March 15, 1938
The crowds had amassed with such energy and enthusiasm, I had to cover my ears to keep from being swallowed up by their deafening acclimation for their new Führer, who rode in on a sleek black Mercedes-Benz chariot. The only thing amiss was sulfur and the four horsemen of the apocalypse, for this was sure to be the end of the world. And the crowds did as Niklas had suggested they would: they threw flowers, not grenades, as their marching occupiers entered the city. They heiled and praised the incoming troops, worshipping the Führer as the savior of their people and hemorrhaging their exaltation upon him like an uncoagulated wound.
Niklas stood beside me, watching from the window of his top-floor apartment, and Miriam and Max sat at the little table playing chess, drinking vast amounts of brandy, and refusing to watch the oppressors parade through Vienna in triumph. The assemblage below sickened me to the core, but I couldn’t fathom the thoughts certainly beleaguering the minds of my Juden friends.
I moved away from the window, revolted by the scene of a nation welcoming their tyrants, and joined my companions as they mourned the loss of their freedom. The air was stuffy and sullen, not unlike the feelings flowing through me. Miriam murmured a prayer across the chess board and Max gulped down his brandy.
“Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad. Barukh sheim k’vod malkhuto l’olam va’ed,” she ended on a susurrus, choked breath.
“What does it mean?” I asked.
“Hear, oh Israel,” Max supplied when Miriam couldn’t speak, “the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.”
“Amen,” I answered the conclusion of the prayer. Miriam’s eyes flashed to mine with anguish and admiration rolling in vicious torrents through her tears, and she pushed back from the table and rushed down the hallway.
“You should go to her,” I told Max, picking up the remnants of Miriam’s cognac and swallowing it down.
He shrugged, the liquor painting his eyes red and tainting his thick, slurred words. “Why should I?” he queried. “What help would I be to a sobbing woman?”
Bewildered, I pointed the now empty glass at him. “What a lover you are, Max, to leave your mistress to weep like a—”
“Lover?” Max asked in horror, his face morphing from his practiced refinement to sickened disgust. “Wherever in your stupid, blonde, German head did you come up with that?” His insult punctured my chest as though he’d plunged a blade straight through me.
I gasped calming breaths from the air around, steadying my nerves before responding to the drunk man with forbearance. “You’re angry and emotionally vulnerable, Herr Schneider,” I stated, “so I will overlook that error, but if you ever speak in such a way to me again, I will have you on the floor, grasping your testicles for dear life. Do you understand?”
“I’d nod and agree if I were you, Kamerad,” Niklas chimed with amusement alight in his eyes. He always possessed the most inappropriate reactions to whatever situation was presented.
Max closed his eyes, gathering the gentleman inside himself from the midst of the drunkenness and nodded with solemn acquiescence. “Forgive me, Elsa,” he implored. “But it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to console Miriam. Our relationship is not that . . . way anymore. She’d be better soothed by you, her friend.”
Though I couldn’t understand the detachment from the way Miriam viewed their bond to the way Max put it with unashamed veracity, I nodded and rose from the table. “I’ll see to her.”
“Miriam?” I asked, knocking when I came to the small powder room.
The door creaked open enough for me to slip in and wrap my arms around Miriam. “They’ll show no mercy, you know. The Nazis want nothing but our deaths,” Miriam rasped through broken, tearstained words.
“We’ll figure this out together, Miriam,” I consoled; though the muster behind the promise lacked confidence, I refused to allow Miriam to witness it.
She pulled back and turned to the mirror, wiping in uncaring strokes at the makeup smudged under her lashes. When her eyes met mine in the mirror, a green tinge of envy and sorrow flashed through them. “Of course, they don’t want your death. They’ll want you strong and healthy and ready to provide the perfect pedigree for more little Aryans.”
“Miriam . . . Please,” I murmured, shaking my head of the disturbing thoughts of being a mare for the Nazi breeding programs I’d learned of from my friend. “We won’t entertain these thoughts until the time comes and we’re forced to. Until then, the barbarians can rip my free will from my cold dead fingers. You and I have nothing to fear from them. We’ll get out of here together. Ja?”
“And they will,” she muttered through tears.
“Rip it from your cold dead fingers.” Then she turned toward me, eyes filled with embarrassment and anger and pain. “I heard what Maxim said.”
“Miriam, it doesn’t make a difference to me. I’ve understood the kind of love you’re feeling,” Ginny said. “Even if he never feels it the way you do, you can have that love. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”
“Who did you love?” Miriam asked, seeking common ground, always hesitant and fearful of the differences in our status.
“His name was Thomas. He was my first kiss and my first love,” I admitted with a sad smile. “Typhoid took him when we were thirteen. I don’t think I’d ever been so distraught. My mother and father considered putting me in a hospital after that because I was inconsolable.”
“How did you move on?” she asked with pained fascination.
“I studied. I read a lot. I met Jack.” I sucked in a deep, quick breath, realizing the error.
“Jack?” The name sounded funny falling from Miriam’s French accented German dialect. “American? British?”
Swallowing my fear, I opened my heart. “American. He swept in like a whirlwind and made me forget everything.”
“Where is this Jack now?” Miriam asked, curious and excited at the idea of a blossoming affair in the middle of the darkness of the world.
Checking my lips in the mirror, I avoided Miriam’s eyes. “At home. Hating and loving me at the same time.”
“You left him?”
“To come here to Austria?” The beautiful half-breed woman was piecing together parts of a puzzle best left undone.
“Nein,” I half-lied. “I left him because he was my great mistake. I had to be free of him.”
“Please, let’s dry your eyes, fix up your rouge, and get back out there and show that ridiculous man what he’s missing.” I smoothed down an errant strand of Miriam’s brunette quiff and smiled into her pretty face. “No more tears. Save your energy for the true fight. Love is not worth it, believe me.”
“Love is worth everything, Elsa,” Miriam said with sad eyes. “But sometimes it brings your ultimate destruction.”
Doubtful of but content to console, I wrapped the woman in my arms once again before pulling back and squeezing her hands. “Let’s make plans for our great escape—our great adventure.”
When we reentered the living area, the men were in a drunken discussion about Nazis and politics and weapons caches hidden in houses throughout the city.
“I don’t see the point in fighting,” Max said with slurred words and a tongue thick from the brandy he’d consumed. “They’ll kill us anyway.” He pointed at Miriam, anger in his eyes. “Your father won’t even be able to save you. Or my mother.”
Miriam choked a strangled sob in her throat, her nostrils flaring in great rage. “Why does it even matter, Maxim?” she demanded, a woman scorned. “He had her and tossed her aside, and you took your revenge on him with me, didn’t you? Isn’t that what it’s all about. Why do you care now if he protects her?”
Confusion filled me as I glanced back and forth between the quarreling pair and tried to catch Niklas’s eye, but he refused to look up from where he was carving swastikas into the wooden table. “What’s gone on between you and the general?” I asked Max.
He pulled bloodshot eyes away from Miriam in a slow, sleepy roll. “It’ll makes no difference to you, Hun,” he mumbled in disgust, turning back to his brandy.
I had him, a man head and shoulders taller than herself, out of his chair by his shirt collar before he could swallow the drink in his mouth. “I told you not to speak to me that way,” I seethed, pulling his face close. When he tried to pull away, I wrapped my calf under his knee and brought him to the floor and crouched beside his shocked face, uncaring what showed beneath the green cotton skirt. “I’m here to help you, dog.” My sweet, espresso tinted breath made him blink at my lips, sobering him up. “And you would be wise to learn that before the real terror starts. If you can’t, don’t come crawling to my doorstep. Do you understand?”
Max titled his head to the side, wide, scared eyes seeking assistance from Miriam, who covered her mouth in shock, or Niklas, whose grin was wide and cheeky as he held the hilt of the knife standing straight up out of the table. They would be of no salvation to him, so he turned back to me, focusing inebriate eyes on my face. “You’re rather lovely when you’re so angry,” he slurred.
My jaw clenched as I considered dispatching him of his manhood for a long moment. But he was drunk, and the world was crumbling to ruin around him, so how could I fault him in truth? Instead, I pushed myself up off his chest, satisfied in his winded grunt, and pulled Miriam with me into the kitchen.
“Is lentil soup all right for lunch?” I asked the room, an air of nonchalance following behind me like a wave. A hesitant moment passed before affirmations were given. Max rolled in less than fluid movements from his back to his side and back to the chair, staring with a mixture of confusion, intrigue, and admiration.
“When did you first know about your father?” I asked Miriam later as we sat together, sipping coffee. The men, after Max sobered up enough to be vigilant, ventured out to the alleys and streets to see how the world was doing as it crumbled.
Miriam licked her lips clean of the bitter drink before responding. “Mama told me about who he was after she got sick. We were sitting together and I was feeding her chicken broth, and . . . she just came out with it.”
“Had you ever wondered?”
“I mean, I suppose every child wonders where their parents come from and who they are, but Mama always made a point of keeping me happy and distracted enough that I never questioned it. I guess I assumed he was a shop keeper’s son, or a sailor who’d had a romantic affair with a French beauty before sailing away on a scientific expedition,” she said with dreamy fairies lifting the corners of her mouth. “To hear my father was a German soldier—the enemy during the Great War—was . . . disconcerting.”
“I can imagine,” I said with sadness for the wonderful woman.
Miriam lifted her eyes to me, and they were filled with guilt and shame; something else lived there as well, though I couldn’t know what. “I’m ashamed to say I’d hoped she would tell me she’d been raped or had been a prostitute or something equally terrible.”
“Heavens!” I exclaimed, surprised at the words. “Why?”
“Because then, at least, it would be forgivable. Falling in love with a German soldier? If anyone heard such a thing, I’d be more of an embarrassment than I already was. If I was the illegitimate child of a French woman and a French man, that’s something people could accept. Even if he was Spanish or English or Italian. But German? Nein . . .” Miriam trailed off, lost in thoughts. When the moment of the present met her again, she realized the rudeness of her words. “Oh, Elsa,” she begged, grasping my hand. “Forgive me. I forget myself and forget you’re German so often.”
“Please,” I insisted through a forced, small smile. “I’m not offended. I know the history of my people.” My mind flashed to Daddy’s jolly face, a man who’d fought his own fatherland during the same war Miriam now spoke of. He was a hero to me, yet there I sat, playing the part of the other side.
“You don’t act like the other’s I’ve met. When I went to Berlin, my father had to usher me out in the middle of the night so I wouldn’t be met with hostility. The people are riled against the Juden, and I fear it’s for no other reason than they’ve been told they should be. Why do they fear us so?” Miriam queried to the room around her, a question without true explanation.
“They fear what they do not understand, like everyone else on this earth. Right now, sadly,” I attempted to explain the unexplainable, “they fear you.”
Miriam glanced back to me, patting my knee in a façade of understanding. “So is the history of my own people,” she said, standing and taking the empty cup from my hands and making her way to the kitchen. “It would be so much better to not be a Jew. I wish for it every day. To be fully German, and excepted by my father and those around me.”
“Don’t say that,” I admonished though I understood why she’d made the claim. “You must not let them make you feel you’re inadequate. They’re wolves who smell fear and desperation. If you show them none, you’ll survive.”
Lifting her eyes from the sink, Miriam fixed me with a haunted look. “If only that were true, my friend. If only that were true.”
When the men returned, carrying a loaf of sourdough bread and a wedge of cheese along with a large bottle of wine, Miriam place them on the counter and got to work slicing bits for their dinner.
“What was it like out there?” I asked Niklas. We understood the underlying meanings in such queries and spoke a language the others wouldn’t grasp though it was plain to their ears.
“Typical of what you’d expect,” he replied. “Red flags draped from every building, including the one I’m about to place outside my balcony.”
“Niklas!” I rebuked with a flurry of anger. “You cannot be serious.” She pointed to Max and Miriam, who stood in the kitchen in hushed conversation. I was pleased to see what was sure to be an apology falling from his lips as Miriam embraced him. She held him as a lover would, and he did so as he would hold a sister, but I would no longer concern myself with their affairs.
“I’m deadly serious, Cousin,” Niklas insisted through gritted teeth. “And you will start wearing the swastika as a pin on your lapel, as will I.”
“I won’t.” I folded her arms across my breast and planted my feet, preparing for the coming fight.
Niklas grasped my arms and pulled me to him, quick to break the foundation of my fighting stance. “You will, because if you do not, you’ll bring the whole of the Reich down on our heads. They—” he indicated our companions “—will understand. If they do not, it won’t matter. You’re to protect yourself first.” He leaned into my ear and whispered in English, “We aren’t here for them, remember?” Hesitating and hating myself for knowing it, I nodded in slow movements, scratching my forehead against his wool coat. “And don’t forget it. Ever. It’s you and me, Virginia.”
My eyes flashed to his and I pulled back. “Ja,” she said, returning to German. “I won’t forget.”
The evening was spent with dim lights, playing cards shuffling about the table until the occupants of our little apartment were drunk on liquor and resignation. None of us would be leaving that night, for the Nazis outside their doors and windows were too much a daunting dragon to be faced, even in the full moon.
“For all we know,” Max said with a lazy smile, once again drunk and leaving sobriety behind him. “They’re likely werewolves out to bite us. Listen,” he whispered and a hush fell over the table. “I can hear them howling in the streets. Damn the full moon. Why did Moshe even write about it in the Torah? It’d have been better for Adonai to have never made the silver beast, for the Huns would have remained a mortal force to slaughter, and we’d need not silver bullets.”
Niklas and Miriam launched into fits of laughter at their intoxicated companion’s words, but I studied him with careful attentiveness instead. The man was a poet, a writer, and his words were stated with eloquence and finesse I’d only read from Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
“Do I have spittle on my chin, Fräulein Brenner?” Max asked, catching my stare and swiping at his chin as our friends fell into another round of uproarious laughter.
“Nein, nein,” I said, leaning toward him and tilting my head to the side to study him more completely. My mind was fuzzy, static like a radio filling my eyes and ears, but I lifted a finger to push a small tendril of muddy hair off Max’s forehead. “But you are a master of eloquence, aren’t you?” I asked. “Where did you learn the beauty of words?”
Max swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat as his eyes flickered to our compatriots, making certain they were none the wiser about conversation taking place under their noses. “I’m less a devotee of religion than a worshipper of literature,” he replied, mimicking my hands and tugging on a long strand of golden hair hanging between us.
“Do you have books?” I asked, curious and excited and afraid of the intimacy efflorescent and flowing in free torrents.
“Ja.” He nodded, the same excitement filling his indigo eyes, reminding me of sapphires, and oh, how I’d loved sapphires my whole life. “Lots of books.”
“I should like to see them all one day,” I stated, begging with each breath for the pleasure I’d missed with sore regret in the months away from home.
Max leaned forward, alcohol and my brandy breath stealing his senses, intent on sealing his lips with mine, all remembrance of the battling between them lost to his want and closed lids. But I pulled back, my eyes dancing to the people with us in the room, and reprimanding myself for the inebriation encouraging me to submit to an unhealthy fancy. When Max met nothing but air, leaning so far he narrowly escaped tumbling from his chair, his gaze flashed up to me, but I didn’t look back. He righted himself and rolled his shoulders, shrugging off the enchantment of desire planted in his head. I was a pristine representation of everything he despised in the world, and I’d have none of him. Or so he planned.
I pretended to involve myself in conversation, play-acting the part of an assiduous comrade as those around spoke hopeful words and made plans for what they’d do when the Nazis left, or better yet, when they’d emigrate away from Austria. I added words of wisdom and insight here and there, speaking of exotic lands like India and Siam and the Pacific Isles where one could run away and be free forever, but in my mind, I swallowed the ache of knowing two truths: I was a liar, spewing falsehoods to people I’d grown to care about, and a I was bound to a man I wed and left, but my body and heart ached for something new.
When Max joined the conversation, coming down from similar thoughts about me, I watched him interact with his friends and decided to never let him into my life on more than a superficial level. He’d be my destruction if I failed.
Niklas moved to the gramophone and placed a record and set the stylus. A classic party song from the previous decade echoed in the room.
“So long sad times, so long bad times…Happy days are here again…” Johnny Marvin crooned from the phonograph.
Miriam snorted loudly. “Is this your idea of a joke, Herr Böhm? It isn’t funny.”
With an abruptness which sent his chair falling backward, Max stood and pushed the sofa to the wall and moved a short coffee table across the room. The rest of us watched with wonderment and bubbling chortling.
“What are you about, Komerad?” Niklas asked around a sip of brandy.
When the room was arranged to Max’s internal specifications, he turned to us, but his focus was for me alone. “Dance with me.”
“Ha!” I scoffed. “I’m not dancing with you, Maxim.”
“Come, please,” he asked with jovial laughter and ebullience. “We danced beautifully at the New Year gala.”
“Before I knew what an ass you were,” I countered though he ignored and pulled me to my feet.
“Niklas,” Max called out when he had me in his arms and pulled me to the center of the homemade dance floor. “Start the song again, ja?”
When the music began anew, we slipped past old distrusts or hurtful words and into the a conflate where neither knew where one ended and the other began. The room faded out around us, an evanescent moment when nothing existed but our dancing and worries were forgotten.
He swung me around in a Charleston or a Swing or some combination of the two, and my dress swirled like gossamer around my legs and his. It was a moment of felicity in the midst of disaster, and I found herself looking into his eyes as we danced with gratitude twirling through us. With each ethereal step to every toss into the air or over his back, Max and I fell into a kinship of stepping feet and lyrics and flowing beats.
When the music dwindled to a scratching thrum, we stilled but didn’t pull apart until Niklas shut off the phonograph.
“What was that?” I asked in breathless pants, stepping away and into the kitchen to pour a glass of water and guzzle it for all I was worth. My parched throat begged to be drowned in the tepid liquid. “Charleston or swing?” I wondered when my thirst abated.
Max followed and took the glass from my hand, refilling it and sipping from the same spot my crimson lipstick had marked. The very sight of such a brazen display was ineffable, begging for a response—be it my seamed stockings around his hips or opulent pleasure—but I’d give neither, and the moment passed when I forced it by.
“I’m not sure what it was,” he answered my earlier query and placed the glass in the sink. “But let’s do it again.”
He grasped my hand and didn’t allow for protest as he spun me around again. Dancing was a revolt of its own. The pleasure we took in the movements, the music, the erotic and sensualism of the steps zipped like charging lightning.
The moment he flipped me over his back and swung me into the air, when he could smell my sweat mingling with the lace and silk beneath my skirt and garter belt as my legs spread and flew—those were the moments of revolution and protest toward the oppressing forces at the door, and the segregation they’d bring.
And the moment the world dropped away beneath my feet and I was all and everything above him, that was the place and time we both knew there was more to us than goddess and dog.
Hours later, when the full moon was at its highest in the sky, the lights were off in the apartment, and Miriam had curled up in a chair to sleep and Max lay in restless slumber on the sofa, Niklas and I spoke in muted tones against the far wall.
I held a telegram I’d received from New York on the twelfth, the day the Nazis rolled across the border and marched upon Linz. It was simple and demanding.
Get out now (STOP) NY
“What do you expect?” I asked, tugging at loose threads in the second-hand dress and watching Miriam sleep as sadness swept over me like a tidal wave.
Niklas pulled my hand from the dress and placed in his palm. “They’ll begin with threats and humiliation. It won’t be a sudden disappearance of masses of people.”
“Can you be sure? Miriam told me herself of trains of people being sent away to camps.” I fluffed a pillow beside me and laid down on the floor, tucking it under my head and still watching Niklas. “She says even those who assist Juden have been taken.”
Niklas scoffed, unsure of the truth in those words. “All the more reason to wear the swastika pin, ja?” he questioned with a smirk but dropped it in a quick motion as his eyes grew somber. “That seems like a lot of work when they could do it so easily right here in the streets. Nein. It will begin like a thief, stealing pieces of people’s history and souls before they sweep in for the real prize.”
“And what is that?” I asked, curious and scared and fascinated by the knowledge Niklas possessed about these evil occupiers. My head was beginning to ache from the liquor, but I had to know what he meant, had to grasp the depth of depravity a human could hold within them. “What will they do? What is their prize?”
Niklas blinked down at me and up to our friends before releasing a breath. When he spoke, it was firm and unforgiving, much like the captors we’d hidden from that night. “Dezimierung.”
I gasped the murky, choking air which suddenly filled the room, and closed my eyes tight against the visions of fire-breathers killing those I loved and cared for. The word he’d spoken was one of horror and terror and utter loss.
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