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    small grove of birch trees in the snow

    Standing on the Threshold

    Ernst Wiechert’s classic post-war novel of healing and redemption

    By Ernst Wiechert

    January 19, 2022
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    From Tidings by Ernst Wiechert


    Baron Amadeus returns to his estate still wearing the striped shirt of a concentration camp survivor. He is directed to the shepherd’s hut on his own property, the very place he had been detained four years earlier. He learns from those working for the Americans who now quarter in his ancestral home that his two brothers have survived the war.

    Then behind a wood of low pine trees, there was the shepherd’s hut. Dark and massive, with its steep low gable, and the moonlight shone like silver on the thatched reed roof. Amadeus had no home now and would never have one again, but there might be a roof to cover him in this ruined world, and this, thatched and gray, looked as if it might have space under it for innocent animals and for guilty human beings. It was an old roof, and the shepherd had spent a life under it, and he had learned silence and wisdom. Amadeus had often sat with him on the threshold, from which could be seen a vast expanse of sky and a view over the Vogelsberg on one hand and over the Thueringer Wald on the other. The earth here was poor and barren, but the landscape was grand and lonely, and here the shepherd had had his visions, and his face had been shaped by this country, as these rocks had been shaped by the subterranean fires millions of years ago.

    It was from this threshold that they had fetched him. The last he had seen was the tall, lean figure of the shepherd holding up his crook under the drifting clouds. And the last he had heard had been his fearless, solemn voice calling as from a mouth of brass: “He who makes prisoners shall himself be taken to prison. He who takes the sword, shall perish by the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints.”

    Two of them had only turned and jeered, but the third had looked round and made a threatening gesture with his fist.

    Throughout four long years Amadeus had searched for it: the patience and the faith of the saints. He had not found it.

    Ah, and now he would see them again, his two brothers, and he was afraid. So afraid that his heart throbbed and his hands trembled, when he saw the feeble gleam of light behind the reed curtain of the small window.

    He was afraid for many reasons, his heart was afraid, and reason could not give a name to it. What he first realized was that he was afraid to touch a human being. Not only was he afraid of their words and opinions, their looks and gestures. But there was an actual physical fear of touching them. When a man has slept for a long time on a plank bed with two others, he no longer thinks of the human body as something sacred. When one’s habitation has been a dark, airless room filled with the bodies, the breathing, the groaning, and the delirium of human beings, he recoils before men, unless he has “the patience and the faith of the saints.” But he did not have them.

    small grove of birch trees in the snow

    As he did not possess them, he wanted nothing but to hide himself like an animal in a thicket. He had been branded and he had not yet got so far that he could transform the mark.

    He was afraid because these men were his brothers and he felt that he loved them. He had believed that love was dead in his heart, and now he realized that this was not true. The shy, unspoken love of their childhood, youth, and manhood flamed up in his heart, as soon as he saw the gleam of light. He remembered how they had gone together through the vast loneliness of life, and how different they had been from others in everything: in their faces, their names, the music they played, even in the way they opened and closed a book.

    But the other two had remained undamaged, or they would not be here. They had not been free from peril, but they had remained in the cleanliness of their old existence. Their bodies had not been seized, they had not been whipped, and they had not been forced to suffer the feet of tyrants trampling upon them. They could look at their bodies without feeling disgust. They were still clean. They could look in a mirror; there was nothing but the face of their father and behind this the faces of all those who had been like him: quiet, sad, noble, and good.

    And there was something that he must know before he stepped over the threshold; and still more it was what they must know before their hands, wearing the signet ring of the family, were offered to him: not that he was no longer good, but that he was bad. It was not important that he was no longer clean, nor undamaged, nor proud, but that he was bad. That with all the power of his blood he hated the murderers and perhaps many of the murdered. He would not mind pointing his revolver at any of those faces with the rigid, sightless masks, at many of those faces arrayed one beside another as before a firing squad. He had already done this with his own hand. And he did not repent it. He held his hand before his eyes and looked at it. The weals and scars showed up even in the light of the moon. It was no longer the hand which had handled the bow in obedience to the tunes which the great dead musicians had devised and written down. It had become a different hand. No lonely hand anymore, only belonging to itself, to a sealed, silent world, but one that had stretched itself out or had been stretched out to the world of violence and evil, and there it had changed. It would not be seen, but his heart knew it. And from his hand the transformation had spread into the innermost recesses of his heart. He had not been incorruptible or this would not have happened. It had not sufficed to live in purity and quiet and “to do nothing.” He had closed his eyes against the evil of the world, and the evil had found him defenseless. And if not defenseless, vulnerable and infirm. He had not had “faith,” as Grita and Christoph had. His roots had reached into the depths of the earth but not further. And so the blow of the ax had struck into his marrow.

    He was afraid because these men were his brothers and he felt that he loved them. He had believed that love was dead in his heart, and now he realized that this was not true.

    He glanced around – stealthily and hastily – as he had done for four years. There was still time to go. The brothers would never know. He was dead for them, and their last tiny spark of hope would be put out if he did not come back within a few months. They would mourn for him, as millions were mourned in this devastated world. He would remain for them a pure picture broken to pieces by a brutal hand.

    He took a step back – stealthily and noiselessly, as an animal when the branches part before it. But at that moment the heavy door of the hut was pushed aside, and Erasmus stood before a dimly illuminated background. He stood there like an apparition which had emerged from mystery into reality, and without making a movement he gazed at the figure in the moonlight.

    Then Amadeus raised his hand – in the way they had hailed each other from a distance when they were children – and Erasmus recognized the gesture.

    “Brother,” he whispered, stretching out his arms.

    And then Amadeus stood on the threshold.

    It was the small room which the shepherd had used as a living room. With a wooden partition they had divided it off from the large, dark barn and had hung it with mats of rushes. The same clay hearth in whose glowing embers the shepherd used to roast mushrooms stood in the corner and a small peat fire was still burning under the ashes.

    But the room was no longer empty and bare as it had been formerly. It was full of old furniture, from centuries gone by, and Amadeus recognized that it had come from the castle. His eyes dwelt on everything, and on the two faces turned to him in silence, and at last they rested on the three music stands on one of which a candle was burning, its calm light shining on the three instruments. Sheets of music stood open on the stands.

    “You have …” said Amadeus in a low voice.

    “Yes, brother,” replied Aegidius, “this is what we have saved. This is nearly all.”

    Then he got up from his seat at the hearth and came slowly toward Amadeus. He did not touch him. He only stroked along the folds of the coat which hung over Amadeus’ shoulders. It was the striped coat of which the children had been afraid and from which the eyes of the adults had looked away. Time and again he raised his hand and stroked down the rough, dirty material. It was as if he was stroking something that was alive and needed protection – a sick animal, perhaps, or a child that had been hit.

    And under this movement Amadeus slowly closed his eyes. He had fixed them on his brother’s face which was quite close to him, and he had gazed into his brother’s eyes, which had followed the movement of his hand. He was not looking at his gray hair, nor at the deep lines around his thin-lipped mouth. He only gazed into his eyes, and perhaps he felt without realizing it that he had not seen such eyes for many years. Eyes which in some incomprehensible way had been allowed to retain in this world “the patience and faith of the saints.”

    Then when Amadeus raised his hand, they took the coat and the haversack gently from his shoulders and led him to the old easy chair by the fire. Erasmus put some wood on the glowing embers, and then they sat with their hands clasped between their knees and gazed into the flames. Their faces between light and shadow were again as the faces on the triptych – faces of young martyrs or saints, strange, cleansed faces without a smile, but one could read in them that they had been in “a fiery furnace.”

    They did not speak, and only after a long time, when they were smoking the cigarettes which Amadeus had taken out of his pocket, Erasmus bent down toward the fire and put a dark, twisted root in the dying flames and in a low voice recited the verses of their childhood: “By the Yemen’s farther shore stand three maples fresh and green …”

    He stopped short, because he felt his brothers’ eyes on him, and when he raised his head he saw that in their shy glances was a hardly perceptible reproach.

    Then he thrust the dark, twisted root better into the glowing embers and clasped his hands again between his knees, and thus the three remained until a thin white ash began to form over the dying glow.

    Contributed By Ernst Weichert Ernst Wiechert

    One of Germany’s literary giants (he wrote sixty books in his sixty-three years), Ernst Emil Wiechert was thrown into Buchenwald concentration camp for publicly backing anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller.

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