Klaus read every day in the same chair by the bookshelf.
I was a guest in his home, or rather, his son’s home. Klaus’s son Ernst was an organic fruit farmer in rural Austria. I was volunteering to work for him and his wife Katrin in exchange for food and housing as I sheltered myself from major decision-making in Europe following seminary. My girlfriend and I slept in a spare bedroom in their expansive, unfinished farmhouse on a comfortably secluded hill overlooking other farms like it. The room, like Klaus’s corner, was cluttered with books, mostly on slow farming, plant dyeing, foraging, and herbalism (they were Katrin’s).
Rural Austria in late summer is utterly idyllic. Mornings are crisp, fresh, and inviting—afternoons are blanketed in warmth. The world is green and welcoming, and the new knowledge we borrowed from Katrin enabled us to see each new thing not as suburban transplants but as careful neighbors. Insects had purpose and weeds had gifts to offer, one person’s pest is another’s spice or medicine or dye. For two weeks, my girlfriend and I spent the mornings and afternoons preparing a vegetable garden for the following season’s planting. We pulled roots and shoveled soil. Some days we harvested apples, plums, or walnuts. While we worked, Klaus sat in his chair and read.
Still against the back of his chair, Klaus sat framed by the window. He would study his books intently between short naps the way my own grandfather would, which endeared him to me. After work, I would enter the living room to the sound of a German commercial blasting through the comically oversized earphones that he used to watch TV, and it reminded me of the elderly church members I would visit in Naples. His caring but busy wife Ingrid, some thirteen or fourteen years his junior, would shoo him from this to that, ensuring he had his food and medicines. His immensely curious and energetic granddaughter Emi played at his feet. He smiled as she exercised her growing command of her many new powers, which multiplied by the day.
We had dinner together on the farm. The food was typically Brotzeit, a Bavarian practice of putting out breads (some of which Ernst made from scratch) and assorted cheeses, meats, and vegetables from which we would all construct our meals. I ate quickly and greedily, often finishing one item for the sake of moving on to the next. Klaus sat across from me every night. Slowly and ponderously (and with some effort), he would spread his cheese or canned fish over his bread, rarely straying from his usual favorites. Ingrid occasionally helped him cut a tomato or open a particularly stubborn tub of schmaltz. I always sensed that Klaus, while mostly oriented, was somewhat puzzled about whatever it was he witnessed at dinner. He often laughed at unexpected intervals. He was oblivious to Emi’s achievements or tantrums. He was even less helpful with cleanup than I was. Klaus also found my girlfriend and me, with our thoroughly North American idiosyncrasies and neuroses, quite hilarious. I spilled water kefir on myself one night and it might have been the funniest thing he had seen all week.
Our time ended sharing beers with Katrin. Our talk dipped in and out of serious subjects like education and mental health and through easier, more tested waters like cultural difference (i.e. aren’t Americans confusing?). As we settled into conversation about family, I asked about Klaus. He had been attracting my attention for our whole stay, and I wanted to know who he might be beneath and before his aged exterior.
“Klaus is probably the biggest Nazi I’ve ever met,” said Katrin through her thick Austrian dialect.
When Klaus was only thirteen, he was recruited into whatever Nazi Germany’s equivalent of the Marines was, she told me. It was near the end of the war and the Germans must have been getting desperate. He never talked too much about his time in their service, but his memories of it were extremely fond. “He always spoke of the friends he made, like it was the best time of his life.” Having been conditioned under the Nazi’s to believe in the Third Reich’s ultimate supremacy yet also being too young to have its romantic image sobered by actual observation, Klaus loathed the Americans for defeating them (a thought that might be the sole source of faith I have left for my country) and felt a deep nostalgia for Germany under Hitler. His kind of man cave in his middle age was a site for collecting Nazi memorabilia, subtle or otherwise. Even the books on the shelf under which he sat every day were telling—they dealt primarily with military strategy and warships. His family responded disparately to his rose-tinted memories of fascism. His wife distanced herself, focusing on professional success and personal differentiation while never working up the conviction to leave. His son did what sons do and built around himself a shelter of rock music and leftist politics. Katrin, having married into the family, felt no need to humor him, but believed that her daughter should know her grandfather.
Of course it couldn’t have lasted, but to have my escapism collapse from under me was not how I had planned to leave Austria—and while it was just, it didn’t seem fair, to have another’s sick romanticism usurp my own.