Having been placed in a German class against her will as a high-school student in 1942, Cynthia Ozick continued studying the language and its literature in college. It was then, just after World War II had ended, that she began her correspondence with a German named Karl Gustav Specht:
Precisely how it happened I can no longer recall, but I surmise that it came about through one of those postwar exchanges, Americans writing to their foreign counterparts, who replied in their own language. Each would enrich the other’s skills. Each knew nothing about the other. But at the very start, Karl Gustav Specht told me that he was a soldier who had been at the Eastern Front. A soldier? This meant the Wehrmacht, the so-called regular army, soon to be exposed as a force as fully implicated in overt criminality as the SS itself. The Eastern Front? This meant Stalingrad, the battle that devastated and routed the German military—fatally short of supplies, its straggling troops unfed and shoeless and dying in the Russian cold, more than 700,000 killed, wounded, or captured.
To Karl Gustav Specht’s introductory greeting, I wrote back politely. Beyond this one biographical datum—his presence at the Eastern Front—nothing else of his experience appeared in his letter. . . . Looking back at a distance of decades, it seems perverse—even lunatic—that a young Jewish woman in New York was corresponding, in a friendly way, with a soldier loyal to his national duty, a German who had only a short time before served at the Eastern Front, who belonged to the nation that had conceived and carried out the Decree against Folk Pests. Of which I was one. And still I knew nothing: not his age, nothing of his family, no inkling of his inward thought. Of his outward thought I learned much: art, philosophy, Roman history, his mastery of languages, English and French and Greek and Latin. We had the Aeneid in common; we could speak feelingly of infelix Dido on her pyre. At the center of it all was an unnamed silence.
But once, only once, he had written, “Ich hasse keine Rasse.” “I hate no race.” It was a sentence that was left floating like a wayward mote in the middle of a vacuum.
The correspondence continued until 1952, when Specht sent Ozick a wedding present, and she gained new insight into his silence.