I was Gratiano, Bassanio’s pal
in The Merchant of Venice. He ends the play
with an obscene pun. We were an ensemble
of drama teachers performing the piece
in English at Rüsselsheim’s Stadttheater,
the year after the Wall came down – so the pun
was probably lost somewhere in translation.
We were a couple of hours from the border.
One of our group became ill. The doctor,
treating her in the hostel where we stayed,
thought at first she was an ‘Ossie’. His rant
against ‘scroungers and beggars coming over
like an army’ was translated for us.
The theatre was part of the post-war re-birth.
The medieval centre of the city
had been razed by Allied bombing. Rüsselsheim
was a company town: Opel – making
first sewing machines then automobiles –
a General Motors subsidiary.
The population was ethnic Germans,
gastarbeiters and their families,
and US army personnel, from a base
lined with tanks parked up for the next war
to be fought across the Great European Plain,
where herds of bison and wolf packs had roamed.
It was an orderly place. The stalls
for the weekly vegetable market
in Gräbenstrasse had their places
marked in white along a high, grey wall:
KAROTTE, KARTOFFELN, KOHL. Our hosts
had asked for Shakespeare. Who had chosen
The Merchant… was never clear. It was still
a poignant even controversial choice.
After one performance I was slow
removing my make up. All the others
had gone to a bar we had found on the banks
of the River Main. I left the Green room
by the wrong door, which locked itself behind me.
I was in the darkened foyer – all the front doors
locked, and no mobile phones then, of course.
I slept badly on a sofa until the caretaker,
a Turk, woke me at dawn. We spoke broken French
to each other. He mentioned the murders.
One of our hosts reluctantly told me more.
During an August air raid in ’44
on Osnabruck, a US Liberator,
a B24 nicknamed, ‘Wham Bam!
Thank You, Mam’, was downed by anti-aircraft fire.
The nine crew survived the crash – one was
hospitalized, the remaining eight entrained
for a twelve hour overnight journey,
through Rüsselsheim, for interrogation
at a centre near the Taunus Mountains,
north west of Frankfurt. In the early hours
of the next day, the RAF bombed
Rüsselsheim and its surrounding areas.
Frequently, the Americans and their guards
had to leave the train to take shelter.
The raid was intended to destroy
the Opel works – which, in the event,
were largely untouched. Instead, nearly
two hundred were killed, mostly Opel
slave workers – and the Aldstadt was razed.
The raid had also wrecked the railway line
through Rüsselsheim. The fliers and their escorts
left the train, and marched through the city to find
the nearest undamaged rail and rolling stock.
The British and American strategies
re the bombing of civilians differed –
the former were for, the latter against –
informed, unsurprisingly, by politics.
The crew of the B24 were thought,
by some of Rüsselsheim’s citizens,
to be Canadians thus RAF:
Die Terrorflieger, Terror Fliers –
nearly half of whom were killed in action.
On Gräbenstrasse, a mob attacked them.
Four were shot execution style. The rest stoned
with rubble, from the air raid, littering the streets.
The unexamined corpses were taken
on a hand cart to the graveyard and hidden
beneath brambles. Two were alive and ran –
to be captured later. The rest were buried.
After the war, Rüsselsheim became
part of the American sector.
Liberated French and Polish labourers
told of the murders and the burials.
There was a trial of the main perpetrators –
some were hanged, some incarcerated.
That night in the foyer I had dreamt
of how Gratiano had gloated
at the Jew’s defeat and humiliation –
and then how Shylock, learning his daughter
had exchanged a precious stone for a monkey,
cried out, ‘it was my turquoise; I had it
of Leah when I was a bachelor:
I would not have given it for a
wilderness of monkeys’.