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Jochen Schmidt
translation by Henry Holland

 

In the Sunflower House

 

24th August 1992, 7 pm
Mecklenburger Alley

What heat. The sun had shone the whole day through from a sky scrubbed free of cloud, but now at least a balmy breeze was flowing over the meadow in front of the Sunflower House. It should cool down a bit in the evening. And I’m thinking – this place doesn’t look like a witch’s cauldron that’s been simmering for days. Everything seems friendly, young couples out for a stroll with the pram, two boys tussling like little dogs and rolling over the grass. One of them gets into a karate-fighter position and the people standing round start to laugh. Everything’s fine here. Almost like a street party, just that no one’s celebrating.

“Happy Happy At Appy’s!” – the slogan on the fast-food van parked in front of the small shopping centre. For days the man’s had the feeling that he’s sitting on a gold mine. Taking in the same money in one evening that he normally takes in a whole week. Something happening in the neighbourhood at last. Excitement is in the air.

Hundreds of people are gathered on the grassy space in front of the houses, and behind them even more are arriving to take their places. The little ones are sat at the front, dad and mum in the row behind, so that everyone gets a good view. Just time to fetch yourself a curried sausage, then settle down to wait for the warm-up acts. A hundred times better to actually be here than to be stuck at home, glued to the telly.

Because you’ve suddenly become the centre of things, the topic, the lead story on every news show. Or so you hope at least, that’s how it’s been for the last few days. To be as important as the politicians for once. Maybe I’ll even get to be on TV?

And there are more than just a few regional broadcasters present. “Back there are the BBC, and CNN are meant to be here somewhere. What are the Italians called, RAI or something?”

The boy who’s giving us this insider information is fascinated. So many cameras, broadcast vehicles, cables, microphones, spotlights – up to your eyeballs in technology. And it’s not just the kid’s eyes that are filled with amazement. This must be what it feels like at a big trade fair, I’m thinking, television so near you can almost touch it. And quite possibly, some of these TV guys are enjoying the commotion, despite all their professionalism.

And then the warm-up acts start. A few boys get chased across the meadow, the Reichskrieg flag tied to the chasers’ shoulders. And a few policemen huffing and puffing at the rear.

Applause between acts.

I’ve got to laugh, the whole thing looks more like a variety number than a police operation. My colleagues are smirking too. Some members of the audience demand an encore. This is certainly high-value entertainment.

“Hey you!” Who, me? “You from the press?”

A young lad’s standing in front of me, twelve, thirteen years old, face covered in teenage acne. “Depends,” I say, hesitating, “why d’you want to know?”

“Got a camera or anything? Look, for a tenner, I’ll do you a Heil Hitler. But anything else costs extra.”

Magic. Not even got any bum-fluff on his face yet, but already knows how to speak like a slag, the little shite. Give us the cash and I’ll play the Nazi – like, where am I, for chrissake? But he’s already moved on to the BBC team. Who actually paid, he tells me later, proudly.

Strange in general, how many children have gathered here. I ask one of the boys what he’s actually expecting from that building there. “We’ve got to hunt out those shite fucking gypsies! All they do is steal and rape our women! And they shite in the bushes!”

And where did you hear all that from? The little guy looks at me as if I come from another planet. “They’re gypsies man, that’s how they are! What my dad says too.”
But the asylum-seekers left ages ago, I say, now trying the educational approach, meaning: you can go home too.

“But the Vietschies are still there!” he roars at me.

I want to find out how old he actually is. “Ten,” he replies and leaves me standing there, to go over to one of the television cameras.

He was probably only nine.

In the meantime local residents have taken their seats in the theatre-boxes on their own balconies. 7.30 pm. Suddenly spotlights from god knows which TV station flare up, illuminating the now empty Central Reception Centre for Asylum-Seekers and the hostel for Vietnamese workers and their families.

“What’s that about?” I ask Dietmar, who can only look back at me in both anger and surprise. What’s happening here – see any first-year journalism course – is what should never be allowed to happen. “A number of our colleagues appear to have forgotten what their actual job is. A collective loss of memory.”

The ethos of journalism is taking a back seat. There’s a live thriller on show here, beamed via satellite across the world. And if you’re not able to find a decent reason for broadcasting it, then take the standard reason given in such cases: the people’s right to know what this is about, which is, at the end of the day, pure entertainment. And remember: entertainment has to be staged. That’s just how it is with thrillers.

Annoyingly there’s no opportunity to rehearse, so the journalists will just have to take their chances as directors. The spotlights are adjusted one last time, the cameras are rolling, Rostock, take three, and – action!

At least that’s how it looks to me. Some journalists appear to have changed professions, and now want to be film-makers. They’ve prepared a stage here, and illuminate the objects that the spectators, hungry for violence, lust after. So that they can clearly demarcate the radius in which the aggressors can act. Up to here but no further – you only get on telly if you stay in the spotlight.

Dietmar is thinking the same. This is a dubious bit of journalism, he says, and adds that there’s one thing I should always remember: a news item is a news item. No more, no less.

Thomas has already gone into the building to the Vietnamese group? Our camera team will be there in a minute, too.

 

24th August 1992, 9.40 pm
Migrant worker’s hostel, ground floor

At last the fire extinguishers are spraying their foam where it’s needed. The few patches of fire still burning on the floor, where the petrol’s leaked out of the Molotov cocktails, are quickly extinguished. As we work our way forwards to the wood pile, first one then several paving stones slam into the wall behind us, accompanied by applause and jeering. “They’ve found us,” shouts the man beside me, “there’s no point anymore!”

A new fire explodes beside us with a dull thud. “Go, let’s move!” Into the corridor, door closed, breathe out.

Suddenly the entrance door to the hostel splits open and screams echo through the corridor, “they’re getting in!”

I’ve got to get to the stairs, up to the team, the only people I know here. The last thing I want now is to be alone. That’s when someone with a baseball bat smashes the neon strip lights down from the ceiling. Was that one of us? Doesn’t matter. Now, all of a sudden, it’s dark. Only thing that matters is to get away from here, up the steps to the team.

On the sixth floor, Jürgen, the cameraman, comes running towards me. “Are they inside?”

“Yes,” I shout, “and it’s on fire!” Behind him are Thomas, Dietmar, the second Thomas, Tinh, and a whole row of Vietnamese men. One of them’s got a samurai sword out, and is swiping wildly about himself with it. As if we weren’t scared enough.

From down below, where I was a minute ago, they’re starting to chant, “We’re going to get you all!” and “In a minute you’ll roast, in a minute ...”

Just hope the others got out somehow, I’m thinking, as I hear Thomas Euting swearing behind me. “Fucking technology!” Our radio telephone fills half a suitcase and is unwieldy and heavy. Thomas keeps on typing in 110, alternating it with 112. But whichever number he dials, he always gets the same friendly message on the other end: “The number you have called has not been recognised.” Or else the line’s engaged.

This happens more than a dozen times. “You try,” says Thomas, handing me the phone case in annoyance. I get through at the second attempt. You’ve got to get lucky sometimes. But no one answers the 110 number. The police emergency number cannot be reached.

“This is one big scandal!” Wolfgang Richter, Rostock’s councillor for immigration, is suddenly standing there. The first time I’ve ever seen him. A huge guy with curls and a full beard – and on the brink of tears. Not from fear, but from anger. “I just went back down to the porter’s lodge. It was empty. I phoned Lütten-Klein and said, ‘We’re here in the building and we’re being attacked. They’re storming the house! And I think it’s on fire already. We need lots of police and firemen!’ And the person on the other end kept on asking, ‘How bad is the fire exactly? Does the fire brigade have to come?’ He just couldn’t grasp what I was telling him. And right at that moment the panes of glass on the entrance doors beside the porter’s lodge were being smashed in. And then I repeated the same thing down the phone: ‘Now they’re breaking in here right beside me! I’ve got to hang up, but the police and fire services must come straight away!’ And then I came back up here, because I didn’t fancy encountering that lot down there. We’re now experiencing the second full evening of the kind of brutality with which these people operate. I’m completely sure that if they’d got me down there by the door, they’d have beaten the hell out of me. That guy in Lütten-Klein just didn’t get it at all!”

And even if we hadn’t wanted to accept it before, it’s now clear to everybody: we’re sitting here in their trap.

We can’t get out downstairs anymore because it’s on fire. And even if it wasn’t, there’s no way we’d ever escape a beating.

“Where’s Astrid?” says Thinh, looking around. “Downstairs somewhere,” someone shouts. “She wanted to get to the women on the fifth floor.”

There are a couple of Vietnamese women who are particularly close to Astrid Behlich’s heart. Bui thi May is one of them. She only had her baby a couple of months ago. Astrid knocks on the door. “Come on, get out, run upstairs!” she shouts. There are lots of one-room flats on the fifth floor. Astrid’s everywhere banging on the doors. “You can’t stay here, no one’s allowed to hide away in their room. The others are upstairs, get a move on!” Pham thi Tuyet is eight months pregnant, as is another Vietnamese woman. Don’t forget anyone.

“Don’t panic, there are enough police here!” Just keep on looking optimistic, thinks Astrid. Even though she no longer believes it herself, she’s still got to function and give a calm impression. It’s not just Astrid who’s asking why they never planned for this worst-case scenario.

Several men rush past her down the stairs, down to where doors are being booted in and windows smashed this very minute. Thinh is one of them. Maybe the assailants can be chased out of the building. Maybe. Later on Thinh talked about this moment: “We ran down to the fourth floor. Clashing noises everywhere, window panes smashing, but you couldn’t say exactly where it was all happening, if it was above, beneath or beside me, I just couldn’t say. But you could clearly hear the fire crackling. These noises kept on coming closer, and the smoke kept on coming closer too. I heard steps and doors being smashed in, glass splinters shattering on the ground, I heard all that. I could clearly hear the chanting coming from outside – they were bellowing something inside too but I couldn’t make out what. And then it all made sense to me. This is getting serious. I’m now faced with a clear-cut choice. Kill or be killed.”

And he was deadly serious.

Suddenly Bui thi Mai remembers that she’s left some baby things in her room. “Hey, Frau Behlich, could you have a look for me?” Oh, God, back down into the smoke that’s already reaching us up here? But Astrid’s the only person who knows where the things are. Sometimes you act first and think later.

On the stairs she encounters the hastily assembled protection troop of Vietnamese men. “Everything’s burning down there!” Inside the flat, Astrid snatches the things up. And then she hears the assailants coming. They scream their way up, floor by floor, until they’re on the fourth.

Bui thi Mai looks at Astrid as if she wants to smile. But that’s no longer possible, so she starts to cry quietly to herself instead. No one takes any notice. A couple of security guards appear, who have managed to fight their way up here before the fire started. One of them’s carrying a fire extinguisher on his shoulder. They want to help both us and their colleague, who’s limping. But they can’t find him. He’s probably hidden himself away on one of the lower floors. But where?

We build barricades together on the stairs out of tables and chairs. Maybe that’ll delay our assailants if they try to find us. And if they do find us, then they’ll definitely try to kill us. Just because. Nobody says it, but everyone’s thinking the same thing. And the smoke is getting thicker and thicker.

How are we going to get out?

“We’ve got to get downstairs,” shouts Thinh, “You’ve got to believe me! On the seventh floor there’s a walkway over to the Central Reception Centre!” Thomas and me look at each other. Two floors down into the smoke. And who knows where the fire has reached up to by now.

Main thing stay calm. Panic is the last thing we need right now. “Are you sure that we can get through there?” Thinh shrugs his shoulders. “That’s where the bridge is. I just know that the door’s locked. But we’ll get that open with the crowbar!”

Never mind what Statzkowski, the local SPD 2 councillor said, we’ve got to take a look at what’s happening out there. One of the flats is open where we stand in the dark, looking out of the window. Thousands of people are standing below, bellowing their racist slogans on the grass, the honourable citizens of Rostock. “You can’t see one single police officer anywhere,” shouts Dietmar. “This just can’t be happening!” But however much we look for them, our ‘friends and helpers’, our ‘caring constables’ have clearly pulled themselves out of the fray.

What we don’t know yet is how long they’ve been gone. And from down below, the flames are unmistakeable.

Our building is on fire.

 

From “Im Sonnenblumenhaus” by Jochen Schmidt, first published in the collection Kaltland, (Rotbuch Verlag, Berlin, 2011 eds. Krampitz, Liske and Präkels). Translation © Henry Holland.

 

Jochen Schmidt (born in 1964 in Bergneustadt) was visiting the Sunflower House at the time of the events described above, as a journalist for the ZDF current affairs programme Kennzeichen D. In 1994 he co-founded the Documentation and Information Centre for Racism Research. His book about the Rostock pogrom, Politische Brandstiftung, was published by Das Neue Berlin in 2002. One funny thing about this Jochen Schmidt is that there’s another Jochen Schmidt who’s also a writer and also living somewhere near Berlin, who you might end up emailing by mistake if trying to reach this Jochen Schmidt.

Henry Holland (1975 - ) lives and works in Neugraben, Hamburg, right beside an old heather-heath landscape of Manley Hopkin-esque standards of beauty, and pretty near a big rusty-fat belt of provincial suburbia. After growing up in the New Town in Edinburgh and realising that most other urban places just won’t do it, he began contenting himself with contemporary German literature and other secondary pleasures. While waiting for a contract to work as a translator on the first ever complete edition of the works of Rosa Luxemburg – which is being published right now, in fifteen volumes by Verso (details here) – to get going, he writes his blog, Goethe’s Gonna Getya, about the mechanisms through which literature gets at us, transforms and inspires us. He’s already had short translations published of works by Uwe Tellkamp and Peter Rühmkorf. When he’s not translating he’s working together with pop star and actor Henry Sargeant on their Live English Talkshow, The Two Henrys, now running at the Monsun Theater, Hamburg. And, very unaesthetic as it is, earning money through his language school Tea Time Talk. All of which distracts him from his kids and his wife Rebekka, who are, no jokes, the real apples of his eye.

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MadHat, Issue 14, Spring 2013