“Von Ribbentrop’s Watch”: Thoughts on Kristallnacht

Perhaps I should call her. We have not talked in over a year. Could I have telephoned tonight, though? Not simply to exchange a few kind words, mind. From her, I would like to learn about the past that shaped our world; and who would not seize the opportunity to grasp that past firsthand? That said, I have never quizzed my German grandmother about life in the Third Reich, never attempted anything amounting to probing inquiry. I am more distressed by my failure to ask than by any responses I might get. Not that any number of answers could make me stop wondering.

Tonight marks the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, and I am more keenly aware than usual that the past is not done with, that many of those who threw stones into shop windows or looked on as Jews were hauled off to the concentration camps are still among us. Their ideologies, their hypocrisies, and their indifference are alive as well.

My grandparents were not among those who resisted the Reich and its reign of terror. “Of course, we knew they were being shipped to the camps,” my paternal grandmother once told me. She was frank about being in the know, an openness that did not make her open-minded. Third Reich propaganda remained at work throughout her life, even some forty, fifty years after the defeat of the Nazi regime. Once she heard I was schwul (German for gay), she ceased to acknowledge me; not as much as a reply to my Christmas cards. My maternal grandmother, now in her nineties, continued to correspond, though, sending greetings and wishes to me and mine. Is she more open? Or is she, like so many of us, merely permitting her personal feelings for her own kind to gainsay thoughts that would otherwise dominate her mind?

My maternal grandmother worked for one of the leading Nazi families and remained loyal to them decades after the war, introducing me to the heirs when I was a child. My memories are vague. I remember being told about the guilt that made outcasts of the obviously well-to-do family for which grandmother worked as a seamstress. There was a boy, roughly my age, with whom I played while grandmother worked. As much as I would like to fill in the blanks, I cannot bring myself to ask about the past, about grandmother’s connection to the Von Ribbentrops.

On this Remembrance Sunday, as Britain commemorates the 90th anniversary of the 1918 armistice and those killed in war, I drift in and out of consciousness, sick with the commonest of colds. Swirling in the thick of my head are thoughts that just the right word cannot put into any conclusive or satisfying order. I continue to question myself rather than demanding answers from those who might help me to resolve matters.

Instead of proving that actions speak louder than words, Kristallnacht demonstrated that actions are louder than the silence of unvoiced dissent. A stone, in this respect, is like a resounding “no” to the potentialities of change latent in the troubled mind. Words can set nothing aright if they merely create the illusion of control, if they obscure the chaos within us rather than dispel it. I let my words bespeak confusion rather than answer conclusively, thus falsely. I let them run riot rather than underwrite what amounts to the hollow triumph of paper solutions.

A quandary is at the heart of “Von Ribbentrop’s Watch,” a radio play by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran; it premiered 8 November 2008 on BBC Radio 4 (and is available online until 14 November). It is the story of a Jewish shop owner in contemporary Britain who learns that the less-than-reliable watch he inherited from his father once belonged to Nazi Germany’s Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop. What to do? Keep the watch and ignore the Swastikas to which a watchmaker alerted him? Sell it to collectors of Nazi memorabilia in order to keep alive his own struggling business? Would that be retribution or profiteering?

The fascinating premise is undermined by the language in which the conflict is couched. It seems that the playwrights are rather too enamored of their at times desperate wordplay, too eager to elicit awkward chuckles from assorted squabbles at a Passover table when restraint might have served them better. Perhaps, the broadcast date for this dreadful piece of imitation Goldbergs was as unfortunate a choice as the playwrights’ mockery—a Jewish defense of Nazi crimes, the sounds of broken glass after a family quarrel, followed by an otherworldly visit from Von Ribbentrop—as it gave me reason to believe that “Von Ribbentrop’s Watch” was meant to coincide with and somehow commemorate the horrors of Kristallnacht. Armistice Day, by comparison, is given a solemn treatment on BBC Radio 3, with an adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front (currently available online).

At least, the titular chronometer of “Von Ribbentrop’s Watch” seems to suggest that even belated justice is preferable to terminal ignorance; time catches up with timepiece in question, however exasperating and offensive the ninety minutes that it takes us to hear about it. Not that the conclusion is rewarding: in its tacky irony, the play insists that the Jews end up confessing their guilt by association.

In response to this appalling piece of misjudged comedy, which is supposedly based on a true story, I retrieved the watch shown above. Like so many stories of so many objects around me, the story of this watch cannot be recovered, the one who could have helped to pieced it together having died many years ago. It was given to my partner, whose father brought it back from the Second World War. My camera failed to capture it, but the face bears the Cross of Lorraine, the symbol of the Resistance.

What we need to resist, always, is the convenient answer, the conclusive remark, the word to extinguish the doubt that is the life of thought, the hope for change; and the doubt we should all permit ourselves to voice on this day is whether the past is truly over or whether we are still victims of the same prejudices, susceptible to the same talk, capable of the same actions. Those are the questions we cannot expect anyone to answer on our behalf.

9 Replies to ““Von Ribbentrop’s Watch”: Thoughts on Kristallnacht”

  1. A timely post for me. I\’ve been wanting to ask how much you know about wartime Germany, especially as related by parents and grandparents. Any personal insights into the Comedian Harmonist\’s story for us who only know of it through the film?

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  2. That was a grand piece of writing, Harry. There\’s doubtless such things as too much doubt as well as too little, but you\’re right that the great catastrophes always seem to be carried out by believers.I\’m having trouble finding the cross on the watch.

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  3. Much of what went on in Germany during the 1930s and ‘40s was never shared with me directly, only through books and by way of statistics. My parents grew up in the rubble of the former Reich; they were eager to tell their stories to let us know how fortunate we were and how much we owed to those who had to start as if from scratch. Of course, it was not “from scratch.” As a child, I found it difficult to make connections between Nazi Germany and the pictures in my grandmother’s photo album, especially since albums are meant to preserve the good times, the holidays, the vacations, the get-togethers with friends and family. To show that one enjoyed good times during those years was almost an admission of guilt; so, the past was glossed over. Growing up in the 1970s, I was astonished to learn that there were still Jews in Germany. For me, 20th-century history was not a continuum; my grandparents’ personal experiences remained separate from anything I was taught in school. And here I am, still not seizing the chance to forge those links. At least, this journal, which started out rather impersonally, is forcing me to address this to me troubling dissociation of public and private, history and autobiography.The story of the Comedian Harmonists would make excellent radio drama. In February 2006, BBC Radio 4 presented a documentary of their career, with recordings of the original members reminiscing about it. It is on these reminiscences that the 1997 film is based.

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  4. Perhaps my reasons for resisting causalities, for making sense of the past, are dubious as well; but knowing our history sure doesn’t prevent repeats.I’ll try to post a clearer picture of the watch. My camera does not take good close-ups.

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  5. The authors of the play, Maurice Gan and Laurence Gran are both Jews. Laurence bought the watch and found out some years later that it had been owned by Von Ribbentrop.Laurence was faced with a dilemma. He could not sell the watch. So they decided to write a play based on the idea of discovering the watch. What if it had not been found by a fairly well-off Jewish writer? What if it had been found by a Jewish businessman who needed the money?

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  6. Just to let you know that the watch illustrated is not the watch in question. The actual one is a deco style Longines, which has an oblong face, the nazi cross and initials are inside the case. Had dinner with Laurence Marks the other day who confirmed the whole story – amazing! Unfortunately could not see the watch as it he also confirms that it is locked away in the bank vaults!!

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