Conformity and Hypocrisy

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Elisabeth Langgässer (1899-1950) was a writer. The story ‘Start of the Season’ was published in 1947 in her collection of short stories, The Torso.

Elisabeth Langgässer (1899-1950) was a writer. Her father was a Catholic of Jewish descent, so under the Nazi race laws, she was classified as half-Jewish. Her marriage to the ‘Aryan’ Otto Müller protected her from deportation. However, her daughter by a former relationship with the Jewish lawyer Hermann Heller, was deported to Auschwitz (she survived after being selected for labour). In the last election of the Weimar Republic in 1933, Elisabeth Langgässer voted for the National Socialists.

The story ‘Start of the Season’ was published in 1947 in her collection of short stories, The Torso.

The workers arrived at the village high in the mountains, just below the last bend of the pass, with a sign and a wooden post to nail it to. It was a hot day in late spring, the snow line had already receded to the foot of the glacier. All the meadows were bursting back into life: daisies were lavish in their abundance; the puffy heads of dandelions were looming over milky stems; creamy yellow globeflowers were brimming with happiness, and an improbably blue sky was reflected in a radiant pool of gentians. The houses and inns also looked as good as new: their window shutters were freshly painted; the shingle roofs had been repaired and trellis fencing restored. In just the twinkling of an eye, the tourists and summer guests would arrive – the school teachers and mountain climbers, parents with lots of children and those intrepid Saxons, but especially the motorists in their big cars: Volkswagen, Fiat and Mercedes, all polished chrome and glass. The money would roll in. Everything was prepared for it. One sign at a time: signs with skull and crossbones warning of hairpin turns or alpine dangers, signposts for cars and signs for pedestrians: Two minutes to Café Alpenrose. Right where the men wanted to ram the post into the ground stood a wooden cross with another sign above the head of Christ. Its inscription remained the same as that drawn up long ago by Pontius Pilate: INRI (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews). The disappointing truth that it actually should have read: he only claims to be a king, has been forgotten over time. The two men who carried the post, the sign and a large shovel for digging the hole on their shoulders, set everything down by the wayside cross; the third placed the toolbox, hammer, pliers and nails alongside, and resolutely spat in his hands.

The three men discussed which position would show their sign’s inscription to its best advantage; it should be impossible to miss and catch the eye of all those entering the village via the wide mountain road, on foot or most likely by car. So, it was agreed to put the sign just before the crossroads, as a kind of greeting sent from the village to each new visitor. Alas, it turned out that the post would then have to be cemented into the forecourt of a petrol station – which was out of the question because that would have made it impossible for cars, especially larger ones, to turn around. So, the men dragged the post a little further out onto common land and were about to start work when they noticed that this position was too far away from the sign that gave the name and the parish to which this small hamlet belonged. If the village wanted to lay claim to this sign and its inscription, it had to be brought back closer – preferably directly opposite the cross, so that cars and pedestrians would have to pass between the two.

This suggestion, made by the man with the nails and hammer, met with all-round approval. The other two loaded the post back on their shoulders and carried it over to the cross. The sign with the inscription was meant to stand perpendicular to the crossroads, until they realised that the vast branches of an ancient beech, spread wide on both sides like a caped Madonna unfolding her cloak, would have obscured the inscription in summer; the tree’s play of shadows could have destroyed the sign’s impact, or at least weakened it.

That left the other side of the calvary; since the first spot, which had merged into the station forecourt, would have been to the left of Christ, the place of the impenitent thief so to speak, the place on the right (that of the penitent thief) was chosen and stuck to. Two of the men dug a hole, the third quickly nailed the sign to the post with a few heavy blows; together they placed it in the hole, propping it up on all sides with large fieldstones.

Their activity had not gone unnoticed. Schoolchildren fought over the privilege of helping to pass the hammer and nails, or to find suitable stones; some women stopped to study the inscription. Two nuns, refilling the vase of flowers at the foot of the cross, looked at each other uneasily before moving on. It had a different effect on the men, who were returning from working in the woods and fields: some laughed, others merely shook their heads without saying a word; most seemed unaffected, giving neither a positive nor a negative response, apparently indifferent to the whole situation. All in all, the workmen could be pleased with the result. The post, as straight as a die, bore the sign and its conspicuous inscription; the afternoon sun ran over the inch-high letters like a finger, slowly tracing each one, as if it was a judgement written in stone …

Even the dying Christ, whose pale head, soaked in blood, tilted to the right in death, was straining, with the last of his strength, to take in the inscription: you could tell that it also applied to him, whom people had, up to now, regarded as one of their own and liked rather well. Enduring and relentless, like his suffering, the sign would now stand facing him, in black and white, for a very long time.

As the men were leaving the site of the crucifixion and packing up their tools, all three, satisfied with their work, looked up once more at the sign and its inscription. It read: “Jews are not welcome in this holiday resort.”

Questions
  1. What is significant about the sign being put up opposite the cross with Christ on it?
  2. What is the relevance of the reference to Pontius Pilate’s description of Christ as ‘King of the Jews’?
  3. How do the villagers react and what do their reactions tell us about how social exclusion is achieved?
  4. The narrator reveals what is on the sign only at the end of the story. What effect does this have?
Sources

© Gabriele Popp, translation © Mark Robinson, image