“Achtung. You have five minutes to report downstairs. No one is to stay in the alcoves. Loud speakers blared on every floor.
“Achtung, you have 4 minutes…”
“Should we go?” Pytor asked.
Rudy turned to Gretta. “Dear, I’d put something over your robe. The night air will be chilly.”
They could hear people running down the hall. Screams came from below.
“Achtung you have 3 minutes…”
“Why are they counting?” Pytor asked. “Are there windows, fire escapes?”
Rudy looked up while putting on his pants. “Windows are on the top, three floors above us, and there are no fire escapes. If you jump its from the 5th story. You will die.”
Gretta got up from the couch and went to the corner of the alcove. She pressed on the wood and a door opened with a full-length mirror attached. “What should I wear?”
“You’re worried about a dress or shoes that match? My God.” Pytor said. He caught a glimpse of hanging dresses, coats, and men’s suits. From the reflection the amount of clothes seemed endless. “How deep is that closet?”
Rudy fastened his belt and moved toward Gretta. He dipped down and opened a table drawer.
“Gretta, take the long coat, the brown one with the fur collar. It’s toward the back.”
She turned towards him with a half smile.
“Achtung, you have one minute. Everyone must be out and downstairs. This is your final warning.”
Rudy stood up and stepped toward the closet. He had a pistol in his hand. “Auf Wiedersehen.”
“What are you doing?” Pytor said.
“Leaving. You have your means of escape and we have ours. Whether any one of us makes it is up to your God of choice.” He pushed Gretta inside. The door shut with a click.
Pytor rushed over and ran his hand across the wood. “Ana, help. There must be a switch, something.” Her hands swept over the door they had just seen. She found nothing.
“How can this be?” He asked. We saw the same thing, didn’t we? Two people were here and now…”
She put her finger to her mouth. “Ssh, listen.”
The hallway was quiet but for the static hum of the walled speakers. They stared at each other. Neither moved. From below they heard muffled voices and then cries. Seconds later rat-tat-tat, rat-tat-tat. “Oh my God ... the people.” He sunk to his knees. He wanted to cry, to shout, but caught himself. He cradled his head in his arms, and then straightened. He went toward the opening of the alcove and slowly opened the curtain. He peeked into the hallway. It was empty. A crash came from downstairs. He heard shouted commands, and then he smelled the unmistakable scent of burning wood. He grabbed Ana. “The building is on fire.”
“On orders of Reichsfurer Heinrich Himmler, this schweinestall of immorality and decadence is to be destroyed. It will no longer stain our German national honor. Heil Hitler.”
The announcement boomed through the speakers as wisps of smoke rose from the first to second floor.
Ana stood transfixed. “We must leave,” Pytor shouted, “Ana.” The smoke became thicker. They coughed and wheezed. “Get down on the floor,” he said between gulps of air. When she didn’t move, he pushed her. “Do you have a handkerchief? She didn’t respond. “Ana, we are not going to die. Not here. Let me help you.” She looked at him and shook her head. He ripped-off his tie. “Cover your nose and mouth. He felt heat from the floor. “Ana, now.” He seized her arm and pulled her with him. They crawled into the hallway. “Grab my ankle and don’t let go. We’ll go on our bellies and find the staircase.” Smoke poured from the alcoves into the hall. He looked behind and saw fire and a wall of blackness creeping towards them. He used whatever skill he learned in a pioneer Jewish camp to move forward. He didn’t know how far he had crawled before he realized his foot was free. She had let go. He looked. She was stretched out several meters behind, panting. “Ana,” he screamed.
“I’ll…be…al…” She choked.
He crawled over using his elbows and legs and stuck his fingers into her mouth. She wretched and then went into a coughing fit. She pounded the floor with her fist as she gasped for breath.
“We can’t wait.” He pulled her up. He put his arm around her waist and dragged her.
Through the smoky light he recognized the dark latticework of the staircase. It was some twenty meters in front. Thank God. “The key, give it to me.”
She didn’t answer. He held onto her.
“Ana, the staircase we’re almost there. Give me the key.”
Her eyes widened. There was a whoosh. He looked over and saw the landing consumed in a cloud of black smoke.
“Ana we can’t go back. We can’t stay. We must…” The smoke burnt his eyes. He felt his throat close. He was being smothered. He stuck his own fingers down his throat. He wretched and went into a fit of coughing. In his struggle his hand slipped from her side. She fell. He bent over and then sunk to the floor. He cradled her head and tried to shield her from the smoke and flames. “Ana, we don’t… have…far…” his voice a raspy whisper. The fire’s heat singed his jacket as well as her coat. “The key,” he held out his hand. “Ana, it’s only… a few more… steps. We’ll get inside… and we’ll… be safe. Rudy promised.”
Ana moved her hand slowly into her coat pocket. Her hand shook. She pulled out the key. “Here, take it,” she could barely be heard above the roar of the flames. “Save yourself, Pytor, go.”
A chandelier crashed. Shattered glass flew like crystal missiles. Shards cut his face. He used his sleeve to soak up the blood. In a few more seconds escape would be impossible. “Ana.” He grabbed her arm and pulled, but her body didn’t move. He looked up and saw flames coming towards him. “Ana.” He dropped her hand and ran in a crouch toward the staircase and the steel door underneath. He steadied himself and inserted the key. He placed one hand on the hot metal handle and with the other jiggled the lock. Come on… come on. Gott in himl. He didn’t need to look back to feel death’s breath behind him. He gave the door one more shove and fell in. The door shut.
Was he dead? It was pitch black. If he was why was his hand throbbing? He lifted his arm to his face. It felt sticky. His body hurt, his mouth desperate for water. If he was alive where was he? That thought caused him to slowly gather his strength and sit.
He cradled his head in his arms, and rocked. In darkness there is no time. He pictured his wife Grunia and his baby Frederick. What were they doing? Were they out on a Sunday walk? Was it Sunday? He looked up into the nothingness and using his hands felt around him. There was a floor and behind him a wall. Where was she?
“Ana,” he called.
He sucked in his breath. Although he had been to cheder, Jewish school, he was not observant by the standard of the day. He kept a kosher home, and the Sabbath, but religion wasn’t central to his life. It had always been music. God was an occasional companion.
His lips began to quiver. Out of the depths of his body he slowly began to recite the Jewish prayer for the dead. “Yisgadal, vey yisgadash, shmey rabah,” when he finished he had no tears only a recognition he had survived.