Chapter 21: WAR?
The next two months seemed like a blur. I abandoned my thoughts of escaping momentarily in light of the events that surrounded Peter and Helmut. Khloe confirmed within days after the tragedy my assumption was indeed accurate. Our friends had run the border on a whim.
Thankfully, Helmut survived and made it to the west, but Peter, everything he spoke about the night in the pub had vanished. Everything he desired or hoped for was taken from him in a rash matter of minutes.
My longing to be reunited with Anton and Josef never failed. I simply lost any strength in pursuing a plan that could jeopardize my life. As long as I was breathing, there was still a possibility of being reunited with my boys.
Instead, I decided to focus my energy on trying to locate Herr Brauner and left my contact info in nearly every store on this half of the city. From the first correspondence, which I often carried with me, I took solace in at least knowing they were safe and free, but I longed for more.
By October I’d all but given up; it seemed Mr. Brauner was no more than a figure of my imagination, come to haunt my dreams. I continued to count down my days of service for the Frankes. It was all I had to look forward to.
The day, 27 October 1962, started out like any other. Heidi and I were assigned to serve a morning brunch and had prepared accordingly as we have for dozens of other meetings, but what should have been routine, evolved into anything but mundane.
Herr Wolf was the first to arrive. Frau Franke’s elbow nudged me briskly out of the way the moment I opened the door. Her hand extended for a handshake, but her other hand reached gently for his forearm . . . almost tenderly. I turned my back, careful to hide my irritation. By the time I reached the kitchen doors, I heard the voices of several other men materialize near the entrance. I glanced back just in time to see Herr Ulbricht appear with a handful of soldiers accompanying him—his personal guard. Nobody of importance went anywhere in the east without protection. The worker’s uprising and growing tension over a constant lack of resources had made them vulnerable. Although the people, for the most part, were too scared to do anything, history had proven over time that desperate people have the ability to change the course of futures and governments alike, and this I was sure the Germans knew better than anyone.
“Heidi!” I whispered sternly to get her attention once we were reunited. She had just finished placing the Quarkkeulchen on a separate platter, I could smell the sweet scent of cheese. She peeked my direction, but didn’t stop working. “You should see who the guests are for this meeting.” I smiled, but couldn’t hold it in very long. “Wolf and Ulbricht!” I stretched my neck as I spoke through gritted teeth. She stopped. Her eyes grew wide.
“Are you certain?” Heidi ran to the door and peered through a small crack in the door. The guests had already been shown into the parlor, and all she saw was an empty hallway.
“Ulbricht?” she questioned.
“Yes, I promise it was him. I’ve seen his picture in the
Heidi giggled, she was still naïve enough to have confused admiration. I, on the other hand, was more interested in overhearing their designs.
Throughout the morning, Heidi and I worked feverishly to make sure all the needs were met in the drawing room, despite our presence never actually being acknowledged. Much of the conversation was unhindered, yet beyond our understanding . . . that is until the door suddenly burst open and an exasperated Johann entered, to our surprise.
“Herr Ulbricht!” he cried, nearly out of breath. This startled everyone present. One soldier reached for his weapon as Herr Ulbricht stood. He put his hand up to relieve the young man and approached Johann. Johann handed him a telegram. I could see from my proximity it was stamped “сро́чный”. A word I was unfamiliar with.
Herr Ulbricht adjusted his glasses and brushed his fingers across the hair on his chin. His eyes poured slowly over the words on the paper before he read it aloud to his anxious company.
UNARMED AMERICAN PLANE SHOT DOWN OVER CUBA STOP DOBRYNIN MET WITH R KENNEDY STOP KENNEDY SAYS AMERICA PRESSURED TO RESPOND WITH FIRE STOP KHRUSHCHEV WARNED CUBA IS A SECURITY RISK
AND WILL BE BOMBED STOP WAR IMMINENT STOP KHRUSHCHEV WILL NOT CONCEDE STOP
The tray I was holding began to shake. I quickly set it down as my mind attempted to grasp the full reality of what I overheard. The men, too, appeared stunned, dazed to the point I could have probably done anything at that moment and still not drawn their attention away from the telegram. “Quickly, Koen,” Wolf demanded, “turn on the radio.” Herr Franke reached for the large upright radio in the corner. They had a television in their bedroom, but I doubted he would invite them there.
“This was a confidential telegram, Markus,” Ulbricht spoke realistically. “The media does not know it has escalated to this.”
Herr Franke continued to scan the stations to see if anything happened to be broadcast.
“What do you think Khrushchev will do?”
“He is Russian!” Wolf cried. “He will not fold to the Americans!”
Herr Ulbricht walked over to the bar. “I wonder if this was the first time our ambassador met with the President’s brother?” He spoke with an eerie calmness in his voice.
“Castro cannot be trusted.” Herr Franke joined him at the bar. He barely acknowledged my presence as he held up his glass for more vodka. I filled both glasses and wiped the sweating decanter with linen. I knew I shouldn’t be there, but I was driven with curiosity and Herr Franke had not excused me yet.
“Cuba is ideal for missiles; they can reach parts of America swiftly, including Washington.” Ulbricht returned to his seat. Although his face did not appear as uneasy as the others from the news, his continual tugging at his collar and tie indicated his discomfort.
“But Cuba used to have an alliance with the United States. Their loyalty is weak.” Wolf reasoned.
As I pretended to stay busy and useful, I contemplated the position this put East Berlin in. Just across the wall, American troops were ready and armed, fortified by military units from both France and Britain. In a moment’s notice, war could break out not only overseas, but here as well. The very thought of hostilities erupting, forced my heart to palpitate a second faster. I reached for the edge of the bar and gripped hard for balance. Voices continued to buzz around me, but were muffled against the ringing in my ears. My only interest now turned to Berlin and the destruction and scars that lingered from the last war.
The door opened, and Heidi walked in with a tray of Senfeier. I watched as Herr Wolf’s eyes immediately bounced from Heidi to me then turn to the other men in the room. He stood up quickly and waved his hand towards us both. Herr Franke seemed to understand the silent warning. “Fräulein Kühn, thank you for your assistance.” Herr Franke joined Wolf and pointed to the table with urgency. “Fräulein Frederickson, please place the dish on the table. You may both leave.” I bowed my head in acknowledgement and moved to walk out quickly when Herr Ulbricht reached for my arm to stop me. This surprised all who were present.
“Your family is Kühn?” he inquired honestly, although his face eyed me skeptically. I knew he questioned the validity of my German heritage.
“Yes, sir. My adopted family is Kühn.” Although I did not need to include that fact, I knew that’s what he really wanted to know.
He smiled. The long lines that surrounded his mouth deepened, and he seemed to momentarily forget the pending disaster. “My Lotte is a Kühn. Perhaps you are a relative.” His eyes lit up. He must be very fond of this “Lotte” woman.
“I’m sorry. I have no living family.” I nodded my head in respect and left the room.
I waited in the kitchen for Heidi to appear.
“Ella,” —Heidi rushed to my side— “I didn’t know you are alone.” Her eyes were full of compassion.
“It’s alright; it’s been a long time.” I quickly changed the subject.
“Heidi,” I looked to the door as my eyes started to well with tears, “I know I’m not supposed to talk about this here.” I grabbed her hand and moved her towards the back wall, “The Soviets are going to war with
“What?” she cried a little too loud. The door opened, and Johann walked in. “What are you two gossiping about?” he demanded.
I waved him over. His eyes rolled as if I’d asked too much of him.
He shuffled over causally, but when I repeated what I had heard, he froze.
“I knew it was an urgent telegram from Moscow, but I dared not read the contents.” Johann took a seat, appearing quite pale.
“Do you really think?” Heidi whispered.
“I don’t know,” I whispered in return.
“Khrushchev will not yield.” Johann stood up firmly. Despite some reservations, Johann was Russian through and through. “It’s about time we contested the Americans. They have never been our friends.”
My eyes widened. “But Johann, we could be crushed here. The Americans could break Berlin like a twig . . . we could all die.” “Pshhh. Fräulein Kühn, you underestimate the Soviets.” And Johann walked out. I looked to Heidi. Her family was all here in the east, but she still felt the same as I. The unknown was alarming.
Throughout the day, men came and went. Telegrams arrived, and tension increased as the hours passed. Heidi and I spent the time preparing more food and serving, however, Herr Franke was much more aware of our presence than before. Therefore, our time in the room was limited and monitored. We heard very little of the progress.
“I need you to remain here at the house tonight,” Frau Franke announced upon finding Heidi and me in the kitchen. “We will have guests throughout the evening.”
We had already assumed we would be needed, since the number of guests had swelled to over a dozen. I was initially surprised the meeting was not held at the SED headquarters, but of course the food, drink, and comforts were not as pleasant. Each time we entered the room, the tension seemed more and more heightened. The radio was on and the men paced. The large television had been moved from the bedroom to the parlor, as well as the telephone from the mortuary. A long cord had been brought in just for that purpose. The alcohol consumed was three times the normal amount.
“Yes, ma’am,” I acknowledged. “Is there anything specific you would like prepared?”
She glowered. “Everything.”
I nodded. “Of course.” She walked out with an air of offense like she should not have to answer such trivial questions. If Lena were here, she would not have to deal with such ignorance. I rolled my eyes as the door swung behind her. Heidi muffled a laugh as the door opened again. I bit my lip, afraid she had returned and seen my facial rebellion. I stared as a man’s hand reached around then caught my breath as he came into full view. It was Stefan. Heidi and I hesitated, surprise covered our faces. He rarely came into the kitchen.
“Kaffe, please.” His voice was surprisingly relaxed. I didn’t move.
Heidi jumped forward and grabbed the kettle.
“Yes, sir.” She proceeded to pull a teacup from a cupboard.
I remained unmoved. Given our previous interactions, including one in this very room, I understandably was hesitant. Stefan glanced towards me while he waited. I turned away and moved towards the oven. I probably should have been kinder, given the way he assisted with Lena, but it was safer, I presumed, to stay distant.
“Anything else, Herr Franke?” Heidi’s voice was sickly-sweet. I wrinkled my nose.
“No, but thank you, Heidi,” he responded genuinely. Neither one of us hid the surprise that he knew her name. Only I kept my back towards them both until I heard the door close once again. I silently recalled the conversation in the library with Katharina, quite some time ago, when he claimed to not know who Lena was after her many years of service here.
“He’s quite handsome,” Heidi gushed.
“Barely tolerable,” I mumbled.
“Are you jesting? Do you not have eyes?” she giggled. “ . . . and so
kind . . .”
“No, really. I didn’t even think he knew my name.” I could practically see her daydream.
“He is not who you think he is,” I insisted.
“You’re wrong, Ella.”
“I heard he helped Lena, back when she—”
“—Uh, huh.” I cut her off. I didn’t even want to think of that day. Heidi continued, “I also saw him help Herr Schneider.” “The lead gardener?” I questioned, skeptically.
“Yes, his wife was quite ill.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Stefan gave him time away from work and money for the doctor.”
“I doubt it.”
“I saw it myself.”
I brushed it off. “Let’s get back to work. It will be a long night.”
We pulled out the ham hock, bratwursts, schnitzel, and capers with cream sauce. But as the night wore on, I had trouble getting Heidi’s comments out of my head. Stefan actually helped someone unselfishly? There had to be some gain for himself. Then I grew annoyed at myself for even wasting time thinking about him.
A little after two o’clock in the morning, Frau Franke entered the kitchen and slammed the door upon entry. I had been resting on my arm and fallen asleep. I jumped to attention immediately. I wobbled a little as I tried to focus.
“You may leave,” she demanded. “Everyone has departed. You can tidy the parlor in the morning.”
Heidi, who had fallen asleep in a chair, jumped to her feet. I rubbed my eyes and nodded in compliance.
“May we come in a bit later tomorrow?” I hesitated to ask. I almost knew how she would respond.
“No.” She walked out.
“Ella, I live quite close.” Heidi yawned, “Come stay with me.”
I squeezed her hand. “I suppose since the men have retired for the night, World War III must have been averted.”
Heidi smiled faintly. “We should be safe for tonight at least.”
We walked out arm in arm with no further talk of our impending doom.
Several days later, the Morgenpost reported an agreement had been reached between the American President John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev at a late hour on the 27th—there would be no war at the present time. The Soviet Union consented to remove all missiles from Cuba, and the Americans would remove the Navy blockade. Both countries agreed to take their weaponry out of Turkey as well.
The news was not received well. This action angered many Soviets in East Berlin as it appeared weak to them. Some people chanted in the streets, raised signs near the western part of Kreuzberg at the American portion of the wall, and threw rotten vegetables across, nearly hitting Border Guards and residents. Others even went as far as to say this could be the end of Nikita Khrushchev’s political career. This reaction was not just found on the streets of Berlin or Moscow; it came dangerously close to home as both Herr and Frau Franke were also in sour moods for weeks.
Personally, I was quite relieved. Despite Cuba being far from here, the one thing I did know from all my reading about past military conflicts, the target was always the weak links.
Berlin was a weak link.