Sunday, December 06, 2009

Leo Steinberg
Our teacher, Herr Säger, was a portly man of short temper. Any boy misbehaving would be struck smartly across the face. It was a daily occurrence—and one day, he hit me. I told mother, whereupon my parents went to see the headmaster to protest. This, after all, was the liberal Weimar Republic, a new age of progressive education, which condemned the physical chastisement of children as barbarous.
Accordingly, the headmaster expressed disbelief. Herr Säger, he said, was one of our most respected teachers, who surely would never lay hands on his boys. So he summoned Herr Säger, who denied having ever done so.
I knew nothing of this—until the next morning, when I was made to stand in front of the class to answer Herr Säger’s questions:
“Did you tell your parents that I hit you?”
“Yes.”

“Is it true? Did I hit you?”

“Yes, you did.”

Herr Säger turned to the class and called out:

“Boys, did I ever hit any of you?”
Stunned silence. They didn’t know what to say, since most of them had been struck many times. Herr Säger, raising his voice, repeated in a more menacing tone:
“Did I ever lay hands on any of you?”
Silence again, for a few seconds, until a boy in the front row caught on and said—“No, never!” Herr Säger relaxed, and at once the whole class of forty understood what was expected of them and chimed in: “No, never!”
At this, my tears started. Seventy-two years have passed, and still I remember that spokesman in the front row, looking triumphant, because he had found the right answer. Herr Säger turned back to me:
“Well, did I hit you?”
I nodded: “Yes.”
He pulled out the class record book, and intoned as he wrote these words, trenched in my memory:
“Steinberg nimmt es mit der Wahrheit nicht genau”—“Steinberg is not particular about the truth.”
Since the suburb of Zehlendorf was spared the Allied bombing of World War II, that document may still exist. There—in Zehlendorf-West, as in many places since—you will find it stated black on white that I am not to be trusted.

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