Chapter 16: FASCHING
It was now late February 1962. I had only been in service to the family 172 days now. Time seemed to pass quite sluggishly, especially during this particularly harsh winter when one could not tolerate any amount of time outdoors. For several weeks, we spent limitless hours toiling inside in full preparation of the Frankes’ annual masquerade. They spared no expense to make their Fasching dinner the most festive occasion in Pankow. Despite the name, the event had less to do with the traditional Catholic observance of Lent and more to do with an excuse to host a very lavish costume party. Although carnival officially commenced on November 11th every year, the Frankes’ event coincided with the unrestrained precursor to the deprivation of carnal joys associated with Lent . . . it was to be a night of errant merriment and indulgence.
In the Waisenhaus, we were taught the meaning of Lent because Nurse Margret practiced Catholicism. She explained it to be a sacred time where one would abstain from a worldly desire . . . whatever that meant. We never truly participated in the Fasching celebration, except when the nurses helped us make silly costumes out of linens to parade in the fall or random times throughout the long months of festivity leading up to “Ash Wednesday”. This was the day Nurse Margret wore a coal mark on her forehead all day. It was one of the few memories I tried not to forget because it was one of the rare times Nurse Margret didn’t show displeasure towards us.
From the decorations to the presentation, this was something I had never imagined in my lifetime. It made the birthday party for Frau Franke look like a simple gathering. The dining room itself had been transformed into an abundant garden beyond anything I had seen, even outdoors.
The greenweed we had twisted into thick vines dangled from each doorway towards the center of the room like a Mayday pole. The bright yellow and purple blossoms aromatized the air, while the silver and gold strands that accented the braid nearly glowed as each new candelabra was lit. New vases overflowed with crimson rhododendrons, while four life-size marble sculptures resembling Greek Gods were arranged in the corners.
“Each statue represents a person in the Franke family,” Lena whispered as she folded the linen napkins. “Can you guess which ones?”
“This must be Herr Franke,” I laughed as I brushed my hand across the large thunderbolt that extended from the King of the God’s right hand. Koen was the patriarch of the family, but unlike Zeus, he had an impractical belief he really was in charge. The next closest statue donned a warrior helmet, but contradictory feminine robes flowed leisurely about the sparsely covered body to which a razor-sharp spear extended. I instantly recognized the goddess Athena who represented wisdom and war. Yes, this was Frau Franke’s symbolic deity. I stared at the marble eyes carved with realistic intensity.
“She looks like her, doesn’t she?” Lena interrupted me.
I shrugged, “A little, I suppose.” It was more than a little. I glanced to the opposite side and saw a petite figure sitting casually atop a boulder. Her figure, in perfect proportions, was covered only from the waist down.
Long, curly hair fell across her bare back. Katharina was eternalized as Aphrodite. I smiled, She will probably be annoyed when she sees this, humility being one of her most beautiful features.
The final figure; a perfectly-chiseled, muscular build below two heads. My face twisted in confusion.
“Janus.” Lena grinned with eagerness that she knew something I did not.
“I’m not familiar with that one.”
“Most people aren’t. My aunt studied in Athens.” She placed one hand on each head. “He is the God of choice.”
“This was selected for Stefan?” My scorn was evident. “Maybe Hades or Dionysus,” I giggled as my fingers cupped around an imaginary drinking glass.
“Janus has the ability to see into the future and the past. Thus, the two heads.” She resumed her preparations.
“Well there’s no doubt he’s two-headed—” I almost cackled, “— but it should be connected to the body of a snake, not a God.”
Lena threw me a disappointed look. “He may be selfish, but he’s not conniving.”
Again, my thoughts reiterated her ignorance on our past as I finished placing the silver next to each plate.
“Who sent the statues?”
“Frau Franke’s father in the Soviet Union.”
“He must know something we don’t.” My eyes flashed one last time towards the boyish, almost desirable, countenance.
“Interestingly enough, Ella, Janus is actually a Roman God who is believed to have saved the kidnapped Sabine women from Romulus, the founder of Rome.”
I remained silent. There seemed to be no logical association between Janus and Stefan. This one was a real myth.
Lena clapped her hands together and pulled me back to reality.
“Look at this place, Ella, isn’t it divine?”
“Yes.” I inhaled the aroma deeply. Now that was something we could agree on. We quickly changed to our serving aprons and joined the other servants. Everything was ready.
Due to the nature of this particular party, the family guest list contained the highest tier of power in Berlin. Knowing this, the possibility of invitees could be anyone from Herr Mielke, Herr Grotewohl, Wolf, SED party members, or Soviet leadership. Even Ulbricht himself could be in attendance. The very thought of such power present created an unspoken angst among the staff.
Thirty privately-chosen guests were issued invitations. Each time the door opened, whispers circulated. Costumes ranged from simple clay masks and capes, to grand illusions immersed in vibrant colored feathers, beads, or fur. They undeniably surpassed my expectations. Everything from childhood storybook characters, to royalty and knights—even demons from the darkest parts of a dream. I easily controlled my mouth from reacting, but my eyes were dancing with delight as if they had entered a confectionary shop for the very first time. Even if the most powerful men from the DDR were present, we could not recognize them.
As the only “youth” invited, Katharina and Stefan were present as well. Katharina was easy to identify since she showed me her
Rotkäppchen costume a week ago. Everything she wore resembled Red Riding Hood, from the red satin-hooded cape to a ruby-glittered mask and striped stockings. This matched her personality exactly as she sailed around the room and socialized effortlessly with the elite.
Somehow, I imagined Stefan to be the big bad wolf from the same childhood tale, but he was not. He wore a well-tailored, plain, black suit, bow tie, and sported a dark mask that only covered the top half of his face. He was easy to distinguish, partly due to his lack of creativity, but mostly because one can’t hide a stone-cold temperament, even behind a mask.
Throughout the night, I went out of my way to avoid Stefan. Even when I served near him, there was no eye contact. I refused to repeat my run-in with him the last time I’d seen him in December at his mother’s birthday party. In fact, two months had passed quite blissfully without any contact at all. He may have been on holiday, possibly even skiing across the border. Either way, it didn’t matter to me.
Everyone seemed to be in a joyous mood for the event, and the cheerfulness of the evening seemed to sway the content of the conversation. There was very little talk of the wall, politics, or death.
Laughter and revelry filled the air as course upon course was presented.
Plates were filled to capacity with superior meats, glazes, and delicacies. The highlights being white sausage smothered in Weisswürste, a sweet mustard from Bavaria, Sauerbraten roast marinated in red wine vinegar topped with juniper berries, and although there was an abundant pastry tray, each patron received a Knieküchle pie filled with marmalade, chocolate, or custard with their meal. Glasses and goblets overflowed with specialty fruit liqueurs, brandy, and Austrian wines.
The irony was tremendous. Even as we cleared the china, there were enough leftovers to feed many families. Right outside the Frankes’ front door, homeless and hungry children cried, their stomachs empty for days. Yet these men tossed more food to their dogs than to the people. I tried hard not to let it bother me. I had a duty to do and only 558 more days to do it.
We took shifts in the rooms. When it was my turn to wait on the guests in the main parlor, I stood very still, my back pressed against the wall until I was summoned to fill another wine glass. I did what I was told because the money was too good to resist. The twenty Deutche Mark I earned tonight, serving for the party, would be a week’s worth of wage with nothing owed. Thus, in a subtle twisted way, I contributed to the senselessness, because I chose to be part of it too.
Lena joined me momentarily and handed me another two bottles of wine. They would not be the last. In front of us, one masked man pulled a woman dressed like a ballerina onto his lap and tickled her. She pretended to be offended, but her laugh told me otherwise. I fought to keep my face from reacting, but it was too difficult.
“Ella,” Lena moved closer and whispered, “you need to keep your eyes still, they appear annoyed.”
“The guests are acting childish.”
She snickered, “I know, just try to ignore it.”
“Fräulein, come.” A man in the center of the room waved his hand towards us. His dark robe shrouded the bird mask he wore. It was difficult to know if it was him who spoke. The razor-sharp beak pointed our direction, but we could not see his lips. I recognized him as the man at dinner who demanded the greatest attention. He had very little tolerance for others, which did not impress me.
“Fräulein,” he repeated. I was sure he referred to Lena, but when she stepped into another room, he said it again, only louder.
Pretending not to hear him, I curtsied to two guests as they entered the room, please just leave me alone and let me serve, there was something unnerving about the birdman’s tone. The clock chimed loudly from the nearby mantle and I peeked its way. Two hours to go.
“Fräulein . . .”
I was conflicted. Should I continue to ignore him and chance the Frankes’ wrath for being rude to one of their guests or betray myself through obedience?
The blazing yellow eyes of his façade stared my direction. I looked down. Just then, a woman in a very revealing costume approached him, drawing his attention immediately away. With a sigh of relief, I took advantage of the moment and moved towards a group of guests near the furthest windows. I pretended they summoned me, although they did not. Thankfully, they did not refuse my willingness to refill their glasses, either.
Despite putting myself in a closer proximity to Stefan, I remained near that end of the room. I glanced about; he continued to seem out of sort—quiet, almost reserved—watching the group as they played cards and socialized. I briefly allowed my thoughts to wander. This event was perfectly aligned with Stefan’s shallow ways, but I didn’t see him tilt a drink at any time through the night or follow his traditional path of flirting with all the women. Granted, I avoided watching him directly, but from my view, it was impossible not to see this contrast.
Katharina had excused herself nearly an hour ago. She went out of her way to say goodnight to me before she left. While her demeanor always remained pleasant, she confided in me once that nights like this were more out of respect for her father than personal amusement.
As the night wore on, the conversation swayed between the Eichmann trial, World Cup matches, and the Grand Prix, which several men boasted quite vocally of their vested interest in. Talk of V8 engines and rear suspension grew exhausting.
“Colonel Anker?” Herr Franke called from across the room. The mask of the man who summoned me earlier turned in his direction.
However, no words were spoken.
Herr Franke hastily shortened the distance between them. Perhaps it was because the strange man’s gaze didn’t fall immediately upon me that I was inexplicably drawn their way, or possibly the unease I sensed.
Either way, there was something peculiar about him.
Herr Franke continued, “I understand you were recently promoted within the ministry.”
The man’s chest seemed to swell slightly from this adulation but again no response.
“We are indeed honored to have you in our home,” Herr Franke continued. The man he referred to as Colonel Anker grabbed a long cigar off the nearby table and lit it. The match remained lit in his fingers. It was an odd exchange. Herr Franke lifted his own mask and blew out the match. Who is this man exhibiting such power over the host? Colonel Anker? I thought to myself. I hadn’t recalled hearing his name before.
As the man sank to the nearest lounge chair, he finally removed his hood and beak. I gasped and turned quickly. I did not want him to catch me looking. A long, jagged scar crept down the entire right side of his nearly bald head. It was ghastly. I deliberately motioned towards the first guest sitting near me.
“Would you like a drink?”
It was too late to stop myself. Stefan sat before me. My hand shook the bottle. I grabbed it with the other hand so he couldn’t see me trembling. I pretended my intrusion into his undisturbed stupor was intentional.
He glared but said nothing—his black mask encircled his deep blue eyes. They were clouded but not the way they appeared before, when he was drunk. They seemed pained. I was immobile.
“Fräulein,” the Colonel interfered.
I didn’t move.
“Fräulein, fill my glass.” He had found a way to force a response. I pulled my eyes away from Stefan and turned. Even from my distance, I could see the Colonel’s glass was already full.
“Come, now.” His face now completely exposed, all I could see was the scar. His fingers gripped the cigar tightly as he inhaled long. Herr
Franke was no longer in the room. I walked toward him slowly and stopped several feet away. The Colonel blew his smoke my direction, and I struggled to conceal my cough.
“Fill the glass, girl.” The Colonel motioned me closer.
I stepped next to him but did not tip the bottle. The Frankes’ white carpet didn’t need a permanent red reminder of the night. Herr Anker set his cigar on the table beside him. His jaw tightened.
“Your glass is full, sir.” I pointed out what was apparently only obvious to me.
He held his glass in one hand while his free hand openly slid underneath the hem of my dress. It was now clear he used my proximity for another purpose. I bit my lip and froze. The Colonel took a large gulp of his drink. He didn’t look at me or stop what he was doing.
All present, within a fair amount of distance, could see what was happening. Nobody said or did anything. Even the woman he accompanied reveled in her own mischief with another guest only a few feet away. I was to be the Colonel’s sole entertainment.
I took a deep breath and started to move. His hand caught a fistful of material. He pulled me reluctantly closer, his face now eye level to my chest. He openly salivated as he slurred with guile, “I think I am ready for dessert.”
My heart beat faster. As close as he was, I feared he could hear it and would know I was terrified. I turned my face in a desperate attempt to locate Lena in the room, but from the side I could see the Colonel’s face tighten, he took offense.
“I told you to fill my glass,” he snapped.
Beads of sweat formed on my forehead. I could barely think. My voice cracked as I stuttered, “Y-yes, sir.” I tried to force space between us as I pulled the decanter forward, but his grip was too tight.
Normally, I wouldn’t hesitate to put someone in their place, but this was not an easy situation. It never crossed my mind tonight that I’d have to make a choice. What was my obligation worth to me?
“Colonel,” a smooth voice sailed across the room. Anker did not take his eyes off me. The unexpected voice continued, “Colonel, didn’t you say you have an extensive art collection?”
This comment intrigued the Colonel. He finally tipped his head to see who was talking.
“What is your favorite piece?” Stefan inquired a somewhat odd question at an awkward moment—or it was just awkward for me with a man’s hand maneuvering under my dress.
The Colonel laughed, “You have an interest in art, young Franke?” The Colonels hand felt heavy on my thigh. I was afraid to move.
My face burned hot with each uncomfortable second.
“I do.” Stefan was calm. “I have a beautiful Renoir in my room if you would like to see it.”
The Colonel’s hand squeezed, and I released a small cry as I jumped. Everyone looked our direction. He laughed and pushed me aside as he stood to his feet.
“Come, Stefan, show me this painting.”
I hurried to the kitchen before the tears started to fall. Lena met me instantly.
Angry at myself, I couldn’t speak.
“Ella, I heard your cry, but by the time I got to your part of the room, you were gone. What happened?”
My fists curled as I paced. How could I allow that awful man to even get as far as he did before . . . Stefan . . . did he really? I didn’t want to imagine the possibility that Stefan deliberately diverted the Colonel’s attention away from me. Stefan doesn’t care about anyone but himself. I’m sure he really did want to gloat about his painting.
I convinced myself Stefan would never come to my rescue, a servant. A servant he hated. Yet, the Colonel’s intentions were clear, and had his attention not been deterred, I could have faced an awful predicament.
I quickly untied my apron and handed it to Lena.
“Ella, what’s wrong?”
My hand flew to my mouth. I wanted to vomit.
“I’m sorry, I don’t feel well.” I grabbed my coat and ran out the door before putting it on. I scrambled to cover up from the bitter winter cold but kept moving until I reached the closest bus stop, jumping on the first coach to get me anywhere away from there.
All I could think about the rest of the night was how I needed to find a way out. I needed to leave this miserable side of the city as soon as possible and get to Anton and Josef. I had waited long enough.