Snow by von Schirach

In the Sueddeutsche Zeitung from this Christmas I read a short story, Schnee by Ferdinand von Schirach. He works as lawyer in Berlin. The man’s writing is cristal-clear, he constructs his text well. And I like his point of view. I learned that von Schirach has published a collection of shortstories this autumn and it was received well by critics and readers. For an interesting interview with the man go here (German only).
I translated the story and hopefully can give you an impression of the original text (it’s the post below). Von Schirachs text is seemingly einfach and that is far away from simple. He changes the view, the perspective, and is near to his personage – although the text prima facie is distant and reserved. A distant observer who allows himself some empathy. The titel of his book Verbrecher litteraly would be given as “criminals”; I’d prefer “wrongdoers” (Uebeltaeter). There is no discussion about that sinking the axe in the wife’s forehead is a crime, but why did he do it. Explaining does not mean excusing. It helps to find the adequate, the just sentence.

Words are important, can be fascinating. They can be charged with meaning, with power, unknown to the user. Nation for example. And words can discharge, explode in one’s face, like humans. Von Schirach uses words cautiously. And changes the view. As lawyer one has to keep distance to the accused, to their stories, but at the same time the only chance for a good defence lies in there, in the story and its telling, the explanation. Again: no excuses, explanation only. In his stories the author bridges this distance, lets the acting person speak, shares his or her point of view. Hassan drives through town and thinks of Jana, describing her as einfach und klar. These seemingly simple words are difficult to translate, especially einfach. It is not “simple”, Jana is not a simple person. I thought about a German replacement – reflecting the author’s intention and interpreting – and decided myself for gerade. So it is “straightforward”. Another seemingly simple word is schön. I find it untranslatable.
I am sure that von Schirach’s stories will be translated to English and probably other languages, and really wonder how it will be done.

One has to weight it out. A lot is in a single word and by translating you give weight to one or another meaning, subtext, variation, accent – how you may call it. So the translation always – always – shows how the translator read the text. And in the best case he carries the subtext of the writer with it.
All I’m saying is, that words are dangerous toys. They come along innocent enough, but their results can be cruel. And again an explanation is needed, another story has to be told. Another just sentence is needed.

A Story


By Ferdinand von Schirach

The old man stood in the kitchen and smoked. A warm day in August, he had the windows wide open. The tap dripped in slow motion. He inspected the ash tray: nacked mermaid with green fish-tail, under it written: Willkommen auf der Reeperbahn. He did not know where it came from. The colour paled, the R was gone. Drops fell in the sink, slowly and hard. Calming. He’d stay at the window, smoking, doing nothing.

The Sondereinsatzkommando gathered in front of the house. The policemen wore uniforms seemingly too large, black helmets and see-through shields. They came in when it became too difficult, when weapons and resistence were expected. Tough men living on a tough code. There had been deads and wounded on their side too, they were ready. The order read: drug house, suspects probably armed, arrest. Silently they stood in the yard besides the dumpsters, they waited on the staircase and in front of the appartement, too hot under the masks and helmets. They waited for the word the leader would say and they wanted to hear it, now. He’d shout Zugriff and they would do what they had learned.

The old man at the window thought about Hassan and his friends. They had the keys to his appartement and when they came at night they produced the parcels in the kitchen. Strecken they called it: two thirts H, one third Lidocain. They pressed it to square lumps, 1 kilogramm each. Hassan paied 1000 Euro to the old man, punctualy every month. Of course too much for an 1.5 room appartement, back yard, fourth level, a little too dark. The kitchen was large enough and that was what they needed. The old man slept in the small room and when they came he switched the tv so he could not understand. He could not use his kitchen anymore because of all the plastic sheets, fine scales, tape. Bad was the white dust which covered everything. Hassan had the risk explained to the old man but he did not care. There was nothing to loose. It was a good deal – Hassan paid the rent four times –  and he had never cooked anyway. He smoked and looked to the sky: no clouds, the evening would be even hotter.

He heared the policemen only when they smashed the door. It happened fast and resistence made no sense. He was swept off his feet, fell over the kitchen stool and broke two rips. They shouted he should say where the Arabs were. And because they were so loud he saied nothing. And because his rips hurt. Later in front of the judge he’d be silent, he had been too often in the can, it was too early to speak and they would not let him go now.


The old man lay on his bed. Cell 178, house C. He heared the keys and realized that he had to give a sign to the officer, she would not go without. She came every morning 06:15, they called it Lebendenkontrolle, checked whether one of the prisoners had died or killed himself overnight. He saied it’s all right. The officer would have carried his mail but there was nobody to write to, and she did not ask anymore. Alone he turned to the wall. He stared at the yellow, two thirds of the wall yellow, a white stripe on top, grey floor. All rooms looked this way. When he woke up he knew that their wedding day was today. And he thought about the man who had sex with his woman, his wife. It started with a t-shirt. He remembered the summer evening 22 years ago when he found it under the bed. Crumbled and somewhow dirty. Not his t-shirt, despite his wife saied different, and he knew that it belonged to the other man. Everything changed. In the end he cleaned his shoes with it but it did not help and he had to leave or he’d perish. His wife cried. He took nothing, money, car even the watch she had given him for present. He left the job, a good job but he could not take it anymore, he could not take anything anymore. He drunk every evening systematically and silently. It became a practice and he vanished in a world of schnaps, small crimes and social service. He did not want to change. He waited for the end.

Today something changed.The woman who wanted to talk to him was named Jana and her family name was long and unutterable. No mistake, she had written a request. So he went to the visitor room and sat to her at the table, green plastic sheet. The surveillance officer tried not to disturb.

She looked at him. He knew he was ugly. Nose and chin tried to reach each other, no more hair, grey stubble. She looked at him like nobody had looked at him for years. He scratched his neck. She saied with her hard Polish accent he’d have nice hands and he knew she lied but it was alright the way she saied it. She was schön. Like the madonna in the village church. As a boy through mass he always looked at her and imagined that God was in her belly and wondered how he came in there. Jana was in the seventh month and all about her was round, alive and radiant. She lent over the table and touched his cavernous cheeks with her fingertips. He stared at her tits and felt ashamed. “I have no more teeth”, he tried to smile. She nodded friendly and they sat in silence for twenty minutes. When the officer said the time was over she got up, bent over fast and whispered in his ear “It’s Hassan’s child”. He smelled her parfume, felt her hair in his old face. She blushed. That was it. She left and he was let back in his cell. He sat on his bed and stared on his hands, dots and scars and he thought about Jana and the baby in her belly and how it was warm there and safe and he knew what to do.


When Jana came home Hassan slept. She undressed lay down and felt his breath in her neck. She loved him, could not explain him. He was different from the boys in her Polish village. He was a man. Skin like silk.

When he woke up she told him that the old man would stay silent, he could relax. But he would have to do something for him, he had to pay his new teeth. She had already spoken with a social worker who could manage it. Nobody would realize. She spoke too fast, she was excited. Hassan stroke her belly until she fell asleep.


“Does the accused want to give an explanation? In this case the jury could imagine to stop the period of remand.” I did the defence pro-bono and had asked for a review of his remand in custody. All was settled the man would go free. No complicated case. The police found 200 g of H in the appartement. Worse: The old man had carried a knife in his pocket. The law called it “selling weapons”, minimal sentence five years. The idea behind is to protect the officers from attacks. The old man only had to name the real criminal, seemed to be his only chance. He stood silent. “In this case the custody continues”, the judge shook his head.

The old man was content. The Polish girl would have her child not alone. “That’s more important than me” he thought and while he thought it he knew that he had found something more important than his freedom.


Trail started four months later. They took the old man from his cell and brought him to court. In front of the christmas tree they had to wait. The tree stood in the court’s main corridor, gigantic and alien, electric lights reflecting in the balls. Properly attached, big ones down, small ones up. The electrical cord was taped to the floor with black-yellow safety tape; safety regulations.

The judges fast realized that the old man was not the possessor of the drugs, he had no chance to gather so much money. But: five years minimum. Nobody wanted to sentence him for so long, it felt wrongful, there seemed to be no exit

In a pause something strange happened: The old man ate a slice of bread with cheese, he cut it down to smallest pieces with a plastic knife. When I watched he excused himself, he’d have no more teeth and had to cut down all he wanted to eat into smallest pieces. The rest was simple. For this reason – and for this reason only –  the old man had carried the knife. There was a supreme court decision stating that it would be no trafficking of weapons if the knife clearly had another use.

The teeth could be seen as odd explanation, but it was the last process in this year. All relaxed, the attorney of state spoke of his still unbought presents in the pauses and everybody asked himself whether ther’d be snow. In the end the judges sentenced the old man to two years on probation and he was set free.

Wondered where he’d be on christmas, his appartement was no more and there was nobody he could turn to. I stood in one of the upper floors and watched him go down the stairs. Slowly.


On the 24th the old man was in hospital. The operation was scheduled for 2nd of January, but the clinic wanted him in, they feared him drinking again. The social worker had it all organized, the old man first refused. But then he was told that “a Jana” (as the social worker saied) had already paied for his new teeth. And because of her he acted as if she was a relative and accepted.

The bed was clean, he had showered and shaved, they gave him a gown with yellow flowers. On the board was a chocolate Santa, chest compressed, somehow leaning. He liked it. “Like me” he thought. He felt a little fear because of the operation, they wanted to take a piece of bone from his hip, but he happily looked forward to his new teeth, and in some months he would be able to eat again. He fell asleep and for the first time in years he dreamt not of the t-shirt. He dreamt of Jana, her hair, her scent and her belly. He was happy.

Two kilometers away Jana sat on the sofa and told the christmas story to her sleeping baby. She had cooked borschtsch for Hassan. Difficult, but she could do this, her mother managed the little family’s survival with that after the death of her father, in Karpacz, southwest Poland. Bortschtsch from beef and beetroot for tourists who came wandering over the mountain and were hungry, her childhood. Her mother stood outside with the other women in the cold, pots, burner, they threw the pressed vegetables behind them in the snow. Jana told the baby about the red snow one could see from afar and the smell of soup and burners. She thought about her village in the mountains, her family, she told from christmas, the deep snow, yellow lights and baked gooses, and uncle Malek the baker who surely had made the largest cake.

Hassan would not return. She knew. He was with her when the baby came, hold her hand, wept sweat from her face. He stood calm when she roared, he was always calm when need be, and she believed that nothing bad would happen with him around. But she always had felt that he would go, he was much too young. She could only live in peace loving him from a distance. Suddenly she was lonely, she missed the village and her family, missed it that much that it hurt and she decided to board the train to Poland next morning.

Hassan drove through town. He could not go back to her, knew not what to say. He was promised to another woman in Lebanon, he had to marry her, his parents decided when he was still a child. Jana was a good woman, saved him from jail, clear and straightforward in all things. Hassan slowly became angry, angry on himself, the family and everything else.
And he saw him.

The man came out of a store, bought last presents. He owed Hassan 20.000 Euro and had done the vanishing gig. Hassan had looked for him for weeks. He stopped the car, took the hammer from the glove box and followed the man to the entrance of a house. He grabbed him by the throat and slammed him against the wall, the bags fell down. He wanted to pay, just more time. He begged. Hassan did not hear him anymore, stared at the present-parcels scattered over the entrance floor, saw the printed Santas the golden fillets – and all of a sudden it all was in his head at the same time: Jana and the child, Lebanon’s heat, his father and his promised wife, and then he ralized that he could not change anything any more.

It lasted much too long and a neighbour later saied that he had heared the slapping between the screams, wet, thudding, like at the butcher’s. When police finally draw Hassan from the man’s thorax the mouth was a bloody pulp: Hassan had smashed eleven teeth with the hammer.
This evening snow fell.
Christmas, finally.