Chapter 14: ALLES GUTE ZUM GEBURTSTAG
“Lena!” I called for her to sit by me at lunch. I was anxious to rekindle the vague conversation we had about Herr Mielke when he was here, weeks ago. In passing, I recently mentioned his name to Mama G and got a similar reaction. “Master of Death,” she repeated over and over, “an evil, evil man”. I didn’t push for a more extensive answer but wondered why it had affected Lena personally.
I diced and dressed a small potato then smothered it in a thick, brown gravy. Having a decent wage never smelled so good. I reached for a second plate, anxious to turn my ear away from the growing staff gossip. The recent detainment and trial of Adolf Eichmann was all anyone had spoken of the last three days. While I had no sympathy for the man who was accused of an unknown number of innocent deaths, the detailed brutalities made me physically nauseous.
“Here you go.” I set the plate down for Lena as she removed her apron and placed it on a nearby hook. Her presence was refreshing.
“Good morning, Ella, thank you,” she said joyfully. “I guess good afternoon, actually,” she corrected herself then laughed in her usual way.
“You seem to be happy about something,” I inquired with a smile.
“I am in love, Ella, dear . . . and love makes everyone happy.” She giggled, and her eyes radiated. I couldn’t wait until I felt that way about someone.
“Oh, Lena,” —I remembered I was going to ask her about
Mielke— “you never told me why the name Mielke bothered you so much the night he was here,” I whispered, well out of the other staff’s earshot. Her face dropped a little as she pulled a stool right up next to me, apparently not in any rush to answer.
“You know, Ella,” —she carefully unwrapped her homemade
Currywurst and arranged it on the plate I provided— “Christoph’s friend
Rainer asked about you last night. He visited Christoph after work.”
How could he possibly be interested? I wondered. It had only been two days, and I barely spoke to him the night I went out with Lena! I eyed her quizzically. Either she did not hear me, or she deliberately ignored the subject of Mielke.
“He seems to be quite taken by you since the café.”
“He was intrigued by your shyness. Ha-ha your shyness, Ella!” She chuckled. “He didn’t realize you aren’t shy, just unsocial, but we really know what he’s most attracted to.”
“Lena!” I grew irritated at her avoidance. She scrutinized me directly. Even though I could hear her voice, low and unwavering, her face seemed to remain completely still.
“We do not talk about such things here, Ella,” she snapped. She surveyed the other staff. “It’s too risky. Don’t ever do it again!”
I was stunned to silence—shocked at what just happened—and spent the rest of the lunch break stewing with frustration. I knew she was right. It just stung coming from her. We lived in a world where you could barely trust your own family and friends. Particularly here, in the Frankes’ home, you never knew what malicious plans were being industrialized and who was behind them. People like Mielke, who at the very sound of his name, sent shivers up the spine of many.
Maybe I was never part of any “side” prior to my employment here, but I wasn’t entirely against the idea of a revolution either, especially as I continued to watch people like the Frankes benefit from the dirty dealings of a corrupt government. Leaders like Ulbricht, Wolfe, and Mielke, all men who dominate through terror and lies, and the good people of Berlin wondering if they would make it from one day to the next, not only economically but with their very lives.
As I worked through the afternoon without another word to anyone, my mind was on overdrive. Questions continually bombarded my brain in the quietness of each room.
Why was the Frankes’ mortuary so lucrative when many other businesses failed? Why did they seem to have an adequate supply of dead bodies delivered secretly each week? Why are we restricted from the mortuary, except for Lena? Why do the state police come every Tuesday evening after we leave? Why would someone as powerful as Herr Mielke be doing business in the Frankes’ home?
I, obviously, had no answers to those questions, and the later the day grew, the more ridiculous the questions got. Why is there a pot of common hop in the kitchen? Why do they have a signed and framed photograph of Eddie and Alice Kessler in the library? Why do Katharina’s shoes always match the dress she wears? Do the Frankes really love their children? I never saw any affection in the home; never with the adults and never expressed to the children. Even though I was devoid parental affections myself most of my young life, I knew without a doubt when someone really cared for me.
“Ella!” Katharina’s cry wailed from the hallway. It almost frightened me. “Ella!” she repeated until spotting me in the parlor where I dusted a lamp in the corner. “Ella! I’m glad I found you!” she gasped, nearly out of breath. “I need your help, Ella.”
I immediately placed the duster down and went to her. My eyes widened at the thought of something tragic.
“Katharina, calm down and catch your breath. What happened?”
“I was—” She sighed deeply. “—I was studying my Latin in the library when all of a sudden, . . .” she paused.
My eyes amplified.
“ . . . the most offending thing . . . ,” her voice constricted.
She sniffled. “I realized I forgot to get my mother a birthday present.”
I stopped breathing. I would have rolled my eyes in disgust if it weren’t for the genuine tears that rolled hastily down her perfect cheeks. Of course, the most dreadful thing she has ever faced was the fact that she forgot her mother’s birthday.
“The party is at 7 o’clock, and I’m three hours away from being the cruelest daughter a person could ever have.” Her dramatics were not a show. She truly believed this childish mistake would put her on the naughty list for life.
I grabbed the simple linen in my pocket and handed it to her. She grinned sheepishly. “You must think I’m a silly girl.” I didn’t say anything. Of all the people in this home, she had the most caring heart of all. Naturally, this was devastating to her.
“What can I do to help?” I asked hesitantly. I had no money. No gift myself. What could I do to remedy the situation?
“Well, I was thinking—” She blew her nose. “—Stefan mentioned the one day in the library that you were selling a painting. Do you paint, Ella?”
“Oh, . . . no . . . no . . . I—” I jumped up from the loveseat and slowly backed up. “—I dabble. It’s nothing like the grand paintings you have here!”
“But that’s just it, Ella. It’s nothing my mom has ever had.”
“Ha,” I laughed. It was definitely something she didn’t have, because it was worth nothing.
“Please, Ella, I’m desperate.”
“Yes, you are.” I chuckled to myself.
“Please, Ella, will you help me?”
“Katharina, I don’t have anything here. I don’t have any supplies—
“Oh, it’s not a problem, we have an art room.”
“You have an art room . . . here?” I knew there were rooms I hadn’t seen, but a whole room dedicated to art?
“Yes, I will show you.” She grabbed my hand and led me to a second-floor room near the back. She was a kid in a candy store, dancing around the room and pulling open cupboards and drawers full of brushes and paints. Every kind of tool an artist would be delighted with—colors I didn’t even know existed. I was in shock, so much so I couldn’t even move.
“It’s OK to touch, Ella,” Katharina assured me.
My face lit up as I scanned the room. “Who does this belong to?” I asked, my hand brushing over the nearly untouched supplies.
“It’s Stefan’s.” My hand recoiled, and I stepped backwards as she shrugged. “But he stopped painting years ago. It just sits here.”
“I can’t. I’m sorry, Katharina.” I wanted to help, but it felt wrong. Being here in this room—touching, wanting—everything about this idea seemed wrong.
“You must, Ella. Please.” Katharina’s face fell. She had been nothing but kind to me since I arrived.
Indecisively, I bit my lip.
“Please?” she begged.
“Do you have chalk?” I surrendered to her pleas. She smiled widely and pulled open a small cabinet. It contained rows and rows of brand new chalk. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
“What about work?” I hadn’t completed my duties yet. With the party only a short time away, I knew I would be missed.
“I will take care of work! I’ll be back in an hour!” And she was gone.
I sighed. What I would give to have this room. How could it be so misused? I located a small stack of boards in one corner and found a plain white canvas, no bigger than a tile square. Despite my inexperience with this type of background, I knew this meant a lot to Katharina. It needed to look special.
The only thing I knew how to draw exceptionally was my butterflies. What would I do for Frau Inga Franke though? I walked around the small room as I searched for inspiration. Within minutes, I stumbled upon a magnificent picture. A lush green hill was surrounded by an enchanting village. The thickness of the grove of trees made the houses nearly invisible, but it was the imperious medieval castle painted at the crest that demanded the most attention.
The details were staggering. From the jagged rocks, to the stillness of the water under the enchanting bridge, to the wisps of clouds in the sky, it nearly took my breath away. I wondered if it really existed. The only way this artist could have been so particular was to have painted it in person. It was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. I glanced down in the corner. The initials SF ’59 were signed with a deep red.
My face flushed. No one was around, but I was embarrassed to find something Stefan touched so appealing. How could someone like him have created something this moving? I put the picture back against the wall and chose my colors.
Frau Franke was a commanding figure. Her butterfly would be crimson and gold. It would be a reflection of how she liked the finer things in life. I would also add a small streak of mysterious orange, because I believed there was a side of her I did not see or know.
I sat near the window. My thumb rubbed against the clean white fabric supported by a single flat board on the back. The texture was unusual. Will I still be able to show precision in my lines? I hadn’t drawn anything since my front room wall. I wanted to help Katharina, but I had a lot of doubt. Then, as my thoughts turned to Anton and the orphanage, I was reminded of the only times I ever felt free enough to express myself without judgment.
“Here, Ella.” Anton handed me a small piece of charcoal. It was his turn to load the bucket, and in doing so, he swiped a small piece that had broken off and slipped it into his pocket. His white shirt and pants were covered in soot.
“Thank you, Anton!” I squealed with delight. I used up the last one he got me a week ago. I hadn’t been able to draw since.
“Can you draw me a dragon? Like the one in the storybook?” Anton smeared some of the soot across his face as he rubbed his nose. I peered at him and laughed. He always made me laugh.
“I can, but I’m not sure I’ll be very good at those. Let’s go try it out.” I grabbed Anton’s hand. I never cared if he was dirty or smelly or anything, and he felt the same way about me. We waited until Nurse Gitta was no longer in the hallway and slipped out the back doors to the large concrete stairs. This was my canvas. The rain had washed away most all I’d done in the weeks prior, so the dry ground was ready for a new set of sketches.
“I’m going to try to draw a butterfly, Anton.”
“Why a butterfly?”
“Because I saw it in the book, the one that shows pictures from all around the world.”
“Sounds good!” Anton settled in under the warm sun with his back against the broken railing. He watched as I got down on all fours and started to draw from memory. A thin worm-like body with two flowing wings.
“Ella, why does Nurse Gitta call you Adela?”
“Because that’s my name.” I didn’t bother to look up as I continued to draw.
“No, your name is Ella,” he insisted as he sat forward and inspected my work.
“It’s both, but I like Ella. They say Adela when they’re mad. I don’t like it.” I drew the sun shining as brightly as possible with a black piece of coal.
“What is your family name?” Anton asked. We became fast friends, but there were still many questions he hadn’t asked in those first two years.
“I don’t have one.” I drew a flower.
“Don’t have one? Everyone has a family name.”
“Nope.” I didn’t even look up. “Maybe someday if I get adopted.”
“You want to get adopted?”
“Don’t you?” I stopped and stared at Anton’s face.
“No.” His jaw grew rigid. “I don’t need a family.”
“We can be a family, Anton.” I put my hand out for him to shake.
I’d seen people do this when they made an arrangement.
Anton studied my hand then smiled. “OK, and maybe someday you can sell paintings for Mark.”
I giggled. “Maybe.”
“Then we can have a haus and food . . . and a dog. I would like a dog.”
I stopped drawing and smiled at Anton. “I like your idea very much.”
“Ella?” Katharina’s sweet hand was on my shoulder. I had finished the artwork nearly fifteen minutes ago but sat motionless as I savored the happy memory.
“Ella, this is the most beautiful butterfly I’ve ever seen!” She clapped her hands together and cried happily with joy. “Thank you, oh thank you so much, Ella!”
“Please . . .” I whispered, “Please, don’t tell anyone I’m the one who drew it.”
“Why not?” She picked the canvas up and inspected it closely.
“Please?” I asked again, “And the chalk can smudge if it’s touched, be careful.”
“Oh, not to worry.” Katharina retrieved an aerosol can from a nearby cupboard. “Here, this will make it permanent. I saw Stefan use this once.” She handed me the can. I pressed the button and a liquid spray spewed out. I dropped the can.
“It’s OK, Ella. It won’t ruin the picture; it’s meant to protect it.” Katharina chuckled at my ignorance. I picked up the can and pressed again. It did appear to seal the picture through a small plume of smelly smoke.
Katharina held it up in admiration one more time. “And I won’t tell anyone if you don’t want me to.”
“Thank you.” I crossed the room and opened the cupboard to replace the aerosol can where Katharina had found it. A stack of records lay piled on the shelf next to a beautiful phonograph. My heart skipped a beat. I had never seen so many albums in one place. I glanced at my hands; color covered up to the wrists. My eyes darted back and forth. Despite the mess I would create if I touched them, my mind lured in curiosity. Could it be there?
“Ella?” I’d forgotten I wasn’t alone. “Ella, are you well?”
I stumbled and closed the door. “Yes . . . yes, I’m fine.” I excused myself to the washroom.
As I rubbed my hands under the warm water and lathered soap, I contemplated how I would get back to the art room undetected. The record had to be here, “La Vie En Rose” was a popular tune for many years. Miss Piaf had become famous with the Germans when she performed for them in occupied France. Her music was cherished by all.
Katharina was waiting for me when I stepped out. Her smile never ceased as she wrapped her arm through mine and led me down the stairs. I smiled back. When I was with her, I faintly remembered what it felt like to be with someone who truly cared.
It was nearing 6 o’clock, and the preparations were in full swing as I slipped back into the staff room. I quickly changed to my serving apron and stepped into the kitchen to join Lena, Heidi, Eva, and Johann. We hadn’t spoken since lunch, yet it was evident Lena had noticed my absence.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered as we passed. That was all she said on the earlier matter.
As the evening’s guests arrived, decked out in their finest dress, we kept a steady stream of gourmet foods flowing between the dining room, parlors, and the kitchen. Ham Hock, Pork Sausage, Sauerkraut,
Beamtenstippe, and tray after tray of Pfannkuchen, upon an endless supply of wine, beer, and homemade Obstler.
“Alles Gute zum Geburtstag!” Happy birthday wishes were nonstop through the evening. All present for the festivities seemed to celebrate instead of plot. I didn’t see Herr Mielke or anyone else who had been to the house in uniform. It was a joyous occasion, and the small staff worked very hard to make it a successful one as well.
It wasn’t until nearly 9 o’clock when the attention was finally turned to gifts. I wasn’t even nearby when Katharina presented her mother with the artwork. Yet, when I re-entered the room, I could sense something had changed, a shift in the mood. Despite the cheers, there was one expression that could have set even the red and gold wings on fire. Stefan stewed in the background. I carefully meandered everywhere but near his corner of the room. I knew he would recognize my design. I just hoped he wouldn’t destroy Katharina’s good intentions.
I took my empty tray to the kitchen. As I pulled more Eisbein from the oven, a shadowy figure entered behind me. It didn’t matter that Lena and Johann were nearby, he started towards me anyway.
“Where is your reason?” I recognized the sour voice immediately. I kept working despite the now completely-silenced staff members in the room.
“Answer me, fräulein.” Stefan stepped in between me and the tray I attempted to fill. I looked directly at him. I thought of the times in the orphanage I had to stand up for myself, and this was no exception. As I peered closer, I could see he was not his sober self. His shady blue eyes were surrounded by hints of red, and his movements were loose and uncoordinated. Any earlier trepidation I had over being alone with Stefan seemed to disappear. He was just a sad, miserable piece of a man.
“Katharina asked me to. It was for her.”
“Katharina is foolish,” he slurred the words. I failed to see what many women found attractive. He was a spoiled rotten child who spewed nothing but insults and, obviously, couldn’t hold his liquor either.
“I need to work.” I moved around him and continued. Stefan pushed the tray out of my reach. My jaw went rigid. I contemplated the consequences and knew I couldn’t handle this like I had in the past. Too much was at stake here.
“What do you need, . . . sir?” I fired back at him, barely able to enunciate “sir” without a jeer. He was slow to react but didn’t hide his surprise. It could be that the only times someone had ever stood up to him were the times I pushed back.
“What makes you think my mother would want one of your . . .
‘paintings’ when she is privy to any of mine?”
Lena and Johann continued to watch the show. Neither one moved a muscle.
“Indeed?” I got close to Stefan’s face. I could feel him exhale. My nose wrinkled from the smell. “When was the last time you even picked up a tool, Michelangelo?” Again, he didn’t move, but it was apparent he was startled at my boldness.
“None of your business, untere Schicht.” He insulted me as he steadied himself against the counter. “I trained in Dresden, where did you train? Treptow?”
My face felt flush. I knew he didn’t know I lived there, but everyone knew Treptow was the poorer part of town. He was relentless, a first-class fraud.
“Always a gentleman, Herr Franke.” I curtsied sarcastically. “Out of my way, I have to return to work!”
I grabbed the decanter out of Johann’s hands and rushed into the parlor. Tears had started to form at the corners of my eyes, and I immediately brushed them back. There was no way I was going to continue to let Stefan tear me down. He was nobody.
Instantly, I was embraced by Katharina. “Oh, Ella! She loved it!
She loved the colors and the whole thing! You are such a good friend.
Thank you, thank you!”
She still had her arms around me when her brother entered and slithered back to his chair. We carefully avoided each other the rest of the night. Once again, I hoped it was the last interaction I ever needed to have with him. Although, back in the kitchen, Lena seemed quite determined in attaining some answers to what she witnessed.
“Ella,” she whispered, when we were alone, “what was that about?”
I spoke softly, as gently as I could, with anger still fresh on my tongue, “Remember how you said earlier some things just need to be left alone?”
Lena nodded, sensing where this was headed.
“This is one of those things.”