This novel is set in Gdańsk at a date that is not specified, but it must be the early twentieth century, in the era when the city was part of Prussia and was called Danzig, though many of the themes refer to earlier or later times. We can also identify Chwin’s fictional Danzig with a provincial colony in the days of the Roman Empire – this Danzig is headed by Chief Procurator Hammels, a latter-day Pontius Pilate. This is because the plot of Fräulein Ferbelin centres on the idea of the second coming of Christ and the consequences of this event. In this novel the Messiah is a character whom the local population call the Teacher from Neustadt. A man called Kurt Niemand has just come to Pomerania from Neustadt; starting off as a shipyard worker, he hasbeen campaigning for workers’ rights, becoming a spokesman for the oppressed and later a preacher and healer. Maria Ferbelin, the other main character in the novel, is one of the people who listen to the Teacher’s sermons, which he preaches in the evenings at the city’s tollgates. The Master, as Maria calls him, heals her father, and soon she and the remarkable preacher are united by passionate love. In the daytime Maria gives private lessons to Helmut, the son of Procurator Hammels, and then spends the nights with her lover. The turning point in this fantastic story is a bomb attack at Danzig station. Lots of people are killed, and it is imperative to expose the culprit. As a tribune of the people, the Master is a dangerous individual in the eyes of the secular and spiritual authorities (in this case the Catholic hierarchy), and makes the ideal scapegoat. From this point on, the events in the novel concur with what happened in Jerusalem two thousand years earlier (the capture of the Master, his interrogation before the Danzig Sanhedrin, presided over by the local bishop, and so on). Working as she does at the Procurator’s house each day and as someone who has his trust, Maria undertakes a sophisticated rescue operation in the name of love for the Master. Thanks to her cleverness and determination, ultimately the Teacher from Neustadt will not be crucified. Fräulein Ferbelin is an unusual novel of ideas – a dynamic plot with elements of fantasy interwoven with profound ethical discourse.
- Dariusz Nowacki
A few days later when Maria saw Sophie Horstmayer at Rastawiecki’s cafe on Hundegasse, where they sometimes arranged to meet for cheesecake, Sophie already had far more information about the man whom Maria had met at Martens’ cafe, and whom plenty of people in Danzig were calling the Teacher from Neustadt. According to what she had heard in town, this man – as the latest news revealed – was really called Kurt Niemand, and for some time he had been employed as a worker in the tracers’ department at the shipyard. Frau Heller’s husband, Ludwig, had met him a few times at the second slipway, where the hull of the cruiser Radhorst was standing under pine-plank scaffolding, as he and a couple of workers were walking towards the tracers’ department building, where the white lines of the templates were drawn onto metal sheets and smelted casts, to prepare the steel sections of ships for further processing.
Only when it came to a clash with Engineer Erdmann had people started saying more about the tracer from Neustadt, but even then it crossed very few minds that the worker focused on the task of drawing white lines on reddish sheets of steel plating and the tall man in the long, open coat who could be seen in the evenings at the top of Saint Gertrude’s bastion, were one and the same person.
According to what Sophie had to say, Engineer Erdmann was the manager of the tracers’ department, where Kurt Niemand worked. A graduate of the Technische Hochschule, Erdmann had a crew cut and a blonde moustache, and always wore a long, dark corduroy jacket secured by a leather belt with an Estonian buckle. Calm and collected, in his shiny knee-boots, he ran the department energetically, and since he clearly had organisational skills, as even his enemies admitted, he enjoyed the respect of his superiors, though the workmen subordinate to him did not always have similar feelings for him.
In fact, as Frau Heller’s husband had told Sophie, Engineer Erdmann regarded the workmen as so many grains of sand that could be shovelled about from place to place. To his mind, each grain could be replaced by another. Not so Herr Schichau. He uttered the name of the shipyard owner, Johann Wilhelm Schichau, with deep respect, and even genuine devotion. “There are millions of you”, Erdmann’s cold look seemed to say to the workmen, as they drew the templates in white paint onto sheets of reddish metal in the department he ran. “Each of you could be swapped for someone else, but what about Herr Schichau? There is only one Herr Schichau on this Earth. He is the bedrock on which the Danzig shipyard stands. You men only think about one thing: how to do the least work and how to earn the most money. But Herr Schichau never sleeps, because he is busy running the shipyard day and night.”
A couple of weeks earlier – the whole shipyard was talking about it – Engineer Erdmann had come up with an idea that met with the approval of not just his immediate superiors. Anyone wanting to find work at the Kaiserliche Werft Danzig had to go through a series of tests. Formerly, employment on the cranes and slipways had been decided on a first-come, first-served basis at the admissions office, according to the age-old maxim that the early bird catches the worm, but now everything would be determined by carefully testing the quality of the person trying to get a job. Hundreds of volunteers would crowd outside the shipyard gates on Hanzaplatz, flocking there from remote parts of the city from dawn onwards, but only a few of them could be sure of being taken on. So Engineer Erdmann introduced the principle of sifting this human material through a fine sieve, convincing his superiors that only the best, strong, healthy men should have the right to a job.
And so they set aside a large hall at the shipyard management buildings on Werftgasse, decorated with a portrait of the Kaiser; here the job candidates solved logical puzzles on special forms, arranged coloured geometrical shapes and children’s building blocks into complicated patterns that were meant to testify to their intelligence and replied to questions from a doctor and a police superintendent.Thanks to all this, the shipyard authorities could identify their true merits, crucial – as Engineer Erdmann stressed – for work on the slipways, gantries and cranes.
While the city regarded unemployment as a plague, Engineer Erdmann saw it as a blessing. He treated workers who were desperately in search of jobs like raw material,from which he could pick and choose to his heart’s content. Out of this human refuse, which kept multiplying unchecked in the workers’ districts of Ohra, Schidlitz, Neu Schottland and Brosen, you had to pick the real diamonds, and the rest could go to hell. The police kept a tight rein on this filthy sea of heads, calves and arms, into which Erdmann the fisherman had cast his net.
Some of the jobs at the shipyard demanded not just mental and manual agility, but also physical strength, so it was necessary to check whether the volunteers waiting at the gate had that sort of strength. For example, the workmen who specialised in bashing red-hot rivets into holes drilled in thick metal had to have muscles of steel to raise easily overhead the large,long-handled hammers used to strike the hot iron and join the relevant sections of the ship together. So Engineer Erdmann introduced an extra test into his series, which daily drew numerous master craftsmen, engineers and inspectorsinto the hall with the Kaiser’s portrait on the wall. The men eager for jobs at the shipyard were handed leather gloves studded with iron hobnails, and then, stripped to the waist, these residents of workers’ estates trying for jobs on the slipways stood facing each other in a specially marked-out enclosure sprinkled with sawdust, and fought to the first blood. The one who beat his rival by knocking him off his feet onto the sawdust-strewn floor got a job at the shipyard. Some of the imperial inspectors did in fact protest that the new method of selecting the workforce was barbaric, but in the end everyone began to see that this new way of separating the wheat from the chaff had unquestionable merits that far outweighed its flaws.
Yet the hardest test awaited those who would have to work at heights. Outside the management building on Werftgasse a soapy pillar was erected,a mast of pine fifteen metres high; a shelf was fitted to the top of it, on which lay an employment contract. Engineer Erdmann had convinced the management that all those who wanted to work on the cranes and gantries had to demonstrate resistance to a fear of heights and the physical agility of a monkey, because anyone who was going to work in a crane cabin, which hangs several dozen metres above the ground, should have far greater than average skills. So the candidates for the gantries and cranes climbed the pillar, desperately digging their fingernails into the soapy wood, but many of them only got halfway before sliding back down and dropping out at this stage, even though they had completed the rest of the tests successfully. Anyone who climbed to the top of the soapy pillar and brought down the employment contract was taken on, but anyone who came slithering down went flying out of the gate amid gales of laughter, and fell into the black abyss of joblessness.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones