Justine clung to the streetcar’s side as it made its way through the dark streets. In the city for a month, she had a route to her job from her home that only required a one-mile walk before catching this ride. At first, it took her two hours to make her way through the destroyed city from her apartment to the Palace of Justice. Now the trip only took an hour, provided she found a place on these crowded cars.
Delayed this evening at work, she rode outside the car instead of standing inside. With a food bag she brought from her office, she hesitated before jumping on the trolley. It took two hands to hold on to the streetcar’s exterior. If she didn’t take this car she would need to walk or wait for the next car. As it pulled away, a man inside extended his hand. “Hand me the bag. I will hold it for you! Quick, then I can hold on to you also!”
Without thinking, she passed the bag to the man, stepped on the running board, and grasped the open window frame. The man set the bag at his feet before grabbing her coat collar, giving her extra support in case she slipped.
Frightened and suspicious of people in the town when she first arrived as she recalled how those around her and her family tormented them for their religion. It now seemed different. Instead, she witnessed strangers helping those around them without a summons. Sharing with those who had little. Acts of kindness flourished, replacing the Nazi instigated bullying.
While her fears waned with time, they still crept back. What about this man who now held her collar? Would he let her go or shove her off? This kindness might just be a lure to harm her. Instead of hurting her, would he keep the bag when she got off the car?
As the car slowed for the stop near her apartment, she squeezed the man’s hand, who grasped her collar. “Thank you so much.” She smiled as she stepped down. The man said nothing in reply, just nodded his head as he passed the bag her the bag.
As the streetcar rolled away, she rushed after it to shout out her thanks. Perhaps offer the man some of her food for his kindness. But she could not catch the car. As it disappeared down the street, she vowed to be kind to others as the man had been to her. Help others in distress she might happen on.
With the food bag clutched in her hand, she considered other kindness she experienced that day. This meal tonight came from her boss, Major Worth. He routinely brought extra food for the Germans who worked with him. He never asked for money for these little gifts. Claimed they were extras he had seen at the military PX and he worried it might just go to waste there.
She stepped carefully as she journeyed through in the darkened street, lit only by the light from a half-moon. Not accustomed to the dark after riding in the streetcar’s illumination she peered ahead for stray bricks that littered the streets.
Around the corner, she smiled. At last, someone cleared a path through the mountain of rubble that had filled the street. No climbing tonight, she said to herself as she shifted her food bag to her left hand.
The sound of running feet behind her made her turn. Startled, the food bag slipped from her hand. As she turned back, a boy darted out, snatched the bag before sprinting away. Unable to run in her clunky shoes, the boy drew away. But before he disappeared from sight, a figure stepped from the shadows, snatched the boy’s collar, ending his escape.
As she neared, the man shook the boy and cursed. “You filthy little thief!” His face close against the boy’s terrified face. “Is this what those filthy Nazis taught you? Steal from women?”
The man raised his fist as if preparing to strike the boy, but Justine grabbed the man’s shoulder. His head snapped around. “What?”
“Please, sir, let me take care of this.”
The boy’s blond hair shimmered in the moon light, his blue eyes wide open, terrified.
Justine stooped to pick up the bag the boy dropped when accosted. She reached in, pinched off a small piece of cheese, which she popped into her mouth before holding the bag out to the boy. The boy’s eyes shifted to the man before snatching the sack. After shoving his flat cap back on his head, the man shook his head before releasing his grip, allowing the boy to race into the shadows clutching his prize. As he disappeared around the corner, the sound of a girl’s giggles came to their ears, accompanied by the patter of more than one running down the side street.
The man turned to Justine. “You know they will grow up to be Jew killers, just like their parents.”
Justine stepped back. “Excuse me?”
“You are Justine Rothstein?”
She clutched her chest, wished she had brought her pistol. “Do I know you?”
“I am a friend of Hans. He sends you greetings and hopes that someday you can meet him in Jerusalem.”
“Hans is in Jerusalem?”
“Not yet. He should board a boat for there in two days, and unless the British catch them, he will be there in a month.”
The man then left her side briefly to step back into the shadows. He returned with a bag and carried a bottle in one hand. He held it up in the moonlight. “I have brought some bread and cheese. Perhaps we could share it and this wine. I would like to talk to you about myself and my friends. Hans thought what we do might interest you.”
As the man strode towards Justine’s apartment building, she rushed to catch up with him. As they climbed the stairs, they reached the first landing where moonlight streamed through a massive hole in the wall lighting the dark stairway.
Her companion paused to study the streets below. “I am amazed the building did not fall when the bomb blasted this hole. His eyes scanned the vast gap in the structure that exposed most of the stairway to the second floor. “The staircase must provide a frame for the building.”
He then resumed his climb to Justine’s apartment, off the third-floor landing. Once she unlocked the door, he followed her in. Paused inside the doorway, he waited while Justine lit a candle on the table.
Finished, she turned to him. “They claim we may have electricity in the next month on this block.”
He placed the bag and bottle on the table before strolling to the window. When she retrieved two jars she used for drinking from the cupboard, she slipped the pistol into her coat pocket before turning to face the man.
Without turning away from the window, he nodded. “Running water will be harder to get since they must replace the underground pipes. But getting the sewers to run properly will be easier.”
“You are a builder?” she asked as she went to another cupboard to get two tin plates, then a knife which she placed near the bag and the wine.
“Yes. Before the war.” He turned back from the window. “You have nothing to fear from me. I came here as a friend and hoped you could help me.”
“Help you how?” She slipped her hand inside her pocket. Grasped the pistol’s handle.
“Why don’t we eat as we talk?” He joined her at the table with a smile he removed the cork from the bottle of wine and filled the jars. “You can either eat with one hand or let go of the pistol and eat with both. I don’t really care whatever makes you feel safer.”
The man first removed a long loaf of black bread, followed by a massive chunk of almost white cheese. Its fragrance made her mouth water.
He nodded at the knife lying on the table. “Why don’t you serve us?” He tipped back his chair while putting his hands in his coat pocket. “As close as we are, the knife would be as good as the gun.”
After releasing her grip on the pistol, she sliced the cheese, and the bread then placed portions on each plate. The man leaned forward.
He hoisted one wine-filled jar as if proposing a toast. “Next year in Jerusalem.” Their eyes locked as both drank.
He set his cap on the table, exposing tight curled black hair trimmed to within a half-inch of his head. His wire-rimmed glasses partially shielded his hazel blue eyes. His prominent nose and chin reminded her of the fox’s picture from the Gingerbread Man story her father read to her as a child. Not ugly or mean, but cunning.
“I am Captain Ari Shapiro from His Majesty’s Eighth Army on detached service here in Nuremberg. I am hoping you can supply my friends and me with information.”
“I am not sure what all of that means. I was a partisan in Yugoslavia and Austria before I came here, and I work for the Americans in the Palace of Justice. What information could I have for you?”
“Where you work, they gather information on the Nazi war criminals correct? Especially those in the SS.”
“Yes, that’s true.” She popped a cheese chunk in her mouth.
Ari broke off a chunk of bread, held it up as if appraising it. “I would like to know who they are and where we can find them.”
“Well, the British should have access to this list. Can’t you just use your own?”
“My request is not coming through the British Army, but from my unit.”
“This detached service you mentioned?”
“I am with the Jewish Infantry Brigade Group. A special unit in the British Army from Palestine.” He shrugged. “We are part of the regular British Army.”
“Why would you need this list?”
“Let us say, for now, we want to make sure that those guilty of slaughtering our people do not escape justice. You are doing a similar thing for the Russians, and we are your people.”
“Hans told you many things he must have trusted you.” Her eyes narrowed. “Or was that the cost of his passage to Palestine.”
“He assured me the Justine he knew would support our cause and urged me to talk to you. He worries. Thinks you need friends besides the Russians.”
“All I know is that they bring higher ranking SS here. They keep them in the Langwasser camp just outside of town until their trials.”
Shapiro scoffed. “Do you really think they will deal with them all? They might hang a few, imprison some, but they will soon lose stomach for it all and let most of them go. We want to make sure this does not happen.”
Justine crossed her arms leaned back. “So, you intend to make them all pay?”
“We are most interested in the ones who ran the camps. The SS who fought on the front lines do not interest us.”
“And if I refuse?” Her hand crept toward the knife.
He smiled. “Then, it would disappoint me. I could find the information on my own, but not as efficiently without your help.”
As he rose, he put on his cap. “Think about helping me.” He paused at the doorway. “I will return in a few days, and we can talk more then.”
After he exited, Justine rushed to bolt the door. As she leaned against it, she sighed, wondering what new surprise waited.
Rudi shuddered as he recalled being caught by the man when he stole the food bag as his sister, Louise, ate the remaining bread. Relieved that tonight they would have full stomachs, he cleaned the bayonet’s blade before sliding it into his belt in the small of his back. Once he gathered the jacket’s front together, he turned his back to his sister. “Is it hidden?”
Still chewing, she nodded.
“As soon as you finish, we need to find a place to hide.” He scanned the deserted dark street. “The big ones might come soon.”
“Rudi, I was so scared when that man grabbed you,” she said as she brushed crumbs from her lap to her hand then popped these crumbs in her mouth. “I did not see him there, or I would never have tried the distraction with the woman.”
He shrugged. “I should have been more careful.” Rudi stood and held his hand out to her. “Our little trick has worked too well too often. I got careless.”
“Should we move to a different area?” Louise whispered, taking his hand as they slipped around the heaps of rubble filling the street. “The big ones might also find us here if we stay too long.”
He held up his hand as they approached an alley to both silence her and stop her from walking further. He stooped. Peered around the corner, then beckoned her to follow.
“You are right. When we get to the main street, we can turn left or right,” Rudi whispered, “If we go about five blocks, that may be far enough.”
At the next intersection with a broader street, they again paused so Rudi could check the road before they crossed. “It is too quiet tonight. Usually, the big ones are out now, hunting.”
As they traveled down the street performing their check of each side street, shouts came from behind. Rudi’s eyes grew wide. “They are hunting where we left. Come, we need to hurry.”
With joined hands, they raced, staying in the shadows. After rounding the next corner without checking, they dashed to a stairway that led to a rubble pile. Both crawled into the opening beneath the stairs, where they huddled together in the dark.
Rudi put his lips close to her ear. “See Louise how lucky we are. Food and safety in the same night.”
She rested her head on his shoulder. “Yes, truly lucky. Could life get any better?”
Usually, they took turns sleeping through the night. One watched for the big ones and rats while the other slept. If both succumbed to fatigue, a rat would scurry across or bite. Tonight, safe from the big kids and with full bellies, both drifted off to a deep slumber.
Voices nearby woke Rudi. As he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, he scanned their hiding place. The daylight outside failed to penetrate beneath the stairs where they hid. But in the faint light, he could see Louise still asleep, lying on her stomach, her head resting on her arms.
Curious, he crawled to the opening. While he saw no one, the voices continued nearby.
“Let’s go to the pump. The line might not be too long at this time of day,” he heard a man say, “They might even have a food truck there.”
“Yes, one was over on Heidelberg street yesterday, and someone said they might be here today,” a woman replied. “Let me get my shoes back on, and we can go.”
With adults close, they need not fear the big ones, so he crawled out. In the street, an elderly man and woman walked arm and arm. The woman appeared stout and wore a scarf. The man’s ragged coat brushed the ground as he shuffled along with a cane. Not wishing to lose this escort, Rudi rushed back to wake Louise. Roused from her slumber, she blinked then bolted upright, running her hands over her legs.
“Oh, Rudi, I am so sorry I fell asleep during my turn.” She now studied her arms. Finished with her examination, she grinned. “No bites, our luck continues.”
“I heard two people say there might be food at the pump this morning.” Not mentioning that he missed his turn at guard as well. “Come on, we might get lucky again.”
Both scurried out from beneath the stairway, then raced down the street, following the couple ahead. The children caught up with the couple as they approached the corner. The old couple turned around, startled, then both smiled at the children.
The old man nudged the woman. “What have we here, Mother? Don’t you think you had better wait for your parents?”
“No, Sir. They are working on one of the clearing jobs. Our job is to find food while they work.”
The old woman patted Louise’s head. “Ah, well, walk with us. Perhaps we will get lucky today, eh? A fine strapping lad such as you might help us carry the booty if there is any.” He nudged Rudi. “What do you say?”
As the four walked together, the old woman placed her hand on Louise’s shoulder as she hobbled. Rudi walked on the opposite side, next to the old man.
The old man peered at him from the corner of his eye “So both your parents are alive then? You are lucky. So many have only one or none at all.”
Ahead, a crowd gathered in the plaza where soldiers had put in the pipes from the nearby main lines and installed a hand pump. From this pump, everyone living within the square mile could wash and then drink their fill in their turn. If they had a bucket or other container, they might also take water away for cooking or drinking later.
Finished with their turn at the pump, most remained in the square to visit with neighbors or get news. As Rudi joined the line, he scanned the crowd, for a familiar face, especially his mother or his father. Instead, he spotted the gang of big ones who roamed the area at night seated on a crumbled wall at the square’s edge.
Like hyenas waiting for their turn at the kill, the five teenagers studied the crowd while talking between themselves. Occasionally one would point to a little one who appeared to be alone. One came down from their perch and walked towards the line. He sauntered up next to the old woman. He leered at Louise. “She, your granddaughter?” He touched Louise’s hair. “Pretty little thing.”
The old man turned, rapped the boy on the shins with his cane. Startled, the young man staggered back, then hopped on one foot, grimacing in pain. The other four edged off the wall and approached. Several men stepped out of the crowd and surrounded the teenagers. One marched up to the lead teen, scowled down at the boy. “You have had your turn. On your way.”
One teen clicked his heels and thrust his hand up in the Nazi salute. While two others led their friend away, still limping from the old man’s blow.
The man who ordered the teens away turned to the old man. “They’re a bad lot. You need to be careful. They might come back to visit you later for a little payback.”
The old man shrugged. “Ah, that filth does not scare me. I dealt with meaner in the trenches. Like those brown shirt scum, they are just bullies.”
As they had their turn at the pump, the old couple and the children seated themselves among a group perched on bricks piled like a roadside bench. While the old man and his wife gossiped with the others seated there, Rudi and Louise peered down the road for the food truck. After an hour, Rudi rose to his feet, reached out to his sister. “Let’s go home. We can come back later to check on the food.”
The old woman turned away from the conversation. “You’re leaving us?”
“Yes, Madam, we must be home by noon, or it will worry our parents.”
After an hour’s walk through the ruined city, they shuffled hand in hand through their old neighborhood. Rudy recalled the day he and Louise returned from school following the air raid. Nothing remained of their home except a flaming rubble pile. Damaged in the attack, the fire hydrants failed, so the fire burned unchecked for four days. Only one wall remained of their home. Once the pile cooled, Rudi scrawled a message on it with charcoal from the rubble. It informed his parents that he and Louise still lived and would return here each day at noon. Most days, they kept that promise.
Except for a group of men moving bricks from the street to the roadside, the road appeared deserted.
Louise pointed to the message Rudi had scrawled, squeezed his hand. “There it is.”
Rudi released her hand, approached the wall. He turned and shook his head. “There are no new messages.”
“But they might still come.”
Rudi shrugged. “All we can do is wait. Perhaps they are late.”
Perched on a pile of bricks, they watched the men move the rubble. But finally, the men grew tired from work, and malnutrition stopped and moved on, leaving the two alone waiting.