Chapter 12: MIELKE
Nothing more was said that week about my supposed guilt by association. I assumed my “background” checked out. The fact I’d been accused of being involved with the opposition was bad enough, but it was worse coming from someone who pretended he cared what his father thought. If Herr Franke knew how reckless and foolish his own son was and the damage Stefan himself caused the family name, he would be the one on the street.
It wasn’t a big secret Herr Franke had close ties to the government, especially when their guests were always Associates of the Peoples Republic, der Nationalen Volksarmee, or State Security. What did surprise me was how Stefan, one of very few young men of age, was able to avoid conscript. It was the newly required military service for every German boy. Either his father’s connections were very high, which was possible, or his bribe was very high . . . also possible. Either way, Stefan lived a very carefree life with no ties to anything, family included.
As repetitive as the days had become, by late October I started a childish countdown in wax on my bedroom mirror. A daunting 674 days left of debt servitude. I should be more grateful. Despite the vacancies in just about every vocation in the east, jobs somehow remained limited. This was a calculated way the Soviet Union could control the people. If we were dependent on them for basic necessities, we would not bite the hand that fed us. So basically, their success came from starvation first, then minimal sustenance to save us.
Too many people in Germany were uneducated and blind. Many Germans were led to believe we . . . (although I call myself a German geographically, I don’t believe any German blood runs through my veins) . . . really were the elite race. We deserved more because of who we were. With the loss of World War II and then the smorgasbord of other countries dipping in, many believed we were only in a rebuilding stage to dominate once again.
There are actually people here in Berlin who believe the rhetoric that the wall was placed for our protection from the Allies. Despite my own limited formal education, my adoptive parents were very thorough in their social and historical teachings. Papa Kühn, while he fought alongside the Nazis, grew to despise the regime. He spoke very little of the horrors he witnessed, but he emphasized greatly the importance of awareness and knowledge.
The more I read in secret or on breaks from the very books Herr Franke stocked in his own library, the more disgusted I was with ignorance. It was the ability to keep citizens unaware that led to dictatorship and control. Ignorance led us to follow Adolf Hitler, and it was ignorance that allowed a senseless wall to be built. If more people took the time to educate themselves on the simple workings of their own Government, Berlin would be a completely different city.
Despite the steady economic decline in East Berlin, Herr Franke continued to entertain as if he was the King of England and his house was Buckingham Palace. No expense was ever spared for his guests. Imported wine from Bordeaux, France, chocolates from Brussels, and pastries from Vienna. He had connections all over the world, and while people were dying in attempts to leave our side of Berlin, Herr Franke flaunted a ridiculous level of luxury and freedom at the same time he pushed a belief in Communistic control. Although I was never privy to know the specific involvement Herr Franke had in the DDR, I slowly learned it was not on the sidelines watching the parade.
Part of Lena’s standard duty, outside of cleaning the private rooms, was to make sure the guests were properly satisfied in the parlor. This meant their glasses were kept full and their accommodations comfortable. I’d only done this once before when Lena was called to other pressing matters. I was not as experienced as she. Thus, when Frau Franke called for me shortly before the end of my shift, I had reason to be nervous.
“Fräulein Kühn!” My name rolled quickly off her sharp tongue.
“Yes, Frau Franke?” I hustled down the hallway the moment she called me.
“Lena is detained. I will need you to stay later tonight and see to our guests and”—she wrinkled her nose at my dirty apron—“do not confuse the Pfannkuchen with the Streusselschnecken this time!” She handed me a bright blue apron much nicer than my normal one and insisted I change immediately. It seemed obvious it wasn’t a request and more of a demand.
I swiftly walked into the parlor with a crystal decanter in one hand and a platter of sweet pastries in the other. The men, deep in discussion, didn’t even know I’d entered.
“Herr Franke, the man was an enemy of the state. His property has been confiscated and all his financial accounts seized. If his family comes to you about the body, you are to deny he was ever brought here.”
“More Schnapps, sir?” I held the glass vessel towards the highest- ranking officer’s direction. Spotting their classification insignia was a trick Lena taught me early on. The man continued to talk, then paused as he peered up at me. His face went completely still.
“May I refill your glass, sir?” I asked again, although his stare was a bit unnerving. I was sure it had to do with the color of my skin. I braced for his reaction.
He turned to Herr Franke, still silent, yet pointed to me. I half expected him to humiliate me or demand me to leave. I stood there patiently. I was afraid if I walked out it would be considered rude, and I could get fired.
“Herr Mielke, is there a problem?” Herr Franke noticed his guest’s unusual behavior as well.
“She . . she is your maid?” he stuttered then turned to his colleague and whispered.
“Is there an issue, sir?” Herr Franke leaned forward.
“You don’t see it, Koen? Markus?”
“See what?” Herr Franke stared hard in my direction, his forehead wrinkled, confused. I felt uncomfortable as each of the three men scrutinized me from top to bottom.
“The uncanny resemblance this fräulein has to Fräulein Grist.” The man referred to as Mielke stood up and walked around me as he viewed my backside. I donned a work dress that showed no skin other than my arms and legs, yet I felt exposed.
“Yes, I believe you’re right!” the other guest, referred to as Markus, spoke up.
“Reri Grist? The opera singer?” Herr Franke said. It was apparent he was surprised at this sudden interruption in their business.
“Her color is lighter, but look at these cheekbones” —he pointed to my face— “and the figure.” His smile went wide as he continued, “They could almost be sisters.” He spoke of me as if I was a mannequin in a shop window and couldn’t hear or feel. It was humiliating. I didn’t know who this Grist woman was, but I was real and wanted to leave.
“I suppose there is a similarity,” Herr Franke sounded annoyed, “but let’s get back to the business at hand, shall we?”
The man was still astonished by his discovery. He couldn’t pull his eyes away.
“Fräulein Kühn, take your leave, please.” I’d never been so thankful for any words out of Herr Franke’s mouth before.
Once back in the kitchen, I grabbed a cool cloth and wiped my face. I remembered now why I hated serving the first time too. It wasn’t like cleaning and attending the Franke family; there was a more shameful exploit behind the assistance to their guests. It definitely felt more like bondage than service, and while I disliked both, one outweighed the other in significance.
“Are you OK, Ella?” Lena appeared.
“I guess.” I put the cloth down and refilled the flask with more alcohol.
“You look upset. Did something happen?” Lena added Buletten to the tray and placed a small dish of white sauce next to the meatballs. She was much better at this than I was.
“How come you aren’t serving today?” I tried not to sound jealous of her time away.
“I was needed in the mortuary,” she said nearly mumbling.
“What do you mean, mortuary,” I responded with surprise. “I didn’t know we were allowed in there?”
She brushed it aside and smiled. “Would you like me to finish this for you?” She grabbed the tray gracefully with one hand, the drink with the other.
“Yes!” I jumped at the opportunity. “I think this Herr Mielke is distracted by my resemblance to some famous opera singer.” I halfheartedly laughed but was still bothered by the whole thing.
Lena paused, her mouth curved into a frown. “Did you say Mielke?” She stared at me intently.
Lines between my eyebrows formed quickly. I was sure that’s what Herr Franke called him. “Yes, I believe it’s him.”
“—An older man in his fifties with a high forehead and slit-like eyes?”
Lena placed the tray down before she lost her balance. I studied her curiously. Her radiant skin suddenly hovered between pale and white.
“Are you OK?” The tables had turned.
“Yes—” her response was shaky, as if she were lying.
“I can do it, Lena.” I reached for the tray. Her mind was elsewhere when I slipped past her with the delicacies and grabbed the glass decanter.
She never protested.
When I entered the second time, I never regarded the guests directly like I did the first time. I could still feel his stare as I moved around the room.
“Once we have the mines, gravel, and tank traps in place, not one soul will leave Berlin from this time forth,” Mielke demanded, “—and if they do, we will have plenty of business for you, Koen. It’s time we made a statement about what we are willing to allow.”
I was able to keep a straight face while I worked but was very anxious to get out of the room once again. I knew they referred to the wall. The talk of a second wall parallel to the first had already begun. Their intent was to create a death strip, an impossible space of land where escape could never happen.
Suddenly, there was pounding on the front door. It was quite loud, alarming everyone in the house. I rushed to open it. Two Volkspolizisten appeared and inquired about Mielke and Wolf. The officers were nearly out of breath as I led them to the parlor.
“May I get you a drink?” I asked them, more out of a curiosity to hear their seemingly urgent news than kindness.
“Yes, please! Whatever you have.” I went to the bar and began to fill the two new glasses. The men appeared fatigued from their rush and struggled to catch their breath before they spoke.
“Herr Mielke! My apologies, sir, . . . we have a situation.” The officer looked to Herr Franke then back to Mielke.
“It’s OK, son, you can speak freely here.”
“There’s a standoff!”
“What do you mean a standoff?”
“The people’s police refused to allow a United States diplomat access into East Germany—” the young man inhaled sharply, “—the Americans responded by bringing their M48 tanks to Checkpoint C.”
Mielke and Wolf stood up, anger raging in their faces. My hands shook slightly with their sudden cursing. I wasn’t sure if this was a good time to give the officers their drinks. I stood very still with my back to them. They might not have even noticed I was present.
“How far are the tanks from the checkpoint, and are they in motion?”
“Approximately 75 metres, sir, and currently they are immobile, but their engines are on.” The officer shifted uncomfortably.
Mielke’s face crinkled with fury. “Those beschissene Amis—”
“That’s not all, sir.” The young man waited until Mielke faced him once again. “Khrushchev has already responded. He wants an equal number of T55s at the border immediately.”
“Coat!” Mielke cried. I ran to the closet and pulled out the men’s coats and hats then quickly held them forward. Snatching them, they still cursed under their breath and in a matter of seconds everyone was gone, including Herr Franke.
Trying to wrap my head around what just happened, I rushed to the kitchen, desperate to tell someone, but found it dark and silent. Where was Lena? Had she left for the night or only for the moment?
I felt anxious, unsure if this “standoff” was the beginning of another skirmish—a war—or simply a show of power? I feared the idea of more death. Berlin had not even recovered from the last time. We were unstable and weak, and if the allies moved against us, there could be more civilian catastrophes than military destruction. Yet, a part of me felt a sudden thrill at the prospect that maybe the Americans or their British and French Allies could somehow blast through the disgraceful wall with those tanks and set us free.