The café near the Kaiser Wilhelm church was emptier than usual. There were only a handful of customers there. I had been sitting at the little patio table for a minute and a half before a waitress came to take my order. She was a very pleasant young woman. Her hair was golden brown and in a bun, her eyes hazel and gleaming, and she had the complexion of an angel. The striped apron tied around her waist over top of her clothes fit snugly to her slender form. She walked gracefully but with purpose as she waited on the various tables of the patio café, jotting down orders on her little pad of paper.
“Was möchten Sie? Kaffee…Tea…Strudel?” she asked me, ready to write on her little pad.
“Ich möchte einen Kaffee, und Strudel, bitte,” I replied. She nodded and smiled, then walked into the café. The morning air was refreshing as it blew gently down the main street in Berlin; it swept across my face as I pondered the past. It was hard to believe that just a year before to the day, the Berlin Wall was torn down, heralding the inevitable collapse of communism. It was even harder to believe that it had been forty-five years since I was last in Berlin. I never thought I’d step foot into the city again after what had happened all those years ago.
The waitress returned with my coffee and strudel, smiling as she handed them to me. I nodded, signaling that that was all I needed. As I bit into the flaky treat and sipped on my coffee, my thoughts began to stir, awakening memories of long ago that had since been tucked away deep in the recesses of my mind. Forty-five years before I was having brunch in that Berlin café, I was coming to the city in a far more aggressive manner and with much crueler intentions.
At the time, I was in the NKVD, and my unit was attached to the advancing front of the Soviet Red Army. We entered the city after much effort and a great loss of men, finally taking the Nazi capital in May of 1945. After the war ended, the NKVD was dissolved, and a few superseding agencies took its place in the following years. Then, in 1954, I was reassigned to a new organization—a more powerful one—that would prove to be my niche: the KGB.
During my time in the KGB, I was assigned many missions, most of which in Central Europe. I was tasked with gathering intelligence, making transactions with agent liaisons from friendly countries, and eliminating external threats to state security—assassinations. I was an effective and ruthless agent who held no qualms about what I did, no remorse for the killing on my part.
There was one man who was a target of mine, a mark that got away. It was in 1967 and I was sent to Czechoslovakia. The man of whom I speak was, at the time, believed to be part of the Underground that would have a hand in the uprising the following year. At the time, of course, we did not know there would be an uprising; I simply was tasked with finding the man on suspicion of his rebellious involvement.
I hunted the man for weeks at first, never getting close enough to him to ultimately accomplish my objective. Somehow he slipped away every time. Much to my chagrin, it happened enough times to warrant my superior to discontinue the kill order. I was to focus on other missions and objectives, but in the back of my mind I held on to the fact that I had failed. However, I was determined that I would one day find the man.
And there I was, years later a former KGB agent in the heart of Berlin, finally reaching the conclusion of my hunt. For that man was there, living in peace I’m sure, unaware of me and my purpose. I spent the latter years of my service to the Soviet Union gathering intelligence and formulating my plan to resume where I left off so many years before. My research and probing led me to find that the man had been living in the city for two years, in West Berlin. I imagine he considered himself safe being ironically so close to Soviet forces.
Swallowing the last bite of strudel and washing it down with the remainder of my coffee, I signaled the waitress. She approached my table. “Sind Sie fertig? Ist das alles?” she asked as she looked at my empty plate.
“Ja, es schmeckte gut,” I replied, dabbing my mouth with a napkin and reaching for my billfold. “Die Rechnung, bitte.”
“Ja, sehr gut,” she responded with a smile as she gathered my plate and coffee mug. In the minute she was away, I looked around the vicinity and breathed in the fresh air. I thought about where I was to head after the café. The young girl soon returned with my receipt. I glanced at it and handed her a bill much larger than what was required.
“Für Sie, meine Liebe,” I said with a grin, giving her a generous tip. The smile on her face grew larger.
“Vielen dank, mein Herr!” she thanked me. I slid my chair out from the table and stood up, picking up my jacket and putting it on.
I then walked toward the sidewalk, weaving my way between the other tables and chairs of the café. Turning to head west down the Kurfürstendamm, one of the main avenues of Berlin, I began walking with the flow of people. There were businessmen in suits, women in pant skirts, and some children chasing after a dog. Taxi cabs and civilian automobiles whooshed by on the broad street, creating more of a breeze. Little bits of paper and cigarette butts drifted along the concrete, some getting caught in the cracks of the sidewalk.
My walk stretched a good length of the Kurfürstendamm, about two kilometers, from the café near the church to where I soon arrived near Adenauerplatz, a square still on the main avenue. My intelligence-gathering revealed the man was living in a flat on the square. And I was very positive about the quality of the intelligence.
Entering the square, I saw crowds of people. Many were seated in chairs of the various café patios, while others were milling around shop front windows or heading to and from the stairs leading to the underground train. Through the din of the socializing public, I laid my eyes on a four-level building - the man’s flat. My senses sharpened as I ambled toward it through the square.
Upon my approach to the lobby door, someone pushed the door open and exited the building: a woman and her young son. The boy’s eyes met mine and, in a playful manner, he transformed his fingers and hand to mimic a gun. He aimed his hand at me and exclaimed, “Bang, bang!” I halted in my walk and stared at the boy. His mother immediately stopped him, thrust his hand down, and looked him in the eye.
“Karl! Kümmere dich um deine Manieren!” she scolded. She then looked up at me. “Es tut mir leid, mein Herr. Bitte vergib ihm!” Snapping out of my momentary trance, I looked at the woman and replied.
“Ja, meine Frau. Er ist in Ordnung.” I assured her that I took no offense of her son’s innocent playfulness.
“Danke,” she nodded and continued walking with her son. I watched as they headed for the stairs to the underground and soon disappeared down the steps. Turning back to the lobby door, I paused a moment before reaching for the handle. The image of the boy and his imaginary gun was indeed a surprise, not something I expected to see just before going to the man’s apartment. I then reached my hand up and pulled open the lobby door.
I walked into the building to find an empty lobby. It was a modest entryway into the building, with a few chairs positioned near the front desk, which was vacant, and a vending machine along the opposite wall. A bulletin board hung behind the desk with notices and flyers tacked to it, beside which was a small lidded box labeled “Outgoing Mail” in German. Catching sight of the stairwell door at the other side of the lobby, I walked to it and began climbing the stairs.
I heard faint noises from the floors above, like a baby crying or a television set with the volume up. With my hand on the rail, I continued upward until I reached the third floor. I opened the stairwell door and entered the corridor.
The man’s room was almost to the end of the hall on the north side. There was no sign of anyone around, not even in the adjacent flats. I looked for the room number on the door, seeing the numbers on other doors as I moved along: 310, 312, 314…316. I had arrived. I drew in a deep breath and reached my hand up to knock on the door, but when my fingers touched it, the door nudged open a crack. I took a step back, as it startled me, then collected myself. The man didn’t open the door farther. Maybe he wasn’t in? I looked down the corridor – still no one in sight. I reached my hand up again, gently pushed the door open wider, and stepped inside.
The man’s flat was simple yet elegant. I saw what appeared to be trinkets and souvenirs not native to the region, as well as framed photographs on the wall. A small wooden table under a hanging light fixture constituted the dining room, which was adjacent to a small kitchen. I looked on, seeing that a window was open on the far wall of the flat, in the common room. I took a few steps toward it when suddenly I heard the flush of a toilet behind a closed door to my right. Frozen in my tracks, I turned to face the door. It opened, and the man was the one who did it.
He, too, froze in his stance, certainly surprised by the visitor in his home. We shared a brief moment of tension in our eyes, each of us reading the other. I then broke the silence. “Günther Althaus?” His eyes revealed his shock of my knowledge of his name.
“Ja…” he answered softly. At that, I reached into my inside jacket pocket. He started backing up, extended his hand out to me, and pleaded. “Nein, nein, nein…bitte töte mich nicht!” From inside my jacket, I pulled out a worn piece of paper. The relief in his eyes was immense; he leaned against the wall to support his weak legs.
“Ich werde jetzt in Englisch sprechen,” I said, telling him that I would continue in English. He nodded, catching his breath as the tension receded somewhat. “Your name is Günther Althaus. My name is Viktor Aizenev. We’re not too different, you and I. We both are old. We both are now in Berlin. We both have dark pasts.” At this, he shifted his glance toward me, beginning to look me up and down to try and figure out who I was before I revealed it myself.
“Indeed,” he added. “But where do they intersect, I wonder?”
“The crossroads of our stories lies in the eve of the Prague uprising,” I told him, still speaking somberly. “And now here in Berlin, as well.” He looked deep into my eyes, a myriad of emotions welling up inside them. I extended my hand with the worn paper in it. “Take it.” He reluctantly reached out his wrinkled hand and took the paper.
“What is this?” he asked as he unfolded it.
“It is the order for your death, as given me by my KGB superior,” I answered as I slowly stepped closer to him. At that, he quickly looked up at me again, surprise and fear returning to him.
“Stand back, before I—”
“Günther…” I interrupted, my tone and look quieting him. Again, I extended my hand and looked him in the eye. “I am here to reconcile what once separated us.” His expression was of complete awe, as he was surely taken aback by what was unfolding. Silence ensued as I hung in wait to shake his hand.
“Why now?” he asked softly.
“Time can change a man…can change his perception of life and death. I am a changed man, and I believe fate chose you to be the one to realize it in my eyes.” My hand still outstretched, I looked deep into his eyes, internally pleading for him to extend his own. He briefly hesitated, but finally reached for my hand. We embraced in a handshake that defied convention, that defied history. It even defied Günther’s state of being in that moment, I’m sure. Nevertheless, it was the symbolic end to a long career of killing and manipulating, of lying and bribing, of treason against humanity.
“I don’t know what is to happen now,” he admitted, showing a bit of a relieved grin as we let go of each other’s hands.
“I suppose we go our separate ways,” I commented, looking around the flat for a moment then back at him.
“Yes…I suppose that’s it.” He, too, looked around a moment, then reached out his hand holding the piece of paper.
“No, you keep it. I have no use for it,” I said, not reaching for it. I then sauntered toward the door; Günther remained standing. As I pulled the door open, he spoke.
“Thank you…” I then turned to face him. I showed an understanding grin and respectfully nodded to him. I turned once again and left the flat.I exited through the front door of the flat, emerging from the building a different man than when I entered. Drawing in a deep breath and looking around, I couldn’t help but let go of all the thoughts populating my mind and simply smile. A cathartic wave swept over me in that moment, drowning me in a sea of disbelief and wonder—the former because it was hard to think that this journey had finally concluded, the latter because I had no idea how the remaining few years of my life would be lived out now that I had finished the task. Or, at least finished it according to my conscience. With a smile still on my face, I started walking back down the Kurfürstendamm, taking in the moment and the breeze that complemented it.