Seated beside the roaring fire, Justine and Hans talked while screams and gunfire rang out in the dark. After they had been there a week, like background music in a cafe, the surrounding violent sounds passed unnoticed. As Hans tossed a board on the fire, sparks drifted into the dark sky overhead. He turned to her. “Come to Berlin, they said. Join the victory party. All they are doing is raping and looting.”
“The Germans did worse. But that doesn’t make it right. What will you do now that it is all over?”
“I would like to return to Belgrade.” Hans shrugged. “But I am not sure my family remains there. Plus, Tito runs things now. He never cared much for us Jews.”
“Things might be different. The Party official who brought us the food this afternoon thanked us for our efforts.”
“Creating chaos, so their tanks could move more easily?”
“He fed us. And no one complained about the wine.”
“Probably fattening us up for the slaughter. I don’t understand why we couldn’t merely go home. Why bring us here?”
Justine scanned the barren alley where they camped. After dropping them here, they had to scrounge the neighborhood for food and drink. Then the visit today. “As the man said, our troops moved so fast supply couldn’t keep pace. He promised things would change. To not lose faith in the Party.”
Hans scoffed. “And that fucking Stalin. What will you do? You’re German.”
“My family lived in Nuremberg. Now that it’s all over, perhaps they have returned.”
“How would you get there? If you could avoid these Russian rapists, the Nazis are still roaming the countryside.”
She shrugged. “There must be a way.”
Hans rose. “While my belly remains full, perhaps I can get some sleep for a change.” He squeezed her shoulder. “Don’t venture away from the fire. Demons and werewolves roam these streets at night.”
She patted his hand. “I’ll join the rest of you in a moment. I just have a few things on my mind.”
After Hans left to join the others in the cellar they sheltered in at night, Justine stirred the fire as she considered her future.
“Comrade Rothstein?” a voice inquired from the darkness, interrupting her contemplation. A man emerged from the shadows. His bluish-gray tunic with the raspberry piping of the NKVD. His shoulder epaulets contained a single gold star. His matching Jodhpurs, spotless. Obviously, he did not live here in the mud with the rest. His polished boots, however, had dirt around the soles showing that he had traveled a short way on foot.
Clean-shaven, his square Slavic face appeared carved from granite with a prominent chin and nose. His light brown eyes seemed almost golden in the firelight. They reflected the firelight like the wolf she had once seen in the forest near the camp.
“I am Ivan Jovanovich. Your new Commissar.”
Justine scowled. “Since they killed Pyotr, Hans has served as our Commissar and has done well. I am not sure we need your services, excuse me, is it Junior Lieutenant?”
“Actually, it is Major Jovanovich.”
“Forgive me, I only saw one star, so I assumed.” She turned back to the fire, ignoring the Commissar’s approach.
“It is a natural mistake. Majors have only one star also, but it is larger than a lieutenant’s. Actually, I am not assigned to your group. Hans may continue in that capacity since you feel he is doing such a capable job. Actually, they assigned you to me.”
She turned. “To you?”
He removed his hat, brushed back his blond hair, emphasizing the widow’s peak.
“Yes, you are from Nuremberg, correct?”
“I came from there, but they deported my family and me. I am not sure there is anything there for me now.”
“I would like you to go there to work for me.”
“What would you want me to do there?”
“The Allies will hold trials for those responsible for crimes during the war. They are establishing a special bureau to house all the evidence of atrocities committed by the Nazis, called the War Crimes Commission. They collect records from all the concentration camps for evidence in these trials.”
She turned back to the fire. “How does that concern me?”
He stepped between her and the fire. “I would like you to find a job with this War Crimes Commission. Help me bring the Nazis to justice.”
What the Commissar offered seemed perfect. She could return to the city she came from and perhaps find her family. If not there, possibly in this warehouse of records.
“What makes you think I could get a job like that? I have no clerical skills or work experience,”
“There is a big effort to eliminate all Nazis from positions of power. Right down to the lowest bureaucrat and clerk. They are desperate to hire anyone literate and can show that they were not a Nazi. I am sure we can make the people hiring for these positions aware of your credentials. With my influence, you will secure this position.” He scanned the surrounding area, wrinkled his nose, before turning back to her. “Why don’t you accompany me to a cafe nearby where we can discuss this further?”
She steeled herself to contain her eagerness as she allowed him to guide her to the main street. There, a black sedan idled in the road. A soldier leaned against it smoking a cigarette, as he drew on it, the glowing ash revealed his Mongol features. Aware of their approach, the soldier tossed his cigarette away, then opened the car’s back door before saluting. Jovanovich merely nodded, stepped aside, then motioned her inside before him. Once the Major entered, the soldier closed the door, got behind the steering wheel, and drove away.
The craters in the streets left by bombs and artillery shells and strewn rubble forced the car to travel slowly in the darkened street, illuminated by the vehicle’s headlights alone. Several times they had to back up when they came to a road completely choked off by the piles of stones and bricks. Twice they drove through half-destroyed buildings to an adjacent street to find a clear path.
Eventually, they stopped before what looked to be a cafe. None of the surrounding buildings still had glass in their windows, and all appeared deserted. A faint glow appeared behind the cafe’s one large window.
Three Russians stood near the entrance, passing a bottle. Their conversation, loud and boisterous. As she and the Commissar passed inside, they nudged each other and leered. While she did not understand their words, their expressions and gestures sent chills down her spine.
The candle-lit room had a bar at the back. Tables with chairs filled the front area. Only one table appeared occupied. There, three more soldiers sat, passing a bottle, muttering among themselves. They eyed Justine and the Commissar but one glance from Jovanovich turned them away. Jovanovich led her to an empty table away from the others. After she sat, he walked to the untended bar. From behind the bar, he retrieved a bottle and two glasses from beneath the counter, which he brought back to the table. The three at the other table cast furtive glances in their direction, obviously nervous about a ranking NKVD officer’s presence.
After filling her glass, he smiled. “So, Comrade, do you have questions about this job?”
As she raised the glass to her lips, the minty aroma of schnapps drifted up to her nose. A sip radiated through her, chasing away the night’s dampness. Unaccustomed to alcohol and wishing to maintain a clear head, she set the glass aside. “Why would you want me to do such a thing?”
“Our Allies are being dishonest. They grab war criminals everywhere and then spirit them away.”
“Why would they do such a thing?”
“We suspect they find these people useful.”
She scoffed. “Useful? Anyone can be a butcher. That takes no talent.”
“Some of them must have talents beyond that. What? I am not sure, but no matter what, we cannot let them escape justice.” After filling his own glass, he continued. “We need to make sure that does not happen. That these animals pay for their crimes.”
“What would you expect of me?”
“I would give you names of those criminals we have a special interest in. You would follow their progress in the system and report back to me what happens. That way, I would know if our Allies are being honest with us.”
“What about my people? I am their leader. I should abandon them?”
“Comrade Tito wants them to return. They are heroes. He is eager to thank them for all the help they gave in driving the Nazis from Yugoslavia and Austria.”
“Even though they are Jews? He never wanted them before.”
“In victory, he can afford to be gracious. Possibly that has given him a change of heart. You are German and may not be as welcome as they.”
She had seen the carrot. Now she felt the stick. “So, if I decline your offer, I may have nowhere to go.”
He hoisted his glass as if proposing a toast. “Comrade, I am certain a lovely young girl, such as yourself, would have no problems finding a place with warmth and food. There are many lonely people out there now.”
So, there it was. Work for this commissar, and he would provide her exactly what she wanted. If not, they would isolate her here. He also reassured her that her band would get what they desired, satisfying her duty as their leader. So now she could accept it with no guilt. Giddy both from the alcohol and the opportunity before her, she placed her hand on Jovanovich’s arm. “This opportunity to work with you, Commissar, sounds delightful.” She smiled as she raised her glass as if offering a toast. As she stared into his eyes, she again recalled the wolf in the woods.
Later they strolled arm in arm back to his car. They stopped outside the alley where her people would spend the night. Down the lane, the bonfire blazed with the shadows of her people gathered there cast on the surrounding walls.
“The trucks taking your people home will arrive in the morning. After they are on their way, you and I will drive to Nuremberg. We will talk more while we are on the road. Goodnight, comrade. I am grateful you accepted this important work. Make your people ready for the morning, and I will see you then.”
As she approached the fire, his car pulled away. After entering the gathered circle, she described the transportation that would come in the morning.
“I have been proud to know you all. Thank you for taking me in when I came to the forest. After we separate tomorrow, I will miss you all.”
Surprised, no one seemed cheered by the news. Instead, they stared in stunned silence.
As her band drifted away in small groups, they murmured among themselves, leaving her alone beside the fire. Puzzled, she sought her adjutant, Hans, who stood near a corner arguing with two others. Her approach silenced them. The two glared at her before marching off. Confused, she clutched Hans’ sleeve. “What is going on? I would think the news would please you all. It’s over. You are going home.”
He turned with tears in his eyes. “We heard other things. They might be rumors, but we believe they are true. Tito has directed the Russians to liquidate all the Jewish Partisans. He hated us before and does not want us in his country now. So, they tell our people that Tito wants them back, and they jump happily in the trucks. When they get outside town, they dump them out and shoot them all. Claim Nazi Guerrillas attacked the convoy.”
She gasped. “So, what will you do?”
“We will slip away in the night. There are many like us, trying to make their way to Palestine. We will join them and hopefully then make it to safety. What about you?”
Once she told him about her offer, he handed her his pistol.
“This is small but deadly. Your Russian may have told you the truth, or he may think he is telling you the truth. They may not care about using a Jew in Germany, so they may rely on you to do this thing for them. I am sure it would motivate you to do it well. They know this. But if he lied, shoot him like you would any other Nazi, then escape. I will tell the people who help us to watch for you, and, if you have to, you can find them. If you do, perhaps we will meet again next year, as they say, in Jerusalem.”
As they hugged, a lump formed in her throat. While this might be the chance she wished for. To go home, find her family. Instead, it might be a ticket to Hell.
Once at his headquarters, Jovanovich strode through the empty office area. After knocking at the door in the back, a voice inside bade him enter. Inside his boss, Colonel Zhukov sat with a bald man in a greatcoat decorated with General’s stars.
Zhukov rose, smiled, extended his hand to Jovanovich. “Ah, General, this is my adjutant, Major Jovanovich. How did it go?”
“Sir, the woman agreed. I will arrange her transport and for those of the others. I think she will be an asset that we should be able to use for a long time.”
“Well, recognizing this chance was astute. The job will help her get accepted. And who knows how high she may rise in the Occupational Forces bureaucracy or what she may learn later when we really need her. I am sure this little cover story you gave her will ensure she works hard and will easily gain favor.”
“Yes, I think in the end, she will be an asset to the networks we create. Also, thank you for suggesting the repatriation of her comrades. It pleased her and assured her recruitment.”
“If that is it, you are dismissed, Major. You have much to prepare for tomorrow.”
As Zhukov trailed Jovanovich with his eyes as he left, he picked up his desk phone. He turned to the General. “Excuse me, General. I must make a call.” After clicking the receiver, his eyes narrowed. “Yes, you may expect the traitors to arrive at ten in the morning. After you dispose of them, report to me.”
Once Zhukov ended the call, the General leaned forward. “Did the Major know of the executions?”
“Of course not. His lying skills are not yet developed. The Jewess might have doubted him and not recruited or, worse, she might have warned her people. He may be bright and dedicated, but he has much to learn about the ways of deceit the great spymasters require.” He placed his hands behind his head. Smiled. “You know, running the Jews out of Russia might have been the only thing the Czar did right.”
The next morning, Jovanovich drove the car himself to meet Justine. Two large covered trucks trailed him as they drove slowly through the bumpy Berlin Streets. Stopped outside the alley, her band occupied, he walked to where she sat by a small smoking fire. She smiled as he approached.
He doffed his peaked cap. “I am here as promised.” Gave her a half bow. “Also, two trucks wait at the end of the alley to transport your comrades home.”
Justine rose, clutching the pistol in her coat pocket, prepared for betrayal. “I am afraid Commissar, my comrades returned home on their own, but they thanked you for your kind offer.”
“What? They are walking back?” he shrugged as he scanned the surroundings. “The trucks would get them home in a matter of days. Walking might take them weeks, and there are roving Nazi Guerrillas about attacking groups of travelers like bandits.”
“I am sure they will be safe. They protected themselves from all kinds of Nazis for years.”
Justine coughed to cover the click of the pistol’s safety release. “I am prepared to go with you and hope that I can perform well in this job you described.”
“Well, let us go then,” Jovanovich pointed to his car. “I will personally drive you to Nuremberg and make sure you settle comfortably in both your new job and suitable living quarters. There is much to discuss on our journey.”
As he turned to walk back up the alley, she followed at first slightly behind and then gradually moved to his side. He opened the passenger door of the car for her.
“I hope you put that pistol in your pocket on safety. If it goes off while I drive, it might injure us both.”