From an article written by Joseph Roth for the newspaper Neue Berliner Zeitung in 1921 and included in The Hotel Years, a collection of Roth’s journalism out last month from New Directions. Roth (1894–1939) was the author of The Radetzky March and other novels. Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann.
It was raining the day before yesterday. The asphalt of the Kurfürstendamm was slippery, and a woman with an open umbrella ran into a moving car, slipped, and was run over. Her umbrella was lying on the pavement. People rushed over, the woman was picked up; she was badly shaken, nothing more — all this had to be established in a nearby café. But before it could be established, and while she was still lying in the road, covered with blood in the imagination of all the passersby who had witnessed the accident, and possibly with severed limbs, a man had the presence of mind to pick up the lady’s umbrella and walk off with it.
I had never supposed that people’s decency was a match for their self-interest. But that their meanness was even greater than their curiosity, that was brought out to me by this incident, which shows that it isn’t difficult to take the pillow off someone’s deathbed and sell the feathers at the next street corner.
The woman who had escaped with her life now wept for the loss of her umbrella and was not at all grateful that her limbs were intact. As evidenced here, people come in two sorts: unscrupulous and dim.