whether Stanislaus had these images before his eyes in his last hour I do not know. No different from the son of the mayor he was the hope of his parents, the pride of his teachers and the joy of the girls in his village. He was a small seed from the golden ears of grain, ground up by the terrible millstones of the time. And we can imagine everything except the thoughts of the dying.

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