At one time in the 1960s I frequented a bar and restaurant in a West African seaport. People from a lot of countries would wash up on that coast, as I had, and find their way to the Atlantic Bar. One woman who regularly talked to me was Helga Schmidt.
Helga had a photography business in her ramshackle house, which I saw once—from the outside. She was so much older than me that I never thought her interest was in a potential romance. Like many of the expatriates I met, she seldom gave details about her past or the reason she was living in Africa.
Instead, her conversation was often about World War Two, with the frequent insistence that people in Germany hadn’t all been Nazis. In fact (she would say—sometimes in words slurred from brandy), the German people themselves suffered greatly during the war.
I used her remarks in a monolog. Considerably condensed from her actual words, it is true to what she told me. After the poem, I’ll discuss what I learned from having written and shared it.
HELGA ROSENBERG SCHMIDT
It’s only propaganda that the Nazis killed six million Jews.
It was no more than four million, but they exaggerate
for sympathy. And not every German was a Nazi,
most people were not political. I was never political.
The war was a terrible time for everyone, not just after
in the Occupation, but during too. I worked in an office
all through the war, and after a while you couldn’t get
anything. Good bread, decent meat, the cologne I liked.
The day they came to my office to arrest the Jews, they took
me too, since my maiden name was Rosenberg.
There I was in the back of a truck, pounding on the door
and yelling, “I am not a Jew! I am not a Jew!”
Twenty years later, I was asked to take over some NYU classes in creative writing for a friend who was going to Europe on a research trip. It was a continuing education class for adults that met one evening a week.
One week the topic on the course outline was “subtext.” That’s a device in which the implicit, unexpressed significance of a text or performance is understood by the reader or audience—though not by the individual being portrayed.
I decided the poem about Helga would be a good example of subtext. I handed out copies and discussed my strategy of letting Helga’s own words damn her and her attitude. I gave the class the assignment of writing a piece in which the author and reader would have a different understanding of a character’s words than the character himself or herself.
To my enormous surprise, the Continuing Ed office informed me that a student had complained about my lesson. Arnold had appeared to be a pleasant, eager student, but his mother was a survivor of the Holocaust, and he told the administration that he was offended by my poem.
I began the next class with an apology to anyone I had offended, with another explanation of the irony with which I had intended presenting Frau Schmidt’s words. Arnold resumed being friendly during and after class, and we never discussed the subject again.
The lesson for me—as for others who have found that the wrong meaning of their writing can be taken as their actual intention—was to never assume that irony, satire, or parody will be apparent. And another lesson: commit your words to print—or to performance or to electronic or other sharing—with great caution.