The Groove of Routine

A Travelogue in Five Parts By Nicholas Kulish

Nicholas Kulish spent more than half a decade tracing the path of Aribert Heim, a Nazi concentration camp doctor who fled postwar justice in Germany. The research for his book on Heim, The Eternal Nazico-authored with Souad Mekhennet, led him to Denmark, Austria, Egypt, Morocco, and across Germany. This is the final entry from his travels. Catch up with Part I. Part IIPart III, Part IV.

V. Templin

At the Mühlenseeperle, a simple hotel with tile floors on the edge of the old town of Templin in Brandenburg, the staff almost certainly believes to this day that I was a serial killer or some other dark and dangerous outsider. German retirees stop there on driving tours of the former East Germany by twos and fours. The occasional tall-windowed coachbus groans, squeaks and hisses into the parking lot. A lanky American with a strange cargo of cardboard boxes and an unheard of two-week reservation attracted attention. I could, without exaggeration, hear the whispers.

It cannot have assuaged any fears at the front desk or the hotel restaurant when the cleaning lady learned that those boxes were filled with books about Nazi doctors and concentration camps. As the book wore on through the years my girlfriend joked that I couldn’t buy a book unless it had a swastika on the cover. She and her wry asides were happily vacationing on the Croatian coast with a friend, emails told of beaches and a rented boat, nightclubs in Hvar and calamari fresh from the Adriatic. I had a book deadline in two weeks. Not only was vacation out of the question, but even our home in Berlin held too many distractions. I needed a place where I knew absolutely no one and where I could stay for relatively cheap.

In truth Templin was not entirely unremarkable. I chose it partly because it was German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hometown and the thought had crossed my mind that I would gain valuable insights into her past that cast new light on her present by absorbing the vibrations of the little town in the Uckermark. Once I was binge writing for twelve to fourteen hours a day any idea that I would nonchalantly ferret out the childhood secrets of Germany’s most powerful politician fell well and truly by the wayside.

Mornings meant a steady diet of mistrust over muesli. Everyone in the breakfast room was there in a group, couples or nuclear families, daughters accompanying aging mothers, middle-aged men on motorcycle road trips. This establishment, the Pearl of the Mühlensee, was a social hotel. Only the weird loner who sat in his room all day with the curtains drawn had no companionship to humanize him. His life had reduced to strange word counts, deadlines within deadlines:1,000 words and he could have lunch, 500 more and he could jog around the lake.

It was not quite true that I never left the hotel. When my wrists began to ache and the sight of the computer screen began to physically nauseate me I would wander up into the old town and settle in at the local butcher shop, the Marktfleischerei, for a two-dollar lunch plate of stuffed cabbage or bowl of goulash. There I half-followed the one-sided conversations of a pensioner. His East German accent defied my decades of ear-training completely but the sentence structure was familiar enough that I could nod along fluently through his monologues.

In the evenings I would slip out of the hotel and up to the aptly named Bratpfanne restaurant, which means “frying pan.” There I could dine on pork schnitzel stuffed with pork, topped with pork and—for variety—covered with cheese. I would assuage my stomach with tall glasses of Köstritzer black beer from the neighboring state of Thuringia, consoling myself that Goethe had reportedly lived on the stuff when he was too sick to eat.

There was a Goethestrasse here in Templin, just a block away from the hotel; other nearby streets were dedicated to Kant and Schinkel. The longer I stayed in Templin the more the Germanness, rather than the East Germanness, of the place struck me. The Euro crisis was raging at the time and the Germans were lecturing the Greeks about profligacy. There, carved onto the walls of an old bank building were German adages like, “Today’s saver is tomorrow’s winner.”

The old town walls still stood and I began to see the place not as a onetime hostage to Communism but a sheltered redoubt against American cultural influence. Where small West German towns often felt as though they had been colonized by American chains and brands, Templin seemed like a place apart, a piece of the old Germany that still ran from Kant’s Königsberg down to the Black Forest. The Russians had Kaliningrad and the country was divided for a few decades in the 20th century but the daughter of a Lutheran minister could emerge from the Uckermark perhaps a little more German than her colleagues from Cologne and Hamburg, the most German to rule the Germans.

Or maybe that was just the Köstritzer talking. I had to get back to the hotel and deadlines within deadlines. Maybe if I wrote another 250 words I could afford to let myself sleep.

See Part I. Part IIPart III, Part IV

Nicholas Kulish is the East Africa correspondent for the New York Times. His latest book is The Eternal NaziFollow him @nkulish.