Chapter 26: “LA VIE EN ROSE”
“I needed to find a way to keep my mind off the letter, Herr Brauner, Anton, and Josef. I knew that even if Herr Brauner saw them and they wrote back to me, correspondence could take weeks, possibly months. East Berlin was not only effective at keeping people in but very good at keeping the world out.
The night of the Fasching Dinner came in early March this year. I tried hard to get out of the house before the guests arrived, but time and time again, my friends needed help. I still refused to serve but felt an obligation to make sure the preparation for the event was a success. However, late in the evening, I became trapped—unable to slip outside without being seen, as nearly all exits on the lower level were blocked by people.
I decided that trying to reach the staff exit from the back rooms would be my best attempt. Stepping out of the kitchen, my body froze stiff and knees began to shake. The voice that reverberated through the hallway fired a sharp chill through me. The vision of his ugly, scarred face jeered on the backside of my eyelids as I squeezed them shut. The voice moved. Was it traveling towards me or away? My legs failed to budge. Colonel Anker’s laugh paralyzed me even now.
With a mixture of fear and will-power, I mustered the strength and quickly shot up the nearby stairs, maneuvering down the dark hall on the second floor until I could no longer hear his voice. With my back pressed against the wall, eager to clear my head and catch my breath, I rested and remembered the art room nearby. It would be a suitable place to hide as it was rarely used and far from the celebration.
I turned on the light. Although I hadn’t been in here since the night I drew the butterfly gift, I thought of this room often since then. Not only because of my burning desire to draw, but also my hope to return in search of the record. It had been impossible up to this point for me to come here without question; my movements were monitored regularly since Frau Franke’s unfounded accusation—if not by her personally, it appeared she employed others in the cause. I was rarely alone.
Gazing around, not much had changed . . . except . . . an easel, centered in the room with a large canvas against it. I approached it from the back and was surprised to find a painting rested on the front. The image was serene. My finger curiously brushed the front. I pulled away surprised—it was still fairly wet. Had Stefan started painting again? There was no indication it was him except it was exceptional. I doubted anyone else in the family turned to such a hobby.
I moved to the window. The lights on the street were dim, though I was sure the lights in the Frankes’ “castle” lit up this half of the city alone. From this view, I could see the Brandenburg Tor lit up from a distance.
The large, arched structure stood boldly with its imposing sculpture of The Goddess of Victory steering four horses by chariot on top. It was a commanding statement, slightly damaged, but not destroyed from war. It remained a bold reminder of our division, because just past those pillars stood a free land. A place where you could be educated, work where you want, eat what you want, and whisper or shout as well—if you want—all without a price to pay for your choice.
I longed for that place. I couldn’t see the tanks, the guns, or soldiers who guarded from my position, but I knew they were there, and I ached to be on the other side. Suddenly, I saw movement in the reflection of the window. A man’s silhouette in the doorway startled me.
Although my breath was controlled, my chest stirred. Relief washed over me once I realized it wasn’t the Colonel who had followed me up. Despite the mask covering his face, I recognized the black suit and bowtie Stefan wore from last year. It was striking. I stared with unforeseen admiration.
“I’m so sorry.” His apology sounded sincere. “I didn’t know anyone was up here. I thought you had other plans tonight.” Stefan removed the mask.
“Unfortunately, I got held up here.” I turned away, embarrassed. “I’m sorry I trespassed.” I stepped around him and towards the door. I didn’t know where else to go.
“You don’t have to leave,” he said quietly.
I stopped and faced him.
“Don’t you have a party you need to get back to?” I reasoned.
“Now, we both know what kind of guests are down there.” He smirked. “Do you really think I’m missing out?”
My thoughts went immediately to the reason I fled upstairs in the first place. I nodded my head and smiled.
“See, there it is,” Stefan joked. “There’s a smile in there, somewhere.”
I walked to the painting in the center of the room, eager to take the focus off me. “Is this yours?”
Stefan joined me. “It is.”
“When did you start painting again?”
“When I realized my life was full of tedious, monotonous work, and I needed vision and color again.”
I suddenly realized that was my problem too. I was always happiest when I drew. My pastime was too few and far between.
I pointed to the picture. “A river?”
“Well, it was until somebody smudged it.” Stefan reached for my hand. He pointed out the blue paint on my pointy finger.
I smiled again and pulled it away.
“It was an accident.”
“You just couldn’t keep your hands off it, could you?” he teased.
I watched Stefan closely. His eyes were a full blue, no hint of red this time. His walk was smooth, not inebriated, and his voice was kind, not full of malice. I liked this Stefan much better.
“It’s a village along the Elbe River. Have you ever been there?” “I’ve actually never been outside of Berlin,” I whispered.
He didn’t conceal his surprise.
“There’s a big world out there, Ella, so much to see.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “but when you’re held captive in a city with a restricting wall, it makes it hard to see anything, right?”
He nodded solemnly in agreement, although I knew he could not relate. Even with the wall, the Frankes had the connections to go anywhere they wanted.
“Can you hold on a moment? I’ll return shortly.” Stefan excused himself.
Minutes later, he arrived with a small tray of delicacies, two goblets of sparkling water balanced in his left hand. He set everything down on the nearby counter and reached for an unused paint cloth in the corner. Without saying anything, he spread the cloth on the hardwood floor and laid the treats in the center.
I stared at his display. My face started to twist with worry.
He knew I was trying to think my way out of this.
“It’s just food, come join me.” He removed his outer black coat, loosened his bow tie, and sat down on one half of the linen.
I shifted nervously. He patted the other half with his hand.
“Do me a favor and don’t make me go back to that awful dinner.” He laughed.
I struggled to come up with an excuse.
“Besides,” he sighed, “you aren’t there for me to rescue this year.” My mouth flew open. I knew it! He did do it on purpose!
“Janus.” The name slipped out before I could stop it.
“Janus?” he repeated.
I nodded, still trying to let his confession sink in. “Your mythological sculpture—he saved the Sabine women—”
“Oh, that’s right . . .” he chuckled to himself. “Yes, Janus. God of choice.”
My mind was spinning as I continued, “—with the ability to see the past and future.” Who would have ever guessed the reality of that image a year ago? The two heads, like two different people.
“Yes, my grandfather always did see something more in me than I ever did myself,” he said this with unrestrained admiration.
“But why?” I questioned.
“Why what?” Stefan patted the blanket once more.
“Why did I coerce the octopus from you?” Stefan did not hide his shock at my query. “Why would I let a woman be handled for sport against her will in front of others?” he asked back.
“That man is . . .” I stumbled on my words.
“He’s a deplorable human being. You aren’t the only one he’s tried
to . . .”
My face shot up as I hoped he would elaborate. Stefan sensed it.
“He’s offensive to many. He’s one associate of my father’s I’ll be relieved to terminate my affiliation with when I take over the family business.
“Why me though, Stefan, you hated me. Why did you help me?”
“I didn’t hate you . . .” He glanced down. He lied. I stood in front of him with hands on my hips and waited for him to look up.
“OK, I disliked you, but that was a different time. Sit down, let me explain.” He had definitely piqued my curiosity with where this conversation was going. I finally joined him on the other side of the blanket.
“I owe you my thanks first.” I held my hand out to him. It seemed insignificant compared to what he had done for me the night of the dinner.
“You’re welcome, Ella.” He shook it.
I reached for a small plate and started to place some random desserts on it as I spoke. “I noticed you were different that night, Stefan. Something had changed in the two months from your mother’s party and last year’s Fasching dinner.
“Yes, the party . . . Ha.” He laughed in an uncomfortable way. “I think I owe you an apology for that night—” “One of many,” I cut in.
“Yes, I know.” His head hung low. “I was drunk.”
“You weren’t drunk in the library when you accused me of being with the resistance in front of Katharina.” “No, . . . I can’t say I was then—”
“What about the Griebnitzsee, were you drinking then?”
“Yes, but not drunk . . . OK, Ella, I surrender. I really am sorry for all those situations. I was young and stupid—”
“Stefan!” I snapped at him unintentionally. I was irritated he blamed his behavior on weak reasons. His face met mine.
“Stefan, these all just happened in the last two years! You were not that young—seventeen, eighteen—old enough to know better.” I caught myself and calmed down. “What really happened in the two months after the party? Something happened, I know it.”
His eyes closed, and I felt bad for attacking him like that. The room suddenly got very quiet.
I waited as he gathered his thoughts.
“I’m sorry, Stefan. It’s personal, and I shouldn’t have pushed.” He didn’t answer.
“I should leave.”
I began to stand up, but Stefan’s hand reached for my arm. A few strands of his long bangs had fallen freely across his face, but his deep blue eyes, now wide open, pierced through them with a profound stare. Something in that moment compelled me to sit down again. His touch remained gentle, but intensified as if he spoke without words. At that very moment, I realized he needed me. What a crazy world I lived in . . . Stefan Franke needs me.
“Do you remember the day in the library when my friend Ralf and I were talking?
I nodded. We both knew I overheard his plans.
“What you may not know is we got caught at the Czech border with our forged documents two days after Christmas” —He definitely had my attention now— “and were thrown in jail.”
I tried to picture him there. I knew nothing about jail other than what I read in books, but they didn’t seem pleasant.
“I thought your family . . . because of your . . .” I didn’t want to sound like I knew his family secrets. “. . . I thought because of your family connections you could cross any border without a problem. Why did you have to forge documents?”
“Ralf and I were assigned to attend a Communist youth leadership camp in Poland. Our present documents did not allow us to go anywhere else at the time.”
“I see.” I waited for him to continue.
“My father used his high connections to get me home, but it came at a steep price.” This part didn’t surprise me. You could not ask a favor here without owing in return.
“My father owns only half of the mortuary now; the DDR owns the other half. I, myself, was given two options upon my return to Berlin. Enlist or learn my father’s trade and become full partner within five years.”
I groaned. “That’s not a choice! Weren’t you going to take over your father’s business already? It has been handed down to the sons four times.”
“No, Ella. Actually, I wasn’t. I had no plans of working around dead people at all and . . .”
“I saw how my father had become someone else through the years.
He became a puppet, dancing to the demands of every powerful man in Germany. I didn’t want anyone to own me.” Stefan showed a side of himself that surprised me. “Ironically now, they won’t only own me, but half of the business, as well.”
“But Herr Franke is not that old. Why replace him so soon?”
“He’s not necessarily replaced . . . the DDR recognizes the wisdom in a long-term investment such as the son of their lead mortician.” Stefan whispered the next sentence, “Many more years to hide bodies.”
I cringed. “Why didn’t you enlist then?”
“My father saved me from jail, Ella. He risked everything for me. I couldn’t turn my back on him then.”
“Your father saved you from a couple nights in jail, and you felt like you owed him your entire life . . . your freedom?” It was hard for me to wrap my head around this. I wasn’t trying to sound unsympathetic, but it’s possible it came out that way.
“Ella, it wasn’t a couple nights . . .” Stefan sounded frustrated, “it was eighteen nights in a Czechoslovakian jail, but they had already sentenced me to five years. My father gave everything for my release.
Yes, I owe him that much.”
“I’m sorry, Stefan, I didn’t mean to—” I touched his hand. “I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge, I’m sorry!”
He turned my hand over and traced his finger along each of mine. I watched him do it. It was gentle and comforting, and I had no desire to pull away.
“What happened to Ralf?”
Stefan shook his head. I could’ve sworn I saw his eyes get moist, but he glanced away.
I knew the answer. Ralf wasn’t freed.
I could hear the laughter from the party below. The sound continued to amplify in the quietness of the art room. This was an indication the liquor had finally kicked in. I was glad I wasn’t there. I beheld Stefan, who still held my hand. I could see the lines of remorse weigh heavily in his face.
“The day I painted the butterfly for your mother, I came across a charming painting.” I stood and retrieved it. I sat back down with it still in my hands. “This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, is it real?”
Stefan had been reclining and raised to take a full look. He smiled. “Yes, I haven’t seen this for years, ha.” I was quite relieved when he laughed. The dark mood had shifted.
“It’s a place called Cochem, located in the Mosei River Valley. Years ago, my family would travel to Cochem on holiday. It was a peaceful little village surrounded by vineyards, and that castle . . .” His face lit up with the memory. “. . . Some of the stone remains were 900 years old.”
I smiled with my own recollection. “There was a world book in the Waisenhaus that showed pictures of jungles and mountains and places I never dreamed were actually real. It’s where I saw the picture of a butterfly for the first time.”
Stefan stared. His eyes reflected pain.
“What?” I became uncomfortable.
“You were in the Waisenhaus?” Then I realized what I had let slip.
“It was a long time ago.” I rose to put the painting back but faced it toward him again, “You are a very talented artist, Stefan.”
“You, as well,” he added, “I was jealous when Katharina had chosen you to paint mother’s picture. The butterfly was exquisite.” “Nothing like this . . .” I took one more glance before I set it down. “I love this painting, Stefan. It makes me feel like there is beauty outside of all this darkness. Just looking at it gives me hope.”
“Then it’s yours, Ella.”
“No,” I protested. I felt bad that I may have come across as coveting it. “I can’t take this, you could sell it. It’s really good.”
“I don’t sell my paintings. I really want you to have it. It just sits up here hidden and doing no good. Yet it brings you happiness, and that’s a good thing.”
“Why is that a good thing?” I laughed as I sat back down.
“Because I get the feeling you haven’t had many good things happen.”
Stefan held my stare for a moment longer then stood and moved to the back of the room. I brushed some stray crumbs off the linen, attempting to hide my smile. The night was turning out much differently than I ever expected. Although there was more to come, nothing fully registered in my mind until the snap of a record clicked onto a turntable. I sat completely still.
The music was delicate at first. As Stefan returned, I found myself straining to hear the woman’s voice whir softly from the speaker.
“Dan un amour, faut d’ la fierte, Pouvoir se taire, de la dignite . . .”
I flew from the floor just as Stefan sat down. My hands shook when I pulled the small record off the phonograph. The words illuminated across the bright red center spelled out “Un Refrain Courait Dans La Rue.” Edith Piaf, side B.
Tears were already forming as I flipped it over. Stefan was instantly at my side. My fingers traced the small grooves in the black vinyl until they reached the title “La Vie En Rose,” in bold, white lettering. Overcome, I could not believe I was holding this record. I dreamt of this moment for so long. Little did I know it really was right here all along.
Stefan placed his hands over mine and smoothly retrieved the record. I didn’t move. He deliberately placed it down on Side A then replaced the needle. The instrumental beginning of “La Vie En Rose” caused chills to form all over my body. The trumpet thumped simultaneous to my heart beat.
Stefan didn’t even ask. One hand slid across my lower back while the other reached for my fingers. He pulled my body next to his as we swayed softly to the song. It felt as though I watched our movements from above. He made dancing seem more effortless than it ever had been.
I closed my eyes to the elongated curling notes that only Piaf could perfect. Tears still slipped through, but I didn’t bother letting go to wipe them away. It was if we were dancing in a different time.
Each time Papa played this song, I grieved the anticipation of the end, and today, like then, I wished for it to play forever.
Stefan repeated the song three times without my even asking. Somehow, he knew that at this very moment I needed it. Finding this one song here tonight—with this person—made it seem more like fate than chance.
And that very conclusion terrified me.
It was nearly midnight. I hadn’t said more than two words since the song ended and our dancing stopped. It was a feeling I didn’t want to lose, and Stefan knew this. He never pushed. I helped him carry the dishes to the kitchen and then motioned to leave.
“Ella, may I please offer you a ride home?”
I hesitated, “. . . It’s late. You don’t have to do that.”
“It wouldn’t be proper for me to let you leave the house alone this late.”
“I’ve taken care of myself so far, Stefan,” I said playfully. I pulled my scarf up over my mouth. “Plus . . . I live in Treptow.” I eyed his response. I wasn’t even sure he’d ever been to that part of the city.
“I know you can take care of yourself, Ella. I’ve seen you withstand many pressures . . .” he leaned in and whispered with a laugh,“. . . including my mother,” then continued, “I guess I’m just not ready for the night to end.” The way he regarded me caused me to forget why I questioned him in the first place. It was if I was the only person in his world.
I turned my head to conceal my smiling eyes and led the way. Stefan alerted Max, the driver, as we walked to the free-standing garage in the back. I hadn’t been in an automobile since Papa sold ours and never one as nice as this. The drive was quiet. The city was dark and mostly asleep. When we reached my street, Max cautiously pulled over to the curb. He peered around nervously as though he hadn’t spent much time in this neighborhood. Stefan held the picture as we walked quickly in an effort to reach my apartment building faster than the cold could slip under our coats.
We stepped into the hallway with a sigh of relief as the warmth of the radiator nearby took some of the bite out of the frost. Stefan wanted to walk me up the three flights of stairs, but I refused. It was here where we would say goodnight.
“Ella, can I ask you a question?” I nodded, curious.
“Why didn’t you tell anyone about the ski plans you overheard in the parlor?”
“Why would I?” I was surprised he even asked.
“I don’t know. I guess when I realized you had been in the room the whole time we were talking, I expected our plan to somehow come crashing down. Nobody keeps secrets.”
“I do—” I shrugged my shoulders. “—but it really wasn’t my secret to tell. Only now, after hearing what you went through, maybe I should have.”
“Actually . . .” Stefan paused, “I’ve thought about this a lot.” His face grew very solemn. “I can’t change the fact I ruined Ralf’s life. It’s something I’ll have to live with forever, but in a way, it saved my own.” “What do you mean?” I probed.
“It’s hard to explain.” His eyes were on me, but his thoughts were elsewhere. “I guess I found myself. Somewhere between imprisonment and my duty of death, I found the person I needed to become, not that I’m there yet—” His eyes finally connected with mine, “—But I’m getting there, and if I hadn’t gone on the trip, I possibly would have never changed.”
I stared at him with an unusual respect.
The moment seemed perfect. Our walls finally lifted, our perspective altered, but I knew in my heart I wasn’t ready for what naturally wanted to come next.
I extended my hand. It was awkward. Stefan chuckled and met my hand to shake.
“This evening was . . .” I paused, choosing my words carefully. It was difficult to pinpoint exactly what I felt. “. . . It was really special.
“For me too.” Stefan’s fixated eyes took on a completely different look. It could have been the low lighting in the hall, or I just saw something I didn’t see before.
“And thank you for the painting,” I laughed as he passed it to me.
As I entered the door to my apartment, Mama G was in her recliner reading.
“What are you still doing up, mama?” I questioned, concerned it was my fault.
She put her book down. “I couldn’t sleep.”
I went to her side and pulled the blanket up closer to her chest.
“Are you well?”
“Just a small ailment, I suppose. I’ll be fine.” She smiled slyly at me.
“What?” I grinned at her reaction.
“You look different.”
“Different?” I was suddenly self-conscious. How could she know?
We didn’t even kiss!
“Yes, your face looks completely relaxed. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen you without that wrinkle above your nose.” She was still grinning.
Now I was very self-conscious.
“Wait a minute,” she laughed. “It’s back.” She was still chuckling when she picked up her book again. “Whatever it was that made it disappear must’ve been pretty great.”
I grinned and headed towards my room.
“Oh. Wait, Ella!” I turned. “This came in the post for you.”
She held up a tan envelope, and I rushed to grab it. I’d never received a letter before. Could it really be from . . . Yes! In the left corner were the names Anton and Josef and their address! An actual address! I kissed Mama G on the forehead and ran to my room. The seal was broken, but I half expected that. Not from Mama but from whoever delivered it. I glanced at the date it had been written, nearly four weeks ago.
Dear Ella, 14 Feb, 1963
We were so happy to hear you are alive! When all of my letters were returned we thought the worst. The stories coming out of East Berlin are horrible reminders of the life we left and I will never forgive myself for leaving you there. Once here we were sent to
Marienfelde, a factory that was set up to be a shelter to help people who escaped from the east. We were amongst thousands of people who fled but many found the camp upsetting. I on the other hand had never had much to begin with, so it was a good change. They also helped us find a place to live and a job. The allies offer many opportunities here. It’s very different. Josef is healthy and in school. He is smart and getting good marks. He has taken over my learning where you left off. As you can see from this letter he is doing well with me.
I have work as a bricklayer again. I met Herr Brauner the first time when he came to inspect one of his buildings. This time he searched for me. He is a very nice man and I am thankful for his help.
I’m saving my money Ella. I will get it to you to find the right people who can get you here. There are many agencies over here that work to free the people of East Berlin and I’ve heard many stories. We can do it. I know we can. I feel good about this. Josef misses you . . . I miss you. We have never been apart this long. It’s not the same without you here. I have included some of the news clippings of stories where people succeeded in escaping. Maybe it can help. Everything is open over here. Nobody censors anything. Please respond soon and send it to the address on the envelope. We wait to hear from you soon!
Love Anton and Josef.
There were no clippings inside like Anton had said. They must’ve been removed. It’s possible from his words, my name would now become an interest of some sly informant somewhere, but I didn’t care.
I laid the letter down on the bed next to me. I could not describe the mixture of emotion I felt right then. I was relieved and happy Josef was safe in Anton’s care and that they think of me. I hadn’t been forgotten . . . and I was especially pleased they were experiencing the very life I dreamt for them.
Then my thoughts turned to Stefan . . . confused with the stirring that occurred within my soul. As I replayed the night’s events in my head, my skin tingled spontaneously. A year ago, I would never have believed that was even possible.
I put my nightgown on and studied myself in the mirror. My smile faded.
Enormous guilt suddenly washed over me. How could I even allow myself to smile or laugh with anyone other than Anton? Anton has been true to me since we met. He had never hurt me, never said anything to degrade or criticize. He protected me from day one and, even now, protects my brother because I can’t be with him.
I knew I needed to put any and all thoughts of Stefan away. He contradicted all I believed about my future. I owed it to Anton to keep my thoughts faithful to him.