Chapter 19: ORDER OF EFFECTS
When I opened my eyes the next morning, I temporarily forgot where I was until I glanced around the room. An untouched picture was pinned to the wall. While practically everything in this house had been tossed or destroyed, it was a tender mercy that this specific item remained intact. It was one of my earliest memories with the Kühns.
“Do you like butterflies?” I asked the quiet boy who sat very still in the corner. It had been two days since my arrival, and my new brother hadn’t spoken one word to me yet. It was nearly bedtime, and as we waited for Frau Kühn to tuck us in for the night, I sat at the edge of my bed and brushed my doll’s hair. It had been brushed nearly nonstop since I arrived, and not a strand was out of place, but I did it anyway. Josef remained distant, his head hung low with his legs curled tightly up to his chest, only his finger moved, twisting a strand of his hair over and over.
“I like butterflies. Especially the blue ones,” I continued even though the conversation was only with myself. “I think if I could fly, I would fly to the top of a mountain.” I stopped brushing as I imagined seeing the world from that perch. I smiled broadly then whispered, “Imagine being closer to the sky, to feel the sun or touch the stars.” I peered at Josef, his face no longer hidden by his hands, and although he didn’t speak, he seemed to somehow suddenly see what I described. He appeared captivated. “Imagine jumping from cloud to cloud,” I giggled, “or flying over a big ocean.” Josef scooted a step closer as I continued, “I can draw you a picture if you like. I’m still learning, but I will draw whatever you want me to.” I pointed to his toy horse a few feet away.
“Even that horse if you want.”
“Alright children, it’s time for bed now.” Frau Kühn walked in. “What story would you like to hear tonight?” She pointed to the shelf where a handful of story books rested in a pile. I shrugged. I hadn’t ever been asked such a question.
How about Rübezahl?” She picked up a book that showed a large man with a long beard walking on top a mountain. Again, I shrugged my shoulders. I’d never heard of it. She turned to Josef. “Would you like me to read this?” It was a subtle nod, before he scrambled into his bed.
I sighed and climbed into bed as well. My doll, who I’d named Mary, was placed at my side.
As Frau Kühn told the tale of the mountain spirit who kidnapped a princess then turned her turnips into friends, so she would not be lonely, my breath swayed to the pace of the story. It sped with suspense then slowed with relief. I’d never felt this way when Nurse Margret read the Bible. Suddenly, all sorts of images came to mind—my whole world shifted, and that was the very night I fell in love with books.
At the end of the story, Frau Kühn pulled the covers to our chins and kissed us each on the forehead. I had never felt so important. Darkness filled the room when she closed the door behind her, then out of the silence a small voice rose softly, “Will you draw me a horse?”
As I stared at the picture I’d drawn nearly six years ago, I laughed at the skinny legs in comparison to the fat body. It was my first and last attempt at a horse, but Josef loved it so much he never took it down. I stepped out of bed and quietly folded the paper and placed it in my pocket. Although it was still dark, I knew morning was emerging and it was time for me to leave. The door creaked slightly as I stepped into the next room. I made an effort to be as discreet as possible, but when I reached for my sweater that hung over a chair, my foot accidentally tapped the leg.
“Are you leaving?” A startled Fritz sat up from the floor.
“I have to get to work.”
“Yes. I must not change my routine. I’ve never missed a day of work. It will cause suspicion.”
“It will cause death if you get caught.” Klaus joined us from the kitchen. It appeared he had been up for a while. “Simon knew you worked with Christoph’s girl.”
“I must go,” I insisted, although I knew he was right. There was a possibility I was walking into a death trap. If there was the slightest chance Simon turned over Christoph and Lena’s names, I needed to warn her.
“I will return this evening with food. You shouldn’t leave.”
Despite their silence, I could sense their conflict, but it didn’t stop me. I rushed to the Frankes’.
With only a small annoying quiver in my fingers, I went about my regular duties. It wasn’t until there was a loud knock at the door in the early afternoon that my worst fears were realized. Lena led a handful of soldiers to the drawing room, and I panicked, hiding in a doorway near the main hall to watch. As she shuffled towards the kitchen, I called to her quietly.
“Ella, what . . .why are you hiding?” She joined me, confused.
“Who were those men?”
“Soldiers I have never seen before . . . very official. They seemed to be here on business.”
“The Frankes have many soldiers come here on business,” I reasoned. My anxiety was apparent.
“Yes . . . and no.” Lena paused and eyed me carefully. “All the soldiers who visit rarely come unannounced.” I stiffened. She noticed.
“What happened last night?”
“You knew?” I whispered. Lena pushed me further back into the empty room.
“Christoph told me he introduced you to some men . . . men who could help you. What happened?”
“Something went wrong. Christoph’s uncle, Simon, was dragged off and beaten, and the other two are possibly being hunted. You might not be safe either,” I cried.
“Do they know it was you? Is that why they’re here?”
“I don’t know. They never got my last name, but” —my legs went weak as I continued— “Simon knew I was friends with you.”
“But Simon doesn’t know enough to send the soldiers here,” Lena assured. She had only met Simon once.
My mind wandered on the chain of events. Was there any possibility the soldiers visit was random or for a purpose other than me? My hands flew to my face. I couldn’t look Lena in the eyes. It was a mistake to come back here.
“Stay here,” she whispered with strength. “I need to notify Herr
Franke they’re here, but I’ll find a way to stay close and listen.”
The ten minutes before Lena returned were torturous. When random shouting exploded somewhere beyond the door, I entertained the idea of running, that possibly things went badly. It frightened me to think what could be transpiring all because of me.
“Ella, are you still here?” Lena slid into the dark room undetected.
“Yes, I’m here.” Despite the shadows, I hid behind a bookcase.
“What happened? I heard shouting.”
“Oh, Ella.” She reached for my hands. “It’s not good.”
“What?” If a light had been on she would have seen horror cover my face. “Tell me!”
“Herr Franke was immediately handed a notice the moment he appeared in the parlor. No introductions or anything. The officers promptly demanded he comply . . . I was filling glasses at the bar and literally cowered at their words. You can imagine Herr Franke’s response . . . I don’t think he has ever been spoken to that way and in his own home!”
“What did he do?” My trembling voice calmed.
“After he read the contents, he crinkled the paper in his fist and threw it to the ground. Within seconds he was face to face with one young soldier, pressing his finger against his chest screaming how this was an unacceptable intrusion into his personal affairs. He cursed then brought up the many political associations he has, including both Herr Mielke and Herr Wolf. I have never seen his face turn that color of red before, Ella. He was enraged. Even the walls seemed to shake when he spoke. The young soldier was practically quaking in his boots. His apologies could barely be heard above his whimpering as he and his comrades ran from the house. Herr Franke followed him out—even to his automobile.”
“That is good, right?” I watched her face, but even with the limited lighting, I could see her countenance fall. “I read the paper after they left the room, Ella. It was a declaration of arrest.” She sniffled hard, and a tear slipped down her cheek. “It described you.”
“Oh.” The word was barely recognizable.
Lena grabbed my hands as they began to shake. “Ella, I’m scared for you.” Her words came out in a whisper but echoed in my ears. My skin swelled with heat. The room suddenly felt very small and constricting, I needed air. I cracked the door and inhaled sharply as I contemplated the news.
I knew it wasn’t that I was worth the risk Herr Franke would take to defend me. It had to be about his appearance. A man of his caliber could not afford to have menial soldiers question him or his household. I knew it was a humiliation he would not ignore. Although Herr Franke promptly drove the soldiers from his home, I sensed the matter was far from over. Even if I somehow endured his anger towards me or the consequences that will come, the ministry rarely drops a case. It most likely would be pursued without his knowledge or involvement.
Lena moved behind me and wrapped her arms tightly around my shoulders. I sighed heavily. There was little relief. My mind reeled with questions.
I turned back to Lena. “I’m sorry I’ve put you in this position. I should leave.”
“No!” Her response surprised me. “No, Ella, you are safer here.
Besides, maybe the matter really is closed. Maybe the soldiers think
“But it couldn’t have come from Simon.” My mind spun. “It had to come from someone who knew I worked here at the Frankes’ . . . with you . . .”
The room remained silent for several minutes.
“Ella, it’s over now.” Lena tried to sound hopeful.
I nodded then stopped. A terrible thought came to mind. My face turned ashen. I mumbled incoherently.
Lena stared at me. Her eyebrows twisted. “What?”
I grabbed Lena’s hands and spoke louder than before.
“Christoph . . .”
“What about him?” The alarm in Lena’s voice elevated. I turned my head. It was all coming together now. Lena’s muscles went rigid,
“Ella, answer me. What about Christoph?”
“Simon . . .”
“Simon?” Lena’s eyes narrowed. “NO!” Her scream amplified in the small space as she finally realized what I was trying to say, but couldn’t. “He . . . no, Ella . . .”
Lena started to tremble. Her knees buckled under her, and she collapsed to the floor. I dropped with her, my arms cradling her. The sobs caused her body to shake with grief.
“Lena, please, don’t. We don’t know anything yet. Maybe Christoph is OK.” Even as the words left my lips, there was no truth behind them. I was sure Simon gave up his name . . . his own family.
Everyone knew the tactics the Volkspolizei and Stasi used to get names. It was always about more names, and very few people survived to tell about it.
“Lena, please don’t cry, please?” It was hard not to feel the full weight of guilt. I knew this was my fault to begin with.
“Do you . . .” her words became incoherent.
“Lena, I’ll send for Christoph. He will come, you’ll see.” I laid her gently down and ran to the back door. I motioned to one of the young yard boys in the cemetery nearby.
“Please,” I cried, “please come. I need your help.” He followed me back to where I left Lena.
“Will you help me get her to the guest bedroom upstairs?” I pleaded. “Then I need another favor. I’ll pay you.” He agreed.
After he laid Lena on the bed, we were able to get her to tell the boy where Christoph lived.
“Please, boy,” I reiterated, “do not tell anyone where you’re going. Just see if Christoph is there. If he is” —I looked over to Lena’s fragile
form— “tell him to come to Lena immediately.”
“And if he’s not—”
I cut him off. “Just bring us word. Hurry, please.”
I found Johann in the staff room. He, like everyone else, seemed to recognize the heightened anxiety in the home. Thankfully, Frau Franke had left for the day prior to the soldiers’ arrival. If she had been home, she would have turned me over, this much I knew was true. I ignored Johann’s questions and begged for him to cover both mine and Lena’s whereabouts for today. He only accepted when I offered him money.
I returned to Lena, locked the door, and crawled next to her. She hadn’t stopped crying—it was difficult to watch.
The clock on the desk ticked slowly, second by second, confirming that time was dragging agonizingly slower than normal. The wait was excruciating. Lena stopped crying, but her thoughts were elsewhere. She seemed frozen still.
Tears started and stopped at a steady pace with me. I knew this was my fault. If anything happened to Christoph, she would never forgive me.
I wouldn’t forgive me either.
Thirty minutes went by. Johann appeared.
“Ella, Herr Franke is looking for you.” I took a couple deep breaths and then pointed to Lena, who sat on the edge of the bed, rocking slowly with her back towards us.
“I can’t leave her alone right now, Johann.” He stayed in the doorway. He could see she was not herself. “Please, Johann, can you help me? Tell him I had a predicament.”
“He seemed angry.” Johann’s eyes narrowed. “It could be something about the visit from the soldiers. Ella, . . . what have you gotten yourself involved in?” Despite Johann’s ability to suppress emotion, his face grew rigid and dark.
“Please, Johann, please.”
He glanced back at me, frustrated. He owed me nothing, but he was fond of Lena.
“OK!” he relented. “OK, I will address it.” And he was gone.
The boy had now been away over an hour. Another thirty minutes passed before I heard a knock on the door. It was him. The fear that spread across his face was all too familiar, I knew his news would not be good. I stepped out into the hall with him.
“He . . . the man you, y—“ The boy stuttered, unable to speak clearly.
“It’s OK, slow down.” I placed my hand on his arm. He inhaled a long breath.
I tried not to let my face respond with distress. “Gone?” I whispered.
The boy looked around him, his hands were trembling by his side. “The door was open and his flat was muddled.” He shifted nervously to his other foot. “I found this near the door.” He held out a silver button, perfectly chiseled, dark green threads trailed underneath. It appeared as though it had been ripped from a uniform. I reached for it, gripping it tightly as I stared at the ceiling. Please no, please, I begged silently. My head whirled with emotion.
“May I please be relieved?” The boy pleaded. I nodded, but did not say a word as I moved back into the bedroom. My fingers gripped the door in an effort to close it quietly. Tears slid down my cheeks, but my hand no longer stopped them from coming. I climbed gently onto the bed where Lena lay. The moment was surreal; her sobs had finally slowed to a purr, only I knew what was about to come and it terrified me. I pulled a pillow up near her face and whispered into her ear. Her fingers gripped the sides as she screamed violently into the pillow.
It muffled the brunt of the noise, but the bed shook. Her body convulsed as I attempted to hold her tightly. Lena’s heartache seared through me. The guilt crushed my will to live, a stark contrast to the exhilaration I felt less than twenty-four hours ago.
Although words were never uttered, the dark reality of the world we lived in weighed heavily in the room. We both knew enough about this government to know anytime a person disappeared, chances are we would never see them again.
I held her for the rest of the day and through the night. I thought about Lena non-stop and how my choice had affected her so directly. How will she ever move on? Christoph was her life.
At first light, I awoke to an empty bed. Panic set in when I didn’t see Lena. A moan led me to the floor where she shivered restlessly, curled in a ball. A dark stain covered her sleeve. My throat instantly constricted and smothered my cries. A grim speculation was confirmed as I rushed to her side. A letter opener slipped to the ground from her other hand. From the broken skin at her wrist, it appeared the dull blade hadn’t accomplished the job she had hoped for, but the damage was done.
“Lena, . . .” I choked through rapid tears. I grabbed the doily on the nightstand and wrapped it around her wrist. The blood soaked through as she grew pale and unresponsive. What is wrong with me? I knew Lena was vulnerable, why didn’t I see this coming? I scolded myself for not watching her more closely. It should have been obvious she wouldn’t want to survive without Christoph.
I needed to get Johann; he would know what to do. Rushing down the hall, I turned the corner to the stairs and nearly knocked Stefan down in the process. My heart sank; he was the last person I wanted to see.
“Excuse me!” I cried both exasperated and frightened. As I struggled to maneuver around him, he grabbed my wrist. I coiled my hand to hide my blood-stained fingers. His touch was neither soft nor hard but enough to stop me from continuing.
“What’s wrong?” His voice was stern. I looked at him, then down the stairs. If I didn’t reach Johann in time, Stefan might be my only hope of saving Lena.
“Please, follow me.” I led him back to the guest room. Stefan’s eyes went wide the moment he saw her. It was as bad as I believed. Without hesitation, he swiftly scooped her up and was gone within seconds.
Numb, I stood there well after their departure. It was pointless to follow, she was in the best hands possible. The irony of the situation was overpowering—I, her best friend, was the one who caused harm, and Stefan, the “enemy”, would save her life. In despair, I finally sank to the bed, unable to take my eyes off the bloody tool.
It was I who should die.
I was solely responsible for not only Christoph’s disappearance, but possibly Lena’s life as well. My mind weighed the options. I didn’t deserve to live, but Josef didn’t deserve to lose anyone else. The blade stared back at me for an hour before I left the room.
In my desire to care for Lena, I’d forgotten about the two men hiding in my old house. I had assured them I would be back the previous night with food. When I didn’t return, they must’ve believed the worst. I needed to get there as soon as possible, but when I reached the bottom of the stairs, I froze.
“Fräulein Kühn.” I knew this particular voice would soon find me. Afraid to look Herr Franke directly in the face, I turned but did not peer up. The silence coated the room for several minutes. I could feel his eyes boring into the top of my bowed head. The blood-stained apron clinched tightly in my fists for concealment, I fought to remain still. Memories of this failed task in the orphanage competed with images of what my fate might be. Just get it over with!
Finally, he spoke.
“Do you know why the soldiers came for you?”
Despite rehearsing a multitude of answers in anticipation of this confrontation, my mind went blank now that we were face to face. A rivulet of sweat slid down the back of my neck.
“Fräulein, answer me.” His tone increased in volume.
My eyes found the button at his collar, and I nodded.
He was growing impatient. “Now!” His voice continued to accelerate.
Finally meeting his eyes, I stuttered, “I w-was at a café with . . .
some friends.” My pulse quickened. “Soldiers came and took one of them away.”
Herr Franke watched my every move.
“I ran because I got scared. I didn’t do anything wrong.” It was the truth even if the details of what I’d planned to do later that night were omitted.
He turned sharply as if the conversation was over, but the heaviness in the air attested otherwise. Even though his pacing was silent, every step he took seemed to imprint on my soul, it felt like an eternity before he stopped and faced me once more.
“Don’t put me in this position again, or I will personally see to your arrest myself.”
I nodded, but he was already gone.
Sighing heavily, I knew the conversation could have gone many different ways. It was suddenly apparent to me which parent was the more logical of the two.
I did not see Stefan return. Although I wanted to know about Lena’s condition, fear of additional scrutiny prevented me from searching him out. In my heart, I had to believe she was recovering nicely in a hospital bed, thanks to Stefan’s quick jump to action. Had I not seen it myself, I may not have believed it.
Precisely at five I departed, boarding the first bus that got me closer to my old address. A block away, I watched until the soldiers doing their rounds had passed, then entered the alley once more. I looked through the window before climbing through, but even as I whispered their names, it was evident the brothers were gone.
Each step through the rooms was maneuvered with caution, even the sound of my hurried breath was held stricter for fear of the unknown. The dark emptiness confirmed, yes, they were gone. In discouragement, I fell to the couch. Had I sentenced them to their death as well? Were they caught as they waited for me? I was the one who told them not to leave.
So here I was . . . a walking death sentence. In the course of twenty-four hours I possibly had the blood of four people on my hands; a burden that crushed my core.
Repressed with guilt, I buried my head in the couch cushion that was more like a shredded ball of stuffing and brought less comfort than I hoped. When I tossed it aside, it came to a stop a few feet from the front door or what was left of it. After the soldier break-in, someone had nailed a barrier across the busted frame with a sign that declared Kein Eintrag. The demand of “No entry” carried little weight with the holes, anything could get through . . . even a folded piece of paper that I hadn’t seen before. I stood and retrieved it.
The paper was closed tightly and covered in dirt with no indication how long it had been there. At first, I hoped it was from the brothers, bearing the news they were safe and had chosen to leave, but the paper’s fragile condition told me it had been there much longer than one night.
I carefully opened it. Scribbled in faded ink was a message. A quick glance to the bottom showed it was signed by Brauner. It was difficult to read due to its condition. I grabbed the flashlight as darkness started to fill the room with a setting sun and read slowly to decipher the correspondence:
To Fräulein Ella K 3, 1961
In recent visit to West Berlin, I was approached young man by the name of Anton Schultz.
(My heart started to pound. Overcome with emotion at the mere mention of Anton’s name, I tried not to read too fast and just take in one word at a time.)
He is employed as a bricklayer at company in which
business in Charlottenburg. shared with me gripping escape from the East the nig of Aug , along brother Josef and pleaded I bring word of their safe arrival. They could give this address, however he the fact mailed letters were returned this note now finds well and of good health. I had misfortune of losing many friends in the business I have with providence to travel freely, If you wish to relay a message to Anton Josef, I reside in the neighborhood # 2 benstrauss.
Your humble r Brauner
I could not believe my eyes. I had waited so long to hear of their arrival and survival. Anton was working, and I’m sure Josef was safe in his care. I had to find this Herr Brauner, though it would be difficult from the faded letter. Even part of his address was missing, but I had to try.
It seemed my fate has suddenly shifted . . . a fate I was sure was doomed mere minutes before. I read the letter three more times before carefully folding it up and placing it deep in the pocket of my dress. There was no reason for me to remain here. I watched carefully once more until the soldiers passed and turned the corner then slipped out the back again and ran home, eager to share the news with Mama G.