Chapter 6: “JUDE”
Despite my first morning away from the Franke home, I could not sleep longer than eight o’clock. I’d returned to my own bed since I no longer watched over Papa, only there was no comfort in it. The room I shared with Josef was dark and depressing. It didn’t matter which way I turned my head, his memory was everywhere. The clothes he wore the day before he left still lay crumpled in a pile. The toy car he would push down the long hall, solely to hear the metal wheels against the tile, sat on top the chest. The small leather bag of marbles had been dropped neglectfully to the floor. I reluctantly slid off the bed to the cold floor. When I reached for the pouch, my fingers tangled in the string. Instantly, it reminded me of a similar bag, the one Anton discovered in the secret room.
It was the winter of 1953. Most of the children were down with the pox, and the nurses were distracted. Anton and I had wandered away from the group on one of our exploits around the home. It was a perfect cover since they never even realized we were gone. We didn’t venture far, just in the closet under the stairs when, unexpectedly, a wall rattled. Anton nudged it barely enough to reveal a tight chute leading downward. It was his idea to go down and see where it led. I was nervous; then again, we had few adventures to be excited about. My hesitation was short, and the drop was not far.
We found a very small room in a basement, which supposedly didn’t exist. The space was quite dark except for a few hand-sized slits. The gaps gave us a slanted view of shoes passing on the sidewalk in front of our building. These, and a few decent sized holes in the walls, provided just enough light from the outside to move about. At first I was scared, then our eyes adjusted to the shadows, and I was eager to explore our new mysterious nook. We spent nearly twenty minutes in the dark space the first time we went.
This was to be our second visit down the chute, only this time we brought a candle. Anton swiped it from Nurse Gitta’s room a week ago and let Frederick take the blame. He was known for being a thief anyway, so it didn’t matter he was innocent this one time.
“I don’t want to see you get kicked out, Anton. They might decide they’ve had enough,” I suggested as I shuffled around the dusty space.
“I’m not scared,” Anton said as he looked around. We were alone. I wiped my moist hands against my skirt. Anton lifted the flame in my direction. It suddenly brought forth a whole new level of possibilities. I glanced around. My lip curled at the sight of rodent feces that dotted the floor. A handful of copper casings lay in a pile, tempting me forward.
“What are these?” I held them out to Anton. He reached for one and inspected it closely.
“It’s from a gun,” he declared confidently. I was surprised he knew this. A chill rippled my skin with the thought something violent must have happened here.
I momentarily strayed from our conversation as I eyed a stained and filthy bed roll in one corner and a partially broken stool in the other. Layers of papers were taped to the walls; writings neither one of us could really read, but lots of words were scratched, page after page.
“I wonder what happened here?” I inquired curiously as I brushed some of the garbage aside.
“It was a fight,” Anton said so matter-of-fact. “A husband and wife fought, and she shot him . . . dead.”
I rolled my eyes. “Why was she the one who shot him? Maybe he was a spy and discovered a secret . . . then he shot her!” I noticed a small stack of linens. I picked up the first one and shook the layered dust off it.
“He couldn’t have hurt her—” Anton constructed the crime, “— she was the love of his life, but she betrayed him.” He turned over a book with a broken spine. The soiled leather pouch appeared under a brittle newspaper.
My fingers brushed over fine lace that bordered a light-blue handkerchief. I was mesmerized. I’d never beheld anything quite so beautiful.
“They were childhood sweethearts—” I continued the story, “— She didn’t betray him; he went to war and left her behind.” I moved over to the small candle, which flickered on the stool and held the linen to the light. In one corner, two small symbols had been embroidered in white,
“Maybe her name was Anna—” I wondered what the stitches meant.
“—And her husband’s name was Dietrich,” Anton said, as he untied the small strap and emptied the contents into his hand.
“He smoked,” Anton added as a pipe and small tobacco can rolled out. I went to his side with the satin material still gripped in my fingers. I watched as he inspected the last two contents of the bag, a small photograph of a pretty woman and a crumpled piece of yellow fabric.
I peered at the photograph and whispered, “He was in love.” I fought a smile. I wanted to laugh out loud; this had been a fun game.
“He was a Jew.” Anton’s voice was flat. I looked at his hands as he held the now-open, yellow fabric. It was a star with black lettering. It spelled “Jude”.
Anton dropped everything instantly. His reaction startled me, and I dropped the linen as well. We looked at each other with a simultaneous realization. This room had been a hideaway for a Jew!
We had been fairly sheltered in the orphanage, yet the nurses talked. They talked a lot. The stories we overheard about the Jews were confusing and many times frightening. We knew about the yellow badge, and the people who wore them had disappeared during the war. It wasn’t until much later I learned about the death camps, the gas chambers, the ovens, and the scarred survivors.
I was born shortly after the war ended. Anton would have been born during the war, and even though he never talked about his past, rumors circulated. One of the older girls insisted Anton’s father was involved in the Third Reich, Hitler’s soldiers. Another one said his parents were imprisoned. No one seemed to know the real reason he ended up at our home at eight years of age, and I never asked.
This could explain his anger, though.
“We need to leave,” Anton insisted. He grabbed my arm a little rougher than I expected.
“Ow, Anton, that hurt.”
“Let’s go, now!”
“OK, just let me grab the linen.” I didn’t wait for his answer. I gripped it tightly between my fingers.
“No!” His voice was sharp. “It’s diseased!”
“Diseased with what?” I joked, although his face was dead-locked serious.
“No!” I shot back. “I want to keep the handkerchief.”
“It belonged to a Jew!”
“I don’t care!”
Anton looked at me fairly alarmed. Without another word, he grabbed the linen from my hands. I watched as he threw it to the ground and headed straight for the chute.
“I’m leaving, Ella. Are you coming with me?” He had my only source of light and gave me little choice; I didn’t want to remain with the rats. With my fists tightly clinched, I stomped louder than normal as I made my way to the shaft and climbed up. Once back inside the closet, Anton blew the candle out. I didn’t wait for him to check the hall for safety, I simply marched right out and back to my bed without another word.
I didn’t speak to him the whole next day. It seemed he was as miserable as I was. The following night, when I pulled my blanket back to go to bed, the corner of the blue linen with the white initials was sticking out from under my pillow. I looked over and across to Anton’s corner of the room. His sad, green eyes were apologetic and sorrowful. I smiled with instant forgiveness.
It was then I realized how much our friendship meant to him . . .
and to me. Anton, it seemed, had been raised with such hateful feelings for the Jews, it must’ve been really hard for him to go back down to the secret room and get the linen for me. It was the same linen I gave him the night he left.
In the eight years I owned it, the handkerchief had become one of my most cherished possessions, and Anton knew this, which is why he freely accepted it. This was also, most likely, why he left me his pin, since it was the only item he ever cared about.
I slumped forward on my stomach as I reached for a wayward marble and let it roll against my fingers. Josef was the last to touch it. What is he doing at this very moment? It was nearly one month to the day they left—the longest I’d ever been apart from either one.
Looking around the room, I was reminded of my imminent end. Yet, instead of packing or cleaning, which all seemed useless since there was no place to go, I wallowed in self-pity until it hit me. I needed to draw. It was the only thing that made sense.
I pulled out my colored wax. Without hesitation, I drew the largest outline of a butterfly I’d ever done, and it was nowhere near paper—I sketched it on the front room wall. The plaster crumbled several times under the pressure, yet it didn’t stop me. Even when the sun set and the darkness penetrated through, I colored until each wax cube became useless.
With a life of limitations, my art seemed to be the only part I could control. I stood on the arm of the couch and lovingly traced the eyes with my finger. The bold, green shading stared hauntingly back at me. I reached for the last stub of red-colored wax and above the antennas wrote:
“To Anton and Josef, may you be as free as a butterfly.”