February 24, 1938
“We must act now,” Niklas warned the group. The twenty-three students who’d gathered for the anti-Nazi meeting held their collective breath as he went on. “I swear to you, Austria will not be spared the hand of German destruction simply because our blood is theirs. They will bring upon us the dystopian horrors which is their legacy.”
Murmurs erupted throughout the gathering. Men rallied their outrage, a desire to storm the government buildings and stage a coup then and there, and women whispered in hushed tones amongst themselves.
Rage grew in heavy crescendo, deafening and defeating ideals in its panic until I jumped to my feet to calm it. “We mustn’t be irrational,” I implored, the conductor of an orchestra of disarray, beating baton in the air to little avail. “We can assemble and protest, but twenty students are no match for the whole of the Wehrmacht!”
Niklas stepped beside me, gripping my arm and pushing me back down to the seat. “The Führer believes we are oppressed Germans, longing for his divine deliverance? I tell him to Hell, Herr Führer!” He spat on the ground, filled with hatred for the tyrant of Germany. “Rally!” Niklas called out. “Get on your feet, march to Leopoldstadt and show the Juden you are with them, and we will not let Austria fall to the aggressing Fatherland.”
The people stood, gathering their coats and chanting their hatred for the fascists bordering their land. Niklas pulled me to my feet and took my elbow, following far enough behind the crowd that we wouldn't be overheard.
“Have you gone mad, Elsa?”
I tore my arm from his grasp. “No, I haven’t lost my mind! Twenty young people cannot face down the entirety of the German military, Niklas. You’ll get them all killed.”
Stopping on the street, he pushed me against a stone wall with injuring strength. The force cracking and echoing in my skull. “Why do you think we’re here, Elsa?”
Tried as I might to press him away, Nicklas's gaunt form was stronger than I anticipated. “To unite the students for Austrian nationalism, of course, and—”
“False!” he hissed. “We’re here to send a message and make sure Hitler knows there are people ready to stand against him—German and Aryan-blooded people—who oppose him.”
“But they’re too young,” I argued; a vain attempt to reason with an unreasonable man. “It won’t matter until we get the elder generations involved. The students . . . they’re scholars and artists and musicians, not warriors.”
“You were a princess, and I a scholar, Elsa. Now we are warriors.”
“I was no prin–”
“Hush.” Niklas shot a hurried glance at the crowd several paces away. “I’ll tell you this once—” he spoke not in German but in English “—so you fully grasp what I mean.” I glanced with panic rushing through the veins in me, searching for any suspicious eyes or ears built into the walls. “They do not matter,” he snarled, nodding toward the students and breaking back to German. “Half of them are Juden, the other half are communists. None of them will survive this war.”
“You don’t care about the Juden?” I demanded in a hushed, fiery tone, searching for truths in his narrowed eyes.
“It matters not what I care about,” he answered with vague indignation. “I won’t lose sleep over a Jew, only the Austrians who will die.” My body went slack against the wall, a rag doll tossed aside, and he stepped back. “Come,” he ordered, offering his hand in a gesture of peace between two collaborators—saboteurs to the Reich’s plans. I wanted to challenge him, to refute his skepticism and bigotry toward those they’d come to know, but I could not. Instead, I accepted his proffered hand and allowed him to pull me along to catch up with the group.
“There you are, Elsa,” Rachel Lipstein called, slipping an arm around me and stealing her away from Niklas. He cast a stern, warning look my way before walking ahead. Rachel was a sweet, nineteen-year-old girl with stars in her eyes and romance fluttering about like sparrows in her heart. She and I hardly knew each other, but that hadn't stopped her from findng something in me to idolize. We'd met in a dress shop owned by Rachel’s mother, where I'd purchased the beautiful black gown I word to the New Year’s gala, and had struck up a conversation as Rachel read The Wizard of Oz behind the counter. The cinnamon-haired, bespectacled girl grinned up at her acquaintance. “I like Herr Böhm, I believe,” she whispered when he was far enough away.
I coughed a strangled laugh. “I wouldn’t hold out your hopes for him. He’s my cousin and believe me, romance isn’t a word in his vocabulary. The only things he’s interested in two things: one is too scandalous for your beautiful innocence, and the other is finding someone to teach me to cook.” They’d been in Austria for close to two months, and they relied on their own resources to procure sustenance, but Niklas was terrible at cooking anything other than griddle-fried Blutwurst sandwiches with Romadur cheese. The Austrian blood sausage was nothing like I had ever tasted before; the garlic flavor combined with the cheese in a pungency which had taken much work to keep down in the first weeks, and I had enough decency not to mention it with the Jewess since it was made with pig blood and was nowhere near kosher. Alas, my cooking was no better, for I’d always had someone to wait on me throughout my life.
“Cooking? I know the perfect tutor for you,” Rachel declared with a bright smile, the kind that lit bulbs over the heads of silly cartoon characters when they’d come upon an ingenious idea. “Miriam!” she called ahead. An attractive brunette with an alluring face, symmetrical and elegant, turned toward the sound of her name. Another Jewess. Niklas’s portentous words about the fate of these people molested my mind though I tried to ignore the way they crushed my lungs and pinned me to the cobblestone walk.
The beauty made her way to us with a smile speaking of a pained soul and wounded heart, but lips lifted nonetheless. Awe etched in decorative measures across her face, however, like sheet music to a Vivaldi composition, and she beamed at me.
“Elsa,” Rachel introduced. “This is Miriam Halévy.”
She reached out and clasped both my hands in her own as though we were old friends. “You’re such an inspiration, Fräulein Brenner,” the woman declared with excitement. “For a woman, you stand against the Führer with such magnitude and strength. I can’t even imagine the courage it takes to do something so brave.”
I pulled back from the woman, discomfited to be honored for the charade I put on and the role I acted each day. “Please, call me Elsa.” The two girls stared up at me, transfixed, and the admiration in their eyes ruffled me as though a spotlight beamed down with people falling at her feet to worship their idol, but I was no deity to be revered. I was nothing but a transgressor filled with untruths, trying to stop . . . or was it start . . . a war. I could no longer tell the difference.
Instead of playing upon their lionization, I carried them on to a new subject with haste. “Rachel tells me you’re a wonderful cook, and that I might be able to convince you to teach me a thing or two.”
Miriam’s eyes narrowed in thought only a moment, so quick I might have missed it if I hadn’t been forced to learn to detect such things. When a full scarlet blush fanned the woman’s cheeks and she smiled, my thoughts drifted away on the breeze.
“She’s boasting my meager skills,” Miriam insisted, “but I’d be happy to teach you what I know. My mother was a cook for Gabrielle Chanel back—”
I paused in the middle of their stroll, and the other women were forced to turn to look at me. “Coco Chanel?” I wondered aloud in awed adulation, my hips swaying of their own accord with the memory of the way the black chic gown with gold branch stitching etched down the middle skimmed and teased my body. That dress was a better lover than Jack had ever been, yet I’d left it behind, alone and missing my soft skin within my closet in Los Angeles. “The Chanel?”
Wistful thoughts played at the corner of Miriam’s lips. “Yes, the one and only. She hired Mama as a seamstress but soon discovered she was a better cook. We lived in a little apartment near her villa, La Pausa, and I grew up in the kitchen.”
“I’m surprised you came to Vienna instead of staying there. You could have been her apprentice and become a great designer!” I exclaimed, eyes dancing with the idea of such a life—a life I envied now for herself. When I returned from Austria, perhaps I'd convince Jack to spend a season in Paris with me—or without Jack, I thought more ardently—and I could meet and study under Mademoiselle Chanel. But neither woman spoke and the light dimmed in my excitement by what I saw in them. “What is it?”
Miriam’s eyes darkened like river rocks, washed brown and smooth by the rushing waters, and I excused myself from the conversation with brimming tears. “I have to speak with Georg. Elsa, I’ll be happy to visit with you and make some meals together, but if you’ll please excuse me now . . . ” Rachel and I watched Miriam walk away, her shoulders sagging with the weight of unwanted memory.
Rachel aired the peculiar behavior of the other woman when she was out of earshot. “They were dismissed from the Chanel household four years ago when the Duke of Westminster, Coco’s lover, criticized her for employing Jews. Miriam moved here after her mother died of consumption.”
“But why Austria? Look what’s happening at its doorstep,” I implored, unable to fit the pieces together. Already, a steady emigration of European Jews had begun, and for a young woman like Miriam, there was little reason she’d want to be closer to the Reich’s outstretching hand.
“Our lovely Miriam is Mischlinge,” Rachel replied as though it explained everything. Half-breed. “Her father is a Wehrmacht Generaloberst.” A German general? The moment shifted as the pieces began to fall into place before my eyes. “He fought in France during the war and had a love affair with Miriam’s mother. After Ailsié—her mother—passed away, Miriam wanted to know her father . . . but it just wasn’t possible for her to live with him. Not with the politics of Germany. Mischlinge are as low as the full Juden in the Führer’s eyes.”
“That’s terrible,” I stammered, shaken by the depth of hatred which existed in the Reich, even for the children of Deutsch blood.
“Yes, well, Generaloberst Meyer didn’t join the Party until a few months ago, but he is loyal to the Fatherland. And his wife and children weren’t exactly open to taking in his bastard Französisch-Jude daughter.” A French-Jew was low on the list of people the Germans would care about, especially after the Great War.
“Generaloberst Meyer, you say?” I asked, the name bringing to mind the older man in the gray wool uniform from the New Year’s gala. “Tall with graying hair?”
“Ja.” Rachel nodded. “I’ve only met him twice at Miriam’s home, but he visits her when he’s in Austria on business. She’s his secret which everyone is aware of. Anyway, I’m certain there’s only one Generaloberst Meyer in the armed forces. For the Wehrmacht, that’s a rather high rank. Do you know him?”
I looked ahead, watching Niklas speaking in animated fascination with one of the other men. There was something amiss; I felt it in my gut. “I think I might.”
“Austria will go thus far and no further!” was the cry of their chancellor.
The loud speakers in the Leopoldstadt ghetto—Mazzesinsel or “Matzo Island” as it was often referred to—boomed with the words of Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg, and a collective roar of approval rang through the crowded square. All the Jews of the area gathered to listen to their leader’s speech, hoping it would refute the claim which Hitler had made days earlier, vowing the Fatherland would no longer allow those of Germanic blood to live outside the Reich—a threat of annexation.
A cloud passed over my as I watched my friends—acquaintances—throw their arms around each other and sing the anthem of Austria with jubilant abandon. My lips lifted as Rebecca and Rachel, twin sisters with the same cinnamon-spiced hair, hiked their skirts up to show their garter straps and danced a Bohemian polka of their Czechoslovakian family, flailing to the anthem sung as joy wrapped them in its wings and carried them about the square. The relief was liquid, settling over everyone’s heads and covering our tiny world in a dewy euphoria.
But nothing was right. I felt a breath in my ear and Niklas’ cologne swirling in the air, spun about by dancers and cheers and hollers. “It’s delaying the inevitable,” he murmured. I blinked up at his drawn face with fraught eyes. “The Third Reich won’t sit by and let Austria retain its independence. Chancellor Schuschnigg is attempting to start a fire with soaked kindling. As are we. This whole mission was flawed from the start.”
“You can’t mean that, Niklas. You yourself told me it wouldn’t happen,” I implored, motioning to the excited crowd around us. “Look at these people. They’ve been promised protection as Austrian citizens, nothing can happen.”
Scoffing, Niklas grasped my arm and pulled me from the masses and back toward our little corner of Vienna. “Promises mean nothing when the chancellor has Hitler’s pistol pointed at his head. The Juden are the dogs, sent out to the streets as first blood. Austria will protect the Catholics as much as they can, but they won’t protect the Christ-killers in the end.”
I yanked my arm away from Niklas’ grasp. “Is this how you feel, Niklas, or are you only explaining the disgusting dogmas of your people?”
His beady eyes narrowed to an ominous squint, murderous in their inflicting anger. “You forget you are Deutsch, Fräulein. You may have a weak heart for these people because of the integrated ways America conducts itself, but you, Elsa Brenner, are from München—the Fatherland—and you will behave as such. If you do not...well, then you’ve already ruined us from saving ourselves when this falls on our heads. Mark my words: It will fall, and soon.”
He left me there, standing in the slivered moonlight to contemplate my role in the catastrophe at our doorstep. I considered Rachel and Rebecca and Miriam—sweet Miriam the half-breed beauty—and knew the choices I had to make; I wouldn’t leave these people out for the devils as I had the poor muddy boy on the streets of Los Angeles months before. After all, I may be the last extension of peace these people had.
March 4, 1938
Days drifted away like ocean tides. We hadn’t become friends, Niklas and I, for life was far too tumultuous for the frivolities of companionship, but we moved around each other with quiet ease, each with a job to do and tasks to complete. My missives with New York became more frequent, warning of the shifting political climate in the whole of Europe.
They were written as letters, evidence of a budding relationship forged in the fires of sin, posted from England or France or Spain, wherever he’d been at that time. The vital information was often followed by sentiments of praise and pride. The last I received that same morning, and I sat at the table, fingers dancing along the grainy paper where a translator had written his words, since he posed as a German friend in case of mail interception.
You’ll need to begin making arrangements to leave. Sources inside the Eagle speak of troop movement, preparing to amass at the border. I want you out before they move in. Make preparations.
Your mother writes nearly every day, and I have a girl penning responses for you. Your father writes less often, but the paper is doing its mission with what was arranged.
Jack . . . He’s a hard-headed bastard, isn’t he? Tell me, Pearl, when did your husband become aware of your complete and total disdain for him? Was it the day I saw you dancing in that Georgia peach dress? Or maybe it was when you came in like a thunderstorm to my office. He couldn’t know your indifference until you left him for . . . well, me.
I anxiously await the end of this all so I can see you again. The air is lacking without your heat in it.
I drew the tips of my fingers over the words and frowned at their risqué meaning. Not a single message from him prior had been about anything other than political movements, mentions of my family, and short queries about my wellbeing. He’d lifted the bar and I was unsure how to respond.
I slipped an ivory sheet of paper from her co-conspirator, and began penning a reply to the man I admired, though I'd become quite a bit worried and flustered over him as well. My words were straightforward and professional, agreeing to seek travel out of Austria, yet they began to digress where his had.
I’m quite certain my husband knew of my lack of enthusiasm for him before he gave me that ruby ring. I know you were watching that day. I saw you there. However, my leaving him was less for you and more for the cause, though I, too, look forward to seeing you, my dear friend, New York.
With the kindest regards,
I looked up from my paper and envelope after I sealed it, making certain it was secure, and watched as Niklas drew another map on the fine stationery with blue and purple and turquoise butterflies provided to me by New York before I left England. This time, the map was of the city, with swastikas marking the homes of known members of the Austrian National Socialists, and paths we could take or basements we could hide in if they needed to run. Another stack of papers to his left held forged visas, ready for use when the time came.
Niklas made it his self-imposed mission to infiltrate the Austrian government through his connections. If that had been part of the plan, I was never privy to it. He spent his days with men who had worked with his father and the president—a rouse to help keep Austria free of the Reich—and his nights were spent at my table, drawing maps and codes and plans of escape.
“It’s getting close, isn’t it?” I asked, interrupting his sketching.
Niklas looked up at me with squinting eyes. “What?”
“Anschluß. I received a letter from New York this morning. They expect annexation any day now.”
He rolled his eyes and looked back to his sketch. “I told you the chancellor’s speech would only provoke the Führer further. Troops are amassing at the border as we speak.”
“He wants us to leave—” I began, but he cut me off.
“Leave?” Niklas shouted, shoving back from the table and throwing his pencil down. “We’ve done nothing! We can’t run away with our tail between our legs, even if they set us up for failure. There’s so much to do, or at the very least attempt to do.”
I lifted my hands in surrender and stood, making my way to the kitchen to pour another cup of tepid black coffee. my tastes had changed in the past months. Tea no longer provided the energy needed to keep going day in and day out. My body was drained of fuel, a car on its last leg with an unforgiving long stretch of road ahead.
“I can’t say I disagree with you, Niklas,” I told him, remaining in the kitchen. “The student’s have been rallying around the idea of Austrian nationalism, but they’ll need a good shove when the Nazis get here. Who knows, perhaps they’ll be able to send them away without any bloodshed?”
Niklas scoffed his indignation. “There won’t be bloodshed when the Nazis waltz through the streets of Salzburg or Vienna or Linz, or any of the little villages along the way. The people will throw palms in their path as though it were Jesus himself riding in on an ass,” he snorted. “This ass will be a Panzer of course . . . many tanks ready to blow us to bits if we protest anything.”
“Then what is this all for?” I raised a questioning brow, doubtful of his conviction. “You have such little faith in your own people, Niklas?”
“On the contrary.” He shook his head. “I have complete faith in their sense of self-preservation.”
“Then why are we here? Why did you agree to this if you knew what the end result would be?”
He stood and made his way to where I leaned against the yellow tile countertop, caging me in like a nervous canary, with his arms on either side of me. “We were too late,” he murmured with breath spiked with sweet cognac.
“I do hope you’re wrong,” I said, attempting to move away from him, but his arm kept me securely in placed.
He leaned down, pushing his nose into my hair. “You smell like Edelweiß,” he murmured of the sweet, mountainous flower of his homeland. I might have smelled like it, but I was in no way as pure as its wooly white leaves. “Let me take you to your bed.”
My breath caught in my chest, and my hand formed an instinctive fist. “How about you let me pass instead.”
Niklas hesitated for a moment before snorting and stepping back. “Think about it, Virginia. We’ve been without it for too—”
“Do not call me that!” I fumed, stepping forward and raising my hand to slap him, but he caught my wrist with practiced ease. I pulled away from his grasp. “I’m married.”
“And you hate him,” he snapped, lifting his hand to my cheek. “Do you think I don’t see New York’s letters?”
I fumed my anger at him, turning my head so his caress fell free, and pointed a steady finger in his face. “Why don’t you take that hand and be the wanker you’re behaving like. Go back to your apartment and sober up.”
His jaw flexed and nostrils flared before he dropped his eyes. “Please forgive me, Fräuline Brenner,” he apologized and stepped around me.
The resounding thud of the front door slamming shook my entire body, but I lifted the cup to my lips and let the bitter liquid slip down my throat, refusing to allow him to rattle me the way he’d rattled the window panes.
The following Monday, I entered the Austrian government building with caution and determination. Niklas had arranged an appointment for me with the chancellor; though the reason was unknown to me, its importance was stressed with great significance. He’d told me it was important to allow the chancellor to lead, so I resolved to follow his instructions.
“Fräulein Brenner,” Chancellor Schuschnigg greeted as I was escorted into his office by a woman with ivy-colored eyes and vines of wrinkles leading into her snow-white hair. When the elderly woman left the room and closed the door behind her with a resonant click, the chancellor took my hand and bowed with a regal air of Austrian propriety over my fingertips. “Herr Böhm has spoken highly of you, my dear. We’re so glad you’ve joined us here.”
I nodded with respectful thanks to the leader of Austria and sat in the overstuffed chair opposite him when he motioned for me to do so before he lit a pipe stuffed with peppermint scented tobacco. He observed me from behind round wire glasses in deep thought as he puffed the smoke into his lungs before at last speaking to reveal the reason for my visit. “The German Führer must be stopped at Austria’s border. If he is not, he won’t end this with Austria. He’ll go to Czechoslovakia and Poland and everywhere else. He’s not interested in simply uniting the Germans, he’s on a Napoleonic mission to conquer Europe, and we’ll be his first victim. Do you agree?”
Shocked at the sudden and deliberate words, I tangled and tightened my fingers together in my lap, clenching my jaw. He’d led the conversation with a certain anti-Nazi breath of peppermint smoke, so I inhaled deeply and followed as Niklas had bid. “The Führer is interested only in domination of the continent. The people in his way are ants to be demolished by the heavy boot of his Wehrmacht . . . but Austria won’t be a victim if they let him in.”
The chancellor studied me with narrowed eyes fit for the precarious tone of the subject, and the old woman brought me a cup of mint tea in and left the room again. Pulling the pipe from between his lips, he smiled and pointed the tip at me. “You’re Bavarian?” he asked.
Taken aback by the sudden change in subject, I leaned back in her chair and swallowed hard. I had no idea where the conversation was leading, and part of me wanted to impale Niklas with the poker sitting beside her fireplace for putting me in such a position, but I responded nonetheless. “Ja.”
“And you know that the way you speak is treasonous?” he asked. My heart pounded in my chest, pumping adrenaline and blood into every ravine of my terrified soul. Had I misunderstood his stance against the Nazis? Impossible, though perhaps he’d been so pressured and threatened by them he’d surrendered his loyalty. Had this all been a setup?
“Ja,” I exhaled, counting to ten before inhaling again.
With slow decision, his eyes relaxed and the corners of his mouth lifted. “Good,” he said. “Well then, I’d love to ask why you’ve come here to betray your Fatherland, but I don’t think I need to. Niklas has told me enough, and I think I understand.”
He waved off my concerned and questioning worries. “You’ve nothing to fear from me, Fräulein Brenner, but if you truly want to help with an uprising against the Nazi party, you may as well start here. The Austrian Nazi Party may not be what Germany’s is, but they have organization and, unfortunately, they have willpower and hatred on their side. The rest of Austria wants only peace. We’ve been exhausted by war—the Great War, the civil uprising—everything has added up to massive weariness, and we’ve no fight left in us.”
“I don’t know that this is true, Chancellor,” I interjected, confidence coursing through me once more. “I’ve seen the light in the eyes of the students. They hate the Nazis as much as the Nazis hate them.”
“Yes, but do they have the arms? Do they have the ability and training to fight against an army?”
“Nein,” I conceded but felt the urge to argue for the vitality of the impassioned disposition of the Austrian youth. “But you should have seen them the night you declared Austria independent of German rule. They were dancing in the streets.”
“Hitler doesn’t care for what I say about Austrian independence, and much less for what a handful of students are saying about it,” he said, shaking his head with a dismal laugh. “I’ve scheduled an emergency vote about Austrian independence for the thirteenth, and I’ve raised the voting age to twenty-four.”
“But, Chancellor,” I implored, leaning forward, “you’ll cut off many of the students who’ve rallied at your side.”
“A sacrifice to stop many of the young Nazis who’ve united with the Führer.”
I sat back in my chair, resigned to the masquerade of understanding. “I see. Perhaps I should’ve focused my efforts on the elder Austrians instead of the students.”
“I fear, before the end of the month, it won’t matter if you’ve banded together an entire army of militia . . . the Germans will be here, the military will be ordered not to resist, and all other efforts to impede their advance will be for naught. Soon, we shall all feel the flames of war lick our boots.”
I said nothing but sipped my tea in quiet contemplation while observing the beautiful architecture of the office and wondering if it would be in shambles by the end of the year.
“I am not in league with the British or the French, though they’ve said they would uphold the terms of the Treaty of Versailles which does not allow for the German-Austrian Union. However, I know much about you and I’ve already spoken to Niklas about this,” the chancellor interrupted my thoughts with horrifying insight into my charade. “You must know you can refuse this request. It’s dangerous, costly, and certainly not sanctioned by your . . . employers.”
“What is it?” I questioned with curiosity and excitement filling my blood, replacing the trepidation which should have had the cyanide pill in my palm and ready to end my life by now. He knew much too much, but he’d also intrigued me with the addiction of adventure.
“We need to evacuate as many Jüdische Kinder as we can from Austria.” I gasped at the implications of such an undertaking for it was much more of an risk than I could have imagined. “I’ve arranged transport trains to carry the children first to Linz, then Graz, until they can make it into Hungary. There is a network of the Juden, some of whom I’m told you’ve made friends with, who’ve gathered names and information of these children and families.”
“What about all the children in western Austria?” I asked as my only concern was for those left behind—the ones who would be the first crushed under Hitler’s panzers. “What will become of them?”
Chancellor Schuschnigg placed his pipe back in his mouth and puffed for several long moments before answering. “Not all can be saved,” he said with simplicity. “We can hope for gracious souls in the west willing to do the same for their neighbors.”
I closed my eyes, heavy and downtrodden with thought and knew this victory would be pyrrhic, though, perhaps someday, the reward would be worth the cost.