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The Radicals

April 14, 1967

I have kept Isaiah Josefs’ tale far too long to myself. Sometimes I wonder what is the use of writing -all this. After all, who will read these lines ? Then I feel that it is my duty to bear witness. Even against myself.

Where do I start ? Perhaps in the beginning of the thirties, when I first moved to Berlin. I was lonely at first. But (atleast in those days) I was said to be good company, and within no time a little group began to meet at a restaurant in the Alexanderplatz. It was a time of great changes and of revolution.

There were twelve of us and Isaiah. We were bachelors and so our weekends were spent discussing philosophy and politics, our voices loud and free, our thoughts clarified by the good beer. It was a motley bunch. There was James Clausewitz, the half-English professor of logic, a fiery Communist who we nicknamed Freiherr for his refined manners; Shimon, the taciturn bookbinder; Peter Fischer – that’s me – I worked then in the department of statistics at the University. There was Matheo, the businessman who supplied us fine wines through his contacts when wine became a little difficult to find. Can I ever forget those well-known faces ? But the face that rises up before me again, and again, is that of Isaiah Josef, the sculptor. He was not our leader, not the most talkative man there, nor the most intellectual, nor the most humorous. No, Isaiah was simply our conscience.

The years passed and the shadows lengthened, but we continued to laugh and sing and make irreverent jokes at our meetings, and to play forbidden jazz music. But soon we could exclude the shadows no longer. One weekend Lukas did not come for our weekly dinner. We went to see him at his home. He was sitting with his head in his hands: they’d taken his fiancé away.

And so it went on. As life became more and more difficult we thought of retaliation, of bombs placed in strategic halls and targeted assassinations. I was most enthusiastic about these ideas, and soon it was an increasingly more radicalized, directionless set of men that I led. Isaiah would sometimes look troubled at some of our ideas. But he did not hinder us in our activities, and actively aided us like a good comrade should.

He never quite agreed with us, though. “Paying back our enemy in the same coin is never the answer” he would say. “How can we, comrades, hope for a moral revolution if we use the same repulsive methods of our enemy?”

“What is the answer then?” I cried out one January evening, in real agony. I looked around me at the withered, stricken faces and wished I was not the one they called their leader. All of us were there, gathered in a ramshackle inn on the riverside. A meagre dinner lay uneaten on the table, but we dared not go back to our apartments. We were wanted men.

“What is the answer then?” I cried again. The clock struck eleven in answer. Only I noticed Jude Ullmann slip quietly out of the door. I thought little of it. We kept staring listlessly at the single candle on the table.

“I do not know, Fischer,” came Isaiah’s voice, a little troubled. “Perhaps all this really has no meaning, and it’s exactly like the modernists say: life is meaningless, and men are inherently wicked, and God doesn’t exist. Perhaps all that we have believed in is false. I hope it does not come to that.” he added softly.

“It’s you!” I cried angrily, walking up to my old friend and shaking him roughly. “It’s you who are the cause of our failure, you who have sold us to the fascists! You have purchased your safety at the price of your comrades!” I do not remember what else I said, my eyes were stinging and my throat burnt as I flung accusation after accusation at the man. All I remember is that he remained seated calmly through my diatribe, neither rejecting, nor accepting, his only expression one of compassion.

I stopped only when I heard the dull thud of hob-nailed boots.

“It is too late to go anywhere now,” someone said.

“But not too late to pray,” smiled Isaiah.

And so when the police broke the doors in, they found us kneeling, side by side, praying to a God we weren’t sure existed. They laughed uproariously. For ten whole minutes.

Anger rose in my heart, to be overtaken by a mad fear, when I saw Ullmann with them.

“Which is the leader?” barked the captain. My wrists were trembling, I thought surely they would notice, our hands were up above our heads. Ullmann said nothing in reply to the soldier’s question, but pointed mutely at my friend, the sculptor.

I froze.

In that moment, my past and my future all ceased to matter. Before me was a choice, and I had to decide in seconds. Both paths led to Death, but one would kill my body first, and the other, my soul.

I was not sure I had a soul any more. And so I chose accordingly.


They executed Isaiah Josefs, stateless man, sculptor, failed conspirator, on a cold day while we watched, shivering. They hanged him at sunset, as an example to the Camp, and through each horrible moment of it it was as though I saw my own hands putting the noose around his neck and my foot kicking away the rough stool, heard my own voice laugh harshly and blaspheme at the limp body as it swung in the bitter Saxon breeze.

Is it of any use now to record the terrible ways in which all of the others died ? More skilled men have told of the dreadful things that happened in those days. I am the only survivor of the thirteen: the twelve of us and Isaiah. But my soul is dead. It died the day I saw them take Isaiah away, and did not say a word. It died truly, whatever religions say about the immortality of the soul. I don’t believe in God and Heaven and Hell anymore. But sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, cold and sweating, crying out: My God, my God, how will you forgive me ?


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