I remember only one occasion when I wished my father dead: in early December 1983. He was 73 and it was less than a year before he died of cancer, a little more than a year after he learned that there was no treatment for his particular neoplasm. I heard him furtively, or not so furtively, whingeing to someone on the phone, to a woman. (I had returned to the small West Virginia town where my parents lived and where he had long worked as a pathologist and was now chief of staff at a veterans’ hospital.) I didn’t think that he was speaking to someone with whom he was having an affair – he was past that – but I did know that she was in every way inappropriate, that he was being self-pitying with someone to whom he ought, in my view, not to have revealed himself. He was being abject: not in, or with, his body as Freud dreamed of his father, but emotionally.

I am not talking about my father in dreams – he almost never appears there – but of him in his ‘real life’. I have a strange photograph of him in that life. It shows three young men dressed in high riding boots and what seems to be Prussian military uniform – white jodhpurs, dark, perhaps blue, gold-braided tunics, a white sash. (The Junker grandees in the von Werner painting of the proclamation of the Second Reich in 1871 were dressed rather like this.) The three look no older than their twenty years. They stand with an easy weightiness on a low flight of stairs bounded by an iron railing. One of them, thin and with perhaps a certain aristocratic insouciance, stands on the top step; the other two are on the bottom step and have both hands firmly around the hilts of unsheathed sabres.

Two things tell us that these boys are not Prussian cadets but students in a duelling fraternity: they are wearing – at the appropriate angle – the small caps that German students adopted in the 19th century; and their hands are covered by white gloves with long sleeves. The boy on the top step, the one without a sabre, is identified on the back as ‘Coco’ (in another photo I have he is seen finishing second in a 100-metre race at the 1931 Burschentag – the Burschenshaft was a student duelling society – in Berlin). The one on the left on the bottom step is identified as ‘Ego’: my father. The year is 1929. The boys are making a statement that they would have expected their parents, as well as strangers, to understand. Max Weber’s mother slapped his face when he came home from university with a duelling scar, taking it as a sign that he was gravitating away from her pietism and towards the physicality and boorishness of his father. I don’t think my father understood his choice to be so stark. He thought, as a letter I will come to in a moment suggests, that he could have the body and the spirit too.

Almost all the pictures I have of him before he came to the United States have a quality of physical comfort and ease in the world: he is with a group of schoolfellows aged 14 or 15 on rocks in the harbour in Hamburg; he is in an open car with a girlfriend; he stands in his Abitur picture with a small group of young men and the headmaster, around a bas relief of a bewigged worthy. The three buttons of his fashionable jacket are done up; he knows he looks good. It is a happy picture of young men born too late to have suffered in the Great War. My father looks as if he is taking pleasure in having graduated during the 400th anniversary of a school that one of Luther’s followers wrested away from the monastery of St John in 1529 and renamed the Johanneum. Great figures of the German Enlightenment had taught or studied there; C.P.E. Bach and Telemann had been music masters during the 18th century.

All this is to make clear that my image of my father before I knew him is of a rather beautiful and physically successful young man. He is anything but abject. My brother has the silver cup he won in a Hamburg tennis tournament. But, more to the point, it is an image of a body that is already embraced by culture, by something elevating, something more than matter. That embrace slackened in the coal towns of West Virginia.

Freud’s dreams, interpretations and memories of his dead father’s body have an entirely different valence from what I have been describing. There is, first of all, the dream of being offered a drink from an Etruscan urn that was, in real, waking life, sitting on his nightstand; the water tasted salty – ‘obviously from the ashes’, he says. He had not yet written about the band of brothers devouring the primal father, but already, in 1900, he could write about the son wishing his father dead, about the ‘dark tidings that reach us in myth and legend from primeval days’, and about the necessity of Zeus castrating his father just as Cronus had eaten his children. (In Hesiod, Cronus castrates his father, Uranus, and then swallows his own children to prevent the same thing happening to him; one of them, Zeus, is saved by a trick and gives him an emetic; he vomits them up and is then held captive in Tartarus. The nastiness of the two stories is the same.)

The Jakob Freud who emerges from The Interpretation of Dreams is unrelievedly abject. The most famous instance is not a dream but a memory: the insistent, resonant story of humiliation that Sigmund recalls being told by Jakob about walking down the street as a young man in the town where Sigmund was born. ‘I was wearing my best clothes and a new fur cap on my head. Then, a Christian comes along, knocks my cap in the mud with a single blow, and shouts: “Jew, get off the pavement!”’ ‘And what did you do?’ Sigmund remembers asking. ‘“I stepped into the road and picked up my cap,” came the impassive reply.’ From this much follows in the psychic life and professional self-discovery of the son.

Freud had to triumph over his corporeally abject dead father to come into his own Geistigkeit – his genius. For much of my life what remained of my father as I experienced it was of the spirit. At the level of the Law there is a touching if terrifying congruence of our psyches on this matter. Among my mother’s papers are several letters that my father wrote to her in my voice on her birthday. On 8 November 1946, I – aged 14 months – wrote: ‘My dear, good mama, I have watched you several times now eat many large pieces of chocolate one after the other from which I can see that you really like it.’ I explain my reasoning: she knows that when I eat a lot of something I like it. I also explain my dilemma: that I would probably want to eat some of the chocolate that I am giving her and that she too might want to eat it all in rapid succession. I have, I say through my father, arrived at a solution: ‘With three of the bars of chocolate you can do what you want; the others you will give to Oma, because you know that she is very orderly. She will give you one bar every week from me. Think about it. This way you will have a bar of chocolate every week until the New Year. Isn’t that fine?’

I don’t mind that I was made to give voice to the superego so early in life, or to take such delight in delayed gratification. The geistige remains of my father have always rested comfortably in me; the emotions or passions of the body have taken longer to master.

The frightening thing about my father’s photograph is precisely how far from abjection and reality it is. My father does not stand in it as a proto-Nazi; he was too conservative for that. Anyway, very few Jews – though there were some – thought they could become Nazis. But my father could and, I suspect, did imagine himself as deeply, thoroughly and passionately German, because he believed that it had nothing to do with the body outside culture. The uniform and the sabre dressed the flesh but it was Geist that mattered.

I have archival evidence of my father’s views on this matter. On 9 November 1930 he wrote to his uncle, a distinguished endocrinologist, the discoverer of testosterone, to thank him for the birthday gifts of a wallet and card. My father confessed that it was very difficult for him and his fellow students to remain optimistic for themselves or for Germany. ‘If we . . . can’t despite everything be at least optimistic for ourselves then we may as well pack up.’ Politically, it was more complicated: ‘My university comrades and I are racking our brains as to what kinds of intervention in the life of civil society we might make. We are completely at a loss as to where we, especially as Jews, can somehow make our convictions felt.’ The only way forward is Geistigkeit, which is what fatherhood represents.

‘We feel ourselves to be German,’ my father writes, although ‘people are taking German to mean a German race or breed [Stamm] and indeed are claiming that the two are somehow identical.’ He then makes a remarkable reductio ad absurdum argument. ‘It is a huge mistake that people should make the distinction between Jews and Germans rather than between Jews and Christians.’ The reason is that ‘if one takes Jews to be a race then it is out of the question to even consider them in relation to Germans because Germans as a race don’t exist. Being German is an essentially more general category [Das Deutschsein ist ein durchaus übergeordneter Begriff].’ In other words, Jews could not be a race because if they were then the category of Jewishness would be incommensurate with Germanness. He laments that ‘people’ – Germans, I assume – ‘don’t understand this.’

Gershom Scholem famously argued with his colleagues as early as 1923, when he emigrated to Palestine, that the German Jewish love affair with Germany would be, and was, unrequited. But as late as 1935 there was hope that the Jewish body – now clearly labelled as Jewish by the Nuremberg Laws – might still be transcended, that my father’s optimism was not entirely phantasmal. Form U146 – dated 19 September 1935 – admits him to stand before the examining body for medicine at the University of Hamburg and present his credentials. The second paragraph sets out one more condition: ‘Your ultimate [endgültige] admission depends on presenting proof, complete and without any gaps [lückenlos], of being of Aryan descent. Any missing evidence must be provided by the end of the examination.’

This and the following paragraph, which offers the consolation that a candidate will be allowed to take a year of further practical training and qualify as a dentist should he fail the medical exam, have been crossed out by a neat, ruler-guided dark line. Someone in the office of the university registrar in this traditionally liberal city still thought that Geist and accomplishments were what mattered. This touching gesture, this tidy negation of the new barbarism, was a last stand. When my father was on a train to Amsterdam to seek the advice of his uncle – he wasn’t allowed to take up the academic career he had dreamed of – he was harassed by an SS official and never returned alive to Germany.

My father, I suspect, absorbed the idea that ‘das Deutschsein ist ein durchaus übergeordneter Begriff’ very early in life. The first entry in the reading diary he kept dates from 1915, when he was five. It is in an adult hand and records that he had read the Märchen der Brüder Grimm, that compendium of dark, mystic Germanness produced in the burst of nationalistic fervour which followed the Napoleonic Wars. He read it with his sister – my Tante Eli – in Schierke, a town in Anhalt-Saxony near where my grandfather was a medical officer at one of the typhus hospitals serving the Eastern Front of the Great War. The classics of German literature follow the fairytales, read with ‘Vater’.

Until recently I knew relatively little about that ‘Vater’, though I grew up with a picture of his black granite tombstone in the Ohlsdorf Cemetery in Hamburg, an Elysium of the burgher dead: ‘Walter Laqueur MD’ is inscribed in Jugendstil characters, the same lettering in which ‘Dr Laqueur’ appears on the plaque that was once outside his radiology office and is now on my gate in Berkeley.

There were also two pictures of him on my grandmother’s desk that I saw every day: one, fairly anodyne, of a balding man in his forties with a goatee, the other more like my father’s duelling fraternity picture. It shows my grandfather dressed in a fashionable winter coat, descending the front stairs of a large house; in one hand is a walking-stick, in the other a handsome Doberman nudging a little at the leash: time for a walk, the ‘Herr und Hund’ moment that Thomas Mann writes of. Like my father in the earlier picture, this is a man deeply rooted and comfortable in his world.

I now have a third photograph of my father’s father: more precisely, of his remains – he is on his funeral bier. Only his head is visible in profile. The body is resting on, and wholly covered by, a white pall; a filigree of fern next to a small bunch of three flowers lies on the hidden corpse. I also have a copy of the funeral address given on 16 December 1927 by the dead man’s brother, my father’s uncle, Professor Dr Ernst Laqueur. I know that my father, then a 17-year-old Gymnasium student, heard it. The first part speaks of Walter’s great love (my grandmother), his professional success, his kindness. Except for the relative lack of sentimentality in the account of his marriage, much of the speech is unremarkable. (Their love, represented by the Bechstein grand piano that my grandparents were given on their silver anniversary, nearly cost her her life. Unwilling to leave it, she stayed in Hamburg for 12 years after her husband’s death. She finally left in December 1939; the Bechstein stayed; his music scores went with her to Istanbul.)

Ernst’s talk soon takes a strange turn. He speaks about how his brother had found peace in his work and his family. But that ‘on one point he could not master himself so as to find inner peace’:

there was something that stirred in him the deepest sentiments, raised in him bitterness, even hatred: it was the so-called peace conditions under which we live [i.e. the Treaty of Versailles and particularly the war guilt clause, Article 231]. He suffered more than many others from how the world war ended. He was a German to his marrow. He loved Germany and therefore hated her enemies. Although a Jew – something he never denied, indeed something that he was proud of – he never allowed the fact that some, even a good many, so-called Germans believed it to be their duty to take a stand against, yes to revile and disdain [bekämpfen, ja beschimpfen und verachten], those of Jewish belief, to make him love Germany any the less. He loved Germany and therefore every form of internationalism was repugnant to him. To be sure, nationalism was for him not an end in itself, because he believed fundamentally in the unity of all mankind; but it was a necessity of the moment. In this sense he was a humanist, someone who was grateful for the noble pleasures that were offered to humanity.

About the father before that one – my great-grandfather Siegfried – I know relatively little, but I recently saw his grave. I came upon it by accident when my wife and I went round the German Jewish cemetery in Wroclaw, formerly Breslau. It is an irony of history that a Jewish burial place is one of the very few public signs that Germans ever lived in what is now a thoroughly Polish city. (The many so-called German graveyards were unceremoniously bulldozed by the Polish authorities at the first opportunity.) My great-grandparents – Siegfried and Anna – are in good company: a Greek helmet adorns the gravestone of a fallen Jewish officer of the Great War, one of hundreds of Jews who fell in disproportionate numbers fighting for the Kaiser; there is a monument to a soldier who died at Sedan in the war that founded the empire and another to one who died in the Napoleonic Freiheitskriege. The parents of the Carmelite saint Edith Stein are here, as are those of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist who invented poison gas. Ferdinand Lassalle, founder of what became the German Socialist Party, is twenty metres away, and Abraham Geiger, the founder of reform Judaism, not far distant.

I have now almost got to the last dead father, about whom my father would have heard at the funeral of his father. This was Moritz Levi, my father’s maternal great-grandfather, and the grandfather of Ernst, who was determined to make clear that he and his brother were the scions of Geistigkeit all the way back. ‘It must be just 80 years ago,’ in other words, around 1847, he tells his listeners,

that our grandparents moved away from the Hamburg in whose earth he now rests: the grandfather a superb philologist [Sprachforscher], the grandmother a charming, artistically cultivated and refined woman. They brought the culture of the spirit [geistige Kultur] to their circles in the east of Germany where it was still foreign and passed it on more or less intact to their eight children, who in turn were able to create families themselves in which cultural riches [geistige Güter] were esteemed more highly than material ones.

And now the final father, whom my wife and I have only recently discovered and who was not known to my father or, I think, to his. This is David ben Elizer, who some time in the late 18th or early 19th century took the name Laquer, which soon acquired another u. This rabbi, who seems to have been a man of considerable learning, secular as well as religious, spent his whole life in a tiny village now called Miejsce, then Stadel, set among potato fields seventy kilometres south-east of Wroclaw. His tombstone has a few pockmarks, as if from Second World War bullets, but is otherwise distinguished only by an unusually long epitaph that switches two-thirds of the way down from the third person to the familiar second person du and addresses the rabbi as ‘you who managed in wisdom for thirty-six years. You who will harvest with joy.’ It conjures up a physical presence almost as if he were there to listen.

I will end with my own case. The actual death of my father left me numb, as did his final illness. I remember feeling very little when I got the news of his death. During the months when he was dying I remembered every clinical detail but forgot much else about daily life: where I had parked the car, what errand I was supposed to be on. My father, the German-trained pathologist, so effectively translated his own dying into the life of the mind that it took me years to understand that he was not a case in a chapter on neoplasms in a medical textbook. Much of our relationship, at least on the surface, had always been mediated by learning. We talked about his symptoms – difficulty in swallowing, shortness of breath, fainting – as if they might lead to a different diagnosis. I think that he was irritated that he had missed the diagnosis himself, but then, to give him the benefit of the doubt, hypernephroma does not declare itself plainly until it is too late.

What I do remember from his dying is less his physical decline (although I found it distressing) than the fact that even at the end he was unable to live in some sort of harmony with his emotions. Of the body I would need to say more. Of course, as the cancer progressed he became weaker, but I had never known the young man who was a tennis champion and a fraternity dueller. My father never exercised after he came to West Virginia in late 1949; he did no sport; seldom walked more than he had to. I never knew the physically strong, emotionally focused, passionate young man who had written to his uncle and who still seemed alive in some early pictures taken in Istanbul during the late 1930s and early 1940s with my mother. By the time I knew him he seemed not at ease with his body in the new and foreign Appalachian world.

But, more important, at some level I always had a sense of his emotional life too being somehow inappropriate. I don’t mean by this that he did not love me. To the contrary: I have the sweetest of memories of lying in his arms listening to ‘the Ninth’ on my birthdays. But they are mixed with the feeling that I could never really heal his emotional wounds. Whenever we quarrelled my mother would try to make peace by telling me that my temporary rejection had devastated him: ‘Er liebt dich doch heiss und innerlich.’ It was too much. I could not return his love. What was he saying to or through me?

By the time I was in college I had come to regard his relationship with my mother and with women in general as abject and, worse, as a burden that weighed heavily on me. And I was furious at him for it. It is, on reflection, almost as if my father – having been so brutally rejected by his great, ultimately unrequited love, an imagined Germany – could never really allow himself to love again. Except me, and I could not give him back what he had lost.

At my wife’s suggestion – and after considerable resistance – I took some dirt from a flowerbed by a lake in the New River Valley of Virginia where I had scattered his ashes, put it in a plastic bag, and took it with me to Germany. I knew there could only have been a few molecules of his calcium, his phosphorus, his nitrogen in this handful of earth. Never mind. I scattered the earth and ashes over my grandfather’s grave in Hamburg in what I knew my father would have regarded as an act of rank superstition, of emotional idiocy. It was an immensely satisfying gesture. Ten years after he died, I came to know through the homeopathically tiny traces of him that he was dead.

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