The Mariinsky Ballet of St. Petersburg, the founding troupe of modern ballet, was in residence this week at Baden-Baden’s Festival Hall. They are glorious. I am not an aficionado, much less a connoiseur, of dance, but I have no qualms asserting that the Mariinsky “Swan Lake” and “Nutcracker” outshine anything to be seen west of the Memel. Not just the stars but the secondary principals are spectacular, and the corps de ballet evokes swans or snowflakes with preternatural facility. Russia has its problems but it surely good for some things, and its edge in this art form, at least, is undiminished.
The Mariinsky dancers faced an audience mainly composed of local burghers; one heard a bit of French (Baden-Baden is half an hour from Strasbourg) and even a bit of Japanese, but the provincial audience in Germany still is big enough to fill an enormous hall. I met some of the locals at the gala Christmas dinner at the Badischer Hof, which I attended because it was the only place to get dinner on Christmas Eve in an otherwise shuttered small German city, and because the staff was kind enough to improvise a vegetarian meal — not perfectly kosher, but acceptable.
I was seated at a table of elderly ladies and their middle-aged daughters. One enquired politely why I ate vegetables instead of the Beef Wellington, and I explained that it had to do with Jewish dietary laws. There followed the obligatory outpouring of regrets for the terrible things that Germany did between 1933 and 1945–I do not mean to deprecate such expressions, well-intended as they were. I listened and drank the excellent local wine. And drank some more.
“Tragisch. Hitler haette den Krieg nie verloren koennen, wenn er nur die Juden auf seiner Seite gehabt haette,” I offered in response. (Tragic: there’s no way Hitler could have lost the war if only he had had the Jews on his side). This led to some moments of silent confusion.
One of the elderly woman broke the silence, turning to her daughter, exclaiming, “Siehst Du? Das ist ein juedischer Witz. So machten einst die Juden Witzen in Deutschland, mit genau dieser Art von Ironie!” (You see? That is a Jewish joke! That’s the kind of joke Jews used to make in Germany, with just this sort of irony”). The other ladies at the table were relieved to hear that it was indeed a joke, and nodded attentively as the elderly woman explained to them the character of Jewish jokes. I drank some more wine.
“So eine Zeit kommt nie wieder,” the old woman sighed — a time like that never will come again.
“So ist jede schoene Gabe/Fluechtig wie des Blitzes Schein/Schnell in ihrem duestern Grabe/Schliesst die Nacht sie wieder ein” (For the Beautiful must vanish/Like the fleeting spark of light/That the stormy vapors banish/To the darkling grave of night”), I quoted in reply.
The old woman’s face lit up. “Remind me of the poet.”
“Schiller,” I said. From “The Favor of the Moment.” I bid my table-companions a Merry Christmas and left.