Author’s Note: The Nazis were ordered to search the Ville-Évrard Asylum outside Paris while Antonin Artaud was held there. Even Hitler’s soldiers did not like doing this. Hitler abused his own people, denied his relatives (some of whom had mental disabilities), and hid his questionable past. This story needs to be told to finally break this support for and/or fascination with Hitler that Americans still mistakenly have.
His tiny mouth in his enormous planet’s face tightened, then slackened and he turned to me. “There are things I have never told another human being,” he said, and his blue eyes were watery. “It becomes a burden, but… You are so young, you—” When he sighed his face suddenly looked so old. “You would not understand. But perhaps I could tell you.”
“I’m not that young. Let’s go somewhere and talk.”
He leaned an elbow on the back of the pew and stared past me into a void. I had seen that look on men’s faces before. I thought I had seen it in the mirror, too. I gave his sleeve a tug before he could fall deeper into silence. “Come on. Let’s go to a bar, someplace away from here.”
“I was in the army,” he mumbled. “Only in the army. We were conscripted. It was not my choice. I was a boy.”
I placed my hand on his arm. “Lots of people were conscripted quite young. Come with me.” He looked up at the ceiling hopelessly, but then he followed me outside and to the bus stop. I took him to Sunny’s; that was quite a bus ride, requiring a transfer and the second bus was crowded and boisterous and we were forced to stand apart, but I knew no one would look for us at that place, whereas Marcel would be nearby when I phoned him. Tomorrow was Jamal’s birthday and Tyrone would be staying over.
Horst looked askance at the clientele of Sunny’s, but when our food was thumped down in front of us he dug in. He drank beer with it and so did I. “Look, I was seventeen then,” he said finally, gnawing on the remnants of a French fry. “I was not used to it as the others were. I saved a man’s life—a civilian perhaps, or a perhaps a G.I. gone AWOL, a black man. I didn’t know they let them in.” He gave a look around at the faces in the bar and leaned forward to speak quietly. “I ain’t no nnnnn—” he drew out the consonant while glancing around, “—lover but I ain’t no killer. I wasn’t then. I was just a pup. A mere child.”
“Of course you were.”
“I didn’t like it!” he said with great emotion. He stared into that void past my shoulder again, his brow very wrinkled. “None of us liked it. Most of us were kids, commanded by a middle-aged, corrupt poof. We knew what he was. An insane asylum for the love of Christ, after all our training, our drilling. What could there be to find there? Yet we were ordered to search the place, so we conducted this half-hearted search, looked under their empty beds, cots really, for nothing. And then I—”
He sighed as if a weight pressed him. “I couldn’t help it… I saw that inmate sitting on his bed, in his own cell, alone. I went to his window and looked in at him. He was sitting very quietly, isolated, while the others were scurrying around, howling and gobbling. That man sat with these strange eyes and he wrote with a pen, then burned the paper with his cigarette. That caught my attention, and then he looked up…”
Horst raised his eyes to me as if re-enacting the scene. “I have never seen eyes like that on a human being before or since. They seemed to look right into me. The bluest blue-green. And my commanding officer noticed me looking at him and then started toward the cell and peered in the window. A very young doctor stepped forward in fear then but my Captain told him to remain near the door with the staff, he would question this man. That doctor had a military haircut—I knew he was a former soldier, French soldier, and he was very afraid. The doctor pointed to the door and said, ‘He is fixed, a mere paranoiac and very ill,’ and I said, ‘Captain, do not harm him,’ and my Captain turned to me and said, ‘Why would I harm him, Lieutenant?’
“And then my Captain through the window spoke to the patient who at first did not answer and did not seem to hear, just sat on his bed and scratched with his pen. But finally he did look up at my Captain. He looked afraid; he showed fear in the way of a man who was not used to being afraid for he had a certain dignity, and anger too. A deep anger. I cannot describe it. Like a monk, maybe, but angry. My Captain asked very gently what he was burning, and finally the man said in this deep, ringing voice, ‘J’écris à mon ami qui est mort.’ I’ll never forget how he said those words. ‘My friend is dead, and if we are to be killed I want to write him at last.’ Captain Schubert and I knew French, you see. That is why we were not stationed in Paris at first. One needs to speak French in the provincial towns until order is established.
“The doctor said, ‘You see how ill he is,’ but my Captain said, ‘He is refined, intelligent! With an artistic bent,’ and motioned me to enter the door with him. I saw the paper the patient was burning was not a mere letter but marked with shapes, different colors. ‘Open the cell,’ said my Captain. ‘Why is he kept like this?’ And a nurse fumbled with the key so she could open the door and we could enter.
“He was the most beautiful man I ever saw, but I do not mean effeminate. Masculine but he was unearthly, like a prophet, and he seemed to pulse with anger even in fear. Perhaps thirty-five years old or so and I could tell my Captain was very attracted to him, and suddenly I was afraid for the prisoner.”
Horst closed his eyes as if against a pang. “Yes, the Nazi Party recruited some homosexuals who wanted to conceal themselves—Hitler knew this and let them be who they were if they got the job done, yet he persecuted others, killed most of them. We knew it. We were meant to know it. It was a warning, more ominous than simply banning poofs from the Party outright. Letting some of them in worked better to make us obey! And there were whispers that Hitler was illegitimate, was Jewish, had morons for cousins, perhaps was a poof himself. Hitler hid it but let some rumors get out—that consolidated his power. There were layers of rules,” he said, opening his eyes again and laying a hand on my arm. “Layers of hypocrisy to keep us guessing all the time. Do you understand? It worked better than the clear rules they told us. Hitler used us against ourselves—not that I was one, but I had friends…who preferred men…” He tightened his mouth.
“Yes,” I said, “that makes sense.” Perhaps Horst had too many Italians in his background to join the Party outright; he looked it. Perhaps he had some Jewish ancestry too, as Artaud and I and Hitler might have had. Nazi science was all bullshit, as Nazi morality was utter madness, but a madness left uncontained while they could imprison my friend.
“You don’t.” He shook his head. “You cannot understand. But when we entered the cell the patient on the cot then pointed to my Captain’s uniform and said, ‘I met Adolf Hitler,’ and naturally my Captain did not believe him. He replied with great skepticism, ‘You met our Fuehrer?’
“And the doctor pleaded—I think his name was Fuchs?—‘The patient does not know his own mind, what he is saying,’ but the patient said, ‘I met Hitler at the Romanisches Café in Berlin in the early thirties when I was acting in a film and you were there too!’ ‘And so I was!’ said my Captain in surprise. ‘I frequented that café in those years. I knew our Fuehrer as an acquaintance then and I do remember they were making the French version of a German film in Berlin around 1931 or ‘32.’ ‘Yes, the director was G.W. Pabst,’ said the inmate. ‘He has returned to Germany, I believe.’ ‘True!’ said my Captain, ‘Pabst has come back to us,’ and then he put his hand on the patient’s shoulder and cried out, ‘You might be the young Frenchman who lit a cigarette in the café and Der Fuehrer objected! I remember you.’”
Probably because of the look on my face, Horst smiled a little. “And then this mental patient glared at my Captain for having touched him and said, ‘I remember you were wearing a peach cravat,’ and my Captain replied with much warmth, ‘So I was, to my recollection. I wore it often, and very likely that day. You and I have indeed met before! Isn’t your name Antoine?’ I remember how the Captain turned then and glared at the doctor and his staff for discounting what the patient was saying, and many of the other patients were quiet and listening now, pressing close and standing in the doorway. And this Dr. Fuchs or Fouks was nodding and said the patient was once a film and stage actor and a poet. Well, the mental patient lifted his hand holding his cigarette in a contemptuous gesture, you know, to throw off my Captain’s hand on his shoulder. And the man said outright, ‘I remember your scarf very clearly, for it made your distasteful rosacea stand out all the more and moreover I found you to be a vulgar, ignorant, servile shit!’
“Well, the doctor made a pleading noise again but my Captain just started laughing. He roared with laughter and said, ‘I do have rosacea and I remember now your clear and beautiful complexion, my friend. Your skin is still so beautiful. I could never be an actor but you, I am sure, were a brilliant one, you are still so fine-looking now,’ and the patient gave him a look of hatred and said scornfully, ‘You look sex-obsessed, too. You look like you prefer men. I thought so before. Well, if you’re looking for a pederast good time, I suggest you have a go at Dr. Fucks over there,’ and he pointed with his cigarette to his beseeching doctor. ‘He likes it up the ass!’ He said this in a booming voice in front of the staff and doctor and patients. I stood there shocked and the doctor and staff were mortified, but by now Captain Schubert was beside himself with laughter and some of the patients were laughing too and yelling out the name ‘Dr. Fucks.’” Horst smiled again.
“The Captain turned back to me and wiped tears from his face he was laughing so hard, and he said to me, ‘There is no madness here, merely willful disobedience! Such spirit!’ He was more and more drawn to the patient. He opened his silver cigarette case and offered the man one of his good cigarettes. The mental patient took a whole fistful of them, nearly emptying the case which made my Captain laugh again, and once the man had the cigarettes he shut us out and focused once more on the letter he was singeing. Captain Schubert watched him, and when the man finally finished and set the burned paper aside he said, ‘Will you send it?’ and the man pointed to the doctor again and replied, ‘These fucking voyeurs keep it for themselves and pore over it to pick my brain about my sex-life, they masturbate over what I write, they have dental decay from all their sixty-nines with each other and they make me sick,’ and my Captain smiled again and said to him, ‘Entrust it to my Lieutenant here. We will ensure it is sent to your friend.’ He indicated me, so the man passed me the letter. I tried to read it; it was incomprehensible. It was almost like a drawing with words, with blood smeared on it and different colored inks and cigarette burns. I was not sure if it was ugly or beautiful. I kept it for a long time.”
“Do you still have it?” I gasped.
“No, no,” he said sadly. “Lost, long ago. We beat a hasty retreat, you know, in front of the Allies. I had it in a safety deposit box in Paris, for finally I was stationed in Paris, but I never retrieved it. I remember there was a mural too, on an interior wall of that hospital, a great painting. We asked the patient if he had done it and he shook his head, and Dr. Fuchs or Fouks or whatever his name was said, ‘No, it was not done by a patient at all, but by some minor Surrealist our former internist Dr. Ferdière commissioned.’
“So we were returning to quarters for roll call that afternoon, and in the jeep on the way to the barracks Captain Schubert told me, ‘Yes, I met that man in Berlin! He was astonishing then and now. I cannot stop thinking about him. He doesn’t belong in there. I can’t help fantasizing about having that sexy angel in my bed and hearing him try to call me a servile shit while I—’” Horst tightened his lips. “And I became very frightened for the patient again and told my Captain I didn’t think the man liked men at all, he was not that way, and my Captain said, ‘All the better if he doesn’t want it!’ Then he turned to me and said, ‘You are very young. Do you realize Hitler intends to level Paris if the French fight back?’ He said, ‘That mouth-off is a junkie and he was a junkie in Berlin,’ and he told me a man will change his spots in exchange for drugs and privilege instead of being in there. And it was horrifying to me, you know, being so naïve and trusting and not knowing until now the world was this way. I believed all the shit they taught us in Hitler Youth. Nursery rhymes!
“My Captain said, ‘I shall take angry Antoine out of there where they do not appreciate him and give him everything. He will be grateful, or he’d better,’ and I said, ‘The doctors, they won’t release him, that was the incurables’ ward,’ but Captain Schubert swore and said, ‘They’ll do as they’re told, anyone can be bribed and that man will rot there, ‘incurable,’ what Philistines!’ and then he said ‘Judge me do you, when his doctor holds him prisoner in that bedlam and treats him like a child? And we will cut rations, too. Do you realize that man’s life is in danger?’
“But just a week later my Captain was killed by a homemade bomb and we were forced to exact revenge on the population.” Horst blinked at me, as if from a long habit of blinking back tears that now no longer came. His eyes were dry, though red. “You just can’t understand,” he added again.
I asked, “Did you ever go back? To the asylum?”
Horst nodded. “More than two years later, mid-1943. I was promoted, and one day when I was near the town of Ville-Évrard again I decided to make up a reason to enter the asylum and see if that man was still there. Well, this time the head doctor practically dragged me inside. ‘Look about you!’ he cried in great horror, and indeed I saw the masses of the dead and the dying and the sick lying in their beds, and stretched out along the hallways. The patients were now barred from going outside, you see, except to toil in the gardens. The medical staff was cut to the bone. ‘They are starving to death!’ the doctor told me. ‘How am I to feed them all?’ His name was Sivadon, I think—a great humanitarian, a good man! I felt pity for him. He took over to make improvements and became overwhelmed. The stink was beyond hell. I saw the mural had been destroyed, hacked at and riddled with machine-gun fire.
“And then an elderly woman caught my arm, dragged me by the arm too, pleading with me. ‘My son might be saved by electricity, they are doing preliminary tests but he may not live out the year for hunger! My son is a genius, a poet. Can you help?’ The poor lady! So old and yet beautiful, noble and dark and she reminded me of that Antoine. I just went numb and followed her, and there was that startling man again running around the ward and raving, crawling under and out from beneath beds, gobbling like the rest of them, although he inspired fear in them. I think he was trying to exorcise another patient of demons. He was still handsome but very, very thin now, and his face was contorted, wild—’” Horst closed his eyes.
I reached across the table to lay a hand on his arm.
“Quite a sight for me, still so young as I was,” he continued finally. “And who else was responsible for this? Who turned away from what was happening, reallocated resources away from the hospitals, called these people ‘rejects,’ human garbage? Was it only us Germans?”
“No!” I told him. It had been France’s Prime Minister Edouard Herriot who made the famous “rejects” claim. Herriot had also denied the Holodomor, the manmade famine in the Ukraine in 1933-34. He had opposed the Vichy regime in France and for it was exiled to Germany for five years. He had also been sent to a mental asylum too but was buried with honors. And the French upper crust, they had proclaimed they would prefer Hitler in France than Léon Blum, the socialist prime minister before Pétain was made dictator. Many of the French had blessed Hitler from afar and then fled France when the Nazis invaded, leaving Paris and Ville-Évrard to the working class, leaving the poor and the helpless to deal with the occupation. Before World War II Hitler had the support of the upper classes across Europe and even from the United States. Most Americans did not know this; it was not taught in school. Rather, Hitler was portrayed as a lone lunatic who erupted from nowhere, said crazy things and made Germans follow him because they were ogres, not real people with principles and needs.
“French doctors! The French government!” Horst cried out. “Turning a blind eye to their own people!” Patrons in Sunny’s turned and looked again. I ignored them. My hand remained on his arm. People resumed their business more quickly here than they would elsewhere. Others kept their eyes on us but their glances were impassive, not frightened or judging. These customers understood pain; they saw more anger and acting out than the slick crowds in the single bars and that was another reason I had chosen this place.
Horst sighed, and finally he withdrew his arm to lift his beer. “I was so sickened, so torn. The occupation was a nightmare for me. I had always wanted to see Paris but all we did was eat the country, pillage it. I returned to Paris and refused another promotion. For my insolence I was demoted back to private and sent to guard a warehouse in Nevers and I never saw Ville-Évrard or Paris again.”
“The man you speak of lived,” I said to encourage him. The blank look in Horst’s face frightened me. “He was released. He is renowned and he wrote some of his greatest work after that.”
“Well, I died at Ville-Évrard that day,” replied Horst, “I lost God, Germany, everything I believed in. And I have been dead ever since, but you cannot understand that—a young man… Nations are a lie. God is a lie. Politics is fancy lies, but the promise of America,” and he focused his eyes on me again, “is not a lie. Even if it gets obscured by lies, America is not a lie.”
“I agree. Even at her worst, America is a beacon. Americans need to be told what happened.”
“Get out of a man’s way, do not force him, and he will find his own truth.”
“Yes, he might. Or he might need help—but human help. What makes America great is its people are not passive like others.” I felt Horst needed my words. I felt he walked on a precipice as Artaud had, as I had. “And you have helped me too, telling me this! You have been put in my path,” I said emphatically to him, “for a reason. Tell this story to others!”
Horst’s face fell. He shook his head and rolled his eyes. “Oh,” he groaned in great disappointment, “one of those.”
“No, not at all.”
“Another ‘everything happens for a reason’ fairy.” He swore.
“No, no. Don’t misunderstand me. You and I are living in a conspiracy. It cannot be a coincidence that I keep running into—”
“Geoffrey.” He sighed. “The world is chaotic, random—”
“I agree! That’s why I’ve been dumped into the middle of an Artaudalanche ever since I moved here. It’s not likely. I’m supposed to do something with all this information. So are you. Tell your story! Tell how the Nazi machine crushed you too. Tell how the French government collaborated with their invaders. Tell everything.”
Horst stood up so abruptly his chair fell over. People stopped talking and looked over at us. As I watched he took out his wallet and pulled out some bills, and then he threw them at me. Dollar bills fell into my food, my lap, and on the floor around me. “What you can do with my ‘story’ is shove it up your ass!” He whirled on his heel. The door to Sunny’s banged open and the waiter, trying not to grin too widely, helped me gather up the money.
They were indeed dollar bills. “Your friend hangs around strip clubs I bet,” chortled the waiter, and the two men playing chess looked up to smirk at me. “And that’s a checkmate,” goaded one of them when I covered the rest of the bill—which was most of it—out of my own pocket, figuring I’d asked for this.