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The Last Snapshot
 
A Novel by


Marilyn Morningstar
© 1999-2009



 

 

 

 

 

 

P.O. Box 681851
Park City, UT 84068
877.865.3466
american_expo at hotmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 


       “Smile not at the fantasy of one who foresees in the region of reality the same outburst of revolution that has taken place in the region of intellect. The thought precedes the deed as the lightning the thunder.”                                         

                                                                                  —Christian Johann Heinrich Heine

 

 

Author’s Introduction

Some people know what it’s like to be utterly alone. I am one of those people. When my mother died unexpectedly in 2002, I was a psychology major in my senior year at the University of Las Vegas. As a child of a mother in the limelight, I had developed deep uncertainties in the shadowy intersections of my soul. Muscular Dystrophy had deprived me of my brother and fractured my heart at an early age. After the accident on my eighteenth birthday paralyzed me from the waist down, and left me in a wheelchair, I became an academic recluse. Studying the intricate workings of the mind attracted me, even helped me open a few of the smoldering wounds that kept me locked in my shell.

By the time of my mother’s formal viewing, thanks to the help of my professor, I had learned how to talk to strangers without breaking out in a shower of sweat. Seated beside her casket, I greeted a stream of important people for hours, my hand dry as bone. After the viewing, as I sat alone next to my mother in a windowless room, I realized how the fragrance of too many flowers and the velvet draperies lining the walls increased my despair. To my relief, the attendant brought me a box of tissue and lent me a sympathetic ear.

I examined the gold nameplate pinned to his black suit. “Thank you, Dalton. Your kindness is most appreciated.”

I found out later, he worked at Sunset Funeral Home part time to support his passion for writing. How strange to think of it now. Dalton is actually the person responsible for the turn in my life that sent me to a far off land in search of my family history.

You see, even though my mother’s death had an eerie pattern to it, I knew enough about her past problems with the Mafia to realize it wasn’t safe to dig up the details. Following her instructions, I buried her unpublished manuscript with her, thinking that would seal any temptation to publish it. Fate apparently had a different plan. After several months of persistence, Dalton persuaded me to give him permission to exhume the manuscript and publish it under a pen name. I insisted he change the names of the characters and sell it as a work of fiction rather than as the expose she had written. He agreed to give a substantial percentage of the proceeds to my mother’s favorite charity. Even with all the precautions we put in place, I still felt uncomfortable living in the same town and under the same roof where everything had happened. I sat down at my computer one day, searched for available positions elsewhere, and penciled out a plan. After my graduation, I intended to begin my career as a psychologist far across the ocean in Honolulu, Hawaii.

After probate and all the legal details, I put my mother’s house on the market. Inch by inch, item by item, I went through the house and examined what remained of my mother. Even though she had lived an unconventional, precarious life, I loved her beyond measure. She was my best friend, my solace. Each time I recall the fear written in the sad spaces of her eyes it makes me quiver. I still hear her words ringing in my ears, “You have a spiritual gift like your grandmother. I know God sent you to me as my special guardian angel.”

Discarding the little treasures of her life was like throwing her away piece by piece, and I found myself tearfully packing far more than I should into wooden crates for long term storage. After her clothing and the linens, I removed the family photographs from the walls. My heart sank, realizing it all over again: I was the only one left of this family. As I removed the painting at the end of the hallway and read the words etched in neat script around the frame, I felt my heart slipping. 

As the book of life closes, secrets lose their significance, lies their comfort.

The year before she died, my grandmother had suffered over every detail of the canvas for months. I’d seen it a million times, but this time the faded face beyond the dismal grays and charcoals of the frosted windowpane within the picture captured my heart. I stared at it for a long time before I wiped the dust off the top of the frame.

For a brief second, I saw her again in my mind’s eye, there in the kitchen flipping pancakes for breakfast and smiling, lighthearted as an adolescent. As I ran off to school with my books under my arm, she often called after me, “Remember, Ziskeit. History should be more than only an endless, meaningless cycle!”

In the midst of searching for tape, I stopped with wonder, visualizing her face as she worked on this oil painting. I remembered her worn deep hazel eyes haunted by some mysterious inner anxiety. I studied the work of art again. Beyond the white puffs of train smoke drawn against a darkening sky, the constellations and the dramatic North Star exploded like a beacon for the apocalypse. Truly it was a masterpiece I knew I would treasure until the end of my days. Just as I began to wrap it in brown paper, I noticed a name concealed on the collar of one of the frozen shirts hanging on a clothesline that stretched from building to building within the painting. Rolf Brandt. I didn’t know what to make of it, but a question lit up in me. Would I ever find out about her early life or discover her secrets?

About an hour later, while I packed up books from the bookshelf, I found my answer: an old blue journal, the edges yellowed and tattered, but the pages intact. How had I forgotten her ritual? Every Sunday afternoon, before the cancer weakened her, my grandmother implemented a quiet time for us to read or write poetry. After my brother and I settled down, she encouraged us to stay silent for an hour and let our thoughts come out only on paper. Her voice was like steel wrapped in silk, hard and determined and yet extraordinarily benevolent. In order to compose her own thoughts, she retired to our basement, her blue book in hand.

I abandoned my task of packing, sat down on the dated sofa, put my feet up and began to read. It started in German, but about a quarter of the way through it changed to English. Much of the writing had the lyrical quality of a poet. There were references to several books by Charles Dickens. Most of it was written in letter form, each one addressed to a man named Rolf. She referred to another child, not my mother. During the next few minutes of reading my grandmother’s entries, I felt my chest expand with a fiery desire to know more about her, more about her lineage, more about her life in Germany and Poland during the Nazi era. If there were other relatives, I had to find them. By midnight, I knew she’d buried her early poetry and diaries behind a barn somewhere in Warsaw. A detailed map begged pursuit.

Within two weeks, I sold the house, cleared out the bank accounts, shut off my phone and moved to Europe in search of my grandmother’s story and the family treasures awaiting discovery. How could I have known the complex psychological byways of this quest or how my grandmother’s poignant tale would affect listeners with such awe? The unimaginable culmination of events, even to me, seemed unbelievable until I proved them out through a series of investigations. Her story is unique among war stories. Keep your eye on her. Her world unravels, changes, and challenges her with emotional earthquakes and the sharp sleet of hate, but somehow she is able to turn the senseless chaos into genuine dignity. She is turned inside out, tossed to and fro and even loses her bearings, but she survives while others dwell in doubt, depression and suicide. When she finds happiness in a most unexpected place, at a most unexpected time, and in an even more mind-boggling circumstance, I marvel with reverence and admiration and, I admit, a bit of envy.

In following her footsteps over a thousand dusty roads this past six years, I finally understand how the dimensions of the heart work, how a soul can undergo dramatic change with nothing more than sheer determination, and how, in the end what we think matters most doesn’t matter at all.

My mother’s death and my grandmother’s history had forged a life of its own inside my heart, one that required sacrifice, contemplation and risk. The adventure was an enormous gamble on my part, but it has changed my life forever. It was daunting to give up a new career and wheel across a foreign land in search of the place my blood began. The biggest challenge of all was how to bear witness to the value her story had. I tried, but it was impossible to sum it up in a few sentences, package it up like an herbal tonic. Yet, I’m not a professional writer. I’m only a psychologist hoping to displace the notion of our thick-skinned society which, all too readily, attaches a label of over-sentimental to any story of unadulterated, authentic feelings of the heart.

Although this one historical account shows how two opposing cultures can mend misunderstandings with compassion, love and respect for diversity, I don’t know if it will change the hearts of mankind the way I wish it would, if it will cause people to think twice about the warped seed of ignorance that lingers among us, or if it will have any effect at all on the world. But if your heart is as willing as mine, I believe my grandmother can show you, as she has me, how to harness happiness, not the sort you can buy with riches and possessions, but the sort that comes bounding out of the heart when the heart is restored to its natural state. It’s not the type of happiness that can be destroyed or stolen or beaten out of you, but the type that takes a man to his last breath with a hearty share of gratitude and grace.

As you enter this realm of shameful insensitivity and obstinate gentleness from my grandmother’s eyes, you will smile with a weary heart, you will dance with feeble knees, and you will struggle along many hills and valleys before stumbling upon the path to the glorious stars. But, I promise you, in the end your heart will come apart; split between the joy of unexpected tenderness and the sorrow of unbearable wrongs, and then, as I – you may measure life quite differently.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part 1 – Warsaw Tailspin

 

CHAPTER

1

 

Warsaw, Poland 1939
Against the backdrop of the Vistula River with its turbulent spume, the bride and groom exuded contentment as they faced the rabbi and exchanged vows. Sixteen-year-old Rena Anne Steiner tried to feel the excitement radiating from the bride in waves of joy and solemnity, but her mind refused to cooperate. A book slid off her lap and hit the floor with a thump. She stared down at the gold print against the burgundy cover: Charles Dickens. Like an assembly of wide-eyed owls all shifting simultaneously, the congregation pivoted in their seats and inspected her. She buried her hands in the fold of her dress, hoping no one noticed how much she trembled. Could she really go through with it? She had enough money, but tomorrow seemed too soon. 

With a golden thread of kindness, Sarah tried to ease the situation and whispered in her ear, “Did you see that eerie darkness outside?”

The flush on Rena’s cheeks intensified her embarrassment. Pestilence and wrath. She whispered back, “A storm must be coming.”

“But it was sunny a minute ago.”

Rena’s stomach tightened as it often did at the slightest notion of foreboding. Dreary skies often forced her mind back to a dismal part of her history, a chapter she vowed to expunge. Her leg started a nervous quiver. She needed to share her secret with Sarah. Locking her fingers around her blue silk handbag, her arms went rigid.

Yesterday as Rena walked home from the hospital after a long day of changing dressings for wounded soldiers, wringing out bloody sheets and listening to rumors of war, she made a decision that would prove her mind sound and her heart genuine. It would cost her everything and everyone she loved, but her resolution was rock solid. After stopping to cash in all her coins, she went home and tied up her two-foot stack of poetry notes, packed them into a five-gallon milk can, and buried it with her diaries behind the barn. Someday, when this was all over, she would finish her verse.

For Rena, sitting still and quiet was akin to torture. She forced her attention to details like the bride’s long tapered nails and the silver filament in her gold wedding band. The groom wore a white satin robe and black hat, and the bride was adorned in a white silk wedding dress with a facial veil of silk and lavender metallic fringe. Studying the groom, whose voice splintered with each word, Rena asked Sarah, “Do you think he has the makings of a good father?”

“They say he’s very pious, studies the Talmud two hours a day.”

Rena wondered if he would he get down on his knees, roar like a lion and let his children ride on his back through the jungles of Africa, as her own father had done when they lived in Berlin. Closing her eyes, she submitted her requisition to the grandest of all matchmakers. If her future husband could have her father’s humor and her brother’s wit, he could easily win her heart.

At the sound of broken glass, Rena jumped, unnerved by the traditional breaking of a wine goblet and sudden burst of cheers. Sarah said, “Soon a matchmaker will knock on your door and hopefully mine. Just think of it. Wedding plans!”

“I am…but I can’t. We need to talk.” If only the Lord of Hosts would fix her, would make her truly Jewish like everyone else. She sighed, her fingers fidgeting uncontrollably, her mind jumping from ugly scars to nameless parents, to uncertainties about her future. She hated that. She hated them. She hated him most.

“Just look at them, Rena. The bride and groom look like a prince and princess.”

The timing was wrong. Divulging the bad news now would blemish Sarah’s memory of this joyous occasion. Even though it is the worst of times, marvel and yearning still prick young innocent hearts like ours. She felt like giggling and weeping at the same time. The fragrance of fresh gardenias affixed with lavender ribbons to the canopy over the wedding couple’s heads scented the entire hall, giving Sarah’s allergies a fit. Rena inhaled and exhaled in long deep breaths, the sweet scent calming her nerves.

As she and Sarah stepped away to a table laden with cakes, Rena brushed her long blonde curls away from her shoulders. She usually wore her hair in a ponytail to keep it off the sides of her face, the curly hairs around her ears so bothersome.

The cinnamon rolls smelled heavenly, but Rena decided on the apple strudel as Sarah blotted her nose. Munching on delectable pastries, they leaned against a wall, shoulder to shoulder, to watch the celebrants dance. As the tangy taste of apples and currants delighted her taste buds, Rena’s mind soured with the same gnawing question. How could she leave, how she could abandon her best friend, how she could go off all alone to a foreign country?

As the pianist played a delicate Chopin waltz, the flock of guests offered congratulations and hearty embraces to the newlyweds and their families. A few minutes later, the music stopped and the wedding guests moved toward a man standing on a chair near the giddy-faced bridegroom. When he began to make his speech, Rena heard a loud sound, like a distant explosion. Along with several others, she rushed outside on the street-side balcony to see what caused the noise. As far as she could see there were no cars on the road, only a steam-driven train in the distance.

As a survivor of an assault at age ten, she often had to fight the familiar apprehension that reared its ugly head at loud noises or men’s rowdy voices. She heard her mother mention how moody she’d become since her period of convalescence, but what was the use of experiences, of overcoming death if encounters with the devil didn’t alter the consciousness a bit?

Sarah joined Rena outside as she stood talking with two long-bearded men. Rena watched how warmly Sarah smiled at them. She always had a special glow about her. Sarah asked, “What was that bang?”

Rena explained with her hands, raising them both in bewilderment. “Don’t know. The men say it’s nothing to worry about. Maybe a car backfiring.”

The secret kept crisscrossing Rena’s mind, reminding her how much she stood to lose. As they meandered along the porch, the time came to confess, but she didn’t know where to begin. “I’ve dreamed so many times about our plans for a double wedding.”

“Me too. I still like white, pale yellow and light blue for our colors, but how about a pretty pastel shade of aqua, sort of a light ocean color…like your eyes.”

Rena chuckled at the description of her eyes. Sarah had a way to make plain things seems special. “Good thing a wedding dress is long enough to cover the grotesque scars on my leg.”

“With your looks, I wouldn’t give that worry a second thought.”

“But what about…the wedding night? No man will want to touch me.”

“Good looks are temporary anyway, Rena. It’s what’s inside that truly counts and you are the most beautiful soul I know.”

Her reaction to Sarah’s observation started at her toes and kindled every pore of her skin. “As usual, you are sweeter than anyone I know. You should be a poet. Maybe you could compose me a new life, help me put this world back together.”

“Let’s not talk about sad things. Don’t you know it’s your natural resilience to our unfortunate circumstances that I depend on for my optimism? Listen to your father. It’s not for girls like us to worry about politics and governments and history. We have weddings and families and children to look after. Where is your lighthearted nature today?”

With a little chuckle and a wide grin, Rena put her arm around Sarah and conveyed accord. Tomorrow everything would change anyway. She would no longer spend hours fretting over her impossible aspirations to promote tolerance and end man’s cruelty to one another. Instead, she would sweat over every minute. “Do you like the idea of releasing white doves at the end of our ceremony?”

“I miss the times when our wedding plans were all we talked about.” Sarah tucked her sandy straw-colored hair behind her ears and smiled up at Rena, but it wasn’t her real smile, something was off. Now that Rena examined her closely, she looked sallow and the natural crispness to her voice sounded rather cloudy.

“Is anything bothering you? You seem pensive.”

It took Sarah a few seconds to respond, her chin quivering. “We received a letter from Papa. I’ll tell you about it later. I don’t want to spoil this happy occasion.”

Sarah’s father had been sent to a work camp with ten thousand other Jews right after the Night of Broken Glass in Berlin. Along with other unpleasant reminders of awful things, Rena did her best to barricade the memory of that night at the periphery of her conscious mind. Whatever Sarah’s news, Rena knew it could not be good. She’d planned this moment since yesterday, but she couldn’t reveal her upsetting plans just now. It was her turn to sooth Sarah’s nerves, not vice versa. “Sarah…I think everything will work out, but…what…”

After six sneezes in a row, Sarah stopped further probing by saying, “Let’s walk around the building to the river. I have a couple of muffins in my pocket. Do you want to feed the birds?”

Rena nodded and caught a glimpse of the red threads in the whites of Sarah’s sapphire eyes. A pocket of sunbeams broke through the ominous sky. Rena asked her, “Isn’t it a blessing?”

“What?”

“We have each other.”

“Oh yes, a very great blessing. You’re the only person in the whole world who doesn’t make me feel self-conscious about my short chubby legs.” A tear formed in Sarah’s eye and Rena knew she worried about more than her figure. The rumors about Nazis approaching Warsaw made everyone nervous as a trapped cat.

Rena’s vocal cords constricted: the consequences of her decision so tender. No matter how bad it hurt, she had to rise above her selfishness for the benefit of her family. “I don’t know what I will do without you, Sarah.”

“Without me? What do you mean?”

Rena shrugged, her tongue delayed by emotion. Finally she sighed, “I’ve got wings in my belly.” Then tears dotted her cheeks. Sarah wiped them away, but Rena saw that she wept too. Perhaps no explanation was needed. Sarah often understood things. She had uncanny foresight. Rena put out her index finger. Sarah locked her finger with Rena’s, and they both smiled and said in unison, “Best friends, forever.”

For a long time they stood in silence on the porch overlooking the river, the sound of rushing waters a tonic to Rena’s soul. The fresh breeze seemed to calm Sarah’s sniffles. Life bloomed everywhere. Saffron sunflowers blanketed the distant fields visited by flocks of swallows and skylarks. Along the opposite shore voices distracted her. Strolling couples linked arm-in-arm reminded her how long she had wished to have a boyfriend of her own. Ever since the age of twelve, when her family still lived in Berlin, she had daydreamed about the day she would be introduced to her future husband. She even wrote down little details about her wedding preparations in her diary.

Rena said, “Remember Berlin? Remember when we both believed in fairies and unicorns? Our old homes? I’ll never forget those days, our elegant three-story manor near the synagogue in the Oranienburger Strabe. Life was a series of sweet imaginings then.” She took in a deep heavy breath and slowly let it out.

“Maybe it’s only the ease of liberty in Warsaw, but I love the heavenly fragrance of the morning dew here. I can even smell it in the city, especially in our flower garden.”

“Yes, living with Onkel Moshe and Aunt Mitha on their farm has been delightful. I’ll always remember how much fun you and I have had with the animals, climbing trees, fishing, feeding birds, and riding horses. Remember how we used to run our hands through the golden grain in the barn, pretending it was gold?”

Sarah chuckled and Rena knew she’d forgotten her troubles, if only for a few minutes. She decided to hold off the bad news a little longer. With quiet appreciation for their mutual love for one another, they made their way down the porch stairs to the grass. From the vantage point at the edge of the river, they looked out over a valley of farmhouses, her uncle’s just past the next bridge.

She didn’t let Sarah see the emotion varnishing her eyes. “How very lovely.” Oh how she adored everything about the countryside. From one end of the sky to the other the colors of the sunset painted them a snapshot of this unforgettable moment together. Prismatic tints of yellow, orange, and pink blended with the blue and aqua of the vanishing sky. “I think this must be the most beautiful place in the entire world.”

Sarah took Rena’s hand and filled it with muffin crumbs for the birds. “God has such remarkable talent for painting sunsets.”

Rena’s heart felt like pulp as dark clouds closed off the heavenly production. She may never see all this again. She may never see her best friend again. Her letters of explanation were written. Tomorrow she would be on the train. “I wish all of life could be as happy and beautiful as right now, but…there won’t be a double wedding, Sarah. I must leave Warsaw. I’m sorry.”

“Leave? Leave Warsaw?”

“My parents are waiting on their travel documents because I never had a birth certificate. The authorities keep asking for more money, saying they can get it disregarded, but it’s been months. After I leave, my family can get their permits and get out of Poland to safety in Israel.”

“You can’t just leave everyone, Rena. People depend on you. You’re barely sixteen. You’re the only friend I have.”

The faint clatter of aircraft in the distance shot a volt of current through Rena’s bones, but she employed her mental stop sign. While Sarah objected to her plans, Rena scrutinized the distant sky.

Just as three red robins circled them and Rena’s heart began to settle down, she heard it again—a crack, a sizzle like fireworks. She cranked her head in every direction before she discovered the likely source. “Mercy!”  Her jaw dropped as she squinted. Far off in the distance she spotted a string of airplanes, like black buzzards against creamy pink clouds.

“That looks like a lot of airplanes. They must be getting ready to fight off the Nazis. I hoped the rumors—”

“It’s time to bring the dead out of their graves!” Rena snapped. Strange sensations like erupting lava inside her cells suddenly consumed her. She slid her hand down her thigh to her knee and found it still safely hidden under her dress. She’d carried the dagger everywhere she went since the day she found it in the attic. When she wore dresses, she threaded a garter through the black leather case and wore it just above her knee. With pants and a shirt, she strapped it to her belly with a narrow belt. No one knew she carried a dagger, not even Sarah. She told herself she carried it around for protection, but deep down in her gut she knew it could also be used for revenge.

As her eyes dropped to the horizon, she stopped and gripped Sarah’s arm. “Look! It’s Jonathan. He’s running down the hill toward us!”

With wide eyes, her mouth agape, Sarah turned to Rena with renewed force. “Did you see that? Your brother just launched himself over that boulder!”

Rena squinted and concentrated on the determined way his legs carried him, the way his thick brown hair, always smartly combed, now looked disheveled. Her knees buckled. “He’s upset.”

Sarah turned to stone. Rena covered her mouth to contain her urge to explode.

“Oh my, my…look at everyone running behind him…your—”

“Papa? My mother? Aunt Mitha? Onkel Moshe? Little Judith?”

Rena felt pressure growing under her ribs. The hands on her watch seemed to be moving too fast. She sucked in a deep breath, gripped her gown and hurried uphill toward them. “What?” she yelled out, feeling chilled and frazzled.

“The Nazis are coming!” Jonathan hollered. He bounded toward them, out of breath, but full of his usual energy. His brown eyes, hooded under bushy eyebrows, bulged from their sockets, bigger than plums. “A group of men came and warned us. The German armies are headed toward Warsaw. They need help to dig trenches and build barricades.”

Looking skyward Sarah told Rena, “That letter…from my Papa? Rumor has it the Nazis may be sending him here to Warsaw to work in a cement factory.”

“A German factory in Warsaw?”

Including Jonathan in her gaze, Sarah said, “My father said the Nazis will soon control Poland. That’s why they are opening factories here.”

“For Jewish labor, no doubt.” Jonathan added with a growl.

“He also said we should get out of Poland as soon as possible.

As her other family members grew closer, yelling about the trouble, they all stopped and looked up as muffled thumps, odd grumbling like blasts of thunder came closer. Rena’s mouth fell open as the noise got louder and more solid. She felt her brain breaking, her temper bursting. If evil intended to reduce her to dust, he would need to come up with something more exceptional than fire and fear.

Suddenly, the clatter was just over them, above the clouds. The shriek of a whistling noise close by sent everyone to the ground: face down, hands covering their heads. Everyone except Rena. She grabbed a handful of black stones, the ones she normally used for juggling or throwing across the face of the water.

“Stuka dive-bombers!” Jonathan yelled. “Watch out!”

Rena struggled to regain her footing on the embankment, but tripped and fell flat on her face. Rising up again, the palms of her hands scuffed, she spit dirt off her tongue. As one dive bomber cruised low over the river, she threw a stone with all her might. “Rotten death dogs! I will not be burned alive!” Missing the target, she grabbed another handful of stones against the complaints of her brother. Dust and the stench of engine waste stuck to her nostrils. With the capacity of a megaphone, she screamed at them, “Monsters! Go back to hell!”

After her brother yanked her to the ground, she felt a concoction of terror and hatred percolating inside her head. She saw the face of Death contorted with laughter as he watched her melting. Her pulse pounded in her neck. Sweat dripped down the sides of her face. She reached for her emergency stop sign, but it faded into a splatter of blood as a paralyzing scene flashed in her head; a bloody episode of naked Nazis and gray skeletons floating in water, her exposed body among them. She shook her head back and forth to rid herself of the image. Was it her mind replaying some twisted version of that terrifying night in Berlin, or was it a premonition of something to come? It only lasted a second, but it made her heart bang against her chest like a machine gun. She knew one thing. If she stayed in Warsaw among the Nazis, someday their venom would burst her open and she might really lose her mind. The thought petrified her.

As the black dragons with long fuselages and red and black swastikas swooped down toward them, their black smoke leaving a long billowing tail, she squeezed the rocks in her hand until blood seeped between her fingers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

2

 

Garmisch, Germany

Herr Brandt, try to understand,” Brutskeller said. “The art and treasures confiscated as spoils of war against the Jews and Poland require someone of your expertise.” A short sturdy man with investigative eyes and a tight devious smile, he punctuated his words with a blunt edge. He’d arrived unannounced at Rolf’s home during the dinner hour a day before expected, informing Rolf of his new post in the Third Reich. “Most Jewish art is marked for destruction, but the stuff from conquered territories are what—”

“With all due respect,” Rolf interrupted. The aroma of his mother’s potato pancakes and bacon still lingered in the room, a reminder of her wet cheeks during the meal. He stood and stepped toward the fireplace, not about to give in. Rolf’s liver-colored German Wirehaired Pointer snapped to attention, her growl a signal to beware. Rolf knelt down and stroked her head. “It’s all right, Windy. It’s all right.” He wanted no part in helping the Nazis with their plunder of the Jews. His mother had arranged for him to take the midnight train to Austria. He would go on to America and send for her later. “Herr Brutskeller, works of art, Jewish or otherwise belong to the world community. We must consider—”

“Be watchful, Brandt.” The words exploded from Brutskeller’s lips. “Your father exhibited this same weakness for the Jews. You must think about the words you are saying before they come out of your mouth.”

With forced calmness, Rolf asked, “What do you mean exactly, Herr Brutskeller?” The man reminded him of a local pickpocket who had also earned the tag of town drunk. While this scoundrel before him didn’t reek of alcohol, he did smell odd, sort of like old clothes soaked in lye. His shifty little eyes surveyed every inch of the room sporadically focusing on inanimate objects. Rolf speculated how such a man managed to worm his way in with the top-ranking officials of Germany.

Brutskeller tightened his grip on the handle of his briefcase. “The point is, we are both Catholics…I can help you, Brandt…if you cooperate.”

Rolf’s eyes locked on the messenger’s face. “I need to know if this is an invitation, as it was referred to in Himmler’s letter, or a threat…sir.” Rolf would not assist the Nazis. Deep down he knew his father’s death in Berlin was no accident.

“What is important in this case is your bloodline.”

“Bloodline? What does that have to do with anything?”

Brutskeller pulled a few documents from his attaché case and placed them in Rolf’s hands: copies of his birth and baptismal certificates and those of his parents and grandparents, along with a genealogy chart. Dropping something gold on the floor, he grabbed it and stuffed it in his pocket before Rolf could make out just what it was. A ring perhaps?

Rolf sat back in the overstuffed chair, examining the papers. “My ancestry? What—”

“New Reich racial laws—”

“What happened to privacy?”

“No need to worry, Brandt. By Reich classification, destiny intends great things for you.”

For a moment Brutskeller had his attention. Rolf’s father had often voiced a similar opinion, promptings that stirred his soul. But this wasn’t his father. He knew his mother was right about leaving before the National German Workers Socialist Party smothered the entire country. “Thank you…but I have my own plans.”

“Cast off all doubt, Rolf. You are one of the few young Bavarian men with good blood. As an SS officer in the Third Reich, you will have the privilege, once the program is fully operational, to procreate with the finest female Aryans in Europe in order that you may help build the master race for our nation.” After a deep breath, he snapped the case shut, placed it on the hardwood floor, and sat back with a hearty sigh.

“Procreate? I thought this invitation concerned managing art collections.” Now Rolf understood why Brutskeller had requested his mother to leave them alone in the sitting room. His eyes scanned the log-walled parlor, past the lacey white curtains at the window, beyond a dozen or so family photographs and his medal on the wall, to the hall door. The fire snapped and a log tumbled, the embers spattering. He prayed she wasn’t listening.

Brutskeller gloated. “This project is of the highest national secrecy, and only for the most privileged. Ever since our Führer saw you at the Olympic victory dinner he has wanted you in the program.”

Rolf tried to hide his revulsion. “Why me, Herr Brutskeller? Aren’t there plenty of young German men—?”

“Not with your combined endowments, Rolf. According to these documents you graduated with honors. You have been described by your teachers and neighbors as cooperative, law abiding, dependable, and honest. As a hard worker, you’ll appreciate the efficiency of the Third Reich.” The messenger raised his hand to Rolf’s face, his forefinger and thumb in the shape of an ‘L’ almost touching Rolf’s left cheek. “Your strong, tall body and Nordic features: blond hair, blue-green eyes, and good cheekbones tip the scales in your favor.”

Am I a mannequin or an art restorer? Rolf almost grimaced as he jerked back.  “Let’s get back to the comment regarding my father and the Jewish paintings.”

When Brutskeller spoke, his lips moved fast and he stared at a nail in the floor. “Your father got himself into a little trouble at the Nationalgallerie. One cannot play cloak-and-dagger with the Third Reich.”

Blood rushed to Rolf’s face. His cheeks burned as he examined the man. Brutskeller’s blank expression made his face difficult to read. Rolf felt rather certain it was unsafe to pry information from the messenger, but his need to know demanded risk. He swallowed back his anxiety and drew a deep breath, “What sort of trouble exactly?”

“Let me be frank,” Brutskeller said, snapping a match to light a cigar. “You possess the experience and expertise to evaluate the works of art we are now in the process of securing in Poland. Within a few days, the remainder of Poland, including Warsaw, will belong to Germany, and all their national treasures must be secured, tallied, valuated and distributed.”

“Let me be frank, Herr Brutskeller. You are connected in Berlin.” Rolf despised the spicy, overpowering stench of the cigar. “Tell me how my father really died. Then perhaps we can cooperate.”

Brutskeller didn’t flinch. “Upon our Führer’s orders, you are to accompany me today on the train to Berlin.”

He wanted to snap his neck like he’d snapped the necks of geese for Sunday suppers. “I’m not a party member, and I don’t take kindly to orders.”

Brutskeller chuckled as he fiddled with the latches on his briefcase.

Controlling his instinct to kick the man all the way down the hall and out the door, Rolf ran his fingers through the bristly coat of his dog, deliberating. He was in the middle of restoring several Luftel-Malerei wall frescos, one at the Post-Hotel, another on the exterior of a seventeenth-century house on the Ludwigstrasse, and the third at Pfarrkirche, the old church in the neighboring village of Partenkirchen. “I’m a fresco restorer, a wall painter. I’m in the middle of important restorations for Bavaria…I know little about—”

“There will be enough treasures…” Brutskeller rubbed his hands together, a greedy, unexpected smile on his lips. “…to make us all very rich. If you’re wise, you will grasp the concept of how collaboration can be mutually advantageous.”

Rolf wasn’t biting at the bait. He’d been his father’s son too long. “Artists don’t trade their ethics for fame or fortune, Herr Brutskeller.”

“Truly, it would not be wise to disappoint our Führer.” Brutskeller dropped the smile for a malicious grimace. “Do you wish to end up like your father, Herr Brandt?”

Rolf rolled up his fists, but held himself back. A few tense seconds passed. What would his father expect of him at this moment? “Actually…yes. I intend to honor the memory of my father by following in his footsteps, honor my mother by taking care of her now that he is gone, and finish restoring the precious frescos…to make him proud. There wasn’t a better man in this world, and I’ll thank you to leave my father out of our conversation.”

Wagging a finger in Rolf’s face, the ingrained snobbery of a Berliner glowed in his eyes. He raised his voice, “Under new regulations, your honor is to the Fatherland and the Führer now.”

Rolf hitched forward in the chair. He wanted to toss the shriveling little snake of a man head first out of his house. Exhaling through clinched teeth, he stated the obvious. “So this is a threat…not a request, or an invitation.”

“By direct order, I have to bring you back…or my life isn’t worth the ink on my birth certificate, Brandt.”

Rolf had gotten off the year before when they had insisted he join the Art Institute to paint the walls of bare Bavarian buildings with nation-building Teutonic boys. “My patience is at a breaking point. I must ask you to leave, Herr Brutskeller. Give Himmler my answer. I will lay down my life for my country willingly, but I will never join the Nazi Party!”

The messenger straightened his collar and puffed out a few rounds of smoke, the ash tumbling to the floor. “There is no need for anger, son. I have the power of the Third Reich behind me. We have plenty of time to catch the ten o’clock night train to Berlin.”

A faint chugging of train pistons in the distance caused a hard knot in Rolf’s gut. He gripped the arm of the chair preparing to attack, but reconsidered. God, let me find the right words.

Brutskeller opened his briefcase, flipped up a velvet flap and exposed a silver pistol, shiny as a newly minted coin. “It’s simple math, son. Your mother will be safe unless you fail in your duty as a German citizen. You may wish to pack a few of your personal items while there is still time.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

3

 

Three weeks had passed since the Stuka dive-bombers cruised over Warsaw. Rena’s secret plan to run away had been thwarted by the Nazi threat. For three days, while Rena watched her little sister and the farmhouse, everyone else in her family worked alongside neighbors to dig trenches and build barricades. Upon hearing that the echelon of the Polish armed forces and the Polish government had abandoned Poland on September sixth, Rena had another fit of anxiety and required additional sedation.

On the following Friday after the noon meal, Rena’s father gathered the family in the parlor to make an announcement. His crimped brow, graying hair and weak shoulders made Rena sad. He’d once been a monument of a man, well spoken and poised, famous in his field. He cleared his throat and said, “My dear family, happiness is determined by attitude, not circumstances. I will not allow us to relinquish the enjoyment of our daily lives to the looming possibility of Nazi occupation. Each one of us needs to strengthen our faith in the power of prayer on the lips of Israel.”

Onkle Moshe and Aunt Mitha concurred with resolute head movements.

Rena’s mother offered each person a red and white peppermint from a silver dish, smiling and bowing with each distribution. Rena noticed how luminous the white linen dress looked against her fine caramel skin. Even with the extra pounds she’d gained recently, her mother still had a youthful figure. The last time she’d worn the emerald necklace and earrings was for Jonathan’s Bar-mitzvah in Berlin.

A regal Dalmatian brushed under Rena’s hand. His smooth coat between her fingers comforted her. She gave his a good rub. “You’re the best, Yankel. You’ll defend us, won’t you?” When her family first moved to the farm, her aunt and uncle scolded her about sleeping with Yankel, said he was too big and unsanitary, but once they realized the two were inseparable they finally gave up.

“I think we should all go on with our normal routines and continue our daily prayers for the royal house of David.” Her father sounded like a man who thought fairy dust could stop the onslaught of Bubonic plague, and it made Rena love him even more.

Only Jonathan objected, “Shouldn’t we be making arrangements for the worst scenario, Papa? Our money isn’t going to save us. We need guns and ammunition.”

Everyone else agreed that going on with life was the only way to find any semblance of ease. Rena knew Jonathan was right, but after her father had assured her that Poland was protected by unseen forces, she promised him to keep a low profile, to behave like a young lady, and to discontinue her temper tantrums. From the friction she felt now rising from her feet to her hairline, it wasn’t going to be easy.

Drawn to her mother’s curious whimper, her brain changed course. Her mother sat solemnly in her father’s russet leather chair. Her delicate square shoulders trembled. Why was she rolling and re-rolling a red ball of yarn? Rena felt the flutter of wings unsettling her core and gave Jonathan the evil eye. His overzealous suggestions didn’t help. Ever since the Germans confiscated their properties in Berlin and seized their bank accounts to pay for Nazi damage on the Night of Broken Glass, her mother showed signs of emotional weakness.

 Jonathan stood and paced in a circle. “And a pack of guard dogs wouldn’t hurt either. We need to think defensively!”

Rena put her book aside, arched her back, and presented a fickle wave of cantankerous glances at her brother so he would know her tongue moved for the benefit of the adults. “Jonathan. One family against a nation? I know I’m only a girl, but Papa has a point. Unless you can invent some kind of substance to make us invisible, we have to leave Hitler and his pack to the English or the Americans.”

Her father broke up the tension. “If not for so many other countries declaring war against Germany, I wouldn’t be so hopeful. It’s important not to let them appropriate our precious lives with anxiety. So to celebrate Rena’s recent birthday, I have made a reservation at Samuel’s Kosher Restaurant for six o’clock this evening.”

Rena jumped up from the divan and threw both arms around his neck. “Really? How wonderful!”

With that familiar twinkle in his eyes, he tapped her on the nose and continued, “That’s not all. After we stuff ourselves on knishes, chopped liver and sautéed onions, and their famous mandel broit, we will jump on the trolley and hurry down to the district. There is a little Yiddish theater in a back alley of a narrow byway that nurse Jawanouski told me about. Tonight we will see one of Goldfadn’s delightful operettas.”

Little Judith climbed up on the footstool to reach her father’s neck. “Let’s go. Let’s go! Or I’ll twist your nose off!” Everyone laughed and began to stir.

Rena’s excitement faded as visions looped in her head. “Wait a minute. What if they see us? The Wehrmacht surround Warsaw, Papa. I don’t want any of you arrested because of me.”

Moving from the divan to his piano bench, her uncle shared some uplifting gossip. “Don’t worry, Ziskeit. Britain’s Prime Minister gave Poland an unconditional guarantee of military assistance last March. It won’t be long before the fiends are pushed back to Germany.”

Now doing pull ups using the rim of the parlor door, Jonathan panted and persisted, “How can you all remain so calm? We need to prepare! If we are going down, we shouldn’t go down as passive prayer pansies.” His striking eyes, intense with thought, were darker than usual and it troubled Rena. He’d always been a respectful son, a lover of tradition.

Her father adjusted his ribbed and cable-trimmed vest, regained his posture and a small semblance of his former prestige, walked over to her brother and stopped his routine with a gentle hand. Stroking his bear-shaped brown head, he said, “You certainly are a courageous, unflinching bull of a man now. I hadn’t realized those strapping muscles of yours had given you so much chutzpah. Then he kissed him on both cheeks and reassured him. “As long as we are honest and do things according to the law of the land and the law of God, our future is secure wherever we are. And besides, if God had the power to save the Jews from the Egyptians, he can stop the Nazis.”

Aunt Mitha jumped up and twirled around on the hardwood floor, her black patent shoes swishing out a cheerful tune. “That’s the idea. Let’s keep that notion on our minds while we are out tonight celebrating Rena’s sixteenth year!”

 

Like every Sunday morning just after dawn, Rena rode her horse across the pasture with her fishing pole, her silky blonde hair flying behind her. Yankel ran out in front, clearing a path for Apollo. Rena laughed at his proud quest, his tail swishing with pleasure. Out of habit, she examined the sky. When bad visions tried to ruin her pleasure, she concentrated on the beauty surrounding her.

 At the river, she dismounted and stroked the long black mane that flowed over his neck. “I love you, Apollo. I’ll bet you’re faster than a train.”

As the dew evaporated off the fields, she took in a deep breath and held it. The fresh fragrances of nature brought back fond memories of planting geraniums with her mother in Berlin and the colorful image lifted her spirits.

She sat down near a bridge and submerged her feet in a little whirlpool at the edge of the Vistula. Yankel sniffed her neck and barked, wanting to play. “You’re always so rambunctious, Yankel. Can you just lie down for a few minutes?”

After attaching the bait, she cast her line and watched Yankel as he ran off after a swarm of butterflies. The cold current caressed her toes as she waited for a fish to bite. Just as she began to berate herself for not leaving Warsaw earlier, she heard a roar like thunder, but the sky was clear. It sounded like a thousand massive motors. “Yankel! Yankie boy!

Her feathered friends, the little meadowlarks and cardinals from the forest across the river who had come to eat crumbs from her hand, suddenly flew away. The earth under her began to rumble. She felt a strange heat, smelled something odd like old motor oil. She’d read about earthquakes. She had no desire to experience one.

Yankel returned, puffing, his long pink tongue drooling. “Come on, we have to get home.” Just as she jumped on Apollo, she saw a long line of tanks on the horizon. She reached for the dagger, but she’d forgotten it. Her knees felt weak as fresh churned butter. Her eyes pulsated. Panic parched her tongue. German tanks. Panzers! Nazis! They’re here…Death is in Warsaw! 

She thought her heart would jump out of her chest as she urged Apollo home. “Go boy! Go! Faster! Faster!” Her cheeks felt hot enough to ignite. In the bright of day, she felt as if the earth was sucking her into an endless abyss of flames. Swastikas and bonfires flashed in her mind as it whizzed with thought. Perspiration crowned her forehead. God how she wished she’d run away months ago. She kicked his flanks with more urgency. “Fly Apollo, fly! Get home! I have to warn my parents. We must leave Warsaw tonight!”

 

That night as Rena sprawled out next to Yankel on a thick rug in her bedroom, an open book of Else Lasker-Schüler poetry at her fingertips, she tried to take her father’s advice.

“Think of it this way,” he had said when he came to calm her nerves and kiss her goodnight. “I don’t think the world is going to let the Germans take Poland, but if they do we have options. We still have your grandfather’s inheritance. I have moved that money to Switzerland in a secret account. I am assured our transit paperwork is almost complete. We will move to Israel as planned. So please don’t worry. The rabbi had a great suggestion today. He said to count your blessings one by one: family, friends, food, and each and every animal Yahweh has given us.”

“And Onkel Moshe’s library.” She pointed to the stack of books on her desk, trying to emulate his optimism.

After months of settling in to their new lifestyle at the farm, Rena’s father now had a thriving medical practice in a modest office next to Saint Catherine’s Hospital in the city. With so many Jews moving to Warsaw, the number of his patients multiplied and his healthy income seemed to make him whole again. Even though her eyes felt sandy and her muscles ached, she spent a long time writing down her blessings as her father suggested. He was right, counting them made her feel a lot better.

Now if only she could stop the visions and premonitions hacking away at her brain. To distract herself, she outlined the black spots on Yankel’s coat with her finger for a long time. From her bedside table, she retrieved the shiny gold box of Swiss chocolates for one last treat, thinking how lucky she was to receive chocolates for her birthday again. Before she opened the lid, she wrote it down as number forty-six on her blessing list. Yankel lifted his nose and stared at her. “Only a pinch or Onkel Moshe will have my head.”

 

As the days passed, her mind slowly recuperated. Other than a few strange noises and upsetting gossip, life went on as usual. They milked the cows, slopped the pigs, and fed the chickens. Her mother was busy knitting new winter sweaters, her aunt cooked, little Judith learned her letters, Jonathan brought coal from town, and her best friend visited as usual.

Besides Sarah and Yankel, Onkel Moshe was Rena’s favorite part of her life in Warsaw. Actually, the uncle of her father, he was older than anyone in the house, nearly eighty. As a retired concert pianist and composer, he delighted her by playing the piano every evening after supper. The family sat around the fire as it crackled, and listened to his magnificent recitals on the upright, chatting and remembering old days and different times. Her favorite tune was his snappy, lighthearted rendition of Chopin’s Polonaise.

One day Rena asked her uncle about his favorite piano. It had a rosewood inlaid case, hand-carved rose buds in the two side frames, and a floral bouquet painting in the center. The most stylish of his pianos, he had positioned it in a nook of the parlor and it seemed as if the house was built to suit the dimensions of the piano. “I bet this,” she said, reading the fret border, “Gors and Kallman is worth a lot.”

“Oh, she’s worth millions to me, Rena.” Onkel Moshe smiled, playing the keys with a delicate touch. He moved over on the bench, and said, “Sit here next to me, sweet Ziskeit. I may decide to leave this beautiful girl with you one day.”

Rena loved the sound of his voice when he called her sweetheart, the tenderness in his gaze so profound. She watched the velocity of the keys as they moved up and down, feeling a strong desire intensifying inside her. If only he could pass on his genius to me. “I wish I could play better, Onkel Moshe.”

His old coffee-colored eyes buried in folds of flesh, yet still crisp and sparkling, winked as he stood up and kissed the piano just at the center of the faded design painted on the face of it. As he sat back down, he said, “You will, Ziskeit!”

“Really? You think I can do it?”

Mirtsishem! If I have my way about it, you will be a great musician one day!”

The musical talent of the Steiner bloodline went back to the thirteenth century. Her father told her Onkel Moshe’s brother, also six feet two, was the director of Vienna’s Theater-an-der-Wien and his father and grandfather, well-known composers themselves, were once close friends of the famous Viennese “Waltz King” composer, Johann Strauss.

Running his hand along thin silver hair to readjust his yarmulke, he asked in his rusty, well-used voice, “Would you take good care of her for me?”

“Of course. You know how compulsive I am about dust. I promise you I will keep her sparkling clean, but we don’t need to think about that now. You have so much to teach me, Onkel Moshe. It will take many years!”

He nodded and she felt her heart triple beat with anticipation. The savory scent of varnishkes coming from the kitchen seemed to distract him. As he stopped playing, closed his eyes and took in a long deliberate breath, it reminded her that Kasha and noodles was her favorite Yiddish dish, too.

“When can we begin practice? Maybe after supper?”

With his fingers fixed at the key of C, his waxy complexion losing color, he said, “When will mankind learn lessons from history?”

Rena fell silent, not sure she understood.

Her uncle patted her head, “Yes, Ziskeit, after supper. As long as the Germans don’t disrupt our plans. Zol Got ophiten! May God prevent!

 

Her idyllic visits to the river and pleasant evenings of studying beside her uncle on the piano stool came to an abrupt end. The sightings of more German tanks and planes escalated everyone’s fears. As the hope of help from other nations diminished, her father’s predictions changed from “if” to “when”. No matter how much Rena tried to carry on her routine and center her attention on her blessings, she couldn’t prevent the truth from unnerving her. The Polish army with their dilapidated artillery and ailing horses could not hold up against German steel.

At dawn on September 25, 1939, Rena awakened to a loud explosion followed by a long, earsplitting scream. She jumped out of bed and ran to the window, the yellow sash of her nightgown dragging behind her. From the second story she looked out over the countryside and saw black smoke in the distance. The roar of planes rattled her windowpane. They passed over the house across the field. She ducked down. Her knee caught on a splinter sticking up out of the old wood floor and she yelped. Yankel came running and she wrapped her arm around him, held his warm body close to hers. The glass in the top section of her window cracked and she knew their wonderful life on the farm was coming to a sudden and dreadful end. “Oh, Yankel! Jonathan was right! The Nazis are destroying us!”

Fear and adrenaline pumped through her veins and forced her to watch. Craters opened in far-off fields and burst with clouds of dust. The ground quaked with each blast, the geysers of dirt and debris raining down. In seconds, the lavender sunrise turned into an ugly brownish gray.

Explosions and flames lit the city of Warsaw, ten miles in the distance. Sarah. Oh, Yahweh, don’t let her burn. If the Polish army didn’t stop them soon, it looked as if the whole city would blow to smithereens. She closed her eyes for a moment and prayed harder, prayed the noise would stop, prayed the world would somehow survive Death.

The planes suddenly came from behind, the path to city targets just over Onkel Moshe’s farmhouse. Yankel pulled away and ran under the bed. Rena felt the vibration moving through her body, jarring her stomach, nipping at her fingertips, her teeth.

A loud thud like a falling brick wall made her cover her ears. Shattered glass and the shrill shriek of destruction dictated her attention. She opened the window and stretched her neck. A farmhouse nearby went up in flames. Not flames! The musty, appalling smell of firebomb explosives, petrol and earth attacked her senses.

She heard people calling her name from downstairs, but tension kept her immobile. Like giant green-iron cockroaches, a crawling parade of panzer tanks appeared out of the forest in the distance, firing their shells. Above her more planes swooped, spitting out black smoke, their sirens screaming. Broad hats of field workers running across the field went down like bowling pins.

A minute later, old Ivan from the farm across the road shouted up at the planes with his fist in the air. “Skurwysyn! Ya dirty devils!”

Rena felt her heart running a marathon. She had to escape, but she couldn’t move. The muffled roar of departing engines gave way to moaning victims lying in the fields. The thick air made it difficult to breathe. The dust and foreign particles felt nasty on her tongue, and coated her nostrils with the pungent odor of death. Children ran frantically, crying for parents. Young men ran with buckets of water toward two smoldering farmhouses across the road. In the distance, houses went up like matchboxes. In less than five minutes, the sunrise had gone red.

Old Ivan Bolvolski wept and cursed the Germans as he carried his limp wife out of their burning house. Blinking back her tears, Rena’s body grew stiff like a plank as the hungry orange and red flames gorged rooftops across the countryside stretching before her. Not more fire! She ducked her head inside the window and wiped the trickle of blood from her knee. Pinching her eyes shut, she felt grit in the folds of her eyelids. The scars on her legs sizzled and twitched like that night. Just then she saw the bloody scene again in her mind, not of farmhouses, but of naked Nazis and floating skeletons. She shook her head to free herself, but there was no escape, no obliging stop sign. Her reality had suddenly become almost as brutal as her visions.

Footsteps echoed from the hardwood floors below. Voices screamed her name, but her lips, her body refused to respond. A scream started, but another thunderous rumble of a nearby explosion silenced her. Frozen in place, she saw Bolvolski’s grown daughter sitting in the middle of the road rocking her baby boy. He appeared unconscious, a bright red slash exposing his brain. Even with Yankel licking her face, she felt nauseous, just as she had in Berlin, the last time Death attacked her.

Her mother’s voice vibrated off her bedroom wall and made Yankel bark. “He has gone to join the army!”

Rena gasped, “Who?”

“Your father!”

 “No! That can’t—”

“Yes! It’s true! Your father…left us! Just moments ago!” Her mother yelled, wringing her hands. An alarming mental fracture glared from her eyes. “Get everyone down to the cellar right away.”

Rena rushed to her and took her in her arms. Every pore of her body felt like screaming with anger and hatred and fear, she wanted to stab and murder every Nazi she could find, but she remembered her promise to her father – no more temper tantrums. The explosions had stopped, at least for the moment, but Rena’s heart thumped harder than ever with a new, deeper fear. Papa would never leave without telling me goodbye.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

4


"
Climbing the scaffolding in Rome to view masterpieces and discuss their treatment with other restorers…that’s when you know you were born to a cause: to restore, to paint, to leave behind a legacy of beauty for future generations to enjoy,” Rolf told Hans, his mind drifting back to the mantel at home, the photograph in a thick silver frame, of him and his father with the Pope.

Rolf would never forget how his father embraced him that last time, as if he knew they would never see each other again. How had he really died? That question still haunted his dreams. How much he wanted to make him proud. Would he turn over in his grave to know his son now assisted the Reich with the skills he’d taught him?

Hans broke into Rolf’s reverie. “Rome? I would give anything to have been there with you. You seem as obsessed as your father, Rolf. But that’s what it takes…for greatness.”

With a quiet laugh, feeling uncomfortable by the comparison, Rolf turned and lifted a sheet off another Rubens. “I don’t know if we should take all the credit for whatever talent we might have, Hans. As the superior race,” he added sardonically, “we come equipped with advantages, free of charge.”

Hans snorted, lit a cigarette and set it at the edge of his palette, a tube of red oil paint at his fingertips. “I don’t think anyone can argue the premise of the Aryan theory when you see one of those gorgeous blond, blue-eyed girls.”

They both chuckled.

Under the massive pentagonal fortress of stone known as Warsaw’s Royal Castle, Rolf carried out his duties for the Third Reich. From the top of the high, helmeted clock tower to the buried chambers, Rolf and his team crated all the furnishings, carpets, clocks, even the fine china, silver and crystal and sent it back to Germany. Now Rolf had to coordinate the dismantling and crating of all the precious works of art.

As his part of the master plan, he worked in the subterranean vault, his office and a three-story warehouse where he inspected, measured, cataloged, valuated and allocated Warsaw’s greatest treasures.

To assist him with minor canvas restorations, Hans Klinger had been taken off Berlin’s Nationalgallerie regular staff of assistant curators and assigned to work in Warsaw at Rolf’s side. As an added benefit, Rolf agreed to teach him the secrets that had made his father famous as an ancient art restorer. Despite the missing upper knuckle of his middle finger on his right hand, Hans’ dexterity and steadiness with a paintbrush were flawless. Already skilled in special techniques such as graffito, marbleizing, burnishing, and punch work, Hans’ interest in restoration, as a way to study the masters in more detail, showed brilliant instinct.

“We are lucky, Rolf.”

“We are?”

“We both have great fathers.” Hans whispered and Rolf remembered the guards stationed at the door. Although he was sick and tired of having to watch every word out of his mouth, he understood the necessity.

Had. I had a great father, Hans.”

“A very great father. He’s still great to a lot of people, Rolf.”

Hans had worked at the Nationalgallerie in Berlin for six years, a year under the previous curator – Rolf’s father. Hans and Rolf had worked together the past two weeks, but so far Rolf hadn’t mustered up the courage to ask him if he knew anything about his father’s unexplained death.

Would he ever find out what really happened? With a temporary assignment in Warsaw to oversee the confiscated national treasures, he was out of contact with those in the know. He needed to get back to Berlin as soon as possible. He unsheeted another masterpiece and whispered, “I have dreams, Hans.”

Han’s traded his sable brush tinted with pink paint for his cigarette. “Dreams?”

As the familiar scent of linseed oil gave way to the stink of tobacco, Rolf considered telling Hans he was defeating his restoration, but he wanted to keep to the subject of his father. “I’ve never told anyone else, but I see my father in my dreams. He’s high on a scaffold looking down at me. Maybe it’s just a memory from Rome. He says something to me, but…I’m not sure what he says. No matter how many times I have the dream, I can’t make out the message.”

“I believe in that.” Hans said as he reached for his brown jacket from the back of the chair and slipped it on. “This temperature may be good for the paintings, but my body prefers a toasty campfire.”

“In what? You believe in what, Hans?”

“In the dead visiting us, leading us…maybe hoping we’ll get the message that this life isn’t everything there is, that Jesus’ message is real.”

Rolf nodded, but he couldn’t respond. He had to think first, use caution. There was a quality about Hans that everyone admired; his polite cooperativeness. But the idea of asking him about his father made Rolf’s stomach weaken. Rolf already had enough trouble in Berlin over his conversation with Brutskeller. From Hans, he could probably get an answer, but would the inquiry get reported to the authorities?

Hans stayed busily engaged fastening another ancient canvas as Rolf tore off the brown paper from a painting brought in by the Gestapo; Peace and War. Rolf ran his fingers along the edge of the frame, searching for any flaws. “Another magnificent Rubens masterpiece.”

“Did you see his Chapeau de Paille over there behind Lorrains Village Fete?” Hans motioned toward the far wall with his chin, keeping one hand gripped on the canvas, the other switching between his paint brush and his cigarette. Hans was an odd fellow, Rolf mused, his color-laced fingernails a little too long, his head full of disarrayed brown fuzz always speckled with oil colors. Rolf enjoyed working with him, but trust was another matter.

Rolf walked in the direction of Hans’ chin and lifted the Lorrain aside finding the Chapeau de Paille. A splendid woman with a wide black hat stared back with a mournful expression. “Himmler will probably think this woman is a Jewess.”

“Be careful, Rolf. The guards have extra sensory hearing.” Hans said in a low voice, chuckling a little.

“But it’s the truth. I’m supposed to make those judgments on Himmler’s behalf.”

“You think…Jewish? But she’s a rare beauty! Even Himmler can’t deny that.” Hans insisted as he released several billowy puffs of smoke. “Just don’t get caught being too cozy with one of those Jew babes. That could be a serious infraction in this day and time.”

“Yeah, a few years in a work camp or death. I’d take the bullet over one of those camps.”

“Good choice. Quick jolt of pain, no whips, no starvation, no suffering.”

“Can you believe how strict the laws are now? A man almost has to ask to see a woman’s pedigree chart before asking for a date. Obviously no German of the Reich is foolish enough to get involved with a Jew intentionally, but the point is Himmler is obsessed about purging them and any remnant of their existence from German territory.”

“Some people may think that’s a tad extreme.” Hans whispered as he used a fine brush to rectify the faded stem of a rose.

Rolf didn’t care for Himmler a bit, and every time his name came up he couldn’t help thinking Himmler knew something about his father’s death. Of course, he knows…he knows everything. Or Heydrich…for sure Heydrich knows. With all his spies on active duty, he keeps his finger on every pulse of the Third Reich. 

Rolf balanced the frame of the Chapeau de Paille on the lip of the crate. “Albrecht Dürer once said, ‘I hold that the perfection of form and beauty is contained in the sum of all men.’ A true artist sees the perfection and imperfections in people. It’s the defects, the limps, the differences, the odd and the uncommon traits that gives us art worth looking at, worth painting. If we were all the same, wouldn’t it be a dull world? Without contrast, there would be no balance.”

Hans swept a bit of red onto the end of the brush and held it in mid air as he added his thoughts. “Have you ever stopped to consider how every single person is exactly the same minus their skin? The skin lends individuality to our exterior, it imparts beauty and age, but inside we are all the same…all the mechanisms striking the same beat, the search for happiness equal.”

With the keen eyes of a painter Rolf studied his companion. “That is deep, Hans. Who said that?”

“No one. I mean that’s just an observation.” His large grape-colored eyes peered over at Rolf. “That one looks like high society to me, not like a Jewess. Don’t crate it. Send it east!”

High society? Rolf’s mother and father were once considered high society, living in a marvelous flat in Charlottenburg, an affluent sector in Berlin, dining with rich artists and businessmen. This morning however, his mother was out in the barn in Bavaria collecting eggs.

As Rolf stared at Bernado Bellotto’s painting, View of Warsaw from the Terrace of the Royal Castle in Warsaw, 1773, oil on canvas, he deliberated. Hans had worked with Rolf’s father and his philosophy showed depth. Perhaps he was an ally, after all. He walked up to another painting on the other side of the pillar from Hans. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

Rolf whispered as he peeked behind the pillar at Hans, “Ever heard of a man named…named Joseph Weinstein?”

Hans’ face went pale as Rolf watched beads of sweat form on his forehead. Hans took a puff and finally said, “It’s…it’s a pretty common sounding name. Can’t say…can’t say I remember anyone specifically by that name.”

Rolf stepped out in front of the pillar. “Is that a no? It’s a Jewish name, Hans. Try to think. Someone my father knew in Berlin.”

Hans motioned to remind Rolf about the ears at the entrance. “Your father had a lot of friends, Rolf.”

Rolf saw the posturing in Hans’ expression. Perhaps their friendship didn’t go that deep. Suddenly, in a chilling whisper, Hans blurted out, “I should have said something earlier, Rolf. I don’t think your father’s death was exactly an accident.”

Rolf jumped at the words, dropping his brush on the floor. “Oh?” After a deep breath, he steadied himself. “But they told us it was an accident.”

“It probably was, but…”

“But what? Tell me.”

Hans broke eye contact and pulled his mouth in at the corners, hesitating, “Okay.” He lowered his voice to a lighter whisper. “A day before he disappeared, they came to check the paintings in the Nationalgallerie vault. Of course, it was empty compared to all this, but they found a few Jewish paintings on the bottom of a shipment going to a museum in Scotland…or perhaps England.”

His eyes glassy with a combination of shock and astonishment, Rolf asked, “My father shipped out Jewish paintings against orders?”

“He knew the risk, Rolf. He knew procedures required him to send them out for destruction, or destroy them here, but he did neither. He had a strong belief that God would protect him. I think all told there were only a few dozen that came through, but he said the Nazis were insane and he wasn’t about to destroy such valuable artwork.”

“I should have figured as much…” Rolf felt the arteries throb in his neck. His mother had told him his father couldn’t bring himself to destroy any artwork. Suddenly, it dawned on him that his father’s decision not to obey Nazi regulations must have cost him his life. He gasped, his hand over his mouth.

Then that warning from the scrawny little messenger, Brutskeller, flickered like a beacon in his head; do you want to end up like your father, Herr Brandt? Glancing over at Hans, a slight glint in his eye, Rolf queried, “You helped him, didn’t you?”

“No!”

“Tell me the truth. You must have.”

“I’m telling you…”

“The truth…Hans. I’m not going to tell anyone. It’s my father we’re talking about.”

Hans gestured several times to remind Rolf to speak in lower tones. “Okay…alright. Yes, I helped him…a little.”

“I knew it! Do you have any connections in Warsaw?”

Hans moved closer to the wall, his cheek almost touching it. “I quit the underground after what happened to your father. Most of them are gone, shipped off to concentration camps by now…but I do know one…maybe two that are still around. But they are in Berlin, Rolf.”

“The underground?” Rolf felt his heart stop. Everything was happening too fast.

“Joseph Weinstein worked with the underground.” Hans whispered, zipping up his jacket and smashing out his cigarette. “He disappeared a few days before your father.”

“What else do you know about my father’s murder, Hans?”

“They keep records.”

“Who? What do you mean?”

“On everything. Even when they kill people…the party keeps a file.”

“And?”

“There should be a file…on your father.”

“Where?”

Hans swept his hand across his throat and pointed at the vault door again. “This is dangerous business. Better forget it.” He held up his right hand to Rolf’s face and wiggled his stub. “You could lose a few fingers if your caught snooping around.”

“Where do they keep the records?”

“NSDAP headquarters.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

5

 

One evening a few days after the air raid, Rena requested permission to take a fresh loaf of bread down the road to her Polish friend from school. Jana’s kitchen had been blown out during the bombing raids so she knew they couldn’t bake anything. Aunt Mitha had baked six loaves today; four to share with neighbors whose homes had been battered or demolished. Aunt Mitha, she knew, was a saint.

With all the cleaning and commotion going on at Jana’s house, Rena forgot the time and found herself on the road back home in the black of night. In her mind, she saw her family there at home in prayer, but her legs would only go so fast. As she stumbled through the rubble, the acrid bite of smoke enveloped her. So worried about her father and their dilemma. She didn’t feel the dust collecting in her nose until she began coughing. With the cloth that had wrapped the bread, she covered her face. The peaceful sound of a few lone crickets reminded her how un-peaceful everything was now. She picked up her pace just as a figure appeared a few yards in front of her in the dark. Her stomach lurched as the footsteps crunched toward her. Recently she’d heard how someone disappeared along this unlit road at night. What used to be a completely safe district could no longer be trusted. Bad things, bad people, the world wasn’t the same. She held her breath. The footsteps got closer. A hot oniony breath swept across her nose. Should she turn back or run? As the figure grew close enough to see, she felt a wave of relief flow over her.

“Jonathan, you scared me to death. I wondered who it was out here on such a cold night. In the dark, you looked so big.”

 “Shalom aleichem, Rena. I came to find you and walk you home.” Jonathan said quietly, pivoting to walk alongside her. 

With each step, she felt a chill penetrate her from the palms of her hands to the soles of her feet. A breeze swept past her neck; she buttoned the top button of her wool coat. Fall was upon them.

“While we are alone, there are things we must talk about,” he said.

It was almost impossible to see him, let alone read his facial expressions. Other than the resonance of a train slogging along in the distance, the black night hovering over their country road was silent.

Jonathan pulled his cap down on his forehead. “I’ve been asked by Ringelblum to assist him in forming an organization to help refugees.”

Rena hesitated, thinking about the risk. “Jonathan, I don’t think Papa would like the idea of you becoming involved in things like that.”

Jonathan latched his arm through hers. “Rena, please. Just listen. I can’t tell Papa, but we will be helping the poor and hungry…and I know his heart when it comes to needy children.”

“Mercy, Jonathan. Papa helps orphans in many ways, but he’s an adult, he knows what he’s doing.”

“Rena, this is something I have to do.”

She fell silent for a few steps. Turning toward Jonathan, she stopped and took his hands in hers and warmed them. “You could get yourself spotted as part of the Jewish intelligentsia, tagged a troublemaker if you’re not careful. I don’t like this idea at all.”

Jonathan bent down and kissed her on the cheek. “We know what we are doing, little sister.”

After another few steps, she turned and faced him again, “They could take you away.”

Jonathan wrapped his arm around her shoulder and encouraged her toward home. “You don’t have to worry—”

“But I do!” She leaned her head against his shoulder, her heartbeat accelerating. “Promise me you’ll be safe, Jonathan.”

“I promise…but there’s more to it.” Jonathan stopped walking and took her between his arms, whispering in her ear. “I also am a member of the resistance.”

She felt her face blanch. “What? What resistance?”

“Shhh! It is late, Rena. Some spy might be lurking in the shadows.”

Obeying him, she whispered back, “But you’re only eighteen…you’re not a man, Jonathan. These things—”

“I am a man now, Rena. I’m muscular and strong, and real men stand up and take action to protect their country…their family.” He pulled on her arm, found a squared off chunk of rubble at the side of the road and invited her to sit a spell. From his interior pocket, he withdrew a large chewy round yeast roll sprinkled with onion. After offering her a piece, he pinched off a small amount for himself. “Aunt Mitha baked Bialy’s today.”

The tangy scent of onion revitalized her. Before her first bite, she asked, “So? So? Speak up. I know there is more, Jonathan. I can keep a secret. You know I won’t tell.”

 “This is difficult…sharing things like this with your kid sister. I’ve been involved since we saw those bombers diving at us. Peter, Joseph and I started a small youth group. We named it Akivans and we’re joining a larger organization so we can start buying weapons. It’s only a matter of time—”

Meshugeh ahf toit? Are you crazy as a loon?” With her snap, came crumbs.

“Please forgive me for upsetting you. But…but there are things…things that must be done to get Poland back.”

She squeezed the remaining chunk of bread, flattening it. “That’s ridiculous, Jonathan. Poland is dead. That fact is history now. We must learn to—”

“No!” he said with militant determination. “There are those who are not willing to accept that as fact. Some of us are willing to fight against the Germans before they get a firm grip on Poland. You know how people complained about the local government before this all happened. Jews, even Ukrainians and other minorities were brutalized at times and we didn’t really have equal rights, but all that was nothing compared to what Hitler and his henchmen have in mind. Do you have any idea how everything is going to change for us when the Nazis enforce their new decrees? Do you remember what they did to Jews in Berlin…to us?”

Sitting elbow to elbow, she draped her arm over his and tucked her fingers inside his sleeve. “You’ll just get yourself arrested. There’s no stopping the Germans, Jonathan.” She felt herself shivering, but it was more than the frosty night. Fright played mayhem with her nerves. “The best thing is…do as Papa says: keep a low profile, be clean, and stay out of their way.”

Jonathan reached into his pocket and pulled out a small pamphlet folded down three times. He lit a match. Both of them strained to look at it as he unfolded it and handed it over. In smeared black words it read, Poland Lives No. 2.

“Mercy, you really worry me, Jonathan.” She felt the intensity of her upset deep down in her innards as she wrapped the last lump of onion roll in the cloth. “This kind of conspiratorial leaflet can get you killed.” She blew out the match. “Put it away. Better yet, burn it.”

“If Poland hadn’t been playing a clumsy game of cat and mouse with Germany and the Soviet Union—”

“I don’t want to hear all of this again. Yes, I suppose it is obvious now that Poland is weak as a kitten, but—”

“There is a plan—”

“A plan?”

“Alright. You’d better not tell a soul.”

“I promise.”

“This morning I was almost caught helping some Pole colleagues escape from the Pawiak prison. Tonight, all the freedom fighters are meeting on Listopadowa Street to settle the final details of our plan.”

“Mercy, you’re half-baked! A plan to do what, Jonathan?”

He hesitated, but whispered the secret into her ear, “…to blow up Hitler during his victory parade.”

Rena gasped. “Now, you are really upsetting me, Jonathan.”

“Calm down, Rena. I might need your help.”

“Calm down? Your brother starts talking about blowing up Hitler and—”

“I’m going to be…the one.”

“The one?”

“Let’s walk, Rena.”

“One? What do you mean? Tell me.” She pulled him back, her heart pumping with fierce foreboding. “I’m not walking anywhere until you explain this nonsense. The one what?”

Jonathan sat back down and unbuttoned his coat. “With the grenade.”

 

This year the Day of Atonement seemed oddly out of rhythm, even more so than the Jewish New Year. Rena’s family fasted, but the joy and contentment of previous years failed to materialize. With so much news about Nazi butchery, everyone spent most of the day in prayer. They burned candles all over the house, the trace of hot wax reminding Rena of the odor of burnt flesh. Even with the relentless flashes of gory premonitions, Rena found enough renewed strength to summon the neon stop sign. She tried to cheer up the others by reading poetry aloud, but not a single smile surfaced all day. No one worked, but no one felt happiness either. Setting a few gold coins aside for the poor, they couldn’t deliver them. In their stocking feet, they sang Hihhi Heani, but no customary trumpets played sweet tunes. Instead, trains clanked in the distance reminding them the Nazis ruled Warsaw. Even though they couldn’t celebrate in the Great Synagogue, or take a trip to the seashore to cleanse their sins with the tashlich, Rena did her best to reject anger, resentment and unhappiness by taking pleasure in their family unity. In her private prayers, after supplications for the needy, she thanked the Living God for every family member, plus Sarah, Yankel, and her fluffy white kitten, Rascal.

 

The next day Onkel Moshe awoke at five in the morning. Even though he’d broken away from the close-knit Jewish community in the city when he moved out to the farm, he still went to the synagogue everyday. He said the invaders might control Warsaw but they couldn’t control his commitment to God.

Even with a stop for prayers they arrived at Nathason’s Food Shop in the city before it opened. An alarming number of battered people lingered in the square and the side streets looking only semi-conscious. Loud shrieking sirens and old folks bearing grievances to passersby plagued Rena’s mood and made her worry about Sarah. She turned away from the devastation hoping to escape the melancholy of their misfortune with a short recital practice at Sarah’s house. Since they had extra time, she suggested to her uncle they walk the two blocks to Sarah’s and check on her family.

Upon approaching the place, Rena thought they had taken the wrong turn. Sarah’s house was obliterated, blown to pieces, chunks of it lying across the street in the neighbor’s yard. “Oh, no! I can’t believe it!” Rena bent over, tears welling up in her eyes. It suddenly felt like the entire world had crumbled around her—Warsaw in shambles, her best friend lost. The bitter taste of her stomach in her mouth reminded her of why her family left Berlin, something she had vowed to block from her mind. Would she ever be rid of the Nazis and their impressions?

With Sarah gone, who would she talk to now, share her secrets with? Did she even know how much Rena loved her? The trembling began at her knees and traveled up to her chest, the emotion stinging her eyes. When the full impact of the realization hit her, she crumbled to her knees, her face buried in her hands. Just next to her stood the rows of pretty purple and yellow pansies she and Sarah had planted earlier in the year. Their tin watering can stood upright just a few feet away as if it waited to be of use in Sarah’s hand. Unprepared to let go of her friend, Rena began to crawl through the garden searching through the debris in the flower beds and yard for a keepsake, something, anything that belonged to Sarah.

Just then a gust of wind caused a multitude of orange and red leaves to disengage their branches and float through the air like large colored snowflakes. One of the orange ones landed like a homing pigeon on a large, thick envelope near the front steps. Rena jumped up and ran to it. With trembling fingers, she tore it open.

It was a miracle, a blessed miracle. With slow meticulous motion, she removed a two-inch stack of photographs and shuffled through them one by one. Though they were stained from age and a few were torn, they were otherwise in tact. When she found one of Sarah and her parents in front of their home in Berlin she went rigid—in the picture Sarah wore the gold locket Rena had given her for her birthday three years earlier. Oh God, how can all this be happening? With tears straining her sight, she brought the photograph to her lips and kissed it.

Her uncle stood behind her, his hand on her shoulder. Without a word, he told her everything would be alright, but somehow she knew nothing would ever be alright again. Sarah was the golden thread that kept her sewn together. As they stood facing the pile of red bricks spotted with the beautiful leaves of autumn the tears came harder. It wasn’t fair. Hadn’t the Nazis done enough to Sarah when they took her father away? Hadn’t they done enough to ruin Rena’s life with the ugly scars from the flames? When would their crimes against innocent people stop? Her heart felt choked and sore inside her chest. 

After a few minutes she caught her breath again. She understood now why Sarah hadn’t come to fish with her on Sunday. “I don’t get this, Onkel Moshe. Don’t armies have certain targets, government or army buildings? Why did the Nazis bomb the houses of so many harmless people…like Sarah and her mother?”

As her uncle tried to comfort her, her mind saw Sarah’s face, her spindly legs hanging over the edge of the bridge; the sheer talent of her flowing legato when she sang Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at their recital in Berlin, and the angelic countenance she carried whenever she spoke about the almighty Elohim. When she heard the whistle of a train in the distance, an idea came to her.

She pulled on Onkel Moshe’s sleeve. “Maybe Sarah wasn’t home when the bombing started. Maybe they were on a train leaving Poland!”

He patted her on the head and smiled. “That is very possible, Ziskeit.”

“During the wedding, she told me her father sent them a letter telling them to get out of Poland as soon as possible.”

He nodded, his expression assuring her. “Perhaps, as a good wife, she obeyed that request. It likely saved them.”

Rena covered her mouth with her hand, her sadness turning to an expression of marvel on her shiny cheeks. “Onkel Moshe, I don’t…I don’t think Sarah is dead. I have a feeling she’s only missing. The Merciful and Gracious from above would never allow something this bad to happen to someone so spiritually gifted.”

“I am in full agreement, Rena.”

 One day when the war was all over and things were back to normal, she would see her again and they would have that double wedding and sing songs with their children around a piano. That’s the vision she would keep in her head. That and only that.

As they walked back toward Nathason’s Food Shop, Rena wiped her cheeks dry as she studied the rubble-filled side streets and back alleys of the ruined city. The skyline of collapsed buildings almost made her burst into tears again, but she held it back and kept up with her uncle’s nimble pace.

When she saw the bombed-out hospital where pregnant women and sick children had been exploded into oblivion she felt goose bumps crawl up her legs and arms. This is where her father worked everyday. The bloody Polish soldiers lying on the steps of the hospital waited for him to sew their limbs back together, to make their bodies whole again. She turned away from them in sorrow.

Dozens of dead corpses piled on carts, bloated stiff horses along the streets, fires smoldering among the wreckage, and barnyards strewn with decaying animals created a putrid stench that attacked all her senses. A few stray hens and a gut-fat, slinky cat were the only healthy living things in sight. 

They stopped to wait on a tram bench near the fountain for Onkel Moshe’s friend, the owner of the food shop. Rena noticed a few Jewish mothers, dressed in colorful dresses, watching their children play near the cluster of bearded men in ankle-length black coats chatting on the street corner. They didn’t seem to pay any attention to the two trolley cars toppled on their sides, scorched and ruined, or the pack of hairy rats that darted in and out of the alleyway.

A trolley car clanked by blocking Rena’s view, but when it passed she noticed an alarming sight. Six wound-up young men clad in unfamiliar clothes with big black batons were standing around the gateway. “Look, Onkel Moshe.”

“What, Ziskeit?”

“Over there.” Rena felt a scream coming out of her mouth and stopped it with the palm of her hand. “Look! They’re pulling Jews into those gateways!”

“Good God!”

“Mercy, why are they doing this?”

“Atrocious pigs!” He stood up for a better view. “They’re cutting off their side locks and beards!” He hesitated, then sat down and fiddled with his hands in his lap. As an old man, Rena knew he could not save them.

Five minutes passed like five hours, the tension buzzing in every inch of her.

Eyes wide, Rena saw other men nearby run away from the place, afraid to defend the victims. “They’re using knives and razors, Onkel! Look, blood! They have a rabbi now!”

“Sit down, Rena,” he said quietly, pulling on her arm. “Don’t draw attention to us.”

“They deserve something worse than…”

Onkel Moshe reached for her arm again, but she pulled away. “No, ziskeit! Shush!”

She remembered how she’d saved Jonathan when a group of Nazi Youth started hitting and kicking him behind the school yard back in Berlin. In her mind’s eye, she saw a large blond one standing over her with his big black baton.

With one heavy swing, he had broken open the cabinet of medical implements in her father’s office. Inches from her face, he relieved his fury, “Herr von Rath of the German Embassy was killed in Paris last night by some Polish Jew boy.” He slammed his fist on the medicine cabinet next to her, causing some of the bottles to tumble and break on the floor. His eyes narrowed with contempt. “How much do you Jews think we’re going to take before we explode?”

How much do you Nazis think we Jews are going to take before we explode?

She darted across the road toward them, shouting and yelling, attracting every eye on the street. “Stop, you dummkopfs, you stupid barbarians! Leave the rabbi alone!”

With her solid oxfords she kicked them and stomped on their toes, hollering all the while. “You stop that. Don’t you have mothers? Quit it, you thug!”

One of them turned on her and kicked her with his big black jackboot. She stumbled backward, the breath knocked out of her. When she got to her feet, she felt the veins in her neck filling with blood. His boots of steel moved like black creatures coming toward her again. Then she remembered her hidden weapon. She’d known fear when she’d been burned on the Night of Broken Glass, but she was little then. These bastards would not get away this time. Jonathan was right. There was a point when a person had to stand up and be counted, danger or not. Suddenly, she wanted to see his body bloody from her blows, but she couldn’t get to the dagger fast enough. When his arm swung down to hit her in the head, she ducked and plowed her teeth into his pants. She bit him as hard as she could through the material. Without a doubt, she’d won the round.

Shrieking in pain, he jumped back. Losing her balance, she fell face down in the gutter. As she struggled to her feet, other people surrounded the men, raised fists and tire irons and they ran away.

As she brushed herself off, she noticed another pair of shiny black boots standing on her left. Her eyes tracked the boots to the black pant legs, the belt, and finally the buttons. She didn’t need to look up to know the black uniformed figure towering over her was an SS officer.  

She shuddered, looking down at the ground, “Excuse me, but someone had to do something…sir.” Realizing she addressed an SS officer sent a chill of terror through her. She had no power to control her trembling. Had she been in different shoes, she would have run away as fast as she could.

She almost tripped over her feet as she rose. He reached for her and took her arm to help her regain her balance. She pulled back with a start, not wanting his murderous hand to come in contact with her skin. Oh, no.  This was the moment she’d feared ever since the Germans took over Warsaw. He would do whatever he wanted. Would be blow off her head? She brushed the dirt off her sleeve and stood with her shoulders back, stiff and prepared. This wasn’t her first bout with one of Mr. Death’s army.

“You saved the rabbi! I’ve never witnessed anything so astounding,” he said in a kind voice. “I’m sorry I didn’t come upon these villains before you had to risk harm. You are very brave, fräulein.”

She opened her eyes, but kept her gaze level with his buttons. “I’m not really brave, sir. I just couldn’t stand by and do nothing.”

Suddenly, the young officer with the double lighting bolts on his lapel lifted her chin. “My, not only are you brave, you are extremely beautiful.”

With a faltering voice she heard herself thanking him, her knees almost buckling under her. She stared at each of his gold buttons. “Oh…thank you.” Relieved that he was not going to arrest her or kill her, she decided to speak to him in German. “Danke…good sir. It was an honor to be of assistance to someone in need.”

“How many languages do you speak, fräulein?”

His eyes seemed different from most Nazis. When she examined his countenance, he looked rather nice. Don’t hate Nazis, pity them, Sarah once said. “Um, not too many, sir. I speak Hebrew, German, Polish, Yiddish and a few words of English. I’m going to study more languages…”

As he inspected her from head to toe, she felt her toes wiggling in her shoes, her face hot with color. He was an oak of a man, six feet tall, blond hair, light bluish-green eyes, a mintish color. If he wasn’t wearing that uniform, he might be less repulsive.

“You have a comely face, fräulein. Such fine delicate skin…I would love to paint you.”

What was going on? Was he flirting with her? But he is a Nazi. There is no way to trust him. Just say thank you and be gone. But she found herself wanting to talk with him a little longer. “Paint? You’re an artist, then?”

“Yes, I suppose some people might consider me an artist. I haven’t had the time for such luxuries since the war began.”

Why was he staring at her? He didn’t take his eyes off her face, didn’t blink, didn’t pay attention to the clank of the street car or the children playing. Should she agree to his request? “I…I guess it would be fun to be painted.”

She wondered what he really meant when he said, “I would certainly enjoy the privilege. My name is Rolf.”

Until now she hadn’t noticed her uncle pulling on her sleeve.

“Thank you, sir,” she said to the SS officer who seemed so out of place among the Orthodox Jews. He reminded her of handsome blond German boys back in Berlin. He didn’t wear a wedding band. She turned on her heel, knowing she could never like one of Hitler’s evil henchmen. He had such a benign expression, though. How could he work for the Reich?

After her uncle thanked him for his kind words and tugged her away, she looked back at him over her shoulder. She couldn’t refrain from returning his smile. A trace of magnetism lingered in their gaze, a touch of shared energy she’d never known before. It sent chills down her neck and over her shoulders when she realized he must have felt it too.

While many hands swabbed off her soiled coat, other hands passed her pieces of fruit, muffins and hard green candies. Men and women kept repeating, “You saved the rabbi…you are so brave! The Almighty will bless you with blessings from heaven.” Rena smiled at everyone and thanked them for their praise as she searched for those unusual eyes still lingering among the throng. But the Nazi was gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

6

 

On a dreary autumn morning, three black Mercedes limousines sped along the periphery of the city. Back in Warsaw after a meeting of officers in Berlin, Rolf noticed the morning sky was overcast, a light gray mingled with hesitating sunbeams. Inside the soundproof vehicle only men’s voices were heard, the chatter of victorious warriors.

At long last, the ill-conceived Versailles Treaty was history. The Luftwaffe was obviously the best air force in the world, so good, in fact, that even England had put her tail between her legs. Rolf wished he could shut his ears as easily as his mouth.

“Those forty-six million Brits, through brut force, may still control a quarter of all inhabitable space on earth, but at least now, our eighty-six million Germans are no longer earning their daily bread from six-hundred-thousand square kilometers!” Hitler said ecstatically. His Austrian punctuation reminded Rolf how astounding it was that a non-German with no college degree was voted in by the people to rule the Fatherland. Destined by God’s wishes? As Rolf’s eyes dropped to Hitler’s Iron Cross, he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. It was straight out of Triumph of Will, Hitler’s grand propaganda film playing in theaters for years all around Germany. Everyone had seen it. He wondered how long the cult of Hitler would survive.

The driver rolled down the security window, “The restaurant is no more than twenty minutes, including the slow ten minutes along the parade route on Avenue Ujazdowskie.”

Rolf watched Hitler nod absently to the driver. It was ten past ten.

“Good, I see a few reporters snapping photographs. Thank God for these pricks. Imagine how history might remember us without pictures,” Heydrich said, smiling out toward the cameras.

The reporters had turned out for the victory parade in astonishing numbers, microphones outstretched, cameras propped on shoulders. They had come from all over the world for a chance to interview his boss – the God of havoc.

The convoy slowed to a snail’s pace, the filled craters in the pavement not compacted enough to keep the champagne from splashing. Rolf chuckled to himself as Heydrich cussed Poland for soiling his uniform.

Since Rolf’s seat faced the rear, he saw a stream of steel behind the Nazi motorcade: enormous tanks, spit-shined jeeps, and other army vehicles with guns pointed in every direction as protection for the limousine escorting Adolf Hitler, Reinhard Heydrich and Rolf Brandt to the parade route inside the city. Anyone else may have been delighted to ride with the German High Command around Warsaw, but the only feeling Rolf experienced was the shame of his association with war mongers.

As sweat trickled from under his wool collar down to his chest, Rolf gripped the goblet of bubbly and gulped it down. He drew in a concentrated breath and slowly let it out. He reflected on the spectacle of Third Reich flags in a river of fluttering red along the streets. How interesting; the chosen party colors matched the red of their victim’s blood – his father’s blood.

Clouds had moved in and tinted the autumn landscape a charcoal gray.

As they rode along, Rolf watched Polish people in other vehicles that pulled off the side of the road to allow the motorcade, with its high-flying Nazi flags, to pass. Studying their faces, he knew they would be glad if Hitler suddenly dissolved into smoke.

In the distance, he noticed an old man and two children working in their half-charred field. They had no horses or oxen to assist them. He felt sad as they looked up when the motorcade passed and leaned atop the handles of their shovels, their expressions weary. How long would it take the citizens of this city to recover from the devastation surrounding them? Did anyone in power ever care about the consequences of war to real people? Farther along he saw downed telephone poles, overturned bright red buses, dilapidated billboards advertising hair tonics, and dozens of craters where bombs had struck. Sickening waste!

The jubilation and boasting of the two men sitting in the back double seats of the limousine was enough to make Rolf think twice about duty and respect. Did they swill down the same brand of French champagne to celebrate my father’s death? Their exhibition of white teeth was a travesty. Ever since the first day he met them in Berlin, Rolf had questioned the synthetic smiles and obnoxious grins of the Horrible Hellions, the Four HH’s, as he nicknamed Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich and Hess.

“Germany has awakened! Britain and France had no idea what they were in for when they refused Germany’s outstretched hand. Salute!” Heydrich said with calculating eyes, lifting his glass toward Hitler and grinning coldly at Rolf. Such jealousy was justified, Rolf concluded. Without the customary six-months of officer training, Rolf still held rank. Hitler had very few protégés.

The infantry troops patiently waited at the entrance of the city to begin the victory parade. On the Avenue Ujazdowskie hundreds of people waited along the curb to watch the parade of Nazi vehicles, and to get a glimpse of Adolf Hitler. Interspersed along the route stood Wehrmacht soldiers with formidable beetle-like helmets, weapons steadied at their sides, and a sprinkling of Polish police. Alongside the slowly moving vehicles walked dozens of German officers in tailored military jackets and lofty peaked caps, their eyes cast straight ahead.

Feeling sick at the charade he was playing, Rolf knew he couldn’t go on acting the role of a devoted SS officer for long. With distain, he glanced at his two rough companions. Little did they know that Rolf had decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. Like his father, he understood the agony of the brush and the heart of the artist etched within every stroke of the lines and rounded edges. He too would smuggle artwork out beyond Hitler’s control.

 

Rena and Jonathan watched the parade approaching from their vantage point at 25 Szucha Avenue, in front of the building of the former Ministry of Religious Beliefs and Public Enlightenment, recently renovated as an exclusive Nazi restaurant. The vehicles in front of the parade—gray trucks and tanks draped with the swastika, made Rena cringe. The strong masculine appearance of the linked-armed, black-uniformed soldiers both intimidated and impressed her. Both sides of the streets were festooned with banners and flags. A few steps away, a clown held a large bouquet of colorful balloons. It gave her the sense of a merry celebration. As she watched all the jubilant faces of the children jumping up and down along the curb, she caught the excitement. Then she noticed Jonathan fidgeting in his pocket.

Under a black wool coat, Rena wore white pedal-pushers, knee-high white socks and a white button-up shirt with a pink collar and matching pink buttons. Jonathan told her that her long blond hair twisted up in a knot with a velvet ribbon gave her a sophisticated, grown up air. She buttoned her coat, all the while trying to figure out how to save Jonathan’s life. “Don’t do this, Jonathan,” she whispered as the motorcade grew closer. “You’re going to get killed. There are too many policemen.”

He bent down and whispered in her ear. “I was only joking about the grenade. Don’t be so worried.”

“You were not joking.”

Jonathan glanced behind them. “Don’t be a dumb blond Nazi, Rena. Someone has to stand up to this bully. With Hitler eliminated, we can save Poland.”

“You are a nasty troll, Jonathan. What’s wrong with you? Stop calling me that.”

The cars slowed. Jonathan leaned back against the wall next to the window of the restaurant. “Do you know about the Nazi decree on forced labor for all Jews and Poles over fourteen?”

Rena caught the serious, forbidding expression in his eyes. “But you’re over fourteen, Jonathan. You’re eighteen. They’re not making you work.”

Watching each car in the motorcade, Jonathan whispered, “It’s not public information, but in a couple of weeks it will be. I have my sources.”

“Maybe they are just trying to scare us…so we won’t cause any trouble.”

“Do you know the Reichsbaln has recently tripled their workers? Tell me why the German State Railroad suddenly needed to hire on over a million extra people, Rena. They plan to move all the Jews from Vienna and western Poland here,” he said. “Think, Rena. Why are they going to all the expense of moving thousands of Jews to Warsaw?”

“But you’re just guessing at their plan, Jonathan. Maybe it would be better for us if we all lived in one place anyway.”

“They are rounding us up like cattle to isolate us. This won’t be the first time someone has locked up Jews.”

Just then an old man dressed in white passed by selling ice cream. Rena had an idea. She ran up to him and ordered two chocolate cones. The man’s young assistant dug and dug into the container, piling the ice cream high.

After paying with a small gold coin, she forced Jonathan to take one and smiled. “You’ll never finish that ice cream in time.”

“Bet me.” Jonathan licked faster, a hint of rebellion in his expression.

Rena thought the activity provided an excellent camouflage for a resistance volunteer about to embark on a dangerous task. As much as she agreed that someone should stop Hitler, just now she wished she could stop Jonathan. “What if one of these little children along the road is hurt, Jonathan?” When he didn’t respond, she said, “You’re going to break Papa’s heart.”

Jonathan turned and drilled these words into her eyes, “Write this on my gravestone, Rena. The only thing required for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.” He let out a long sigh and Rena knew dying was foremost on his mind. Then he continued, keeping his voice low, “The wounds of Warsaw cry out for justice. Papa is too old to do anything; the army wouldn’t even accept him. I am willing to stand up and be counted among those young men who die to fight evil before evil prevails.” 

Rena went silent, the ice cream tasting sour on her tongue.

With a delicate touch on his arm, she whined, “But you’re just standing up to be shot down. What’s the sense in that?”

“You’ll see how much better life will be once Poland is rid of Hitler and his anti-Semite cohort Hans Frank.”

“Things are going to get better anyway, Jonathan. They’re done killing. It’s over.”

“You’re just like all the other innocent citizens, Rena. It’s not over!”

“You’ll be like them, Jonathan…a criminal.”

“Stop talking to me,” he said, throwing the unfinished ice cream in a pile of rubble nearby.

The crowd thickened as the Nazi motorcade ambled along. Rena and Jonathan maneuvered back into their front-row position. Still whispering, Jonathan said, “Once Hitler is gone…the world will be safe again.”

She saw his jaw clenched in determination. The cold ice cream dissolving in her stomach increased her trembling. Her teeth began to chatter. “But you won’t be here to enjoy it. What will that do for you…or our family?”

He put his arm around her shoulders and whispered directly into her ear, “An honorable death can be better than a spineless life, Rena. When you know you are saving a lot of people, it’s different.”

The motorcade advanced along at a slow, steady speed. “Look, Jonathan. Three black Mercedes limousines…not one! How will you know which one it is?”

 

The supporters along the route hoisted Nazi flags and welcome banners, smiling and waving at Rolf. He felt mortified, acid gnawing at his stomach. Others shot out their arms in the Heil Hitler salute, ready to serve the new ruler. Some leaned back against buildings and trees with long faces and angry expressions. Polish policemen wearing swastikas lined the avenue. Rolf knew how Hitler cherished beautifully choreographed victory celebrations that drove home the message of Aryan superiority.

The driver turned to reconfirm Hitler’s desire to stop at the new restaurant exclusively for Germans at 25 Szucha Avenue.

“The sooner the better, I’m famished.” Hitler said, still smiling and waving at the crowd through the open window. Turning to Rolf, Hitler explained, “All Poles and Jews in Government positions will soon be replaced by Volksdeutsche—ethnic Germans from the Baltic States. Tough as steel, that Heinrich is a superb organizer. Of course, I do not take the credit for these achievements all for myself. God leads me.”

Rolf nodded without making eye contact. “Yes, sir.”

“Our holy order was designed in heaven long before Fredrick the Great. With harsh discipline, steel courage, and the sort of superior brains we’ve gathered…” Hitler stopped waving and turned directly to squint at Rolf. “…brains like yours, Brandt—Germans will rule the entire world for at least a thousand years.”

Rolf felt sick, but he still controlled his response. “Thank you, sir. I hope this is all over soon. I need to get back to my mother—”

“No need to worry…” As was his habit, Hitler cut him off. “You are doing a fine job…a far better job than your father. You are a man of integrity, someone I can trust without reservation.”

Rolf anticipated the rise of flush on his cheeks. When he felt a current of hate burn his eyes, the artery in his neck pounded like a jackhammer. It took determination not to spit in Hitler’s face. You are the reason my father is dead. You are the reason this county is in shambles. If he had a gun right now, he would use it to stop the flow of more innocent blood. It was then Rolf realized it would take billions of dollars, millions of lives to stop Hitler and maybe no one ever would. The thought paralyzed him. Even if the world stopped Hitler, would more insane tyrants rise up again somewhere else in the world? Would anything less than the second coming of Christ truly change the nature of humankind? Maybe if mothers are given equal power in ruling the world. Perhaps then, sons will no longer die. Sweat dripped down Rolf’s forehead as his stare drilled into the eyes of the blood lover sitting across from him.

Hitler pivoted back toward the crowd outside his open window, waving again, his lock of hair bouncing against a wrinkled forehead. “Yes, keep cheering, you Polish fools.”

 

Tapping Rena on the shoulder, Jonathan whispered, “I know which one of the three limousines it is now. Look, Hitler is waving to the masses!”

She couldn’t believe he truly intended to carry out his plan. “Mercy, just come home, Jonathan. Please.”

“And right in this pocket I have the solution.”

“That’s outright suicide. This whole plan stinks.” She licked the ice cream until it was almost even with the cone. “You’re right out where everyone can see you. You’ll never get away.”

“Hush. Here we go.”

As the middle limousine drove closer, she noticed all the windows were open.

Jonathan waited on his toes. A bolt of terror struck Rena in the heart. She wanted revenge, yes, but not at the expense of her brother’s life. She had to stop him.

In her mind, she saw Jonathan pulling the pin and running to the vehicle, throwing it inside the driver’s window, and turning to escape while bullets blew him away.

As Jonathan started out, Rena suddenly pushed in front of him, blocking his path. She ran toward the vehicle herself and smashed her ice cream all over the windshield.

The police swarmed toward her immediately, but before they touched her, Jonathan grabbed her. He pulled her from the scene, apologizing and running away with her in tow, not obeying the commands to halt.

Jonathan and Rena ran. They bolted past shops, businesses, and rows and rows of destroyed buildings, hoping they could outrun the two policemen who pursed them.

“Halt! Halt!”

Jonathan yanked her and ducked her head under a destroyed doorway behind a half charred row of bushes. The sirens roared by. The footsteps became weaker.

Waiting a moment to calm their hearts, they heard footsteps over the clink of distant trains. Rena grabbed Jonathan’s hand and held it tight. Heavy footsteps. They stared at each other. Should they run or stay silent? The footsteps passed their hiding place. They waited another minute. With breath held, they didn’t move a muscle, their backs pressed hard against the cold cement blocks of the damaged apartment building.

On the run again, they hoped they had lost their pursuers. Jonathan led Rena to Mr. Kdunczyk’s house, a safe house, he explained.

At last they arrived atop the stairs that led to the home of the leader of the Polish underground. Jonathan snapped, “You idiot! You are a blond Nazi! What do you mean by getting in the way?”

Gasping for breath, she began to descend the stairs to the entryway, her knees still trembling. “You can’t just go around killing people, Jonathan. We aren’t barbarians!” On the third step from the bottom, she tripped in the pile of leaves and fell to the bottom of the strairwell, bruising her right knee and scraping her elbow against the rough wall.

Jonathan’s voice instantly filled with concern. “You alright? Let me see your arm.”

“It hurts, Jonathan. Stings bad.”

After a brief examination, he said, “Will a kiss make it better?”

“Don’t laugh. It feels like it’s bleeding.”

“Only a few drops. You’ll be just fine. It’s nothing compared to…”

Rena nodded and smiled at him for not completing his sentence. “You’re right. It’s nothing at all compared to that.” Jonathan was definitely the nicest brother in the world, always doing his best to protect her. She liked him helping needy people, but hoped he would come to his senses about doing away with Hitler.

Jonathan pounded on the door. “Mr. Kdunczyk, please, it’s Jonathan.”

Kdunczyk’s wife answered the door and invited them in, offering them sweetened tea and maple sugar cookies. She listened as they told her what happened, and then said, “I’m sorry to hear all this bad news, but my husband should be home soon.”

Jonathan fell silent. Watching him think, Rena felt her stomach ripple with tension.

The old Polish woman scolded her again as she washed the blood off her knees and chocolate off the sleeve of her black wool coat. “Lucky you, young lady. The Nazis didn’t want to spoil their spectacular parade with the blood of a beautiful young woman. That’s the only reason you’re alive.” The woman bore a striking resemblance to their nanny in Berlin, long black hair tied back with a bright blue ribbon, big black oxfords and a full apron stained with berry juice. “Girls shouldn’t—”

“I beg your pardon, madam.” Rena felt regret for disrespecting the poor old woman, but she didn’t owe anyone an apology. “Truly, I am not sorry. I would do it again to save my brother.” As she looked up at Jonathan’s face, she studied the dusting of freckles on his cheeks and imagined him lying in a coffin and her mother wailing. She couldn’t hold back the tears. “We need you, Jonathan. Without Sarah, I need you worse than ever now.”

Jonathan stepped closer, standing tall and straight, a determined guardian. “I love you, little sister, but we must put our personal feelings aside now that certain things must be accomplished for the benefit of our country.” He ran his fingertips along her forehead and back over her hair, a touch so gentle it made Rena tremble. “Bitte…don’t cry, Rena. I will be safe…I promise.”

Rena begged him to forget his plans, to come home with her that moment. “We don’t have a country of our own, Jonathan. We Jews are only visitors anywhere we live. Why die for a country we will soon be leaving? You’re only eighteen!”

Jonathan kissed Rena on the cheek. With tears in his eyes, he bid her farewell while the old Polish woman wiped her cheeks and restrained her from following after him. Rena screamed, “No! Come back! Come back, Jonathan. They saw your face!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

7

 

At two in the morning, the guards at the chancellery building changed. Rolf counted his steps as he padded down the unlit hall of black and white squares in stocking feet.

Hitler’s glorious pink marble chancellery building reminded Rolf of an overdone European castle rather than an economical government structure. The unnecessary height to the ceilings, the inordinate length and width of the entryway and grand expanses of Italian marble gave it a melodramatic, pretentious appearance. During the day, the flamboyant changing of the guards and long, red-carpeted halls bedecked with straight-faced SS soldiers with white-gloved hands made a statement. Herein lies the future government of the universe and, of course—the king. And the lies, Rolf knew, were countless.

All at once, he felt extraordinarily grateful to his father for training him in the arts. Otherwise he might have ended up a carefully smiling shepherd for the lengthy line of daily guests waiting to see the Führer.    

Approaching the long hall of Reich departments, he leaned in close to the first huge door to read the lettering: SS-Führungshauptamt. No, that housed the war archives offices. Prior to tonight, he’d rehearsed these steps in his mind. Everything seemed so dissimilar in the dark though. Differentiating between columns was impossible. Entering from the front entrance it was a straight shot, but he’d come in through an unfamiliar fireway. Why did the halls have to be so inconveniently long and all look the same?

The sweat seeping through his uniform seemed even worse than the profound pressure in his gut. He’d never even stolen a candy as a child, and now he knew why: the tension, the rapid heartbeat, and the acid throat. He took a deep breath. At least, this hallway looked right.

He ran his fingers along the wall, locating the doors. From his pocket, he pulled a penlight. SS -Wirtschaft und Verwaltungshauptamt. That wasn’t the office either, maybe the next one. As he unbuttoned the top half of his uniform jacket, he noticed a slight hint of light from the overhead generator box shining on the door opposite him. He froze: turning off his light. After checking in both directions through the eerie darkness, he hurried across the hall.

Clearly marked on the door, he found SS-Reichssicherheitshauptamt, the office of the Central Security Office for the Third Reich. In there the SD, the Gestapo, and the Criminal Police all coordinated their efforts with Heydrich and all his bullyboys to capture and destroy enemies. The records office was directly across the hall.

Rolf blinked, trying to focus through the dimness. Unexpectedly, one of the armed guards stepped into sight at the junction of the two main aisles about a hundred feet away. Rolf slid in reverse and drew in a breath. Flat against the wall he sucked in his stomach, his arms spread wide, his sweating hands suctioned against the wall. The light flashed down the hallway. On the first round, the beam of light passed right in front of the tip of his toes. He’d missed discovery by a centimeter. Sweat veiled his face and hovered at his eye lids, but he couldn’t move to wipe it away. The light came around again and it stopped. He watched it as it shined on the door knob next to him. Had he been discovered? Fear and blind animal instinct froze him against the wall.

What am I doing here in the first place, risking my hide for a piece of information? Then he heard his father’s voice in his head, “I’m so proud of you, son. Someday you’ll do something special in this world.” Tears coated his eyes. He had to get justice for his father’s death or die trying.

The light withdrew, and dark surrounded him again.

He exhaled, puffing out a long breath. He had five minutes to get into the room before the watchman made his round again. He flipped on the penlight and proceeded to the SS-Personal Hauptamt, the records department where the SS kept their meticulous personal and genealogical information on SS officers and party members. Here they kept the SS file on his father and that according to Han’s sources, should provide the details of his service and death.

At last Rolf stood in front of the records door. Reaching to open it, he found it locked. Baitman, his newly acquired resistance contact, had unlocked the window of the second story fireway and provided the key. He reached into his pocket, fingering the loose threads at the bottom. No key. He searched his pants again.

An unexpected sound startled him. A light, a door shutting, someone coming in or out around the corner. He stopped, held his breath, and glided himself back against the wall.

Another flash of light forced Rolf to his knees. He crawled back to the previous stairwell and unbuttoned his shirt collar. He took a few long silent breaths. Knowing time was running out, he cursed himself. Donnerwetter! Damn idiot! The key is in my sock!

Once inside the office, he fumbled for the light.

“Don’t use any light switches.” Baitman’s warning circled in his head.

He pulled out the penlight. Rubbing at the quivering in his cheek, he canvassed the gun-metal gray file cabinets on the left wall. Nothing. He rushed to the opposite wall. Not what he needed either. Where would they organize the genealogy records of Nazi officers? He checked the large office. Lined neat as soldiers, over fifty solid wood desks made two rows down the center of the room. On the front wall, matching mahogany bookshelves stood side by side filled with books, memo bins and stacks of wrapped paper. He sidestepped down the center aisle flashing the light from side to side. Too much time had passed already. 

Hidden in a corner bay behind a lavatory he found a long row of gray three-drawer cabinets, stacked three high and secured to the wall with metal bands. His hands refused to cooperate. His shaking hampered his progress. He examined the first row of cabinets. To reach the B section, he had to go higher. He set the flashlight on the corner of typewriter stand. The ladder screeched slightly when he pulled it closer. Damn! He waited to see if anyone would come.

A minute went by, then another.

No sound of approaching feet. Finally, he climbed the ladder. He found the right drawer. It was locked. He yanked it, but it didn’t give. He fumbled in his pocket for a knife. The blade against metal made sharp brittle noise. He stopped to listen for feet. Each second that passed felt like a death sentence. Finally, no guards. Again, he pried at the drawer. This time he got it. It opened.

The boldface names written in neat black ink atop each folder reminded him how his training emphasized neatness, exactness and orderliness. He suspected this would be the one time in his life he would ever compliment Third Reich policy.

The B section comprised three drawers. After the first, he pried and pulled open the next. Bauer. Bauman. Becker. Brandt. His hand trembled when he touched the file. Friedrich Wilhelm Brandt. He removed the folder and began reading. 

The first page included standard information. Name. DOB DOD COD.

He turned a few more irrelevant pages.

His father’s genealogy record had some underscores, but generally, the first record comprising five pages of notations seemed of little consequence. On the sixth page, he found a pedigree chart. Four generations back on his father’s mother’s side checked in thick red ink was a Jewish name, Esther Nehama Hirsch.

Rolf felt his stomach lurch into his chest. They killed his father for having tainted blood. What insanity! He dropped his head, his heart swelling in disbelief. Then it came to him. If this chart was accurate, Jewish blood flowed in his veins too. If this was true, that Brutskeller bastard knew it and so did Himmler and Hitler. Had they merely overlooked this information? Maybe, but on second thought, Rolf didn’t think so. They knew. Later, when they didn’t need him anymore, this information could be used to reduce him, too. Was Himmler waiting for the right moment to use it as blackmail?

Donnerwetter! Damn it!” he mumbled aloud, forgetting his current predicament. A hundred fears thundered through his head, causing his stomach to rumble. How many red check marks did Rolf have in his file? He should have listened and left Germany at his mother’s first mention of the idea.

The sweat trickling down his neck and chest made him reach for his collar. He unbuttoned another button and yanked at the material it to let air under his uniform. God, I’m thick-headed! I could be sunning myself on a California beach.

After a few long, deep breaths, he calmed himself enough to think. Wait, this is ridiculous. They don’t kill people for having a little Jewish blood. Even Heydrich claimed a touch of Jewish blood far back, and who didn’t? The Jews had lived in Germany for centuries. With so many assimilated Jewish-Christians, there must be a hell of a lot of integration.

Feeling more confident, he reopened the file.

He found his father’s confession on page ten. His relentless pursuit of truth finally brought him to this page, to these words. Neatly typed in bold red ink, one significant paragraph stood out. 

Papa. Oh, Papa.

He shut the folder. His eyes filled with tears, blinding him. His head fell back and he stared into the blackness of the room. “What did they do to you, Papa?”

His mind raced through all the memories of his father. When he was small, he walked to the Nationalgallerie every day after school to study art with him. Even with a busy high-ranking position, his father’s silky blue eyes never failed to light up when Rolf entered the room. That wide welcoming smile was infectious as he opened his arms for a big hug. The arrival of his little boy put a swift curtailment to all less important transactions as he instructed his assistants to take a coffee break. That single gesture created a bond of love and admiration that would never die.

Hoisting Rolf to his knee, the bright afternoon sun coming in through the window, he often asked, “So how was school today, Rolf? May I see your drawings?” Rolf felt like his father’s favorite art student. The critique of his young work always left the emphasis on the best quality, varying attributes day by day. “Excellent perspective! You are going to be a great artist one day!”

“Like my father?”

“Oh, much better than your old father, I hope.”

At last he reopened the folder, found the page again and reread the words:

I, Friedrich Wilhelm Brandt, do confess to my dishonor to the Third Reich. By my own hand, I do admit to the charges of disobeying orders of my Führer and systematically misclassifying or otherwise distributing or liquidating national treasures for my own benefit.

 

Barely legible, the signature told the story—weak and nothing more than a scribble, but Rolf knew it belonged to his father. They didn’t kill him for having Jewish blood—they killed him for treason.

Rolf kept reading. He must find out the name of the person who ended his father’s life. That was the point.

The otherwise cheap white paper looked as though it had been through a washer and pressed with starch. It was beginning to fray and turn yellow at the corners. He doubted it was the original. His heart pounded as his penlight followed along each line of the dossier.

Friedrich Wilhelm Brandt – Traitor to the Third Reich

Distribution contacts: Berlin underground

Names of associated accomplices: Joseph Weinstein, George Finmaker, David Burlwitz, Hans Klinger

Hans? They know Hans helped him? Is Hans a spy now? How come Hans is still alive? Weinstein had disappeared. His father was dead. How did Hans get off with only losing a finger? And if Hans was a spy, Rolf didn’t have long.

Repossession potential: nil.

Interrogator: SS Officer Richard B. Rhoenbugen

Interrogation Assistants: Various military and Reich personnel

Methods to extract information:

Day one: Partially starved.

Day two: Starved and beaten. 

The paper trembled so badly, Rolf put it down on his lap and closed his eyes. He had believed his perseverance, his constant, nagging obsession had inured him to the loss of his father, that nothing, no detail, no words on a piece of paper could pierce and deepen his wound. He was wrong.

Day three: Starved, beaten, burned.

How could men do such things to one another? For salvaging a few paintings the Reich thinks justice is to beat and burn someone to death? The fierce emotion churning inside him felt more like rage and vengeance than fear and grief.

Day four: Starved, beaten, burned. Severed thumb of left hand.

Rolf felt a scream lodged at his throat. His larynx swelled. Perspiration trickled down his face. And when he felt his eyes puff up, he refused himself. He suspended his head between both hands, moaning, “They mutilated him. Oh God, they mutilated my Papa!” With clenched teeth, he forced himself to read the next few lines.

Day five: Starved, beaten, electrocution in the first degree. Right hand index finger severed.

Day six: Starved, beaten, electrocution in the first, second and third degrees. Right upper limb detached.

Swiveling his head back and forth, tears spurting from his eyes, Rolf’s mind came unhinged as he observed the whack of their blades in his mind. He screamed aloud, “They cut off…my papa…” He silenced himself with a hand over his mouth and waited, his tear filled eyes on the entrance. That cry was certain to bring guards. He clutched the ladder to steady himself, waiting for the light to appear. After several minutes and no light, he fumbled for his penlight and followed the last two lines on the page.

Day seven: Prisoner died after abnormal reaction to electrocution.

Cause of death: accidental.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

8

 

Earlier in the day, Rena assisted her brother with a clandestine operation to locate useable basements among bombed-out buildings downtown near the railway tracks. His group needed secure bunkers to store emergency supplies, food storage and weapons. After everything the Nazis had done to her and Sarah, Rena knew she had to take the stand Jonathan lectured her about. Besides, helping him was the only way she had to get back at them. She knew there was never going to be a bloody pool of naked Nazis and floating skeletons. That was for dreamers without guts. Although the risk level of today’s tasks didn’t compare to the nerve required to attempt an assassination, it had turned out as the most stimulating experience of her life. She liked the challenge, the feeling of the sharp blade in her hand. When they had to hide from a military patrol, she felt her heart pounding at her throat, but instead of the fright terrorizing her, it gave her more determination. It was then, hiding and shaking and working her mind into a frenzy that she knew if she had to kill a Nazi, she could.

Jonathan was right. Thousands of lives, an entire country depended on a few strong souls to make things right for them. To put her life on the line for others made her feel a strange sort of burning contentment and she knew nothing else could ever give her the same sensation. Measured against what needed to be done and the grand scheme, risking her life seemed surprisingly inconsequential. It wasn’t normal for a girl to be strong and courageous, but she didn’t care what anyone thought. After today, she intended to join her brother’s cause.

 

It was on her way home on the trolley when she met him again—the fine-looking Nazi who had praised her for saving the rabbi. When she stepped into the trolley car and scanned it for a seat, her eyes were drawn to the black uniform surrounded by colorful dresses and skirts. He sat on the third row. She felt her knees weaken. He sifted through a white paper sack from Horowitz’s pharmacy. The blue shiny tape they used to seal their bags was easily recognizable. There were several seats available, one next to him, but she remained standing, feeling a bit guilty. Somehow, fighting against him as she had today seemed wrong, but fighting against the rest of the Nazis seemed absolutely honorable.

At the thought of approaching him, her leg muscles twitched until she couldn’t stand in one place without shifting from foot to foot. With all the fear she’d conquered today, she couldn’t imagine why this one man presented her with such emotional turmoil. She could forget it, turn about and pretend she hadn’t seen him, but that seemed too rude. Would he even remember her?

She turned her face from him while his eyes still concentrated on his task. She’d heard from Jonathan today that a new law made it illegal for Jews to ride public transportation. As the trolley clanked on, she contemplated her decision. Her stop wasn’t far off. Even though she didn’t wear an armband, she knew he’d seen her with her uncle, the yarmulke atop his head a sure giveaway. What if the man flipped into a rage and threw her off the trolley? Or worse yet, drew his gun and shot her in the face. She’d seen them in action more than once. As a Nazi, there was no telling how he would react.

Just then she heard a series of sneezes and turned around to see him searching his pockets. Impulsively, she drew out a pink checkered kerchief and approached him. Without glancing up at her, he took it from her outstretched hand and used it to clean his nose. “Oh, how nice…thank you.”

With such a nasal sound to his voice, he hardly sounded like the same man. She smelled peppermint from his breath as it floated up past her face. Examining him from above, she assured herself he was the one. As she stood next to him with her hand gripping the pole as the trolley came to a stop, she didn’t understand her feelings. How could she feel comfortable with any Nazi? Then she heard herself saying to him, “One kind deed deserves another, sir. I remember you…from the other day by the fountain.” She said, smiling when he finally looked up at her.

“Oh?” He blotted his nose again and took a few deep breaths, studying her. “Yes. Yes, of course. You are the young woman who saved the rabbi. I so admired your courage then and now I admire it again. Most Poles keep their distance from these black uniforms.”

With a nervous laugh, she said, “I can’t say my heart is always so strong, sir.”

“Please excuse my condition today, fräulein. I would ask you to sit down, but this cold hit me like a speeding train today. You’re very kindhearted. I wouldn’t want you to catch this bug. I will owe you a kerchief, I’m afraid.” He reached in his pocket and pulled out a handful of zlotys and handed them to her.

She retracted her hand, “Oh, no sir. Please keep the kerchief as a gift...from one friend to another. I am happy to help.”

“Look here. Let me give you my name. If ever…” He fumbled through his pockets and appeared frustrated when he withdraw only a pen and a handful of peppermint candies. Rena reached into her satchel and pulled out a small brown book. She handed it to him and said, “You can write inside the front cover, if you wish.”

“Yes. Yes…thank you.” He lifted his hand and offered her a candy. With a smile and a nod of appreciation, she reached out and selected one, but instead of unwrapping it, she stuck it in her pocket. Nazis, even nice ones, couldn’t be so easily trusted.

After he replaced the peppermints in his pocket, he took the book from her hand. Inspecting the pocket classic, he said, “Dickens? The Tale of Two Cities. Definitely a fabulous read. Are you certain you don’t mind?”

“Not at all, sir.” The warmth in his expression reminded her of Onkel Moshe.

“Good. I want you to have this information in the case I may ever assist you in return. It’s the least I can do.” She watched him print his name on the inside front cover with an unsteady hand. Then he wrote his number underneath, tracing over it twice. “I’d still like to paint your beautiful face someday.”

As he handed it back to her, she noticed how he hesitated, not releasing it right off. She glanced at the Polish woman in the bright blue dress behind him, wondering if she noticed the odd interplay between a Jewish girl and an SS officer. With all the chatter going on around them, no one appeared interested. Returning his smile with a light chuckle, she said, “Thank you, sir, I appreciate your compliments and you civility.”

For a long moment they held eye contact in silence.

When Rena saw her stop coming up, she bid him farewell. He stood up next to her and secured her hand. “Thank you, fräulein.” She felt a thread of electricity run from his fingertips to her toes as a bump of the trolley jostled them closer together. That trace of magnetism hung between them for a moment like a familiar tune. When she turned away and made her way through the crowd, she recalled the feeling from their previous meeting. It was an emotion foreign to her, but she sensed the magic in it, like seeing the sunrise over the ocean for the first time. Wherever the sensation came from it packed her spine with chills. She couldn’t restrain her smile. As she descended the steps and waved goodbye, she glanced inside the trolley to see if he watched her. He did.

 

Jonathan knelt beside Rena’s bedside late that night. After reciting Shema, a prayer declaring the supremacy of God, he whispered, “I want you to have this turquoise. It’s a magical luck stone and it will protect you.” He switched on the gilded porcelain lamp next to her bed and held the stone to the light between two fingers. “Given to me by a loyal friend, it is almost as dear to me, as you are, sis. It kept her safe in many tight spots.” Holding it steady, he buffed it to a shine with his nightshirt. With a fragile expression, he whispered, “I wish Bayla had kept it.”

Rena shifted between the saffron-colored sheets and sat back against the padded velvet headboard. Not wanting him to know she had seen his friend Bayla outside the prison that fateful night, she held back her emotion. Seeing tears in his eyes, she disguised the knot in her throat with a whisper, “I’ll forever treasure this gift, Jonathan.”

“Always remember…no matter what happens I will be watching out for you, little sis.” He touched the turquoise stone to his heart and then opened her hand and placed it there. “I love you.”

Rena frowned. “Where are you going, Jonathan? You’re going somewhere, aren’t you?”

As Jonathan closed her fingers around the heart-shaped turquoise stone, he whispered close to her ear. “Even if you can’t see me…I’ll be right here in this heart.” He kissed her cheek and chuckled with a strained smile. “Don’t worry about me, Rena. I promise you…I’m invincible.”

 

Filled to the brim, the cellar smelled like wooden packing cases, cedar shavings, coal and carbide fumes. Jarred fruits and vegetables, six deep, lined one entire wall. Sacks of sugar, salt, wheat and other staples entirely filled the space under the stairs. The coal chute was overflowing into a large fifty-kilo metal container, and more coal was kept outside in the coal shed next to the woodpile. A small red brick fireplace, with its flue pipe connected to the main house chimney, could be used for warmth and cooking. Clothing, cots, candles, carbide, kerosene, cooking gear and scores of books filled the shelves, corners and crannies. A prayer shawl and tallit hung neatly next to the Torah and prayer book on a tall makeshift pedestal in the far left corner.

The phonograph was a recent addition. It worked off a small generator her father and Onkel Moshe rigged up for light-use electricity. With great care, her father lifted the lever of the phonograph and moving it along the record, placed the needle on the song he wanted; Bing Crosby’s I’ve Got a Pocket Full of Dreams. The last time he played it for them was in Berlin before their move to Poland.

“Even in the worst of circumstances—life still invites people to dream.” He smiled and winked at Rena’s mother, his weathered honey-colored eyes sparkling as if he’d mentally gone back to Berlin for a moment. He turned it low, and rubbing his hands together, welcomed his family.

“I want to thank each of you for the fine jobs you each did on your assigned preparedness tasks.” His smile cheered them all. “As I’m sure we all noticed our young man, who isn’t with us at this moment, did far more than his share, chopping a ton of wood and bringing in a lot of coal from town each day.”

Rena cringed remembering the turquoise stone and his words of farewell. Perhaps he’d said those things because he felt he might not make it through his next assignment. Surely he wouldn’t be gone too long. “Jonathan has a lot of connections, Papa. He’s smart and lucky. Ryfka in the fuel store likes him.”

 “Ryfka, huh? I wonder if she’s missing this morning as well.”

“Oh, Papa…”

“Alright. It worked out wonderful for us, I suppose. Today is a very important day. I have some good news and some not-so-good news.” With a forced smile, he went on, “Together, as a family, we have important decisions to make. I didn’t want to disturb Onkel Moshe and Aunt Mitha before we discussed things first.”

Rena was glad she had her robe. The cellar was much warmer than the house, but with such a freezing dawn the cellar wasn’t nearly warm enough. She pulled the soft wool collar higher to cover her bare neck and cinched in the tie of her robe.

Her mother held little Judith tight to her breast. Judith kept repeating, “I’m cold, Mama.” Her mother’s hands worked fast, trying to secure a blanket around her legs.

Her father said, “First of all, I want to say that everything is going to work out. As you know, we have been waiting for documents.” She wondered if her father had any other connections.

From the neighbor, Rena heard the Nazis had seized one of the Polish men who said he could help her father get the proper transit documents.

“I have just one additional payment to make. Different officials, you see. It’s expensive these days. Understandable, of course. These documents will provide us with Polish identities.” His bushy eyebrows rose and fell after the last sentence.

“Polish identities?” Rena asked, frustrated, her fingers locked and twisting. “I thought you were getting our transit papers…to get out of here…to go to Israel.”

“We’re not going to be able to escape a war zone, papers or not, Rena. At Onkel Moshe’s suggestion, we have moved to Plan B. We have Polish fashions saved away already. If we dress correctly, we will look like Polish people. However, as of today, I’m sorry to report, I have yet to secure the new paperwork. This is our current dilemma.”

Rena stared at the floor, her foot tapping. On top of everything else, we must become imposters and liars.

Her father held up a yellow handbill with wide black lettering. “Since the Nazis have passed laws that make it mandatory for Jewish people to register, the fact that we have not registered could become a serious problem.”

Just then something in Rena’s mind snapped. Arm bands, laws against Jews riding trolleys, and her memories of the flames lapping at her legs all took her back. Deep inside her mind, hidden away in a dark chasm, the memory of that Berlin night reared up again like a ravenous firedrake clawing at her soul, sharp as broken glass.

Before that night, Hitler’s youth soldiers never truly scared her, but his expression had chilled her core. He trembled like a lion let out of a cage after a long period of starvation. 

The birds picking crumbs from her palm flew away when he approached her. As he compressed his fingers around her wrist, his blue eyes glazed into a solid blackish blue; pupil and iris merged. He yanked her arm. The warm loaf of bread fell to the ground. Behind him others just as edgy stood with guns strapped at their sides and held thick black bats. Three other blond teenagers wearing starched knickers and red arm bands proudly paraded Swastika flags a few feet away. They all donned a single lightning bolt on their lapel. She felt a million goose bumps pop out on her skin, but she couldn’t imagine what she had done to get into so much trouble.

“You’re the Doktor’s girl, Ja?” He pushed her out of the park into the street. The special braid her mother weaved came loose and her long golden hair began to unravel.

A clean-cut German boy with sturdy shoulders and a ramrod back, the Hitler Youth reminded her of a blond, blue-eyed version of Cary Grant from the movies, the type who could use their good looks to amuse girls; the type Rena imagined marrying when she grew up.

She felt her arm snap at the socket as he wrenched it. He dragged her behind him like a rag doll, soiling the lace of her new yellow dress and scraping her knees.

At the brownstone building around the corner, in front of her father’s office, he let her fall to the ground and proceeded to shatter the window of the entry door with his baton. “Mercy! I must go home…now!” She scrambled to her feet and began to run.

He caught her by the back of her dress and shoved her inside. Taking stock of the cabinets, he grunted to the others, “Nothing but rubbish in here!” The others went on their way.

She sensed his brassy confidence by his springless gait. Frozen and powerless, she watched her body tremble, but it was as though she watched herself under water. Everything happened in slow motion. She surveyed his face in waves, one section at a time. “Please…I”

“Shut up!” He pointed to the chair furthest from the door. “Shut up and sit down! We’ve got business now.”

The veins in his neck stood out in quivering ridges, accentuating his fury. He looked familiar. His boots of steel moved like shiny black creatures coming toward her. She felt her knees bumping into each other, but she couldn’t stop them. Meandering backward toward a chair, she asked in a meek voice, “What business is that?”

“You don’t ask questions! I do!” He bellowed.

The loud wave of sound caused her eyes to tear. She stood at attention and lifted her trembling chin, “You’re going to be in a lot of trouble over this.”

By the way his face creviced, her tears and threats made him even more cross. She didn’t know what to say or do. She scanned the office, eyeing the seascapes on the wall. For a second she wished she could fade into the picture and live in a far away land by the sea where people didn’t hate each other so much, a land like America.  

With a toss of his arm, Rena landed in one of the leather chairs behind the nurse’s desk. He stood over her with a sinister posture, like a fifth grade bully she remembered, but much bigger. She tried using reason again. “My father has a lot of patients, German patients. I don’t want to get you into trouble. You should just apologize and go on home now.”

He slapped her across the face. “How do you like that apology? I don’t take orders from grubby parasites. Now tell me where your father keeps his weapons.”

“Weapons?”

With the baton he was carrying, he proceeded to break the ceiling-height filing cabinets behind her that held all the patient records. The thin wood dividers splintered with ease. Laughing in a wicked bark of starts and stops, he scattered the papers with his feet. “Let’s see if your father is smart enough to put all these records back together.”

“No! Stop that!” Rena jumped up and pushed him back, picking up the folders. 

He kicked the folders from her hands and shoved her across the room, his strength startling her. She lost her balance and fell backward, landing on the floor. A quiver came up from her gut and attacked her chin again, the vibration triggering a ripple effect when she spoke. “Mercy sir…please le…leave those papers be. They are very important.”

“Ja? Then tell me where the weapons are!”

His fingers twiddled near his gun, his fingernails, frayed and filthy. What if he shot her? She’d seen them kill a Jew before by the river. They had shot him in the face. “I can’t tell you because…because I don’t know, sir.”

“That’s not good…not good at all!” He growled like a frothy dog with rabies, white foam dripping from his lips. He took a scalpel from the cabinet and grabbed her arm, running the blade close to her throat, moving in rapid succession from her face to her stomach. “You want to watch me cut open your father’s guts and rip out his intestines?”

“We don’t want any trouble. Please—”

“I knew mice had no brains.” He threw her aside, snapped a match against the bottom of his shoe and lit one of the orange-colored folders. Sneering, he exclaimed, “He won’t need these patient histories anyway.”

Rena heard gunshots, explosions, and people screaming outside, but she focused on the eager flames now spreading through her father’s records on the floor. The yellow flames turned orange and red as the red folders caught fire. Where are the police?

When the young Nazi turned toward the door attracted by the noise outside, she ran to the flames, and stomped on them. Within seconds, many of the flames went out, with the exception of the thick stack of file folders in the center. Hopping up and down in rapid successions, she struggled to snuff out the disaster. “Oh no! No!” she screeched as the flames scattered this way and that, making them impossible to catch.

“Having fun little rat face? It’s a new Jew game called Flaming Hopscotch!” With a strange expression of delight, he tossed more of the doctor’s documents into the flames. “There you go little lice hopper.”

“Please! Stop that!”

Flying embers caught the tail of her sash and her dress was aflame. Thousands of hairs on her head went stiff. Her face flushed. Fear pulsated inside her eyes sockets. She yelled, “Please! Get some water!”

His Swastika lapel pin shimmered gold and brilliant in the firelight. He stepped backward toward the door, protecting himself, beaming, his eyes tinged with menace. “All you Jews are history sooner or later.”

“Please! I’m a person…like you!” she wheedled. The hairs on her legs sizzled, the skin melting hot. Her voice climbed the octaves as she screeched, “I’ll do anything you want. Bitte, please, save me!” Thwacking her burning dress with a folder seemed to nourish his amusement. She backed up and bumped into the chair. Turning, she watched the seat of the chair sizzle away a chunk of her skin. She screamed. The smell of burnt flesh made her nauseous. Her instinct wanted her to look at it again. It probably wasn’t that bad. Her head felt light. She wobbled, losing balance. 

“Those flames coming off you look like glowing wings. Maybe your god will turn you into an angel and you can fly away?” As she moved toward the door, he blocked her, kicked his thick leg out to trip her and stretched his arms out as a barricade. “My name is Henny. Remember me?”

The flames sped up her backside. They lapped at her long hair. Tears gushed from her eyes. In one final attempt to persuade him, she unmasked her most private secret, screaming in a high pitch, “Help me! Bitte! I’m…not…not…exactly a Jew! I’m not really a Jew. I’m adop…ted!”

 

Drawn back to the present by Judith’s erratic whimpering, Rena felt perspiration coating her forehead. Her father was explaining the pros and cons of trying to live as Polish people. He didn’t think Onkel Moshe was up to it. Rena interrupted him, “We must hide, Papa. Either we hide or sneak out of Warsaw, disappear into the forest, or find a cave until this is over, something!”

“Is there no way to get out of Warsaw?” her mother queried frantically. “Our valid documents are in good order.” She reached in her pocket and pulled out the red ball of yarn, set it on her lap and lifted out a pink hanky for her nose.

Rena’s father shook his head. “There are basically two options left. We have plenty of food and supplies to last out the fall and winter, even enough to share with our neighbors.”

“I don’t think this is the time to be sharing anything, Jakob.” Her mother objected, beginning to twist the red yarn around her index finger.

A half smile and a little nod acknowledged her mother’s plea before he continued. “However, if we register and stay here, I have no doubt they will eventually take possession of the farm.”

Little Judith was getting old enough to understand. With a wide expression of excitement, she hollered out, “I want to stay here, Papa.”

As if seeing her little sister for the first time, Rena stared at her delicate fingers and pale complexion. Scooting closer to her, she brushed aside her curly flaxen locks, not really blond, she considered, more like the color of spun gold. Her once cheerful and contented face had wilted like her mothers since the Nazi invasion.

“Yes, Judith is right,” Rena agreed. “We need to stay here.”

“There is yet another option,” her father said.

“What? Find guns and blow their brains out when they come to take our farm?”

Her father rose from his seat at her violent words. “Young lady, I don’t ever want to hear you talk that way again. You sound like a rebel. You’ve made a promise to stay out of trouble, and this kind of talk disturbs me. No matter what others choose to do, we must continue to live by the spirit and teachings of the Torah.”

Rena knew what he was about to say. What is hateful to you, don’t do to your neighbor. Understanding, tolerance and love are the only ways to restore the world to the ways of happiness. He’d said it a million times and although it was a beautiful theory, she believed in action at times like these. She began to interrupt, but he held up his hand.

“We shall not harm anyone regardless of what they do to us. Each and every life is as important as the next.” He inhaled deeply before continuing his agenda. “Our other option, probably the best one, is to register and exchange Onkel Moshe’s farm for a Pole’s house inside the Jewish Quarter. This is legal.”

Losing the farm, Rena knew, would break her uncle’s tender old heart. She sighed and lowered her eyes to the floor, knowing her father would decide his way no matter what she suggested.

Her father leaned down on his knees in front of Rena’s mother. “Perhaps it is time we consider removing the children to safety somewhere. There is a secret underground allied with Romanians who are dedicated to safeguarding children. I heard, the riverboat reaches the Iron Gates Gorge in Romania, on the Yugoslavian border, and I know—”

“No! Not our children! We are not sending our children away alone!” Her mother screamed hysterically, throwing her red yarn at her husband. “Stop this sort of talk!”

Her father looked down at the jumble of red yarn next to his slippers and whispered, “Then I suggest we face Israel and declare our faith.”

As he adjusted his tallit and recited Shema, Rena remembered what her father whispered in her ear before the others reached the cellar. His contact told him at the secret meeting that her father’s identity papers were ready and, if necessary, he could leave the country and send for his family later. That thought terrified her.

 

After news on the radio about the lost lives of nearly ten-thousand Poles since the beginning of the Nazi siege on Warsaw, and the definitive capitulation, every member of Rena’s family had long sad faces. As the others sat down at the dining table that evening, Onkel Moshe turned the channel on the Motorola. He stroked his long, Hebraic beard as he switched back and forth, trying to avoid the static. “Let’s enjoy this evening with some beautiful music.” As he tuned in, Radio Warsaw was playing a magnificent version of the Polonaise.

The violins, so full of emotion caused them to bow their heads as they honored the memory of a free Poland with a moment of silence.

Onkel Moshe, hunched over like a centenarian, slowly maneuvered toward his chair, his head hanging, lips pursed in prayer.

The Polish maid, in a fresh black and white uniform, served the feast, an eight-course meal prepared mostly by Aunt Mitha. As they smelled the beet soup when the lid was lifted, they all agreed Borsht was his favorite. Jonathan hadn’t come home yet. No one spoke his name aloud. No one could.

“You’re going to love Aunt Mitha’s sour cream blintzes, Ziskeit.” Onkel Moshe said to Rena with a wink as he settled in his chair.

Everyone ate and chatted about anything but the war during two servings of salad. Rena revered the moment: her family together, except for her brother, all safe, laughing and healthy.

Her father must have thought the same thing. “What a marvelous piece of good fortune, to all be together under a weather-tight roof. We must thank Yahweh that we didn’t lose this beautiful home during the bombings. And I think we need to do all we can for our neighbors this month. Their lives will be very bleak without help.”

“Aunt Mitha already has many things boxed up for our neighbors, Papa,” Rena said.

“Excellent. I will see if I can buy a wool blanket for each child. With winter coming, I think wool blankets are the best gift. “Rena, I would like you to make a list of all the children on our lane.”

 During the matzo balls, Rena gazed at her family, filled with affection. Judith sat in her place like an innocent angel, but the empty chair on her left unraveled Rena’s heart. She needed Jonathan to help her through these things.

Without realizing that words came from her mouth, Rena said. “We must stay together under all circumstances. That's what's important…nothing else.”

Several at the table nodded agreement.

 After feeding a few morsels to Yankel, Onkel Moshe delivered the rest of the bad news he had heard while he was out. His haggard body slumped more than usual in his chair. “The Nazis are setting up educational camps to detain the Jewish population of Poland, expropriating all Jewish assets in excess of two-thousand zlotys per family and limiting our earnings to five-hundred zlotys per month.”

“But that’s starvation wages, Onkel,” her father complained. “How can people—”

“Yes, Jakob. But, maybe even worse…posters have been placed in the city to inform all Jewish citizens that we are required to wear identifying white armbands with the blue Star of David printed on it. Anyone who violates the new laws will be executed.”

“Executed?” Aunt Mitha whispered, almost dropping her plate as she handed it to the maid.

“You know they spread rumors to scare us. Ask Papa. They do it all the time,” Rena said.

Her father gazed over at Onkel Moshe and lowered his eyes.

Rena spoke up, a sparkle of encouragement and hope lighting up her eyes, “Papa, we must stay together. We must be here when he comes home. With the blessings of the High and Exalted One, we might have warning enough to hide in the secret cellar if the Nazis come. The supplies down there could keep us alive for years.”

She marveled at her uncle’s clever planning. Adjoining the main cellar area, he had partitioned off a secret room behind what appeared to be a cement wall. The entrance was hidden behind an inconspicuous tin sheet placed tightly against the wall behind a large shelf. It simply looked as if he was storing some old tin behind the shelf. But that particular shelf only stored light objects like blankets and toilet paper so it could easily be pushed out of the way. The main cellar was a large square room with no reason to suspect anything more. The secret room was much smaller and longer, approximately fifteen by twenty feet. In the thirty years since he’d built it, he hadn’t kept anything in there. In fact, he once told Rena, he hadn’t even gone to the trouble of moving the shelf or tin sheet to look in at it. Not until the day he showed it to Rena. With excitement growing inside her, she reached for Jonathan’s magic stone in her pocket and rubbed it for luck.

Onkel Moshe said, “If we reside closer to the city, I will be better able to assist the Bund.”

“An excellent idea, Onkel,” her father said. “We must help wherever God plants us.”

“They can’t take everyone’s house, can they?” Rena persisted. “We can’t just leave and not even worry about him.”

Onkel Moshe reached over and patted Rena’s arm, a warm smile of understanding on his lips. “My little ziskeit is no longer a mere girl. Jakob, your daughter is—“

“The facts are difficult to comprehend, especially for the young,” her father interrupted, his serious expression making Rena feel discouraged. As the maid cleared away all the food and served the pound cake, her father explained in a tired, almost beaten tone. “Even in the city, they are beginning to take things from Jews.”

Rena responded, “That’s just another reason not to move to the city, Papa. I’ve been thinking all day about our dilemma and I have an idea. If we sell the farm to Poles who we know, we could still live down in the safe cellar, couldn’t we?”

Her mother intervened, “Rena, dear, we are trading the farm for a house in the Jewish District. That has already been decided.”

Rena winked at Onkel Moshe and asked, “What about the Bolvolskis from across the street?”

“The Bolvolskis?” Aunt Mitha questioned. “They’re Polish.”

“Their nationality or religion doesn’t matter, Aunt Mitha. Think.” Rascal swayed against Rena’s leg as she continued. “The Bolvolskis have moved in with relatives since their house got bombed out. If we offer them enough money to fix up their house, we can put the farm into their name temporarily, can’t we? They can live upstairs and we can live down in the cellar until the war is over. They would have enough money to fix up their house and a free home to live in while it was renovated. Wouldn’t that work?”

Complete silence filled the room. Rena noticed even little Judith stopped playing with her fork and spoon. She watched the time tick away on the antique mantel clock as everyone considered her suggestion.

“They would risk their lives to do that,” her mother said.

Aunt Mitha chimed in, “People risk their lives in the line of duty and get paid a lot less than we will offer. It’s a lot of money to turn away.”

Onkle Moshe straightened his shoulders and winked at Rena. “Hmmm, four generations of peace in Poland and now this. I suppose, it is a thought, Jakob. Among the three-million or so Jews in Poland perhaps they won’t notice if one family disappears. I haven’t signed the paperwork yet,”

Rena began to feel a mountain of weight move off her heart.

“I don’t know…” Her father started as she dropped two sugar cubes into his tea.

Rena could almost see his brain cranking away like a machine. Then with a burst of good humor, Onkel Moshe added, “We couldn’t keep Yankel down there, but I don’t think the Bolvolski family would mind tending him as part of the deal.”

Rena’s mother finally closed her mouth and smiled. “Why didn’t we think of this before?”

For the first time in days, Rena felt a spark of genuine gladness. Her father said, “If we went with Rena’s idea, we wouldn’t have to give up our identity, our religion, and we wouldn’t have to sell anything. We could keep the horses and milk cows, even the goats. Maybe we could get a fresh chicken a couple times a week. It won’t be kosher, but…”

Rena jumped up, running up to her father with open arms. “They can even give us fresh milk from the cows once in a while.” She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek. “We wouldn’t need to pretend we are Polish or lie about anything, Papa.”

“Our Rena seems to sense things.” Onkel Moshe winked and Rena knew he was on her side.

Her father put his arm around her, his voice a bit unsteady. “The experience, as horrible as it has been, has matured her beyond her age. She’s very smart for a teenager.”

“Family, this is the moment I’ve waited for to share the last of my Swiss chocolates Papa bought me for my birthday.” She ran to the kitchen and pulled the gold and white box off the top shelf. As she opened the lid the sweet aroma enlivened her. Everything would work out now. She felt it in her veins. As her father paced the dining room, she passed around the box of delicately designed crèmes. Everyone smiled.

The Nazis would never find them now.

 

                                   

 

CHAPTER

9

 

Situated between Finkelsztejn’s Bakery and Warszawsski’s Hardware, not far from the Great Synagogue on Tlomacka Street, the bright red lights that hung over the sign of Maxine’s Old Town Palace caught Rolf’s eye as he stepped through the entrance of what the Nazi officers referred to as The Puff. Behind the entrance curtains of pink velvet and lace, the couched foyer flaunted an ample display of photographs to select from—blonds, redheads, brunettes, and even a beautiful bald gypsy.

Rolf walked along the line of photographs taped up against the pink wall thinking about the meeting he had with Hitler in Berlin, his promotion, and the risk he took at the Chancellery to find out the truth about his father’s death. He was glad it was behind him, but he didn’t relish the idea of what lie ahead. Stranded in a permanent position in Warsaw, justice wasn’t going to be easy to achieve.

The officer assigned to introduce him to Warsaw nightlife patted him on the back to welcome him. “These little virgins are a portion of the spoils we earned. No limits in here. Help yourself!”

Rolf thought the guy looked like a typical Hitler Aryan; thick blond hair, blue eyes, tall sturdy shoulders, cut waste and a ramrod back. Rolf said, “I heard brothels were officially outlawed by the Third Reich. Doesn’t the Race and Resettlement Act outlaw us from having sexual intercourse with lower species?”

After a good energetic laugh, the curious Aryan retorted, “Himmler is a sly old fox. Only the chosen, like you and me, have the privilege of neglecting such fine details and only in times of conflict, of course. Himmler wants his elite SS to obey orders and concentrate on the important goals of the Reich. How is that going to happen when our women are back in Germany? We need to empty our trash on a regular basis, right?” His laugh reminded Rolf of a hyena; short spurts, high pitch. “Just don’t go falling for one of them, kompanje. A friend of mine was executed for getting engaged to a Jew against regulations.”

Rolf nodded, feeling a bit of indigestion. He knew Himmler’s office utilized prostitutes as bait in clandestine reconnaissance missions at the infamous Salon Kitty in Berlin's Giebachstrasse—to gather intelligence and sometimes, he’d heard, to discreetly poison traitors. Heydrich kept juicy dossiers on high-ranking Nazi officers, foreign diplomats and expatriates. With listening devices and cameras affixed to the headboards or picture frames, men easily enticed by well-trained prostitutes might find themselves with one too many red check marks. Rolf made a mental note: tight lips offer a measure of security.

The curious hyena-man escorted Rolf into the bar through the archway opposite the staircase. Introduced to a dozen hale and hearty Nazi officers enjoying their wine with great laughter and revelry along with frozen-faced, half-nude, gaunt teenagers on their laps, Rolf felt nauseous. Other Puff girls stood at the bar in shoddy pastel lingerie, a few puffing on cigarettes, all waiting like young calves at the slaughterhouse.

For a puritanical regime that banned abortion, contraceptives and prostitution, The Puff services seemed a tad hypocritical to Rolf, a poor way to earn the respect of the local population – new Reich citizens.

“Heil Hitler. Great to see you again, Brandt. How do you like our officers club and gaming establishment? And the games… appetizing, wouldn’t you agree?” The plump-nosed man, Major Khull, clapped his hands and shouted, “Get this officer a drink. Yesterday we celebrated our conquest of Poland; soon we will celebrate Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and the rest of Europe! If only we could be in Berlin to hear the bells ringing!” He raised his goblet to toast the Führer, moving his cigar to the side of his mouth. “How come it’s taken you so long to come out and play, Officer Brandt?”

Having met Major Khull upon his arrival in Warsaw, Rolf didn’t want to be unfriendly. He was the man who had his answers. Rolf just had to bide his time and earn his trust before pumping him.

“He’s saving himself for the worms,” The curious one explained to Major Khull with a roar, walking away, his expression a bit too sinister for a normal person. With another chortle followed by a hyena shriek, he grabbed himself a cigar from the box and departed to greet a bottle of bourbon and a redhead who seemed to be expecting him.

All conversation in the room was interrupted by sudden shrill screams. A new Polish volunteer attempted to flee her captor, her long untamed brunette hair flying out behind her nearly nude body as she ran down the staircase—followed by a whip.

“Halt! Halt, you little bitch!” Once the whip tangled in her hair, she stopped and yanked at it for release.

Behind her, a husky, fat-bellied man dressed in white under shorts and black socks flew off the stairs. “Bitch, get back up here!” His rage ceased instantly once he saw the double opaque glass doors to the pub stood wide open. His audience applauded. Responding to their boisterous laughter with a big smile and swift flash of his private parts, he grabbed the girl by the hair and dragged her back up the stairs like a rag doll. Twenty-five blows for any resistance, Major Khull explained to Rolf while relishing the free entertainment.

“Now you see how much fun you can have here,” Khull howled. “You need the diversion after a hard day’s work. Why not enjoy the fruits of your labor?” He said, moving a nearby Puff girl’s hand where it felt good.

Rolf’s move had to be played with infinite care. Hans had proved a true friend asking associates to ask questions in dangerous places. Rolf had found Khull’s name scribbled in pencil across the top of several of the discovery documents. If he was the same Khull Hans had investigated, he knew the name of the men who tortured his father to death. One day soon, he intended to get him drunk enough to talk.

Rolf said to Khull, “You can’t imagine how much work I have backed up. I’m working twelve-hour shifts and the backlog is growing every day.”

“Of course I can imagine it. I’m the one sending that local loot over in trucks. I’m privy to Hitler’s demands for good art and—”

“Indeed. Excellent selections, sir!” To become a trusted comrade required skill and calculations. Tonight was his first move. They had now exchanged a few friendly words. His second move had to grow naturally from the first. Timing was essential.

Giving the appearance of enjoying a certain girl on a regular basis by providing her with a few extra ration cards could provide him the alibi he might need in the future as he went about collecting information.

He feigned being distracted by a young strawberry-blonde at the far end of the bar who gave him a half-smile. Rolf took a few steps backward and staring in the direction of the girl, said, “Can I catch up with you later, Major Khull?”

“Ya. Ya. Go swap some spit, let your nerves settle…pop a few corks.” Turning to review The Puff girl Rolf seemed interested in, Khull added, “Then we’ll talk. When you’re relaxed, then we’ll talk, Brandt.”

“I’ll stop by your office in the next couple of days. In the meantime, have fun old boy.” Rolf smiled widely at Khull and winked at the girl, stepping away.

Rolf was intercepted on his way toward the strawberry-blonde. He turned to see who tapped his arm, and the curious, sort of creepy laughing hyena reached out to shake his hand. “Looks like we’ve got the makings of a mutually entertaining friendship, Brandt. Feel free to call on me if you need help catching up on your workload. I think we should be on a first-name basis, don’t you?”

Rolf reciprocated with a reluctant handshake. This guy is getting on my nerves.  “Nice to know you. My first name is Rolf. Thanks for your sociability.”

“Don’t mention it, kompanje. At your service.” A black fly zigzagged about his head, its incessant buzz causing him to slap himself in the ear. “Zum donnerwetter! I hate damn flies. How do they get in here anyway?” With a stiff salute, he hesitated before slipping out the next sentence in a tone so uncharacteristically low Rolf knew it must be top secret. “It’s best to keep your nose clean around here. What I’m trying to say…and this comes from a position of pure friendship, kompanje; don’t ruin your career for anything. They watch people, you know. Let dead dogs lay in peace. Just live, relax and enjoy.” Then he gripped Rolf’s hand like a vice and introduced himself properly. “Name is Heinrich, but ever since grade one, I got tagged the nickname of Henny. Henny Knopfmann.”

 

That wouldn’t be the last time he saw Henny that night.

In the middle of the night, on the first floor of the storage warehouse next to the train station, Hans helped Rolf pack away nineteen ancient Jewish paintings and a half dozen bronze icons for passage on a pre-dawn train to England.

Bending over a pine crate half filled with shredded timber chips, Rolf adjusted six gilded frames wrapped in brown paper and stuffed newspaper between them. “Hand me that twine, Hans.”

In honor of his father’s lifetime of work to restore and save art, he wasn’t about to destroy any artwork, Hitler directive or not. With thousands of shipments coming in and out of Warsaw, a few stray crates certainly wouldn’t be noticed. The crate was almost full, many of the works by world-renowned Jewish artists. By adding German signatures to the many anonymous and less obvious religious paintings, he could send a few Jewish paintings off to museums in Germany. Others he protected by hiding canvases behind precious framed pieces, but there was a lot of Jewish and impressionistic art that could only be saved by shipping it out of Reich territory.

As he worked at his task he felt his heart fill with a sense of rebellious joyfulness knowing he saved a part of the Jewish world; the only part his position allowed him to save. Somehow though, it never seemed like enough. He wanted to do more for the poor Jewish people, wished he could find a way to identify the owners so he could help them get their precious artwork back after this Hitler business was all over. Of course, that was impossible. As it was, if anyone found out, he knew he faced his father’s fate.

“We might not finish tonight, Rolf.” Hans said as he dug through the supply bin.

Rolf felt his vertebrae crackle when he jerked his neck to peer at Hans. His instinct distrusted such a comment, but he realized Hans wouldn’t be risking his neck at two o’clock in the morning if he couldn’t be trusted unconditionally. With his hand extended to accept the twine, Rolf answered, “I hope we will. I wouldn’t want these crates to be unsealed after we leave.”

“What was that sound?” Hans whispered.

Rolf froze, the lid of the crate toddling between his hands. He whispered back, “What sound?”

They both listened, caught in their respective poses. Hans closed his eyes and Rolf wondered if he prayed. He hoped Hans had a direct connection because they needed a fast response.

“I guess it was nothing.” Hans said a minute later as he went back into action assisting Rolf with the position of the lid atop the crate. He added, “You’re right. We can’t leave these crates unsealed. If anyone gets in here, peeks inside and reports us, it will cost us more than a knuckle or two.”

“With that strong bolt on the door, I know it’s safer, but I worry about these old windows.”

Hans glanced about like he’d heard another noise.

Threading the first strap under the crate, Rolf heard it too, the shuffling of feet out by the railroad tracks. He knew it was only the night guard, but the thought of being caught in the act by some nosy SS gave him a start. He looked up at Hans. “Did you hear that?”

“Our nerves are working overtime, Rolf. It’s only the guard. How do you expect me to secure this strap when you’re shaking like a mouse in a mousetrap? Stop worrying yourself. It’s the middle of the night.”

Rolf chuckled as he yanked on the second strap to tighten it around the crate. “You don’t appear to be frightened of anything, Hans. You’re here helping me—”

“I’ve been afraid for so long, it has become a habit not to notice it.”

“It isn’t stopping you, though.” Rolf said, securing the final strap into place. They stood up, and taking each end lifted it onto a set of rollers. “Now for the icons.”

Hans readied the bottom of the next crate while Rolf wrapped and taped each icon. Rolf felt a reverence building in his heart for this man working by his side like someone with wings. When Hans spoke again, Rolf measured the soft mellow tone of his voice. Truly, Hans was a saint. “Look, Rolf, fear stopped me for a long time. When I was younger, I was truly fearless. I’ve never told you this before, but in 1934 the Nazis arrested me for attaching anti-Nazi literature to six thousand invitations being sent out to invitees of the Berlin Art Federation for their annual convention.”

Rolf looked at Hans in admiration. “You really do have a lot of grit.”

Hans lowered his eyes and let out a little sigh as he nodded. “Maybe…a death wish.”

Rolf repositioned the small lamp so he could see better and began to place each icon flat down inside the crate, layering them between green cotton military blankets. “But obviously you proved your innocence, right?”

“No, I served six weeks in jail and got officially excluded from the Nazi party.”

“But…I don’t understand. They let you back in?”

“Not intentionally. After my sentence I went back to school and transferred out of Berlin for a while. I got married and altered my name by one letter on my marriage certificate, which I later used to get new identification. When I hired on at the Nationalgallerie, your father said the party wouldn’t allow him to hire a non-party member so I registered using my altered name and the rest is history. Here I am.”

“And I thought I was taking risks.”

Just then a beam of light flashed through one of the two front windows. They both dived to the floor behind the crates. Rolf scooted back and switched off the lamp, cursing under his breath. After another shot of white illuminated the second window, a pair of footsteps circled around to the side window. Rolf motioned to Hans to slowly turn the crates and stay behind them. Did the guard hear them talking, see the light? At times like these Rolf questioned his obsession with protecting art under such perilous circumstances. He held his breath and waited, his heart pounding.

After several minutes of holding to their positions behind the crates, Hans finally whispered, “Had to be the night watchman just doing his duty. I think we’re safe.”

“I don’t know, Hans. I think we need to wait a few more minutes before turning on this lamp.”

“With the dim light of the streetlight through the windows, if we just let our eyes adjust for a minute, we can get this done without that lamp.”

Without light, Rolf used his hands to locate the next icon. “I’ll place them…you lay down the blanket, but be sure to spread it out to all four corners. I have a lot of respect for you, Hans. You are still mighty fearless.”

Hans crawled on his knees to the stack of blankets. “Listen, the only reason I’m back at it is because I know Hitler trusts you. You’re my good luck charm.”

“I wouldn’t count on that, Hans. I am my father’s son, after all.”

Regardless, your high ranking position allows you to get things done. That’s lucky.”

“Lucky? I guess. Stupid might be a better word choice, Hans.”

“Imagine if Hitler had to depend on some incompetent military man to do his fine art selections. That would be a disaster for the Reich.”

Rolf chuckled and lowered the last icon into the crate, exhaling a satisfied breath. With the first strap secured, he felt a sense of relief. In a short time these magnificent works of art would be safe and secure on the train to a museum in London. As he threaded the last strap under the crate, he heard another noise, a clanking of keys, and then a single key in the lock to the front door. Who could it be? Not even the night guard had keys to this warehouse since he’d added the new bolt.

He turned to Hans, who looked like a marble figure, his face frozen in a shadowed grimace of terror. Rolf pointed, “Hide! Quick! Get between these two crates.”

Hans scrambled into place and scrunched up his limbs as Rolf covered the two crates with one of the blankets, making it look like one large crate. Four empty walls didn’t offer many other hiding places. The only other option was prying open a window and trying to climb out. That, he decided, was far too chancy. He looked up at the rafters, but the ladder was lying on the floor. He heard one of the men say something about the bolt. Maybe they didn’t have that key. Then he noticed the door to the bathroom. There was a closet in there. He removed his shoes and tiptoed toward the bathroom. The door creaked as he opened it. Just as he folded himself into a space large enough for a five-year-old, he heard two male voices inside the front door.

With a scratchy timbre a man said, “See, I told you I would get us in this place.”

The second voice echoed off the walls like someone who had a few too many shots of whiskey. When Rolf recognized the voice it made his gut wrench and he didn’t think he could hold back as he listened. “Ya, the key works…but the place looks empty. I thought you said there was stuff in here.”

The sound of feet crippled Rolf’s hope. If they came anywhere near the crates hidden under the blanket or the bathroom, he knew his charade was over. Oh no, he’d left his shoes in plain sight! No matter how much the Reich needed him, if he was caught in the act of smuggling, there would be blood.

“There were a few paintings, I am sure of it. But that was early afternoon…maybe they got sent off to Munich already.”

“Ya, ya. Don’t screw around with me, Herr Beggermiester, or that little puppy of yours might end up working up a sweat under me at The Puff.” His hyena laugh verified his identity.

 That cunning creep! Rolf plastered his hands over his mouth. Damn it!

As the two burglars shuffled around the warehouse, Rolf remembered what took place at the bar a week earlier, the way Henny threatened him when he couldn’t elicit Rolf’s cooperation.

It was a dark little pub with a one-eyed bartender and red vinyl barstools. The only glitz about the place was the lightning that illuminated the line up of colorful liquor bottles haphazardly set in front of a wall of mirrors behind the bar. Rolf had only wanted a quick beer before going back to work for the evening, but a few minutes after he sat on a bar stool, Henny approached him.

“Salute, kompanje!” Henny clanked his glass against Rolf’s glass as it sat on the bar, causing the foam to flow over the edge.

Rolf rolled his eyes at the implication that they were friends.

Henny laughed and lit a cigarette. “How about us traveling the world together when this war business is all over? We could see the pyramids.”

Rolf wiped the edge of his glass with a small napkin stamped with the letter B for The Bavariana Pub, a small officers club right off Avenue Ujazdowskie on a narrow byway. After a sip of beer, Rolf asked, “How would your wife feel about that idea, Henny?”

After swilling down a half mug of beer, Henny laughed, “By the time we are through here…we’ll be rich! Ja, rich enough to travel and make the wife sing.”

“The sooner the better.” Rolf considered forcing the beer down all at once, but he knew that would make him vomit. Looking around for someone he knew, he had to find an excuse to get away from him.

“Kompanje, we need something special to look forward to. Don’t you think we deserve a reward for all this?”

Rolf didn’t like making eye contact with bloodshot eyes. When he looked down and noticed Henny’s fingernails were as dirty and unkempt as claws, he pivoted on his stool and started up a conversation with two men on his right. “Have either of you ever met up with an Officer…Rhoenbugen in your duties?”

“There’s a Rhoenbugen stationed in Kraków, I believe.” The older officer with the plump red cheeks replied. “But, now I think about it, he got transferred before me. Don’t know where.”

Rolf nodded. “How long ago was that?”

“I’ve only been here a week, so…maybe a couple weeks ago.”

Apparently all the officers and functionaries under SS Officer Richard B. Rhoenbugen in the “Brandt affair” had been demoted and transferred to the field or otherwise completed their duty. That’s about all he found out from Hans’ underground connection in Berlin. Bateman didn’t know which man took responsibility for certain phases of his father’s interrogation, but one odd bit of information stuck in Rolf’s head—one of them had applied for and received a name change in 1934.

Henny tapped him on the shoulder. With slurred words and a cigarette hanging at the side of his bottom lip, Henny said, “We could do it, kompanje. Let’s see the world, plan it out and make it happen. I already have the maps we’ll need.”

Rolf wished the hell the creep would back off, but he played along, not wanting to offend. “Are you expecting an inheritance or are you planning to dig for lost pirate treasure under the ocean somewhere? I can’t imagine having enough money to blow on a holiday of that degree.”

 “Ya, you need help, Herr Chief of the Jewels. You’re just too overloaded to think straight. Me, I’ve got dreams.” He shined his nails against his sleeve.

Henny was right. Beyond a doubt, Rolf knew Rosenberg’s Einsatzstab, having adequate help from the Luftwaffe and local police, would go at it like militant armadillos in every new territory, leaving no treasure or booty behind. He wasn’t looking at a tour of duty; he was looking at years of his life wasted working for the hellhounds of hoard. “As long as Hitler thinks I can do the job of ten people, I’m sort of stuck, Henny.”

“Come on, Brandt. Smile, have another beer, let’s talk about this.” Henny waved to the bartender and ordered another round. “I’ll tell you what, Brandt. You work late, right?”

“Most nights.” Rolf said, planning his exit strategy. The trains going by at the periphery of the city attracted Rolf’s attention, the shrieking whistle a reminder that tomorrow another crate would go to England. “Henny, it’s late. I gotta go.”

“Hold on, Brandt. You are my friend. I am willing to give you a hand…get you out from under that…mass of loot.”

Rolf controlled himself, wanting to burst into laughter. “Thanks, but it’s not that simple, Henny. If anyone could do my job, I doubt I would have this position. What I do requires authenticating, cataloguing, inventorying, photographing and valuating every last object.”

“Don’t be stupid, Brandt.” Henny said, forcing Rolf to look at him by grabbing at his coat sleeve. “You need someone to help you handle all those bulky goods. I could give you a couple evenings a week.”

Rolf could use help. In one warehouse alone, Rolf’s staff cataloged nearly fifteen-hundred cases of rare books. More were coming in on trains daily from new Reich territories. But no one, especially not someone like Henny was going to give up a couple nights a week frolicking at The Puff for nothing. He obviously wanted to get his hands on Reich loot. “It’s a nice offer, Henny, but I’m sorry I can’t accept.”

“Sure you can. Ya, you are the head man, the Chief of the Einsatzstab…you can do anything you want.”

After this conversation, Rolf knew he could never allow Henny anywhere in close proximity to Reich treasures. “You and I know that none of us can do what we want, Henny. We cannot vary from our orders. The consequences of breaking Reich regulations, even talking about breaking Reich regulations can be ugly.” At that point, Rolf recalled Hitler’s warning after he’d told Rolf all about his new world empire, the Linz-on-the-Danube. ‘Displeasing the Führer can be detrimental to your wellbeing.’

“Ya, suddenly you’re Hitler’s little lap dog?”

“I’m not…listen Henny, let’s not spoil an otherwise pleasant evening.” Rolf had decided at that moment that a stronger bolt was in order for the warehouse. “I have no intention of risking my position, not to mention my neck for your little scheme. Let it go.”

“Ya, you don’t get it. You’re either with me or against me, kompanje.”

Rolf stood up and nodded. As he walked away, Henny yelled across the bar. “You’re a joke, Brandt. No guts. A pansy, just the way I had you pegged that first day at The Puff when you declined a free pony ride.”

Rolf turned back, his hands rolled into fists.

Grabbing his crouch, Henny snickered, “And definitely no balls.”

 

Right then and there, Rolf should have done something, reported him, had him arrested for inciting a conspiracy, anything to get him out of Warsaw. Now the bastard had an accomplice and keys to his lock and bolt! As he heard them shut the door, he vowed to find a way to get rid of him, one way or the other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part Two – Warsaw Underground

 

CHAPTER

10

 

Jonathan had been gone for nearly a year. An assassination attempt on Hitler’s life in Munich on November 8th the previous year mentioned that several people in the beer hall died when a bomb exploded.

Worried every day, Rena found herself hiding in the mystery room behind the tin sheet, the only private place in the cellar. She’d searched through Jonathan’s chest of supplies and found his black velvet bag with the tefillins and leather straps he received at his Bar Mitzvah. She kissed the bag and returned it, extracting his collection of calligraphy inks and pens, not to use them, but to look at them and remember his hand when he drew fancy letters. Deep down she feared Jonathan was one of the dead in the beer hall, but not wanting to grieve her family she kept her assumptions to herself or wrote her feelings in letters to Sarah. Letters she couldn’t mail.

One day during the quiet hours of the morning, Rena woke up to the sound of her mother’s teeth grinding. Unable to get back to sleep, she climbed down the ladder and broke off a chunk of bread. She couldn’t help but wonder if Jonathan was starving at this moment, if he was somewhere in a cell or out in the forest ravenous for a chunk of bread. She put the bread back without taking a bite.

All alone in the mystery room, she wept and entreated the Almighty to bring him back to her. “If just for a day so I can tell him…that I will never love anyone else as much as I love him.” With all her heart she prayed he would come home and put joy back on the faces of her parents.

Her mother was convinced Jonathan had run away from home because Jakob was too hard on him, expecting him to be a man when he was only a boy. Not a day went by that her mother didn’t blame him, not so much outwardly, but with innuendos and questions, endless questions about the last time they were together. The confined space made everyone tense, her mother worst of all.

With plenty of fuel and food supplies in the cellar, Rena slowly accepted the long wait. For an entire year in the cellar God had blessed them with safety. With enough time and endurance her family would survive. The others down stairs barely tolerated it, but Rena learned to enjoy the solitude and the free time that allowed her to live inside her books. Her father schooled her everyday in mathematics, science, history, Hebrew, German, religion and geography. In the ongoing darkness of her life, she’d even found her passion; studying great writers and poets and writing verse for the compositions she planned to play on Onkel Moshe’s piano someday. For the sake of practicality she would likely follow her father into medicine, not as an internist, but as a pediatric physician. But playing the piano like her uncle would always remain her dream.

 

Everyday she thanked the heavens her uncle’s books hadn’t been burned. He had a huge library upstairs with a vast variety and she was allowed to go up and exchange books once a week. During her first month in seclusion, she had read all of Emily Dickenson’s poetry and memorized many of her love poems. She liked reading classics, but reading the banned works of Hemingway and Heine rejuvenated her. Harry Heine, a Jewish poet was her favorite bedtime read, but one of the lines from his play Almansor written in 1821 looped in her brain night after night when she tried to sleep. ‘Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.’ Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.

With her father’s encouragement, she tried to find the bright side in her thoughts. “Aren’t we lucky down here?” Rena said one night as she dried the evening dishes.

“You’re quite right, now aren’t you?” her father replied as he added coal to the stove. His smile warmed her and it reminded her of those wonderful, glorious days in Berlin when he let her ride the lion.

He was such a jolly soul then, making everyone laugh during dinner with his animal routines replete with animated expressions, and sometimes very realistic sounds. Undoubtedly an expert at mimicking hairy creatures, the only thing Rena liked better was riding on his back through the vines and rivers of Africa, ruling the jungles as a lion tamer on Sunday mornings. When his back gave out, he told her to mount the chair and tame the lion with the long whip of her bathrobe. At that, he opened his mouth and gave out a loud purr before collapsing on the floor. How she missed those days.  

Her father hummed a little tune before he said, “The winter outside is freezing everything, they say. Down here with our supplies we are warm and toasty.”

Rena smiled and turned toward her mother, who worked at darning a sweater. “I wouldn’t want to be one of those people living in a bombed-out house with no heat, would you, Mama?”

Her mother didn’t look up. Her fingers kept working furiously at the yarn as she wobbled her head.

Rena glanced around at Aunt Mitha and Onkel Moshe to see if they might add their opinion, but they both had their noses in books. Rena wished she could cheer everyone up. “Ivan says the poor people who don’t have books to burn for heat are freezing to death. The shops in the city ran out of coal. He says it’s chaos out there. I thank Yahweh every night that we were smart enough to prepare this cellar and get all these supplies together last year. With Ivan bringing us milk and meat, we are better off than the majority of Poles again this winter.”

“Enough, Rena! Can’t we have a few seconds without talk?” Her mother snapped.

She knew how irritable her mother had become. She wasn’t a well woman, and after so many months underground, the close air didn’t help. “I’m sorry, Mama. I promise to be quiet the rest of the night.”

A few minutes later, Rena heard it: the secret knock—three short taps and a long scrape with the head of a wooden spoon. Her father hollered through the heavy door, “It’s unlocked, Ivan.”

Ivan Bolvolski and his family had moved into the Steiner farmhouse a month after Warsaw’s capitulation in 1939. With five children and another on the way, the Steiner offer had delighted him. To make them feel at home, Rena’s parents stored all their personal items in the attic. Although no one seemed certain how long the Nazi occupation would last, the agreement enabled the Bolvolski family to begin work on the restoration of their house across the street as soon as winter broke. If it wasn’t done in time, Rena’s family agreed to let them stay longer. Since contractors were months behind schedule, the only thing completed after an entire year was the foundation. As Rena climbed down from her bunk, she wondered where the Bolvokski’s would live when the war ended. She didn’t like the idea of them living with her family for years on end. She tuned in to the conversation at the bottom of the stairs.

Even with his tarnished teeth, a sign of his obsessive tobacco use, the old farmer warmed everyone with his wide smile. “Not ta spoil yous day or anythin’…I know yous probably fastin’ or somethin’ and I don’t want ta upset ya, but the yappers, the loudspeakers in the city made it very clear that all Jews gotta move inside the ghetto by the end of the month. It could give ya claustrophobia, though. They’re talkin’ like they’re goin’ close everyone in there…like they done in Lodz in May…lock up all the gates. They’ll have ta give passes to factory workers, unless they move the factories behin’ the walls, a course.”

“Thank heaven our family is safe and secure down here.” Rena said.

Ivan reached into his pocket and pulled out some papers. “I got two messages, Jakob. One good news and one bad news. Which do ya want first?”

Her father invited him to sit down with a welcoming gesture as Rena placed the tea service atop the lacy tablecloth. Their family had agreed in the beginning that everyone could listen in on Ivan’s news reports, good or bad. “Please sit down, Ivan. The tea is ready. We do appreciate everything you are doing for us.” Her father glanced over the solemn faces of their family and rested on Rena’s. He winked and she knew everything would be fine. “We will take the worst news first.”

“Yap. All the old news is bad news. Then we got worst news. Besides the Nazis invadin’ Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Luxa…Luxembourg and France this year, now they’re takin’ the Channel Islands and, I suppose Britain’s next. Oh yeah, and a delivery come today, a letter a sorts.” Unfolding a large sheet of paper, Ivan handed it to her father. “It seems ‘at someone thinks this farm is still owned by Jews; two Jewish men by a last name of Steiner.”

“Oi!” Her father gasped.

“They’ve found us out,” Onkel Moshe whispered from the corner.

The document, signed by the President of the Council of Elders, Adam Czerniakow, was a copy of the announcement sent out to all Mosaic and Zionist Jews, as well as those who had converted, regardless of a Catholic or Christian christening, to register for compulsory work.

“By November 15, 1940 all Jews are suppose to move into that ghetto they’re buildin’ ‘round the Jewish district. Yous think maybe about movin’ into the smaller room to hide, Jakob?” Ivan questioned, his smile fading as he sipped tea from the delicate silver-rimmed cup.

“We can’t live in there permanently. It’s a shoebox!” Rena protested. She knew her mother already felt like a caged animal. If they had to move inside the mystery room, she knew someone would go mad. “We will be fine out here. That room is only for emergencies.”

Her mother, Aunt Mitha and Onkel Moshe kept quiet. Rena knew they awaited the bad news with timid hearts. Her chest felt like a beehive, buzzing with labor.

Her father stood up and held the letter closer to the carbide lamp hanging from the low ceiling joist. He read the document again. “The President added a handwritten note here.” Sitting again, he looked over at old Onkel Moshe. “Failure to report will incur imprisonment with hard labor for up to ten years.”

The women gasped. Rena stood up and took her father’s arm, leaning her head on his shoulder. Her mind filled with the chaos as she recalled the description of the black prison of Conciergerie in Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities where the doomed awaited their fate, the intolerable oppression, the heartless indifference to human life.  “No, Papa. No.”

Ivan snorted. “Don’t take it ta hard, Doc. If ya read the rest of it…any Pole caught helpin’ Jews is gonna get the same thing. But we knows the real penalty is a bullet between ya eyes. Yap, not long ago them smelly dogs took somes Polish women and them families back into the Palmiry woods and shot ‘em dead there just fer takin’ in Jewish orphans.”

Her father lifted the paper to the light again. “Men and boys over sixteen. Nothing about women.” He wrapped his arm around Rena, and after kissing her cheek, noted the places of registration.

“Don’t even consider it, Papa. We are not letting you or Onkel Moshe leave this cellar!” It felt odd hearing her own voice sound so mature. It could be light and airy at times, but right now it sounded coarse and bossy. “I mean it!”

 “I think ya are all safe en sound down here, Jakob.” Ivan said. “No one knows yous er here. As we agreed, we never speak about our arrangement ta anyone, not even er best family members. That ways, both a our families er protected.”

Rena knew her father had taken every precaution before the move. He closed their bank accounts and transferred all assets to a Swiss account to avoid seizure. The transfer of the farm was complete and legal. He’d even given his employment certificate to another doctor who’d helped him at the hospital. But if they came, if Adam told them…

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

11

 

In Berlin or any other city that wasn’t eighty-five percent rubble, the majestic characteristics of the Municipal Theater wouldn’t be such a poignant reminder of the glorious past.  The Warsaw Municipal brought to Rolf’s mind the theaters in Rome and Paris, but the impression may only have stemmed from the severe contrast against the gray chunks of debris and the few small buildings that still stood nearby. Oblivious to the devastation surrounding it, the bright lights of the theater flashed out happy excitement, lighting the dark street of what had become known as the German District of Warsaw. Fortunately missed during the air raids, the colorful billboards of its stately entrance announced the season’s upcoming events.

After a year of working together, Rolf and Hans had grown as close as brothers, sharing secrets and spending every working hour together. The Polish guard Rolf hired on at the warehouse curtailed discovery of their clandestine operation and any attempts at theft. As annoying as it was to assist the Reich with their confiscations, his meaningful friendship with Hans, and their success at saving artwork for future generations, lessened the strain.

Most of those in line wore uniforms like Hans and Rolf, but there were several Germans dressed in dark suits and a few Polish couples. Everyone who had already seen it said the play was grand, the costumes alone worth the price of entry. Hans and Rolf waited patiently in the long line for their tickets, hoping it wouldn’t be a sell out.

With all the chatter about them, it was easy enough to have a private conversation without having to worry too much about ease droppers. During dinner they had discussed religion and Aryan supremacy, and Rolf had continued to mull it over in his mind. “I don’t know who comes up with all of Hitler’s theories, but it seems to me, if they wanted to go for a superior species, wouldn’t it have been better to keep all the great minds, the educated, brilliant scientists, doctors, mathematicians and professors and have them procreate, rather than to base their extraordinary race on facial features?”

“I think we should let the subject rest, Rolf. You don’t have to worry, you fit the bill both physically and mentally.”

Rolf rolled his eyes and said, “I’m not worried about my bloodline. We should be worried about keeping our heads on our necks.”

“After this long without trouble, I think our heads are safe.”

“Hans, it’s not just Jewish blood they’re after.” The unofficial plan for the physical destruction of the Jews was an ‘open secret’ in high party circles, information he didn’t dare share with anyone but Hans. “They are killing Poles and Germans, too.”

Hans clasped his hands behind his back and stretched out his arms, shaking his head. With a slight hint of cynicism in his expression, he asked, “Too much wine tonight, Herr Brandt?”

“You had the wine, Hans. I had coffee, but I’m not making this up.” He knew the truth was too much for anyone to digest. It wasn’t just Jews and Poles and Germans, now that he thought about it. It was homosexuals, Jehovah Witnesses, blacks, and gypsies, too. What group would be added to the list next? Rolf glanced behind him to make certain no one listened. “They call it Aktion T4: mercy deaths for anyone a little too sick, deformed, or disabled, German, Polish, or otherwise. In fact, thousands of mental patients in Poland have been gassed already.”

Hans rolled back and forth on his feet as they stood in line. “What? I’ve heard a lot of chilling things about the regime, but this doesn’t sound right.” With a featherlike chuckle, he leaned closer and whispered, “Hitler must be joking, pulling on his pet’s tail.”

With a half grin and intent eye contact, Rolf assured, “It’s no joke, Hans. It’s the Nazi Euthanasia Program. I just saw a Reich memo about it. At the Brandenburg prison in July they killed both Jewish and German mental patients using carbon monoxide.”

“One more level of hell. I can’t think—”

“We need to do something, Hans. Hitler has gone too far.”

Cracking his knuckles one by one, Hans spoke in muted tones. “Look, Rolf. There is something you should know about me. I’ve been down this road so many times that next time they catch me I’m doomed.”

“I thought it was only that once—”

“Not exactly.” The box office had opened and the line was moving slowly. “After I graduated I became active in a Christian organization...” He glimpsed from side to side before proceeding in a throaty whisper. “The Federation of German Bible Circles. When I worked with your father, I was already assisting the underground with distribution of certain letters which called on Christians to band together against the growing anti-Christian activities of the totalitarian state. We all chipped in our own money and printed and mailed out over twenty-two thousand religious anti-Nazi pamphlets to people in the party. Your pal Hitler, although he plays along as if he is a Catholic, sees the church as a tool. Think about it. The only way to consolidate the premise of the National Socialist Party and the teaching of Christianity is to slowly do away with biblical teachings.”

As they neared the window, Rolf kept quiet. He didn’t want to believe it, but it seemed logical. It took someone who didn’t have belief in anything after life to devise and implement programs of death for innocent people and then convince the public it was for their benefit. The days of personal principles, the sort that grew naturally inside a person from basic moral instinct, had been chopped into little propaganda pills coated with irrational national patriotism, laced with informants and hatred, and force fed to a society made slightly insane by the impossible price of potatoes. Hans’ perspective made perfect sense. “This has gone too far, Hans. Someone has to stop the madness.” Rolf stepped up, bought his ticket and waited for Hans a few steps away.

Hans withdrew a silver money clip from his pocket and counted out the amount for the cashier. He caught up and said, “Rolf, this is old news, a passé concern superceded by more urgent matters—like life over death. The Nazis see Christianity and church affiliation dying out in a century or so. I didn’t think of my participation as subversive when my conscience was at stake, but of course, any work done in opposition to the Nazis was cause for incarceration.”

“Or incineration.”

“I don’t know what’s worse, a Nazi prison or instant death.”

As they turned to enter the theater, Rolf found the humor in Hans’ life and began to laugh. “Don’t tell me you went to jail twice?”

As they stepped inside, Hans responded with a little chuckle before growing serious again. He said in a secretive way, “After your father’s mysterious death I tried to keep my hands clean, but I just couldn’t manage it. I thought I could stop them single-handedly, but I was over my head. Yes, I got arrested and imprisoned again, this time for three months and officially ousted from the Nazi party.”

“Again? How did you manage—”

“My father paid off an official at the Central Security Office for the Third Reich to clear me and purge my name from all records. Of course, I know I’m still one of them they watch.”

Rolf’s mouth felt dry, his head throbbing as they went through the turnstile a few feet inside and deposited their stubs. “Had I known about all this, I would have never asked you to help me. You’re married and settled now. This is too much of a gamble for you.”

“All this taught has me a lesson. Rolf. I want to grow old like anyone else, but not like a dog with a butchered tail. Working with you has been a blessing, but I heard I might get transferred to Auschwitz or Buchenwald, their booty units are in chaos.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll send a memo to Hitler. I need you here.”

“With your clout, you might be able to get that done.” Hans chuckled.

Rolf scanned the crowd as they passed through the foyer. “Oh, it looks like everyone is here tonight, all the big noses. There’s Henny, the one I was telling you about, the one with the keys. He’s the type to eat his own children.” 

Hans said, “Heinrich Knopfmann. Yes, I know a little about him. He led a ragtag band of Hitler Youth on Kristallnacht, a merciless group that went way beyond anything considered approved action. He killed a couple old Jews he found working overtime in their shops.”

“He’s a heartless beast, Hans. If I never had to look at his face again, I would agree to eat pig slop for a year.”

Hans laughed as they crawled over a few sets of legs and took their seats. Rolf stretched his arms over his head and buckled them behind his neck for the first few minutes. He couldn’t remember the last time he saw a play, but he was ready to let its enchantment take him to another world. As a child, he loved to spend a Sunday afternoon under the shade of their warped oak tree at the farm reading stories that transcended everyday life, stories with multidimensional heroes who sparked questions but left endings open for interpretation. One summer when he was about eleven, he decided he wanted to give up painting to become a writer, because where painters touched the surface, the exterior, a writer plunged deep into the heart of characters and in doing so, lived lives full of explorations and escapades. After struggling to write an adventurous tale about a boy, a train and flying circus animals, he gave up the fantasy and opted to follow his forte with oil colors. But that experience gave him a greater appreciation for the difficulty behind storytelling.

As the play began, Rolf noted how the elegant costumes portrayed a story of their own, how the setting of the scenes made it all seem so real. After the first act, he fell in love with the beautiful blond heroine, so intriguing in her part as a commoner, and so captivating even in her raggedy dress and bare feet. And by act two he had a hunch his heart was going to ache by the end of act three. No matter how many times the heroine prayed in front of the gilded cross, tragedy after tragedy scored her life until one day she realized prayers weren’t answered by God. Happiness was earned through proper choices. She’d been tricked into believing in a manmade religion created to seize the minds of the masses, the Jew’s God and the Jewish Jesus. 

Suddenly Hans stood up and screamed out to the crowd, “This is preposterous! We must stand up against such blasphemy.”

Rolf pulled on his sleeve as others yelled profanities back at him. He pleaded, “Sit down, Hans! What is wrong with you? This is a play, a stupid play. It doesn’t mean anything.”

Hans didn’t lower his voice and Rolf didn’t know how to shut him up. “It means everything, Rolf. They are arresting and deporting Polish priests, closing our churches, robbing monasteries, and expelling nuns from their houses! Don’t you get it? Don’t you see how this script encourages us to hate our Christian heritage and become anti-Semitics?”

Rolf pulled him back down into his seat. “Please lower your voice, Hans. You’re making a scene.”

But he didn’t. “Don’t you see what they’re trying to do to us, to all of us?” Hans crooked his neck as far as he could to speak to others nearby. “We’re Christians. You know, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. Love your neighbor, respect your parents!”

The crowd began to throw things at Hans—tin cans, candy bars and even lit cigarettes.

Rolf grabbed Hans by his coat lapel and begged, “You’re right, Hans, but this isn’t the place.”

 His eyes had glazed over like someone in a trance and Rolf felt helpless. If they were seated closer to the exit, he would drag him out. “Please, let it rest, Hans.”

Hans ignored his pleas, his voice louder by the minute. “I am sick and tired of how they manipulate every newspaper, every play and every movie in Reich territory to brainwash the population, to get us away from Christian principles so they can turn us all into merciless snitches and murderers.”

“Please, Hans. Don’t do this. Let’s leave, okay. I don’t care about—”

After another anti-Christian sentiment from the lips of the heroine, Hans stood up again, this time yelling with even more force and gusto. “We shall not allow our faith to be publicly ridiculed without protest! As Germans of faith, we must do something to stop the mass murder of the innocent!”

A cluster of men grabbed Hans and dragged him across the row of seats and up the aisle, past the foyer, out the glass doors, and onto the pavement. Rolf followed behind, pushing past the crowd, yelling. “Let him alone! He’s drunk. He didn’t mean it!” Two of them, held Rolf back.

Too many of them with their big black batons were pounding and pounding against Hans’ bones, his ribcage, his legs and arms. They took turns kicking him all the while cussing in German, “You yellow liver Jew lover.”

“Get off him or I’ll have you all written up!” Rolf shouted at the top of his range, kicking bodies with his feet, but making little headway.

More Nazis piled out of the glass doors of the theater, yelling, “You pansy kike-loving fuck.”

Rolf ripped his arms free and held up his hands to stop the rush of new anger, but they ignored him as they cursed and cheered on those who did the beating. “Try getting your Jewish Jesus to help you now,” said a short Polish policeman who joined in the entertainment.

A few tried to break them off Hans, but like rabid dogs they just kept at him, breaking his body with their weapons, crushing his skull with their boots, stepping on his face, poking at him with their guns, screaming insults. “With Germans like you we don’t need enemies!”

Just then Rolf saw Henny march through the crowd, pushing the shorter men away with his black bat, yelling commands for everyone to stand back. Rolf struggled free and pushed through the crowd toward Henny using his arms and fists as Henny had used his bat. “Henny! Do you know these men? They should be arrested and written up! There is no excuse for beating a man because you don’t agree with his opinion!”

Henny ignored Rolf, got closer to Hans and kicked him in the mouth. Then he pulled the pistol out of his holster and handed it to Rolf. “Shoot him!”

Rolf pushed the pistol back with an expression of shock and horror, but Henny refused it, repeating, “Shoot him. Put him out of his misery.”

“Hell no! Have you gone mad?”

“I’m giving you the chance to feel real power.”

“Henny, this man has done nothing, nothing!”

“Shoot him, kompanje.”

Rolf took it and threw the pistol on the ground. “No one is shooting this man!”

Henny pulled out a small revolver from inside his coat and shot Hans through the forehead. “That should settle it.”

“Oh my God, you’ve killed him.” Enraged, Rolf slugged Henny in the jaw, but Henny regained his balance and came back at Rolf with his fist. Lifting it to Rolf’s face, he sprayed out his words, “You’d better calm down, kompanje. I don’t want to hurt a friend.”

The crowd stepped back, encircling them, waiting for a fight.

Rolf took a step back. “Are you drunk again? You’ve killed this man without provocation! You killed him in cold blood! Who do you think you are, Henny, God?”

Henny put his arm around Rolf’s shoulder and took him to the side, a grin of carnivorous confidence frozen in his expression. “God? God is a figment of unintelligent imagination, kompanje. Church has only one use. Think about it.” Henny made a sweeping gesture toward the city of Warsaw. “You and I control all of this…all of this, Brandt. The only difference between you and I is, I know I control my own world and you just follow everyone’s orders. Come find me when you get your guts back.”

The crowd began to disperse as Henny strolled off. Rolf shouted at him, “Henny, I’m not through with you.”

Henny turned back. “By the way, I was only following orders from the high command.” Henny stopped near the blood-stained sidewalk and instructed two men to carry the body off for a proper German burial. Then he strutted away.

Rolf ran after him yelling, his fist high in the air, “You’ll pay for this, Henny. I promise to God…you will pay.”

 

 

 

CHAPTER

12

 

I wish it was good news fer yous…” Ivan said. “…but two days ago a German policeman in the ghetto opened fire on a Jewish funeral procession, killing two mourners.”

Rena poured the remaining lentils into a bin and thought about shutting herself in the little room behind the tin, Ivan’s news always so terrible. If only Jonathan would come home she would have someone to make her laugh, to play chess with, to talk to about history. But thoughts of her brother only made her sad. She kept her nose down, opened a book and tried to read with Ivan’s loud voice constantly distracting her.

“What? What had they done?” her father asked.

“Doctor, it don’t take a crime ta get shot these days. If they don’t like the way yous walk, they might blow yous head off. My wife an me decided not ta go ta town unless it were a life er death thing. And then yesterday—”

“On the first day of Hanukkah?” Onkel Moshe covered his ears with his hands.

“I can’t keeped track of yous holidays, but…yesterday…they shot fifteen Jews in a courtyard. It’s a good thing yous stayed down here.”

“Ivan, I know you probably have more such news, but it’s just a matter of time until the German’s are pushed out of Poland and we get out of this cellar. I want to focus on that for the rest of today. The gift of freedom…yes…that is what we want to keep on our hearts this season.”

“Yap, I understand, Doc. Our Christmas is gonna be sparse, but we er grateful for our blessin’.”

“Is there anything we can do for your family…I mean…of course, we will send up fresh rolls…but if you need a little money to buy gifts for your children…I don’t mind helping.” Her father had made a list of the neighbors that needed a helping hand this season and Rena knew, sooner or later, he would offer the yellow-toothed Ivan some of his gold coins.

A loud knock came from the door at the top of the stairs. Everyone jumped. Rena stood at attention, straight and stiff as a figurine. Her mother huddled with Judith in a corner. Onkel Moshe picked up the scriptures and hid them inside his pants. Aunt Mitha reached for a hammer.  “Who could that be?” her father whispered.

Rena knew. Nazis, of course. Ivan didn’t keep his bargain, after all. We are doomed! Doomed like the rest of the Jews!

Running back down the stairs, Ivan said hurriedly, his voice softened, “Throw that there sack of salt a top my shoulder. Now hide—quick!”

The knock came again, but louder. Everyone scrambled toward the mystery room. As they passed through the tin sheet it made far too much noise. “Shhh, be quiet,” Ivan called back, climbing the stairs one step at a time, talking loud like a man who’d had a few too many beers. “Yap, I’m a comin’, I’m a comin’. A farmer’s work ain’t never done. What’s the hurry, folks?”

Only Rena, her mother and Judith made it all the way inside the mystery room before he reached the door. Rena heard her father whisper to Onkel Moshe and Aunt Mitha, “If the Nazis come down, we must go out fast and leave the others safely behind.”

Some snoopy neighbor had probably reported them, her mother whispered. How would they ever get away now?

“Open the door, Ivan!” Rena heard his wife shout from behind the door.

Rena put her ear to the tin. She heard Ivan turn the inside latch and holler, “Don’t knowd how this dang door got latched anyhow. Out of me way, this here’s a heavy load.” Ivan slammed the door, but Rena had heard his wife’s voice. She didn’t sound frightened. She sounded happy. Rena felt her knees faltering.

The door reopened. Ivan’s wife yelled out the news, “Jonathan’s home!”

The shock of joy shot slivers of jubilation down Rena’s spine. She heard her father gallop to the top of the stairs. Her knees almost gave out as she crawled out from behind the tin, helping her mother and little Judith. Her mother trembled so bad she tripped and almost fell to the ground. Tears gushed from her eyes. “I can’t see, Rena. Hold my hand. It’s my boy…my only son! He’s come home at last.”

“My hell. Yap, if it ain’t yous, alright,” Ivan said near the door, the load hitting the floor. “I knewd ya’d be back soon enough after we seen the postcard. Yap, I guess ya can figure out yous folks don’t live here no more…not officially.” With a hearty laugh, Ivan howled, “Welcome home, boy.”

“Thank you…thank you, sir.” From down below, Jonathan’s voice sounded frail.

Rena left her mother on a chair, kicked off her shoes and scrambled to the top of the stairs. Thanking the Merciful and Gracious Elohim, Rena wrapped her arms around his legs, the only part of his body available.

Her father had Jonathan engulfed in his arms, rocking him, but he spoke no words, only grunts of astonishment. Rena’s throat thickened. She shouted the name of her brother over and over, but only inside her head. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she stared at his unkempt hair, darkly circled eyes and bearded face. A strange man stood in front of her. He’d grown a foot. It was him…but a different version from the jovial boy she once knew. She didn’t care. Any version was a miracle. 

Her father embraced the boy again, holding him with arms of steel. She’d never seen Jonathan weep with such depth, the sound of pain rumbling inside him. She reached up and wiped his face, her fingers trembling with elation and reverence. Oh, how she missed that face. Her heart pounded as she silently thanked Yahweh for bringing back her only brother to her. There was so much she wanted to say, but her tightened throat wouldn’t let any words out. She wanted to tell him she’d wished on the turquoise stone every night since the day he left and prayed thousands of prayers for his safe return.

Before they descended, Ivan pushed by and ran down the stairs, yelling at the top of his lungs, “It’s Jonathan! It’s yous boy! Yous boy is home!”

“Jonathan. Oh, Jonathan,” Rena finally whispered when she caught his eye. She tugged at his hand. “You’ve got to see Mama. She can’t make it up here. She’s too overcome to walk!”

“And little Judith?”

“Yes! Yes! Everyone is downstairs waiting!”

“Everyone?”

“Yes. We are all safe, Jonathan. Aunt Mitha and Onkel Moshe, too. Everyone is safe here in the cellar.”

Jonathan sighed and took hold of the rail at the top of the stairs, leaning into it. “If possible, can I please have a glass of water and a piece of bread?”

“Oh Jonathan. Bread? We’ll bake a dozen loaves for you!” Rena’s vocal cords finally recovered. Moving behind Jonathan, she grasped her father’s wet hand and urged him down.

At the bottom of the stairs, Rena cried, “Jonathan came home! Jonathan’s home at last!”

Although she wanted first place next to him, she stepped aside for her mother and grabbed a glass of water from the counter and handed it back to Jonathan. He drank it down greedily and thanked her with his eyes.

Rena noticed how weak he seemed, weak and discolored, not much more color than a cadaver. His once bulging biceps had wilted into loose, unfilled skin. What happened to you, my dear brother?

Her mother struggled to get one of her hands out of her dress pocket.

“You all seem so shocked. Didn’t you get my postcard?”

Her mother’s face turned red. At last both hands found her son’s cheeks. She held him, trembling, looking at him as if he were a new baby. “Jonathan, my only son.”

“Postcard?” Onkel Moshe questioned, glancing over at her father, who shrugged his shoulders.

Ivan and his wife departed without a word, leaving the family to begin their Shabbat.

Rena meshed with her mother, holding Jonathan, touching him, running her finger over his dusty freckled face. He smelled like a hospital, like soil and iodine mixed with rancid lye. Had he washed his clothes in the past two months?

Jonathan scanned the cellar, but most of the time his burdened brown eyes searched hers and she knew he needed to share something.

“How wonderful it is to see all your faces again,” he said. You can’t imagine how I missed you.”

Her father exclaimed, “You’re so thin, Jonathan. You’re skin and bones, but…more bones, I think.”

Her father’s graying hair was in complete disarray, as if he’d put his entire head through a butter churn. At another time, Rena might poke fun at him, but not now, not when everyone appearances were so unsettled. “Oh, I forgot to get you a piece of bread!” She turned to the counter and tore off the hardened crust and took a handful of soft bread from the center. “Here. Please forgive me, brother.”

“Rena, don’t go to any bother. I was only feeling a bit weak. I’m fine.”

Rena shoved the hunk of bread in his mouth. “Eat, Jonathan. You look like a scarecrow.”

Jonathan nodded with a smile, chewing.

“Are you really alright?” his father probed, poking at him, a slight smile coming to his lips. “Nothing broken? God in heaven, you about sent your old Papa to his grave, son! We thought the Nazis had you. Where have you been?”

“Sorry, Papa. I—”

“He’s alive, Jakob,” Onkel Moshe interrupted. He had hold of Jonathan’s free hand, kissing it and praising Yahweh, his tears spilling into the boy’s palm as he examined each finger. His skull cap fell to the floor, but he didn’t seem to notice. “It’s a miracle, a true miracle right in front of our eyes.”

“Oh, what a happy day,” Aunt Mitha sang out, touching Jonathan as she could, holding back her tears as she usually did and passing hankies out to everyone. “What joy! We must celebrate.”

“Let’s start up the generator and play a record, or dance!” suggested Rena with a wide smile, hoping her father would play A Pocket Full of Dreams. Finally able to control her emotion, she began to pray in her mind. Aunt Mitha is right. This is the happiest day of my life, thanks be to thee, Yahweh, the great God of our fathers. Praise thy holy name.

Not able to elicit his attention by pulling on his pant leg, little Judith dragged a wooden chair over to him and climbed up on it, her face reaching his elbow. Her cherry apple lips smiled with excitement. “Jon Jon! Did you bring me a dolly?”

“I’m sorry sweet girl. I hated to come home empty handed, but next time…” When he saw Rena weeping, he gave Judith a squeeze and lifted her over to her mother, who sat with a ball of red yarn at her fingertips.

Jonathan took Rena up in his arms like she was as light as a paper doll. “I know, little sis. I know how hard everything has been for you.” He kissed her forehead as he gently laid her on the bottom bunk. “I’m so so sorry I couldn’t be here to help you through these hard times. But I promise I’ll make it up to you.” The others followed, all peering over his head as he spoke to her. “Everything will be alright.” His shaggy chestnut hair concealed the old egg-shaped head she remembered. His locks fell in front of his eyes as he leaned down to her, and she marveled at how her brother had become a man. He spoke softly, with warmth and love and everything she’d missed about him made her chest heave again. “I’m here to watch over you now, sis. Here, look up at me,” he said as he locked on her with his sleepy, hooded eyes. “I promise you Rena, I’ll always be here for you. I love you, little sis.”

Onkel Moshe patted him on the back. “What a boy.”

Her father whispered, “What a man, Onkel Moshe, what a man.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

13      

 

God rest his soul. Let us pray.”

As the chaplain offered a prayer over the casket, Rolf studied the layer of dead leaves and patches of snow that blanketed the forest floor. He didn’t know if the policy was unique to Poland or carried out over the entire Reich military, but he found out early that morning that before transport to their respective hometowns, traditionally fallen German military personnel were given a brief service with their comrades on a forested knoll near the train depot on the outskirts of town.

He arrived an hour early in honor of his only friend in Warsaw. Hans was first-rate, a man who stood for his principles, a hero in every sense of the term. Rolf knew he would never meet another man of his caliber and it sickened him. As he thought back about that tragic night, Rolf still couldn’t believe Hans was dead, shot without mercy for merely disrupting a play. Or was it more than that? Was Henny assigned by Heydrich to watch Rolf, too? Did they know about the shipments to London? He had to be more careful in the future, much more careful.

Overhead, naked tree branches waved in the frigid November breeze. He was thankful for the warm wool gloves, but his hands still felt ice cold. Life is so fragile and brief, he thought, as he pulled up his collar and tucked his hands inside his overcoat pockets. The elements, brutal as they are, are no match for man’s brutality to one another.

What would he say to Hans’ wife when he went with condolences on his next visit to Berlin – it was an accident? What words could compensate for the loss of a husband and father? All too well, he knew the answer. Without the ability to turn back time and turn a world upright on its normal axis, any apology or feeling of sentiment was still only a group of words good for a fleeting moment of consolation.

As he walked behind the casket while it was transported across the street to the train station for its voyage to Berlin, he realized there was no sense to any of it anymore. How could he continue his work without Hans? Everything was falling apart. He had been so proud of himself because he saved a few squares of painted canvas. What importance did any material thing have? Without the people you care about and your loved ones, what does art matter? He felt dead inside, all his determination and enthusiasm for his ambition gone. People, friendship, love—that was worth dying for, not stuff. No matter how he turned it over in his mind, he knew he would never forgive himself for not saving his best friend.

 

Later that afternoon, Rolf walked along the railroad yard near his warehouse. He saw thin Jewish men with bowed bodies unloading new loot: boxes, bags, crates, suitcases and gunny sacks. Every container was stuffed with priceless possessions: jewelry, furs, statues, paintings, even silverware. Rolf shook his head. Jews unloading other Jews possessions—knowing their own had already been confiscated was an irony beyond comprehension.

From the train platform came sounds of whips being lashed. He could stand it no longer. “Stop! Stop it!” he suddenly cried. An officer was lifting a gun to the head of a man who kneeled below him on the ground. “Hold on!” Rolf ran the short distance and asked with authority, “What has this man done?”

The SS officer kept his arm stretched, his gun aimed as he responded. “He’s too weak and lazy to lift a box of crackers! He’s no use to anyone.”

“Oh, I see. Well then, let’s shoot him.” Rolf pulled out his gun and pointed it at the man’s skull. Then he pretended to reconsider. “On second thought, I could use him.”

The other SS man cocked his trigger. “I don’t think so. He’s one of my—”

“I wouldn’t, if I were you.” Rolf stepped between the two men. “I put in a requisition for someone like him over a month ago. If he’s useless to you, I’ll make use of him.”

The red-faced officer hesitated, then shrugged. There were plenty of other Jews to discipline. “Heil Hitler,” he said, saluting, and then marched away.

Rolf leaned down to the man and lifted him to his feet. “You can work, can’t you?” The man seemed almost comatose. He squinted like someone with a bad case of myopia. The pupil of one of his grape-colored eyes had turned white and fuzzy. Rolf suspected he was partially blind. It made Rolf sick to think how, in addition to Hans wasted life, Nazis laws had triggered the suicides of great writers, poets and philosophers of mixed Jewish origin over the past few weeks. For all he knew, this slave laborer had once been a lawyer or professor.

The man nodded. “I…just need a minute…to catch my breath. I am a good worker, sir.”

Rolf hated being this close to one of them, forced to take in every detail of the man’s decline. His pale cheeks were sunken under protruding cheekbones, and his eyebrows wore so thin he looked like a corpse in a horror movie. It didn’t take long to starve a population. Rolf couldn’t stand the site of his white cotton lips. “Of course you are. Now, can you come with me?”

The man followed behind surprising Rolf with his quick step. Rolf helped him into a rail car. From his canvas bag Rolf retrieved a jug of water and handed it to the man who thanked him with his eyes as he poured the refreshment down his throat.

This car was one of the two special cars ordered by Hitler for his private art projects, but unless one of the Four HH’s was in Warsaw, Rolf sent this car off to the coast to be transferred over the channel by boat to England packed with crates of priceless Jewish art objects and paintings, at least twice a week. His shipments had become so well known as a regular route, no one questioned it.

He took the old man’s hand and shook it. “I am Rolf Brandt, director of art and so forth.”

“Brandt?” The man looked stunned.

“Yes. Do I know you?”

“No, sorry, sir. I used to know someone by that name in Germany.”

“You are German, then? Good. Lots of Brandts in Germany. Now, this here is my private train car. Once these doors are shut, it’s hermetically sealed; air tight. I have some important works of art coming over in crates. I’d like you to attend to them while they are being loaded on the train. Make sure no one bumps or drops them.”

The two special heated train cars provided by Hitler to transport certain items to Munich for safekeeping worked in tandem. When one car was in transport, Rolf was packing the other. Therefore, no one expected to see these train cars together. While one went to the Führerbau in Munich or the principal Einsatzstab repository at Schloss Neuschwanstein, the castle of King Ludwig at the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, the other went to England. For overflow, Hitler offered the use of baggage cars from German deluxe passenger trains, but Rolf told him the two were sufficient at present.

Rolf asked Boris. “Where do you live?”

The man gazed at him with disbelief. “Ah…in the ghetto, sir.”

“Of course. With your family, I suppose?”

The man lowered his eyes and shook his head to the negative. He whispered, “My wife is gone now, God bless her soul.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Any children?”

“Yes, one son, sir.”

“How old is your son?”

“He’s sick, sir. Typh…” Rolf knew why he didn’t finish his sentence. The ghetto was thick with typhoid and it was contagious as hell.

“Is someone caring for him while you’re here working?”

“He’s twelve. He can still walk, sir.”

“I hope he gets better soon.” Rolf questioned how someone of his advanced years had a son so young. The hair on his head amounted to two gray strands behind one ear. “I’ll provide you with a new work pass and decent pay in ration coupons. You can work for me here, but only on Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week, if that’s alright with you.” The man nodded eagerly.

Clearing his throat, Rolf continued, “From two in the afternoon until six. If all goes as planned, it may only be a couple of hours, but plan on four. You will need a little extra food if you are to keep up your strength. It is amazing that someone of your age can walk so fast and work so hard. I will bring you some Polish sausage and bread. You will get stronger soon enough.”

“I’m but forty-two, sir.”

“Forty-two?”

“Yes, sir. Last May, I think. Or maybe the May before that. I can’t remember.”

Rolf smiled. The man was obviously senile. “Yes, the years do pass by, don’t they? I think this job will be a little less physical labor, but you’ll need to keep on your toes.” Perhaps the man suffered from that disease that advances age more quickly than normal. He couldn’t think of the proper name, but he knew one thing, this man was not forty-two.

 “No problem, sir. Thank you, sir.”

The old scoured eyes distrusted him, but Rolf understood. “One more thing.”

The man crouched as if he waited for a whip to strike him. “Yes…sir.”

“You are going to become the loading supervisor of this railcar, and as a loading supervisor I need you to swear your allegiance…only to me and my work. It’s highly confidential. Do you understand?”

The man straightened himself and forced his shoulders back. “Yes, sir. Top secret, I understand. I won’t say one word to anyone.”

Rolf explained the exact position of every crate as six Polish men lifted his crates into the car and stacked them end to end, three high. He thanked them before they left.

“Every time these crates are loaded they are to be placed and tied down exactly like this unless I tell you otherwise. Each week you will have the same number of crates. Some of them may even be empty, but it is important that you remember the car must be packed tight. Until every one of my crates is loaded and this car is sealed and locked, no one is allowed inside. That’s what you will be paid for. Is that understood?”

“I’m not sure, sir. I am not allowed to speak to the other officers. What if they board?”

“They won’t, not after I give you a black wool security personnel uniform and a trained German guard dog.”

“Will I manage such a dog, sir?”

“After you feed it some of your Polish sausage, I assure you of complete devotion. What is your name?”

“Boris, sir. Boris Busselberg.”

“Boris, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Boris smiled, not with a forced smile for a Nazi, but with a smile of genuine gratefulness. “Would it be inappropriate for me to ask you a personal question, sir?”

“Certainly.”

“Would you be related to the Brandt in Berlin who was once the curator at the Nationalgallerie, sir?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

14

 

On December 22, a noise awakened Rena. Getting up she went to each person and kissed them on the cheek. It was almost dawn. As everyone snuggled under their warm blankets, Rena thought to re-secure the cardboard over the glass where Jonathan folded it open a few days earlier. She wished she could open the window and wait for bright morning beams to warm her face, but of course, she couldn’t. She closed her eyes letting her imagination suffice. As she studied the colors dancing inside her eyelids, she remembered how much she loved the green pastures of the farm and the concertos from Onkel Moshe’s piano. She smiled, sat down and rocked in the chair as the others stirred.

After a hearty breakfast of rice and sugar, fresh baked bread and hot coffee, her father gathered them together to discuss one more leg of their new emergency plan. He and Jonathan had stayed up most of the night making their maps and procedures.

The sudden sound of thunder struck the floor overhead, terrifying everyone. Within seconds, more thunder came from heavy boots upstairs. Everyone gasped, but no one moved.

Pounding his fist on his head, Jonathan whispered through clenched teeth, “They must have seen me come in.”

Her father signaled silence. He followed the sound of their footsteps with his index finger as they stormed through the house. Yankel’s scratchy paws and wild barking diluted the shouting of the bad-tempered search party. More boots and more shouting followed a moment of silence. 

Rena shrank into a corner when she heard stomping up the staircase to the second story followed by Yankel and his incessant barking. A shot fired out and the barking stopped. Onkel Moshe gasped. A body toppled down the stairs.

Rena felt her heart racing as silverware clanked in the kitchen as someone dumped it into a sack. She whispered to Jonathan, “They’ve come to ransack the place. I don’t think they know we are here. Quickly, take everyone…tiptoe into the back.”

“No, Rena. You go hide with the others. I’ll take care of the room.”

A few minutes later, more pillagers stomped around the kitchen on the main floor, slamming cupboards and drawers. The heavy boots made it possible to detect exactly where they stood at each moment. Rena pushed everyone inside the mystery room and smiled back at him, knowing Jonathan knew just what to do.

Jonathan whispered, “I’ve been in some tight spots, Rena, but nothing like this.”

Rena’s heart sank, the chill of the moment crushing her confidence.

In the mystery room, Onkel Moshe wept silently, mumbling to God about his poor dog as he stood in the center of the room looking upward.

“Shhh.” With his arms around the old man’s shoulder, her father put his finger to his lips and escorted Onkel Moshe to a corner. Rena noticed how badly her father’s hands trembled as he lit the lantern.

Rena ducked back out. “Jonathan? Need help?”

“Shush, little sister. The dummkopfs have their ears to the door.” Rena poised herself half in and half out of the mystery room, the tin sheet at the edge of her nose as she watched Jonathan put out the coals, stuff the mattresses under the stairs, cover the prayer books and phonograph with blankets and pull up the carpets.

As a second check, Jonathan made a sweep for obvious signs of current dwellers. Rena whispered, “Don’t forget the toilet.” He unscrewed the light bulb, uncovered the toilet pot, added the fermented garbage they saved for this very situation along with hot water off the burner, covered the cooking area and headed toward Rena, to the hidden room.

Rena took his hand and towed him in, then gently pulled the string that brought the shelf back against the wall.

A few minutes later, they heard the doorknob jiggle at the top of the stairs. Rena felt her stomach plop and sink, her veins throb in her throat. One of the officers shouted at Ivan to unlock it. Rena slipped off her shoes, backed against the wall with the others and held her breath. The knob rattled again.

The Gestapo man yelled louder for Ivan to open the door. Rena’s breathing became so light she thought her heart might stop beating at any second. Ivan made excuses. “It’s a stuck. It ain’t been a opened fer years.”

Rena felt her head go light and told herself to breathe.

The inside bolt prevented them from opening the door.

Ivan said, “She locks automatically when she shuts. She takes a key. I’ll go find the key.”

Then a shot fired out and the bolt fell, clinking down the stairs, hitting the cement floor with a thump.

Everyone in the mystery room sank to the floor, crunching up against their knees. Now they did all have to stop the sound of their breath. They’d gone over this scenario a dozen times. Rena took one great gasp and slowly exhaled.

“Old food storage, that’s all yous will find down er.” Ivan assured the intruders, panic obvious in his voice. Rena prayed they didn’t hear the lock that fell.

“Who else wants food?” the man yelled. Rena heard the creak of the first step. Her father blew out the light. She took another long silent breath and assured herself the Eternal One would protect them.

“Damn dark down here. Where’s the light?” one man asked, his words echoing off the tin sheet.

“It been months, maybe years since we come down here. Let me fetch a torch.”

“There must be a light switch, a chain, a pull, something. Now where is it?”

“The light is likely burned bad by now.” Ivan stuttered. “I can fetch a light if yous want.”

Rena noticed how Ivan’s voice stopped trembling at his last sentence. It was hard and deliberate. Good, Ivan. Her innards swirled and doubled her over, none the less.

The silence lasted long enough to harden her leg muscles into a spasm, but as bad as it hurt, she knew not to move one single inch.

Ivan said, “I wish I thought a shootin’ off that bolt meself. I been a lookin’ for the key for months. Yap, by now, all that old stuff is rotten and full of worms, but…help yousself.”

Rena put her hands together, begging God to prevent her nightmares from coming true. Every pore of her body cried out for mercy; don’t hurt my family, don’t hurt my family!

“What in the hell?” one of the men yelled. Every fiber in Rena’s body chilled until she heard steps retracing themselves on the staircase. It sounded as if he stopped and puked halfway up.

“Sir?” Ivan called out from above.

She heard someone stomping up the last few stairs. “It stinks to high heaven down there. I never knew mildew smelled that bad. We got enough other stuff. Keep your smelly garbage. Forget it, men. We’re done here.”

Rena looked at the shadow of her mother pressed into the corner like a beaten dog. If it was no longer safe for her family to hide in the cellar, where could they go to get away from the Nazis?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

15

 

November had broken the record for the coldest in Polish history and December felt even colder. The Christmas season felt oddly out of tune this year. Rolf had put on his thick flannels and the blue wool pullover his mother knit him the previous Christmas. It reminded him of their last visit, how the tears streamed down her face at the station when he whispered his intentions into her ear.

“I will make you proud, after all, Mother. I may wear the uniform, but that doesn’t mean I am a Nazi in my heart. I’m doing things…things that will make a difference to the world…later.”

He hungered for the sight of her now. More so, he hungered for the sight of his parents strolling in the evening shadows of the pasture, holding hands and laughing. And his father’s inspiring words, he yearned for those most of all.

“You can achieve any dream you pursue with diligent determination, Rolf. You can change the hearts of men with the stroke of your brush, or alter the course of history with enough single-mindedness and pluck. What you can’t do is undo the consequences of an unkind act or give back a thing wrongly taken. In the end, every man is measured by his heart and his number of good deeds, not his number of years. So, go for your dreams, but remember to love your fellow man, for he is no more or less…you…clothed differently.”

His quest to find his father’s murderer kept eluding him. Khull most likely had all the answers he needed, but he’d been shipped back to his wife in Berlin in a box the day after Rolf met him at The Puff. Perhaps this ambition, this gnawing rage wasn’t meant to be his destiny, perhaps he needed to rethink his focus.

 

On his way home that evening, Rolf decided to take a long walk to clear his head. After twenty minutes he found himself on the high Vistula slope standing in front of St. Anne’s Church. It bore a clear style marking the phases of its history, the low apse, the higher chancel and corpus church. He felt himself drawn to the luminous green domes, the Baroque facade, the spread wings and crown of laurels over the main portal. He’d never been much of a confessor and wasn’t about to start now, but for some reason tonight he needed time in a sacred place to honor the memory of his father and Hans.

As he knelt behind the last row of pews, he studied the golden Baroque form, the magnificence of the decorations and wealth of adornments, early seventeenth and eighteenth century. He took a seat in a front pew and noticed how the last fall of light reflected through the windows and imitated mirrors placed in niches of the southern wall, creating strong light and dark contrasts. The low-hanging chandelier added a touch of royal elegance. With a deep breath, he felt a sense of peace and lowered his head.

He heard the whish of footsteps. Another parishioner knelt in the pew behind him. For a few minutes, he allowed the guilt of his obsession for revenge to expand. Letting go of the hatred would feel so refreshing. Vengeance, he knew, should be left in the hands of the Lord, but he didn’t think he had that kind of faith. He closed his eyes and whispered lightly, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” His prayer startled him. The first words in his mind came from what his mother often said in prayer about evildoers.

Jesus died on the cross for people’s sins. Jesus…a Jew. Would a Jewish lord forgive these merciless Germans?

When he thought of Hans, he opened his eyes and asked himself another question, the whisper almost audible. “When are they going to make it a law that we can’t worship Jesus? We can’t mate with them, can’t listen to their music, and can’t appreciate their art. Will Hitler take away our right to love our Jewish savior, to attend Christian services? Without any semblance of humanity, integrity and brotherly love, what kind of world will be left?”

“You know Hitler plans to wipe out the entire Jewish population in Europe, don’t you?” came a spongy old voice from behind his ear.

When Rolf turned, he found an unfamiliar face. “Sir?”

“Pardon me, Herr Brandt. My name is Josef Weiss.”

He looked Jewish, but he dressed like a Pole. “And, do I know you?”

“No, sir. But I knew your father, Friedrich.”

“My father?” In the glow of the rectory candles, Rolf noticed the man was thin, very thin; the skin of his neck hung in folds, his cheekbones jutted out, producing empty trenches in his face.

“Mr. Weiss, may I ask how you know me?”

“Someone told me Friedrich’s son worked in the art intake department. I waited outside the museum to see if I could recognize a familiar face. I saw you on the street and you very much resemble your father. So I followed you.”

“You followed me?”

“You, Herr Brandt, are a decent, good man. I knew this before Boris told me how kind you were to him…how you saved his life.”

“Oh…Boris.” After making the connection, Rolf chuckled. “Yes, he mentioned my father. He’s very bright for a man of his years.”

“Boris? Old? He’s not even fifty. Starvation does that to people, Herr Brandt, makes them look much older than they are.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I wasn’t aware…” Rolf felt himself slither down into the seat. The Nazis had cut back on rations for everyone, but to starve people to this degree was inhumane. They needed to stop bringing more and more people into Warsaw if there wasn’t sufficient food. They wanted them as free labor, but didn’t give them enough calories to keep their muscles in working condition. Didn’t they have any sense at all? “Boris is a good man. I liked him right off.”

“Yes…a good man…like your father.”

“My f...father?” Rolf studied his drawn, sickly expression. It made his stomach wince to know his part in this man’s ruin. “How did you know my father?”

“May I speak freely?” Mr. Weiss asked.

“Yes, of course.”

Moving closer, looking about for anyone listening, Mr. Weiss whispered, “I know you work with the resistance. I saw you at the meeting last night.”

Growing a little apprehensive, Rolf questioned, “What meeting?”

“At the Vulcan.” His friendly toothless smile melted Rolf’s suspicions.

“You were at the Vulcan bar?”

Rolf had only met with the resistance leaders because one of his father’s letters, he’d found locked inside his desk, was addressed to a Dietrich in the Berlin underground. He had learned that Dietrich was a German Protestant who actively opposed the Nazi regime during the time his father worked at the Nationalgallerie. Rolf wanted to locate him to find out what he knew.

“Yes.” Mr. Weiss answered with satisfaction, a little sparkle peeking out of his sunken eyes. “You see, I am with them too. But now, forgive me, I can do no more. My contacts tell me I must go before it is too late. I must go to a place where prejudice doesn’t require the obliteration of an entire race. The Nazis want to kill us all. Oh, excuse me, Herr Brandt.” His hands came together as in supplication. “Excuse me, please.”

Rolf removed his overcoat, unbuttoned his top button and loosed his tie. Wool and nerves amounted to a heat wave under his clothing. “Although appearances may make things unclear, I’m not one of them. Please speak freely.”

“They say Hitler wants to rid Europe of every last Jew. Mass extermination, they call it.”

The hush of the gold and red chapel seemed too silent for safety. Rolf whispered as soft as he could, “I understand how a Jew might get that impression, but I assure you, that is not going to happen. It would be impossible if you consider the numbers, after all. Yes, I have heard rumors, but I try to use logic in these matters. The main thing the Nazis want is to keep the races pure. Personally, I do not agree with—”

“They are killing a lot of Jews right here in Poland. Lining them up.”

Rolf understood now why the old man looked so whipped; the confusion, apprehension and lack of sufficient food stuffs in the Jewish district obviously resulted in augmented imagination. Even though he had heard the same talk from higher up, after thinking it over, he invalidated it as nothing more than word banter. “They are killing a lot of Poles, too, but that doesn’t mean they plan to exterminate all Polish people. Our soldiers have been brainwashed into believing Hitler’s rhetoric and lies. In ordinary circumstances these men wouldn’t shoot a cat. In wars, people die—Jews, Germans, and Poles. It’s bitter, but it’s simple fact.”

Exhaling a long strained breath, Mr. Weiss replied, “But, you see…in case the rumors are true, I have already exchanged my businesses and my properties for a new Polish identity and transit papers.”

Rolf lowered his head, the feeling of guilt and remorse overwhelming him. “Where will you go?”

Although his aged voice sounded frail, he still had a glimmer of hope in his eyes. “With the others, of course. I go to America…like my brother.” Moving up on the bench and closer to Rolf’s ear, he whispered, “He writes. It’s good there.”

“America…yes…freedom.”

With hands placed together as in prayer, the man timidly requested, “I was hoping you could buy some things from me.”

Looking up, Rolf found the sad saggy eyes very close to his. “I would, of course…but, I don’t have the kind of money you need for a trip to America.”

The expression behind Mr. Weiss’s mottled brown eyes hinted at his predicament. He moved back a bit and lowered his head, “You see…I won’t be coming back to Europe…Herr Brandt…ever.”

Rolf reached into his pocket. “Let me give you what I have.”

The wrinkled man shook his head and sat back against the bench. “No, thank you. I cannot take charity. I don’t want much for my things. I have a nice Motorola radio. I will make you a good price…a very good price. Your father would have liked it.”

Rolf reached over the pew, took the man’s hand and opened it. Putting in a handful of zlotys, he agreed, “The radio, then.”

The man bowed his head, tears in his eyes.

Rolf swallowed, trying to think of something to say to break the tension. “Where in America?”

A new dream shined in the man’s expression. “New York, where else? It’s a grand place, he writes.” Patting Rolf on the elbow, he chuckled to himself. “You don’t realize…of course you don’t realize.”

“What?”

“Why, of course. No one has told you.”

“Told me what?”

His eyes gleamed with contentment. He explained, “My brother and two cousins are there with their families… because of your father, sir.”

“My father?”

“Yes, your wonderful father!”

“My father?” Rolf’s brain spun as the words flew around in his head. His father had done so much. People spread a half world away loved the man.

The old man continued the explanation. “Yes, your father purchased paintings from them for the museum.”

Rolf glanced away at the golden statues holding staffs watched over by golden-winged cherubs and tried to resolve the complex emotions dancing the tango between his heart and his head. He looked this way and that, his mind at last coming into focus on the golden virgin hanging on the wall. An alarm clock went off in his head. The man’s family got the funds to pay off Heydrich or his staff for visas and buy their way out of Germany by selling their paintings before the Nazis confiscated them. The irony was that it was the Reich’s money and it went right back to the Reich!

“So my father—”

“Yes. Your father helped many people. Do not be sad. His glory is very high in the heavens.”

As a tear fell from Rolf’s eye, he turned back around in the pew, his father’s precious fingers foremost on his mind. He’d died for his cause. Removing a handkerchief, he blew his nose. Yes, Papa. I am following in your footsteps.

A few minutes later he felt Mr. Weiss poke him on the shoulder. Rolf blew his nose and turned around again. “I can’t leave for another two weeks. Is there a way I can help you … with the children?”

“The children?”

“Oh, forgive me. I assumed you knew.”

“About what?”

“Your father’s plan for the children. He always said our children…all children are the promise that the world holds a future. They deserve a decent chance at life.”

Rolf felt his stomach tighten. “He said that? Why? What was his plan?”

“When I spoke with Boris about your crate shipments, I got the impression you had already begun, Herr Brandt.”

“I’m lost. Began what?”

“So Hans didn’t tell you either?”

“Hans? How do you know Hans?”

“Oh, my heavens. After all the time you spent together, didn’t you know Hans was one of the key resistance leaders over the past seven years?”

“I had an idea, yes. I suppose I should have guessed.”

“He and your father worked hand-in-hand to save hundreds of lives. The Nazis figured if they took off Hans’ finger, he would be scared enough to stick with them. When that didn’t work they expelled him from the party, but he didn’t let that stop him either. Hans was one slick character.”

Rolf felt his Adam’s apple pulsating. He whispered, “Hans is dead. Shot—”

“Yes, we know. It was a tremendous loss to the cause, but his work, like your father’s work, will live on.”

Rolf lowered his head. He’d sent in a report to national headquarters about Hans’ demise, but nothing had happened. Henny had virtually gotten off with a hand slapping for murdering two old Jews on Kristallnacht, and Rolf couldn’t imagine why Hans’ murder carried even less importance. Now he knew. Henny hadn’t lied. He had followed orders from high places.

“Your father was about to have his shipping crates altered.” Weiss said.

“Shipping crates altered?” Rolf knew why he was no good at crossword puzzles. His frustration level rose and he almost lost his composure before he figured it out. “For…for children?”

Mr. Weiss stood up and motioned Rolf to follow him. They walked along the periphery of the nave, past the confessionals, down the long side apse and stopped to light a candle. He noticed the unique oriental motif, the exotic landscapes, blooming trees and branches, and use of butterflies to decorate the pedestals. Mr. Weiss winked at Rolf and he followed along, lighting a candle, but not for show, for his father. He bowed his head and blessed his memory.

A little farther on, they found a peaceful alcove on the south end directly behind the sacrarium. Surrounded by a mourners’ bench rested the tomb of Cardinal Peter Foldrouski, topped with an altar cloth and an expanse of red-tissue roses and unlit white candles.

Mr. Weiss curtsied at the head of the tomb, took a candle off it and sat down at the rear, in the dark area hidden from public view. Rolf watched him take a match from his pocket and light the candle, setting it on the bench. When he tapped the wood next to him, Rolf took a seat.

“We must talk very low now.” Mr. Weiss whispered. “Everything fell apart when the Nazis killed your father, but the resistance had already begun to house Jewish orphans in Berlin…illegally, of course. We had eleven waiting when they took your father away. They all ended up here in the Warsaw ghetto, and only six are still alive.”

Even the Jews of Berlin knew the bastards had murdered his father. How had the Nazis hid that so well from his mother? “So my father was planning on remaking the shipping crates to fit children?”

“Exactly! Can I tell you something very private?”

“Of course.”

“I had a dream last night after talking with Boris. Your father stood next to an ancient painting of the Christ, and he called out to me, ‘Help my son…tell him life is sacred.’ I think the message was for you, not me. He wants you to finish what he started, Herr Brandt.”

Rolf felt a little lightheaded, but with the chills came clarity and his spirit filled with tranquility. “I’ve seen him in my dreams. If only I could see him one last time…to tell him…”

“He knows how much you love him.”

Rolf felt his voice falter, his heart open up to this saintly man. “He does?”

“Believe me, son. Great men are those who feel unspoken love.”

His father watched. He’d felt it all along. “Thank you for following me, Herr Weiss.”

“I can help for the next two weeks. Boris is also excited to help with your project…that is if you want to take on such a project.”

“But I have no connections. Where would I send them? My crates go to England.”

“England is good. I can get the name of our contact there. Perhaps he will find –”

“A distribution point. A convent. Families. I’m sure there are good people who would care for these children until the war is over. I’m sure of it.”

“For them, the war will never be over, Herr Brandt. Their parents are dead or about to die from starvation or typhus. The only thing we can do now is find them a permanent new place to call home.”

Rolf swallowed deeply.

“Two of them live with me, but without birth certificates and paperwork…it breaks my heart…but I must leave them behind when I go to America…unless—”

“With you? They live with you?”

“Yes, my wife and I share what we have with them. I think they are strong enough to make the journey. Two boys…three and four. They are very well mannered.”

“Give me a week. Are you certain you want to send the boys to England?” 

“If they don’t go there…they will die here. I’m willing to take the chance. Are you sure you—”

“If all goes well, I can probably do four to eight children a week. Maybe a few more than that, but they must be well trained. They can’t make a sound during loading or unloading. It’s not much, I know…but it’s what I can do.”

“Save one life and you save the future, Rolf Brandt. But remember to beware. Hitler uses his spies on everyone.”

Rolf felt his head spin. His mission had turned from revenge to full-scale resistance in a matter of an hour. This was the sort of audacity that might get him one too many red check marks.

With a soft grip to Rolf’s arm, he whispered, You are just like your father. I knew it! Welcome to the call.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

16

 

In the middle of the afternoon, an hour after Jonathan left to find supplies for their plan, Rena heard a ruckus in the street outside. Did the shuffling of feet mean the return of the looters? She shivered, reached for a sweater and climbed down from her bunk. Her father told everyone to get ready. They heard a loud voice, “Juden heraus, Juden heraus! Jews live here!”

The thunder upstairs sounded twice as loud as four days before. It sounded like a whole army of boots. A shot rang out. A lump of flesh crashed to the floor.

Rena covered the scream coming out of her mouth. Ivan!

Her father’s silent gesture demanded immediate action. She dismissed her fear and moved fast like the others, as previously agreed. They’d decided earlier that if the Nazis came back, no one would survive a second raid. With most of the sewing completed, they slipped on their coats, not ordinary wool coats, but coats lined with precious photographs, bank books and identity papers, buttons of gold coins and hems filled with diamonds. They gathered everything else in a pile and threw it in an empty suitcase.

Rena and Judith hid in a wooden drum in the mystery room. The footsteps tramped through the house, apparently expecting to find Jews living inside. Within a few minutes Rena heard them kick open the cellar door. Their muffled voices yelled at the top of the stairs. “Out of this house, Jews! Lice scum!”

In the drum the air thickened and Rena didn’t think she would last. The whole ordeal seemed like a living nightmare taking place under a slow moving current at the bottom of the ocean.

In her mind, she saw their big jackboots of iron move like shiny black creatures, homing in on their prey. “Here they are…the vermin are hiding underground where they can suckle the dirt with other insects!” The man’s voice chortled like thunder before he yelled out his order, “Out! Out!”

Rena held her little sister tight against her chest. The symphony of chaos and invectives assaulted Rena’s heart. Her sister wined. “Shush Judith,” she whispered. She needed more air. The holes didn’t allow for sufficient circulation.

As planned, Onkel Moshe waited at the bottom of the stairs as the others ran out. He humored the soldiers as he slowly climbed the stairs, “If you will allow me…I can play a sweet tune…”

“You old slithering Jew, get those feet moving.”

Rena wanted to yell at them. “He can only go so fast, you dirty pigs. Can’t you see he’s old and arthritic?”

The noise grew dimmer; the footsteps fainter. She heard the piano playing and decided they couldn’t hear her if she climbed out of the barrel now. He’s risking his life to save us. I must help him.

“I can’t breathe. Let’s get out, Judith.”

“But we are not supposed to.”

Rena lifted the lid and they wiggled their way out. She went to the tin sheet and inched it out, listening to the beautiful music vibrating off the walls, her heart light and dark all at once. Oh, poor Onkel Moshe.

Thinking she would find a way to help him, Rena pushed against the tin sheet, and it scratched the floor, making a loud screech sound. The noise caused her breath to stop. Judith yanked on the back of her blouse and Rena shot up on her toes. She took a great deliberate breath to calm her tension, to think, to decide what she should do. Deep in her heart, she felt compelled to do something, to go upstairs and make the monsters leave him alone. She remembered her father’s gun, the one he kept under the mattress. The playing stopped. What if they came down and found her, found Judith?

“Quickly, get back inside, Judith.”

“But I can’t breathe in there.”

“Yes, you can. There are holes. Look at these holes. It’s important not to make a sound, not even a whisper. The others have gone, but in case the soldiers come down here, we must be hidden and silent. Remember your promise to Mama.”

Upstairs as previously agreed, Rena knew her uncle was acting out his role as the decoy. How long could he distract the tormentors? In her mind she saw him sitting at his old Gors and Kallman with his fingers positioned over the three white keys in the chord of C. She hated her inaction, but what could one girl do against so many men? It was then the old premonition flashed in her mind again; naked Nazis and floating skeletons. She couldn’t dwell on revenge now.

Rena knew as did Onkel Moshe that the others were heading down the street in the direction of the city, but soon, if he kept the wicked ones preoccupied, his family would take the detour into the forest and find their way to freedom.

His music filled the house. Even the tin against the cement walls of the magic room reverberated as her uncle pounded out the beginning of Chopin’s Funeral March. Obvious to anyone who loved great music, he allowed himself to feel the ecstasy of the music in his ears as his fingers ambled swiftly from one side of the keys to the other…like a master. Rena closed her eyes. She knew he envisioned the standing ovation of his last audience with the Warsaw Symphony in 1935 when he performed with the great composer, Karol Szymanowski. It had been his crowning achievement.

The music stopped in mid note. She heard something crash down on the piano. She grimaced as she heard one of them yell at Onkel Moshe.

“That’s enough. No more Chopin, you ugly old fool. It’s illegal!”

“How about some Strauss?” Onkel Moshe yelled back and chuckled. He began playing Die schweigsame Frau, and Rena grinned. She was certain they didn’t realize that Strauss’ librettist for this opera piece was a Jewish man, Stefan Zweig.

Before he’d played the second stanza, a loud shot rang out, then another. A body thumped on the floor. Rena gasped and felt hysteria rising inside her. She wanted to rush to his side, wished with all her heart she could butcher up every last Nazis in the world, but she thought of Judith and held herself back, forcing herself to keep to the plan as promised. She saw the death in her mind; her uncle’s spirit ascending above the brutes and Yankel wagging his tail at their greeting. Her heart flinched inside her, but fear and heavy air kept her tears at bay. I love you, Onkel Moshe.

 

Rena and Judith dozed inside the mystery room. After an hour or so of quiet, Rena tipped over the drum and climbed out. She wrapped Judith in a wool blanket and for a while they sat against the wall waiting. Judith fell asleep with her head in Rena’s lap. Rena closed her eyes, exhausted, frightened and feeling like her chest had been battered with an axe. She didn’t let her little sister see her tears. Hours later, a voice woke her.

“Papa…Rena…anyone?”

Jonathan’s voice infused her with energy and she jumped up, hitting Judith’s head with her knee. “Sorry, Judi, sorry, but I heard Jonathan. He’s upstairs. Hear his footsteps? Let’s go. We don’t have much time.”

“Yes, Jonathan!” Rena cried. She pushed out behind the tin wall. “Jonathan, we are here, but we have to get out of here before they come back.”

As she climbed out she took a large gasp of air, relieved to see him. She fell into his arms. “Oh, Jonathan, Jonathan, I thought you’d never—”

“Is everyone alright?”

“No, Jonathan. We stayed in the drum, but—”

“Where are the others?”

“Gone, Jonathan. We must find them. And old Onkel Moshe is—”

“Ivan’s dead. He’s lying by the front door.”

Rena cringed. “Did you see Onkel Moshe?”

“Isn’t he with the others? They should be at the meeting place by now…I hope.”

“No, Jonathan. I think Onkel Moshe is up there with Ivan.”

She watched Jonathan’s face turn bright red in rage. She knew by his silence he planned to exact revenge later. “You haven’t been upstairs?”

“No, the two of us waited as planned. If you didn’t come back by six, I was going to take Judith and sneak out the back door and make my way to—”

“The woodshed. Yeah, I hope they can find it. My map wasn’t very detailed.” The expression of dread on his face frightened her. “Come on, we have to get out of here. It’s getting dark. We’re running out of time.” Taking little Judith by the hand, he led them into the area where they kept their clothes. “Get your coats and hats on.” He whispered in Rena’s ear. “I’ll take you out the back so Judith won’t see Ivan.”

Even though her knees trembled and her head pounded, Rena agreed with a nod. She grabbed her turquoise luck stone from under her pillow and stuck it in her pocket. Her parents left one of the suitcases with food, medical supplies, and candles. Straining to lift it, she said, “We have to bring this, Jonathan.”

“Yes, that one is my assignment.” He grabbed it from her. “Bitte…get your packs. Hurry. It’s not safe to stay here another second.”

They heard a noise upstairs, but Jonathan said it was only a rat. Rena knew better.

At the top of the stairs, Jonathan told them to wait a second. “I have to remove our mezuzah from the door. With a knife he pried it out and put it in his pocket. Blocking their view of the front door, he pointed past the kitchen. “We’re going out the back door.”

As they turned toward the kitchen, they heard movement and stopped. Rena held her breath, her heart racing. “What was that?” she whispered lightly, scanning the shadowy house. “That wasn’t a rat.”

“Just go.” Jonathan whispered back. “Hurry. Go.”

After another step Rena heard it again, froze and remembered. Onkel Moshe. He’s still alive! “No, I think—”

A groan came from the parlor. Jonathan peeked around the corner. “Oh no. Not…”

Rena peeked around after him, her knees weaker with every step. She saw a body on the floor, a hand gripping the piano bench. “Onkel Moshe! Ai, Onkel Moshe.”

Dropping the suitcases, Rena and Jonathan rushed to his side. Her heart turned to water when she noticed a pool of blood under his back fanned out around him. Little Judith tiptoed up behind them and held onto the hem of Rena’s coat, eyes larger than cannon balls.

Rena stepped closer to him, tears stuck in her throat, each step as wobbly as a newborn calf. She watched his chest rise. He wasn’t dead. “Onkel Moshe, Onkel Moshe. Can you hear me?”

“I don’t think he can hear you, sis. He’s unconscious.”

Little Judith stood alongside Rena, groaning, covering her eyes, but even so, peeking through a crack between her fingers.

“Cover your face, Judith. Right now. I mean it.” Rena bent down, her knees avoiding the puddle and removed his grip from the leg of the piano bench. Holding his cold hand to her heart, she felt a slight pulse and said in a panic, “We’ve got to do something, Jonathan. What can we do?”

“He’s been shot in the back, Rena. I don’t know…”

“Look, Jonathan, he’s opening his eyes. Maybe he’ll be alright.”

Taking Onkel Moshe in his arms and resting his head in the crook of his arm, Jonathan replaced his yarmulke. “We’re going to help you, Onkel Moshe. I’m going to get someone.”

His waxy complexion resembled a ghost with moving lips. “No,” Onkel Moshe whispered the word so soft he could barely be heard. Shifting his eyes to Rena, he tapped a couple of his fingers weakly against her palm. A hint of that familiar twinkle in his eyes appeared as he murmured, “Hear…ziskeit?”

What could she do? What could she say? She would never see him again, never hear his fingers glide on the keys of his adored piano. Tears welled and flowed so thick she couldn’t see his face. Wiping at them in irritation, she whispered, “Dearest Onkel Moshe. Don’t leave me…”

His eyelashes flickered, “I love you, Ziskeit.”

“I love you too, Onkel Moshe. Very much.”

“Was…”

She leaned in closer, straining to hear his words.

“Was beautiful?” His whisper against her cheek felt like the soft breath of an infant.

“Beautiful?” she queried, searching his eyes, not understanding.

Her ear to his lips, she heard him say, “My…Chopin?”

Facing him again, she managed a little smile for him, understanding. She nodded, but noted his focus faltering. “Oh yes, Onkel Moshe, it sounded like music for angels.”

Shalom, Onkel Moshe.” Jonathan whispered, stoking his uncle’s hand, his eyes ringed with emotion.

In one noble gasp of breath, he whispered, “Fam…ily…safe now. Ziskeit…my gift…yours… now.”

Rena smiled, wanting him to know she loved his gift. She gulped and tried to thank him for everything, but no words cooperated. She squeezed his hand and kissed it, her tears dripping into his palm. She knew this moment was knit into her soul for eternity.

“I die…good death?” He closed his eyes one last time.

Rena ignored her tears as she reassured him, “Yes…a good death, my dearest, Onkel Moshe. A very great death.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

17

 

At four in the morning on Christmas day Rolf met Boris and Weiss in a bombed-out warehouse around the corner from the train tracks used for cargo shipments. This warehouse belonged to the museum, but hadn’t been in use for museum business since the staircase and half of the second story caved in. Rolf had utilized the basement for storage and the usable half of ground floor to build crates for his shipments. The foreman, George Müller, was the only man he trusted enough to engage in Rolf’s covert undertaking.

Rolf had noticed George at the Vulcan Bar where the resistance met each Tuesday evening. It could have been a coincidence, but he decided to risk it. George reminded him of his grandfather: bald, bony and full of energy. Some eyes like wine, after a good amount of aging, had a refined sweetness. George’s brown eyes gave away his depth, sympathetic fiber and slapdash courage. He simply looked like a man waiting for another cause to pursue. Once George agreed to help, they laid out the plans and went to work.

During the wee hours of the previous five nights, George and Rolf had cleared out the basement, set up three workstations, hauled planks and built the first special crate. Although they agreed this experimental one might later require fine tuning, they also knew the design had to keep two children alive during the long hours of transport. Saving lives rather than paintings increased the challenge exponentially. When Rolf stopped long enough to realize how much these efforts mattered, he felt his heart leap with a concoction of excitement and trepidation. Who knew what contributions these little human beings might leave the world. Every life had so much potential.

The tricky part was to keep the crates exactly the same size as they had been to avoid suspicion. After taking measurements of the selected children, they realized each crate could only accommodate two small children, with two upper levels for framed artwork. If anyone opened them during transport, they would see the securely packaged paintings. As long as the children remained silent during inspections, Rolf felt confident they would make it.

Inside the crates, the children could turn their bodies from side to side and access water by sucking on rubber nipples attached to bottles, secured with bolts and wire. In constructing them, they allowed enough space between the bottom of the top layer and the child’s chest for the thickness of an arm so the child could reach the chunks of bread wrapped in pieces of white cotton sheets tucked on each side of them. The children had been instructed to eat only one piece every few hours.

The other problem was Hitler’s airtight car. Without air, the children would die before the train pulled out of Warsaw. After several days of making inquiries, Rolf’s assistant located a drill thick enough to drill clear through to the exterior of the train car. In one tense two-hour episode, Rolf managed to drill fourteen holes, seven on each side. Finally, they were ready to load.

Rolf watched the two little boys crawl out from their hiding places outside the warehouse where Weiss had instructed them to keep out of sight. They were dressed in tattered clothing, their heads covered in dirty woolen caps, their little faces glum and trembling. Rolf questioned himself again. Is this going to work? Will they survive the journey? Will they be able to stay quiet enough? He bent down to their level and smiled, glad they spoke German. “You two up to all this?”

Both of them returned his smile, but he could barely tolerate the weight he felt pressing against his heart. “Do you remember everything you must do to keep safe?”

They nodded again, but terror radiated from their countenances.

He and Weiss escorted them around several corners through the dark of night until they arrived at the trial crate. He lowered himself to his knees, almost eye level with the oldest one. His arms brought them closer and he hugged the two youngsters tightly.

 The vision of babies floating down the Nile in cradles of reeds suddenly crossed his mind. He felt his heart ping for Jewish mothers desperately trying to save their children over the centuries of pogroms against them.

Gulping back his emotion, he whispered from one to the other, “On this journey you will have no problems if you use your mind to help you pass the time. When you are awake, don’t worry about odd noises or the motions of the train. Think about your dreams. Think about pretty pictures, the colors of falling leaves, the smells of home-cooked meals, the blue lakes and majestic mountains, and…” he said, pointing over to the Motorola radio on the workbench, “…beautiful music. A good life awaits you in a sunny world far away, and these dreams are stepping-stones to your future. Promise me?”

Rolf knew they understood only part of what he meant. “Please speak to me of your promise so I may always remember the sound of your sweet voices.”

The youngest one, with the pasty skin covered in red sores, spoke up first. “I…I promise dreams for you, mister.”

With wet blue eyes full of intensity, the other one shook Rolf’s hand and whispered, “Before she died, my mother said you would come. I’ll never forget you, sir.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

18

 

As Jonathan walked Rena and little Judith through the woods, Rena took in the fresh scent of the cold winter. She’d never been so deep into the trees before and the spooky sounds of hidden animals took her mind off their troubles. They plodded along over patches of dry leaves and frozen snow. Although she dreaded the possible forest patrols, she welcomed being free once again in the outdoors.

Rena couldn’t believe the tiny size of the weather-beaten, planked woodshed, but she kept the complaint to herself. It had a solid pitched roof and a strong door that latched with a rusty hook. Jonathan assured her it was weather tight. He had survived in it for a month, but he was just one person. It felt like a thimble box with six people inside. She knew he meant well, but it seemed impossible, even for one day. The lack of space required them to sleep in shifts because there wasn’t enough room for everyone to lie down at the same time.

Jonathan had stocked it with supplies that morning before everything had gone wrong, but they had only enough water for a few days. Without windows, they couldn’t see anyone coming, but it also made Rena feel safer. No one could see in either. She wished Yankel was with them to watch for danger, but she couldn’t think about that now. She’d brought two books and determined to memorize some poems to keep her mind occupied while they waited for Jonathan to make all the departure arrangements.

 

At the train station two days later, they bribed their way though the identification checkpoint with the diamond ring Rena’s father had given her mother on their tenth wedding anniversary. Her mother wept after removing it from her finger. Her father promised another one as soon as they were settled again in America, but Rena knew that particular one had a sentimental value impossible to replace.

After selecting their seats and arranging their luggage on the train, Jonathan and Rena went out to the train annex, a small store with sandwiches and bottled juice for passengers. After they purchased six Swiss cheese on dark rye and several orange juices, they headed back to the train.  

Taking a deep breath, Rena relaxed. Within minutes, the train would head away from Warsaw toward a new country, a new life of freedom. It was a good day. Smiling at the idea of fleeing the Nazis at last, she handed each member of her family a sandwich and a bottle of juice. Even little Judith brightened up.

Although Judith refused to speak, since seeing Onkel Moshe on the floor, her father explained her fear-induced silence would improve once she felt safe again. Rena brushed her fingertips along Judith’s cheek and felt a warm joy fill her as she watched her little sister begin to play with her porcelain sleeping doll.

Her father kept arranging and rearranging their luggage on the rack above them.

“Sit down, Papa.” Rena said merrily, taking another bite, moving to make room. “This sandwich is so delicious.”

Jonathan had his devoured by that time. “I’m sorry, son, I should have thought to give you extra money for a second one. A growing boy needs plenty of nourishment. Would you have half of mine?” he asked as the engines started, moving the train forward an inch.

“Certainly not, Papa. We will have mounds of good food when we settle down. I am looking forward to some of Aunt Mitha’s matzo balls and Mama’s blintzes.” Jonathan said, tapping them each with fondness. “I have grown accustomed to controlling my appetite over the last year.”

Rena’s father squeezed Aunt Mitha’s hand. “The loss of Onkel Moshe is a great tragedy for all of us.”

Rena didn’t expect her to smile again for a long time, but she knew Aunt Mitha appreciated his words by the slight nod of her head, her hands solidly gripped around Onkel Moshe’s favorite prayer book.

They were all laughing at one of Jonathan’s jokes when the door slid open and the Gestapo entered the train car.

The six heavily armed men walked directly over to her family and demanded their traveling documents. Her father handed them over, explaining the three missing were lost in a house fire, but that he’d paid extra for the error in paperwork.

“Get off the train, Doktor,” one of them said coldly.

“Certainly.” He stood and held his hand up to the rest of his family and cleared his throat. With strength and conviction in his voice, he said, “I’ll be right back after I straighten this out with the proper officials.”

“Your family must get off too.”

Rena stared at the shiny swastikas.

Jakob spoke to them in German, “I’m sure there’s some mistake. We have paid for our passage like everyone else. I understand the documents are lacking, but—”

“Jews are not allowed to ride on trains, Doktor. You Jews have a bad habit of disobeying the law of the land. You need to disembark immediately.”

“Sir, we are Polish citizens—”

“Jewish swine are not entitled to citizenship anywhere in the Third Reich. Now get off the train!”

“I must insist on a meeting with your commander,” her father persisted, glaring at them, defying their authority.

Without warning, two of them hit her father in the head with the butts of their rifles.

With blood trickling down his temple, he acquiesced, “Yes, alright. We will go. Please let us go in peace.”

Jonathan clenched his fists, ready for action. Her father gave him a negative glance as the Nazis jerked him out of the train. It spelled suicide to go against so many men and weapons.

The Gestapo shoved Rena and the others out of the train behind her father, out of the station like swine out of a barn. They abused them with vile words, and deprived them of their luggage and tickets.

The crisp sun-filled day had turned into a gray sky of heavy clouds. At the entrance of the station her father stopped, yanked his arm back and smiled at one of the Waffen SS officers who leaned against a post by the exit, smiled as if he knew him…personally. The scar across his cheek reminded her of one of the men beating on the rabbi that day – or was he one of the faces in her bloody premonition?

She wondered how her father could smile at the enemy, but he said, “Your wound healed well…for how gruesome it was. Do you remember me? Your surgeon?”

The man stepped closer. Rena waited on her toes as she realized this one wasn’t an enemy. Her father recognized him.

Her father reached out his hand in a greeting of friendship.

I knew it! The King of the Universe blesses us. Rena smiled back at her mother, assuring her. This man held the power to let them go.

“How good to see you again. Can you help us?” her father pleaded, blood still trickling from his brow.

Walking past her father as if he was invisible, the man tore the porcelain doll away from little Judith and smashed it against the asphalt, shattering it, shouting in German that Jews had no right to such costly items.

No one spoke a word. No one dared.

Pointing toward the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw, the SS man yelled, “Go, Jews! The soldiers in the jeep will escort all you insects to the vermin sector. I’m sure there is a need for slum doctors among your own kind.”

Her father exploded,Zolst ligen in drerd! He lunged at the officer, striking him a blow across his chest that knocked the man to the ground.

A second later, another SS officer drew a pistol from his holster, stretched out his arm and shot at her father.

Jumping in front of his father, Jonathan screamed, “No! No!” The bullet meant for her father pierced Jonathan, knocking him off his feet. Lying nose down on the icy cobblestone walkway, he reached out his hand and struggled to get the words out, “Let my family go.”

Rena screamed and dropped to his side. She turned him over and found the wound under his shoulder and pressed against it. Blood squirted back at her, but she pressed with more force. She cried, scanning the people standing about watching, “Someone…help us. These murderers are shooting at us!”

Her mother fainted and crumbled to the ground near Jonathan. Aunt Mitha and Judith froze, their eyes fixed on the man with his finger on the trigger.

The SS man rose from the ground and struck her father in the face and on top of his head with a big black baton until he collapsed on his knees in front of him. He pulled out his pistol and placed it to her father’s head, pushed it firm against his temple. “Bad mistake, Doktor. Now I am in control of your life.”

Rena screamed, “No! Please…please don’t shoot my Papa.”

Rena watched her father’s jaw clench with determination. “Please, not in front of my family. I’m begging you. Have mercy on the child.”

Shoving with more strength, the pressure making an indentation in her father’s skin, he jerked the pistol away and shouted, “Bang. Bang. You could be dead now, Doktor Jew.”

Rena gasped. “Oh, thank you, sir. Thank you for sparing my father. He is—”

“Shut up.” The SS turned and pointed the gun at Rena. “I’ve killed girls your age with pleasure. Do you want to be the next?”

Rena shook her head, trembling, her hand aching from using so much pressure against Jonathan’s chest.

Her father wavered but stayed on his knees. Blood was seeping into his mouth and falling from his chin. Trembling, he whispered, “I’m sorry…about the scar, sir.”

Signaling the others to retreat, the SS officer sneered at him with the arrogance of supreme authority. He lowered his pistol and stepped back three paces. “Okay, Doktor, you saved my life, but I’ve repaid you now. Go! Take your family to the ghetto before I change my mind.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

19

 

Albrecht charged into Rolf’s office with an urgent summons from the Chief of Police. Rolf grabbed his wool coat and camera, and asked his driver to rush him to the discovery site in the Krakowskie suburb within the northern part of the city, the Jewish district

“Look at this horde,” said the Gestapo chief when he arrived, pointing into a hole in the floor where several slats of missing wood exposed a large earthen cellar. “The Jews who live here claim they know nothing about it. They said the Poles who previously owned the house must have raided the Royal Castle after the bombs hit it. They claim to have found it and called us.”

Knowing the value of such a find, the Gestapo not trusting the Police, and the Police not trusting the Gestapo, they agreed to summons the Chief of the Einsatzstab and let him handle the collection. Rolf complemented them on their efficiency.

The paintings wrapped meticulously in sheets and bound with strips of cloth, hidden underground in haste with the obvious purpose of keeping Polish treasures from the Nazi conquerors, were likely a buried treasure worth an untold fortune.  Climbing down the ladder, he found over ninety well-preserved pieces, nothing under a hundred years old, most were ancients, Rubens, Chelminski’s Pieta z Tubadzina, the Olatrz Swietych Dziewic, the Renaissance triptych of the Legend of St Stanislaw. He closed his eyes remembering his friend. Hans would have loved to see this discovery.

As he gently stripped away the cloth, he found himself trembling, knowing how lucky he was to view such priceless treasure. Almost lost below the surface of the earth to must and mold, he must remember to thank the Jews who cared about the safety of such irreplaceable artworks. He felt a swell of contentment rising inside him and wished he could share his secret with them. As they had saved these, he had saved some of theirs.

Hunched over with a fine pen, he put a small mark on the back of each frame, the mark of the Third Reich. As he worked, he wondered how many other cellars of hidden treasure other people had found. He couldn’t stop the thought that other Jews, with fewer scruples, had used their sunken treasure chests to trade for new identities, transit permits, privileges, and food. He may have done the same thing.

He thought about how easily a few of these painting could find their way to Bavaria, to his own cellar, but then he remembered his father watched over him and was reminded that no amount of personal gain could compensate for the destruction of his self-respect. Besides, Hitler would have his head served up on one of his gold platters bordered with pickled pig’s feet if he ever found out. It was bad enough to be known as Hitler’s pet, he certainly didn’t want to be remembered as Hitler’s head.

After he marked, charted and counted every single painting, he said, “You seem to have enough men to handle these. Bring them to the museum this afternoon.” As he surveyed each one, he snapped photographs to let the Gestapo know that nothing in this collection dare disappear. “I don’t want to see one bungled edge or torn canvas, do you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” said the Gestapo chief. 

With untrained personnel packing and shipping priceless works of art, Rolf often received paintings with rips and bruises. As he departed, he suggested, “Teach these men how to handle uncrated art before they touch one piece. They aren’t handling weapons here.”

Along Karowa Street, Rolf told his driver to stop. A good long walk might ease his nerves. His eyes and mind ached from overwork. He buttoned his long wool coat and pulled up his collar against the frigid winter air as he stepped from the jeep.

Thinking about paintings, orphans, and those unwelcome visitors, Göring and Brutskeller, who arrived unannounced this morning to check on him, he mechanically turned the corner at Krochmalna Street. He passed a bakery and a fuel shop lined with star-labeled people holding dirty black buckets. Ragged sidewalk merchants urged him to purchase something from their wheelbarrows or warped card tables: silver hairbrushes, antique photograph frames, family heirlooms, musical instruments, and even their coats and shoes. He’d driven through the Jewish district before when the walls were still wood and barbed wire, but he didn’t remember the streets so jammed with desperate people.

Rolf suddenly tripped over a child lying facedown on the pavement. “Oh, my goodness. Forgive me.” She turned over and raised herself to one elbow. Staring at the child, he could only imagine her fate. He lifted the girl to her feet and waved her on with his hand, hoping she had parents.

The dense population astounded him. He’d heard the Nazis had relocated the Jewish population to the walled off area of the city called the Jewish Seuchegefahrgebiet, or district threatened by typhoid.

As he walked back down the block, he couldn’t imagine being locked behind the broken-glass-topped, ten-foot brick walls like prisoners. If the Nazis intended to increase the productive power of the ghetto as they professed, the concept could not be detected on the streets he visited. Working outside the walls required permits to pass the guards at two gates. Some time back, the other twenty gates from the Aryan side to the Jewish side had been sealed off. Rolf, busy under his own time limits, hadn’t stopped to consider what all this meant in terms of contact with the outside world. Could Jews send and receive mail, make telephone calls, have access to news? Did the outside world, did the news reporters know how Nazis treated these human beings?

And then he thought of her, the girl with the hazel eyes. He’d thought about her several times over the past year or so, wondered if he would ever see her again. The thought of her in this place sickened him. Perhaps her family had left Warsaw and avoided this nightmare. As much as he wished to see her again, he hoped she had escaped and lived far away from Nazi territory.

Watching the old tattered Jews shuffle by, he questioned, for the first time, the numbers. Not of paintings, or Reich marks, but of people. How many people had his government squeezed into three and a half square miles? The streets were paved with human disillusionment of all shapes and sizes; toddlers with fragile little hands frozen and begging for a few zlotys, pregnant mothers and old women whose thin bones barely supported them, teenagers with hatred in their eyes.

Unexpectedly, his feet stopped. A thought entered his mind. Use the camera to photograph all this. Paint it for the sake of history. The tongues of powerful men could twist truth to their advantage, but photographs and paintings froze facts in time. They stood as unalterable, irrefutable documents—records of a different nature. From now on he would photograph every withered orphan be packed away in his crates, too. But he needed to do more than that. He reached into his breast pocket.

With his spy camera in hand, he began snapping as he walked, his trained eye easily finding the photographic shots. On the corner of Grzybowska Street, the soup kitchen with long lines of thin people wearing stained and torn clothing jerked at his heart. Turning his head toward the street center, a man about fifty, dressed in a smart full-length wool coat pulled a wooden cart with two suitcases and four burlap sacks neatly atop with his two sons walking alongside wearing long, somber faces. He snapped the unthinkable horrors of the place, brutality included. The backdrop of partially destroyed apartment buildings and colorless raggedy orphans emphasized the environment. He had to step up his shipments, get more of these innocent children to safety. After the shots, he turned away, steeling himself. What ever happened to the Christian concept of peace on earth good will toward men?

Passing Rolf with smiles and salutes, two Polish policemen staked out their watch. He quickly hid the camera under his arm, the bulk of his coat offering camouflage and gestured back with a small nod. With a sharp headache, he headed for the exit.

 

The Café U-Aktorek outside the ghetto walls was a welcome relief. He ordered a large coffee with fresh crème and a shot of brandy. He paid when the waitress returned and tossed a zloty on her tray. The café for affluent Polish gents and German military officers was a popular watering spot. Rolf guessed it raked in a handsome profit off the heavy-drinking German celebrants.

In a little niche in the corner, facing windows that overlooked the bustling street in front of the east wall, he glanced from side to side. With extra care, he slipped his camera into his pocket. Photograph all the priceless objects with this camera, Brandt. The irony of Hitler’s order caused him to chuckle under his breath. Most of the shots included children and to Rolf, their value far exceeded any oil on canvas. How many were young beautiful women like the brave girl with the pink kerchief?

How many were orphans? Yes, he could do more…would do more…but every bony little body he tucked into a hiding place would shatter his heart. He would tell Boris to increase the numbers to twelve a week.  

Rolf scribbled notes on a napkin and tucked it inside the pocket with his camera. Watching two Poles walk by in colorful dresses and stylish hairdos, he acknowledged how all nature, all life was in some way—art; some beautiful, some horrifying, some colorful, some drab, but none the less art and it should live in some form for future generations. Was that how the great masters felt?

Adding a shot of brandy and crème, Rolf stirred his coffee and calculated the number of people strolling by Café U-Aktorek with bags of groceries, flowers or bundles, each one of them comfortable in their day’s work, but each with a number, a tag or rating like the paintings; pretty, warped, brunette, time-enhanced, large, cracked, oversized features, royal blood, crooked frames, popular, good, or bad. What were people worth? What was the worth of a soul?

With the last gulp of his coffee, he found a resolve swelling in him. His heart mushroomed. He would resist his desire for revenge. He would rise above hatred and give his hands to the cause of humanity. With these photographs, his hand would immortalize the demise of the Jews. At last he’d found it, his raison d'être; to paint ghetto scenes so future generations would remember what happened here, that such atrocities would never be repeated. Yes, poignant as it was, his muse lived in the drab, colorless life of a doomed people. His destiny was tied to the Jewish plight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

20

 

Rena found a four-story house where only three families lived, one family per floor. The available furnished flat was one big room with a small kitchen on the east end. It had big windows overlooking the street, a fireplace and even an old Steinway upright where she could develop her talent and honor the memory of her uncle. Even though his promises about the mystery room hadn’t saved them, she would never forget their time together playing the piano and the sound of his voice the last time he called her—ziskeit.

With cash from her shoe, she paid the rent to the owner of the house, who lived on the main floor and scampered back to the ghetto entrance to tell her family the good news. “The owner is a real schmoozer, very hospitable, and his wife Lisbeth invited us to a dinner party tonight. They are celebrating their twentieth wedding anniversary. I told them we had lost our luggage, and would not be presentable without our clothes, but they said we must forget about such protocols under current conditions. He might have connections at the hospital…he’s a doctor, too!”

A few days into the new year, the privacy Rena and her family enjoyed on their flat of the house ended when the Nazis forced eighteen more families inside the building, after a good lashing of the owner for the audacity of accepting income and limiting use.

“By law, each floor must house six to ten people per room. The living area on all floors must be divided off to make more rooms. Is that understood?” Rena heard one of the policemen yelling at the owners. Her legs felt weak as cotton string. How would they manage with another thirty people added to their floor, a hundred and sixty people in the house?

After all the friendly but tense introductions, Rena helped her mother and Aunt Mitha in assisting the other women on the floor to hang sheets in order to section off their big living area. Even though no one liked the notion of such thin privacy, they all smiled at one another as they worked. “Do you mind if I use this sheet with the lavender flowers for my partition?” Rena asked one of the women who had particularly rosy cheeks. Her strange accent intrigued Rena and she learned the woman was from the city of Vichy in France.

“You are one of the blessed ones, young lady. You have a mattress and now you have the prettiest sheet as your wall. Yes, of course, we can share the flowers, one side for you and one side for me.” Rena liked Rose instantly.

After everyone pitched in what they had, the kitchen was plentiful with pots and pans of every sort. All the people who moved in that day were new to the ghetto, shipped in from bordering countries and luckily still had food or something valuable to trade for food. She suggested that everyone contribute something to the iron pot, and she and Aunt Mitha would prepare a huge pot of soup to welcome everyone. One lady brought her three carrots, another two onions and Rose offered a whole head of cabbage. With a little garlic and some salt, the aroma of the concoction soothed nerves and helped everyone feel a little at home. Aunt Mitha tapped Rena on the arm and added a nod, which meant the idea was clever. Rena smiled as she dropped the chopped beef sausage into the pot, her family’s contribution. Most people in the streets looked thin as twigs, and Rena thanked Yahweh for their fortune of gold coins and diamonds, the treasures they had sewn into the hems of their coats.

When her family ran out of their initial supply of food and ventured out into the frosty ghetto a few days later, Rena realized how lucky her family had been to live in the cellar stocked with food while all these people had to deal with the dwindling food supply of the ghetto. Alongside her mother, she searched every little stall along the street, but couldn’t find any vegetables, fresh fruit, meat, fish or dairy products. As she rubbed at her fingers to unthaw them, she began to understand why so many people looked glum and out of sorts. On the streets it was becoming a battle of survival, people fighting to buy a prune.

The following month, the ghetto ration was reduced to three ounces of bread a day and that, Rena knew, wouldn’t keep anyone alive. She was beginning to feel anxious. Her father charted the patients dying from starvation and disease at the hospital, two thousand in January alone. Every night after Shema she made a personal prayer that the war would end and the Jews could go free to fend for themselves out in the world. With so little available to purchase inside the ghetto, the sellers were charging ten times what it cost on the Aryan side of Warsaw, making survival for so many thousands of people almost impossible. Those who surreptitiously supplied food to the ghetto gradually refused to accept cash. Since Rena’s family had lost most their cash with their suitcases at the train station, the new rule didn’t affect them. With their coins and several little smugglers living in their building, they would not go hungry.

It was obtaining enough supplies for the soup kitchen that worried Rena most.

Since her father quickly overburdened himself at the orphanage and hospital, Rena, her mother and Aunt Mitha, along with the help of their landlord’s wife, started a child relief organization called Gebentsht Kinder. The Blessed Children soup kitchen operated out of a potato cellar of a burnt-out building on the north end of the ghetto.

Rena jumped in excitement when Jonathan found the space. “I can’t believe how clever you are!”

Jonathan took her hand and smiled. “With all these people crammed in these walls and over forty percent of the buildings destroyed, finding this vacant space is a miracle, Rena.”

On closer examination, Rena had doubts the building could be used during the winter. “Half this roof is open to the outside, though. Do you think if we burn a little fire, the orphans can tolerate these frigid temperatures long enough to eat?”

“We can patch it, Rena,” he said, beaming with satisfaction. “There are plenty of boards and such among all this rubble. We just have to find a hammer and some long nails.”

After Jonathan’s patching, the place stood the daytime weather well enough for them to utilize it for an underground school and soup kitchen. Since Nazis outlawed education for Jews, they kept the teaching area hidden behind a hanging sheet. Rena and two other teenagers from her building agreed to instruct the grade school ages. They decided to teach only after they fed them, twice a day.

The first evening they served soup to undernourished street urchins, wandering toddlers and young beggars, those children who became orphans when their parents died of starvation or died a cruel death at the hands of the SS.

“Hold it steady, dear,” Rena said to a small, dirty boy about four. “Use both hands so it doesn’t spill out.” His big, sad eyes stared up at her, but he didn’t follow her instructions and the bowl tipped over, leaving it empty. To her bewilderment, his expression didn’t change. He simply picked up the bowl and studied the consequence like a bystander devoid of emotion. Rena panicked when she noticed his other hand hanging at his side, limp and black, withered and incapacitated from freezing and thawing one too many times. How could these children go on living with frostbite decaying their limbs? With a quick pace, she walked around the table and appropriated another bowl from Jonathan, filled it to the rim with hot potato porridge, and walked with the boy to a small table. It took some effort, but at last he seated himself atop the empty bucket and, using his good hand, took the spoon from her.

When she queried the wife of their landlord about the increasing numbers of homeless children in the streets, she had explained that some children found their way to the orphanages, but the limited space filled up quickly, leaving hundreds of children to subsist exclusively through the charity of sympathetic neighbors or soup kitchens. To function on their behalf, Rena had to force the scale of their suffering out of her mind.

Soon the main problem became the lack of water since the damaged water and sewer systems in the ghetto area of Warsaw didn’t warrant repair under German regulations. Hauling water from the street pumps in the bitter cold of winter, for preparing the soup, cleaning the dishes, filling the toilet and cleaning wounds was an awesome task. The six to ten buckets of water for their living space and triple that for the kinder kitchen, often accomplished by Rena’s efforts alone, used up all of her energy and most of her day.

On good evenings, she played the piano, thought of Onkel Moshe, and heard Sarah’s voice in her mind. On bad nights, she fell into the bed exhausted and dreamt the Nazis shut down Blessed Children and all the children died.

Whenever supplies ran low at the soup kitchen, she considered sneaking through the conduits to buy things on the Aryan side, but as the news of smugglers being taken to the Pawiak prison on Gesia Street increased she lost her courage. Then she heard about the latest Nazi regulations and she knew she would never leave the ghetto. Crawling through the conduits was no longer the most dangerous part of the smuggling operation. The masters of death now required all citizens of the Reich to report the sight of misfits in the Aryan sector of the city. The punishment for Poles who possessed information about Jews, Jewesses or their children leaving the Jewish district, and not reporting it to German authorities was—death. Poles caught selling food to Jews would be sentenced to three months hard labor. The news brought the level of distress down one more notch in the Steiner household. Even with gold and diamonds groceries could not be purchased.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

21

 

Sipping coffee from a gold demitasse teacup with silver trim, Göring asked Rolf for the detailed report he’d requested on the selections for both Linz and Karinhall. Known for his quick costume changes, Göring’s mid-morning attire consisted of a khaki hunting set with flaring lapels, topped by a new Panama hat he’d promised to show Rolf.

“By the way…” Göring waved six of his secret Swiss bankbooks under Rolf’s nose. “These accounts are untraceable and anonymous. I can introduce you to the right people, Brandt.”

Ignoring them, Rolf passed the Linz/Karinhall report to him over the elegant porcelain tea service. He idly wondered if Göring used rouge to make his cheeks so red. “Field Marshal, I informed the Führer of the shipments myself last Monday,” Rolf assured him, his typically amiable manner replaced by a tone of affected respect. Göring has the theatrics down, a good choice to succeed Hitler—the glitz of the Third Reich must go on.

Göring smiled and then turned his attention back to the report. “Ah…”

Göring often referred to himself as the only aristocrat of Hitler’s inner circle. Others referred to him as brutal, vain, and cunning. Fat and vain seemed incongruous. Rolf knew Göring, the chief of the Luftwaffe, collected Reich titles like ostentatious paintings, not really working for them, but expropriating them. As an industrious member of the party himself, albeit compulsory, Rolf resented the grossly fat, overly ornamented man who controlled all of the German war industry. “Yes sir, the exact figures are there on line sixteen. Over eight million Reich marks were expended for the purchase of art for the Führer’s Linz project on the Danube.”

As he waited for Göring’s approval, Rolf recalled the secretive conversation he had with Hitler at the Christmas party.

“I have designed Linz as a large version of the Vatican City, a center for the Nordic cult.” Pride radiated from Hitler’s eyes.

Rolf felt like laughing. He’d never seen the man so animated.

“Linz is to become the future seat of my new world empire! My thousand-year Reich will soon begin! Once and for all, every priceless painting in the world will be housed in one place, in my great capital, the Linz-on-the-Danube. By either natural acquisition in conquered territories or purchase, you are to find them all, Brandt.”

With a nod, Rolf asked, “Will it be a big city?”

“Of course! Once and for all, there will be a city of prominence that will encompass only those Aryan citizens who rank high in social and political status. People like…Rolf Brandt and his posterity!”

“Thank you, sir. That is quite an ambitious dream.” Rolf reached out and shook Hitler’s hand with congratulations, thinking Hitler deserved the crown of spellbinders. His dreams were more vivid than any fairy tales Rolf’s mother ever told him.

“My ultimate objective is the United States, Brandt. Once and for all, the world will belong to Germany.”

Hitler often used the phrase, ‘once and for all’ as though acts and their consequences were final. Rolf knew the most elementary reading of history disproved the notion; that nothing happens ‘once and for all.’

 

As Göring studied the paperwork, Rolf said, “I think you will find all the details you requested in the report. This figure is not exhaustive, of course. Other agents are acquiring objects in France and Italy as we speak.”

A week earlier Göring had requested Rolf escort the latest group of paintings to Karinhall personally during the first week of January, saying Rolf was due for a holiday, and where better than the magnificent splendor of his palace in Bavaria?

To Rolf, the request came across as an order, and Karinhall came across as a federal penitentiary. Its heavy steel, electrically charged gates, and its armed sentries with steaming breath and polished machine guns made a statement. The grandiose stone and oak edifice resembled a hunting lodge built by a Prussian king in the sixteenth century. Hidden off the autobahn behind a forest of tall green firs and barren oaks, the estate set Rolf’s temperature at a comfortable level of unease.

Göring flipped through the November and December ancient art distribution documentation, one page at a time, studying the listed works, memorizing, cataloging their values in his head. “I see. Yes, this report is quite adequate. I like your work, Brandt.”

“Additionally, sir, you might note there is a hundred times that in actual value…if one includes the confiscated items. I’ve taken the liberty of forwarding a copy of the document to the Führer. I hope that was right?”

Göring visibly tried to compose himself as he shifted in his chair. He chose his words with care. “Certainly. Of course. Why not?” He lifted the gold teapot with silver petals and offered Rolf a fill. “I must find a way to increase my collection for Karinhall at a faster rate, before all the best goes off to Munich. As you know, I have an agent…Brutskeller.”

“Yes, sir. We have met.” Rolf replied, studying the gaudy collection of flamboyant diamond rings dotting Hermann Göring’s bulky fingers.

“He tells me I am going to be delighted at this week’s delivery from the Louvre. He should arrive any minute.” After adding three teaspoons of sugar, he gently replaced the fragile lid to the sugar bowl. “Yes, he is doing a fine job, but one man can only do so much. Agents, at least my agents…make a handsome sum by acquiring fine pieces for my project. Do you happen to know any agents, good ones…like yourself, who know art?”

Rolf understood the roundabout invitation, and although he detested beasts of prey it tempted him. With the kind of profits available from accepting the offer, he could set himself up for the rest of his life, take his mother and their old farm hand, Schulz, to America where he could afford to acquire his own art collection on the open market. “I lead a sheltered life these days. Really, I don’t know many people in my field.”

“Don’t be foolish, Brandt. You know what I’m saying. I could use a little help…and I’d be grateful.” He snapped his fingers to call the butler, who lurked behind a dark emerald wing chair.

Rolf knew the sort of paintings Göring wanted for Karinhall—famous masters. He saw them every day as they rolled in by the trainload from conquered territories. Cataloging them, he never thought of them as a means of personal freedom. A simple stray pencil mark and great riches would roll his way. They were confiscated, stolen, many obtained from wealthy Jews who could never make claim to them anyway.

Brutskeller arrived during their late breakfast and joined Göring and Rolf at the long table bountiful with massive golden bowls of fresh fruits. Two butlers assisted Brutskeller in removing his saturated brown overcoat.

Outside, the storm had no intention of letting up. Freezing rain mixed with snow descended in torrents, sheeting the large windows with a blurry muck, making Rolf remember the farm, his mountain and his old life. As the elements pricked the windowpane, he realized how much he loved winter, the white crisp frost gloving the limbs of bare trees, the footprints of critters leading in and out of rocky caverns, the crystals gleaming off the snow on a sunny day, and the icicles to be studied as the sun melted them. Best of all, winter reminded him of sledding and skiing with his father. As he buttered his pastry, the words of his father ran through his head, “Our greatest gift is the power to choose. With every choice comes an irreversible consequence.”

Brutskeller seemed tense, spilling his orange juice on the lace tablecloth. “Can these dogs be removed, Hermann? You know how nervous they make me.”

“How was Paris?” Göring asked, his mouth stuffed with thick bacon and scrambled eggs. “I’m looking forward to seeing the selections.”

“They are bringing them in now, Hermann.” Brutskeller pointed at the door. “They might be wet, but I got them here.”

“Wet? That kind of tragedy could get someone shot.” Snapping his fingers, Göring ordered the new paintings set up on gold easels.  

Rolf studied the men like characters in an unpleasant play: Göring the fat, fleshy antagonist, Brutskeller, his drooling assistant. It was like eating across the table from two cobras. He remembered Brutskeller from Garmisch, how his words always exploded from of his lips with little bubbles of saliva stuck at the corners of his mouth. Nothing had changed except the number of rings on his fingers. He wondered how much money Brutskeller wormed out of the upper echelon of the Waffen SS.

Brutskeller had the anxiety level of a cat biting through a hot electrical cord. Unable to sit still for more than a second, he kept grabbing at the food, filling his plates with a variety of breads, fruits and breakfast entrees. “You’re going to fall over dead when you see this stuff,” he assured Göring, not making eye contact with Rolf.

Rolf’s examining eyes apparently made Brutskeller uneasy. Didn’t the twiny little man have any idea that he’d ruined Rolf’s life? Rolf wanted to lambaste him, roll him up like a piece of pastry, stuff him with breakfast meats and feed him to the dogs. He remembered Brutskeller’s fairy-tale about his bloodline and how he had been carefully selected as a father of Hitler’s new breed. Oh, the women were available all right. Brought in from conquered territories, they were ready to breed. And blond at that, but he couldn’t imagine dicking around some sperm reservoir at the Lebensborn or The Puff, where the likes of Brutskeller’s sperm would mix with his to spawn little artistic beasts. He shook his head and opted for silence, afraid the observations in his head would find his lips.

The painting were brought in, and indeed it was a treasure trove.

“Five Rembrandts!” Göring jumped up and down like a child in a toy store. “Look at these, Brandt. What do you think? Value them! Can you do that off the top of your head?”

Rolf pushed his seat back and walked toward the row of paintings. “Yes, sir. I can.”

A splash of lightning brightened the dim room for an instant, but even without good lighting, Rolf knew. “However…”

“What?”

Rolf looked at Brutskeller, who twisted a ring around his finger. He knew Göring possessed a bad temper, but he wasn’t going to lie for the squirrelly little bastard who got him into this mess. The gauge of thunder made them all jump, the huge window rattling from the force of the wind.

“These four aren’t authentic.”  

“What! What the hell?” Göring turned to Brutskeller in a rage, scowling with dilated nostrils. “What do you mean…not exactly?”

“They are very high quality, I admit. It might be difficult for the untrained eye to detect…but, they are most definitely forgeries, sir.”

In a rage, Göring pulled a small pistol from his pocket and shot Brutskeller in the face.

Rolf jumped back, his breakfast regurgitating at his throat.

“He has probably been cheating me for years,” Göring said, his cheeks flushed. “You’ll have to check my entire collection now, Brandt. I’ll be the laughingstock of the Third Reich if all these beauties are fakes. I will have to depend on you…”

Rolf tried to hide his trembling, but he was gravely shaken. Not only was he appalled, he felt guilty. He would have kept the truth to himself if he’d known the man could be so volatile. He must be taking drugs! Rolf could not stop staring at the bloody face, the lifeless body.

“Get him out of here.” Göring yelled at his butler. Six servants arrived within seconds to carry him off.

“Wait,” Rolf said as they lifted the body off the marble floor. “Wait.” Avoiding the bloody hole in his forehead, Rolf zeroed in on one of the rings on Brutskeller’s hands. The tic in his cheek began to vibrate. He walked slowly toward the body and reached out for Brutskeller’s right hand. There on the finger next to his pinky was a ring he recognized: six small diamonds encircling the letter ‘B’ for Brutskeller. No, “B” for Brandt. It looked very similar to the ring his father once wore in Berlin. It had been a gift to his father from his mother for their anniversary. Snatching it off Brutskeller's finger, he looked inside and read the inscription; all my love: Erica, 1930.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part 3 – Warsaw Deliverance

 

CHAPTER

22

 

Rena thought about how nice the forest had been as she walked side by side with Jonathan, maneuvering through throngs of trembling people down Zamenhofa Street. They headed toward the Blessed Children soup kitchen to meet the other volunteers for the morning class. As she stuffed her hands in her pockets, Rena couldn’t believe how God punished them with sub zero temperatures day after day.

In front of her, little Judith looked so small as she tried to keep up with Aunt Mitha, who had no intention of losing her among thousands of strangers, and kept a tight hold on her hand. Rena smiled thinking about how her little sister kept herself busy for hours laughing and watching the occupation of mice in the windowsill. The forest offered so much more for young children than the bleak living quarters of the ghetto. How Rena wished they could have stayed there among the pines and open spaces. She imagined a glowing bonfire and the musky fragrance of burning logs. Chopping up the piano to burn for heat last night truly broke her heart. She hoped Onkel Moshe’s piano was still safe at the farm. One day she intended to go back for it.

It seemed as if thousands of new people were herded through the gates this morning. She felt sorry for them, schlepping their packages and bedding, many, she felt certain, without one coin in their pockets. The mass crushed against her, forcing her body against Jonathan’s by the mere power of their bulk. Some wore long fancy furs, others patched clothing, many swore, some cried, and the children appeared terrified, their little eyes wider than hubcaps. Among them Rena was surprised to see a band of gypsies trading some silver jewelry for a few forbidden yams.

She took Jonathan’s hand and held on, not wanting to get separated. “Jonathan, something must be done. The Nazis are stupid, crazy fools. They could make so much money from all these Jews if they would let everyone buy the food they need. It doesn’t make sense to starve your own workforce. Help me think of a way to get out of the ghetto. I have an idea.”

Jonathan arched his bushy eyebrows, his mouth ajar. “Are you completely mad? You are seventeen and a girl. If you think you can beat their system, you’re dreaming. Without a pass, they will shoot you on the spot. You can only fight them if you band together in groups.”

Rena snuggled her arm in his and appealed to his good nature. “Actually, I’m going on eighteen, Jonathan. Do you still think I’m a little girl?” She squeezed his arm tighter and winked up at him, hoping to win him over. “I have no desire to fight Nazis. That’s your strong suit.”

Jonathan wrapped his arm around her shoulders when she began to shiver. “So you just want to get out of the ghetto to buy food and smuggle it back inside, right? Don’t you know how many little smugglers have been shot for that crime? That’s suicidal!”

“We have to do something, Jonathan. For an entire year, we have lived exclusively off potatoes and cabbage. Even though we still have a few coins and our diamonds, there hasn’t been a piece of bread in the house for a month. They say the only ration cards that aren’t denied now are for people with employment. Papa’s ration card isn’t going to feed all of us. The elders over the ghetto have decided since charitable organizations receive only a minimal amount of aid from the outside, only children over the age of two should have the donated food. Without help, our neighbors and the orphans are all going to die!”

Jonathan hesitated and she knew he had a secret to share. He cupped his hand over her ear. “I have a job lined up at Többens. I’m not telling anyone until I’m sure. I should know tomorrow when I start.”

Rena felt a wave of strength fill her veins. “Excellent, Jonathan! Now if we could get a proper price for Papa’s diamonds, and find a way to buy food at fair prices we would have a chance to keep going.”

Rena pulled him down to her level and whispered, “Remember that SS officer I told you about? I still have my book with his number in it, but with no operating phones in the ghetto…well, if I could get out of the ghetto, I could call him.”

Jonathan’s almost tripped as his face went white. “No, Rena. I don’t want you anywhere near those SS maniacs.”

“Will you just listen? He’s not like the others. He offered to help me.”

 “Believe me; if he didn’t like something you said, he wouldn’t hesitate to shoot you.”

Rena thought for a moment, considered their ominous fate, and noted the starvelings huddled between buildings along the way. “I’d be willing to take that chance. I think he can help us get a fair price for the diamonds, before Papa trades any more of them all off to crooked news reporters who promise to rescue us in their trucks.”

Finally Jonathan relented. “Alright, but I don’t like the idea. What if he just keeps the diamonds?”

“He wouldn’t do that, Jonathan.”

“Of course, he would. Now listen, you’re not going anywhere without me to protect you.” She could tell he was reviewing their options. “What do you like better, the reek of sewer water in a cavern or the odor of frozen flesh above ground?”

“Not the sewers. Anything but that.”

 

Getting out of the ghetto was more difficult than Jonathan thought. Not only did they have to get up and venture out into the frigid pre-dawn, the driver of the ambulance who agreed to help them, bargained for two hours of their labor along with a payment of ten gold coins. He said, “If I lose my job, I won’t be a documented worker, and I won’t have a pass to get in and out of the ghetto. Do you see how much risk I’m taking?”

Rena and Jonathan nodded their heads at the man with the hideous celluloid scar over his right eye, knowing he could be shot for helping them.

“So, it’s settled. I don’t want to hear you complain. First, after scrubbing them, lift all these metal bins out to the ambulance. Then I want you to scrub the shelves in the storage room with lye. We have to stop the spread of typhus in the hospital. No one can afford the two-hundred fifty zlotys for an inoculation. We’re losing nurses and doctors to the disease now. Don’t forget the toilet room. You’ve got until eight. Then we’ll drive over to the Aryan side to drop off two typhus victims at the cemetery.

As they loaded the bins, the light wind brought the smell of meat cooking, bacon or breakfast sausage, from somewhere on the other side of the wall. The last time Rena had seen meat was a week earlier while she was out hauling water. She stopped at the sight of blood blanketing the pavement. Eight or ten men complained among themselves about the flesh as non-kosher while they cut up the last horse in the ghetto.

That unmistakable aroma of smoked meat from the Aryan side stayed in her nose causing her imagination to recall happy days of food and splendor. Whether the strong scent of the meat or her search for a few minutes of ecstasy, she wasn’t sure, but suddenly she found herself transported back through time to Berlin. It was the night before the Sabbath, her mother wearing a pretty apron of red roses. She remembered clearly the wonderful smells of her kitchen. How she longed for a real meal, a home cooked supper with roast goose, potato cakes, fresh rye bread and kugel served on their grandparent’s china. In her mind, it lived as clear as yesterday; the white silk scarf draped over her mother’s head as she lit the eight-branched menorah for the Sabbath, the sweet words of the blessing, her arms stretching twice over the candle flames and back toward her heart. Tears had sparkled on her cheeks. Her mother was well then, and Rena yearned to stay longer in the reverie of those times.

Even with a kerchief tied around her face, the lye stank to high heaven, but she kept her mind on her memories of their life in Berlin as she scrubbed.

Jonathan broke her reverie when he said, “If we can get a decent value for our diamonds, I think Papa will pull out of his bad mood, Rena. It takes a strong mind to overcome all this.”

“Papa is strong. With so many patients dying everyday from starvation and disease, anyone would be depressed.” Rena replied in his defense. “They’re going to pay for this cruelty, Jonathan. One way or the other, they will be made to suffer.” It was then she realized she hadn’t had any graphic premonitions since they arrived in the ghetto. Perhaps God had decided a girl wasn’t the right choice to carry out such brutal punishment. She smiled, glad to be free of her visions.

Jonathan was on his knees doing the bottom shelves. “Even when I collect the information and statistics from the hospital for the underground news, I refuse to believe it. You know, Papa always used to say, ‘whatever a person tells his mind will come to pass.’ I choose to believe our family will survive.”

At eight, following Jonathan’s directions, Rena crawled into the space he’d created between two large stacks of boxes. After he closed her in with more boxes, she watched him through a crack as he wrapped himself in a sheet, tied a rag around his face and crawled under the cloth covering one of the dead. Rena reached deep into her pocket and found the turquoise stone and rubbed it hard for good luck.

A few minutes later the ambulance halted at the checkpoint and Rena felt all her organs twitching. The driver had a pass, but what if he ran into trouble?

She heard the guard question the driver, “Two dead, right?”

“Yes sir.”

“You’re sure?”

“Of course, sir.”

The next thing Rena heard was the blast of a pistol. She kept the scream inside her mouth, her lips squeezed in determination. Dummkopf! Another shot rang out and she heard its echo fill the air. “Get moving before I put a bullet through your head, old man.”

In another few minutes, Rena heard the secret whistle, the sign from the driver that Jonathan and her needed to get off before the ambulance entered the cemetery gates. The driver had explained the best course of action was to get out of the back of the ambulance fast and hide behind the hedge abutting the south wall on the Anielewicza Street side. Jonathan had her out in less than a minute.

Without a word, he took her bag and pulled her behind the bushes where they kept still and silent until the ambulance rolled through the gates. As the voices of the cemetery guards dwindled, they changed their clothes, repaired their hair and took to the streets, walking arm in arm like two young Polish lovers, like regular people living normal lives. Rena clenched the shiny turquoise stone in her hand, hoping they wouldn’t stand out in the crowd.

After a brief visit to Kdunczyk’s house where Rena made the call to the SS officer, they spent the afternoon wandering the Barbican, studying the huge semi-circular brick building, the original Warsaw city fortification.

As they entered over the drawbridge, the Renaissance character of the huge structure caused Rena to feel as if she were living inside a fairytale. With her hair all fluffy like a grown lady, she smiled up at Jonathan and knew everything would work out right. If only for these few hours, she decided to pretend life was an enchanting adventure; that she was a princess and the rectangular towers covered with high brick helmets were part of her castle. The alternating pinnacles and pyramids offered an array of hidden recesses where two lovers could find a little privacy.

With all Jonathan’s connections, Rena had conjured up a dream in her mind that he would get them out of the ghetto sooner or later, but after hearing him talk as they stood looking over the vast brown and white vista, she realized his real aim was to elicit heroism for a rebellion inside the ghetto walls.

Like a long distance runner just reaching his stride, his high spirits and perseverance amazed her as she let him plot his thoughts aloud. “Listen to this Rena. Within each factory inside the ghetto, I am getting connected with other members of the resistance to spread the word. At Többen, Bauer, Hoffman, Schultz and many other establishments catering to the needs of the German army, we have set up sub groups for the cause, a network to reach thousands of people in a day, twelve thousand at Többens alone.”

“That’s brilliant, Jonathan…but it makes me nervous.” Rena had heard a rumor from Rose that Többens was related to that frightening Hermann Göring, the master of living death for qualified Jews. “You need to be careful. You need to stay clear of the owner.”

“Yes, Göring, the fat hog with the big horns. I’ve seen him.”

“Why doesn’t God strike men like him with bolts of lightning?”

“Because such as He doesn’t want a man like that in His house anymore than we want him here.”

Rena laughed, her brother always good for a sarcastic one-liner.

“Here’s the thing…” Jonathan began explaining as they strolled the old town city walls looking like newlyweds. “The ghetto residents urgently need information telling them of the imminent danger regarding Nazi activities at Chełmno-on-the-Ner and other places in Poland where hoards of Jews are being slaughtered. I don’t want to scare you, Rena, but the truth is, for German purposes the Warsaw ghetto is no more than a transit stop on the road to death. Offering resistance and rising up in self-defense is the only logical thing to do.”

Rena sighed, wanting to hold on to the fantasy of freedom a little longer. “Please, Jonathan, let’s talk about where we are and what we can enjoy during this brief moment in time. Look how the sun glistens off the patches of snow, like a thousand diamonds free for the taking. How I wish life could be simple and sweet.”

The rest of the afternoon as they strolled past Poles shopping at vegetables carts, Jonathan let Rena talk about castles in the sky, dreams of her wedding, and the future ahead of them. As they held hands and allowed their lips to smile at their hopes, they whispered about how well their caper had gone, chuckling at the irony. Examining the astounding variety of goods along the streets, they discussed how they would spend the fortune of their diamond sale once they had it in their hands, a good bit of it plotted out for a full set of Polish identities, train passes, and improvements to the soup kitchen. Her heart so happy, Rena wished they could stay there forever, but soon the hour came and they took to the streets again.

On their walk over to the SS officer’s flat, Jonathan spoiled the air of daydreams they had enjoyed when he started in on his obsession.

“If I can help it, the Warsaw Jews won’t roll over and die passively on their knees. Let’s face it, the biggest obstacle is the known German policy of collective responsibility, which keeps so many of my associates, and their verbal ambition to protest, locked in apprehension.”

“Collective responsibility? You’re over my head, Jonathan. Can’t we—”

“Yes! With copious examples of large-scale retaliation for the slightest blunder, the concept of gathering illegal weapons freezes even the bravest heart.”

“I can understand their fear. The cost for one wrong move is…innocent blood.”

“Even with more examples of the slaughter of Jews around Poland from post cards smuggled in from Grabów, Kutno, Krośniewice, Gostynin and Gąban, almost everyone refuses to believe the reports of mass annihilation, calling the killings acts of misbehavior on the part of victory-drunk troops. They simply refuse—”

“Jonathan, please. Can’t we discuss this later? Maybe this connection will help us get away from Warsaw…escape all this.”

“When you hear all our new plans, I know you will catch my excitement about helping our people. Our new organization, Gordonia, is going to begin publishing a periodical called Morning Star. You’ll see what a few strong souls can do.”

“If you get out, you can still help, Jonathan. If we can flee to a free country, we might be able to expose the horrors of this place, and prompt real action on behalf of our people.”

Whenever Jonathan went quiet, she knew she’d given him something to ponder. He needed to stand back from it all and realize escape was the only viable way to get anything done for the community. Rena admired him more than ever, but she worried sick over his safety as they hurried along to keep her appointment with her hope, Waffen SS officer, Rolf Brandt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

23

 

A dozen excellent photographs. Rolf spread them out on the long table in his studio, pleased by the quality he’d attained. They all embraced the ghetto gray undertones and two out of a dozen favorites would make excellent paintings. Two appeared very clear: one of a Gestapo agent kicking a Jewish Rabbi. The second photo he’d taken on the coldest day of the year. It was a bony young girl in a window framed by cascades of frozen refuse. Colorful rags hung on clotheslines of surrounding windows. It drew him in. He both pitied her and wanted to know her. This was the one he would transfer to canvas.

Distracted from his project by the thought of the girl’s voice on the phone, he thought he should tidy up. She would arrive at any moment. For the life of him, he didn’t know why he had ever given her the phone number to his office in the first place. He remembered her as a pretty girl, but he worried about what she might demand from him. If she was Polish, she wanted a favor. If she was Jewish, she wanted a job. He wished now, he’d never given her his contact information. He already had his neck on the line, and he wasn’t about to toss extra dice into the game just to experiment with his luck. He walked over to his desk and fumbled through a shoebox of coins and made a stack of zlotys next to it. She probably wanted money.

In the second bedroom of his flat, he’d organized an office and studio for his painting and photography. From the living room, she wouldn’t see the mess, but still it was a good excuse to put things back in order. Standing at his easel, he realized how disorderly his workspace looked: little earthenware pots here and there covered with parchment, vermillion paint splashed on the floor, an open jar of turpentine. After neatening up, he licked the sable tip of each brush, forming a smooth point before placing them upside down in a jar.

Looking around, he realized how much he loved the room. It was perfect for an artist’s studio. The large double set of windows offered optimal lighting for most of the day, and the huge size of the room invited him to have several projects going on at the same time. The previous tenants had painted it for their daughter, the pale pink reminding him of his yearning to one day be a father to a baby girl. Originally he’d considered re-painting it, but it was still fresh and besides, he sort of enjoyed the pastel jungle animals and multi-green leaf and vine ceiling accents.

Many evenings he rested on his daybed starring at the pretty trim worrying about his shipments. He flopped down on the mattress and found a nail file on the side table. Filing his nails and picking the paint out of his cuticles, he felt anxious. Perhaps the anticipation of the girl caused his jitters, but ever since the first shipment of children he worried constantly from the moment of their departure until he received word of their safe arrival. At midnight, his phone would ring three times. Then he could sleep.

His latest cohort in the operation was a Polish policeman, Oliver Gorzkiewicz, who also oversaw the night watch in the ghetto. He’d been introduced to him through a member of the Warsaw Underground as a fellow they trusted, and Boris had concurred. As actively involved in the escapes of prominent Jewish poets and thinkers in the earlier days before the noose tightened around the ghetto, Rolf wholly trusted Gronkiewicz’s ethics.

“Gorzko, for every eight children, fed, trained and prepared for travel, I’ll give you handsome piece of artwork, not a masterpiece, but something nice. You must hold on to it, but someday these pieces will make you a handsome retirement.”

“I appreciate your recognition of my risk, Herr Brandt. I must make use of the one ambulance and a comrade with good driving skills. I’ll hide the children inside the long supply box with a corpse lying on top. I’ll tell my contact at the hospital to save one back every day for this purpose. It could mean my head if any of the other guards should search it, but late at night on my shift that’s not likely.”

“You’re a brave man, Gorzko. Without you a project of this scale would not be possible.”

After the first delivery of four small orphans, Gorzko refused payment of any kind, saying the reimbursement in his heart topped any monetary reward. So far only one child took sick during the journey to England, and all of them followed the rules to eliminate detection. It was a wonderful feeling to save lives and Rolf’s determination waxed even stronger. Somehow, I must do more. 

He leaped up from the bed and went to the window, his nose pressed against the pane. She was five minutes late. Sitting on the windowsill cushion, he picked up the photographs and flipped through them again one by one. He chose the last one of the girl and the clothesline and pinned it to his easel. He made a habit of naming his paintings before he began. After a few minutes of meditation, he decided to call this one…Beyond the Frosted Windowpane.

At the knock, his body flinched. His nerves felt like over wound guitar strings, ready to snap. Of course it was her, but it could be the Gestapo coming to arrest him if they found out about the orphans or paintings. Tonight was his first night off in weeks, not really a good night to see anyone. When she telephoned earlier, it went through his mind to ask her to come next week, but that magic flicker he remembered from so long ago confounded his logic. As he rushed to the door, he reminded himself to mind his manners, nerves or not.

 

~Jonathan stood across the street leaning up against a light post. She looked back at him, and he nodded and held up three fingers. If he hadn’t come to protect her, meeting this SS officer at his flat would be out of the question. After kissing the luck stone and replacing it in her pocket, she knocked again. Every hair on her arm stood up from a strange mixture of misgivings and eagerness. If he was like the others, he might shoot her for knocking on his door. She’d seen it with her own eyes how they killed for the slightest reason. Had he agreed to this meeting merely for cruel entertainment? She closed her eyes in a quick prayer.

Her shoulders straight, she rubbed her lips together and hoped she looked appealing in the red dress she had borrowed from Rose. It was definitely too big, but cinched in at the waist with a white belt it looked better than anything else she’d tried on. She was thankful that the material was a type of jersey that didn’t wrinkle in the brown sack. After curling her hair, Mrs. Kdunczyk had put a little makeup on her cheeks and eyes as she explained how the Nazis liked young pretty girls with lots of rouge. Not wanting to look like a streetwalker, Rena had wiped most of the red off her cheeks after she left.

Her heart beat so fast she had to remind herself to breathe. When he opened the door, she noticed how they both stood in silent consideration of the other for a moment. She didn’t know what he was thinking, but she knew the sight of him made her knees feeble.

 

~His mouth opened and closed without a word. The timid expression and mystical beauty within her eyes remained his focal point as he invited her inside with a wave of his hand. He stepped backward as she entered, studying her. She was thinner, but the shape of her face: wide, high forehead, pronounced cheek bones and oval jawline set her apart from the ordinary. This is why he had wanted to put her face on canvas. “Welcome, fräulein. Come in.”

 

~The sight of him took her breath away. She felt flushed, embarrassed by the way he studied her face. He looked like a businessman in his black pants and white shirt, open at the collar. She curtsied, a habit she’d acquired in the ghetto to show respect of their authority.

She hesitated, her gaze affixed to the thin runes of the SS insignia on his cap positioned like a sentry on a side table inside the entryway. She took one step in and one step back out. “Um…” No safe way to retreat now. Standing in a room with a member of Hitler’s Special Forces made her entire body quiver. How stupid of her. Obviously whatever he had in mind couldn’t be good. Even handsome men with beautiful smiles killed people. Like Henny! Then she remembered Jonathan’s three fingers. She had to find a light switch.

What to do at this moment had her shuffling, her feet backing in the hallway, almost back to the entry door, her mind flashing back to her dress in flames. But in examining his hands and waist and torso, she couldn’t detect a gun anywhere. And he wasn’t likely to start any fires inside his own house.

 

~As she stood shivering by the entry door, so obviously distressed and petrified, Rolf found himself reaching out for her, taking her small, fragile hand, speaking to her in a gentle, comforting voice, “Don’t be frightened.” This new unidentified feeling that came over him was likely no more than a physical attraction, a normal reaction for any man confronted with such fresh, young beauty. By the sad expression in her eyes, he guessed she was a Jewish girl, but she was a magnificent creature—Jew or not. It wasn’t attraction in the pure definition of the word, it couldn’t be. Still, he knew right then, he would help her anyway he could.

 

~She examined his face, eyes of mintish blue and a chiseled expression that engaged all her senses. She kept reminding herself how kind he had been to her in the past; it was the only way she could endure his affiliation with arctic monsters. His fine complexion, so unlike the gray suffering men in the ghetto, astonished her, but besides his good looks, his pleasant manners and welcoming smile alarmed her. She knew how warmly they smiled while they shot a bullet into someone’s skull. Maybe all those times he’d shown kindness toward her was no more than a prepping, basting a turkey for supper. Then she remembered who he looked like, and she felt her entire body begin to shake. Just like Henny’s face… striking. Good-looking Henny!

 

~Rolf sensed her fear. “It’s okay. I promise.” When she retracted her hand, he reached for her arm, but she retreated, her back against the door. She reminded him of a fawn, so fair and fragile, trembling clear to her toes. Had her family deserted her? Or had the Nazis slaughtered her parents for some minor crime that left her homeless? Whatever had happened to this beautiful young creature, he knew it had scarred her in places that might never heal. And with that knowing came an awful feeling of remorse.

Deep inside him two links snapped into place at that moment. Like a frightened fawn, he needed to set her free. He smiled and gestured a farewell. “I understand if you can’t stay. I wish you would, but I want you to feel free to do whatever you need to do. I won’t be angry, just…disappointed.”

 

~On closer observation, looking deeper into his eyes, Rena found…was it compassion? She didn’t want his sympathy; she just wanted him to help her get a fair price for her father’s diamonds. He seemed kind, but she didn’t trust it—couldn’t afford to trust her own judgment. There was no way to read faces—not Nazi faces. Yet can one hundred percent of any group be completely bad? She reached out for his hand and allowed him to lead her out of the entry, past the small kitchen and into his living room.

Don’t be frightened, fräulein. Please sit down and tell me how I can be of assistance. First off, what is your name?”

Rena examined the well-furnished room, marveling at the luxurious leather furnishings. Past a dining table, through an open door she saw a blue velvet bedspread. Two white-pearl porcelain lamps with fringed shades stood atop bedside tables. It seemed like an eternity since she’d lived among fine décor. A dismal feeling came over her, but rather than allowing it to dampen her disposition, she focused on her goal. Without sitting down, she put the question to him. “My name is Rena Steiner. You once offered your assistance to me, sir. Now, I am sorry to say, I am in need and must accept your honorable promise.”

Rolf smiled and chuckled a little. “And it shall be done if you will please ask it directly.”

She bit her bottom lip. Now standing before him in his lovely flat, her life seemed so pathetic, so low and polluted. How could she explain her circumstances without sounding like a beggar? Perhaps she should fib, tell him she lived at the farm with her uncle, a famous Polish composer. Which story would elicit his help to sell the diamonds? When it came down to it, his connections, not him, were the only thing that mattered. What this man thought of her personally was of little consequence. Eliciting sympathy seemed the best approach. “I am here about diamonds, sir.”

Rolf’s mouth dropped open. “Diamonds?”

“Since my family is confined to the Jewish district, we are having some difficulty obtaining sufficient food. It’s not only for me that I ask for this assistance. In addition to my family, we have a soup kitchen for orphans, and it takes a bit of juggling to acquire enough foodstuffs to keep it going.” She hoped that sounded businesslike.

The word orphan seemed to strike him, his chin unsteady. “I think I can help you, fräulein. I don’t have a lot of extra ration coupons, but perhaps I can find a way to get supplies to your soup kitchen.”

Rena bowed her head, surprised by his offer. She swallowed a few times and lifted her head. “Good, sir. You are most kind. However, I don’t come to you asking for food. I’ve come to ask for your help in selling my father’s diamonds.”

“Oh…please excuse me. I didn’t mean to presume—”

“We cannot get a fair value behind the wall. Can you find a buyer for me?”

“A buyer? A buyer of diamonds? I don’t know. I have not lived in Warsaw long. I keep to myself. I evaluate art. They have other experts who do diamonds and gold, but those are people you wouldn’t want to know. I wish I could help you, yes, but I don’t have the kind of money you are looking for. And, honestly, I don’t know the first thing about diamonds.”

Rena felt her heart falter, the disappointment coloring her face. “I just don’t know what else to do. I so hoped…” Why did she come here? After so much effort, all her brilliant ideas were falling apart. If Jonathan ever found himself this close to a Nazi he would probably shoot him.

He stepped closer to her and framed her chin with his fingertips. “There is something very special about you. I don't know what it is, but I do know I would like to take some photographs of your face…if that would be alright. I’m beginning a new painting and I need a photograph of a pretty face to work from.”

Rena looked around for a light switch. If he made any moves, she would flip the switch three times to call for Jonathan’s help. “I suppose…that is fine, sir.”

 

~While he shot the photographs under the lights in his studio, he moved her from place to place to attain a variety of light settings. He studied her face. She reminded him of someone; it wasn’t the way her full lips curved down at the edges or her sharp straight nose. Nor was it the unusual dark brown ring encircling the hazel of her eyes. No, not the features, but her manner, the poise in her walk, the way she clasped her hands in front of her, the cute twitch of her nervous nose. At last, he pinpointed it. She reminded him of Irma, Samuel’s sister from Garmisch, his first boyhood fling. Rena however, didn’t have the Jewish look, not at all. But then, many of them didn’t, so mixed became the blood after centuries of assimilation. She was more beautiful than he remembered. “Yes, you have a wonderful face,” he told her gently tilting her chin toward the light for another pose. “Hold it right there, if you please, fräulein.”

“Is this the right position?”

He smiled and gave her a wink of reassurance. “Yes, you are doing very well. I’d like a few profile shots in front of the window. Just stand as if you’re looking out the window first.” The clean purity of her profile amazed him. “Yes. Good. Good. Now…”

 

~This SS officer taking photographs of her in the mellow glow of this odd room seemed so nice, but she could never trust a Nazi. She looked up at him and wondered what he was thinking. Why was he acting so gentle? He knew she was Jewish, so why all this congeniality? He would never be interested in someone like her…except for evil amusement.

If he wanted to shoot her in the back, this appeared the ideal moment. She faced away from him, her head slightly turned. Why did he want photographs from the rear? Her jaw clenched, she closed her eyes to await her fate. The uninvited visions flashed the horrors over and over in her mind; blood splashing, skulls flattened, legs broken. Her body flinched as the imagined bullets hit their target. The reminders filled her with renewed apprehension and she panicked. Where is the light switch? I’ve forgotten about Jonathan. Her hands covered her face and she began to crumble underneath the weight of her fear. “Please, sir. Please let me go now. Spare my life. I beg you.”

 

~He reacted instantaneously to her display of emotion. Approaching her, he saw her gaze fixed on the collar of his jacket, which hung over the back of the chair at his desk. He put his arm around her shoulder and said, “Please don't be afraid.”

“I…”

Her small quivering shoulders fit snugly under his arm as he brought her to him. “You don't have to be frightened of me, fräulein.

Looking down at the troubled, freckle nosed young women, he confessed, “I’m so sorry I frighten you. I know it seems I’m staring at you too much, but it is…your face, the way you move your lips. I must admit you intrigue me.”

“Please…I must go now.”

She was a Jew…he knew that…but did she not have a heart, affections, and passions? Was she not fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer? The questions now came from his mind as he had read them in the Merchant of Venice the previous evening. As she entreated him with her sad eyes, he lifted her head and studied her sensual under lip, how it pouted with a half smile. “When I saw you the very first time…”

What was he saying? This woman was a Jew from the ghetto. Beautiful or not, she carried who knew how many diseases. They would string him up for even thinking such thoughts. He stepped back and turned his eyes away from her.

 

~She wished she could believe in his sincerity. She stepped around him, searching his eyes for the truth. “Why did you let me come here, sir? The real reason.”

His gaze followed the border of green vines before it came back to her. “I didn’t have a reason. Truthfully? I wanted to see you again…to find out if the special qualities I remembered about you were real. But now…I think I’ve found another reason why I let you come.”

“Why?”

“Perhaps our association can be mutually beneficial. You see, I’ve taken some photographs in the ghetto that will represent the truth of these times. This evening I am beginning an oil painting of a young woman about your age and I need…a face.”

“The photographs of my face?”

“Yes…and I will pay you. If you could model for me, I could give you employment outside the ghetto…and it would be an honorable job…if you would consider it.”

With all his niceties, this one was harder to hate. She’d never thought about having a job, let alone working for a German. One thing she knew, people who had jobs had certain privileges.  “A model? You want me to be your model?”

 

~Rolf nodded, studying the agony and the ecstasy of her expression as she glanced down at herself in the ill-fitting dress, imagining what she might look like as a beautiful model for a famous painting.

Something about her moved him and it wasn’t only her face. It wasn’t a simple attraction to something taboo either. It was her, how her soul was revealed in her eyes, the way she looked at him, her manner and poise under such nerve-racking circumstances.

“You actually wish me to be a model for a painting, sir?”

For a moment he considered sending her away, but gazing at her innocent beauty negated the flashing red lights that warned him. “Yes, fräulein. I want to hire you as a model. I will pay you well…if you will kindly accept.”

“Is this true or…”

“Yes, your face is just the right face for my project.”

“That’s it? You don’t want anything else of me?”

“Nothing else, I promise. Look here at this photograph attached to my easel.”

“Will I get a work permit so I can pass the gates?”

“Certainly.”

“When shall I see you again, sir?”

“My name is Rolf Brandt.”

“Yes, sir, Herr Brandt. When would you like me to model for you?”

“Lunch time. Tuesdays. Noon…here at my flat. Please call me Rolf.”

“Yes, sir…I mean…yes, Rolf.”

“I’ll make the arrangements with a guard at the south gate… a Polish policeman, Oliver Gorzkiewicz, called Gorzko. Remember his name if you ever have trouble.” Winking at her, he continued, “I’ll leave your work pass with him, but be careful. Promise me you’ll be careful.”

“Yes, sir…ah, Rolf.”

“Next week I’ll have you a new dress, if you like. There’s a nice bathtub with hot water here so you can get really clean. You have to stay clean or you’ll get lice and then typhus, Rena. I don't know what Himmler is thinking of...forcing so many people to live without adequate water. He must know conditions like that ensure the presence of lice and the spread of typhus. You don't have any mice or rats in your place, do you?”

“No, of course, not. My mother hates rodents.”

“That's good. They can spread disease too. Obviously, Himmler's not all that concerned about it spreading to the rest of us. Quarantined or not—it spreads. I don't want you to get it, Rena. It’s deadly.”

“Don’t worry. I won't get anything. I never get sick. I'm very strong.”

“You don't look Jewish so if you can act like you live on this side, like a Polish girl…it should be alright.” Then he remembered something else. “Do you have a sweater? It’s very cold tonight.”

“I'll be fine, sir. I’m not scared. Not anymore. I have a German friend…an officer.”

From his closet he extracted a wool sweater and handed it to her, wishing she could stay a little longer. “Okay, run along now. Wait. Let me give you a little food for the soup kitchen, at least a loaf of bread. There was a sale on and I ended up with two loaves.” In his kitchenette, he pulled one loaf from the bag and handed her the sack, watching how new light radiated from her eyes. “I know you don’t need it, but we can’t let it go to waste, can we?

“That’s very thoughtful, sir. I will surprise my mother. She’s a bit under the weather today.”

“That’s a wonderful idea. Now please, get back to the Jewish Quarter as fast as possible. God bless you, Rena.”

“And you, good sir. And you.”

 

~Afraid Rolf would see Jonathan, Rena kept her eyes focused on the sidewalk as she walked along stroking the stone in her pocket. At the stop sign, she looked back expecting to see her brother catching up to her on the other side, but he was nowhere in sight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

24

 

At the gate, it surprised Rena to find it almost as difficult to get back into the ghetto as to get out. As she stood behind a line of weathered-looking workers listening to the guards hounding each individual about their pass, it gave her the sense that ghetto inhabitants needed an official permit to inhale and exhale.

She held her breath as she tried to think of a way to get past the gendarmerie without getting harassed, arrested or shot. If Jonathan was with her, he would finagle a way through these gates with ease, but this cloak and dagger business caused her innards to tie in knots. Poles didn’t have any reason to go into the ghetto after the sun went down, so what could she say to get back in? Could she really pass for a Pole anyway? Maybe she would have to ask for Gorzko and explain that SS officer Rolf Brandt was her employer, but with so many guards and dogs, that idea made her nervous.

After the long line of factory workers passed the checkpoint, it was her turn. As she stood face to face with a policeman, his eyes full of suspicion, his gun strapped at his side, she had to think fast. She noticed a little tilt to his lips as if he enjoyed looking down at a nicely dressed girl after the long stream of male workers in soiled overalls.

She smiled, but only a little, not wanting to seem overly enthusiastic. “Good evening, sir. I have a food delivery for the Blessed Children Soup Kitchen. I won’t be long.”

He frowned and shook his head like a father scolding a daughter. “No Poles after dark, young lady. It’s not safe.”

Rena let her lips droop at the corners. “Sir, I understand your concern, but my mother will be most unhappy if I fail to make this delivery.”

She noticed how his eyes followed the contour of her face. “Your mother should know better than to send a young pretty girl to the infected ghetto at this time of the night.”

Rena felt her knees begin to quake, the emotion close to her eyes. “Oh, please, sir. You see, my mother sent me here earlier today, but I stopped to visit my friend on the way and the time got away from me. If I don’t get this bread to the orphans for their dinner, my mother will have my head.”

A wave of sympathy spread over the guard’s cheeks, and it surprised Rena to realize he had a tender spot. “What if I find someone to do the delivery for you?”

After a little nod and smile of appreciation, Rena deliberated. She had to think of something else. “Thank you, sir, but my mother gave me strict instructions to see the proprietor of the soup kitchen and relay a message about future food donations, and if I don’t do this personally…my father will probably give me a good lashing.”

“Ah, that would be bad. I don’t believe in spanking children, let alone young ladies. I’m sorry—”

Rena let her tears settle in her eyes, a couple dotting her cheeks. “Oh please, please, just let me by, sir. I won’t be here for more than fifteen minutes.”

After a lecture about hiding the food stuffs and not making eye contact with anyone along the street, the guard finally let her pass. Rena thanked him and scurried around the corner, watched every eye on the street, and headed toward the soup kitchen and her family.

 

When she reached the door of her building, she wanted to yell out to her mother, I have a job! I will soon have a pass to get in and out of the ghetto whenever I want! Instead, she resisted the temptation, slowly climbing the stairs, the bread well hidden under her arm, not wanting her good fortune to accentuate anyone else’s bad lot. After passing through the Berger family and Rose, she pushed through the curtain, her eyes big as Bialy rolls.

There on the bed, dripping wet with perspiration, her mother moaned, “I’m dying, Rena. Please come here and sit by me a spell.”

Looking around, she found her mother alone, everyone else still out.

Going to her, she bent down and kissed her cheek. “No, Mama. The most important thing is to stay alive…to show the world how strong we are.” She whispered, not wanting the other families on her floor to hear their problems or ask for a share of her fortune. It didn’t feel right hiding her food from people, but she learned over the past month or so, if the others on her floor smelled the loaf everyone would plead for a slice and nothing would be left for her family. She sat down next to her mother and stroked her head. Leaning into her ear, she shared the miracle in a light whisper. “I have a job now, Mama! I’m going to be paid with zlotys and I can help support the family and buy food for the orphans.” She removed the warm wool sweater the kind officer had bundled her in, “And right here I have a whole loaf of fresh rye bread.”

“Yes…it smells wonderful.” Her mother responded wearily, her head dropping back against the sheet. “Promise me. Watch over little Judith…when I go.”

Rena’s excited heart drooped and tears welled up in her eyes. “Mama, yes, of course…but, no, you can’t go anywhere. I need you. Please try harder,” she begged, feeling her mother’s forehead for a sense of temperature. The skin felt wet, clammy, and intense with heat.

“This headache…” her mother groaned. “I can’t stand up. If I do, I get dizzy.”

“Just rest, Mama. I’ll prepare some tea for you.”

“I have a bad rash, too.”

Rena’s felt the blood drain from her face. The signs of typhoid. The ghetto had run out of medicine for typhoid or any other condition, for that matter, and everyone knew hundreds of people had already died from the dreadful disease.

“Papa will be home soon. He’s the best doctor in the ghetto. I know he will know how to make you feel better. Please rest now.”

Rena stood and straightened the ginger-colored curtain behind her mother’s bed. With her mother talking about dying, she felt ashamed to feel so giddy about meeting the friendly SS officer and her unexpected job as a model.

In the kitchen, after cutting off a piece of bread for her mother and gobbling a chunk herself, Rena wrapped the rest in a cotton rag and hid it away for her other family members. They hadn’t had bread as soft as this loaf since they left the farm. It would be delicious with a pot of potato and cabbage soup. She couldn’t believe her luck. On the very day after the Germans reduced the bread rations for Jews to two ounces a day, she found a way to beat the system, to keep her family adequately fed. Now her father could save the diamonds for their escape.

She made a tea with sweet dried leaves for her mother and helped her sip it. Then she bathed her head with cool rags. She’d cut the bread into small long slices and spread them out on a saucer in the design of a flower, hoping her mother might eat.

Her mother sighed, squeezing Rena’s hand. “Please give my share to my baby girl.”

“If Papa isn’t back soon, I’m going to find him at the hospital, Mama. You need medicine.”

Spotted fever cursed the ghetto. Eleven people in their building came down with it the previous month. The owner pasted a yellow sign on the front door, reading “FLECKFIEBER”, letting all who entered know spotted fever resided within the house. Rena had observed the increasing number of yellow signs on doors in their neighborhood. Her father had told them, since November, the epidemic had killed hundreds of people in the ghetto every day.

As Rena soothed her forehead, her mother curled up into a fetal position, her energy spent. In a soft voice, Rena told her the story of the handsome officer and his generous offer. In response her mother had moaned and covered her face with the sheet.

Fifteen minutes later, her aunt and Judith passed through the curtain. Aunt Mitha’s smile seemed oddly out of place. Ever since she had buried herself in memorizing Onkel Moshe’s favorite prayer book, she shrouded herself with cheerlessness, reading and rehearsing from dawn to dusk. So inundated with her task, she often only spoke in verse and scripture, and to comprehend what she meant took real effort. On occasion she mentioned her daughter by name, but she only referred to Onkel Moshe as him. Her exclusive contribution to the household consisted of caring for little Judith. Glad to see her looking well, Rena threw her arms around her aunt and gave her a big hug.

With a curtsy and a wide grin, Rena invited them to sit down at the table and presented them with hot dandelion tea and a plate of dainty morsels rimmed in dandelion greens. She’d cut a chunk of the bread in a fancy zigzag shape, slicing it thick, dividing it into four finger size pieces, each dotted with a dandelion petal to give the appearance of butter slivers. The others smiled at her cleverness.

“I have a surprise.”

“You have a beam on your face, Rena. What is it?” her aunt asked with a queer expression.

She slowly removed the rag from the long loaf of bread. “From this day on, we will never have to worry about bread or the lack of food. Now I am sure our family will make it until the American’s come and push the Nazis out of Poland! I have a job and I will have a pass to get in and out of the ghetto so I can buy fresh food.”

“Smuggling it through the gate could be fatal, Rena,” her aunt whispered. 

She put her finger to her lips. “I have a connection with a guard, so don’t worry a bit. But I regret we must not tell the others on our floor just yet. We must build ourselves up first.”

Rena cut another slice for each of them. As she watched them smell the center of their slices, she shared the miracle story again.

With budging eyes, they chewed slowly and listened with great intent.

“You’re amazing, Rena. You have the luck of a wizard,” Aunt Mitha said. Her startling smile worked as an elixir on Rena’s heart. With the help of Jonathan, she’d figured out how to play the Nazis at their own game and win.

Rena realized her blessings were not just chance. “Aunt Mitha, maybe it takes a certain number of prayers before Yahweh answers us. I decided back at the farm while we were in the cellar that personal prayer is always worth the effort. No matter how low life gets, prayer takes a person to the highest mansions of the soul. In that space, no one, not even the Nazis, can degrade your existence.”

“You’re a very wise young lady, Rena. Prayer isn’t always about getting something. It’s about giving thanks for what you already have.”

Rena nodded and smiled, pleased to see the effect of her blessings working on Aunt Mitha’s disposition. When she thought about telling her father, she felt the excitement of her news all the way to her toes. Her father always came home from the hospital a little after dark, but with all the sickness in the ghetto she realized his schedule must have been pushed back tonight.

 

Later that evening as Rena waited for her father and Jonathan to get home, she fought her need to rest. She tiptoed to the table and made a shopping list of things she would buy the following Tuesday on the Aryan side. Heating up the kettle, she couldn’t wait to surprise the men folk with a big chunk of rye bread and soup, tell them about the miracle, about her pass to get out of the ghetto, and her plans to sneak back to the farm and get Onkel Moshe’s hoard of gold coins hidden beneath the horse trough in the barn.

No matter how much she tried to ignore it, tonight felt oddly out of sync. It was too quiet. She kept worrying about her mother and Jonathan, wondering why he had left her on the Aryan side to find her way back home alone. That was out of character for someone as gallant as Jonathan. Something must have happened.

Every night that Jonathan came in late, her mother, when feeling well, almost went into seizures tormenting herself over his fate, blaming all those involved in setting up the Jewish Combat Organization and the Ghetto Fighters League. The manhunts by German, Polish and Jewish Police, manhunts for dissenters, smugglers, partisans and more slave laborers increased his risk by gargantuan proportions. Even though her father tried to console everyone, her mother often reminded the family about the first day of Hanukkah, the day when the Nazis gunned down fifteen Jews in the courtyard of the Warsaw ghetto prison for no apparent reason. She kept the entire family in turmoil watching the minutes tick away on her watch, chewing her fingernails.

When Jonathan wasn’t working late at the newspaper, he went from one meeting to the next, never eating and hardly sleeping. Today he’d skipped his regular activities to help her meet the SS officer. She prayed he didn’t get in trouble because of her. That would ruin everything.

When Jonathan arrived home at ten o’clock, Rena sighed. “Jonathan, you are so late. I’ve been worrying over you. What happened? I thought you agreed to wait. Where have you been?”

“Meetings with the elders. Shalom, Sis,” he said, kissing her on the cheek.

“I thought you might be in trouble. You shouldn’t worry me—”

“Oh, yes. I’m sorry. I meant to tell you first thing. I got nabbed by a Polish policeman outside the officers flat and he escorted me all the way back to the entrance of the ghetto. Actually, he was pretty nice.”

“Nice?”

“He could have shot me, Rena. A Jew caught outside the ghetto without a pass is reason enough. I was lucky.”

“How did he even know you were Jewish?”

“My nose, he said.”

“Sit down, Jonathan. There is soup and fresh bread from the SS officer.”

“Oh, I meant to ask how it went.”

“He doesn’t have connections for diamonds, but he gave me a job…as a model.”

“What? What sort of job is that? It doesn’t sound right. He’s after something—”

“No, Jonathan. Listen, he’s a painter. He’s painting ghetto scenes, and he’s going to pay me to sit for his painting. I’ll have a pass to get in and out of the ghetto. I can buy—”

“Oh, I see. Yes, that could be useful to our new union. As long as he doesn’t have anything else up his sleeve. You tell him your brother will hunt him down and cut off…you just tell him he better treat you right.”

“You don’t understand, Jonathan. He’s not like the others.”

“Rena, I will need your help now. With this new connection, you can find out things. Today we received news about armed resistance in Nowogródek in the Vilna region. Jews are beginning to reject resignation and despair. Even tonight I could see it in their eyes—we will not die without dignity!”

“Oh, Jonathan, don’t you realize how much you worry us women? If you’d only come home a little earlier, it wouldn’t wear us down so much.”

“Look, Rena.” He pulled out a pamphlet and handed it to her. “This week with the help of the High Command of the Home Army, we published a full-blown article entitled, ‘The Jews in the Underground Biuletyn Informacyjny’, a ghetto information bulletin. We have sounded the alarm regarding the extinction of the Jews—specifically the Jews within the walls of the Warsaw ghetto.”

Rena scanned the first two articles, her jaw dropping lower sentence by sentence. “This alarm, this information is impossible to believe, Jonathan. What about the contributions of Jewish minds like Freud and Einstein? The Germans know how valuable we are. Why would they—” 

“Exactly. Now we have some proof for doubters like you. And we finally have a transmitter, the first radio station that has ever operated worth a darn.”

Rena turned the page and continued to read. “Eyewitness reports?”

“With this solid and detailed information about the mass executions in the Eastern territories, including those eyewitness reports about the exterminations in Chelmno and Lubin, we think this will instill a sense of urgency in the ghetto inhabitants.”

“Jonathan, I understand your heart is in this, but we’ve felt urgency for the past month. Urgency to find access to more food.”

“Armed resistance cannot wait. I need your help.”

“No, Jonathan. You promised me that you would never do this again. Papa is always gone. I need you. I can’t take care of Mama, cook, and watch out for little Judith all by myself…especially now that I have a job. What if they kill you this time, Jonathan? Don’t you worry about that?”

“Sis, there are only two kinds of death to choose from now—the death of a dignified battle against the Nazi hangmen or the other kind. It is not difficult to cling to honor when your enemy holds honor in contempt. The struggle is upon us. The Hechalutz movement and many other groups have made a pact tonight—to fight the Nazis to our last breath.”

Touching his mop of chestnut hair and studying the dusting of freckles on his face made her realize how much she loved him. “Jonathan, you are so brave, but—”

“We don’t care that the Nazi machine is victorious above all others.” As if energized by angelic intervention, he threw his fist in the air. “That they wield such enormous power that one great state after another has capitulated before their might. We are consolidating; political parties, youth organizations, Polish allies and even the PPR. We’re making booby-traps and obtaining weapons from the Polish underground.” He gave a wide smile of confidence. “You know, with so many good Poles risking their lives to follow their conscience and help us, I’m gaining some hope we can survive the war, Rena.”

“Yes, yes Jonathan. I think we can. I will help you. Just let me know what you want me to do. After this afternoon, I feel so lucky, almost as invincible as you. Everyone is scrambling for work right now, even paying to have a job. And now I have one.”

“I’m very happy how it worked out. Before the policeman came along, I watched him through the window. He seemed decent.  When they liquidate the ghetto, they say workers get to stay. You are blessed. Very blessed!” Looking over at his mother, his eyebrows rising with concern, he asked, “Bitte, tell me, how is Mama today?”

“Not good, Jonathan. I’m so worried about her. But I am saving her an extra ration of the fresh bread he gave me.”

Suddenly, they heard a knock on the door, beyond the curtains, a light tap, tap, tap. Papa wouldn’t knock. Rena felt her heart thump so strongly it caused her to grip her chest. Then she realized Nazis don’t knock politely, they use rifle butts.

Rose called to Jonathan. “You have a visitor.”

Rena wondered why anyone would come to see Jonathan at this time of the night when almost everyone was asleep. When he returned a few minutes later, his face was white. She noticed how he avoided eye contact.

“What’s wrong, Jonathan?”

When he turned toward his bed, she noticed tears in his eyes. He didn’t respond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

25

 

After a long day running back and forth between the warehouse, the vault and his office, Rolf finally had time to go out and get lunch. Often, he walked the two blocks to his favorite hot dog stand without taking his eyes from the pavement, but today as he strolled along the same streets he found himself feeling sad. How much he wanted to leave this place and go home to Bavaria. He couldn’t find a spot of green anywhere, only gray rubble, gray streets, gray buildings and lots of gray headed people. Even the snow had melted into gray muck. He longed for color, for something bright and cheery, the smell of a meadow after a spring rain and the sweet breath of a new foal. Examining the street and its stores, he saw two colorful dresses in a shop window and stopped to gaze on them. He couldn’t decide—yellow or red.

The meat market sold large Polish hotdogs from a cart outside. He turned at the corner and his stomach growled as the smell of hot food scented the air. At the cart he loaded the hotdog with mustard, sauerkraut and a little too much pepper. He mulled over the idea of using his ration coupons do some shopping. His model was coming tonight. He looked down at his watch – four-thirty. Yes, he decided to get his shopping done and head back to his flat. He’d done enough work for the Reich today.

 

~Even with a pass waiting for her at the gate, it took her fifteen minutes before the second guard let her pass. As he examined the document on all sides and held it up to the light, she knew the paper was genuine because it was stamped with the German ‘cockerel’, their eagle emblem.

One of the guards wore a long wool coat that looked like her father’s. He had been missing for five days, and no one could find out anything about his disappearance, not even Jonathan with all his connections. It made her heart sink in despair every time she thought about him, but before she allowed her worst image to sink in, she assured herself he would return. Likely they’d only taken him to work in the forest for a few days.

Fifteen minutes later she was standing in front of the SS officer’s door. She hoped he wouldn’t notice her tense nerves and the disarray in her appearance. To avoid being late, she’d run half the way. She wanted to earn his admiration, and she knew keeping her chin up and her private troubles locked down inside her was the only way to achieve the desired result.

She wore her dark blue traveling dress, her neighbor’s yellow and blue sweater, and a multicolored scarf. The shoes, which she borrowed from a neighbor on the second floor, fit badly on her feet, but torn chunks of cloth stuffed in the toes kept them tight. She had promised to return everything by morning along with a quarter loaf of bread for each of her donors.

With a deep breath and double checking for the stone in her pocket, she tapped on his door again. Please, make this a lucky night.

 

~After he invited her in and offered to take her sweater, he noticed the anxiety in her eyes. What had happened to her?

“Come in the kitchen, fräulein. Let’s sit down for a moment and have a cup of chocolate before we begin our session.”

Rena studied him like students who give their full concentration to their teacher, eyes locked on, antenna extended to full length. Without saying anything, she removed his wool sweater from a paper bag and gave it back to him with a thank you and sat down at the small wooden dinette set.

Reaching into the cabinet, he wished he had a better tea service, one like Göring’s, delicate and fine, like her, but all he owned were two brown cups without saucers. When he poured out the boiled chocolate, he gave her the cup with the single chip and kept the bad one for himself.

“Sugar?”

Rena nodded and put two spoonfuls in her cup, stirring like someone whose mind was elsewhere, a minute or so more than customary. He placed the hot pot in the center of the table on a round copper trivet and sat down across from her. “I hope you like this. It’s peppermint flavored. My mother grows it on the farm and sends me a bag of it now and then.”

“Yes, thank you.” At last, she gave a slight smile.

“Are you hungry? I could make us some food.”

She was obviously nervous, looking about the room at the doors and light switches like she was memorizing them. He wondered why she hesitated, if she was only trying to be polite when she said, “No, thank you.”

“So, how are you feeling about your new employment, fräulein?”

“Fine, sir.”

“Did your parents approve of your assignment?”

She closed her eyes for a moment before answering, and although she veiled her emotions well, he felt the shift. “Everything is fine, sir.”

She glanced into the pink room and seeing the painting on the easel, asked, “Have you started your painting?”

He withdrew himself from the chair and reached for her hand to escort her into his studio, but she only allowed him to hold it for a polite moment. “Yes, come see.”

 

~All things considered, it wasn’t a bad job sitting for an artist, even if he was a member of the loathsome SS. With her father missing and the last of the diamonds gone with him, this man had suddenly become her only link to survival. Somehow she had to forget that he was a member of Hitler’s forces, a participant in the plight of her people. But how could she really? How was it possible to wipe the vivid images of suffering from her mind? Did he know what happened to her father? Had he been a participant in planning the Jewish resettlements, in cutting rations and starving a sector of humanity because of their common religion? What sort of man would willingly involve himself in such inhumanity?

After a few minutes of evaluation as she examined this strange man with the paint brush in his hand, she felt rather lucky. If he was rich enough to afford to pay her to sit on a stool, she had to thank the heavens. But if this was only a trick, as Jonathan warned it might be, she had to be prepared. She felt a knot tighten in her stomach as she realized how limited her choices had become. Whatever he wanted, she knew she would eventually surrender it too—anything to keep her job and her freedom, anything to keep her family from dying from hunger like others.

“You’re an excellent artist, sir.”

“Do you mean it? You like the sketch?”

“Very much, sir. I am anxious to see how you finish it.”

He stepped close and put his hand on her shoulder. “Rena, please call me Rolf.”

She turned and caught his gaze on her lips and felt a pulse run from her shoulder to her toes. With an embarrassed grimace, she said, “I’m sorry, sir. I will be happy to refer to you as Rolf from now on.”

He smiled with a hint of satisfaction, replaced his brush, moved away and fussed with the placement of the stool and the lighting. As she watched his expressions when he went about methodically rearranging his workplace, she noticed his thick shoulders backlit by the bright light, his blue cotton shirt tight about his muscles. Her misgivings dissolved. Even if she could only spend a short amount of time near him, it would give her a few hours of distraction, like lingering in an art gallery of your favorite artist on a cold winter day. For this opportunity, she would always remember his kindness fondly.

“Do you mind sitting on this stool, fräulein?”

“No, sir…um…no, Rolf. As your model, I am happy to sit where you request.”

“If you can manage to stay on this stool for thirty minutes, I would be delighted. That doesn’t mean though, you must stay in your position for that long without stretching.”

“Thank you, sir. I believe you will find I can stay still for quite a time.”

He reached for her hand and she responded, allowing him to guide her to the stool and position her body and head with his hands. His touch electrified her, but she closed her eyes and kept the emotion to herself. “That’s perfect for my rough draft of your face. I’ll use pencil. It won’t take me long.”

  

~As he drew her, he noticed how her high cheekbones matched the textbook definition of Hitler’s Aryan cheekbones. Although her kaleidoscope eyes would be called striking in shape and color, it was the depth in them, combined with a sexual charm he knew she didn’t even realize existed, that aroused the artist in him.

A little while later, when she began to tilt her head and rearrange her footing, he knew she needed a break. Placing his pencil on the ledge of his easel, he stood up and set off in her direction, his eyes on hers. Without a conscious decision, he took her hands in his, feeling how fragile they were, fingering the palms, feeling the smoothness of her skin. Did she feel the same current running through them? He wanted to run his fingers along her arms, but a bell went off in his head, reminding him she was not his kind and German men couldn’t mix with Jewish women.

Moving next to her ear, he whispered, “Just listen to me for one minute. I’m not really a Nazi…like you think I am. Look, I can’t say a lot right now. Just trust me. I'm risking my life on this. SS officers can be shot for having a relationship with a Jew.”

“A relationship?”

Rolf held eye contact, noticing how the hazel of her eyes glistened like the sea under a floodlight. “It's a relationship to me. I’m involved now, Rena. That’s past the rules, okay?”

“A secret then? No one will know. I’ll come to you here…in secret?”

“Yes, you must make certain no one sees you come to my flat.”

“I understand, sir…Rolf.”

“Perhaps I can help you…if I can figure out a way…”

“You are helping me, good sir. With the money you pay me, I can buy food.”

“If I could get you out of the ghetto—”

“That’s very kind of you, Rolf, but I have my family to look out for now.”

“Of course. I wasn’t certain if you lived alone or with—”

“I live with my mother, my brother, sister and aunt.”

Of course, he should have considered her family before making such an aggressive suggestion. She was the family type, like Irma in Garmisch, loyal to the last. “Oh, I’m very glad you have your family around you.”

“But…

“What?” He watched how she avoided eye contact and wished he could make her feel more comfortable. “Please, Rena. Feel free to talk to me about anything.”

“Mercy, sir. I don’t wish to seem ungrateful, but my mother is quite sick…and I need to locate a doctor who would be willing to come to the ghetto to see her…find a way to get some medicine for her. Perhaps, you would be willing to help?”

“Yes, of course.”

“You would? Are you serious? A doctor? You are too good to be true, sir. Medicine, too?”

Chuckling, he held his hand up in the air for permission to speak. “Rena, yes, I will help you, but—”

“You will? You promise? This isn’t a test or your idea of bad humor, is it?”

“Yes. Yes, I promise.” Rolf nodded, beginning to worry about the time. “Today I saw a dress in a window and I’m not sure why, but I went in and bought it for you. It’s the latest Polish fashion, and it will help you blend into the Aryan sector. I hope it is the correct size.” He went to the desk and picked up a bundle wrapped in brown paper. “Only wear it when you come to see me, but this must be kept a secret also.”

 

~Rena smiled a bit. At last, she began to believe he had the warm heart and gentle spirit she suspected all along. As he placed the bundle in her hands, she realized life was a spiral of shockers. “A secret then.”

 “Yes, okay, a super secret till death.”

“Till death.” The sharpness of the word death struck her as if hearing it for the first time. Oh Papa, Papa…please come back to us. Finding a peculiar feeling in the pit of her stomach, an alternate vision of Rolf with a gun in his hand weighed on her mind. “Only...”

“What?”

“If you have any medicine here, may I have it? My mother can't wait, sir. She is very ill with...influenza.”

 

~Rolf nodded, still amazed at the refined details of her face. As if touched by the wand of a magician, he suddenly realized he hadn’t felt so relaxed in a very long time. It was as if all the vengeance stored in his heart since the age of sixteen had suddenly evaporated. He wondered if his father hovered somewhere in the mist, paintbrush in hand, fashioning this hour for Rolf. With an overwhelming sense of joy filling him, he said, “I also bought you a roasted chicken and a loaf of rye bread to take home. I want you to stay strong, Rena.”

She suddenly began to weep and he felt his heart wrench. As she struggled to steady her breath, he wrapped his arm around her shoulder and brought her into his chest. She pulled away, looked up at him and managed a weak smile. “You did? Honestly? Can I see it?”

“Yes, of course.” He escorted her to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. “Right here. It's all wrapped up and ready to take home. Let me tie it together with the bread so you can put it over your shoulder under your sweater when you go.”

Rena sniffed through the wrapping and whimpered. The warm spicy scent filled the room. After he finished tying it up, she smiled at him in a way that made his heart flutter. “No one has ever been so kind to me, sir.”

 

~Real fresh chicken. How long had it been since she’d smelled anything this delicious? She was so thrilled about the food, she didn’t dare ask him again about the medicine. She stared up at him with admiration. “Oh, if only I could tell my father that I met you. He’d be so relieved to know one German officer had a…real heart.”

Rolf smiled. “I’ll send a doctor by tomorrow, Rena. Now I want you to go. It’s not safe for a Jew to be in the street after curfew. You should be safe with your pass, but be careful. Sometimes they take action without proper procedures.”

“Yes, sir. I'm going…I'm going.” Rena tucked her package of food under her arm and held the bundle with her new dress next to her breast as she trotted down the pathway.

“Tomorrow.” He ran after her. “At nine in the morning a doctor will meet you in front of the hospital on Ogrodowa Street, and you can take him to your mother.” He one last time, leaving her a handful of zlotys for her pay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

26

 

It happened at nine o’clock the next evening when the big soup vats were almost empty and the room was bursting with little people who didn’t want to go out into the dark night. As Rena added water to the remaining soup, she noticed how the frigid wind punched through the makeshift roof, causing tin to fly off. As the sleet blew in, she heard the terrible sound of tree branches scratching and moaning like butchered tom cats and ran to help with the repair — that was the moment she saw her again.

She numbered forty-eight of the fifty bowls they served that night. She was thin as an icicle, her skin sallow, her cheekbones so delineated she looked more like a bleached-out scarecrow than a human being. Worst of all, she’d lost control of her nervous system, her body in constant motion. 

“Sarah? Is that you? Sarah…my best friend? Could it be?”

The girl looked up with dull eyes, dark circles emphasizing her plight. She scurried away to the far corner with her soup and crust of bread, gobbling at it. Rena waited until she’d finished, understanding the instinct of protecting one’s nourishment in the ghetto. Then she approached her again.

“Sarah? It’s me, Rena. Rena Steiner.”

For a few moments, the blank stare of the girl made Rena wonder if her Sarah would ever act so strange. Had she completely lost her mind? Studying her closer, the details of her face, the little mole on the side of her nose, all doubt passed away. Rena smiled and took her hand. “Remember Rascal? The little white kitten you gave me when I came home from the hospital in Berlin?”

Sarah scratched vacantly at the tangles in her hair. She smelled like the public toilets, had bugs on her, tiny crawling things. Rena picked at them and continued, “Berlin. Do you remember when I played the piano for our recital?”

With only a shadow of life left in her, the girl finally whispered, “Who are you?”

So elated to have found her revered friend after so much time, Rena felt slightly embarrassed at how easily her emotion pulled the tears from her eyes. “Oh, please remember, Sarah. I need you. I missed you so much.”

Slowly she watched Sarah’s eyes come into focus. “Rena?” Sarah whispered dully like someone drugged.

“Yes, I am Rena. Yes!”

“My…Rena?”

“Yes! Yes!”

Rena put out her index finger and tried to form a smile. Sarah locked her finger with Rena’s and they both whispered, “Best friends, forever.”

For fifteen minutes, Rena cradled and rocked the frail body, warmed her, kissed her thin hands and whispered she would be all right now, she could stay with them, be her sister. “We have some coins and I have a German friend who is helping us.  I get to go outside the wall once a week. You won’t be hungry anymore.”

 

Later than night, after a bath with lye and fresh clothes, Rena tucked Sarah inside the blanket alongside her. There wasn’t much room, but Rena didn’t care. She was willing to sleep on her side for the remainder of their captivity, as long as she could save Sarah’s life.

After a lot of whispering and consoling, Sarah finally began to share the brutal story of her parent’s demise. Rena asked her to wait a minute, got up and went into the bathroom where they kept a bucket of rags, climbed back under the thin blanket and offered Sarah a clean rag for her tears. “Okay, Sarah. Tell me everything, every detail. You must get it out of you so you can get healthy again.”

Sarah’s voice cracked like an old woman telling the saddest tale of her life. “When the bombing started we went to the neighbors to hide in their basement. We were safe enough. I thought everything would be alright. My father was transferred to the cement factory in Warsaw a week later.”

“So you saw your father again?” Rena felt an iron chain pull on her heart every time she thought about her own missing father.

“Yes. I jumped in his arms the moment I saw him. He almost fell down from all the hugs.”

“Mercy, I…I can imagine how excited you must have been.”

“I wouldn’t know how to measure my joy, Rena. We were together at last. We all wept for hours. Even with slave labor wages, we felt very happy to have one another and have a little extra food. But our happiness didn’t last.”

Rena reached out and touched Sarah on the arm, the uncertainties about her own father augmenting the anxiety that constricted her heart.

“My poor father was lost to us three weeks later from the cement dust caking his lungs, fell over and died right at the factory—like many others.” Sarah’s voice dropped to a whisper. “We never saw him again.” 

How could Rena be brave and strong for Sarah when her body refused to breathe, when her throat collapsed as if Sarah’s account revealed the fate of her own father? She took a rag for herself, not able to abate the emotion that caused her to moan and break down. After a few minutes, these were the only comforting words she could manage, “I am so sorry…”

Sarah went on explaining as if she needed to expunge the horror from her head, talking between her flare-ups of emotion, but speaking like an adult, like a grown woman, not a skeletal starveling. “After that my mother seemed to give up…hardly spoke. When the stone walls went up, she went down deeper into her shell.” Sarah ripped off a small piece of the rag and stuffed it up the right side of her nose to abate the endless dripping. “Then one night…I wish I had told her…you know…that I appreciated what a good mother she was, how I treasured her.”

Rena assured her, “She knew, Sarah. Mothers know those things.”

Laying her hand atop of Rena’s hand and latching index fingers, Sarah continued, “No matter what ever happens, Rena, know that I love you…my best friend forever…long after this world.”

Rena lifted the corners of her lips and forged a smile. “And I love you, Sarah, my forever best friend.”

After their embrace, Sarah continued, her awakened mind apparently infusing her with new energy. “Two weeks ago there was a raid. I think two weeks, maybe two months ago. I can’t be sure. The Nazis broke into our apartment building in the middle of the night. When they barged into our floor they forced all the women to undress.”

Rena gasped, her hands covering her mouth. “Mercy! No…no, Sarah. Don’t tell—”

“Then forced them…” Sarah fiddled with the blue sheet with lavender flowers that divided off their living quarters from Rose. “They raped the women…and then they used…used their pistols to prod inside them, threatening to shoot…up in there…if they made a sound.” With tears saturating her cheeks, she whimpered out the rest, and Rena knew everyone on the other side of the curtain heard the horror, too. “I hid under the bed, but I heard everything. I heard their vile words…heard them laugh…laughing while they tormented the helpless women.”

Rena closed her eyes, pinching in the emotion. How can some men be so vile and depraved? Did they not think of their own mothers and sisters and wives when they committed such atrocity? As hard as she tried, she couldn’t stay the tears or the memories of her own experience with evil. With her fingers, she traced over the reminder on her right leg, the thickened red scar still raised like rough-skinned fruit. In Berlin, her father treated them with injections and taught her to stretch a certain way to counteract the contractures, promised her they would go away or he would operate and repair the damage, but now scars seemed a minor consideration, the permanent disfigurement trivial. But sometimes she did wonder if any nice Jewish boy would ever want to touch her.

Sarah cried in her arms for a long while, and then finally whispered, “I don’t want the others to feel sad. I know they are pretending to sleep for my benefit, but I can’t let them hear this.” Sarah swallowed hard and her head began to shake as if she might go into convulsions.

Rena thought to tell her she had hidden the box of Sarah’s family photographs in the barn at the farm, but it wasn’t the time.

Through drenched words, Sarah moaned, “Then they…they shot her—one bullet between the eyes. Oh, my precious mother. She collapsed right in front of me. She crumbled to the floor, her life, her spirit gone in a split second.” Sarah’s voice dropped back to the voice of an aged, frail starveling. “I looked into her eyes. They were like dead marbles, frozen, unresponsive. One minute she lived, the next she evaporated. I still can’t believe it’s real.”

Rena felt spasms of fury pounding inside her heart. She held her outrage. It seemed that Sarah wanted to say something else, but couldn’t. Her face flushed into a bright crimson color, her eyes blood streaked. Seeing her in such a state both broke and infuriated Rena. As one word found her tongue, she looked for another and then another. Finally, no words existed in strong enough form or fashion, and in the end, all the feeble words of the human language were utterly inadequate. No word could soothe away such horror. As they held steady eye contact, they both burst into tears and fell against the pillows.

For a long while Rena kept her arm around Sarah, wishing a divine finger would reach down and sew up her wounds with golden threads, that somehow she could go on and have a life free from the horrible visions in her head. But Rena knew all too well that those sorts of visions never left a person in peace no matter how many wishes anyone made.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

27

 

Jonathan wasn’t letting up on her as they stood in line for water. “You must stop seeing him, Rena. Ever since you started going to see him three nights a week, you’re acting giddy, like a schoolgirl. He’s the enemy, straight and simple. No amount of food or money or ration coupons is worth shaming yourself over.”

She cocked her head in defiance. “It’s not like that, Jonathan. He wears the uniform, but he hates what it stands for. If he had any say in decisions, he would let us all go back to our homes.”

As he lowered the bucket under the spigot, he said, “We have no more homes, Rena. If you would pay a little more attention to what they are doing to our people, you would know Jews own nothing now. He has you bamboozled, Rena…and it’s sad.”

She stooped down, her two buckets stacked in front of her. “I’m not bamboozled or giddy or anything, Jonathan. But it just happens to be a fact that without his assistance, our family, not to mention the others on our floor and the orphans which his support helps, would likely be only bones by now.” Explaining her feelings for Rolf to Jonathan was like trying to explain a beautiful sunset to a blind man, the tranquility and grace of the Sabbath to a gentile.

He handed her his bucket and retrieved her two for filling. “Rena, if you have any doubt about his intentions, you better find a way to put him to the test before your heart turns to bone and shatters when he breaks it.”

 

As she sat on the stool holding her position for Rolf that afternoon, she realized Jonathan had a point. She’d never heard a vile word from Rolf’s mouth, but she’d seen SS change in an instant, without provocation. To instigate a quarrel by degrading his people would be a reckless way to test him. Besides, over the weeks, she’d grown accustomed to the pretense she lived while she modeled for him, learned to appreciate the time she had in normal surroundings with a person who treated her like a human being rather than an creepy Jew.

He shifted in his chair and looked over at her. “Please, Rena. Don’t think what you’re thinking. I can see it in your eyes. It’s changing your expression.”

“I’m sorry.” Rather than focusing on the flower in the painting on the wall behind him, she studied him whenever he glanced down at his work. Even without the black uniform and twin runes of the SS, he still resembled them, his square shoulders, thick neck, blond hair, blue eyes and that soft white skin. She watched as Rolf’s brush worked against the canvas, the long wooden tail waltzing to his rhythm. Why did she feel so drawn to him? Was it nothing more than a delusion, a way to overlook reality? Suddenly, in her mind, the brush in his hand became a pistol, then a rifle, and then she saw a dozen rifles as they fanned out in the square, the smoke as the bullets shot out simultaneously and struck their target, Jonathan’s friend, Bayla, falling to the ground, Even as she desired so mightily to forget, she needed to remember, to see each one of the murderers, face by face in her mind. Was Rolf there among them, threatening the crowd, laughing, making a joke out of her death like the others?

She felt her head wilt from its position when she remembered how the little birds flew away when Henny yanked her arm that day. Would she escape Rolf, locked in his studio without any method to defend herself? She jumped off the stool and ran to the bathroom, her nerves at the breaking point. Rolf turned his head to follow her, his brush stuck to the canvas.

Sitting on the toilet, her head between her knees, she realized wishful thinking couldn’t alter facts. Jonathan was right. How could she forget what the Nazis had done to her and her family and go on pretending this one was different? She was living a lie, she knew it now. It wasn’t only about the food and surviving the war. She had started to allow herself to think she meant something to him. Why hadn’t she seen it earlier? What a fool she’d been, what a childish fool.

 

~What had he done to make her lock herself in the bathroom for so long? During both breaks, he had told her how much he appreciated her willingness to sit for him. Yes, the painting was taking longer than he anticipated, but he also wanted to keep her coming to his flat for as long as possible. These visits made his days fly by, the demands of his work less stressful, a portion of his life enjoyable. Painting always put him into a state of euphoria; the process of creation made time stand still. With her beauty and warmth to sustain him, he could forget, if only for a few precious hours, that the majority of his days were spent working against everything he valued.

He finished the highlights and cleaned the white oil off his brush. After consideration, he decided not to resume the session, his concentration broken. Under normal circumstances, he might be irritated at the interruption, but somehow he felt thankful. This would give him an excuse to spend more time with her, to build patience and trust with one another. Whatever she was feeling, he felt certain he was capable of understanding. He hoped she would stay and give him a chance.

“Rena, are you alright?” he called.

He heard her pull the tissue from the roll and blow her nose, mumbling.

The door was locked when he tried the knob. “Please come out, Rena. Have I offended you in some way?”

She opened the door, and he knew by the redness around her nose and eyes, she was anything but alright. Her hair was in complete disarray and her lips quivered. He reached for her hand, but she slipped by him, stormed into the parlor and sat down on his sofa. He followed and asked, “What has happened?”

With her chin down, he couldn’t see her eyes, but he knew she was still on the verge of tears. Then she whispered, “My father used to say the reason worlds fail is the inability for the male and female to obtain balance. I don’t think you can understand. Really it’s nothing.”

He sat down next to her and turned his knees until they slightly brushed against her thigh. His hand wrapped over her forearm as he tried to reach her. “Nothing doesn’t make you cry, Rena. I thought our relationship meant we were close enough to talk about things.”

“You couldn’t understand, Rolf. This is my problem to solve, not yours.”

“Is something wrong at home?”

“It’s not that.”

“Is it me, then? Something about me?”

She moved away, and he knew full well her mood had everything to do with him. He gripped her shoulder, rubbing it a bit. “I’ll bet you have a stiff neck. Would you allow me to massage it?”

Surprisingly, she turned her back toward him and let his hands work on her shoulders for a few minutes. He moved in closer and felt an unusual yearning, his male desires clambering. Still working his hands to unknot her muscles, he bent closer to her neck, almost a hairbreadth away from brushing his lips against her skin. She stood up abruptly and put her hands on her hips, facing him.

“How do you do it, Rolf? That’s what I don’t understand.”

“Do what?”

“How can you do the work you do? How do you sleep at night?”

“Rena, I’ve explained to you before that I was enlisted because of my expertise at evaluating and restoring ancient works of art. I work with collections. Do you think I go out after work every night and participate in these horrific offences against innocent people? Do you really think I’m like them, Rena?”

She stomped off to the kitchenette, took a glass out of the cabinet and filled it with water. “I don’t know what to think anymore.”

“Believe me, Rena. I despise this job, but I am thankful I don’t have to go out and slaughter innocent people on behalf of the Third Reich. I’d rather die first. Don’t you know how I hate Hitler? He’s a dangerous little boy who apparently read too many war stories.”

He followed Rena into the kitchen and poured himself some water. He was beginning to worry she would walk out on him.

When she did make eye contact again, he felt like a worm. She said, “From what I do know about you, you seem to enjoy taking pictures of the horror committed by your fellow soldiers.”

“Enjoy? Do you have any idea how—”

“It appears painting the scenes gives you immense pleasure as well.” She wouldn’t allow him to look away. “Your words and your actions don’t match up, Rolf.”

He couldn’t believe this was happening. If he wasn’t so worried about keeping the children a secret, he would tell her about his shipments, prove to her he wasn’t one of them. But he couldn’t tell without breaking a vow of silence about the project. “What do you want from me, Rena? I can’t stop these pigs all by myself.”

She snubbed him like his intentions meant nothing. “No, but if you cared, you could try to do something, Rolf.”

Rolf turned away from her, ready to let her go. It had been a stupid mistake to become entangled with a Jewish girl in the first place. She had no concept of what he went through, had gone through every waking moment since Brutskeller showed up on his doorstep. Why couldn’t he be a good German, follow the law and let her go? He turned back to her. “Okay, Rena, let’s hear it. If you have some great idea how to stop this insanity and I can help in any way without sacrificing my life, I promise you I will do it.”

“Why take a few lousy photographs, Rolf? What good are they to anyone besides you and your dream of painting the dreadfulness to show off in some art gallery after this is all over?”

Stunned, he turned away to short-circuit her outburst, but her words echoed in his head. She was right, after all. From her perspective, he appeared to be no more than a cultured version of beasts like Henny. Perhaps he did need to break the vow about the children and tell her now. When he turned back to explain, he found her standing a few inches from his face.

 “Why not take a hundred photographs…a thousand…send them off to Germany’s enemies to show them what is happening to all these people?” Her beautiful eyes filled with fervor for her people. “Can’t you see how much power you have to actually make a difference? If you’re really a good man trapped in a bad uniform, prove it, Rolf. Not just to me, but to yourself.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

28

Rolf had finished off six rolls of film of sad emaciated faces on Nowolipie Street near Schultz’s clothing factory. Why had he not realized it before? Slave labor for German factories produced the bony frames of the populace mulling these streets. He left the ghetto and went to the Aryan side for a late lunch. He wasn’t able to eat.

Why had he taken such offense to Rena’s insinuation that he was like all the others? From what he had shown her of himself, what else could she think? He’d only known her since January, a little more than seven weeks, and their conversations usually focused on his painting. Why had he not shared his goals with her, his core beliefs and standards? If he wanted to win her over, he had to open up and take risks. And that meant breaking out of himself, perhaps even focusing on her problems and inner viewpoints. No matter what, he had to start trusting his intuition. He finished his coffee and found himself pacing the street in front of the gate.

Remembering the children’s pleas for bread, he purchased six more loaves at a bakery near the entrance to give to the ones he photographed. He put the bread inside a knapsack, slung it over his shoulder and took a deep breath, not knowing how much longer he could tolerate the foul smell of the streets behind the barricade.

As he walked along Zamenhofa Street inside the wall, pulling his collar against the frigid March wind, he couldn’t believe how drastically the inhabitants had diminished over the past thirty days. The disgusting odor of death and excrement and smoke moved up his nose and seemed to stick on his brain. Even with the cold and frost keeping the stench at bay, it was deplorable. At that moment, it dawned on him Rena lived among all this, with garbage and dead bodies lining the streets. This is what he sent her back to everyday. Somehow I must get her out of here.

As he turned the corner, a mother carrying a naked baby came out of an alley and fell to her knees on the curbside. Rolf’s feet stopped, his mouth agape. She laid the body next to another child, a toddler. Both were motionless. A volcano erupted inside him. Why don’t they bury their dead? He felt a ping of compunction staple into his heart, the pinch reminding him of his role in this woman’s predicament.

“Excuse me. May I be of some assistance?”

She stared back and seeing his black uniform; slowly shook her head.

“Why do you not bury these children, madam?”

She crouched on her knees like a whipped dog, her hands wrapped around her neck. She cleared her throat and spoke to the sidewalk. “They are not dead, sir.”

Then he saw an eye open on the infant child. “Oh, my God. What in the world are you thinking, madam? Do you not realize the cold out here will do them in?”

The woman began to weep and stutter, and Rolf couldn’t understand a word she said. He stooped down to comfort her, and putting his hand on her back, felt the ribs sticking out. On closer observation, the children were skeletal as well.

She whimpered, “My last hope is that a passerby may take pity…and take them home, sir. I don’t think they can make it another day without food.”

Rolf felt his chin vibrating. “Where is your husband, madam?”

“He gave up his rations to save us. He’s gone, sir.”

“Can’t you get work, a job somewhere?”

Tears formed in her eyes. “There are too few jobs. I tried many times. I’m sorry, sir.”

Rolf helped the woman to her feet, lifted the comatose infant off the ground and placed him back in her arms. He reached in his pocket and handed her a few zlotys, enough for cabbage and a little fat from the butcher, and told her to take her baby home and to come back for her other child and he would give her a loaf of bread.

When she returned, Rolf handed her a slip of paper with a name and address. Boris would provide more food for her and her children. With the second child safely in her arms, he pulled out a loaf of bread and tucked it under the ragged shirt of the little boy. “What is your name, Mother?”

“Josephine,” she whispered as she backed away from him, not smiling, but with a little twinkle in her eyes. “How can you be one of them?”

“I’m not,” he said. “It’s a disguise.”

When she smiled back and bowed in gratitude, Rolf felt his heart mourn. He couldn’t think of any book or story in the history of the world that compared to this degree of sadness. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t find a point to all this suffering. As he walked away from the scene wiping at his cheeks, he noticed other women holding thin children. His heart sank even lower. Before him stood hundreds of other mothers he couldn’t help no matter how long he lived or how much money he had. One man could do so little.

 

Rolf examined the wall as he walked along it toward the exit gate. He thought how the Warsaw wall stood as a monument to the cruelty of Germans. Built on German command with Jewish labor and Jewish funds—a killing machine. Just lock them in and let them starve. Rolf knew for a fact Hitler would never do such a thing to his dog, Blondi. He couldn’t imagine the mentality it took to conjure up such evil, especially against women and children. Did he belong to a race of absolute barbarians? Of course, he knew he did—every time he read the reports from the Death Head squads of Jews burned alive in synagogues, beaten to death with iron bars, buried alive in pits, blown up with car bombs, or hung in town squares while German musicians strummed Fatherland tunes.

In front of the Bersons and Baumans Hospital, he snapped several photographs of three young children sitting one in front of the other, a gendarme killing them all with a single round. He felt the sour vomit at this throat and ran between two buildings to hide.

He decided right then and there to send one hundred of his most graphic photographs by courier to Great Britain along with a note to Winston Churchill. Stopping Hitler was now his primary personal goal. He accepted Rena’s challenge to prove his heart, not only to her, but to himself.

Standing a few feet outside the gate, as if touched by the finger of God, he knew his promotion to Warsaw wasn’t a Hitler directive at all, but a direction from some higher source. With his eyes closed, a new, mystical sort of understanding poured into him. His life would not be lived in vain. He would be counted among those who gave their life to more than ordinary existence. The answer to his yearning to leave some grand exhibition of his art to the world was eclipsed the moment Rena asked him to stand up and be counted for what was right, not just to pass down the scenes of these times in oils, but to step up and take action to stop inhumanity in its tracks. Now he knew—this objective was the only thing that could ever bring true peace to his heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

29

 

Rolf had arranged a full evening off and asked Rena to meet him at the Saxon Gardens for a supper picnic at six-thirty. A beautifully manicured park near Bankowy Square just over the wall on Krolewska Avenue in the Aryan section, it was the perfect spot and time to prove to her once and for all he was not one of them. Tonight, if the timing was right, he would tell her about his ongoing shipment of orphans.

 

~Wearing her yellow dress and shiny white shoes gave her a new sense of freedom. His gifts and generosity proved over and over her imaginings were justified–he did care for her. Her doubts about his principles had been put to rest eight weeks ago in March when he showed her the package of photos he sent to Churchill with a request for help. Since Rolf had opened up his heart to her, she knew he was truly a good man.

In her pocket, she fingered the lucky turquoise. Jonathan’s miracle stone really did work, after all. “Did you bring the candy?” she asked, bending down on the blanket, remembering the picnics her family once enjoyed at Steinersfield Park in Berlin.

Rolf reached behind the picnic basket and pulled out a brown paper sack and handed it to her. “As you requested…a hundred lollypops, a variety of flavors.”

“That is very sweet, Rolf. Thank you.” Mrs. Reisman from the first floor, a teacher and mother of five little girls was organizing a Children’s Day later in May and asked Rena if she could find a way to get candy, something the children hadn’t had for months. Everyone in the building somehow shared in Rena’s good fortune and Rolf’s charitable heart.

“I wanted to…” Rena began sheepishly. “…never mind.”

“Never mind what?”

“I couldn’t ask…no, you’ve been too generous already.”

“Ask. I’m a man who likes questions.”

“Ah, it’s…maybe you could help me think of something.”

“Not unless I know.”

“A baby was born today…across the curtain. They begged me to ask you…”

“A baby?”

The step was a giant one, she knew, and only because of all the new photos he showed her the day before, did the words leave her lips. Suddenly she felt her heart shrink, her lips freeze up. He was a Nazi, after all. What was she thinking? But his expression, the person she knew behind his skin and wardrobe, wasn’t a Nazi at all. She forged forward. “Well, there are lots of nice…good Poles. Maybe…if you could find someone.”

“Ah…”

He looked bewildered and she worried that she’d overstepped the bounds of their relationship. It was a stupid mistake. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking. I could ask my brother to ask around.”

As she spotted two yellow and black butterflies flitting around the hedge, he said, “An infant has many risks.”

“Forgive me. I should never burden you with these things.”

He frowned, but she felt his concern and it made her care for him more. He said, “Children of an age to understand instructions are different. I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know many people. Every minute I’m not with you, I’m in my office or at the warehouse bombarded with…What would I do with a baby? I couldn’t be seen. I would have to drop it somewhere immediately.”

“Maybe my brother, Jonathan, could make the drop if you could arrange—”

“I don’t think you realize—”

“I’m sorry. Never mind. Please. I shouldn’t have asked.”

Three more beautiful butterflies joined the others playing in the bushes, and Rena remembered the farm, the birds and abundance of colorful insects and animals she once adored.

After a few minutes passed in silence, Rolf said, “I can’t promise, but when you go tonight, take this picnic basket and have your brother bring the child to me tomorrow morning very early.”  

Rena bowed her head and closed her eyes, privately thanking Yahweh for the goodness inside Rolf’s heart. She marveled at how he’d won her over. After only four months she felt as if she’d known him for years.

The vast green of the expanse surrounding them enlivened her, reminding her of the happy spring days she’d spent running the knolls and valleys with old Yankel. It all seemed like a lifetime ago—like a silhouette of a sweet dream, too distant to have any value in the present. Gazing past shadows cast against the imaginary meadow in her mind, the giant oak trees swayed over the sheep resting at eventide on the pale moonlit grass that went on forever. She remembered how the river sparkled under the morning light, how the stone skipped over the water. When she closed her eyes and tried real hard, she even felt the cotton of the soft sheep between her fingers when she lay against their warm bodies in the barn. She could think of nothing more wonderful than life on a farm.

Sitting on the blanket Rolf brought to the park, she slipped off her shoes, allowing her feet to cool on the tall blades of grass. Unseasonably warm, he had chosen a perfect May evening for a picnic. Somewhere up in the trees, birds sang their evening songs, their sweet music making her both happy and sad.

 

~As the sun set, its colors crossing the face he had grown so fond of, Rolf wrapped her shoulders with the aqua green shawl he’d bought her and handed her a wrapped gift, a leather-bound copy of the complete works of Emily Dickenson.

When he saw her gratefulness, he kissed her cheek and whispered, “Look at that sky, Rena…so awash with color. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

He saw how she strained to regain herself as she looked up at the cascades of yellow-green and blushes of crimson fanning overhead. It seemed to change in color and brightness as it fell in broad rays. She rolled to her knees and he knew she felt the same excitement he did. “It’s almost like an aurora, Rolf! I remember my father telling me about them. “Look, pink with blue edges…oh, it changed again…look at the shapes. Oh, yes…it’s very beautiful.”

“The gods are offering us a heavenly show. It must be a sign, Rena.”

“Yes…what a beautiful painting by our creator. It’s a sign of His love.”

The way the moonlight covered her skin gave her an angelic glow, and he found the word beautiful far too weak for what his eyes beheld. Fumbling for words, he merely said, “Beautiful as you are…Rena. As you are both outside and inside.”

“You know how to make me happy, don’t you?” She smiled, her nose twitching, her eyes aglow with pleasure.

 

~He poured white wine in two small wine glasses, handing one to Rena. She wondered how she could feel so happy when reality was really so miserable, when her people sequestered behind the wall were starving to death. Guilt began to nip at her joy. She searched for the red stop sign. The gift of this moment should not be surrendered. Besides, perhaps the brilliant sky meant a change was coming, another of God’s subtle messages. Those thoughts caused her to reflect on something her father said quite often while they hid from the Nazis in the cellar. “When you get right down to the simple straight line of life, it’s the same struggle in everyone’s life: cellar or freedom, Warsaw or Berlin, Jew or German. It’s the struggle of the soul to understand its connection to the universe…his and her relationship, in literal terms, to the Creator. Possessions, successes, even nourishment are fleeting. What counts is not what you show to the world, but the intent of your heart and the integrity of your soul. It’s all about honor. And when you get old you know this journey includes many hills and valleys before discovering the rocky path up the mountain to the stars.”

Rolf whispered close to her ear, “Making a woman happy is what being in love is all about. I’d pull that aurora from the sky and grant you every wish in your heart…if I could.”

“Oh?” she chuckled, sipping the bitter beverage for the first time in her life. “All my wishes?” She felt the cold liquid at the back of her throat, tingling its way down, making little hot waves in her stomach.

As Rolf finished drinking, about to brush the excess dribbles from his chin, she reached out and did it for him. Whatever he started to say stayed in his mouth. Rubbing her fingers together, she felt the cold wine from his chin warmed by the heat of his skin and found it intoxicating. Everything about him lifted her feet off the ground, and she knew she could search the world over and never find anyone else as gentle and attentive as him. It wasn’t the first time she’d touched him, but this time something changed inside her. All her grand childhood visions gave way to the wave of bubbles inside her, and she wondered if what suddenly flooded her being was the thing adults called true love. She leaned in and kissed his chin.

He touched the tip of her nose with his finger, and she knew he wanted to kiss her at that moment. Turning her hand, he kissed her palm with a slow soft press of his lips.

Rena quivered at what was happening between them in the park under the misty lights of the heavens. The mere sight of his lips touching the palm of her hand took her breath away. She reached up, her fingertips touching the new blond hairs of his light beard, her hand caressing the side of his face and the back of his neck. His curly blond hair felt soft to the touch, so yielding and pliant her fingers wanted to hold the sensation for hours, playing, stroking and at last pulling at it—to bring him closer. Although she had no idea where such feelings would lead, she wanted it to last as long as possible.

At his touch, she closed her eyes and let his silky hands caress her face and neck, concentrating on every moment of the electric pleasure. As he touched the corner of her lips with his fingers, she parted them and welcomed his explorations, imagining the sumptuousness of his lips against hers as he held them only a hairbreadth away. So close to him, she felt herself transform inside, her adolescence evaporating, instant womanhood springing suddenly, from bud to flower.

She dared not open her eyes for fear of losing the magic of the moment, the explicit memory of his touch, like awakening from a dream. If she opened her eyes what would she find—doubt, pity, hopelessness? For wasn’t he really a Nazi and she a Jewish girl? She felt an urge to get up and run, run far away and never see him again, for so certain was their future separation she knew her heart would burst if she allowed herself to fall in love with this man.

Rolf laced his fingers through her hair and gently drew her head toward him until his lips reached her cheek, and his soft caresses trailed down her face to her lips where he waited, pressing ever so lightly at the corner of her trembling mouth.

 

~He moved his arm farther down her waist and found himself bringing her closer, his lips imagining the magic of hers, his chest aching to feel the softness he knew waited only centimeters away. At the very moment her lips accepted his first kiss, he felt himself enkindled from head to toe, like a blazing fire heated him to a point of no return.

As his heart pumped with agonizing pleasure, he suddenly realized he had been chosen for far more than the glory of having his name written in history books as the painter who immortalized the demise of the Jews, or even as the SS officer who put his life in jeopardy to thwart the wrong. He had been chosen to love Rena. She was his true destiny. “You are so lovely, Rena. I want you with me…always.”

 

~When Rena opened her eyes, she noticed a flash of light. The man behind the newspaper on the park bench had a camera. He must be taking photographs of the aurora. “Have you brought your camera, Rolf?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

30

 

Rolf’s desk grew higher than ever with lists and forms and documents. He sat down in the leather chair and picked up a report secured with a metal clip. He leaned back and stretched his neck side to side. This project would take hours. As he slammed it back on his desk, dust flew up in a cloud. No matter how many times he cleaned his desk, the dust of devastation coming in through the window contaminated his surroundings. He hated that. It reminded him that his countrymen were still on their parade of destruction, elsewhere.

Examining a recent Einsatzstab report on abandoned art acquired through the use of the German infantry by seizures from storage companies, warehouses, and shipping crates headed to America, the loot netted thus far totaled in the billions of Reich marks. Grooves cut across his forehead as he wrestled with numbers. Many pieces were too priceless to valuate; antiques, handicraft works, Persian tapestries, textiles, candelabras, rare one-of-a-kind paintings. The renaissance jewelry of the Rothschilds he listed in the column of ‘No Comparable Values’. Paintings, pastels, and drawings by Rembrandt van Rijn, Romney, Largielliere, Saloman, Rubens, Valasquez, and Willem van der Velde ended up as only a few of the hundreds of great masterpieces on the list. A few of the Rembrandt’s depicting Jews required special handling, but most would go to Munich.

Maybe he should begin to consider the use of these valuables as a way to get Rena and her family to freedom. Since the SS started their night raids on the ghetto, he couldn’t sleep anymore. After all, he knew a profane number of Germans with access to the treasures were benefiting from the loot, why not a Jewish family in need?

Although he loved Rena for her willingness to help newborns survive, he didn’t like the risk of their new operation a bit: sneaking babies out of the ghetto warranted instant execution by Reich formula. Rena and Jonathan apparently didn’t realize what would happen to them if they were caught. He had to get her family to safety before something went wrong. It was time to go beyond his contacts in the resistance. They talked about people in high places who could manufacture false identity papers. He just had to find out who they were, what would entice them, and how long it would take.

He picked up his pen, then hesitated, hearing voice chatter outside his door. Who was it this time? He’d just got rid of Göring yesterday. With all the interruptions, he couldn’t possibly keep up with his work. Today, he planned to clear his desk if he had to slave away until midnight.

The door opened. “Hey, kompanje. How’s the count coming?”

“Slow, Henny.” He picked up a pen and made some check marks, not believing the nerve of the creature, showing up like he was some long lost pal a year after he’d blown a hole through Hans’ head. “What’s—”

“Rembrandt. Nice one. Christ healing the sick, I like it.” Irritatingly, Henny turned from the wall and lifted his arms in salute. “Any other new masterpieces lately?”

Rolf saluted back with a weak hand gesture. “Nothing in your flavor, Henny.”

“I’m not worried about flavors, kompanje, but…favors…now isn’t that what friends are for?”

Rolf looked up wondering if he was sober. “Henny, seriously, I am swamped here. How can I assist you today?”

“Come on, Brandt. I brought you a nice box of Cuban cigars, fresh off the train.” He handed them to Rolf with a big grin. “I want to be friends again, thought we could go to lunch and spend an hour at The Puff together.”

“Lunch? I’m lucky if I get to sneak out for a hotdog these days, but thanks for the cigars.” He pulled out the large bottom drawer of his desk and stuffed them down with all the other items he would never use.

“It’s only going to get worse, kompanje. Soon there won’t be time for friendship or relaxing, going out for a leisurely lunch or even fucking.”

Rolf looked over his list of seventeenth and eighteenth-century French furniture, hoping Henny would see he was too busy to visit. He had to come up with some sort of value. As Henny moved in closer and hung over the desk like a hyena with bulging eyes, Rolf flipped the paperwork upside down. “No, Henny, I can’t take lunch today. Can’t you see I am inundated?”

Henny retracted himself and sauntered over to the liquor cabinet and sniffed the tops of three bottles. “Do you mind?” he asked while pouring bourbon into a dust-layered glass. “I just got it over the wind, kompanje.”

“What?” He had to concentrate, find a way to get rid of the creep. Louis XIV to Louis XVI period pieces, he would list as a treasure beyond all the rest, the value overshadowing even the priceless art. Ignoring Henny obviously wasn’t going to get rid of him.

“The implementation of the Final Solution is about to begin.”

Rolf’s mind flipped pages from treasures to the ghetto to Rena’s danger in a second of time. “What does that mean?” He felt his heart snap out of place, the blood color his cheeks. It wasn’t supposed to start this soon. “Less work, I hope.”

“Everything is about ready. We’ve got over three hundred ghettos in Nazi territory bursting with meat for the chimneys; four hundred thousand here in Warsaw. Our goal to rid the Reich of its parasites will be completed in a matter of a few of months.”

Rolf pulled open the drawer and placed the pen along side the other four, aligning them. His throat felt swollen and dry, the sweat on his forehead all too noticeable. Without making eye contact, he asked, “Treblinka II is ready, then?”

“Mid July. Ya, and we got three special gas trucks in a couple of days ago from the motor pool section of the division of technical affairs, by way of Chelmno. They work well on the idiots who try to slither through the conduits to get to the Aryan side.”

Heydrich hard at work again. The idiots Rolf knew were children trying to get food to stay alive. “Gas trucks?”

“Ja, gas vans, special trucks. It’s easy. We just tell them to get into the truck. They think we are taking them somewhere. Then we lock the doors and turn on the engine. It don’t take long. A couple hours can do a couple hundred pests.”

As he took a pen from the drawer and made an ‘X’ over the date of July fifteenth on his calendar, he envisioned Rena in her pretty yellow dress climbing aboard a truck with hope for liberation. Eight weeks! He felt the onset of convulsion, his nerves attacking all his organs at once. He reached for his water glass, but it was empty. He couldn’t tolerate another syllable from the mouth standing over him like an animal stands over succulent prey. The Central Security Office for the Third Reich had ignored Rolf’s report about the break-in at the warehouse. And Hitler had ignored Rolf’s complaint about Hans death, so obviously Henny worked for Heydrich or Himmler, probably as a mole. “Please excuse me, Henny. I know how ecstatic you are with all this news, but I’m up to my lid with calculations.”

Turning toward the wall of artwork, Henny zeroed in on one of the Rubens. “This one must be worth a sexy penny.”

Rolf didn’t respond, but he studied him, wondering if he was casing the office, working out a scheme to get his hands on a few priceless masterpieces. “I don’t mean to be rude, Henny. The weight of all this is getting to me.”

Henny rolled his eyes and Rolf realized everyone in the Protection Squad was under extraordinary stress. Henny asked, “Who painted this one? It’s gorgeous.”

“Sebastiano del Piombo.”

“Never heard of him. What about this one?”

“Rigard. I’m sure you’ve heard of Rigard.”

Henny shrugged. I’m more of a Renaissance man. I like this one. Oh, another Rembrandt—”

“Yes, Peter denying Christ, 1660.” Henny wasn’t much better than Göring, their lack of education pitiful. Without his paper tags taped on the corner of the frames, Rolf knew Henny would be lost. Rolf seethed, his eyes thin as a thread, waiting for Henny to suggest they go into business together, travel the world like chums from high school. 

“How much is this one worth, kompanje?”

“I haven’t made that determination, Henny. A Palma Vecchio varies, depending on a lot of factors.”

“You aren’t very helpful today, kompanje. Where are your manners?”

“I suppose not, Henny. Pressure can make a person impolite at times.”

Henny strolled to the door, then turned. “Just remember one thing. You owe your duty to our Führer, to the power who will soon lead a purified world. You are either with us or against us, Brandt.”

Rolf looked up to assure Henny of his allegiance, but he was gone.

 

As Rolf approached the warehouse, he couldn’t see the guard anywhere. When he started to put his key in the lock, the door moved, the creak of it causing his heart to shift. With a flick of his finger the door opened wide, and in an instant he scanned the floor and saw that all three crates he had secured for shipment the previous night were gone. His mouth fell open as his stomach began to agitate. The weekly shipment for Munich, for Hitler’s Linz project had evaporated, and he knew who was going to burn.

What had he lost? Madonna and Child, 1518, by Pontormo, Ruben’s Lamentation over the dead, 1614, a fresco piece by Rublev, stained glass work by Rouault, a recast traditional iconography by Rossetti and those were the pieces he could remember without effort. He had to report this to the Gestapo and put them on the lookout right away. This time Henny was not going to get away with it. Crates aren’t difficult to spot in someone’s flat or in the back of a truck at a checkpoint.

If only he could retract the memorandum sent out the night before that listed each piece, its name, its artist and its value. He considered running back to his office to put Albrecht on the task of retrieving the memo, but after a moment of contemplation he knew such an effort was fruitless and would only attract attention to his infraction. How many times had Hitler warned him not to lose any of his paintings? How could he disprove accusations of theft, of disposing of Reich property for his own benefit?

He slammed the door and dropped square on the floor, his head in his hands. He had to figure a way out of this. It was one thing to hide or ship off unwanted paintings that no one would miss, but it was altogether a different matter to displease the Fuhrer directly, to allow priceless works of arts to be stolen or otherwise disappear. Even if he could prove he had changed the locks on several occasions and added two bolts to secure the building, Hitler would only say that he should have had an armed guard twenty-four hours a day. He did have a guard to watch out, but now that he thought about it, he should have hired three armed guards with dogs to surround the building day and night after finding out someone had previously copied his key.

Had Henny planned to set him up as the thief of these crates from the beginning? Or were they all in on it, all the HH’s with their devious minds? Maybe they knew right along about the Jewish paintings and the orphans, maybe their spies reported every move he made. Or maybe, not. He knew Henny wanted to amass wealth to travel the world; perhaps he worked alone or with a couple other SS, but how could he find out which it was? He could report Henny to Hitler and suggest they tail him, search his home in Berlin, and trace his close associates, and their comings and goings. But, something told him his report would just get buried again. Besides, what if it wasn’t Henny at all? And what if Hitler thought Rolf was only covering up for the real thief—Rolf.

He thought to check the loft and bathroom, stood up, brushed off his backside and checked the building. Empty. The first thing he had to do was find out where the security guard lived, ask him why he wasn’t there during his shift, and if he had seen anyone. At least this time he might have a witness. Maybe the guard was at his office waiting for him now. Or he could be dead. Henny didn’t seem to mind innocent blood on his hands.

With further deliberation, he couldn’t report this at all. He couldn’t tell anyone about the twelve missing masterpieces. No matter what, if Hitler found out, Rolf Brandt would be called to Berlin, just like his father.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

31

 

Rena’s time with Rolf relieved her from the devastating realization of her reality. Even if Dickens had written this story, she would have thought the tale she now lived exaggerated and unrealistic. How could anything be worse than how the poor were tyrannized in France and England, the hanging of broke men for stealing a sixpence, the burning of young boys for not bowing? Oh how she wished she could simply close the book and make it all stop.

The escalating nightly pandemonium of SS raids and murders inside the ghetto reminded her, as Jonathan often predicted, the Nazis would soon liquidate the ghetto and she would be sent away. Even though she understood rationally her life would end like all the other Jews, it didn’t compute, didn’t register in her mind like a fact. Maybe the future she saw in her mind’s eye was nothing but irrational hope, but it looked real, it felt real, and deep down inside her, she believed with all her heart the High and Holy One would somehow spare her life. Even though her mother had recovered, the only person she felt comfortable sharing such thoughts with was Sarah.

The previous night they lay in bed talking about spiritual things. Rena recognized Sarah’s humble viewpoint as more acceptance than hopelessness, more the realization of the freedom enjoyed by the spirit when it flew free from the physical body. Sarah seemed to understand a type of infinite reality Rena couldn’t quite grasp.

More and more Sarah’s injured spirit had broadened into the tranquility of a sage, a mystic who awaited death with a sense of joy. “Don’t be frightened of death, Rena. This life is only an illusion anyway, none of this is real, it’s a false impression, a trick of the mind.”

How Rena wished she could adopt Sarah’s message of tolerance and forgiveness, her easy farewell to this world. Had she not met Rolf, perhaps it would be easier, but now when love was just beginning to blossom, she couldn’t live in the gray, the impermeable middle of Sarah’s world. She craved life more than ever. During these warm days and cool nights, she promised herself not to cry, or complain or feel pity for herself; she would focus solely on the enjoyment of the moments in his arms.

“Kiss me like that again,” she sighed during their greeting, her arms wrapped around his large solid shoulders. There was something different about him tonight, some wild intriguing thing in the expression of his kiss that spoke of a deeper mood, passion, yearning—a relentless hunger. She felt it, too.

He put his paintbrush away, reached for her hand and escorted her to the center of the parlor, stopping briefly to snap off the overhead light and finger the knob of the radio to 5.8 on the dial. The way he slinked toward her like a tiger on the prowl heightened her senses. As he lit the two tall candles in crystal holders, one white and one red, they reminded her of innocence and blood, of Poland’s flag waving over her uncle’s barn. As the flame flickered next to the Motorola, she felt the beat of the music relax her.

 

~The International Short Wave picked up stations from other countries; tonight it was America and a Bing Crosby special. He had to get his mind off the earlier phone call, when he was informed by his agent that not only had the cost for fictitious documents increased substantially, it would take an extra few weeks due to the sudden disappearance of their counterfeiter. In addition to the Persian carpet, they wanted the one-of-a-kind Rembrandt etching, Christ preaching, 1652, which they had seen in his office, the one he’d already cataloged on Hitler’s weekly memorandum for his Linz project. Out of character, Rolf had burst into a rage at the man on the other end of the line, and now the only hope remaining balanced on locating another forger in time. With every tick of the clock he felt her slipping away from him.

As he placed her hand on his shoulder, his right hand found its way around her small waist. He gently kissed her other hand, placing it on his chest as he drew her close. Rejecting the panic that dwelled in his gut since Henny dropped doomsday on his calendar, he focused on making every minute with her count. “You look so beautiful, Miss Rena. May I have this dance?”

From the smooth baritone in the box, “…and here is Bing’s ‘Only Forever’, twenty big weeks on the 1940 billboard charts, nine of them as number one! Listen carefully, folks. These lyrics will live on…forever!”   

 

~Feeling his long fingers clasped around her hand, she let him take her around the room, slowly dancing a half-time waltz on the silky Persian carpet. At first she wanted to explain she didn’t know how to waltz, but he knew how to maneuver her gracefully about the floor, like an artist with a familiar paint brush. She closed her eyes and memorized the scent of his freshly soaped body, finding it intoxicating. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, he’d explained when she’d teased him about bathing twice a day.

Rena was pleased with the way she looked tonight. Earlier she had let herself in with the key under the geranium pot outside his flat, and bathed in his bathtub for over an hour, allowing the bubbles to caress her breasts as she contemplated what his fingers would feel like if they ever touched her. When she dried, she examined herself in the full-length mirror. Her thin legs had filled out a little, her thighs too plump, her calves too muscular. The narrow waist accentuated her hips. She liked the firm feel of her buttocks, like a cushion when she sat down at the dressing table. Only a few Jews were lucky enough to still have puffy rumps, most became flat and bony and caved in from lack of proper nourishment.

After powdering herself, she crossed her legs and scooted closer to the dressing mirror. Just where she had set it, was Jonathan’s lucky turquoise stone. She almost never went anywhere without it now. Even with all the handling, rubbing, kissing and wishing it shined like a jewel in a queen’s crown. What once seemed foolish had proven to be life changing. She wasn’t sure if the stone really granted wishes or her mind made them happen, but whenever she rubbed it, she believed the vision in her mind would come true and lately it did. She kissed it in appreciation and set in on top of a ball of cotton.

On the dressing table, Rolf provided everything a girl needed, but she only touched up her cheeks with a little pink rouge and sprayed perfume under her arms. She sectioned her hair into three parts, braiding the first two strands and merging the other as she went down her back, tying it off with a black band. A few side curls crept out giving her more of a morning appeal. Pulled back, her hair made her look older, maybe twenty-one.

When she pulled out the larger drawer where she usually found such unmentionables as sanitary napkins and dainty panties, she discovered a new selection of underlinens:  an under bodice to support her breasts, brown rayon hosiery, garter belt, and bloomers with a matching spaghetti strap top. She attempted to apply the brassiere, but couldn’t manage it, the fastener too difficult to latch behind her back. She decided to put on the lavender bloomers and under-blouse.

She wasn’t sure which dress to choose. Three pretty ones hung in the closet on padded hangers, each fitted with large shoulder pads. Certainly those rich women on Sienna Street didn’t own anything prettier. She remembered hearing how they’d scandalized the entire community by strutting along the sidewalks of the Jewish district in elegant high leather boots and new outfits. What seemed to shock everyone the most was their newly peroxided hairstyles. Everyone called them sick, but Rena suddenly understood their need to alter reality. The blush and lipstick made her spirit feel better, like she was still worth something.

Trying two on before deciding, she opted for the fine textured calf-length black dress, full skirt and a pinafore of purple daisies and red stripes. The daisies matched the lavender in the bloomers. She liked that. Seeing her image in the mirror made her giggle, the horizontal line of her shoulders dramatically accented. She looked like an animated Harpers Bazaar magazine cover, like the one Rolf showed her at the Polish book store. She flipped up the dress and smiled again at the bloomers. I’m really a woman now. Rolf will be pleased.

 

~The dance was long, moving from one tune through another until the Glen Gray version of ‘Heaven Can Wait’. Suddenly, as they gazed into one another’s eyes, it seemed to Rolf their lives had become a stage play, the lyrics about going to heaven together strumming out their destiny. Halfway through, as if the poignant lyrics affected him too much—making movement as difficult as thought, Rolf brought her closer, moving his body, but barely his feet, holding her like a precious instrument, tenderly, yet with enough strength to care for her properly. Heaven can wait, this is paradise, just being here with you.

The awkward part of their relationship had finally vanished. The closeness they achieved over the past five months together fulfilled the dream he’d harbored since his first flirtations as a young man; the feeling all the worlds of the firmament rested at peace and every mouth found reason to smile. All at once, as if he’d been struck by lightning, he felt every ligament of his legs against hers, his stomach against hers, and his chest against her breasts. His sense of oneness, his need to attach himself to her, not only in a intimate way, but in a timeless way—never to let her go, made him happy in a way he never knew possible.

Bending slightly, he pressed his cheek against hers and whispered, “How do you feel about breaking rules?”

 

~He bent down and offered her an enchanting dose of appreciation in the form of caresses all over her face and neck. His eagerness detonated her juices as they danced and Rena felt a mysterious madness like the potency of an ocean determined to ebb and flow. She wanted to grasp the thick muscles of his shoulders and arms, wanted him to touch her in places she’d never been touched.

As his lips pressed on hers, she knew his heart, understood his gentle nature, and believed he could never wrong her. She fell in love with the man and she knew he was in love with her. She had climbed the mountain and suddenly reached the dazzling stars. Even if the jubilation of the moment only survived in her mind’s eye, it would stand as her most exquisite moment.

As she returned his passion, Rolf picked her up in his strong arms and carried her into his bedroom, to his large velvet bed, pulling back the spread and laying her head against the crisp white pillow.

 

~Inside his head, no more questions pestered him. No matter what happened to him, he resolved in his heart to be with her until the end. In all the searching inside himself he had finally come to understand that the courage expanding inside him he owed to the purity of her heart, the example of integrity from which she never wavered.

He wanted more of her, more kissing, more licking, more caressing of her outer limits, but that must wait, he reasoned. I must make her happy. The words of his grandfather pricked his mind. Make your woman happy and you will know ecstasy beyond the selfish pleasure of common lust. He wanted each minute to be an hour, wanted to look at her in the pretty yellow dress for the entire evening and dance with her to a dozen more Frank Sinatra tunes, but instead he gently removed the band from her braid and fanned her blond hair against the white pillow.

 

~Rena watched the distinctive movement of his lips and the small jitters of his Adam’s apple as he unraveled her hair. “I love you so much, Rolf.”

“Would you go away with me, Rena? Over the mountains? With some luck we might make it to Switzerland. We could control our own future, fashion a life, a normal life somewhere.” His gaze dropped as did the corners of his mouth. “I don’t have much to offer you.”

“There is one thing I’ve learned from all this, Rolf. We need so few possessions to be truly happy. Things add comfort, but all I need to be wildly content is to have you next to me.”

“I promise to protect you and take care of you.”

She knew their punishment for running – instant death. On the other hand, if she married him she wouldn’t be Jewish anymore. If measured strictly by blood, she wasn’t Jewish anyway. Perhaps her destiny wasn’t meant to be tied to Jewish problems and persecutions. Maybe this was why she was drawn to Rolf in the first place. If she went with him, she could escape the pending tragedy that loomed over the people, get away from that awful ghetto, live without persecution and the threat of starvation. But going away with him also meant giving up her beliefs and abandoning every other person she loved.

‘Man makes plans and God laughs.’ Her mother’s saying flashed in her mind.

As she considered the rules Rolf would break to take her away, her heart filled with love for him. “Oh, Rolf…my dearest, darling. How sweet those words are to my ears. But of course you know I can’t go. I wouldn’t let you risk your life.”

“But, isn’t living itself some sort of a risk, Rena? I need you so—”

“Plus, I can’t leave the others I love, you know that, but I will always cherish these memories with you. You must go on after this is all over, build a life for yourself and find happiness…for the both of us.”

“I can never be happy without you, Rena.”

For a long time they lay face to face, both their heads against the pillow. The hour when she had to go drew closer. He got up and turned the radio off, not wanting distractions to disturb the moment. A long sigh followed him as he turned off the lights and flipped on the fan, placing the white and red candles on the bedside tables. With a match, he re-struck their light.

 

~Perhaps now he would take her in the way she’d dreamed he would. After offering her a glass of water and taking one himself, he began to undress, his suspenders coming off first.

For Rena everything after that moved in slow motion, her mind snapping each frame as it went. In a dream-like sequence, she helped him unbutton his shirt, remove his pants, and peel off his socks. He unhooked the clasp and unzipped her dress with a slow harmonized motion like the unveiling of precious treasure. As the material slipped from her shoulders it settled on her arms and across her breast until he used his teeth to urge it down. As he lifted off her camisole, and finally removed her bloomers, she felt a flutter of bashfulness come over her and she jumped under the covers.

At long last their skin touched one another between the sheets. The feel of his honeyed skin caused bubbles of delight to dance and soar under her outer surface and activated the fiery unknown within her core. In all of her previous imaginings she never guessed that love like this had the power to stimulate such energy and splendor, had the ability to turn a drab rag of a life into a luminous gown of celestial glory.

For what seemed like hours, a timeless space of time, Rolf ran his fingers through her hair, along her shoulders, down her back and around to her stomach, tenderly, softly caressing her creases, her arms, her hands, his tongue like a magician’s wand detonating exquisite surprises everywhere it went.

 

~At her neck he fondled her fine gold chain and considered the small Star of David. At first glance the pendant reminded him of their inherited differences, but as he continued loving her it no longer represented Judaism, or religion; it stood for her genuine heart, it symbolized their capacity to love each other beyond the walls of preconceived notions. On seeing her scar, he kissed it, not asking, not wanting to know what terrible thing had hurt his sweet Beatrice of Devine Grace. Somehow he would make everything up to her, give her a home, protect her, and take care of her for the rest of her life.

With a complete lack of selfishness, asking nothing of her, he used himself to please her in every way pleasing a woman was possible; running his fingertips across her face, her lips, her nose, her eyebrows, her breasts, and gently caressing the periphery of them. As he whispered words of adoration into her ear, he gazed into her eyes with a dreamy expression of true adoration and then caressed her lips with eager passion. With the agility of a muscular stallion, he held himself over her, waiting, feathering her with his burning branch, moving his chest down, the soft hair generating bumps over her arms and breasts. He felt like an animal, a hard, strong living creature, but he moved on her gently, not wanting to leave even a hint of discomfort in her memory, for this, he knew, may be the only memory she may have of them intertwined in love’s ecstasy.

With others, when he didn’t understand how to love a woman, he had imagined pounding his hard body into the wet willing flesh, but with Rena, the sweet young woman who was and would always be a part of his soul, he took the time to make sure she would enjoy the spine-tingling grandeur of their love-making. Then, as she lifted herself toward him, her head rotating back and forth, her lips open and ready, physically begging him to possess her, he whispered in her ear as he lowered himself, “We are now one flesh…my sweet darling…and no matter what happens to us…my love is in you. We are a man and wife of love.” And then, he let his frenzy have its way, driving and breaking and taking her to places he hoped thrilled her and made her feel loved.

 

~In those moments of raw discovery, Rena understood the aching rapture of tenderness, the overture of abundant love, and the fascination of human passion. She wanted him more than she ever wanted anything, needed a continuous flow of his rushing river, sought to attach her body forever to the enormous gift he offered her—all the while knowing their infinite joy would soon come to an end.

After the pinnacle of ecstasy collapsed and she lay in the nook of his arm, she felt a heavenly essence permeate her soul. Perhaps she was no better than a Puff girl, but she felt like a goddess wrapped in the arms of her god. “Kiss me again…please,” she asked, looking into the eyes of her lover.

After obeying her command, his fingertips walked on her cheek counting the angel kisses, as he dubbed her freckles. After kissing her again, he whispered, “If life was perfect…I’d kiss you like this each day for the rest of our lives.”

But life wasn’t perfect. And she recognized this night might be the only night they could cherish because her other world may not allow her a tomorrow. So tonight she would refuse anything outside their warm cocoon and instead bask in the splendor of his tenderness. Besides, he loved her, she knew…for her—Jew or not. With lips still swollen and red with passion, she smiled at the object of her affection, and asked in a lighthearted way, “In that perfect world…what would our life be like?”

 

~Rolf smiled, his heart expanding with delight, the thought of her next to him the rest of his life invigorating. “We will live in a cozy little alpine chalet in Garmisch and watch deer roaming our meadow at sunset. We will have a farm with all your favorite animals. I will take you to the top of my mountain overlooking the village where the lights of evening twinkle from the houses and blue smoke puffs out of red brick chimneys. In the distance, you will see a long train shuffle along invisible tracks, snow soaring from its wheels, white puffs of smoke billowing over it like clouds.”

“Oh, it sounds so lovely, Rolf…so very lovely.”

He turned on his side and nudged her toward him until they were face to face. “We could have that life if you would agree to come away with me. I know you don’t want to leave your family, Rena, but such things happen when people grow up and get married. They move away.”

“Oh, no, Rolf. I couldn’t leave them…not like this—”

“We could send for them when we get settled.”

“We couldn’t get away anyway, Rolf. You’re an SS…”

He brushed a stray hair from her forehead. “Even without proper documents, we could dress as a Polish couple. I could wear one of those funny little hats and you could wear a pillow under your clothes to make them think you’re pregnant. We could find a ride…make it back to my mountain home. I think we could get away with—”

“Don’t.” Moving up on her elbow, she put her finger to his lips. “Don’t say anymore, my darling.” A tear fell from her eye. “What would they do without me, Rolf? They would starve to death without this arrangement. As much as I want to be with you for the rest of my life, I can’t go, Rolf. I can’t walk away from my family.”

Rolf embraced her for a long time as she wept, understanding and loving her all the more for her selfless code of ethics.

After a glass of water, she revived and tried to cheer him. “You know Rolf, my father used to say, the path of the Jew has never been paved with soft grass; it is a mountain of many rocks, but at least it goes upward toward a palace that twinkles in the night. I hope you’ll be my eternal partner in that place, Rolf.”

“I promise my heart will always be with you, Rena.” Before he began to think about the date on his calendar, he whispered more of his fantasy into her ear, hoping to harness a few more moments of happiness, fantasy or not. “One day I will buy you a piano so you can fill our home with beautiful music.”

He loved to see her face light up, her sad eyes sparkle with dreams.

“We will have four bright children. I’ve always wanted to name one of my daughters Sistine or Julia. Would you approve?”

“If only it could come true. What lovely names.”

As he folded his elbows and clasped his hands under his head, he stared up into the dimness of his hazy bedroom. “I will chop wood and in the evenings, I will sit you on my lap in front of a blazing fire. Stomachs full of delectable stews and creamy Bavarian desserts, we will be comfy and safe in our little place.”

“I can see it, Rolf. In my mind’s eye I can actually see it!”

“Then late at night, after I massage your body with sweet-smelling oils and count every little angel kiss on your body, I will lay you down and love you like I did tonight. That’s what our world would be like…if life was perfect.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

32

 

Rena and Jonathan searched the streets of the Jewish district for Sarah for over three hours without finding a trace of the girl. After three hours, the noon sun overhead finally spotlighted the grim streets, indifferent to the dread gripping Rena’s heart. Every other day this spring, Rena had relished the sun on her face, it’s warm encouragement, the gift of color it added to her cheeks. Today the sun just made her sweat.

As they discussed a new tactic to divide up the blocks, she felt emotion wrenching her nerves, but she pushed it back down deep. What a great heart, my Sarah, how grateful she was for every little thing. “We can’t lose her, Jonathan. We can’t lose any more family members!”

Jonathan rolled up the sleeves of his blue dress shirt, one of the shirts Rolf sent home with her the previous day. The pants he sent along didn’t fit very well, but Jonathan was delighted to have anything without worn spots. Her mother and Rose spent a good part of their week stitching up holes in clothes for everyone on their floor, but Jonathan’s last pair of long pants finally had to be cut off at the knees and hemmed. He didn’t mind short pants for summer, but he thought long ones much more respectable. “Here’s a map. I’ll take this quadrant and you take this other one on the east. We will meet back here in fifteen minutes.”

“Right. Let’s hurry.” Rena said as she tightened the scarf under her neck.

Ever since Sarah regained her strength, she spent her days down in the streets with the youngest beggars, helping them beg passersby for food. Just last month she had developed a new gimmick. With her acquaintances tottering like tiny soldiers in formation behind her, she strolled up and down the sidewalk in front of the hospital on Ogrodowa Street in the same worn dress she had on that first night at the soup kitchen, singing her entreaties, the little chorus of orphans humming behind her. Once she had gathered a crowd of six or seven people, she opened up her arms to the audience like a performer on a stage and let her pure voice chime out supplications for food donations. She melted hearts. Rena saw it with her own eyes. Jews and Poles, and even a few Germans couldn’t resist her recital and gave the children food or money. The stunt worked well for a few days until one of the Polish policemen told Sarah he would arrest her if she pulled the stunt again.

When Rena assured her she didn’t need to beg anymore, Sarah had explained she did it because it was the only skill she had to use to help others, the only thing that gave her a feeling of accomplishment. When Sarah did not come home last night, Rena knew something was terribly wrong.

Oh, how she prayed they would find her. The alternative was such a painful notion. Thinking back, the last few days Sarah did seem different. She didn’t talk as much as usual. It was almost as if she had withdrawn from the world. Everyone in the house worried about her in secret whispers. To cheer her up, Rena acted carefree two nights earlier as they snuggled under the covers after prayers. “Papa probably escaped to Palestine or America to prepare a place for us. He’ll come back soon and take us on a big ocean liner. I know he will, Sarah. I’m not fooling.” Thinking about her father was something she usually avoided. How she wished she could touch his face, just once more. But he’d evaporated, and every time the family discussed the possibilities, Jonathan always found reason to leave the room.

Obviously, the soulless Nazis felt no empathy for the broken hearts of daughters. She had found out from Rose a few mornings ago, her father disappeared the same day the Nazis selected a hundred random men to work in swamps in the Kampinos forest. With a little encouragement from Jonathan, when everyone else slept and they stayed up late discussing his plans, Rena imagined her father off planning their rescue and kept hoping to see him again. When that theory didn’t perk Sarah up, Rena even shared her darkest secret, but Sarah barely responded, her eyes rimmed in a darkness that revealed deep despondency. I should have never let her spend her days in the depressing atmosphere of beggars.

Rena’s throat thickened as she split off from Jonathan again. They both knew the odds of finding her alive. The crowd a gray people crisscrossed the square over and over again as if the mere action gave their life a meaning, their breath a reason.

As Rena combed another square block, she realized that everyone in the household seemed to sense Sarah’s extraordinary spiritual gifts, often asking her to pray for the household. Rena noticed a beautiful platinum-haired Polish woman and her little girl walking along. Taking the shortcut through the ghetto to get from one side of Warsaw to the other, these Poles often came prepared with coins for beggars. The little girl wore a bright yellow skirt with blue and pink polka dots, a white and pink blouse and shiny white dress shoes with a silver stud on the strap. She sipped on a bottle of orange juice. The way the rays of the sun made her eyes sparkle reminded Rena of her days of happiness in Berlin when every member of her family owned fine clothes.

As they approached, Rena asked, “Have you seen a girl about—”

With a quick twist of her waist, the woman gave Rena a shower of spit, her nose rising high in the air as she stomped off.

As Rena watched the lady and pretty little skirt walk away, she wiped the saliva off her face, remembering her own frilly dress and shiny shoes and the last time she’d worn them—The Night of Broken Glass. With that vision, she suddenly realized Henny and his turbulence no longer invaded her mind on a daily basis. Her memory of his attack, the flames and pain somehow seemed insignificant now.

I must find Sarah.

Boys with runny noses played a game of Sorrow and Tears and laughed at Hitler jokes across the square. She questioned everyone she met along the street. At last she realized the difficulty in describing someone. People in the ghetto had all begun to look alike; average height, a little hunched over, slender and bony, thin or balding hair, gray clothes. At the soup kitchen that first night, Sarah still had a few strands of hair, but when given the choice, she shaved her head bald. She said it didn’t matter, that she wasn’t interested in boys and it gave her a lot in common with the street children she helped.  

Jonathan came around the corner with a long face. “You haven’t seen her either?”

“No, Jonathan. This is bad.”

Jonathan bent over, his hands on his knees, catching his breath. “I don’t want to believe that, Rena. We can’t let our family members –”

“Look…” Rena kept surveying the people. She took a double take and gasped. “Look. That person over by the light post. Could that be Sarah?”

Jonathan took a few steps into the street and glared between the swarm of people mulling around. “I think it…”

Rena ran forward, pushing by people, her heart beat accelerating. “Sarah?” she called as she approached the young woman. “Sarah?” About the right height and bald like Sarah, it was difficult to be sure until she reached her. When she saw the dull gray eyes, she knew. “Oh…you’re not Sarah.”

The woman shook her head and walked away, nibbling at some imaginary crumbs in the palm of her hand.

Jonathan caught up to her, sweat trickling from his brow. “Sorry, Rena. I really hoped it was her.”

Rena felt disappointment lodged in her throat, but she wasn’t about to give up hope. “Jonathan, maybe it’s because we aren’t starving like the others, but even after all these months this whole nightmare still seems like it isn’t real, like Papa will come back and our family will survive. We have to find Sarah. Staying together is vital.”

“I’ll go around the square, Rena. You stay here and keep asking people.”

Rena nodded, but the slight smile she offered him wasn’t genuine. Everything inside her felt like a dark forest at midnight, spooky and oppressive. Why did this have to happen to her now, when her luck was beginning to change? How she wished she had Sarah to share her joy with. No one else would ever be able to understand her and an SS officer making love, but Sarah understood everything, even the hearts of the Nazis. There was good in everyone, she always said.

Two old Polish women dressed in long plain brown dresses passed on the other side of the street, giving the beggar boys a few zlotys each. In addition to questioning passersby, Rena decided to check the crannies, the little spaces between buildings where Sarah used to hide for warmth when she was homeless. As odd as Sarah was, maybe she had found a quiet place to be alone and pray…or God forbid…die.

She walked toward a dark shadow between two buildings as her eyes affixed on a body. After her mind focused, she realized a second bald person lay on the ground, a little longer than the other. Is he dead or just resting? As Rena watched some boys play by tossing a rag back and forth, she presumed the child on the ground played the dead man in their game of hunger until she heard one of the boys say, “Let's go across the street to play. This stinky kid is getting in the way.”

As the boys stumbled over the body and moved away, Rena felt sick. Almost unconsciously, she crossed the street to the child, the back of his head as bald and pale as a corpse. Yelling back at the others with a faint voice, “He’s probably real hungry, too weak to get out of your way.” Stupid boys. Kneeling down beside the body, she whispered, “I can help you walk to the soup kitchen and we can—”

But, the body wasn’t a boy at all. It was Sarah. Her best friend in the whole world lay cold and lifeless, an old dirty rag tossed like trash on her back. Rena fell to her knees on the brick roadway and crouched over Sarah, soothing her with light sweeps of her hand. Why, oh why? She had a share of the food like all the rest. Their diet wasn’t perfect, but it was enough to keep everyone alive. She didn’t have typhoid or tuberculosis either.

Why hadn’t she seen this coming and done something? How could she have missed the signs? Was she so selfish and busy with Rolf she neglected her best friend? She cried out to the Dweller in Eternity, her voice echoing off all the walls of the square. “Not my Sarah.”

She inched Sarah’s body closer to the wall of a tall apartment building nearby and lifted Sarah’s head into her lap, placing her dear friend’s hands across her chest. As she closed her eyelids, she noticed a slight smile on her lips and marveled at how Sarah bore her burden with her last once of courage. She managed her suffering by holding dignity and faith in the Lord of Hosts close to her heart. Rena felt the vice grip on her heart loosen and a stream of peace transport her. Rena knew Sarah found true happiness even in the ugliness surrounding her, even in the process of dying. Sarah’s essence was in harmony with the universe and that knowledge comforted Rena’s trembling heart.

For a long time Rena sat there on the pavement in the middle of the gray ghetto with the body of her childhood friend resting in her arms. She stroked her arms and held her hands, silent tears drenching her face as she awaited Jonathan. Her Sarah was gone, her saintly Sarah, her guardian angel, her only true friend. She is free…thank the Holy One she is free from this suffering at last.

One last time, Rena locked index fingers with Sarah and whispered as she let her emotions simmer up out of her. “Best friends forever…long after this terrible life.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

33

 

After an unexpected Göring visit at ten o’clock that morning, Rolf’s assistant, Albrecht, knocked on his office door. With calculating eyes, he said, “I overheard Göring say he suspected you of pilfering. I thought you should know.”

Rolf slammed his desk drawer shut and stomped over to the liquor cabinet, his principles and his emotion battling. Regardless of the time of day, he needed shot of his strongest whiskey. Rubbing his eyes with his thumb and index finger, he thanked Albrecht and added, “I hope you know Göring’s notion is asinine.”

“Yes, sir, of course. But rumors can stir up a lot of trouble. Let me know how I can help.”

As Albrecht excused himself and shut the door, Rolf felt his knees quivering. He dropped into the leather chair opposite his desk, the bottle of whiskey in hand. If Göring knew about the missing shipment why hadn’t they arrested him, summoned him to Berlin? No, it was too soon. Hitler would be the first to find out, not Göring. But other than selecting treasures for Karinhall, what had made Göring suspect Rolf? Perhaps if Rolf passed along the priceless Francesca, Christ of the Resurrection, that Göring had his eye on earlier that morning, he would back off and give Rolf a little room to breathe. But Rolf had earmarked it for Linz.

Pilfering! Of all the accusations he might be guilty of, pilfering certainly wasn’t one of them. Although the proposition crossed his mind on more than one occasion, the fact remained—to date he’d resisted the temptation to get filthy rich off Hitler’s war. His father taught him at a very young age that it didn’t matter what people thought of you, but what you thought of yourself. An idea came to his mind.

For the first time since he began his service to the Reich, he terminated his work day prematurely, took to the streets, and stopped at the new Swiss Chocolatiere, a shop he had noticed during its grand opening a few days earlier. After shopping, as he walked home, he resolved to forget today’s worries and focus his efforts on making the afternoon and evening memorable for Rena. Knowing she often arrived early to bathe and do her hair, he hoped she wouldn’t arrive at his flat before everything was ready. This would take his mind off the stupid rumors. Picking up his step, he envisioned having the rest of the day with her, a spontaneous, lazy afternoon and candlelight evening. He hoped she liked his surprises.

With a little luck Göring wouldn’t come back, and Hitler wouldn’t ring him the one day in months he’d taken an afternoon for himself. He was sick to death of giving every minute of his time to the hell hounds of hoard. If he had any guts, he would have taken to the mountains months ago, but now he was bound in all directions, stuck with the Reich by force, tied by his conscience to the orphans, and stitched to every seam of his lover by his own spirit.

The volume on the radio was high when he turned the key in the door. Chopin, illegal or not, blessed his ears like the breath of angels. How pleasant Warsaw must have been in Chopin’s days when he graced her streets and played his mazurkas to benefit Polish refugees. One day Rolf would fill the world with his notes of color as Chopin had with music. He knew he was one of them, another Chopin, another Rembrandt. He felt it in his bones, had known it all his life. If he could just make it through the war, he had so many ideas in his head he wanted to put on canvas. But, those thoughts he must save for another day.

Had he put the champagne in the refrigerator and hidden the cake? As his excitement rose, he wondered if he could keep all the secrets until evening. For her benefit, he promised himself he would. Quickly and with as little clatter as possible, he hid everything away and blew up eighteen yellow balloons, stuffing the closet full. His heart soared with anticipation as he listened to her slosh in the bathtub, jealous of the bubbles at that moment caressing her breasts. When his tasks were complete, he went to the front door, opened and shut it again, this time with a little extra force. “Rena, I’m home. Where are you?”

 

~Rena almost tripped jumping out of the bathtub “Rolf? Your home early!”

“Take your time, Rena. I’ll be in my studio working on Windowpane.”

She exhaled a long breath, feeling a bit of panic. He’d never seen her in such disarray, her hair wet and tangled. Even in private moments she ran her fingers through her hair to keep it presentable. She shut the bathroom door, turned the lock, and sat down at the dressing table. She heard Chopin grow louder, his liquid peace reverberate off the walls. Rolf’s artistic project would cause time to stand still for him, as he always explained. At last relaxing, she began to prepare herself.

Brushing her hair in front of the mirror she noticed how long it was now, well to the middle of her back. As she tilted her head and began the braid, she remembered how Sarah’s mother always braided both their hair before their performances in Berlin. She couldn’t wear delicate pink ribbons anymore, but maybe with a little luck, she would one day tie them in her own daughter’s hair.

Mystical Sarah. How much she missed her already. She was thankful they were able to perform the washing ritual of her body with warm water and egg. Rena had used a small silver hairpin to clean under Sarah’s fingernails, a final act of cleanliness before the body was sprinkled with a tinted water representing wine, and dressed in undergarments and a belted, linen shroud. With all his connections in the ghetto, Jonathan was able to get her body transported to the cemetery for a private burial. Rena knew Yahweh blessed them.

With Rena following behind, Jonathan had carried Sarah past the burial pits, over the unkempt footpath, and through the thickly wooded areas. Along the way, Rena marveled at the mere size of the place, acres and acres of burial sites commemorating Jewish families, rabbis, spiritual masters, doctors, engineers, famous Yiddish poets and writers who made their home in Poland. She noticed the neglected headstones and memorials from olden days; Landau, Hirszfeld, Natanson, Goldflam, Mendelson and many more. She wondered about them and felt a little jealous of their routine lives, their glorious markers.

Jonathan found a safe place at the base of the wall at the far back corner of the cemetery where no one could see them, and lowered Sarah’s body down in the midst of the thick eucalyptus leaves, between two huge tombstones. There, alone among centuries of Jewish Poles who had lived and died like ordinary citizens in a country that welcomed them, Jonathan dug a hole and lowered Sarah into the ground. Rena covered as much as she could of her with her blue scarf, sweet smelling leaves and yellow dandelion petals. After the last shovel of earth covered Sarah’s sweet face, Rena and Jonathan sat in the dirt and wept together for a long time.

Then as the trains shuffled along in the distance, the impression fell into Rena’s mind like angel dust. Nothing can be produced from nothing, so if something exists it was made from something. If it existed before it became something, then how can it be destroyed? How can something that existed become completely non-existent?

It felt like a cathedral of knowledge poured into her at that moment; her loved ones had not become non-existent because she couldn’t see them, but rather they became altered, returned back into their original elements, living eternally in the true present in a heavenly crystal city of magnificent colors, where the concept of time was meaningless.

She had listened to Sarah talk about heaven enough to finally figure out God’s puzzle. His mansion in the sky wasn’t a place of reward or punishment for acts; souls went to the spiritual level attained by their choices and actions registered in their subconscious mind.

The revelation had filled her with unexplainable joy; Onkel Moshe and Sarah and others she dearly loved now existed within their own celestial class, nowhere near the wretched spirits of murderers. And her dearest Sarah must have known it all along. She looked up at the blue beyond the sycamores and felt a smile form on her lips.

Charged with electric enlightenment from her vision and weeping at the same time—she said, “Jonathan! I had a vision. We will see them again! We will walk by their side, and hold their hands, and touch their cheeks.” She knew that then, not believed, not hoped, but knew, and at that moment, her life took on a completely new dimension.

“That’s the secret, sis. Once you get it, there is no more fear.”

 

Now sitting in the luxury of Rolf’s bathroom, she considered not telling Rolf about Sarah’s death, but after all the discussions they had over Sarah’s curious theories, she couldn’t just go on like nothing happened, never mentioning her again.

After she zipped up the back of her blue and lavender dress, she tied a white sash around her waist and slipped on the pretty white toe shoes Rolf had recently added to her collection. The leather, flat and pliant, made the shoes feel almost as comfortable as her father’s alpaca slippers, the ones she used to play in on Sunday mornings after taming the lion. But with her heart sore as blisters from the past few days, she couldn’t think about Berlin or her father now.

 

~On his back patio, Rolf prepared a light snack of Zwiebacks, a sliced apple, salami and a bowl of cheese squares. Just as she appeared out of the bathroom, he carried the new tea set he purchased at the curiosity shop the day before. He winked and summoned her with a nod. “Blackberry tea?”

“Oh, Rolf. How lovely and thoughtful.” Rena’s unusually attractive smile always tickled a special bone in him making him love her all the more. “What a dainty tea set. Is it new, Rolf?”

“Actually, no, but it’s new to me…to us, I should say. You will marry me one day, won’t you? Then it could be ours.”

He adored the way she titled her head, twitched her nose and gave him that certain admonishing look. “Let’s have a snack, shall we?” He asked, setting down the tea set, pulling out the patio chair and seating her at the table.

Sunlight bounced off the wall of the adjoining building, lighting his patio with a warm array of shadows and sunbeams. He picked up the other white iron chair and placed it next to hers and sat down. On his geranium blooms, a magnificent checkered Danaus butterfly with wide tawny and black wings flitted happily, and for a moment his mind flashed back to his childhood, to the framed collection of butterflies his father brought him back from one of his trips to South America. He’d spent the entire summer of his eleventh year memorizing names like lepidopteron, viceroy, morpho and others. Memories of home reminded him of his fantasy, Rena and their children in a mountain chalet. As much as he wanted to linger with that vision in his head, it disappeared, leaving him to focus on the charm of the moment.

Just then three young pigeons flew down and settled around their feet, begging for crumbs. Whenever he came home for lunch he made certain to throw out the crusts of his sandwich, but it had been weeks since he enjoyed that privilege. He had given up lunches for his evenings with Rena. Even though she came several days a week now, he wanted more of her, felt lost when a day past without seeing her. Today he needed her to rejuvenate him, to take his mind away from Göring’s suspicions and the missing paintings.

An idea had come into his mind earlier that day. Through his connections in the Polish resistance he might find a Polish shop owner or professional willing to take a risk. With a vehicle to drive her family to the safety of the Swiss countryside, he could arrange for their lodging until her father could get his savings from his Swiss account. It was quite a distance, but with enough bribes, the checkpoint guards could be made to look the other way. He knew bribes between the Gestapo, the infantry and the SS was the status quo. And works of art held their value under any circumstance, war or peace. They were better than cash. Now, he had a way to get Rena to safety and it relieved his tension substantially.

Rena held out her arm to the pigeons. Watching her interact with the feathered creatures, he said, “Look at that. I never imagined they were so tame.”

“Here, put a few crumbs in your hand. Birds have very acute sensory vibrations. They can read people from quite a distance. Since you changed out of your uniform, they may take to you.” He winced, viscerally understanding all too well what she meant by that remark. With his palm filled with crumbs, he waited, but none of the pigeons cooperated.

“Do you think they know I’m a Nazi?”

Rena laughed so hard they all flew away. “No, they like you. They just don’t know you well enough yet. Remember how long it took before I came around?”

“Uh…yes, I absolutely do.” He also remembered the summer of his youth when he’d notched the tree with the number of birds, squirrels and rabbits he’d shot for target practice. In pretending his tree fort was a castle and he was a king, he had justified his murders, even attempted stuffing a few of them to hang as trophies. The secret caused his heart to pump with regret.

“Be the patient man you are and the pigeons will be eating out of your hand, too.”

“Why is it that although you’ve never given them a smidgen of food before today they already like you?”

Rena laughed, her cheerful expression engaging all his senses as she said, “Because we are kindred spirits. I played with their ancestors all during my childhood. We have a history, you might say.”

Rolf winked and leaned into her neck, nibbling on it. “That’s not it. I used to feed the birds every afternoon at the farm in Garmisch, so what about that history? No, I think it’s your perfume.”

She kissed his nose and cheek and he lit up inside, knowing she was finally content with him. Her voice sounded like the coo of a dove as she whispered, “I wish I could see your farm, Rolf…meet your mother. I know she must be very beautiful and kind-hearted to have a son like you.”

Rolf reached for her hand. “Oh, Rena, you would love her. She’s the most compassionate woman I’ve ever known…and the best of mothers. She still keeps my photo and Olympic medal in a frame on the fireplace.”

“Olympic medal?”

“Oh, it’s nothing, really. I had a chance…I could have maybe won first place in the downhills, but…you know…the war changed everyone’s lives. Hitler cancelled the games. That all seems so superficial and frivolous now, doesn’t it?”

“I’ve always wanted to visit the Alps and soar down a slope of snow on skis. It must feel like flying, like having a set of wings. These little winged creatures are so lucky, aren’t they?”

“Maybe birds are here to humble men, show us our limitations. They are so small, but they have a lot more freedom than people.” Rolf looked up at the second-story windowsill of the adjacent building. “I’ve always thought dying would be a lot like flying, ascending out of your body to reach new heights and unlimited dimensions.”

 

~The thought of death reminded her, “Rolf, I don’t want to spoil our lovely day, but I have some sad news I must share with you.”

 

They woke up three hours later, the room dark as midnight. After Rena had explained all the details about Sarah’s death and funeral, Rolf suggested they rest, a short afternoon nap the best way to allay gloominess. When she felt his arms encircling her in the dark, she knew he had been right, her heartbreak had calmed, her trembling over. Although it would take her years to get over losing her best friend, his arms relieved the ache and allowed her to feel a bit of joy. When her eyes focused she noticed Rolf had framed a photograph of her in the yellow dress and set it on his bedside table. She smiled and kissed him on the back of his neck.

When he climbed out of bed, he tucked the covers up to her neck like her father used to do. She snuggled up to his pillow, smelled it and allowed herself to doze again.

Before long her dreams caused her to awake in tears. With a sore heart and eyes that felt like acid burns, she couldn’t imagine why Rolf stood in the bedroom doorway backlit by the kitchen light with a smile and a gift in his hand. Then she remembered. Today was her nineteenth birthday.

To her astonishment, Rolf pulled her from the bed and surprised her with a candle light dinner of applesauce, sour cream and potato pancakes. She marveled at the rosy glow of his cheeks as he poured champagne. “Thank you so much for this, Rolf. It’s…it’s such a superb moment.”

“This is just the beginning of our perfect world, Rena.”

She winced, wishing he would dwell in the moment with the future so unstable.

The candelabra provided a warm glow through the room, and Rena felt a burden lift from her heart as if it had wings. Perhaps the vision of that perfect world was just what she needed tonight.

After the meal, Rolf refused her help to clear the dishes, soon returning with two small plates and a white layer cake with white frosting. He set the cake in front of her and made her blow out the nineteen white candles.

Then he opened the closet door and filled the room with yellow balloons, taking her hand and twirling her around the room. He began to sing along with the lyrics on the radio… Frank Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and their song; Fools Rush In. 

When we met I felt my life begin. Only lovers could understand feelings like this, she thought. After the dance and brief kiss, he took her into the parlor and reached behind the sofa, handing her a gift wrapped in gold foil paper. She began to giggle. “What’s this, Rolf?” 

“It’s the least I could do. If I had my wish I’d given you something with…well…gold and diamonds.” His wink always meant I love you. She winked back. “Oh, I almost forgot. Sit down.” Removing the lid from a small ceramic pot on the coffee table, he removed the turquoise stone. “You left this on top of a piece of cotton in the dressing room. It’s your lucky stone, isn’t it?”

Rena reached out and took the stone, kissing it. “Oh, yes. I wondered… It was a gift from my brother. Actually, I’ve been meaning to give it back to him. Thank you.”

Rolf touched the golden gift balanced on her knees. “Open it.”

Rena felt her eyes grow wide as she untied the silver ribbons. A gift—it seemed so strange and exotic. He’d given her things before, but never wrapped in rich gold foil. She scooted back on the sofa and he kneeled on the floor by her side.

The feel of the filigreed ribbon between her fingers reminded her of her olden days, a world of food and holidays and gift giving…when life was simple and wonderful. She lifted the cover of the box and inhaled a breath of surprise. Delighted and stunned, her emotion failed her as the memories rushed in, tears dampening her eyes. She whispered with an uneven voice, “Swiss chocolates?”

Trying to forge a smile, she set the box down, and broke away from his arms and walked to the window, her back to him. Overlooking the street she thought about her father. Her voice cracked with emotion, “When we lived in Berlin…my father always brought us a box of Swiss chocolate when he returned from business trips. After that night…after the night of flames while I recovered in the hospital, he…he brought in a box just like this.”

Rolf came from behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. “You’ve never told me everything that happened to you that night.”

“The last box of Swiss chocolates my father gave me was for my sixteenth birthday…when we were still living at the farm.” She felt the truth and it stung deep. It was time to tell him, time to admit it to herself. “I’m never going to see him again, Rolf.”

 

~While she told him the story of how her father disappeared, Rolf went over every possibility in his head, any SS he could tap for information. How useless the effort would be. Jews disappeared without a trace. Where would he begin the search? Unless her father somehow made it back on his own by some miracle, Rolf knew he was another soul lost to the Nazi machine.

As Rena wept, he escorted her back to the sofa and sat in front of her on the floor again, looking up at her beautiful teary face, knowing how it broke a person’s spirit to lose a father to such a wrong.

“He had a heart of pure gold. All that’s left of him now is his Kippot and black prayer book with gold lettering.”

Rolf moved up beside her, squeezed her in his arms and hid her face in the nape of his neck, rocking her like a small child, knowing her father would never come back. Nor would his.

As she looked up at his face, he had tears in his eyes. He wept for her, for them, for what he was a part of, for the human capacity to adapt to evil, to accept it, to rationalize it, to routinize it, to call it by pretty names and for his powerlessness to stop its madness.

“There is something else you should know about me, Rena. “Until I met you, I expended a lot of energy on hating the Nazis.” His chin began to quiver, the words inching one at a time from his lips. “They…tortured…and electrocuted…my father.” He continued with a shattered voice, “They cut off his fingers…and his hand…stripped him of his great talent before they killed him. I’ve tried so hard to put my hate for them to rest, but I know I will take it to my grave.”

 

~Rena felt her throat closing up. If this was true, they shared more than mutual attraction. Their hearts both vibrated with terrible grief. “What had he done to deserve such brutal torture?”

‘They murdered him in cold blood…because he helped a few Jews escape Germany by buying their artwork…with Reich funds he had at his disposal at the museum. He was a good man, Rena… the best of men.”

Rena fell silent in astonishment. As Rolf also shared the horror of Han’s murder, her heart throbbed with more intensity than ever. Finally she gripped his hand and whispered, “How can men do such things to other human beings?”

Rolf took her in his arms, his face buried in the niche of her neck. “My father also refused to destroy any artwork of German expressionists like Kokoshka, Franz Marc, and George Grosz.” Sniffling, he leaned back and studied her face. “My father and Hans believed art belonged to humanity, and that included Jewish artwork, ancient and modern.”

Rena finally understood the forces that made Rolf different. “I knew there were Germans who cared about us. And you are the son and friend of such men.” Rena squeezed his hand again and kissed his cheek, her fingertips caressing his face. “So…what about you, Rolf? Have you followed in your father’s footsteps or have you followed orders?”

Rolf blew his nose again and she found a slight smile breaking out of the gloom. He said, “I suppose you might already know the answer to that, Rena.”

“Yes, you are here with me against the laws of your country. You have helped many infants survive. That is proof enough for me.”

Rolf stood and began to pace back and forth in front of her. “I felt compelled to risk my life to follow the example of the greatest man I have ever known. It’s a matter of honor. In fact, I have taken up where he left off. And when I did, I made a vow never to disclose this to anyone, which is why I am only telling you now.” He stopped in the middle of the room and looked directly into her eyes. “In my shipping crates, with the help of Gorzko and others, along with paintings I’ve been smuggling small Jewish orphans to places of refuge outside Reich territory. It’s not much, but—”

“Not much!” She jumped up and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Not much? Why, that’s the most heroic thing I’ve ever heard, Rolf. Tell me all about it.” As she kissed his cheek, a thousand questions filled her mind. “How many—”

“I haven’t counted. I don’t want to know the numbers. I hate numbers. No matter, it’s too few. I only have three distribution points with willing colleagues. Lining up families is the most difficult part.”

“Oh Rolf, you’re so inspiring. I wish I could do something, assist you in some way. I know Jonathan will want—”

“If my new plan to get you to Switzerland works, I’ll need your help.”

“What plan?”

“I am trying to arrange an overland route by car to Switzerland, then a ticket to America. I will come when I can, after all this is over.”

“America? We’ll become Americans?”

“Yes! Soon, it will be all set.”

“And my family?”

“Yes, of course. You and your family.”

“But…”

“What is it?”

“There is something.”

On second thought she shouldn’t tell him yet. What if it changed everything? One never knew about these things. She grabbed the box of chocolates. Approaching him, she removed the lid and selected a piece, put it between his lips and they shared it while they kissed and laughed.

“So, my darling. Are you going to keep me in suspense the rest of the night?”

She stepped away and peeked around the corner in his study and glanced at Beyond the Frosted Windowpane. “Maybe. Is your masterpiece finished, Rolf?

“Almost. Another day, maybe two.”

She studied her face in the painting; a perfect resemblance. She knew it would live long after her, hang in some massive museum where people would ask, who is that girl with the large hazel eyes and wonder about her story? “I love you, Rolf.”

If not for his acceptance of her, she may have died never knowing the ecstasy of love and for that, she would remain eternally grateful. As she noticed the trains puffing by in the distance, she studied his long sandy blond eyelashes and the pink color of his cheeks and made some final determinations. Rolf is only one man. He can’t stop Hitler; he can only do what he can do. He can’t stop what the whole world is allowing the Germans to do. If he is to blame then so is every nation, in fact—all of the people in this world who know and do nothing to save innocent blood. She said it again, “I truly love you, Rolf.”

“Was that your secret, because I kind of had a hint.”

“You did?

Tickling her ribs, he chuckled, “Tell me or I’ll have to get you down on the ground.”

The phone rang and Rolf jumped to attention, almost saluting.

He bolted to the receiver. “Hello.”

Rolf held his ear tight to the phone. When he yanked it off his ear and held it out, she heard a voice screaming, but she only caught a couple of words in an odd German accent. 

“Yes, sir. Monday, sir. Good night, sir.” He replaced the receiver and began to pace the room, sweat beading his forehead.

“What was all that about, Rolf.”

“Hitler. He wants me in Berlin for a meeting next week.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

34

 

You didn’t think it went unnoticed, did you, kompanje?” Henny said, walking over to the door in Rolf’s office and shutting it. His springless saunter, the way his arms swung and his feet plodded toward the liquor, made Rolf uncomfortable.

Rolf sat behind his desk writing up a formal recommendation to the Reich Chancellery that the world-famous Leonardo, Raphael, and Rembrandt paintings from the Czartoryski Collection be reserved for Hitler’s personal project. The additional documents, ancient scrolls and another hundred thousand volumes from the same shipment he estimated at a hundred twenty million Reich marks. “What are you talking about, Henny?”

As Henny strolled back over to the leather chair on the front side of Rolf’s desk, he studied the mass of paintings stacked several deep, lining the walls. After a long swallow of bourbon from the glass he’d poured, he said, “Falling behind on your work? Huh? Oh how naughty, my dear Chief of the Einsatzstab.

Not rising to greet him, Rolf said, “Henny, I could work forty-eight hours a day and I‘d still be behind at the rate they are increasing the deliveries. I’m not quite sure where this conversation is headed. Did I miss something?”

Henny dropped in the chair, put his feet up on the desk and took a cigar out of his pocket, offering one to Rolf, who declined. “Ja, don’t feel bad, we’ve all got our good little Zhid. Sure, we know the rest of them are slimy, good-for-nothing worms, but ah, this one…this one.”

Did he know about Rena? How? “Henny, you’re not making sense?”

“Don’t play innocent, Herr Kiss-in-the-Park, Fuck-in-the-Dark.”

Henny knew? He followed him? He bugged his flat? This could be serious. He softened his expression, not wanting Henny to see how those words affected him. “How exactly may I assist you today?”

“On the contrary, kompanje. I’ve come to invite you to my house for a cocktail party I’m throwing tomorrow night for Göring. I want you to see my art collection.”

“Art collection?” He needed a way to get Rena out fast before this whole affair blew up in his face.

“The knighthood cannot have their one good little Zhid, Brandt. We believe we can, but in reality, we can’t. Maybe scabby soldiers can get away with it, but the Waffen SS, the elite of the German Volk, we can’t…not you and not I. We, the chosen, must procreate only with Aryan women to sire a perfect race.” After he finished off his drink, he snapped a match and lit the cigar with a succession of taut puffs.

Rolf felt every one of the hairs on his arm stand up. Now he knew what this was all about. His duty, his honor. He was sick to his stomach of hearing about his obligation to be one of Hitler’s stallions at the Lebensborn. Were the elements of the human body to become no more than raw material to be poured into a mold, the defective ones disposed of like plastic dolls? He pushed his chair back until it touched the wall, his head pounding. “No, Henny. This is not a subject I’m discussing with you. Is that clear?”

Henny let out a hearty hyena cackle with a long cloud of smoke. His head tilted back like someone laughing at a good joke. Then his face went stiff. “Brandt, I’m you’re friend. Think about what you are doing. Have you forgotten that those Zhids killed God, that they caused the Black Death? It’s a known fact, they work with Satan. For Christ’s sake, they slit the throats of Christian children for their blood sacrifices.”

Rolf rolled his eyes and poked his index finger against his skull. Is this really about Rena? “Think for yourself, Henny. Use your head. Do you think each and every one of these people, the children included, perform blood sacrifices? That is nothing but far-fetched brainwashing used to make you hate them enough so you can follow orders with a clear conscience.”

“Be careful, Brandt. Don’t force me to report you.”

This hate for the Jews built up over generations was as caustic to those who held it in their hearts as to those it was directed against. Unfortunately, Nazi or Jew, there was evil in everyone. Rolf stood up and reached for a painting from the top of the stack to the left of him. “Report what you like, Henny. I’m not intimidated by your threats. Now I need to get back to work.”

“Do you want to face public scorn and ridicule, kompanje? I came to offer you my help. All I want is a little reciprocation for my friendship,” Henny said with a smile and a puff of smoke.

He wasn’t about to let this puffing creature with the filthy fingernails blackmail him into giving him any Reich’s treasures. He was certain Henny’s current art collection included quite a number of the missing art, and he had a mind to speak directly to Hitler about it next week. Since Rolf had posted three guards twenty-four hours a day, Henny likely realized he had to dig up an alternate technique for expanding his collection. “Henny, what are you doing in my office? It must be obvious I don’t have time for verbal sport.”

Stretching himself back in the chair and letting out a chain of slow round circles of smoke, Henny said, “Remember how I got assigned to you when you first came to Warsaw? Ja, I’m just watching your back, kompanje. Aren’t you aware of the arrests for Race Defilement?”

He wasn’t about to admit or deny any accusations, but Henny definitely found the heat valve; Rolf’s blood now rested at boil. He shuffled through some paintings hoping Henny would get bored and leave. He looked up as more rings exited Henny’s mouth. “Who are you to care about who I associate with? How about all the officers who have sexual relations with Jews at The Puff? How many of them are you stalking for Race Defilement, Henny?”

Rolf hated the way Henny crossed his legs and sank deeper into the chair, as if he planned on spending the afternoon. This wasn’t a bar. “That’s different. Taking what we can from conquered people is a German privilege. The puppies at The Puff are provided benefits. You’re too good to get down with the inartistic masses, aren’t you, kompanje?”

“I’m not too good, Henny. I just don’t find pleasure in worrying about diseases.”

With a gesture indicating the stupidity of Rolf’s last remark, Henny said, “I know who your paramour is, Brandt. Did you know her brother is the head of a conspiracy group?”

Rolf nearly choked on his spit. “What—”

“You don’t seem to get it, Brandt. That is a dangerous family. I had to liquidate the father when he refused to provide information about his son’s clandestine activities.”

Rolf felt his lunch churning, inching up his esophagus. With all the murdering going on, this one touched home. Trembling, he remembered how hard Rena had cried over her father. “You bastard!”

Henny snorted as he got up to pour another drink, “I’m just watching out for your interests, kompanje. Ja, she may seem innocent, but you never know what they have up their sleeve…those Jew vermin.”

Rolf got up, his fists clenched, “Don’t push me, Henny.”

“You’re involved beyond the bed, kompanje. Ja, this is worse than I figured. Tell you what, as captain of the bush patrol, I’m extending an invitation to bring your private whore over to The Puff and share her with the rest of us. If she’s any good, it might buy her a few more weeks.”

What would my father do at this moment? Rolf stomped to the door, opened it and pointed at the exit. “I wouldn’t bring my Labrador retriever over to that place for all you scum suckers to degrade. Now, get out!”

“I can prove—”

“Nonsense. You can’t prove a damn thing.”

“You…the girl…the Thursday picnic basket. Sound familiar.”

Rolf wiped his forehead, knowing it was impossible to hide his anxiety. Rolf shut the door and paced. “Henny, why do you care so much about this one specific Jew?”

Henny followed behind him, his mocking tone increasing the steam, “I like the taste of blondes too, kompanje, especially young fresh foxes with long silky hair.”

Rolf made an about-face. “Shut the fuck up, Henny. You are one—”

“Now, now…Herr Chief of the Einsatzstab. You’re taking this a little personal for someone claiming to be emotionally uninvolved. Hmm, what should I put in my report?”

“No one will believe you over me.”

Reaching into his interior pocket, Henny pulled out an envelope and waved it in Rolf’s face. “They will when they see these photographs of you two exchanging spit in the park.”

“What? You took photographs? You pervert!” He grabbed the pictures out of Henny’s hand and shuffled though them. Obviously he wasn’t the only one provided with cameras by Hitler. God, he felt like a sitting duck at target practice. Of course, he’d made copies.

“Look, all I want is a little favor.” Henny slapped him on the shoulder and strolled back toward the liquor cabinet.

“I don’t do favors.” If he even considered requesting permission to marry her now, the Office of Race and Resettlement would deny him on the grounds of violating the Nuremberg law against having sexual intercourse with a Juden. He would have to convince her to run away with him.

Henny filled a glass with bourbon and drank it down. Rolf noticed how he watched him, smug and confident, simply waiting for the next volley.

“Can’t you just let us alone? Forget about it?”

“The photographs of the ghetto got intercepted, Brandt.”

He’d slammed the ball over the net “What are you talking about now?”

“Don’t play stupid, kompanje. Do you think any mail goes uncensored, courier or not?”

Feeling a blade on his knuckles, the tearing away of his flesh by the teeth of this creep, he would deny everything. Double trouble; first the missing crates, now this. “I get it, Henny. Frame Brandt like his father. You’re a mole…Heydrich’s agent, aren’t you?” 

“Kompanje, do you want to stand naked in the public square. Is that really what you want?”

“This is idiotic…absolutely absurd.” He walked back to the door and opened it, slamming it back against the wall. “I’m tired of playing this game. I’m going to ask you to leave…nicely…once more.”

Henny shuffled back a few steps, grinning from ear to ear. “Ja, naked in the public square wearing a placard that says; I am swine who has sexual relations with Jews?”

Rolf took a deep breath and lunged forward, but at the last minute restrained his hand, yet lifted Henny off the floor by his collar before dropping him. “First of all, it’s none of your business what kind of relations I am having or with whom.”

Henny leaned back against the wall and straightened his collar. “I’m your friend, kompanje. It’s my business to know everything about your life.”

“Second, you are threatening the wrong man. I’m in charge of Hitler’s confidential projects. That gives me connections in much higher places than you or your superiors. So I wouldn’t keep up this charade—I’m tired of it.”

After a return trip to the bar and a long sip, Henny said, “Ja, and the girl? After the Geheime Staatspolizei are done with their interrogation, there won’t be much left of her…they enjoy severing body parts. Do you want what is left of your lover to hang naked in the public square wearing a placard that says...I am a Jew. I welcome any man to fuck me. Is that what you want for her, kompanje?”

Rolf leaned his shoulder against the wall and hung his aching head, his brain spinning. 

“Kompanje, listen to me. You two may be hanging there for weeks being stoned, spit on, and painted with excrement—as an example to the local population. Is that—”

“What the…and stop calling me kompanje.” At last realizing the monster standing in his office intended to carry out his threats, he felt a jolt of fear. It wasn’t a folk story; he’d seen it in Garmisch when he was fourteen, two lovers hanging naked in a tree.

“Get out!” Rolf yelled. “Get out before I bust your face open!”

Henny casually threw the empty glass on the floor, breaking it. He strolled to the door with a devilish grin on his face. “So, you’ve made up your mind. You’ve picked your Zhid whore over a comrade, huh? Did you forget? You’re either with me or against me. You’re not going to like the fee, kompanje. ”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

35

 

Jonathan charged inside the blue curtain like a hunted man. Rena and her aunt both jerked back and gasped. Rena squealed, “Shalom, brother. What in the world is—”

He scanned the room. “I’ve got to find somewhere to hide, Rena. They’re following me.”

Rena glanced at Aunt Mitha, who kept her eyes cast down on the top of Judith’s head. His entrance, Rena knew, was far too much stress for the fragile women in ear shot. She put her finger to her lips and tugged him over to the window, whispering. “What…why—”

Jonathan, her once invincible brother, looked limp as a wrung-out dishrag, his shoulders sagging, and his lips stuttering. “Today my luck ran out, the infant began to cry at the gate, Rena.” As he watched Aunt Mitha take Judith’s little hand and walk to her cot, he murmured, “We can’t promise any more mothers, Rena. We must find a better way to—”

Rena stroked his arm with a slow, steady motion. “Calm down, Jonathan. Your face is covered in sweat.”

“How’s Mama?”

“She’s not as bad as last time. I didn’t know yellow fever could come back, but I think she’ll be fine.”

As Jonathan stood peering out the window, his body quaked. “I don’t think they saw my face. I turned. I ran like…like fire lapped at my heels.”

Rena took his hand and led him to the table, her voice low. “What about the baby? Where is the baby, Jonathan?”

“I had to give it back to the mother. At least it will be safe. I can’t imagine what—”

“Sit down, Jonathan. You’re pale as milk. Drink some water. Let’s think.”

“If they did see my face…if they followed me—”

“Obviously they didn’t follow you, dear brother. Let’s talk this over.”

Jonathan plopped down in the chair, his fingers laced behind his neck. “You’re right. You’re right. But, nonetheless, I shouldn’t stay here.”

“Mercy, Jonathan, remember your promise. I need you here to help—”

“Just for a little while, sis. If they find me here…well I can’t risk retaliation against the family. Maybe I should go to—”

“The farm, Jonathan…how about the farm?” Rena knew he was right. He couldn’t stay and wait and hope, not if he could escape. “If you can get out one last time, you could go back to the farm, hide in the loft in the barn. I can draw you a map where the gold coins are hidden. Maybe no one lives there now or maybe Ivan’s wife…she could hide you.”

Jonathan almost smiled but then frowned again. “No. I couldn’t ask that of her, not after losing Ivan. I wouldn’t ask anyone to put their life in jeopardy to hide me. No. I’ll go to the forest, to the shed…if I can sneak out again.”

Rena dropped a spoon of tea leaves in the pot and took in a deep breath, the scent of peppermint refreshing her. “Tomorrow morning…the cart man, Jonathan. He can get you out.”

“Yes. Good thinking.” Jonathan smiled. His big brown eyes sparkled, reminding her how many good deeds he’d done since they arrived in the ghetto.

Rena felt the weight lift from her chest, his glow warming her. She went to him and gave him a hug. “I’m so proud of you, Jonathan.”

He said, “From the shed I can work with the Polish resistance again…obtain more weapons, and even launch a faction to locate more willing homes for the babies.”

Suddenly Rena realized his trouble resulted from her suggesting he help her and Rolf with the infants. A pang of guilt overpowered her. “Oh, Jonathan. I wish I’d never asked you to lend a hand. Now, you will go and what will I do all alone? How will I manage everything without you?”

 As she set the tea and bread in front of him, she heard footsteps coming up the stairs. Heavy footsteps. A lot of footsteps. Her mother turned over in her bed and opened her eyes wide. Heavy boots and shouting, then gun butts against the door. Judith and Aunt Mitha jumped up out of their sleep. Four gendarmes and two SS in black uniforms pushed through the blue curtain. Rena gasped and Jonathan stepped in front of her. One of the SS grabbed Jonathan by the collar.

“Smuggling pistols is punishable by death,” he yelled, shoving Jonathan against the wall.

“No! No! Please! Don’t take my brother!”

They ignored her. “Smugglers die. We don’t tolerate dissent!”

As Rena examined their faces, one looked familiar. Over the months all their faces seemed to blend into one malicious mask, one image that represented the whole rotten lot: Henny.

“He has done nothing! Let him go!” He had survived two previous interrogations by both the Polish and Jewish police, even survived imprisonment and torture by Kaltenbrunner, the vicious, pitiless Gestapo chief—he would get away, Rena thought.

They shoved Jonathan through the curtain and toward the staircase. Rena chased behind, groping at their arms, pleading. “Don’t take him away.

Jonathan shook his head. “No. Rena. Go back.”

She lunged for the familiar looking SS. He shoved her away violently, his big black jackboots bruising her shin. “We Germans are a peace-loving people, but how much do you Jews think we’re going to take before we explode?

The sound of his voice strangled her breath. She refused to believe her eyes and ears. How could Henny be in Warsaw? She felt her temper snap, her mind detonate with all her vile imaginings of revenge. “Explode?”

Henny stopped, turned and smiled at her. “Anyone got a match?”

That’s when she noticed the same filthy fingernails, how the veins of his neck stood out in quivering ridges, accentuating his insanity. This time she refused to be a scared little girl, refused to implore his sympathy.

Jonathan’s voice pierced her trance, his supplications the only thing she heard. “Rena, no. Not now. He’ll get his dues later. Stop. Go back…for me.”

Rena yelled, “No. Jonathan! No! You promised me!”

Henny kept a smile pasted on his face. “So you remember me, do you?”

At that moment, Jonathan struggled out of their grasp and turned to her. The earlier sparkle in his eyes changed into a dull terror. He reached into his pocket and tossed her the turquoise stone. “It only works in your hands, Rena. Remember me with every wish. I’ll be watching over you. We will be together again. I promise you that.” With a little smile, he shouted as they yanked him through the doorway, “I love you, Rena. Take care of our family. Remember love conquers all. Even the dark spirits can’t kill this strong bond of love we have for each other.”

Rena glanced down at the stone in the palm of her hand and thought to kiss it and throw it back, but when she looked up he was gone.

 

The next morning, Rose peeped around the curtain and hissed, startling Rena. Puffy and swollen, Rena’s eyes took a minute to focus. “Rose?”

“How’s your mother?” She whispered.

Rena raised herself from her bed and pulled her legs over the edge. Every movement seemed impossible. She’d prayed all night for the angel of death to take her if he took Jonathan, but she dreamed he broke loose and ran to the barn, and slept safe in the warmth of the hay.

She stood on her feet and brushed her hair out of her face, walking over to her mother. Her hand upon her forehead, she waited. The fever had reduced and her mother slept. Rena nodded over to Rose with a little smile. “Better.”

Rose motioned Rena with her finger.

Rena walked over and stood by her at the edge of the blue hanging sheet with lavender flowers, wiping sleep from her eyes. “Are you alright, Rose? I can share a slice or two of bread.”

With a silent gesture, Rose motioned for Rena to follow her into the bathroom. Rena felt her stomach shudder. “What is it, Rose?”

The lines curving about Rose’s mouth had deepened, her chin unsteady, her eyes filling with tears. “They chose me.”

Rena felt her throat close up, her body plunge into convulsions. “No, Rose. No.” Gasping for breath, she sobbed; her eyes wide with supplication. “No. Don’t say it. Don’t tell me!”

“Fifty social workers and two young men. They are calling it the Night of Blood.”

Rena slammed her fist against the wall. She was sick of nights with names. “No. Rose. Please. I beg you to say it isn’t true. It can’t be true. I won’t believe it.”

“Every member of the building is weeping today, Rena. Every single person is back in bed with tears.”

“No. Not Jonathan. Not my Jonathan! Damn those Nazis! Damn them to hell!” Rena shook Rose by the shoulders, still begging her with her eyes to retract the words. “I hate them. And, as God is my witness, I will get back at them!”

“Please, Rena. Sit. I know the toilet cover isn’t that pleasant, but…”

Rena sat and Rose leaned down. Her arms embraced Rena as she rocked back and forth, sobbing, crying out for her only brother. “Jonathan. Jonathan. Jonathan!”

After a few minutes, Rose said, “They’re all sharing stories about how Jonathan aided them in their worst moments. I didn’t realize—”

“He gave his life for everyone else. For everyone else! But…he promised me. He promised me. And now he’s gone…and I’m all alone. I’m all alone!”

“We are all here for you, Rena. Really. Don’t feel so alone. We are not as alone as we think. We are a product of every other life that has touched ours. No one is alone. To honor him, the owner of the house scheduled a prayer meeting on the main floor.”

Rena suddenly understood the unspeakable anguish others often discussed, the initiation into a new, odd state of consciousness. It didn’t matter how much she tore her clothing or how many hours they recited the kaddish, she knew she would never feel anything again. Her mouth shut, her tears flowed and her heart felt twice dead as it slowly restored its form inside her chest. Like everything else now, it rested on her to tell her loved ones Jonathan would never come home again.

 

After breaking the news, she shut herself in the closet, mumbling, praying, talking up to God while shaking her finger. “You’d better open a new heaven, Yahweh. My brother, Jonathan, deserves a very high place…a very high place, indeed. You must have levels, don’t you? You can’t just pile everyone inside one big space like an insane asylum. I couldn’t even give him a proper burial, you must give our Jon…Jonathan a proper reward.”

 

It was the hardest thing Rena ever had to do, but if she didn’t go to Rolf as promised, she might lose him too. After everyone sat shiva, she washed her face, rinsed her mouth and resolved not to tell Rolf about Jonathan, not tonight. Whether or not she mourned for the customary seven days, she knew by the way her heart ached it would take seven years for the pain to fade. She was done crying for one day.

As the sun descended, she kissed their melancholy cheeks and left them with some encouragement for their dreams. “Just think about how good the future will be when we are all healthy again. Sleep tight.”

As her footsteps took her down two flights of stairs and out into the street, the dusk of night offered her a beautiful pink and purple sunset. Jonathan and Sarah and Onkel Moshe are all there in that beautiful world of magnificent colors…such as the human eye cannot comprehend. That vision made her smile and she felt the iron buckle on her heart loosen, her meanness toward God dissipate. The sunset was her answer, the message she awaited. Her loved ones were in that beautiful world made for good people. Of that, her heart felt certain.

Rose was right. We all affect the world…we all leave our mark on each other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

36

 

As she passed the Mikvah, the bath used for ritual purification on Dzielna Street, she noticed a van and two cars. A rainbow of sunset color reflected from the windshield. A cameraman hauled equipment on his shoulder while another man carried a large black case into the bathhouse. She’d heard from Jonathan a Berlin film crew had come to Warsaw to film Jewish women working in factories to entice German companies to set up additional factories near the ghetto to utilize cheap Jewish labor, but the bathhouse?

At the sound of a scream, she stopped and glanced around, wondering where such a gut-wrenching sound had come from. She waited for a moment, as did several others on the street, but whatever it was died out. Buzzards circled high above, backlit by luminous red and orange. She heard another scream pierce the sky and knew the SS must be on a rampage. Discounting her fear, she focused on the enchanting feeling of Rolf’s arms around her.

She turned and headed toward the gate thinking of how much she loved him. More trains clanked in the distance, bringing in cargo and taking away those lucky enough to leave Warsaw. A few more days and her family would leave this hell, drive to Switzerland and live as free people in America. Even through the scorching pain of her loss, she felt a beam of excitement tickle her. As she focused on the colors in the sky, she silently thanked the Living God for Rolf and the beauty of His worlds.

Just as she picked up her step, she felt someone grip her arm and wrench her in the opposite direction, forcing her to do an about face. Her bowels quivered as adrenaline rushed through her body. The sleeve of the black uniform was all the information she needed to know she was in trouble, deep trouble. Trailing up the sleeve to the face, her eyes found her foe, not just any SS, but Henny, the cold-blooded savage of her nightmares, the maniac who had murdered her brother. “Let me go, you bastard!” She yanked her arm away, but he seized it again with even more force, his fingers as powerful as a vice grip.

“Your turn.”

My turn? His words, the depraved spirit behind his eyes, and his ceaseless smile, struck terror in her. But this time, with the fear came a rage, a boiling up, a volcano rumbling inside her unlike any force she had ever known.

When he approached the bathhouse, dragging her behind him like a rag doll, the only thing she could think of was the promotional films Jonathan told her about— the other films showing Jews enjoying life in the ghetto to show in German theaters. He’d called it stupid propaganda used to brainwash the Reich populace, but Rena knew it was anything but stupid. Hitler and his cohorts were deviously brilliant. A smidgen of dread evaporated knowing Henny wouldn’t shoot her in front of cameras used to film happy, healthy Jews or women working in factories. When he let go of her arm to open the door, she turned and set out in a dead run toward the gate, but before she reached the corner, he caught her again and lugged her back by her braid to the bathhouse, her body bruising against the pavement as she turned to and fro in attempts to lessen the pain.

When he shoved her inside, another soldier, wide-eyed and excited, yanked her into the large bath with him, clothes and all. He had the face of an assassin, dark pit-hole eyes, fleshy lips, and huge tiger paws in place of hands.

“Get your hands off me, dummkopf!” Rena screamed, yanking herself out of his grasp before being pulled back again. “I said stop!” But his only response was a loud wicked laugh. He was another Henny, another agent of evil indecency.

A second later the vicious blue eyes and pretty face, his fingernails still filthy, jumped in on top of them, cackling and howling like a mad hyena, grabbing Rena for himself. “No! Henny! No!” Rena shouted and punched him in the face with her fists. She tried to keep her eyes from seeing all the fleshy men jumping up and down in the pool as if playing a naked water ball game. She felt her heart pounding, jumping, rampaging inside her. “No! You bastard! Let me go!”

One of the other men reached for her, tearing her clothes. With a wide-open mouth revealing his thick gold fillings, he looked like a crazy vampire ready to sink his teeth into his victim. Pulling her close to his nude body, he licked her cheek like a hard sucker.

Rena scrambled to get away, gasping for air. With so many hands grabbing her, she couldn’t breathe. “No, let me go…please!” 

Henny came back and slapped her across the mouth with his fist. “Shut your mouth! You are here because it’s time you learned your lesson.” As blood rolled down her chin, he ripped apart her clothes, but she fought him off, holding the shredded material tight to her chest. Flipping her upside down in the water, he howled, “Come on, Steiner slut, get to work…here’s my prick.”

Rena splashed and fought, pinching the skin of his stomach furiously. He let her up and she gasped for breath, coughing and choking. “Stop this, Henny! You about drowned me!” While she jerked her arm from his slippery grasp, she saw many young Jewish girls, even pink-faced Jewish boys, stripped naked and pushed into the large bathing pool. Germans mounted them in a variety of ways while they took their satisfaction.

Henny held her hands behind her back and made her float along the water, licking and biting her exposed breasts. “Nice tits. Now I get why Brandt wanted to stick with you.”

Rolf? Rena felt stunned, sick, and nauseous. Henny knew Rolf? Allowing herself to revert to the temper of her childhood, she squirmed until her hands were freed and battled him until he lost his hold on her limbs. But as she swam away from him she scanned the area for a tool, a screwdriver, something to stab him with. He caught her by the foot and pulled her back through the water.

Almost in a tantrum, she yelled, “Let me go! I will fix you! I am telling you, you’ll be sorry if you don’t let me go!”

At the baths all are equal. The Yiddish proverb flashed in Rena’s mind as she screamed and fought for freedom. But there was no equality when it came to the Nazis. Even Rolf. The one German person she let herself trust with her soul. God, she just wanted to die, but first, whether it was forbidden or not, she would have her revenge.

The cameras of the German Film Making Company rolled on, filming the orgy. “For the troops, men. Let them see what your strong bodies can do. Let them hear the enemy gasp for their last breath. This is for our soldiers at the front lines. Make ‘em laugh! Make ‘em jealous! Give it everything you got.”

As Henny bent her over and tried to thrust himself against her, for the first time in her life she wanted to commit murder. Facing her was evil incarnate.

Without warning, Henny held her face under the water, pushing it against his genitals. Of all the ways to die, this ranked lower than anything she’d ever considered. She refused to go like this. Suddenly, she found renewed strength, determination not to die like the others floating in the water, not to go without a ferocious fight. For Jonathan …die with honor. This time Henny would feel the pain of the flames searing his skin. She opened her month and bit down hard on his penis. They have finally turned me into one of them. He jumped away screaming, letting her go. “Was that you, bitch?”

Coughing, Rena shouted at him, “I almost drowned under there, you dumb bastard.” She lunged for him, beating on his chest, biting his hands as he slapped her. She yelled at him as she freed herself, backed away and moved toward the steps, “This isn’t a game!”

Henny waded through the water toward her like the fat drunk slob that he was. Suddenly he stopped, red water encircling him, his face white as alabaster. His eyes bulged from their sockets as he eyed the tint of the water. “You are a dead bitch!” She raced up the steps, pushed by the film crew, and bolted for the exit. She burst out the door in what was left of her shredded clothes and landed on her knees, scraping her shins. The agony of her wounds and bruises was overcome by her embarrassment as a crowd encircled her. The rags did little to hide her nakedness. She refused to cry or look up at them, to make eye contact, to reveal her identity. She screamed at them, “Stare if you want. You might be next if you don’t get out of here!”

In response, some kind soul threw her a threadbare plaid scarf and ran off. She grabbed it and wrapped it around her waist, veiling as well as she could her private areas.

With her head down, she lunged through the crowd of skeletons, frantically pushing people aside. The threadlike cloth flew out behind her like wings revealing portions of her flesh to a thousand eyes. “God, Whose Name is Holy, what have I done to deserve this?”

As she spied her living quarters in the distance, she felt emotion wetting her eyes. There, not far off her mother prayed and her aunt and sister slept. Her pace slowed as her chest began to heave. When she came to a stop, she wiped her eyes and defied the urge to break down in hysterical sobs. She had to think.

As she searched through a dumpster behind a closed-down café, she was thankful the gray sky offered enough light to see. Even an old tablecloth might do. After emptying several cartons, she felt something graze her head. A piece of pretty fabric slid behind a cardboard box. She dived for it, grabbed it and rubbed the smooth fabric against her cheek. Holding it up, she couldn’t believe her eyes. A dress…a decent white dress. She stepped in to it, zipping it up as fast as she could. The value of such an item in the ghetto was astronomical and it brought her to tears. Someone with a heart full of compassion had thrown it out the window to a desperate half-clothed girl in the trash bin. Rena looked up, but the saint hid herself. May He save you, bless you, whoever you are.

Even with her flesh swathed in a dress, humiliation pumped through her veins. Even if she kept the bathhouse incident from people, she would never rid herself of the memory. Her hideous premonition had finally come true. With another heinous act, Henny had shredded all traces of her dignity, and slaughtered her little bud of hope.

Her father used to say love truth and forgive error. It was the motto he’d lived his life by, but people like Henny redefined the meaning of the word—error. Just add a ‘T’ she thought. Terror.  Terrorizing was a choice, not an error. She would never forgive him.

During the slow walk around the corner to her building, she remembered a chilling fact. Henny knew Rolf. Rolf, the man of her dreams, her hope for a new life. That awareness doubled her over, and she stopped right where she stood, sick to her stomach.

After a few minutes, she straightened herself, stiff as a marble sculpture, yet clammy, weak and unable to organize her mind. A rampage of emotions battled in her head. She sat down on the curb and let her head drop to her knees, her hands clasped around her neck. Had Rolf known all along? Been planning all this with Henny from the start? What about Jonathan? Did Rolf set him up? Had Rolf told Henny what time she would be going through the gate? After all, he was the only one who knew. Impossible. A Swastika, gold and glinting, flashed off and on in her mind. She couldn’t fathom the reality behind her suspicions. If he set her up then the whole world of souls, of discernment, not even a fiber of her own heart could ever be trusted again. Rolf, her benefactor, Rolf, her devoted lover, Rolf…her savior.

 

Each day after that passed like a blur in an abstract painting. After what she did to Henny, she couldn’t hide in her living quarters with her family like she longed to do. As soon as Henny recovered, he would come for her. They had murdered Jonathan for much less. Her mother thought she occupied her days late into the evening planning their escape, but she hid in the broom closet in the basement of her building. Small, dark and smelly, it suited her despair and kept her out of sight.

Three nights later, she dreamed she heard an earthquake, the tearing, cracking sounds of the earth opening up to swallow a portion of humanity. And then the dreadful screams and cries of the people falling, frantic, skeletal people tumbling into a chasm, a great black mouth without end. When her eyes snapped open, she screamed and wondered if the nightmare was an omen of things to come, a foretelling of the demise of Jewish people all over the world.

The following week, leaning her head back against a time-worn broom in the closet, she cogitated and churned her past like a smelter nourishing a scorching furnace. She slapped herself on the forehead when she realized. As she suspected in the beginning, Rolf finally revealed his true SS nature, cunning and sadistic. His lies about saving Jewish orphans were incredible. What had he really done with all those children? The warped character of the SS went beyond all comprehension. What kind of mothers raised such monsters?

Why did I allow myself to love an SS officer? I must have been crazy. The fear of starvation must have diminished my common sense. She pulled her hair, yanked at it to produce pain, and finally pulled chunks of it out strand by strand, punishing herself for her crime of infatuation. Each time Rolf’s name passed over her mind it inflicted one more lesion on her heart.

Crossing her legs, she inched her body down to the floor, the small of her back supported by wooden boards. As she twirled the hairs around a nail in the wall, she looked back on her cherished memories and girlish wishes, peeling the layers back one by one like an onion. Everything sweet and lovely before the bathhouse lay stark and frozen like hollow corpses in a mass grave, the reviving impossible.

A slice of hot summer daylight peered through the long crack of the door jam and cast a line of light against the wall next to her shoulder. A cold, solitary girl again, Rena searched for direction in the horror. How is it possible to continue to remember, and yet…how is it not? How is it possible to continue to believe in a God, and yet…how can I not? And the one question always haunting her in the deepest recesses of her soul—why does the world fight for all the others?

On the thirteenth day of her self imposed incarceration, as she picked lint off the head of a mop, she couldn’t believe how her life had turned into rubble, not only her life, but the well-being of her family. Their food supplies had been reduced to little more than scraps, but their safety was her biggest worry. Would the Nazis come and torture her mother? Even though she went back each night for food and sleep, she resolved never to tell them where she went every day. But would that save them? Would the Nazis believe they didn’t know? In retrospect, she should have left Warsaw with Rolf the first time he asked her. In staying, she’d ruined everything.

The SS had linked it all together – her, Jonathan, Rolf and the children. They killed Jonathan. They planned to kill her. What had they done to Rolf? Was he really on their side? Could her judgment of his character be that far off? She remembered the way he treated her, everything he did for her, the warmth in his eyes. He wasn’t one of them.

 

Even as her heart throbbed to go to him, she couldn’t risk it. She didn’t want to put him in harms way. If he was innocent, he had risked too much for her and her people already. Now she knew she would never see him again, never hold him in her arms or hear his tender whispers in her ears. For that, her heart would be filled with eternal torment.

The poison she’d found in the broom closet, now safely hidden under the board in the bathroom, waited for her decision.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

37

 

Two weeks without seeing Rena had passed like torture. No matter how many hours he wracked his brain, he couldn’t understand why she hadn’t returned to him. She never came to him on the Sabbath, but if this was some sort of two-week religious hiatus she would have told him. Obviously she was angry at him about something.

After finding his flat ransacked, his cameras and photographs stolen ten days earlier, Rolf knew someone meant him harm. Henny was the likely suspect, but he’d been hospitalized after an attack by a Jewess. Certain Henny deserved whatever pain the woman inflicted upon him, Rolf felt no sympathy. If not Henny, who had turned his house upside down?

Both Hitler and Himmler had summoned him to Berlin for meetings, but he pleaded illness and requested a postponement. Did they all know about the paintings, about the children and newborns, about the missing crates, and about his relationship with Rena? He couldn’t allow his mind to focus on those questions and the consequences, or he would go mad with apprehension.

At the warehouse four days earlier, he checked his reserve of altered crates and realized his supply was running low. When his foreman, George Müller, came in, he scheduled a midnight session to construct another forty crates. George agreed to make a night of it, his third double shift in a row. He wished he could reach Jonathan, another pair of hands sorely needed.

The day before yesterday he’d spent the entire day on the phone with every member of the Polish resistance he could locate trying to press them for progress on documents for Rena’s family. After a promise of a precious Rembrandt, the owner of the curiosity shop agreed to drive Rena’s family to Switzerland on the condition they all had Polish passports.

Yesterday, after another restless night, he went to the subterranean vault at six, the warehouse at eleven and his office at three. He needed to stay busy. He had to keep his mind off the calendar. At the vault, he altered sixteen signatures on Jewish paintings and hid seven other canvases behind thick frames of Rembrandts and Rubens headed to Munich. At the warehouse, he readied twenty crates of Jewish art for shipment to England.

Weiss had fled to America, but Boris would be there today as he was every afternoon and Rolf would solicit his overtime assistance. With so much work at his office, he’d taught Boris every aspect of the shipping procedure. At fifty-six children a week, he had to step everything up, get it running like a machine. The next day Boris’s son would be among those who escaped to England. He wished Boris could go also, but the crates couldn’t accommodate anyone over five feet tall.

In his office that night, he went through a new stack of paintings, extracting those he would use for his own purposes. Today was July 21, two days before the first deportations to Treblinka. If Rena didn’t come to him by tonight, he would scour the ghetto tomorrow until he found her.

As trains fired their whistles in the distance, he stood up from his leather office chair and paced in front of the oil paintings. It was all haywire—the Reich, the war, the loot. Hitler’s idea of a racial utopia stripped the world of its beauty, its humanness, and its truth. The core and spirit of Nazi philosophy was unhealthy, it censored thought, it oppressed from above, it manipulated the arts, it crushed spirituality, it set a dictator up as God and it massacred innocents. His contribution to their cult of brutality filled him with disgrace.

Absently, he picked up a few folders and placed them on the edge of his desk. He felt nauseous, but continued to work like a good Nazi soldier. Sweat beaded along the top of each brow when the thought looped in his mind. This is the day I must decide where I belong, who I am.

 

An hour later at the lunch counter of the drug store around the corner, he couldn’t eat. He couldn’t put a bite of his corned beef sandwich in his mouth. His stomach was burning clear up his chest to his throat. He wasn’t certain if it was regret or fear or punishment. Had everything he done been cursed from the beginning?

Without Rena his heart felt dead inside him. He couldn’t go on, couldn’t do the good work without her. With his passion for her he could be free of guilt, strain, and pressure. Perhaps ten years from now when the war was over and he’d found someone else he could forget about her, release her from his soul and go on to lead a normal life. But could someone ever forget such a powerful connection? If he couldn’t have her, what was his destiny?

 

At his flat, he scoured the dressing room to see if she’d been there, taken her things. There was no sign of her, no turquoise stone left behind, no smell of her fresh skin after a warm bath. Maybe she would come later in the evening. From six-thirty until ten o’clock, he attempted to finish Beyond the Frosted Windowpane, but found himself in a trance, gazing at the area over the stool, finding her face there, finding her face everywhere in his surroundings. Why hadn’t she returned to him? Was it something he’d said? Thinking back to their last moments together, he only recalled rapture and peace. She loved him, he felt certain of it.

 

At eleven that evening, he stood outside the ghetto wall at a telephone booth. In the silence of night, all he heard was the sounds of trains, the metal wheels screeching to a halt. If only the law allowed Jews to have telephones, then he could call her. He would beg her on his knees to come back to him. He would give her more rations, new clothes, all his money, everything he possessed for just one more day with her, one more hour.

He could find her if he knew where she lived. Why didn’t he know where she lived? Hadn’t she invited him to meet her mother, to go to her place? Had he been too proud, too afraid of seeing her in her small space surrounded by odd little Orthodox Jews? If that was true, why would he give anything to live anywhere as long as it was with her?

As he stood facing the wall in utter frustration, he suddenly whimpered. How could he ever find her on the other side of that wall among four hundred thousand Jews? Would he ever see her again, ever run his fingers through her long blond hair, ever feel his lips press against hers? Where was she?

He put a coin in the phone and called Albrecht at home.

“Is Henny out of the hospital yet? Do you know where he lives?”

“Rumor has it, he has to go under the knife again.”

“How much do you know about what happened to him?”

After Rolf listened to all the details of the scandal, he felt a box of bricks on his heart. It had happened on the same day she didn’t show up at his flat. Suddenly he realized why she hadn’t come. That bastard, Henny!  What had he done to her?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

38

 

Rena came out of hiding to join her family and the families on her floor for a Night of Feast and Prayer for Jonathan and others in their living area lost to the Warsaw ghetto. The feast, she knew, was no more than stale bread soaked in dandelion wine, but the efforts of the planning committee to honor the lost touched her deeply. They called them lost because no one could bear to say the word dead.

As she entered her floor, all the curtains pulled back, Rose approached he