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Tal S Halpern

Tal S Halpern

Tal Halpern's multimedia work has been featured in numerous venues both on-line and off, including Sundance Film Festival Web, Iowa Review Web, Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie Karlsruhe (ZKM), Center for Book Arts (NYC) and Turbulence.org.

Tal S Halpern

April 29, 1945

Today at 3:00 am, the bodies of Benito Mussolini and Clara Petacci were dumped in the old Piazzale Loreto in Milan. After being shot, kicked, and spat upon, the dictator and his mistress were hung upside down on meat hooks from the roof of an Esso filling station, and stoned...

                                                         —American Forces Network (AFN)

                                                      Broadcast April 29, 1945


Ganz heard the news on the wireless at 14:00 hours. At first, Ganz figured he was imagining things; the transmission was full of static, and the announcer spoke in an accented French Ganz could barely understand. But three hours later, Eddie Dolan returned from Alsos headquarters in Heidelberg and corroborated the report. So to celebrate, the two men uncorked the first of what would be three bottles of recently confiscated red wine from professor Carl Friedrich von Weizkäcker's abandoned farmhouse. As the two men saw it, no one would miss the bottles, and even if someone did, the War was over and the Allied effort deserved a reward. Afterwards, Ganz and Dolan would talk about heading back to Heidelberg, joining the other men in the celebration, and leaving the territory held by Free French troops. But that would be afterwards. First, they would drink their wine.

****

Now it was early evening and even though it was late April, almost May, there was a strange chill to the air. Ganz stood with his M1 rifle outside professor von Weizkäcker's farmhouse. The house had been the professor's last residence after he had relocated his laboratory to the Black Forest to avoid bombing sometime in '43. Ganz took a deep breath, taking in the cool air, trying to clear away the fuzziness. Even though he did not want to admit it, he had a pounding headache from all the wine. Inside the house, Dolan was sleeping. Ganz had tried to wake him, but sleep had become a scarce commodity in those last few weeks, and Dolan would not give it up.

Ganz started making his way forward across the field towards the forest. When he reached the fir trees at the field's edge, Ganz turned around and screwed his eyes up, trying to get a better sense of the landscape. He made out the rough edges of the farmhouse and beside it, the small toolshed and apiary. Then he traced the path he had just walked. He had traveled much further than he had intended to. But somehow the outside air, cleared his head, made the pounding a little less severe. He told himself he was just going a little further. Maybe he was becoming careless. Maybe he was just acting like any normal person would in peacetime. He remembered strangely a speech by the British Prime Minister from some time ago. Here was a place of strange beginnings. Here was not the end, not even the beginning of the end.

The British Prime Mister's words had a hypnotic effect on Ganz. He would repeat them without thinking, growing infatuated with their sound in his head. But staring out around him at this postcard of a German landscape, his nostrils filling with the rank, deathly odor of the place, Ganz realized he had not understood the Prime Mister—he had not understood Sir Winston Churchill. It had taken an entire War for him to begin to comprehend the meaning of that man's words.

The wind shifted and the buzzing of the bees gave way to a soft gurgle, like a baby's burp. Ganz figured it must be a stream. He was toying with the idea of taking out the map in his pocket when the pain hit him there in the head, in the middle of his temples, and there where it always hurt; where three weeks earlier the bullet had grazed his side. He tried to ignore it, breathing heavy, closing his eyes, reopening them, and staring at the carpet of pine needles before him.

There were Mussolini and Clara Petacci, their faces glowing with expressions preserved in yellowed newsprint. It was ironic how even the dead refused to abandon him.

Ganz stepped forward. He listened to the forest all around him, hearing in its

silence snatches of conversation from the night before—things he had said:

things Dolan had said.

There had been talk of Waffen-SS training programs, of wild animals that feasted on human flesh. Unbelievable! But possible? There had been all sorts of discoveries in the last few weeks about what the Germans had done. There were wild rumors about the Red Army's victory rampages, frightening stories of Moroccan Goumiers. The War had convinced Ganz that the most improbable could become real. Indeed, if Dolan's calculations were correct, they were sitting on a pile of uranium or some sort of rare radioactive substance the Germans had stashed. There was no reason not to believe it, but Ganz knew that calculations weren't everything. There were accidents and misunderstandings. Things never quite turned out the way they were planned. The situation was what mattered. And the situation, at the moment, meant that Ganz was back in Germany.

"You know," he had told Dolan as he dipped his finger into his glass to catch the last drops of what had been his first glass of wine since leaving Paris, "I've been here before." There had been the time with his parents when he was six, and then summers as a student in the gymnasium. Dolan listened to Ganz, shaking his head, registering but not prodding, remaining silent as he took the pack of Pall Malls on the table and removed the last cigarette. Ganz looked at Dolan wanting to protest, watching the strange need and hunger with which Dolan fumbled in his pocket for a match.

****

Clouds of smoke grew before Ganz, there in the forest, perhaps an image from the night before or simply sweat. Squinting, trying to see clearly, he thrust his hand in his pocket hoping to produce a cigarette. The effort brought no reward. Instead, he felt the rough outline of his map and the small pocket diary, where he had pressed Herta's last letter from Amsterdam. Running his fingertips across the edge of the letter protruding from the diary, he envisioned Herta's small, evenly spaced scrawl. She had written that she had begun to study Hebrew again, and was hoping to transfer to the Institute of Agriculture in Wageningen. At the end of her letter, she had enclosed a poem by a famous poet who lived on a kibbutz by the Sea of Galilee. She wrote it out in the same even hand she used for German, but she used Hebrew letters, a short hand not found in the religious books.

The poem, Herta explained, spoke of an ant condemned to carry the weight of the world on its back. Herta had transliterated the first line of the poem -

"Rak al atsmi lesaper yadati."

                 (Rachel Bluwstein (1890-1931)

"Only of myself do I know how to tell"

She had teased him then, "When you can read Hebrew, you will understand what this is all about!"

Back in Berlin, almost a decade ago, he would not have tolerated this comment. He would have forced Herta to admit that behind her new found love for the poem hid an ulterior motive; and that her taste in poetry, like her taste in films, was a function of a new found love, most likely, a classmate or a fellow member of her Zionist Youth Group.

****

The wind shifted, and Ganz felt the cool against his face. It remained helpful, almost sobering. But even still, Ganz was aware that he was terribly, horribly on edge. He set his rifle down on the ground against a tree, and readjusted his helmet. From all around came the ten thousand sounds of the forest, the cries of some bird—perhaps a crow or a raven.

He stopped moving now, and listened to his own heart beating; he could feel the strange tickle of sweat in his ear. If he stayed motionless like this a few more seconds, the flies would surely find him.

He pulled a well-worn handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the sweat from his brow. He stood there for a minute sweating, flies gathering, observing the worn threads of his initials, which his mother had so lovingly sown. The crow or raven —or whatever bird it was—seemed to be coming closer. It was conducting some strange argument with someone or something. Perhaps it sensed that he was there in the forest. Ganz had read somewhere, or perhaps been told, that the call of a raven was packed with signs and symbols. It was kind of like a language that needed decoding. You had to learn to listen to it, hear out patterns, understand its threat.

Now Ganz listened. The animal made three calls and then fell silent for a minute or so. Then it made two more calls. The pattern persisted.

Three then two.

Perhaps, the raven too had been part of some strange military training program. It wasn't impossible.

The pain came back, sharp and pointed. Ganz tried to focus on the pattern the bird was making. But it evaded him, only adding to his discomfort. Out of habit, he pressed his hands against his temples and told himself to focus. Once again, he saw the smoky room from the night before. Dolan held the bottle of wine in hand. He had said something, barely speaking, humming under his breath. It had made Ganz snort with laughter. Everything had suddenly seemed terribly funny, but thinking back, Ganz couldn't remember what they had talked about. The old gramophone had been playing, Zarah Leander.

"What's she singing?" Dolan had asked.

And Ganz had explained, or at least tried to. "She's singing about a miracle and a 1000 fairy tales."

Dolan was terribly impressed.

Now, Ganz tried to remember the lyrics to the song.

"Ich Weiss, Es Wird Einmal Ein Wunder Geschehn. Ich Weiss, Es Wird Einmal Ein Wunder Geschehn." He repeated.

Ganz went back to trying to remember what he had told Dolan. It was all mixed up with the heat and discomfort, with the strange buzz of flies, and the bird calls. They had talked about what they thought they were looking for. They had speculated about what the hocus pokus, top secret mission they were on was really about. They wondered how much Colonel Boris T. Pash really understood about the great big mystery of the universe that was Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and Quantum Mechanics. What was all the talk about "mega-energy" hidden deep down inside those infinitesimally small uranium nuclei anyway? How much did they understand of it all, really? Then the conversation turned to Germany, Ganz's childhood.

Red-breasted Pochard. Yes! That was the name of the bird that Herta and him had seen the first time he had been in the area, the summer he turned six. He had mentioned this to Dolan. Told him that it was a rare bird, so rare that no one believed he had seen it. But he had written a Professor Stresemann at the Museum of Natural History in Berlin and learned that the last Red-breasted Pochard spotted near Lake Constance had been by Ernst Mayr in '23. The professor's response had convinced Ganz and his sister that they had seen the same bird. There was no question about that.

Then he told Dolan about how he had camped in the forest by the shores of Lake Constance as a member of HaShomer HaTzair. Dolan had stared at him, drawing a blank. "What's that? A German Youth Group?" and Ganz had explained, or tried to, about the Bund, and the Zionist Youth group. Dolan didn't pay much attention to Ganz's stories about camping in the area. Just said,

"Sounds like the Boy Scouts. "

But the mere mention of the camping trips evoked a whole series of images in Ganz's head. In the smoke filled room, an empty bottle of wine before him, music everywhere, tiny little details assaulted Ganz. It was like he had opened some door or locked drawer there in his mind and stepped into another world. He remembered the small things, the silly things, things that couldn't possibly have meant anything back then, but now seemed to carry an inordinate weight. There were the potatoes that the group had burned coal black on the campfire. But they had eaten them, if not loving the taste, loving the experience, the sense of adventure, which came from cooking in the outdoors. Ganz knew that today he would never relish eating burned potatoes, not after two years on K Rations, going hungry some nights when he was lost in enemy territory, and having to make do with the type of meal that turns your insides out. What he dreamed about today, what any man dreamed about in those last few weeks of war, was a good meal, something you could put your teeth into. In his pocket diary he kept a list of foods he hoped to eat. Burned potatoes would not be added to it.

Then there were the heated conversations on the long hike up some mountain pass. What had they talked about? Working the land, the Jewish State. Trotsky, Lenin, socialism, the situation in Germany, the Hitler Youth? Back then, he had wanted— no needed—to believe in the power of Zionism, its ability to make him into someone, something. They had stayed up late each night around a campfire. They had joined hands as a group and danced to pioneer songs. When he had been a member of the dance circle, he had felt an inner force rising within him, something he believed in, something he never imagined would pass.

Ganz would never admit to Dolan or even to himself, but those nights camping by Lake Constance with Hashomer, more then a decade ago, had been some of the happiest moments in his life. Never again would he feel such a sense of purpose and belonging. Never again would he feel so alive and part of the world.

Ganz shut his eyes and searched for his younger self there by the fire, singing songs in a language he had never really known and perhaps, even with Herta's best efforts, never really would. The fire cracked, its embers floating up past the forest canopy into the heavens above.

Ganz tried to remember faces. He tried to recall what it had been like to be so hopeful, so full of expectation, to believe in the future. He tried to remember what it was like to be 16 years old.

****

"I knew a girl named June back at Camp Ritchie. She tried to teach me to dance," said Dolan. Ganz looked up. Stared at Dolan. They had been traveling together since Paris. It had been over two weeks and he realized that he didn't know the least thing about this man. Dolan was the sort of quiet fellow who didn't really offer information; he just looked at you and made you come to your own conclusions. At first, Ganz didn't know what to think of Dolan, or, for that matter what Dolan thought of him. Indeed, Ganz had a deep but abiding notion that he might not want to find out. The army had taught him many things, one of them being that curiosity was not rewarded.

"June," said Ganz, "that your girl?"

Dolan smiled and said no. But then, after thinking about it, said he didn't know. Because they had exchanged three letters since he had decamped from Camp Ritchie. "June," Dolan repeated. He really liked the name.

"Don't you think June is a beautiful name," said Dolan. "I hope this whole War is going to be over in June." That had made them both laugh.

So June had taught Dolan to dance, and Dolan had stumbled along. "She said I was all legs. You know the trick is to learn how to move your torso." Dolan jumped forward in attention, his back tight. Then, he did a little jig. As he did this, he asked Ganz if he could make a sketch of him to send to June. Dolan made a face, but hoped that Ganz, in his infinite kindness, would make the necessary improvements. Ganz agreed and smiled: "Possibly." After all, a man shouldn't make commitments he can't keep, but drawing isn't an exact science, so Ganz could probably make it turn out all right.

Dolan tried to hold steady, but found it pretty difficult with all the wine. So he let Ganz improvise with his pose.

"You're all right Ganz," said Dolan. Then, he started talking about how when he was a kid he hadn't known many Jews. Just the rabbi at the synagogue two blocks away from his house in Brooklyn. One Saturday, when he was on his way to practice with the church choir, the man called him over and asked him to flick on a light switch. "Imagine that? Me a kid of six flicking on a light switch for this dense looking guy all dressed in black." Anyhow, that was how he got to know the rabbi and learned about the strange and almost medieval tradition that prohibited the rabbi from flicking a light switch on every Saturday. Ganz listened to the story. He wasn't quite sure what to make of it. He mumbled something about growing up in a very modern household, being secular and whatnot, but he had a feeling that Dolan wasn't quite following. So he let Dolan keep talking and focused on the page before him.

A new song began playing. "Manhattan." Dolan knew it. It was his turn to start singing.

      Summer journeys to Niagara and to other places
      Aggravate all our cares, we'll save our fares
      I've a cozy little flat in what is known as old Manhattan
      We'll settle down right here in town

                                                      Lorenz Hart, 1925

Ganz sat at the table. He was still staring at a blank page, trying to think of how to draw Dolan for his girl. He stared harder; He drew out the round shape of Dolan's face, the dimple in his chin. Then the eyes, those strange curious green-grey eyes that would look at you, then dart away, like a cat. Those eyes made Ganz, well, uneasy at times. Then, there was Dolan's habit of always calling Ganz professor, which he was not. But Ganz understood "professor" as a means of resolving the issue of Dolan's higher rank and Ganz's knowledge of the German language. All this didn't make drawing Dolan easier. It made it well—more complex. So Ganz tried to think about Dolan's girl, June, but Ganz couldn't really envision Dolan with a girl.

The music ended, another song began.

Ganz looked up from the page. Dolan was there before him, his mouth moving, whistling, and singing. Maybe Ganz had it all wrong. He really didn't understand this man and understanding was like seeing. You can't draw someone if you don't have a sense of them, a feeling for their person.

Suddenly, Ganz felt himself rising, moving, getting lighter. His head was spinning, and he felt a hand on his shoulder, directing him.

One. Two. Three.

He was moving around the room. The girl kept singing, all sweetness and happiness. They were spinning wildly now, flying across the floorboards. If the din of war was all around them, they no longer could hear it; somehow it had grown distant, muted. Dolan leaned forward and pressed his lips against Ganz's right ear.

"She really was a fine woman," he whispered. Ganz could smell the alcohol on his breath; he could feel the weight of the man's body against his. He could feel the tickle of wet lips against his ear.

****

Suddenly something moved in the growth before him. Ganz startled, his hand instinctively grabbing for the rifle he had set down by the tree.

There wasn't time to consider. The bird cried out again, now loud and forceful. Ganz lunged forward and instinctually, without a second thought, he squeezed the trigger in his hand.

Two dark eyes stared back at him.

Ganz's stomach began to hurt. He thought his head would explode. He shouted out words, words in a language he no longer cared to call his own. The world around him was somehow growing hotter, the bird still squawking, the animal or whatever it was whimpering, almost pleading, like it was begging for mercy. Still holding the rifle in position, Ganz moved forward to the spot where the creature lay. He reached out, dazed and confused.

For a moment, he realized that he was not staring at an animal—the shape of the

body, the chest that rose and fell—it was unquestionably human. He felt a sharp pain in his side and the inescapable need to suddenly relieve himself. But before he could drop his pants his bladder burst. Standing there, pants finally down, shit running down his legs, he shut his eyes and listened. A large knot turned in his stomach. When he finally could stand up again, he heard something breathing. The breaths sputtered out, like a car's faltering engine. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. When he opened his mouth, he could not make a sound. Shaking his shoulders, shivering, he pulled up his pants and propped himself up on a fir tree. Then—without turning back—he headed towards the farmhouse. It took his utmost concentration to find the trail he had been traveling.

He told himself that he didn't have time. He had to keep moving. He had seen too many things. Been in too many goddamn countries, heard one too many languages. There was a scientist at large in the area who held the secrets to one of Germany's great weapons programs, something that had to do with the mysterious, dark 'mega-energy' locked inside uranium. If he didn't get him, then Stalin and the Red Army would. The world needed him. Uncle Sam needed him. He couldn't let some small obstacle get in the way. There were more important things to worry about then the fate of some animal. What he had discovered—what he had done there in the forest —was not relevant. As Colonel Pash always said, "Loose lips sink ships." In the Army you kept a tight lip and did what you needed to do to get the job done.

What Ganz needed to do was stay focused. What he needed was priorities. You couldn't get all sentimental. How many guys had he seen all cracked up from thinking too much? This would not happen to him. It had all been an accident; it wasn't his fault. His entire life—an accident. He wasn't responsible. The only ones to blame were the goddamn Nazis. After all, the Germans had voted in Hitler. After what they had done, well...

Ganz was now at the edge of the field; whatever it was that lay there crying in the forest behind him was out of earshot. He shut his eyes once more and tried to conjure up an image of himself in those younger, better days. It was the same woods, the same forest. The trees hadn't changed, even if there were fewer of them. He tried to imagine a boy of sixteen singing songs around a fire with other youths his own age. But he could not.

What he saw was the fir tree a few feet behind him on the trail, his hand pressed against bark. What he felt was a strange sinking sensation that came with the knots in his stomach and the bile in his throat. But then, strangely, he recalled the lines from the poem Herta had sent him,

                                     רק על עְצִמי לספּר יָדעתּי

(Rak al atsmi lesaper yadati.)  "Only of myself do I know how to tell..."

                                        צר עולמי כעולם נמלה

He could have pulled out Herta's letter from his pocket and read it in the dying light. But the stench of his own body and the sting of drying urine against his legs forced him to keep moving. He was now half way across the field, almost at the farmhouse. When he entered, Dolan would still be asleep. He could be certain of that. The knowledge allowed him to breathe a sigh of relief. He thought of an ant climbing a tree, carrying a load that was well beyond its size. When he was back inside the house, he would take out his pocket diary and make a drawing of this ant. He would make other drawings too—of the forest, of the mountains. Yes, that was exactly what he would do.


****


From the U.S. Veteran's History Archive:
Alsos' Mission Field Report

June 1, 1945

At 18:00 hours, Private Ganz and I came upon a factory 14 kilometers outside the town of Tailfingen. We surveyed the property's outer perimeter, which was encircled by a wire fence and then entered the premises. In a seemingly abandoned inner courtyard stood a small shed with a bike set against it.

After calling out in German, and receiving no answer, we entered the main building. There was a strong pungent chemical odor to the place. We proceeded cautiously into a main room, which was filled with empty packing crates. Along the walls, we noted a series of shelves filled with old trade manuals. To the left of the room, was a small office filled with a desk, three chairs, and a small safe. On the desk, we found two newspapers, some leaflets, and three receipts of sale from the Mineralais et Metaux firm with an address in occupied Belgium (see supplemental materials).

In one of the desk's drawers we found a key chain with seven keys. Private Ganz suggested that we try the keys on the safe, which we did. One of the keys opened the safe. Inside we found, 75 Reichsmark, a small leather-bound ledger, and a box of Droste Cocoa Powder.

Continuing from the office, we entered a large room that showed every indication of recent use. There was a large table with a series of scientific apparatuses upon it. Shelves lined the walls filled with glass containers. Upon further inspections, we found all these containers empty.

We then set ourselves the task of trying to identify the instruments. We did not have any film to document them. We would have confiscated them for the Alsos Mission, but had no means of transporting them back to our present location.

Ganz identified one of the instruments as a Hoffman Cloud Chamber (see supplementary materials). It looked identical to the one that the Alsos Mission confiscated back in Paris at the laboratory of Frederic Joliot-Curie. The instrument we found, however, had had the plaque identifying the firm that manufactured it removed.

At this point in our reconnaissance, Private Ganz heard something moving in the room behind us. Both Private Ganz and I stopped our investigation and listened. Private Ganz identified what he believed to be the sounds of a small animal—a rat or quite possibly a cat. At this point, Private Ganz left his position by the desk and began to walk in the direction of the sound. I followed him....

We were unable to discover what had been the source of the noise in the main room. We performed one final reconnaissance of the premises and confirmed that the location was, indeed, professor Carl Friedrich von Weizkäcker's laboratory.

We have removed all essential documents left at the laboratory. We have also completed our reconnaissance of professor Carl Friedrich von Weizkäcker's farmhouse in Hechingen and removed all documents and personal items relating to his wartime scientific career and his activities as a member of the Uranverein.

                                                                     (Uranium Club or Uranium Society)

Having secured the required documents and identified Professor Carl Friedrich von Weizkäcker's laboratory and residence in Hechingen, we are happy to report our mission has been successfully accomplished.

Staff Sergeant E. Dolan
US 12th Army Division
Heidelberg

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