Wheels of justice

June 10, 2018 § 8 Comments

I rode to Santa Monica a month or so ago and stopped at Dogtown Coffee. My first order of business was the bathroom, and when I got out I saw that my wife had struck up a conversation with some dude and his wife. I sat down.

The dude loved orange bicycles, which was a weird coincidence, because I belong to a club called Big Orange, was wearing an orange clown suit, and had sashayed up to the coffeeshop on my bright orange bike.

“I am the original lover of orange bicycles,” he said with the smallest hint of a foreign accent.

“You should join Big Orange, then. We are all orange all the time, except when we are collecting lizards.”

He looked quizzically at me. “Lizards?”

“It’s a long and painful story that involves lots of unsold ugly green socks, Facebag, an Asian lady winning a medal, and lots of butthurt. I’ll tell you about it never. Where are you from?”

“Germany,” he said.

So we began to talk in earnest.

Books and sourdough starter and links

I don’t really remember how this next phase came about, but a few weeks after we met, I was headed back to Santa Monica to meet Ralf again and to drop off a bag full of books and a jar of sourdough starter. The books were an assortment of recent reads that I’d designated for the library donation bin, and Ralf had professed interest in one of the titles, and his wife had professed interest in some sourdough starter, so that kind of explains it, vaguely.

Then, a couple of weeks later, he sent me an email. “Don’t know if you’re familiar with the Villa Aurora, but here’s a link, and they have some pretty interesting events from time to time.”

I clicked on the link. How many bad stories have started like that?

Hitler’s most wanted

Villa Aurora is a mansion. It’s about twelveteen hundred thousand square feet perched on Via Miramar, just off Sunset with a commanding a view of the Pacific Ocean. Lion Feuchtwanger bought it in the 40’s for $7,500. It is worth more than that now.

Feuchtwanger was a Jew, and he didn’t wind up on the West Coast by choice. He was driven from Germany in 1933 when Hitler published his first Denaturalization List, which designated enemies of the state who were thereby stripped of citizenship. Hitler considered Feutchwanger a personal enemy due to the novel “Success,” a fictionalized and brutal portrayal of the Nazi party.

After exile in France, Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta effected a daring escape from the Gestapo via Portugal to the U.S., settling in Los Angeles in 1941 and living there until his death in 1958. Feuchtwanger, along with Thomas Mann, formed an intellectual, literary, and social propaganda front on the West Coast opposing Hitler and Nazism, and Villa Aurora was a center for Jewish and European exiles who did everything in their power to encourage the U.S to enter the war against the Third Reich.

So here I was, living in LA, having ridden my sorry ass bike a stone’s throw from Villa Aurora a thousand times or more, and I’d never heard of it or its illustrious history. I’d never even heard of Feuchtwanger, and I learned about it all just because of an orange bike and a chance conversation in a coffee shop that led to an Internet link as reciprocation for a couple of books and some yeast.

Good government, bad government

The U.S. government is today led by a Neo-Nazi, and it maintains concentration camps for immigrant children who are tortured by being taken from their parents, subjected to mental and physical abuse, and who are also sexually assaulted. Their parents are now being incarcerated in federal prisons, and civil rights workers, lawyers, and social workers are denied access to these modern concentration camps.

This is our land.

But it was not always this way. After World War II, the U.S. government poured the modern equivalent of $110 billion dollars into decimated Western Europe, not to shore up dictatorships like modern Russia, but to to build up democracies like modern Germany. After spending its Marshall Plan funds, Germany set aside a portion of the money and founded something that, when I applied for it in 1988, was called the Bundestag Internship Program. It came with free accommodations at the University of Bonn’s married student housing, a generous monthly allowance, coursework at the university for two semesters, and nine months of work in the office of a member of parliament.

I worked in the office of a former Nazi soldier, Burschenschaftler, and all-round conservative Bavarian dick named Dionys Jobst, whose only memorable political act was to jokingly suggest that Germany purchase Mallorca as the 17th federal state, only to find out that for much of the world, German acquisition of foreign territory wasn’t especially funny. However loathsome I found his politics, the money I received from the German government changed my life. In addition to the friends I made, I received an education unlike any other, as my arrival in Bonn in August of 1989 coincided with the first freedom trains from Eastern Europe which presaged the imminent fall of the Berlin Wall, a world-changing event that came about in November. In the middle of this complete upheaval of the world order, I happened to be sitting in the front row, and it’s no accident that my eldest son is named Hans despite no apparent family connection to anyone in Germany.

It was in Germany that I first ate bread, real bread, that I first rode my bike over cobbles, that I first confronted the living, breathing intellectualism of Western thought, that I first understood racism as a global phenomenon, that I first saw how modern and alive Nazism was forty years after war’s end, that I first saw the depth and power of a real social democracy based on human rights.

Not a day went by during my time in Germany that I didn’t reflect on the fact that I was the recipient of welfare from my own government, and from the coffers of a foreign nation as well.

Those Hollywood nights

Shortly after I left Germany, its government purchased the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles. I don’t think the two were related. After investing several million dollars to shore up the home’s foundation, it was restored with those of Feuchtwanger’s books and personal items that hadn’t been donated to the University of Southern California, and rebooted as a guest home for visiting fellows, who rotated on a three-month basis.

This was remarkably similar to my own experience in that, again, the German government was investing money to develop good things around the globe, except in this case the Villa Aurora’s mission was truly extraordinary: At least one of the fellows is always a writer who is being persecuted by her government, just like Feuchtwanger himself.

After joining their email list, I received an invitation to an evening of Meet the Fellows, and it was extraordinary beyond any description, beginning with the villa itself. Whatever you think of Feuchtwanger as a writer, he was an impeccable judge of real estate, as the scenery stretching out below Via Miramar captures the ocean, the sunset, and the stunning beauty of the Topanga parkland. The villa is luxurious after a 1930’s fashion, but its most impressive feature is the leftover collection of Feuchtwanger’s books, which line every wall.

I spent an hour reading the spines of every book and covered less than half the volumes in only two rooms, a compendium of French, Spanish, English, and German writings that spanned every genre and every time period.

The high point of the night, however, was the series of presentations put on by the fellows, beginning with the brilliant and moving Onur Burçak Belli, a Turkish journalist fighting on the front lines of human rights against what can only be described as the true forces of evil in the form of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dictatorship.

#freeTurkeyjournalism and #journalismisnotacrime

Belli, an accomplished writer who covers crucial issues such as the repression of dissent in Turkish universities, the plight of Syrian immigrants in Turkey who are fleeing Assad’s civil war, and the changing landscape of immigration in the EU, spoke at length about the dangers of working as a journalist in Turkey.

The price of the pursuit of facts for journalists can easily be death or decades in prison, yet Belli introduced writer after writer who, unbowed, has defied Erdogan’s Nazi-like regime and his security forces in order to publish punishing facts about the government. Belli described the fully militarized state, replete with continual police brutality, sham trials, political murders, and secret police reprisals that define daily life in the southeast part of Kurdish Turkey, as well as the atrocities committed against reporters who dare to disclose facts unfavorable to the regime.

By detailing the stories of individual journalists, Belli brought home the reality of those who are persecuted as well as those who continue to fight to keep reporters out of prison, and to fight for freedom for those who have been incarcerated. When Belli described the show trial of one reporter, the room shivered as she described the courtroom scene: Without a lawyer, without the ability to cross-examine or even know the names of his accusers, when the writer was allowed to speak in his own defense he laughed at the judge and said, “I am not here to defend myself for I have done nothing that merits a defense. I am here to prosecute YOU for your crimes against Turkey’s laws the Turkish people!”

Through the ringing applause, you could hear the clapping hands of Feuchtwanger, too.

A sound apart

The second fellow was Stefan Beyer, a composer from Braunschweig who currently lives in Berlin. Funny, intelligent, modest, and well aware that the average person has zero idea what modern music sounds like, he treated us to a fifteen minute selection from his composition, “I Have Never Eaten Human Flesh.”

I’ve never eaten human flesh either, but if I did, I wonder if it would be as interesting as Beyer’s music? Doubtful.

Of course listening to modern music as a wholly uninformed and ignorant listener, anything I might say about it would only reinforce my previously stated qualifications, even as an illiterate would be less than competent to interpret, say, ancient Greek. Nonetheless, I can say this: After listening to a couple of his pieces, I’m now listening to a third, and I wholeheartedly recommend that you check it out.

The world from yesterday

It was barely a couple of years ago that I returned from Vienna, my rucksack stuffed with books, and none impressed me more than Stefan Zweig’s epic, “Die Welt von Gestern.” Previously I had read one of his novels, Ungeduld des Herzens, but it was nothing compared to The World from Yesterday.

That book led me eventually to Karl Kraus’s “The Last Days of Mankind,” a most damning work that obviously influenced Zweig and The World from Yesterday in countless ways. So you can imagine the thrill that ran up and down my spine when I learned that the third fellow was Maria Schrader.


Right. I didn’t know either.

However, the whole point of education is to learn what you don’t know, and so I unashamedly googled Ms. Schrader only to learn that she is a famous German actress and, of much greater interest to me, is the director of the acclaimed movie Vor der Morgenröte, which, incredibly, is about the life of Stefan Zweig.

Schrader’s film, and yes, it’s a fuggin’ film, captures Zweig’s life in the most amazing way, with individual scenes from his life, concluding with his exile in Brazil, where, after escaping the Nazis, he settled down to a life of extraordinary happiness, peacefulness, and suicide. Having read Kraus’s work, and having read a wonderful series of works by great Viennese writers in the early 1900’s, and having read The World from Yesterday, it was like a dream to sit and listen to Schrader talk about going from an idea to a final, fully produced scene in a movie.

Her presentation taught more about filmmaking than I’ve known my entire life, and it was done with humor, self-deprecation, in beautiful English, and summed up with a scene from the movie that, in a brief four minutes, justified all of her acclaim.

All of this, right here in Los Angeles, a few hundred feet from PCH, there were movies, music, political resistance, great journalism, human rights, like-minded people supporting the same ideals … all of it courtesy of a generous and farsighted government, all of it accessible thanks to a fortuitous meeting on a bright orange bike.



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§ 8 Responses to Wheels of justice

  • rknock1962 says:

    Powerful and worthy of inclusion in your next book. It’s more than biking. On a somewhat smaller note, I will never forget the images that I saw exploring east of Fulda on my bike in 1991 not too long after German reunification. I hope you continue to make your own bread while ignoring the circus.

  • flehnerz says:

    Wow, very fascinating!

  • pvannuys says:

    Congratulations, Seth. You have found your element, I hope you visit often and share.
    I’m only beginning to understand the roots of our Western culture, if you can call it that. But it seems the big social and political movements that have shaped our world always come down to the human animal in its most base or most sublime nature.
    We’re tribal, and just as prey animals live in herds and predators hunt in groups, our biological default makes us separate, define, and prejudge other humans. You get fascism in the macro and buzz passed in the micro. And the defenders– a purely human construct– armies or the cops, are never around when you need ’em.

  • We often call our bike the “Magic Carpet Ride” because of the people we’ve met, the places we’ve seen and the things we’ve done while riding it. Your bikes seem to have some of the same qualities.

  • You have many great posts, this is now one of my favs.

  • J Marvin Campbell says:

    LA: Who knew it’s not all about Trader Joe’s?

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