Chapter 29: TELTOW CANAL
“Good morning, Ella!” Lena met me on the street before we entered the Frankes’. She stared at me strangely. “Something’s different.” My eyes gawked her direction. Could she really read my face that easily?
“Oh, it’s your hair! It’s in a ponytail and not a braid.” She giggled,
“I’ve never seen you wear it this way.”
“Yes, trying something new.” I brushed it off. I was glad she didn’t suspect anything else.
We walked in together and were immediately met by Johann.
“Change in plans today, ladies. We have some dignitaries coming for a working lunch. Please make sure the parlor is your first priority. I’m assigning you both directly to serve.”
I nodded. Johann was always slightly dramatic over these events despite their frequency. The best part of the plan is I would get to work with Lena all day. It had been nine months since Christoph disappeared, and she was barely starting to seem like her old self again. It was bitter sweet.
As we prepped the room, I wondered if I should tell her about my date on Saturday, but then argued against it. I felt she would keep my secret, but if it did get out somehow, there was one person I feared more than anyone else. I knew Frau Franke would not hesitate to have me fired but suspected she could find a way to have me arrested as well, anything to keep my distance from her precious son. No, this was a secret I would have to keep entirely to myself.
“Lena, Ella! They’re here. Please show the guests into the parlor.”
It was strange to me why Johann always got excited. They were only people. Lena was placing the last of the appetizers on a tray; it would be I who opened the door. Four guests awaited my welcome. I didn’t recognize anyone from previous visits, but I also hadn’t seen everyone who came to the house. I did recognize the official uniform of the People’s Police though. That was impossible to miss.
Two of the four guests were likely in their late teens or early twenties and were definitely part of the Border Guard. The senior officer wore the shoulder insignia with four diamonds indicating he was a Captain, and the other gentleman was in a regular black business suit and matching fedora.
I graciously showed them the way to the parlor. After each took a seat, I offered to get them a beverage of choice. They all asked for vodka, except for the man in the suit who asked for an orange juice. Lena passed me with a tray of buletten wrapped in Eierkuchen. She went around the room offering delicacies one by one while they waited for Herr Franke to join them. As I returned with their drinks, I politely delivered their requests and was met with engaging smiles. Nothing at all seemed out of the ordinary until Stefan himself entered the room. It caught me off guard, and I nearly dropped the tray on the lap of one of the Border Guards. Thankfully, it was shortly after I handed him his drink, and it was empty.
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir.” I cried as I gained control of the metal plate in front of one of the young men. Despite a near collision, his face lit up. The dimples on both sides of his wide smile led me to believe he couldn’t be more than a few years older than me. As I peered closer at his youthful face, I wondered if he really understood the tasks he was required to do.
“No harm done, fräulein.” He laughed and held his drink high for a toast. The others followed suit.
It was quite obvious this was their first time at the Frankes’. They were eager and showed very little sophisticated experience. I turned to Stefan and mouthed, “I’m sorry,” out of the view of the guests. I felt bad the first time he saw me work a private lunch I was clumsy.
He winked and smiled before he turned and graciously introduced himself as Stefan Franke, the new supervisor for the mortuary. I ran quickly to the kitchen to compose myself. Lena didn’t miss a thing.
“Did Stefan just wink at you?” she cried from the door. I reached for the food I’d already placed on the lunch tray and pretended to rearrange it.
“Ella!” Lena went right to my side and whispered, “I know I saw
Stefan wink at you and you smile at him.”
I knew this wouldn’t work. I peeked around to confirm our privacy.
“Promise you won’t say anything?” Lena’s face lit up.
“Are you teasing me?” She was too loud.
“Can we talk about it later and not here?” I pleaded.
“OK, please tell me one thing . . . has he kissed you?”
“No, . . . I’m really scared.” My eyes darted to the door, and I whispered, “I kind of make it so I shake his hand when we say goodnight.” Lena half laughed and half cried.
“It’s pathetic, I know!” My head fell into my hands. “It’s not that I wouldn’t want to, I mean, look at him . . . of course you know, you see him too, but . . .”
“But, I’ve only had one kiss. It was good—actually it was great!” “Anton?”
“Yes, but I’m sure Stefan is more experienced than me. I could really mess it up.”
“You could . . .” Lena giggled, “but wouldn’t it be fun trying?”
I joined her laugh then sighed. “I never thought I would be having this conversation with you . . . ever.” I grinned.
“Yes, me too!” Lena hugged me. “Ella, you really deserve to be happy.”
“I’ll tell you more later, I promise.”
As the afternoon carried on, Lena watched me carefully. I was professional as I worked. I attempted to only look at Stefan when he spoke directly to me, and even then, he presented himself in an unemotional manner. It fascinated me to see him at work, as well. He had somehow become an adult recently, mature and responsible.
“Please, call me Stefan, Captain Scharf.”
“Thank you for your hospitality, Stefan. We have a few details to discuss about a delivery arriving later today and an issue that has come up before Congress, a rather delicate issue.” The Commander stared at me, and I knew this was my cue to leave.
“Whatever the SED requires, we are more than happy to accommodate,” Stefan announced right when I left the room.
I closed the kitchen door behind me and frowned.
“How do they do it, Lena?” I was unsettled.
“How do they simply go along with whatever people tell them to do?”
“The Frankes. Is it for the money?”
Lena shrugged her shoulders as I continued, “Obviously, they’re well compensated for their alliance, but . . .”
“I know . . . I need to be quiet like always . . . I simply think it would be nice to live in a world where people don’t control one another, where you truly are free.” I poured a fresh kettle of coffee into the teapot and set out five teacups while I waited to be summoned again.
“Coffee, sir?” I asked each of the men. They were still engaged in conversation and barely acknowledged my entry.
“We look forward to a long and productive relationship, Stefan Franke.” The man in the black suit raised his cup to Stefan.
“Well, thank you for your confidence.” He then pointed to the young soldiers. “I assume these are two of your finest People’s Police, sir?”
“Absolutely,” the Commander gushed with pride, “These men are being honored today with a medal for exemplary service at the border. We thought it appropriate to recognize their bravery with a delicious meal before we are required before Congress.”
“Oh?” Stefan was hesitant to ask why, but Captain Scharf did not hesitate to share the details of their actions. I tried not to listen. It was horrifying how they joked about a man’s failed escape attempt across the wall.
My face shot irritation towards the group. I couldn’t help it.
Stefan peered my direction and caught sight of my nose wrinkling with disgust. Of all the people I didn’t want to offend, it would be him. I hastily turned my back before I drew the guest’s attention. Yet, the image was difficult to expel; I knew exactly what exemplary service at the border meant. They killed this man and then continued to talk about the incident as if it was some great accomplishment.
“The man thought he was quite smart,” one of the guards inserted. “He inched his way through the canal, but Dietrich spotted him first and pelted the water with bullets.”
“At least thirty,” hooted the other one, who I assumed to be Dietrich.
I could feel tears start to build. I thought of Peter and wondered if the Border Guard who shot him was honored as well. My cheeks burned. I knew if I faced the men, they would see I was upset. I needed to step out.
“Fräulein?” The Commanding Officer called for me. I could not turn. I was afraid my rage would surface.
“May I refill your drinks, gentlemen?” Stefan distracted him. He stood up and retrieved their glasses.
He moved swiftly to where I leaned over the bar. He set the glasses down and reached for my hand and squeezed it gently, completely out of sight.
“Are you OK?” he whispered as the men continued to gloat over the details of what happened at Teltow and the botched recovery of the man’s body. It was difficult to focus on Stefan’s touch. My heart crumbled more and more with each word. He quickly refilled their glasses and whispered for me to go. I nodded and stepped outside the room then outside the house.
“What’s going on, Ella?” Lena opened the back door and found me sitting with my head in my hands.
“I need some fresh air.” I didn’t even glance up.
“You’re lying. What’s going on?”
I kept my voice low, but even as I spoke, I knew the content was dangerous to say.
“I’m tired, Lena. I’m tired of how these men mock our pain, bragging about shooting innocent people and receiving awards for killing common citizens . . . can you believe it? Killing someone earns you a medal of valor!” My voice began to rise with each word.
“Ella, take a walk.”
“No, go!” Lena anxiously pointed me in a direction away from the house. I knew she was trying to help, but I was angry.
“Now!” she cried and closed the door behind me.
I walked but had no idea where to go. Everything in front of me reminded me of the prison I lived in. I stumbled desperately towards Papa’s grave. Images of broken and bloodied escapees somehow clouded my way. Their illusory cries of desperation and fear filled my ears. Reprieve seemed unattainable until I finally reached the grassy mound. Even though there wasn’t a marker to bear his name, I knew the exact spot of Papa’s body. I desperately needed to feel his strength at this very moment.
Papa had to do tough things in his young life, one of which was to help round up Jewish people from Poland and board them on a train to Auschwitz. He knew the slaughterhouse he sent them to. It killed him to do it, but he was bound.
It was ridiculous I was so weak, much weaker than I should be having him as a father. He often times told me he wished he had refused. That maybe at some point, if he had said no, one person would have been saved. He knows he could have been killed, but he said, “dying doing the right thing would not be a bad way to die.”
Removing my apron, the linen fell carelessly to the grass. Watching it drop, I realized I was one crack short of shattering. I was done. I didn’t want to live this way anymore, to feel small and helpless, insignificant and unimportant, pretending to be happy when, in fact, life here was confining and crippling.
No place to go, like a fish in a fishbowl, waiting for the hook or net to destroy me. Papa was right, I needed to take a stand. Maybe I can’t stand up to these men physically, but I also don’t need to serve them as they titter about their revolting conquests.
By the time I made my way homeward several hours later, the sun had set and the distinct call of the crickets, welcoming the darkness, intensified the closer I got. As I approached, there, sitting on the steps, was Stefan. He appeared handsome, but tired. My eyes glanced his way but didn’t light up at the sight of him like they had barely two days ago.
“Ella!” He stood immediately.
“What are you doing here?” I whispered.
“I came to see if you were alright.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Not long,” he lied. The crease in his pants was evidence he had been sitting a long time.
“I needed to walk.”
“For seven hours?”
I moved around him to go inside. His hand reached for my arm.
“Talk to me, Ella.” He didn’t let go.
I scanned around by habit, even though I didn’t care who listened.
“How can you do it, Stefan?”
“Listen to those men speak so callously about a person’s life? How can you knowingly participate?”
“I have a duty, Ella,” Stefan defended calmly. “I’m in charge of the mortuary now, and I have a responsibility to maintain a relationship with this administration . . . even if—” he gazed around himself this time, “—even if I don’t agree.”
“But it’s not who you are, Stefan.” Tears started to roll down my cheeks. “I saw a man, an inspiring man, speak on Saturday of how precious life is. Then, today, that same man submitted to the will of evil
men who take every opportunity to silence innocent life.”
Stefan wiped my tears with his hand.
“Do you burn innocent people, Stefan?”
“Ella, . . .” Stefan’s hand lingered on my face, “please don’t do this.”
“Do you?” my voice strained.
“Ella, . . .” His eyes dropped.
My eyes shifted to a single vine of ivy climbing the concrete steps, I needed to see anything but his face. “You can’t be both, Stefan. You are either one or the other,” I contended and then brushed his hand aside. I walked inside the apartment building without a backward glance.
I could not sleep. Stefan’s expression appeared every time I closed my eyes. The pain of my words injured him. I saw it over and over again in my mind, the tenderness of his heart and the struggle he must have trying to please everyone but himself. Who is this man who has me unexpectedly ensnared? What power does he have to make me feel like I’m on top of the world one moment then below it the next?
I thought about my decision to go or not go back to the Frankes’. I contemplated the consequences of my choice and knew Papa would be proud of me either way, but he had also taught me that giving your word was invaluable. If you agreed to something and didn’t see it through, you risked losing your integrity. What kind of person did I want to be?
I walked to the bathroom sink and splashed cold water on my face.
As I dried it with a towel, I scrutinized the woman facing me in the mirror. She had every reason to be angry, every reason to hold a grudge or even seek revenge. Her history was as porous as the war-torn buildings around her, but did she really want to be defined by her hardships? Her weaknesses? Or how she overcame those trials, time and time again?
As I contemplated this, I recognized my greatest error.
All this time, I chastised Stefan for his inability to stand up against wrong, yet I was willing to jeopardize my own character by not standing by my word and fulfilling my own contract with the Frankes who, at a time of fear and hopelessness, came to my desperate need and provided a casket and plot for my papa.
It suddenly seemed I was in no position to judge . . . anyone.