March 10, 1938
Another railcar full of children lurched out of the station, and I stood in the caboose, watching Linz roll away in the dark cover of the witching hour. Parents, who couldn’t leave homes unsold or valuables to the hands of Nazis, choosing to remain in Austria and wait out whatever would come, waved weeping and sobbing farewells to their children. Other adults, the smart ones, who knew the inevitable ruin heading for Austria, climbed aboard the trains with their children, becoming parents to both their own children and the ones abandoned for their own good.
I glanced with fleeting eyes at the pearl and diamond watch round my wrist. This final train would be rolling into the Graz station in a couple hours, and the chancellor was there waiting for them. For such short notice, they’d been successful in their undertaking. The tally between myself and Niklas’ count had surpassed three hundred. Those were three hundred little lives we saved.
It had been a laborious task, the preparation for emigrating the children from north and west Austria out of the country with haste. From the moment I returned from Chancellor Schuschnigg’s office, Niklas and I set about creating and forging documents—hundreds upon hundreds of papers—until my hand was swollen and I could scarcely grip the fountain pen.
When the night of the ninth came round, Niklas and I dressed for warmth in some of our best clothing—I in a brown and teal silk gown and he in a tuxedo once owned by his father. We would look and play the part of aristocrats out for a night on the town, in case any suspicious eyes were following them late into the night. Niklas had popped the cork off a bottle of champagne and poured half of it into the dead grass, where it bubbled and fizzed until the thirsty earth swallowed it up, before passing it to me.
“Drink up,” he ordered as we slipped into the borrowed car. “If anyone stops us, I want you smelling like alcohol.” Snorting my indignation, I did as bid, not for him but for the headiness it would provide as we set about our task. I knew I’d need the buzzy feeling to lighten my worried mind.
I hoped it would come in handy as we reached the outskirts of Linz and a man with a swastika embroidered upon a red cloth wrapping his arm stepped into our path. The man leaned into my window when we slowed for him, and shone a flashlight on our faces.
“What are you doing out so late?” he asked through rotting, brown teeth and worse breath as he stared down the front of my gown.
“We’re heading home to—” Niklas began, but the man interrupted.
“I was asking the Fräulein,” he said.
I lifted a eyebrow at him and took another swig of the champagne before answering. “As he said, we’re heading home. To Linz. What are you doing out so late?” I echoed the question back to him, sounding as drunken and flirty as I could muster.
His eyes narrowed and he spoke covering me with his rancid breath. “There’s a rumor of an escape coming,” he said with flat, rank words. “Have you heard anything about it?”
“Who would be leaving the beautiful country of Austria?” I queried through forced laughter.
“The Juden of course,” he sneered, leaning further into her window. “They all deserve what’s coming. When you drive through, you’ll see the ashes of the books we burnt in the square tonight. Glory to the Führer and Deutschland.”
“Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen,” I spoke through clenched teeth, quoting the German-Jewish playwright, Heinrich Heine. Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.
The Nazi dragon’s eyes lit with fire, rumbling from low in his belly and the blackness of his heart. “Your pupils aren’t wide enough to be drunk, so you can stop playing, Jude-Liebhaber.”He reached for the pistol in the holster at his side, threatening but not removing it, and spoke again. “Get out of the car, whore.”
I didn’t dare a glance back at Niklas, but lifted my silk gloved hands to the air in surrender and stepped from the car when the man opened the door.
“There’s no need for trouble,” I spoke with hushed words to soothe the man’s anxious and erratic behavior, assuring him there was no need for trouble.
Niklas, as usual, was not on the same wavelength as I, and opened his door, moving around the front of the car in a quick dash and pulling the man’s attention from me. He scrambled for his sidearm, fumbling with the snap holding it in place—giving Niklas enough time to punch him hard in the gut. The Nazi stumbled backward from the force, landing against my chest where the thick chain of my silk purse strap was ready and waiting.
With a swiftness only practiced during training, I brought the strap around his neck and cut off his air supply. The chain dug into my palms and fingers, but I would not relent. He struggled against me, and dropped to his knees for some kind of leverage against my attack, but it was to no avail. When I tightened my grip and felt the energy of life begin to slip from him, I pulled the strap away and turned him to his back.
He gasped for air, believing for a moment he’d live through the ordeal, until I placed my knee and body weight on his chest and wrapped my hands around his neck, pressing hard on his Adam’s apple. I forced with all my might until I heard the cracking of cartilage as his larynx collapsed under my thumbs. Suffocation was a riveting thing to behold—a man struggling to breathe though no air could pass his throat. When his gasping was left unanswered and airless and his lungs collapsed inside his chest, I stood and brushed off my hands as though the dead man was offending crumbs littering my palms.
“Elsa?” Niklas called from the door separating the train cars, and pulling me from my thoughts of the events hours before and the emotional upheaval that was threatening me now that it was over.
“Ja?” I turned toward him. He extended his arms—arms which rolled the Nazi’s lifeless body into an irrigation canal thirty meters off the side of the road, hidden behind a grove of leafless apricot trees—and I allowed myself to be comforted by him for the first time in our strange acquaintance.
“You were very brave,” he murmured into my golden hair. “I was going to tackle him, but you got to him first.”
“I’ve never killed someone,” I stammered, the words foreign on my tongue.
He rubbed my back with comforting ease. “It had to be done.”
“I felt the thrill of it when his throat collapsed,” I admitted, pulling back to look at my hands in fascinated awe. “I was God in that moment.”
“God?” he quipped with mocking skepticism to lighten the heavy, dark moment. “Maybe a valiant knight. God is a little higher up the list, Liebes.”
“That dragon deserved to die. They all do,” I remarked and turned back to looking at the passing countryside, black but for little flickers of lights from farms and automobiles.
By the time they returned to Vienna, the sun was burning away the cool night air from the city’s morning hours and rousing its inhabitants from their dreams. Niklas and I slipped into my home, both collapsing upon the sofa as the exhaustion overtook us.
We’d been key factors in saving close to one thousand children from Austria that night, a feat I hoped and prayed would be worth the toll it had taken. From that moment on, I could only worry and pray for the thousands we hadn’t saved.
March 11, 1938
What can you possibly be doing for fun since I’m not there with you, Pearl? Surely you’re bored to tears and begging for me. I bet we’d make excellent partners: the field, dancing, copulation . . . I wish I’d taken a picture of you before you’d left for Austria—especially with your stockings and heels. I miss those eyes, and I’ve taken to wearing gray just to be reminded of them when I look in the mirror.
It’s surely obvious my affections for you have grown. Each of the letters from your husband makes me want to tear his throat out, and each of your indifferent replies to him makes me want you even more. You have a feistiness I admire. I already know you could hold your own with me.
But, onto business.
Pearl, you must leave now. The Germans will be there any day, and you’ll force me to come in and rescue you if you don’t think smart. It wouldn’t be wise for either of us. Just go to Switzerland. If Böhm doesn’t want to go, leave him. I won’t have you in more danger than necessary. I knew I should have learned the German and gone with you.
Reply with haste.
I reached for a large yellow onion from a merchant’s cart. The vegetable would make a delicious soup to accompany the stale bread Niklas and I hadn’t been able to finish, and I needed to find the perfect cheese to top it.
“Parsley?” Miriam asked, lifting a spray of the herb to her nose like a wedding bouquet, inhaling its freshness. I’d been pleased when my new friend offered to accompany me to the market, and I found myself seeking out companionship more and more. It was never like that before, and perhaps it was the things New York said to me, but I longed for human contact.
I wrote to New York earlier in the day and dropped the letter in the post box as we made our way to the marketplace, teasing him with faux woes of my empty, stricken life from which he was absent, but ignoring the mention of intimacy. Lines and boundaries were blurred between us, but I was unsure where I—married, regretful, unsure, misunderstood, bitter, hopeful—stood. And I denied his order to leave the country. There was much more I could do, and Germany hadn’t invaded ... yet. It took time to amass an army for an invasion, and Niklas hadn’t mentioned the troop movement in over a week.
Cooking, for example, was high on my priority list—though I scoffed at my own delirium—and I wouldn’t give up my lessons unless Germany truly did knock down the doors. I’d been learning to cook from Miriam for a couple weeks, since I’d come with no experience but being waited upon hand and foot. I felt I was mastering the skill, finding a passion for brining and combining flavors and creating new recipes.
“Ja,” I told my new friend, who still held the parsley in her hand, before paying the merchant and moving on.
Wine was next on my shopping list. This booth was one of the largest in the market, and I moved around one side and Miriam took the other, tasting red blends and whites until I found one that sang on my palate. It was heady and redolent. I held up a finger to the owner and moved to find my friend.
“Miriam, you must taste this wi—” I came to a swift halt when I realized what I’d come upon. Miriam was in animated conversation with the man whose warning had not left my thoughts in two months. Maxim Schneider pulled his unsettling eyes from Miriam and focused them on me. There was a sense of affinity on both of the two separate occasions I’d made his acquaintance—a strange phenomenon to feel for someone I scarcely knew—yet it was there all the same.
“Fräulein Brenner,” he greeted with a slight bow. “How do you do today?” His mood had shifted since the New Year’s gala, though it was perhaps due to the alluring brunette beauty of Miriam. Not that it mattered, I told herself.
“Good, Danke,” I acknowledged him with fleeting interest before turning to my companion. “Are you ready to leave? I’ve found the perfect wine.”
“Oh, of course,” Miriam said, and her cheeks bloomed as rosé as pink Persian buttercups. “I’ve invited Herr Schneider to supper.”
I suppressed the longing to roll my eyes and forced a smile for the benefit of my friend, whose feelings for Maxim were staining her cheeks. “Naturally! We’d be honored to host Herr Schneider for this evening’s meal. Supper’s at six. I live on the corner of Mor—”
“Yes, I know,” he said, staring unblinking into my eyes. “Danke, Fräulein.” Maxim turned back to Miriam. “Miriam, always a pleasure. I shall see you both this evening.” Tipping his brown wool Ascot cap, he turned and made his way to a honey booth several meters away.
Miriam’s sigh tore me away from Maxim and back to my friend. “What is it?”
Smiling, Miriam pressed a hand over her chest. “Ich Liebe ihn,” she whispered with ebullient excitement as though it were the biggest non-secret in the world.
“You love him?” I implored, making certain I heard her right.
“Ja. Rachel wants me to get a proposal out of him, but I’ve given myself to him already, so I just have to wait now.”
I gasped, not out of shock at my friend for what I’d been told, but out of the sting of envy rising up within. I forced down the uninvited emotion, the same way I forced down the windpipe of the now swollen and decomposing Nazi in the irrigation canal. I steadied myself and winked at my friend, pinching her arm in jest. “Scandalous, Fräulein Halévy. Utterly scandalous.”
We headed back to my home in the chilled weather, with the remnants of last week’s snow crunching under our leather shoes as we walked on the cobblestone streets. The mink coat given to her by Niklas had proven useful in the past weeks as multiple storms had driven snow upon the Austrian capital.
“You’re so lovely, you know?” Miriam asked with unexpected observance as they stepped inside my makeshift home and set out the groceries on the counter.
“Why do you say that?” I asked with a boisterous laugh. “I look affright. I haven’t had my hair styled in four months.” The nonchalant words slipped through my mouth at the comfort of being with a friend before I could filter the consequence.
“Four months?” Miriam asked in surprise, and I held my breath, removing an onion from the bag and beginning to peel back the dirty layers to reach the richness inside. “You’re doing a poor job keeping up with the aristocracy, darling.” Retrieving a knife from a utensil drawer, I set about chopping the onion, awaiting the barrage of questions and thinking in silent vexation how I cared not for the gentry of Austria. The juices filled my eyes with burning tears, but still I did not move. “We’ll get you to a salon soon.”
I released a breath I’d been holding and turned with a forced smile to my friend. “That would be lovely, Miriam.”
“What I meant, though, was you’re so lovely. You’re a beautiful Aryan woman, yet you associate with me? A Jüdin?” Her words weren’t timid as I would have expected. This was a woman who knew her lot, accepted her place in society, and anticipated the beginning of oncoming oppression. In due time, she’d be facing sharpened talons of the eagle of the Third Reich and all the rot and destruction it entailed.
“I may be German, my friend,” I responded, “but I’m no Nazi. They—”
“—Will be here soon. You won’t be able to walk around saying those things, Elsa. I’ve heard stories of what they’ve done with political dissidents in the Fatherland.”
I stopped chopping the onion and turned toward Miriam. This was just what New York had mentioned; they wanted to know what was being done with the Jews and those who disagreed with the Nazis. “What’s happened?” I asked, maintaining a façade of disinterest.
Miriam studied the moss green label of a bottle of cognac she’d purchased at the market, peeling at the edge with long pink fingernails, before unscrewing the lid and taking a heavy swig. The way her eyes watered and her face soured told me this wasn’t something Miriam was practiced at; if she needed liquid courage to get through, the answer would be devastating.
“They round them up like livestock,” she choked out, “and ship them off on cattle trains to camps,” Miriam murmured, her eyes focusing again on the bottle in her hands.
My heart pounded in my chest. “What happens at the camps, Miriam?”
A demented laugh bubbled from my friend’s throat, and she lifted her gaze to me. “No one lives to tell, and if they do, they’re just shipped to another camp. My brother . . . my father’s son, anyway, is a captain at one of the camps.”
“Your brother?” I questioned, confused. “I thought it was just you and your mother in France.”
“Ja, well, my father still had his own . . . acceptable Aryan family in Berlin. I met my brother only once, but he threatened to turn me in if I remained in Germany or tried to build a relationship with our father. I left after that, and now Hans—our father—sees me when he can here in Vienna. He warned me at the beginning of the year that he might not be able to save me when the time came. I might have to sell my soul for salvation.”
Stepping around the kitchen counter, I made my way to Miriam. In the few weeks we’d known each other, we became close as I imagined sisters could be. When I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her head against me, a torrent of emotion poured from the beautiful Jewess. Wet tears soaked through my butterscotch dress, staining the rayon with mascara and salt.
“Shh,” I soothed. “You’ll be safe. You can stay with me when the time comes.”
Miriam shook her head in fear. “They would do the same with you if they found me here. My half-sister—she’s been the only kind one to me—sent word from Berlin about her neighbor who was found hiding Jews. She was shot in the street—a German citizen!”
I pressed down the fear building inside. “Okay, well, better yet, you can emigrate to America. You’d have a whole new life there.”
“I’ve heard it’s beautiful there. Movie stars and Hollywood and New York...” Miriam’s tears dried up as a wistful look filled her eyes.
“Oh, yes,” I said with excitement bubbling up inside, replacing the fear with instantaneous hope. “Los Angeles is hot and perfect, and there’s never snow. You’ll love it there, I promise. And the beach...”
Miriam looked up to me with a quizzical expression. “That must’ve been exciting for you. When did you visit America?”
Blanching, I smoothed my dress and backed into the kitchen and to her supper preparations, searching my mind in desperation for a way out of the slips I kept making. “Oh, well, I’ve read many stories about America. I can’t imagine how wonderful it must be,” she answered, praying it sufficed.
“You seem to have rather an intimate knowledge for someone who’s just read—”
A knock at the door cut off Miriam’s musing, and I glanced at the clock. Six on the nose. “Will you be a dear and answer the door, Miriam?” I asked, thanking the deities above for men with a sense of punctuality who’d saved me from my lax tongue.
Soft voices rumbled from the foyer, growing in their timbre as Miriam returned with Maxim and Niklas in tow. “Our handsome dinner guests have arrived, Elsa,” Miriam announced with such flair no one would have guessed she’d been crying moments before.
“Elsa,” Niklas greeted, stepping beside me and placing a kiss on my cheek. His hand rested on the curve of my hip, but I shrugged away from his touch with subtle ease. He’d been more and more possessive of me as the weeks passed. The duty to work alongside me as a colleague translated in his mind to protecting me—dominating me, and I was not one to be dominated.
“Niklas,” I murmured through clenched teeth, a warning to him before slipping back into character. “I hope you brought the sourdough loaf from the bakery.” He raised it up with a proud, mischievous smirk and slammed it to the counter. “Danke,” I thanked him before turning her attention to Maxim.
Somehow, my fascination with him grew each time I saw him. His hair still reminded me of mud, but also of fine brown ale, and his unique, striking looks had translated into something handsome in her mind with each new glance. And his eyes, they haunted me even as I closed my own at night. How had a human been born with such blue eyes?
“I appreciate your hospitality and for opening your home to me this evening, Fräulein Brenner,” Max thanked me with courtesy flowing like the fountain of youth from his lips. I longed for a bit of that grace, to bathe in it and procure a single taste of what it meant to be poised in all circumstances; it was nothing this proud woman had been raised on.
Yet, there was no time like the present to test my newfound desire for decorum. “Please, Herr Schneider, we are so pleased to have your company tonight. May I make a drink for you?”
“Brandy would be lovely, danke.” Miriam took his cap and overcoat, hanging them on a peg by the front door.
“Make that two,” Niklas demanded with a snarl, put out when not being offered a drink. I eyed him with bruising force, but nodded and moved to the kitchen. He behaved like a jealous lover, blurring the lines of our duty and whatever relationship we had.
I poured two fingers of brandy in each man’s glass, and a smaller one for myself and Miriam, and carried them with careful steps into the sitting room where my guests had gathered. The hazel carpet and apricot sofa were not attractive in any way, and the refinement I grew up in was worlds away from this humble home I’d made my own.
“Here we are,” I interrupted a discussion the men were engaging in. “What’s the topic so I can join in?” I asked with a light-hearted wink. “You know how I hate to be left out of important debates, Cousin.”
Niklas looked at me in bemusement and chuckled. “Keynesian economics,” he boasted, attempting to stump me, for I was but a woman after all.
“Ah,” I chimed. “Macroeconomics will lead the world out of this depression and into the future,” Ginny said with cool, versed knowledge and took a long gulp of my drink. Niklas gaped, Miriam clapped her hands in glee and nodded in agreement, and Maxim smiled with something close to pride shining in his eyes before lifting his glass toward me and sipping his own. “And soupe à l’oignon will lead us into the dining room. I do hope you all appreciate the strong flavors of onion soup. The French know how to cook so well.”
They sat at the table, Miriam stealing the seat beside Maxim with quick stealth. I smiled, shaking my head at my friend’s infatuation and pulled the baking soup crocks from the oven. The cheese was toasted to golden perfection and the aroma was spicy and exquisite, tickling my nose and making my mouth water. The dinner guests clapped with ebullience when I entered the dining room.
“Would you lead us in grace, Herr Schneider?” I asked with a cordial smile after placing the crocks before each person and taking my seat.
He studied me in his careful, contemplative way for a moment before responding. “Please call me Max, Fräulein.”
A lone butterfly flitted through my stomach before I could nod. “Then please call me Elsa,” I answered back.
Max nodded and bowed his head, and I followed suit as he began the blessing. “Baruch atah Adonai—”
My eyes snapped open in unadulterated shock, flashing to Niklas who was staring at his bowl with a clenched jaw
“—Eloheinu Melech Haolam, shehakol nih’yeh bidvaro. Blessed are You, oh Lord our God, King of the universe by whose word everything comes to be.”
I glanced up from my coffee and blueberry strudel to Max, who sat in a winged chair with his brandy and a cigar. He’d asked with polite grace if I’d mind terribly if he had an after-dinner cigar. I thought of Jack and how his cigarettes made me cough and sputter, but that seemed a world away and a lifetime ago. Instead of refusing, I lifted the corner of my lips—a meager gesture of acceptance—and told him to do as he wished.
My mind still reeled from the revelation of his heritage, though I could see it now. His commanding nose was similar to that of every other Jew I’d met in Austria, and though his eyes were atypical of the brown of the others—rather large, almond-shaped and dominating, distracting and transfixing in their indigo gleam—the Semitic blood was there.
“The strudel is delicious, Elsa,” Max offered, showing his empty plate as a Buckner symphony floated from the radio. “I’ve missed Mama’s Shabbat dinner, but this was more than worth it. So fresh, surely you slaved all day.”
I felt my cheeks redden under his regard. “Nein, Max,” I insisted. “It was all Miriam and her amazing artistry for cooking. She’ll make some man quite lucky one day.”
“Hmm,” Max chuckled with a humored grin, though not acknowledging the comment.
“She really is a marvelous creature, our Miriam. She—” A sharp elbow to my side silenced any matchmaking attempts and sloshed coffee over the side of my cup and into my lap.
“Oh no, Elsa!” Miriam cried in faux shock. “Let me help you clean your lovely dress,” she declared, pulling me up from the settee and down the hall, calling over her shoulder, “We’ll be right back, boys.”
When they reached my bedroom, I burst into laughter and kicked off my shoes; my ruined dress forgotten. “Oh, don’t give me that look, Miriam,” I quipped. “You’ll be thanking me when you have little curly-haired, sapphire-eyed babies running about your feet.”
Miriam opened her mouth to speak, to retort with haughty sass, but their banter was interrupted by a Niklas’ yell from the other room. “Elsa! Miriam! The chancellor is about to speak. Hurry.”
We rushed back down the hallway, catching the beginning of Schuschnigg’s words through the static of the broadcast.
“This day has placed us in a tragic and decisive situation. I have to give my Austrian fellow countrymen the details of the events of today.
“The German Government today handed to President Miklas an ultimatum, with a time limit, ordering him to nominate as chancellor a person designated by the German Government and to appoint members of a cabinet on the orders of the German Government; otherwise German troops would invade Austria.
“I declare before the world that the reports launched in Germany concerning disorders by the workers, the shedding of streams of blood, and the creation of a situation beyond the control of the Austrian Government are lies from A to Z. President Miklas has asked me to tell the people of Austria that we have yielded to force since we are not prepared even in this terrible situation to shed blood. We have decided to order the troops to offer no resistance.
“So I take leave of the Austrian people with the German word of farewell uttered from the depth of my heart: God protect Austria.”
The comrades stood unmoving in the little hazelnut colored room with its ugly furniture and even uglier truths hanging somber in the stuffy air. It was the beginning of the end; the beginning of discontinuity in Austria, and as I looked down at my soiled dress and bare feet, I knew the utter despair of our sealed fates.