A Bed out of Leaves

Richard Wollheim writes about a dance at Belsen and other improvisations

Im`pro.vise, v.t. & v.i. 2. to make, provide or do with the tools and materials at hand, usually to fill an unforeseen and immediate need; as he improvised a bed out of leaves.

Webster’s New 20th-Century Dictionary

One spring day in the early 1990s, I was having lunch at the Getty Research Center in Los Angeles, where I had spent profitable time in the library, and, on this occasion, I found myself sitting next to Richard Meier, the uncompromising Modernist architect. Meier, who had just won the commission to build the new complex on top of the Santa Monica mountains, was expanding on the content of his brief, and momentarily I must have forgotten whom I was talking to, and I said that, in my own experience, the best kind of building for academic or scholarly purposes was one that allowed for improvisation. I cited the mid-19th-century London house that had served my old philosophy department so well. My neighbour gathered himself up.

‘“Improvisation”,’ I heard him saying, ‘I wish never to hear that word again. When you build a building, you determine the parameters, you work out the values, you get them right, and then, when things change, you pull the building down, and you start again.’

It was only as Meier spoke that I came to see by just how much I had understated my own position. For, ever since late adolescence, when I had abandoned dreams of massive social upheaval, I still sufficiently believed in social change to think that small adjustments to the system, that carried with them implications of larger things to come, was the way forward. My word for this was ‘improvisation’, and, by the time I had lunch with the great architect, I had been in Northern California long enough to have heard stories of improvisation that worked. But I had also lived a life long and interesting enough to know that improvisation comes in two forms: there is good improvisation, but there is also bad improvisation, and the difference between them is well preserved in a story I have yet to tell.

In May 1945, when the war came to an end, I was on the headquarters of an infantry brigade, which I had joined just before the Normandy invasion, and which had served me as a haven from the misery of an infantry battalion, for which nothing in my nature, except perhaps my intemperate stubbornness, qualified me. I was physically weak, I could find nothing in common with my fellow officers, I disliked my anti-semitic colonel, and he me, and I was not the one to instil bloodlust into the men of my platoon. So bad had things got that I was confronted with an adverse report and soon found myself standing to attention in front of my brigadier. To avoid the consequences of the report, I could become a cook or an officer in charge of the laundry, but this was not why I had abandoned pacifism some months earlier and I thereupon volunteered for something absurdly dangerous, which turned out to be full. Two weeks later, I was back in front of my brigadier. In the battles ahead of us, Brigadier E. was to show himself a commander of uncommon brilliance and complete ruthlessness. He regarded war as loathsome and once made his staff pledge that they would never forget this. I saw him stroke his chin, then I heard him say: ‘This may be the most foolish thing I’ve ever done, but I would like to have on my headquarters someone I could talk to about Proust.’

For me it was a magic solution, and only occasionally did I feel that I was getting away too lightly, that I ought to be leading men into battle. In the course of our dramatic progress through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, I saw a certain amount of fighting, I experienced occasional danger, I got captured, and I got away. But the question I frequently asked myself was: had I abandoned the pacifism that I had clung to through the first two years of the war only to lead such a comparatively sheltered life? However, my occasional protests were always gently overruled. Then, a couple of weeks or so after the capitulation, when my protests no longer made much sense, they were listened to, and I was sent as Intelligence Officer to one of the brigade’s constituent battalions.

The 7th Somerset Light Infantry was stationed in a small half-timbered German town on the edge of the Lüneburger Heide. Bevensen was a place of no great architectural distinction, but it had for me, with my romanticism about the landscape of Germany, the look of a fairy story. It had survived the war intact, and its charm was enhanced by a slow stream with reeds on the surface, which passed under a bridge with turn-of-the-century ironwork. The older houses were washed yellow or pale grey, the inns had benches outside them, heavy metal signs creaked in the evening breeze, and the shops, which were no more than ground-floor rooms, were made known in large Gothic letters painted on the plaster above the front door. Well outside the town, across the water meadows, there was a large moated house with well-planted trees, and one late afternoon I drove out in my jeep and bought a dachshund puppy from the widow of a general.

I set up my headquarters in what had once been a shop, and for interpreter I acquired the services of a Hungarian, who told me that he had worked as a human cannonball in a small circus, until one day he overshot the net, and could work no longer. All day long we received visits from would-be clients and informants, some protesting their innocence, others bemoaning their defeat. One day, profiting from information received, I carried out a raid on the flat of the young wife of an SS officer, who had served in the East and had not returned. She was very pretty, and she stood her ground. The living-room was overheated, and piled up on the floor and in the cupboards was a senseless profusion of sheets, blankets, towels, luggage, rugs, scent, shoes: souvenirs that the zealous officer had showered on his young bride. She explained to me that they had once belonged to Jews, who had no right to them, and then asked me with great indignation why, in taking her things away, I was any different from the Germans.

Once I found myself a participant in what was in effect the notorious Operation Cossack. In the first few weeks after the end of the war, the forced labour from Western Europe returned home, leaving behind a group of displaced people, always in black, mostly from the Balkans or the Ukraine, and largely women. One day we received the order that all those born the far side of the Oder-Neisse Line were to be got to some collection point, from which they would be repatriated eastward. Somewhat to my surprise, when the time came, a number resisted, and, as I stood by the tail-gate of the three-tonner, ticking off the names of the stragglers as they were pushed up and into the truck, I felt irritation. I knew little of the issues, but what came over me was that blind identification with orders that comes so naturally to all young soldiers who are where they oughtn’t to be, whether they are Germans, or South Africans, or Israelis, or recent warriors against the tyranny of Hitler.

But none of the day-to-day work I had to do could be freed from the one long shadow that was cast as I saw it over all our lives. The decree had gone out from the Allied victors that, if a German spoke to a British soldier, you were not to speak back; if a German smiled at you, you were not to smile back; and any contact between the occupying forces and the indigenous population that was not a matter of practical exigencies was a punishable offence.

For my part, I saw these ‘non-fraternisation’ decrees as perpetuating the racism that I sometimes hoped, despite my anti-semitic colonel, the war had been fought to end. As an Intelligence Officer, I could easily disregard them, and did. It was, for instance, part of my job to have regular meetings with the town’s burgomaster, a foxy figure in his loden jacket and herringbone knee-breeches, whom I admired for the way he stood between the arrogant victors and the self-pitying vanquished. Skin softened around his eyes as he listened to the eternal denial. Ich bin niemals im Partei gewesen. I formed a real friendship with a couple named Schmidt, who had been bombed out of Hamburg. He had been a lawyer, she was the granddaughter of a British admiral, and they had known, they told me, Wollheims in Hamburg; I had no idea how much of what they said was credible, and how much was designed to please. Then, for diversion, I went to parties of great depravity, given by an unctuous rogue, who was the Allied Military Government Officer stationed in the larger town of Uelzen. His flat outdid that of the SS wife in its profusion of loot. To these parties there came officers from the local Polish cavalry brigade, bringing with them giant bottles of vodka, warm from the illicit still. Their conversation was entirely about ‘nos châteaux’, to which they sensed they would never return. There were one or two officers from my battalion, and the German girls whom our host kept as a harem. Briefly, but so tempestuously that I tried to avoid going on leave, I fell in love with one of the girls as she told me tales of her paradisal childhood as the gardener’s daughter in a castle in East Prussia. She described the roses and the lilac and the sand-dunes, and then the bombardment and the coming of the Russians. Around midnight, when their masters were too drunk to protest, the girls banded together, and sang songs of the Hitler Youth.

But for the soldiers, it was another matter. Every day, as they patrolled the town, they had to sustain the smiles of the young girls who flung back their blonde pigtails as they passed their victors in the street. Every day the army cooks were instructed to step up the bromide ration in the tea until the taste was bitter, and the spoon stood virtually upright in the billycan. Then one morning I was called in to see my new colonel. He told me that he had received a communication from very high up, proposing a solution to the problem I had raised with him. There had recently been discovered, parallel to the many many unhappy soldiers to whom the company of women would mean much, a number of unhappy women, mercifully not German, to whom the company of men would mean as much. These were the women survivors of Belsen, not far away, which had been overrun in the last days of the war.

It had been suggested at the very highest level that the two problems could now be solved in one. Would I therefore regard it as my duty, as soon as I had arranged transport, to drive over to Belsen, see the people in charge, and arrange a dance? I told my colonel, as respectfully as I could, that I thought this a very bad idea. My colonel reminded me where the idea had originated, it had come from very high up, it was an order, and would I therefore, as soon as I had arranged transport, drive over to Belsen, see the people in charge, and arrange a dance.

Belsen was in strange, beautiful country of great melancholy: an expanse of heath, with silver birches, large regular ponds, and giant rocks covered with lichen; it fostered a whole German sensibility. The camp itself had initially been conceived of in distant peacetime as a place where, in the victorious war to come, young heroes, returning from the front for a few days, might be pampered, their courage rewarded, and their worst nightmares soothed in the arms of young girls; from this original conception there remained a number of small thatched cottages standing on sandy islands in the ponds. It was in one of these cottages, mercifully out of sight of the large sheds that had become part of the machinery of death, that I lunched with some young doctors from the relief agency that ran the camp. They had taken time off from work that could not spare them to confirm just how bad an idea the dance was. People were still dying every day, and many of those who were out of physical danger were in a catatonic state. But ultimately the doctors and I lived under the same orders, and, by the time I left, a day had been fixed when I would return to pick up however many women were thought fit for the ordeal.

Ten days later, I arrived with my trucks, while, back in Bevensen, a group of citizens chosen by the burgomaster were putting the final touches to the place of entertainment. The Belsen survivors who were pronounced fit were put into clean clothes, and lined up, though for exactly what they had no idea. However, as soon as they saw my convoy, they knew. All talk of the war being over was nonsense, and here were the trucks to take them on the first lap of their journey to death. They panicked, they would not get into the trucks. I turned the convoy round, and, the next morning, I explained to my colonel just how my worst fears had been confirmed.

A week or so later there was another message from High Command, conceding an error. The error had been to take the women to the dance in Bevensen, rather than taking the dance to the women in Belsen. The change of plan was conveyed to the relief workers in the camp, and, two weeks later to the day, now in high August, I was riding back to Belsen with my three-tonners, this time packed with soldiers, clean and scrubbed, their brasses polished, their belts and gaiters blancoed. Sitting up in the cab of the foremost truck, I could hear the marching songs familiar to me from the early days of training in the countryside of Kent. We had come a long way, but arguably with little learnt.

Meanwhile Belsen had gained in festivity. One of the large sheds had been selected as the ballroom. It had been cleared of patients, fumigated, and decorated with paper-chains. At one end of the shed, a dais had been constructed, and on it a makeshift band awaited our arrival. It had been assembled from the Hungarian guards, once one of the most feared elements in the camp, but now, purged presumably of their worst members, they were dressed up in national costume and, provided with concertinas, were playing a potpourri of folk dances. Along one side of the improvised ballroom the women were drawn up, some talking in knots, others patiently waiting in line. The clothes that had been found for them were mostly black, some wore large floral scarves with tassels, and they carried big handbags. They all looked as though they had never seen the sun in their lives.

There was a long initial moment of embarrassment, but then, encouraged by one another, some of the more forward soldiers walked across the floor. There was no language in common, there were not even, as there had been throughout the campaign in Holland, a few garbled words picked up in friendly encounters.

In their effort to surmount this pitiless silence, the women did the only thing they could. They invoked the one fragment of sign language they had left to them, and in which their abraded identity lay close to the surface. They bared the left arm up to the elbow, and exposed a row of numbers tattooed in capillary violet, which were to have been their one-way tickets for the transports. The soldiers, who had no idea what they were looking at, stared meaninglessly, the women redoubled their explanations until one soldier or perhaps more, thinking that this was ill-disguised flirtation, pulled the woman he was talking to onto the dance floor. I do not know what happened next, but within moments a fight had broken out. One woman was hitting a soldier on the head with her handbag, and I saw one of the soldiers, who was not to be baulked of his dance, pulled down onto the floor, as he held the tattooed wrist of the woman he still saw as his partner. The musicians played louder and faster, but it fell to me to call the whole thing off, to get the soldiers into the trucks, and to drive back as fast as we could, but whether we drove through the dark, or whether it was still light as I believe to be the case, I cannot exactly remember. I dared not ask myself what kind of impression this whole scene made on the European doctors.

The next morning, I gave my colonel as detailed an account as I could of how this second ill-imagined piece of improvisation came to nothing. To the best of my knowledge High Command did not answer, nor, as far as I know, did it return to the problem of frustrated desire. Shortly afterwards I was posted to England, I was demobilised, and I returned to Oxford for the first peacetime term. I was 22.

Over the great decades of the 20th century, throughout which I tried to be as even-handed as possible, favouring neither of the great imperialisms, the issue of improvisation was not all that to the fore. Few beds were made out of leaves, and it was only when I partially moved to Northern California that this whole way of thinking revived itself.

Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley is a wide but not particularly lovely street, though from the principal parking lot you stare straight across the San Francisco Bay to Mount Tamalpais, a site deeply sacred to Native Americans. If you then turn around you will notice a small sheltered garden with a monkey-puzzle tree and this conceals a restaurant that has done much to change food far outside the confines of Berkeley. It, too, is something of a sacred site. It has changed menus across the face of North America, but it has also, in keeping with the views of its owner, changed attitudes towards such things as the desirability of local food, the superiority of fruit and vegetables in season, the significance of small farmers and the importance of our knowing what we put into ourselves when we eat. Slowly ripples of influence reached Southern California, the East Coast, London, Paris, most of the major cities of Europe, the Midwest and the Clinton White House. Alice Waters, the diminutive ball of fire who started Chez Panisse nearly thirty years ago, does not believe that the changes she has inaugurated should stop there. What she rightly calls ‘the philosophy of Chez Panisse’ is too big to be restricted to a mere restaurant.

One of the first employees of the restaurant was called a ‘forager’, and the forager went out to small farms and sought out fresh food, ingredients properly grown, what came to be called across the globe ‘sustainable’ ideas put into practice. The names of the new farms and growers started to appear on the menus. Soon Chez Panisse, a restaurant run internally according to the ancient hierarchies, had its complement of spies who fanned out across the state.

If improvisation exploits accident, the accident itself is often the result of luck.

Certainly Alice Waters claimed no great credit when in her 25th year of running a restaurant, she discovered about a hundred yards from where she lived, and about the same distance from the restaurant, that there was a City of Berkeley middle school sitting on more land than it could make use of. The school itself boasted a running track, a large patch of fennel run wild, some quite handsome outbuildings and, to a forager’s eye, some promising land, chaparral-style, dried out in its depths but on the surface sweetened by one of the many creeks that tumble down the Berkeley hills and that empty themselves into the Bay.

The site itself I knew well because it was where for four years my young daughter made her first fumbling efforts towards thinking globally and acting locally, as we say in the West. And of course it came as no surprise to anyone that, surviving within the brickwork of the old Mission-style structure, should be the great old-fashioned stoves, where, a decade or so earlier, female students had been required to undergo a rite of passage known as ‘domestic science’, before the whole enterprise was handed over to Taco Bell. Brought into the light of day, they proved an invaluable resource.

But, if we try to recount the history of ‘King’, as Martin Luther King Jr High in the mid-1990s was called, it is a story not so much of surprising conjunctions and discoveries, of which the quiet alliance between an efficient principal and the mercurial Alice was an unexpected example, as of the way chance meetings fired like-minded people to engage in what was in effect the creation of a new syllabus for a school, which was much harder work than could have been envisaged.

In 1995-96, in order to purify the topsoil, a thick winter coat of beans, fenugreek, crimson clover, oats and two vetches was planted over what was to be the garden. The following season was so successful that out of the policy of physical regeneration the cooks regularly produced lavish meals of arugula, lettuce, bok choi, fava beans and potatoes. But all this was only a curtain-raiser for the following season. Where there had been wasteland and urban devastation there were now small, mysterious groves of citrus trees, apples, figs, precious raspberry canes and sweet basil.

None of this was pure coincidence. What lay behind it was a very strict education programme as specialised as anything that went on elsewhere in the school. In 1995 the sixth-grade classes provided food for the school twice a month. In 1996 they worked in the garden three times a month and the seventh grade once a month. In 1997-98 the seventh-grade classes went to the garden once a week. They learned how to plant, to cultivate, to harvest, to sort the good from the bad, to cook and to eat with discrimination.

In 1997 Delaine Easton, the superintendent for public instruction for California, visited the school and announced a new initiative in favour of an edible garden in every state school. In California, dreams have their half-lives and no one can say precisely what will come of the edible schoolyard, whether we see it as the work of a single woman or the expression of a community movement not to be stopped.