The Kommandant’s Mistress
For who can make straight
that which He hath made crooked?
Then I saw her. There she stood, in the village store, her hair in a long braid down the center of her back, her skin white in the sunlight, and my hand went to my hip, seeking the weight of my gun. As the girl spoke, I stumbled back against one of the shelves, my fingers tightening at the leather around my waist. While the shopkeeper arranged the food in the bag, the morning sun glinted on the storefront windows, illuminating the girl. The wooden shelves pressed into my shoulders and back. Sweat dampened my forehead and ribs. Another shopper spoke, frowned, pushed aside my arm to reach a jar on the shelf behind me, but I didn’t move. My hand slid down over my hip and leg. No, I’d forgotten that I no longer wore my gun.
There she stood. The first time my adjutant brought her to my office, she seemed frailer than in the yard: the faded grey dress hung loosely from her thinned shoulders. A red scarf was on her head. After my adjutant addressed me, I put down my pen and rose from my desk. I dismissed my adjutant and approached the girl. Her cheekbones were sharp under the skin, and the hollows around her eyes were faintly shadowed, but her lips were full, and the light grey gown fluttered over her small, firm breasts. I nodded as I slowly moved around her, my baton brushing her belly, hips, thighs. She didn’t move away. I stroked my hand down the center of her back: she wore nothing beneath the thin gown. I smiled to myself as my fingers dragged themselves around her slender body until the girl and I faced each other. When my baton lifted her chin, she didn’t look away.
“Ja,” I said, returning her stare. “Ja.”
I didn’t look away. I’ve never looked away. Even in the beginning, I faced it all, without blinking. I stared up at the speakers’ platform and I nodded. All around me, eager young men wore black uniforms, like mine, under the clear night sky. We gazed up at the speakers’ platform, at the small man in wire-framed glasses. He was only a name to us then, his face outlined by the flames of the torches surrounding the platform, surrounding us. Our chests swelled under the black wool. Our breath sounded in each other’s ears as we leaned toward the podium to catch his words. In the dark, the speaker’s glasses reflected the torchlight: bright flames burned in place of his eyes.
“We are the pure of this nation,” he said. “We are the noble. We are the good. We are the hope of our country.”
All of us officer candidates nodded.
“We don’t fear to shed our own blood for our cause,” he said. “More important, we don’t fear to shed others’ blood.”
No, we’d never been afraid of sacrifice. We applauded until he raised his hand for silence.
“You have pledged your honor and duty, but I expect you to do more than your duty,” said his voice from the flames. “I expect you to save our country. Save our country. Save our Fatherland.”
The crowd roared. I gripped the butt of my pistol with one hand and raised my other hand in salute. It’s difficult to explain to someone who wasn’t there. The speaker, high on a platform above us, his arms raised to the dark of the night. The glow of the flames, the warmth of the uniforms, the smell of excitement. The glare of the light in our eyes. And all around me, my companions’ voices, chanting, like a prayer.
“Meine Ehre heisst treue,” I said. “My honor is my loyalty.”
The glare of the light stung my eyes. The pistol was heavy in my hand, but comfortable. Warm. It was trembling. I gripped the top of the weapon and readied it for firing, pulling up and back on the two circles of metal at its top: snap, click. I raised the gun. My hand lowered. I took another drink of whiskey, set the glass on the back of the sink. I clenched my teeth, closed my eyes, and lifted the weapon again. Its muzzle pressed against cold flesh.
“Do it,” I said. “Do it.”
When I opened my eyes, the image of myself in the bathroom mirror fixed me: the muzzle gouged the skin at my right temple. My hair was like an animal’s. My eyes like an inmate’s. My stomach and throat heaved. I bent over the sink until the gagging stopped, gripping the cold basin with my free hand. It seemed so easy to think of it: put the gun against bone. Pull the trigger. I’d fired the weapon so many times I could’ve used it in my sleep. I splashed my face with cold water. I stood. I held my breath and pressed the weapon tighter against my skull. Tighter. Tighter. Steel against bone. Bone against steel. Tighter. Tighter. Until my head hurt. No, I wasn’t afraid: I wasn’t strong enough.
“My head hurts, Daddy,” said Ilse.
She slumped in her chair at the dinner table, grimacing as she rested her chin in her palm.
“From the gas,” she said.
“Gas?” I said, my knife scraping against my plate. “I don’t smell any gas.”
“Maybe the stove needs to be checked,” said Marta.
She wiped her hands on her apron after she set her own dinner plate on the table and leaned over the stove, squinting and sniffing near the burners.
“Maybe one of the pilots blew out,” she said.
“Not that gas,” said Ilse.
“What gas?” I said, putting down my fork and wiping my mouth with my napkin.
“The Jew-gas,” said Ilse, leaning more into her hand.
“Jew-gas?” said Marta, standing up from the stove. “What are you talking about, Ilse?”
“The Jew-gas, the Jew-gas. The gas that kills the Jews.”
“Max,” said Marta, looking at me.
“You can’t smell that gas, Ilse,” I said.
“Yes, I can.”
“No, you can’t.”
“It’s giving me a headache.”
“If you could smell that gas, you wouldn’t be alive right now.”
I broke apart a piece of dark bread. Ilse shoved away her plate. At the other end of the dinner table, Hans knocked his spoon off the tray of his highchair. He kicked his feet and leaned over the side of his chair, reaching for the spoon. I put more potatoes on my plate.
“I can smell the Jew-gas,” said Ilse. “It’s making me sick.”
“You can’t smell it. If you smelled it, you’d be dead.”
Hans squealed and kicked the tray of his highchair. I cut another piece of meat as Marta sat down. Ilse pushed away her silverware. Hans kicked the edge of the dinner table. Marta reached for the baby’s spoon, lying on the floor beside his highchair.
“Eat, Ilse,” I said. “You can’t smell that gas.”
“It’s giving me a headache anyway.”
Marta never liked it when I discussed work at the dinner table. Even if the children were already in bed. Even when I spoke with Dieter. I don’t think women understand men’s work. They’re so intent on family, they don’t see that the family couldn’t exist without everything that we men do, without our work. But men understand each other, without having to talk about it. Dieter and I almost always understood each other. Whenever Dieter had the time to join me for a few hours, I had the cook serve us lunch in my office, so Dieter and I could really talk. I raised my glass of wine and stared at it before draining the goblet. The aroma of garlic and spices filled my office as Dieter and I sat ourselves down at the table.
“Caviar,” said Dieter, scooping some of the glistening black beads onto toasted bread. “How did you pull that off?”
“I’m the Kommandant,” I said.
I lifted my glass toward Dieter’s.
“To the greater glory of Germany,” I said.
“To our Führer,” said Dieter, clicking his glass’ rim against mine.
We drained our glasses. As I lifted the bottle of Burgundy and refilled the glasses, Dieter spread another crisp of bread with caviar. He closed his eyes as he put it into his mouth, and he made appreciative noises as he chewed.
“Delicious,” said Dieter.
“To the everlasting Third Reich,” I said, raising my glass.
“To the wealth of the Jews,” said Dieter.
Our glasses clinked. The light from the windows glinted as the goblets were emptied and refilled. The music of violas, violins, and cellos swelled around the walls of my office as Dieter lifted the cover of one of the chafing dishes and inhaled.
“To us, my old friend,” I said.
“To us,” said Dieter, replacing the lid.
He drank his glass of wine and lifted more food covers.
“I envy you, Max, being here instead of at the Front, or in Berlin.”
“I deserve it,” I said.
“So do I, but I don’t have it.”
“You like being at the Front. You like the excitement.”
“Sometimes,” said Dieter. “But here: no bullets whizzing by your face in your sleep, no one hanging over your shoulder, memorizing every movement, writing down every word to put in a file on you.”
“Sometimes the stench is unbearable,” I said, twisting the corkscrew, releasing the cork from the wine bottle. “Marta complains all the time.”
“And you have such a beautiful Jewess,” said Dieter, his mouth full of pâté.
We both looked over at the girl. She sat, motionless, on the floor in the corner, her legs drawn to her chest, her arms wrapped around her legs. She wore no scarf, and her short hair looked white. She gazed steadily in front of her, at the windows darkened by storm clouds.
“Such an extraordinary face,” said Dieter, “even now.”
“And Marta doesn’t…”
“Marta isn’t permitted in my office.”
“Wives complain about everything,” said Dieter, filling his plate with roasted meat.
“Rudi had to send his Jewess off,” said Dieter, pouring gravy over his meat and sighing.
“And the son.”
“When?” I said, leaning forward.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I thought I did,” said Dieter.
“He sent her to the gas?”
“Maybe he shot her,” said Dieter, his mouth full. “I’m not sure. I’ll ask around.”
“So, the rumors were true,” I said, and Dieter nodded. “Owl-eyes had him.”
“If he didn’t, the Blond Beast did,” said Dieter. “Delicious goose.”
“Done just right,” I said. “Just the way I like it.”
“How will you take care of the girl?” he said.
“What do you mean, how will I take care of the girl?”
“You heard me,” said Marta. “How will you take care of the girl?”
When I looked up, Marta slapped a book down on the coffee table in front of me.
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“You should’ve taken care of her before,” said Marta, “when I told you to. Now look what she’s done.”
On the coffee table lay a slim book, dark red, with black lettering: The Dead Bodies That Line the Streets. When I stretched out my hand to pick up the book, Marta snatched it away, opening it as she stood there, frowning at me, tapping her foot.
“Do you want to hear? Do you want to hear what that Jewish whore wrote about you?”
“She didn’t write anything about me,” I said, standing, the newspaper sliding from my lap to the floor. “That’s impossible.”
“You want to hear ‘impossible’?” said Marta, flipping the pages. “Listen to this: ‘First Day of German Class’.”
“Give me the book,” I said, and Marta stepped back.
“‘The German sweeps in: he wears a blue-grey uniform and a halo of sunlight’.”
“Let me see it.”
“‘He trembles, and I know that he, too, has been longing to play this part’.”
“Give it to me,” I said.
“And this,” said Marta, slapping my hands with the book when I reached for it. “This: ‘In the Bedroom of the Kommandant’.”
“You took her to our bedroom,” said Marta, shaking the book at me. “A whore. A Jewess. In our bedroom. In my bed.”
“Marta, let me see the book.”
“You didn’t tell her that you loved her, did you, Max?”
“Give me the book.”
“Even you couldn’t love a Jew, could you, Max?”
“Let me see the book.”
“You lied to me,” said Marta, slamming me on the arm with the closed book.
“It’s all a lie,” I said. “All of it.”
“And the things you said to her.”
“I didn’t say anything to her.”
“‘She’s just a Jew,’ you told me, over and over,” said Marta. “Isn’t that what you said?”
“She is just a Jew.”
“She’s a Jew who understands German,” said Marta.
“She didn’t understand German.”
“It’s all here,” said Marta, her forefinger stabbing the book’s cover.
“She didn’t understand. Not even the simplest things.”
“You stupid, stupid man. She understood everything.”
“She put it all down.”
“Names. Dates. Places.”
“She didn’t understand,” I said, shaking my head and reaching for the book again.
“Everything you ever said around her.”
“You’re the one who doesn’t understand, Max.”
“It’s a lie.”
“It’s an indictment. She wouldn’t even need to be called as a witness. She’s already testified. Here. In these pages.”
“It’s a mistake.”
Marta threw the book across the room.
“It’s every mistake you ever made, Max.”
I stared at the thin book.
“You should’ve taken care of her when you said you would. You shouldn’t have lied to me, Max.”
I crossed the room and stood, looking down at the book.
“If she testifies, they’ll hang you. What will I do then? And the children, what about them?”
“Didn’t you think of us? Don’t you ever think of anyone but yourself?”
Marta paced, her hands clenched. I picked up The Dead Bodies.
“There must be some mistake,” I said.
“A Jewess,” said Marta, “In my bed.”
“There’s been a mistake,” I said. “You’re not a Jew.”
The young girl who had just alighted from the train stared up at me. The spotlights glowed on her hair, and her skin was translucent. An elderly man and woman clung to the girl’s arms as she stood there amidst the jumbled luggage. The guards with their rifles and their barking dogs swarmed around, crushing the resettled families together on the night platform.
“Are you a Jew?” I said.
The girl looked silently at me. When the Sonderkommando dragged themselves nearer, with their black-and-white striped uniforms and their shaved heads, the elderly couple shrank against the girl.
“Josef,” I said, and my adjutant came over to stand beside me.
“Find out what language she speaks,” I said.
He spoke to the girl. She answered.
“Hungarian,” he said.
“Are you a Jew?” I said.
The girl looked at me while the adjutant translated. The girl nodded.
“You don’t look like a Jew.”
After the girl glanced down at the six-pointed gold patch stitched securely over her left breast, her fingers brushed its edges.
“She says she’s a Jew.”
“Are both of your parents Jews?” I said.
“These are her parents.”
The two old people clinging to her arms nodded.
“Do you have any ancestors who were not Jews?”
The girl shook her head. I stared at her a moment before walking away.
“I wish I could help you, but there’s nothing I can do.”
“There’s nothing you can do now,” said the young man in the hotel dining room as he hit his fists against my table, jostling my wineglass. His face and eyes were wild.
“Have we met?” I said, putting down my newspaper.
“I know who you are,” said the young man. “I know what you’ve done.”
“Waiter,” I said.
“You killed my father,” said the young man.
“Can I help you, sir?” said the waiter, looking at the young man.
“Get away from me. My business is with him.”
“Herr Hoffmann is one of our guests. I must ask that you…”
“This isn’t your business.”
“This young man is disturbing me,” I said. “And I doubt that he’s a guest here.”
“Come away,” said the waiter as he took hold of the young man’s arm.
“You killed my mother,” said the young man. “Did you think I would forget you? Did you think any of us would forget you?”
“I’ll notify the desk,” said the waiter, waving one of his colleagues from another station.
A second waiter joined the first, and several diners turned to view the commotion. The boy bumped the table, spilling the water and the wine.
“You won’t get away so easily this time,” said the young man. “I’m not alone.”
“Come along,” said the first waiter.
“Don’t disturb our guests,” said the second.
“I know you, von Walther,” said the young man.
“You’ve mistaken me for someone else,” I said, and I stood as the young man twisted his body in the waiters’ grip.
“We’ll call the police,” said the waiters as they tugged him toward the doorway. “Come away. Don’t cause trouble.”
“He killed my sister,” said the young man.
The desk clerk picked up the telephone. I straightened my jacket and glanced around the room. The other diners looked down at their food. I reseated myself at the table as the two waiters struggled with the young man, dragging him toward the lobby. Several diners leaned toward each other over their tables and whispered. My bread had fallen onto my plate and was lying there, reddened, beside the steak. A third waiter righted my wineglass and filled it.
“We’re sorry for the disturbance, Herr Hoffmann,” said a fourth waiter as he dabbed at the spilled wine with towels.
“Do you want to hear what we’re going to do to you?” said the young man from the lobby.
“Most embarrassing, sir,” said one of the waiters as he removed the soaked newspaper. “We do apologize.”
“It’s not your fault,” I said, reaching for my wine glass.
The glass trembled when I touched it. I left the glass on the table.
“Do you want to hear your future, von Walther?” said the young man as he strained against the grip of the waiters and the hotel’s guard.
“We do apologize, sir,” said the waiter as I picked up my knife and fork.
“Do you want to hear?”
“Yes, tell me,” I said. “Tell me what happened.”
“‘In my life I have been a prophet, and tonight’,” said Dieter, “‘I want to be a prophet once more’.”
“Did he really say that?” I said. “During dinner?”
“Between the soup and vegetable course,” said Dieter, nodding. “He said…”
“How did you get invited?” I said, leaning back into the cushions of the couch. “I’ve never been to dinner with him.”
“I told you,” said Dieter as he lit his cigar. “My sister-in-law’s cousin’s husband. Do you want to hear what he said or not?”
“Of course,” I said. “Tell me.”
“Between the soup and the vegetable course, he said, ‘We will annihilate the Jews in Europe’.”
“Yes. What else?”
“‘We will save Germany’,” said Dieter as Marta brought in the tray with coffee and cake.
“Chocolate cake,” said Marta. “And real coffee.”
“Marta,” said Dieter, swooning toward her. “I’m in love. Will you marry me?”
Marta laughed as she sliced the cake with its thick caramel icing.
“Was he really wearing a tie that didn’t match his jacket?” said Marta.
“Unfortunately,” said Dieter, spooning sugar into his coffee.
“Was she there?” said Marta. “What’s she like?”
“The Führer says we’ll save Germany,” I said, and Marta looked at me.
“How does it feel to be a Saviour?” said Dieter.
“Save Germany?” said Marta.
“Yes,” I said. “Save…”
“Save Germany? We have to save ourselves,” said Marta, “and the children. We can’t think of anything else right now.”
“Are you sure it’s a warrant for my arrest?” I said, tying the belt on my robe.
“As soon as I heard your name, I grabbed my coat and rushed out,” said the boy. “If they’re not on their way now, they’ll be here first thing in the morning.”
“For my arrest?”
“Go,” said Marta to the boy.
He clutched his cap, and rushed back into the night. Marta went to the stairs.
“Max, the trunks are in the upstairs closet.”
“They’re going to arrest me?”
“Max, we have to move quickly.”
“Arrest me? On what charges?”
“Max,” said Marta.
She hurried over to me, her fingers digging into my forearm.
“What did I do? Name one thing.”
“Go wake the children,” said Marta.
“Is this the place?” I said.
“Am Grossen Wannsee No. 56.”
“That’s what I’m looking for.”
“Am I late?” I said.
“No, it’s just noon. Go on in.”
“I was delayed. Is everyone here?”
“Not yet,” one of them said as the dark-uniformed men glanced around their group. “Reinhard isn’t here.”
“And we certainly can’t start without him,” said a man with a long nose and a thin face. “You’re von Walther, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I know,” I said, and he smiled.
We shook hands.
“I’m flattered that you recommended me.”
“We’ve heard a lot about you, von Walther. You seem like a man we could use.”
“I hope so, Herr…”
“Call me Adolf. I was named after our Führer, you know,” said the thin-nosed man, and the other men laughed. He gripped my arm and steered me toward the main conference room. “My invitation said ‘followed by luncheon,’ but let’s see if we can get ourselves a drink now. I’ll introduce you to the others.”
“Reinhard’s arrived,” said one of the others, and the rest of the men strolled into the main room after us.
“Now we’re in for some fun,” said Adolf.
He leaned closer to me as Reinhard swept into the room, nodding at all of us. Adolf continued talking to me in a low voice as we seated ourselves at the oval table.
“I hear the Führer has switched policies: from emigration to annihilation,” said Adolf.
“Yes,” I said, lifting my briefcase, laying it on the table.
I opened the leather satchel.
“I was asked to do some research.”
“You interviewed Rudi, didn’t you?” said Adolf.
“Yes,” I said.
“And what about the Kazett sites?”
“We’ll pick Kazett sites that are secluded but which have access to local railroad lines.”
“Bullets or gas?” said Adolf as the conference leader opened a thick folder and motioned for a glass of iced water.
“Gas,” I said.
“How long did Rudi say it takes?” said Adolf as he poised his pen to take the meeting’s notes.
“Three to fifteen minutes,” I said, repositioning my pistol more comfortably, “depending on climatic conditions.”
“Gas,” said Adolf, nodding. “Gas is good.”
“Bullets or gas?” I said as I unbuckled my holster and laid it on my desk. “Bullets. Yes, bullets. I’m no coward.”
I hauled my chair to the other side of the desk, scooting closer to the girl until our knees collided. After I slipped my pistol from its holster, I leaned forward, displaying the elegant dark of the weapon to the girl. She didn’t move when I laid the gun in her lap.
“Freiheit,” I said.
She didn’t move. I opened the third bottle of champagne, to give her courage, and the pale liquid foamed over my hands and wrists. The girl’s glass was full. I urged it toward her mouth. She sipped the liquor and returned the glass to the desktop. I drank from the bottle.
“Du. Freiheit,” I said, nudging the gun up the girl’s thighs with one hand while I raised the champagne bottle to my mouth with the other.
She stayed still.
I snapped the two small circles atop the gun up and back, urging the butt toward her hand.
I pointed to the silver Wound Badge pinned over my left breast, to show her I wasn’t afraid. She stared at the silver oval: two swords crossed behind a steel helmet. I motioned toward the gun and aimed it just beside the Wound Badge. I took a deep breath and straightened my shoulders. I looked at her and nodded. Smoke from the cigarettes in the ashtray drifted upward. When she didn’t lift the weapon, I gripped her wrist and the gun, pulling her to her feet along with me. I pressed the warm metal into her hands and folded her limp fingers around it, fixing her hand there with both of my palms.
“Du. Freiheit,” I said.
I pulled gun and hands until the muzzle butted my chest, the pressure keeping the girl’s elbow rigid.
The girl blinked several times before she looked at the gun. She looked up at me, back at the gun. Her brow furrowed.
“Ja,” I said, lifting my chin as I released her hands. “Freiheit.”
Her arm lowered.
“Nein, nein,” I said. “Feuer. ”
The weapon thudded to the floor between us. She didn’t understand me, and German was the only language I knew then. I tried to make her see, to make her understand, and that wasn’t the first time, but it was hopeless.
“No, no,” I said. “You don’t understand. I told you I can’t remember her name.”
“How can I help you find her, if you don’t know her name?” said the Red Cross worker, frowning.
“She wrote this book,” I said, setting it on the table.
The woman picked up The Dead Bodies. She opened the book. I glanced around the auditorium. Weeping, ragged people filled the main hall. They pressed insistently against each other as they waited in the long lines. A few of the refugees sat on worn pieces of luggage, but most had no possessions. A woman wailed and collapsed against one of the others, disturbing the lines as she crumpled to the floor. Workers from two of the tables rushed over to the fallen woman. The refugees looked at her. Rain pounded on the windows.
“There’s no name,” said the Red Cross worker.
“But she wrote it,” I said.
“There’s no name.
“I know that,” I said.
She pushed The Dead Bodies back at me.
“You were sweethearts,” she said, staring at me, “but you don’t know her name?”
“I was injured. I told you that. My… my memory was damaged.”
“Do you remember your own name?” said the worker, her crisp, white uniform rustling as she picked up a pen.
“Of course, I do, but what…”
“We could write to the publisher.”
“What good would that do?”
“We could ask for the author’s address. Of course, if there’s no name on it, I don’t see that we’re going to get very far.”
“How far do you think we could get?”
“Far away,” said Marta. “As far away as possible. We’ve got to get far away from here, Max. You could write to my aunt’s husband. Maybe he could help us.”
“Help us what?” I said.
“Help us get out of this dreadful place,” said Marta.
I slipped out of my evening dress jacket. I sat on the bed and took off my shoes. Marta removed the pearls from her ears, and brushed her hair. I unbuttoned my vest and removed my cufflinks.
“Aren’t you going to do something?”
“How many times do I have to tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“This job was a promotion.”
“I don’t understand why I should be penalized when you get a promotion.”
I sighed loudly as I stood, closing my eyes a moment before I went to the closet.
“I don’t want to have this discussion again.”
“We’re so isolated here. There’s no one to see.”
“You told me I can’t invite any of my friends here.”
“You can go visit them.”
“My place is with you. You’re my husband.”
“Then there’s no problem.”
“But why do I have to suffer? Can’t I have a good life, too?”
“Would you rather I be at the Front?”
“Don’t raise your voice. The children are asleep.”
“Would you rather I risk my life in battle?”
“You always change the topic.”
She stopped brushing her hair and frowned at me in the mirror.
“I don’t understand why you can’t get a job in Berlin.”
“We’ve been over this and over this. I can’t get promoted in Berlin.”
“You could get promoted. Just not quickly enough to suit you. So the children and I have to suffer for your ambition.”
“You call this suffering?”
“Keep your voice down. You’ll wake the children.”
“A Polish inmate,” said Marta.
“Not a very good gardener.”
“A tutor for Ilse?”
“A tutor who doesn’t speak French.”
I went over to the jewelry box sitting in front of Marta, and scooped out some of the jewels.
“Pearl necklaces? Diamond earrings?”
“I’m not talking about material things.”
“If this is what you call suffering, then I’d better get promoted, and sooner than I thought.”
“You never listen.”
“I’d better become the next Führer.”
“I hate it when you do this.”
“Maybe you do want me in the fighting.”
“It’s pointless talking to you.”
“Another wound like the last one and you’d be a war widow. A hero’s widow. Maybe that’s what you want.”
“You don’t even try to understand my point of view,” said Marta as I laid my cufflinks on the bureau. “The smell makes me sick.”
“Everything makes you sick.”
“The stench is bad enough, but the smoke from the chimneys gets grime on everything: on my hair, on my clothes, on the children.”
“Stay indoors. Then the chimneys won’t bother you.”
“There’s a problem with the chimneys,” said my adjutant.
I looked up from the paperwork on my desk. Outside, the dogs barked incessantly, and inmates’ wails punctuated the guards’ shouts.
“There’s a problem with the ovens, Kommandant.”
“What is it this time?”
“The firebricks of the inner lining are crumbling,” he said. “The chimney might collapse.”
“Are the ovens being overloaded again?”
“I passed your instructions on to the Kapos,” said the adjutant.
“Then what’s the problem?”
“The company representative says we need a new, square chimney, with a double lining of firebricks, if we’re going to use it around the clock.”
“They like to give advice.”
“I’ll never get all the transports dispatched on schedule if we keep having technical difficulty with their products. By the way, Josef, have you seen my letter opener?”
“No, sir. Do you want to see their response to your last letter?” said the adjutant as he opened the file folder he was holding and shuffled through its pages.
“How many times have I written them already?”
“Three,” said the adjutant, passing me a letter.
“‘We guarantee the effectiveness of the cremation ovens as well as their durability’,” I said, reading aloud. “‘We guarantee the best material and our faultless workmanship.’ Best material. Faultless workmanship.”
“Probably a Jew made it,” said the adjutant.
“‘Don’t buy anything from a filthy Jew’,” said Ilse as she read to Hans from one of his storybooks. “‘Remember, my child, what Mother has told you’.”
Sitting next to Ilse on the living room couch, Hans clapped.
“Did you like that, Hans?” said Ilse, hugging him.
“You read very well, Ilse,” I said, smiling at her over my glass of Cognac. “Doesn’t she read well, Marta?”
“Yes,” she said, knitting. “Read Daddy the first part, Ilse, the part you read to me while I was fixing dinner.”
Ilse flipped through the pages, a pensive look on her face. The Christmas wreaths filled the room with the scent of pine. The shiny paper of the wrapped packages piled under the tree reflected the fire’s light. The red sweater Marta was making covered her knees, and she rested her hands atop it. Hans, wearing his pajamas, waited patiently beside Ilse, his small hands folded on his legs. Ilse stopped turning the pages and smiled.
The German is a proud man,
A worker and a fighter.
The German is a proud man,
Beautiful and brave.
The German is a proud man
Who hates the dirty Jew.
And here is a Jew, as all can see.
The vilest man that’ll ever be.
“That’s very good, Ilse,” I said.
“She didn’t understand what ‘vile’ was,” said Marta, “until I explained it to her.”
“Do you want to see the picture, Hans?”
Ilse leaned toward him and held the open book in front of him.
“Here’s the beautiful German.”
Hans clapped his hands.
“And here’s the filthy Jew.”
“What’s that filthy Jewess doing here?” said Marta, and I looked up from my desk. “What’s she doing in your office?”
“I’ve asked you to knock before you come in, Marta. This is my office. I’m working.”
“And I’m your wife. This is my home.”
She pointed at the girl, who was sitting in the corner.
“What is that whore doing in here?”
“Marta, I have a great deal of work to do.”
“Answer me, Max.”
“Not now, Marta. I’m working.”
“What’s she doing here?”
“I’m busy, Marta.”
“Busy doing what? Sleeping with Jews?”
“How dare you,” I said.
“What are you going to do?” said Marta. “Hit me?”
“Have you gone mad? When have I ever hit you?”
“Schmutzige Hure,” said Marta to the girl. “Schmutzige Hure.”
I took Marta’s arm, turning her toward the doorway.
“So you sleep with Jews now?”
“How dare you insult me in that way,” I said, holding Marta’s arm. “I’m a German.”
“Max, let go.”
“I’m not only a German, but an officer.”
“Max, you’re hurting me.”
“I’d never hurt a woman,” I said.
“German officers don’t assault women,” said Dieter. “Not even Jewish women.”
“So your brother-in-law was reprimanded?” I said.
“Not reprimanded. Expelled from the Party,” said Dieter.
He stared at the girl while I put on my duty-overcoat. The wind pelted rain against the office windows. The Camp was a mass of clay and mud. Guards and inmates alike slipped and slid in the mire. Dieter stared out the windows at them. Then he looked over at me.
“It’s quite cold out,” he said.
“Yes, I have my gloves. They didn’t charge you with any excesses, did they?”
“I didn’t rape anybody,” said Dieter. “I’m not a Russian.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“I only executed a few Jews.”
“I know that, but they keep changing the definition of ‘excessive’…”
“I’d never rape a woman,” said Dieter. “Not even a Jew.”
“I never said…”
“I’m not a Kommandant.”
I looked at him. We stared at each other in silence until he glanced away. My adjutant entered to hand me several documents. I accepted them without taking my eyes from Dieter. My adjutant left, closing the door. Dieter shrugged.
“I told my sister she never should’ve married him,” he said.
“Were you completely exonerated?”
“Of course,” said Dieter. “I didn’t act on any baser instincts.”
“No. You were carried away by your love for Germany.”
“Yes. By my love for Germany. Don’t forget the documents, Max. The papers.”
“Oh, yes, the papers,” I said.
“I need those papers, Josef,” I said. “They’re private.”
“What papers?” said my adjutant.
“My private papers.”
My adjutant only looked at me.
“There were papers on my desk, Josef.”
He glanced down at the cluttered desktop, covered with documents, files, and folders.
“What kind of papers, Kommandant?”
“Handwritten papers. On my personal stationery.”
As I shuffled through the mound of documents on my desk, my adjutant glanced at the girl. She sat in her usual corner, arms wrapped around her legs, head against the wall, staring at nothing. Upstairs in the house, Hans was crying. Marta was in the garden, calling Ilse to lunch. I lifted some of the folders and papers on my desk, sifting through them. Hans continued crying. I dropped the papers I was holding back onto the desk. My adjutant blinked at me.
“Josef, where are those papers?”
“I’d be happy to help you find them, sir, if you’ll tell me what I’m looking for.”
“I am looking for my personal papers. They were right here on the desk.”
“Perhaps you should lock up your personal papers, sir,” he said, glancing again at the girl, “to keep them safe when you’re not here.”
“I put some papers for you in the safe,” said the hotel clerk as I passed the desk on my way to the elevator.
“Papers?” I said. “What papers?”
The hotel clerk glanced around at the lobby; then he leaned toward me.
“Some letters came for you,” said the clerk in a hushed voice. “The postmark made me think you’d like them…”
“Like them what?”
“Kept safe,” he said. “Private. Just a moment. Let me get them for you.”
One of the bellboys helped an elderly gentleman to the front doors. A young woman in a fur coat straightened the collar on the coat of her small son. Her husband stood near, scanning the train schedule. I looked at my watch. The clerk was taking a long time. I looked through some of the papers on the front desk.
“Herr Hoffmann? Herr Hoffmann?”
I released the papers. The clerk had returned. He had a small bundle: three letters, their stamps and postmarks foreign. He held them out to me, a hesitant smile on his face.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “My letters.”
“Did I do the right thing?” he said, his hands clutched together, his eyes blinking. “Putting them in the safe, was that all right?”
“Yes,” I said, reaching into my pocket, then placing my hand, palm down, on the desk. “Thank you.”
“Oh, thank you, sir,” he said, smiling and swiping his hand over the money. “Thank you. Any time. I’ll be happy to look out for you. Always happy to look out after one of our own. Always…”
The elevator doors slid shut. A young couple surreptitiously held hands, blushing and smiling. I closed my eyes, folding the letters. The couple whispered to each other. Giggled. The elevator opened. In my room, I tossed aside Marta’s letters, and read the other.
We miss you and
wish you were here.
Mommy cries and
Hans is a bad boy all the time.
He won’t eat his vegetables and
he won’t learn Spanish.
Why don’t you come live with us
in our new house?
Can’t Uncle Ricardo
get a new name for you too?
“I’m a new man,” I said, pushing open the door with my shoulders and back, my arms full of clinking bottles and white bags.
“What?” said Marta, coming from the kitchen. “What happened? You’re so late, I was worried. What’s all that?”
“For the celebration,” I said.
“You got the promotion.”
“You may now address me as Herr Obersturmbannführer.”
“Oh, Darling,” she said, throwing her arms around my neck and hugging me, crushing the bags between us. “Congratulations.”
“I got some champagne. And some special food, to celebrate.”
“Champagne? Where did you find it? How did you get it?”
“I have friends in the right places.”
I displayed the bags’ contents on the living room coffee table: caviar, pâté, bittersweet chocolate.
“Your husband is an important man, you know.”
“Two bottles of champagne. Can we afford it?”
“I got promoted. Not only in rank, but in position. And salary. I have a new post.”
“A new post?”
“In the East.”
“We can afford anything we want.”
“I’m so proud of you. But where in the east? Coffee? Is that…”
“Yes, real coffee. And another one of your favorites. Truffles.”
“I’ll get the glasses,” said Marta, smiling at me. “And some plates.”
I bent over the wicker bassinet in the corner near the fireplace. Hans was asleep.
“She’s in bed. It is after eight o’clock.”
“I’m going to wake her.”
“Wake her? Why?”
“So she can help us celebrate.”
“But she’s too small. She won’t understand what it’s all about.”
“She doesn’t have to understand it.” I stroked Hans’ cheek and tucked in the blanket. “She’ll remember when she’s older.”
“She won’t remember,” said Marta as she came over beside me and untucked the blanket.
“Yes, she will,” I said, and I went upstairs.
“Max, she’s too little.”
“Mommy’s right here,” I said as I came down the stairs, carrying a sleepy Ilse.
She rubbed her eyes and frowned.
“Mommy says it’s all right for you to get back up. We’re having a party.”
“A birthday party?” said Ilse.
“A promotion party,” I said as Marta took Ilse from my arms.
“Daddy got promoted,” said Marta.
“Is that like a birthday?” said Ilse.
“I’ll get the glasses,” I said.
“Bring Ilse some apple juice,” said Marta.
Ilse yawned as I came back into the room, glasses clinking.
“I was dreaming,” said Ilse, resting her head on Marta’s breast and closing her eyes. “Daddy woke me.”
“I know, Darling,” said Marta.
“Glasses for Mommy and Daddy, and apple juice for my baby girl. What will Hans have?”
“He’s a baby, Max. Besides, he’s asleep,” said Marta, laughing.
I opened the first bottle of champagne and filled two glasses. I handed Marta one of them.
“To my wonderful husband. And to his new job.”
We drank, then I took the glass from her and swept Marta and Ilse into my arms.
“I love you.”
“And I love you.”
“You’re the best wife a man could ever have. And I love you, Ilse.”
“I’m sleepy,” said Ilse, burying her face against Marta’s throat when I tried to kiss her.
“Put her on the couch,” I said.
“Let’s put her back to bed.”
“Why not?” said Marta.
“She’ll miss the celebration.”
I took Ilse from Marta’s arms and laid her on the couch. Ilse pulled her legs up tight against her body. Her eyes closed. I removed my jacket and covered her with it. I turned back to Marta. She’d lost the weight from the baby, and curled her hair. She looked beautiful. Exciting. She smiled at me.
“I’m so proud of you.”
“Great things are in store for me,” I said, pulling her into my arms and dancing her around the room. “And I have you to thank for it.”
“Me? I haven’t done anything,” she said, but she smiled again.
“You stayed by me, and supported me.”
“Any wife would’ve done as much.”
“But I haven’t always been such a good husband.”
“Max,” she said, glancing over at the couch.
Ilse was asleep.
“That’ll be different now,” I said, holding Marta tightly. “I’ll be a good husband. You’ll see.”
“You’re a good father to the children,” said Marta. “And you’re a fine husband except when you…”
“Never again,” I said. “I swear it. I’ll be a good husband. I’ll be a good man. I swear it.”
“You are a good man.”
“I’ll be an even better one.”
I meant it. I’ve never said anything I didn’t mean. I’ve always told the truth, even when it was a hard truth. But sometimes other people misunderstand, and the explanations make things worse. I am a good man. We were all good men. Bad men couldn’t have saved Germany. Bad men couldn’t have done what we did.
“You are good men,” said Heinrich behind his wire-framed glasses, and we nodded. “You are the elite of our country.”
The colonnaded reviewing stand was ablaze with light, and all around the field, the spotlights shone upward, forming pillars of light, a cathedral of light, towering against the dark. Later, we heard that the glow of the lights could be seen at Frankfurt, almost two hundred kilometers away. And I was there. The crowd swayed closer. Thousands and thousands of uniforms made the night denser.
“You are the pure. You are the purest of the pure,” he said. “And only the purest of the pure can do what needs to be done.”
There was nothing but the pillars of light rising from the darkness. Nothing but the sound of his voice in our ears. Nothing but the cathedral of light in our eyes. Nothing but the love of Germany in our hearts.
“This house must be Jew-pure,” I said, but the old couple just blinked at me. “Jew-pure. Jew-pure. You must leave. Go.”
“But we’ve no place to go, Herr Hauptsturmführer,” said the old man. “My shop is downstairs.”
“Not anymore,” I said. “It’s the law. Now go.”
“If you don’t go, I’ll have to take you into Protective Custody.”
“You’re going to arrest us?” said the old woman. “What for?”
“Papa, Papa,” said a young girl who came rushing into the room. “The synagogue’s burning.”
“No,” said the old man as he went to the window.
“You’re breaking the law. You must go.”
“No,” said the old man as he stared out the window. “No.”
“Then I’ll have to take you into custody.”
“No,” said the old man, and tears dropped from his chin onto his nightshirt.
“Herschel,” said the old woman, tugging at his arm. “Herschel.”
“No,” said the old man, pushing her away. He ran toward the door.
“Stop,” I said.
The old man rushed down to the street. He shoved aside one of my men who was painting Jude on the sidewalk in front of one of the shops. The torches were reflected in the shop windows. The old man stumbled down the street toward the burning building, hitting and pushing my men as he scrambled past them.
“Halt,” I said.
My men’s batons shattered the windows of the shops. Two of my junior officers grabbed the old man and dragged him back to me. He stretched his arms toward the sky, muttering in their incomprehensible language. Up and down the street, broken glass crashed onto the sidewalks.
“Take him into custody.”
“Please, Herr Hauptsturmführer, ” said his wife, kneeling and throwing her arms around my legs while their daughter sobbed. “Don’t.”
“Let go of me. Let go.”
“Please,” said their daughter, imitating her mother by kneeling on the sidewalk and clutching my thighs.
“You’re breaking curfew. I’ll have to arrest you.”
“Don’t hurt him,” they said. “Please, don’t.”
My men stood, waiting for my orders. The broken glass glittered on the sidewalk. The smell of smoke filled the air. The women wailed, their mouths open against my trousers. I pushed at them, but they wouldn’t release my legs until my weapon convinced them. The old man fell onto his knees beside his wife and daughter. I cursed at the damp spots on my trousers. I shook my head. It was a new uniform.
“We’ll have to change uniforms. Change names. Change faces,” said Dieter. “But it won’t make any difference.”
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“A thousand years will pass,” said Dieter, “but Germany’s guilt will never be erased.”
“Guilt? What guilt? What are you talking about?”
Dieter stared into the fire, the glass of Cognac held close to his chest.
“Is there anything else you two boys need,” said Marta, “before I go to bed?”
“Absolution,” said Dieter.
“What?” said Marta, frowning.
“Nothing,” I said. “Good-night, Marta.”
“Is everything all right?”
Dieter smiled and drained his glass.
“Good-night,” she said.
She stood a moment longer, her hand on the doorframe, before she turned on the hall light. Dieter smiled as she slowly went up the stairs.
“What’s wrong with you, Dieter?” I said.
“What have you done?”
“I haven’t done anything,” I said.
“Our guilt will never be erased,” said Dieter. “We’ll never be free of it.”
“I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“No,” said Dieter as he stood, moving unsteadily toward the liquor. “You never do.”
“Not yet. Or at least, not enough.”
“What’s wrong with you tonight?”
“The same thing that’s wrong with you, Max, with all of us.”
“You’ve been saying cryptic things all evening.”
“All the directives are very clear,” said Dieter as he refilled his glass at the sideboard. “All the directives end with the same phrase: ‘Avoidable cruelties are to be avoided’.”
“Yes? Yes?” I said. “And?”
“And I’ve done things that ought not to have been done.”
“No,” I said, and he looked at me. “We’ve done what we had to do.”
“It’s always so easy for you, Max.”
“We gave our pledge,” I said, and he smiled. “We took an oath.”
Dieter closed his eyes.
“That’s one of your virtues, Max. Absolute, unswerving loyalty. And honesty.”
“You are drunk.”
“I wish I could be more like you, Max. Honest. Loyal. Obedient. Trustworthy.”
“You’re in no condition to drive. You’d better sleep over.”
“I can’t sleep here. I can’t bear the smell of this place.”
“The windows are closed. I don’t smell anything.”
“Marta’s right,” said Dieter. “The stench here is unbearable.”
I wasn’t drunk. I’m never drunk. Not that way. Except maybe once. After I saw her. She was buying vegetables in the market and I saw her. My heart started pounding even before she looked up. There she was. There were so many people, most of them refugees, begging for money, trying to pilfer some food. She was at one of the tables, a filled basket on her arm, handing the vendor some coins. I pushed the people around me, shoving their bony limbs aside. Their fingers scraped at me as they tried to stop me. Their voices were faint beneath the calls of the vendors and the clatter of coins. I had to reach her. I stretched out my hand. Call to her? What name would I have used?
“Warte,” I said. “Bitte. Warte.”
“Stop,” said one of the scarecrows dressed in rags. “Stop pushing.”
“Stop with this girl,” said Marta at the breakfast table.
I looked up from my paper. She wasn’t dressed yet: she was wearing her dressing gown, and her hair was uncombed and tangled. Her eyes were red, puffy. Her bottom lip was bruised and swollen, from where she kept biting at it. She was clenching and unclenching her fists as she stood there, breathing heavily. I turned back to the paper.
“There’s only so much I can ignore,” said Marta.
“Mommy, my porridge’s too hot,” said Ilse.
“I must think of my position,” said Marta.
“Mama,” said Hans.
“Mommy, Hans spilled his milk.”
“The children are calling you.”
I buttered my toast while I scanned the front page. I spread some jam on my toast. Ilse dipped her spoon in and out of her porridge. Hans rolled his emptied glass across his highchair’s tray. I looked up.
“Children, that’s enough,” I said.
Marta yanked the paper out from under my hand.
“Yes, it is enough. This has to stop, Max.”
“Don’t tell me what to do.”
“This time you’ve gone too far.”
Ilse raised a spoonful of porridge to her mouth. After she touched her tongue to it, she dropped the spoon, dripping porridge onto the table. Hans splashed his hands in the milk on his tray.
“Give me the paper, and tend to the children.”
“I’ve had enough,” said Marta.
“Enough of what?”
“Enough of your lies.”
“I don’t lie. You know about her. That’s not lying.”
“You always say that. As if it makes any difference.”
Hans pushed at the spilled milk until it washed over the edges of his highchair’s tray, dripping onto the floor. He leaned over to look at it. Ilse put another spoonful of porridge on the table, beside the first.
“Hans, Ilse, stop that,” I said.
“You said you’d stop, Max.”
“I’ll stop when I’m ready, not when you tell me to stop. Don’t let Hans…”
“I’ll complain to someone if you don’t stop.”
“My aunt’s husband still has influence.”
Hans slapped his hands in the spilled milk. Ilse dripped her porridge onto the tabletop. My hand on Marta’s wrist freed the paper. I snapped the paper straight, and turned the page. Marta stood, holding her wrist. Ilse began to cry. Hans stopped splashing and joined in the crying.
“Tend to the children,” I said.
I took a bite of my toast, a sip of my coffee. Marta rubbed her wrist.
“I hate you, Max. I hate you.”
She ran up the stairs and slammed the bedroom door. When I looked at the children over the top of the newspaper, their sobs increased.
“Ilse, Hans,” I said. “Stop. Please.”
They cried louder.
She never cried. Not once in all those years. She never showed any weakness. She looked at everything absolutely unflinchingly. They weren’t all like that. In fact, none of the rest was like that. Not even their men. I looked at the whimpering boy over the top of the paper he held out to me: a letter. He stood right next to her, next to the girl. This was the second time I’d seen her in less than an hour. She wore a fur coat, but no hat. Her parents weren’t with her any longer. She had no letter. This whimpering boy stood beside her. He rattled the letter in my face.
“It’s a Protective Custody letter,” he said. “It certifies that I’m essential to the economy.”
“I know how to read,” I said, pushing aside his arm with my baton.
“The country needs me. I’m an engineer.”
“You’re a Jew,” I said, and ended the discussion.
The page drifted to the crowded platform. I turned toward the girl. Behind her, in the unopened boxcars, other essential members of the economy pounded on the wooden door with their fists. She stared right at me, without blinking, with no emotion on her face. The dogs strained on their leashes as the guards herded the inmates toward the doctor at the end of the ramp. The spotlights passed rhythmically over the Camp, cutting the dark in a predictable pattern. In the boxcars, the pounding of fists and boots on wood continued. I touched the girl’s face.
“You can’t be a Jew,” I said, though there was no translator near.
The pounding continued. Pounding, pounding, until it seemed it was in my head. As I opened my eyes, my hand slipped under the pillow for my pistol. It was still night. The knocking continued. I pulled on my pants in the dark and crept to the door. By the light of the hall, I glimpsed the young man who had accosted me in the hotel dining room.
“Let me in, von Walther, or everyone on the floor will hear what I have to say.”
I leaned against the door.
“I can talk to you just as well from here, von Walther.”
I tucked the pistol inside my belt, at my back. I opened the door.
“Turn on a light,” he said.
I did. He glanced anxiously about the room before he entered, and again when I closed the door. He was very thin, and he coughed almost constantly. His eyes and chin were weak.
“Leave the door open,” he said.
“What do you want?”
“Is there anyone else here? Show me your hands.”
“You don’t tell me what to do, Boy.”
“Let me see your hands. I don’t trust you.”
“What do you want?” I said, crossing my arms over my chest. “Money?”
He coughed for several seconds before he was able to answer me.
“Money? You make me sick. You killed my family.”
“Not that again.”
“You killed them.”
“The war killed them. Many people lost their families in the war. I lost mine.”
“Not in the war. In the Camps.”
His coughing bent him over.
“In your Camp.”
“I was a soldier in the war.”
“You were the Kommandant.”
“As I told you in the dining room, you’ve mistaken me for someone else. My name is… ”
“Hoffmann,” I said.
He shook his head. He pulled a stained handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it to his mouth. This fit of coughing made him sweat and turn pale. A blotch of red spattered the cloth as he wiped his mouth. His voice was weaker after that.
“You shot my sister.”
“I’d never shoot a woman.”
“She was screaming. And crying. When we got off the train. You told her not to be frightened. Not to frighten the others.”
“You told her she was upsetting everyone else. Some of the babies started to cry.”
“I served in the east. I was wounded in battle.”
“You told your guards to pull her out of the group. The other women and children were going to the showers. You had them pull her out. You walked with her around the side of the building. She was crying. The babies were crying.”
“I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave now.”
I went to the door and put my hand on the knob. He was coughing too much to speak.
“I’m not the man you think I am,” I said.
He stopped coughing. He shook his head.
“You put your left hand on her shoulder. Like you were really talking to her. Telling her to calm down. Not to upset the others. ‘Think of the children,’ you said. Then you put your pistol to the back of her head. You pulled the trigger.”
“An officer wouldn’t shoot a woman. I’ve never shot a woman.”
“You pulled the trigger. I saw you do it.”
I shook my head.
“I saw you do it. I saw it all.”
“No. You didn’t see anything. There was nothing to be seen.”
“I’ve been looking for you ever since. Ever since you ran away from the Camp.”
I stood with my hand on the knob of the opened door. Out in the hall, a drunken woman guided a more drunken man to their room. When they bumped into the wall, the man grabbed wildly for the woman, calling her name. She hushed him as she pulled him toward their room. The boy in my room coughed and coughed. As I turned to look at the boy, I pushed the door of my room closed. The boy blinked, swallowed convulsively, coughed.
“You ran away,” he said, “when the Russians were coming.”
“I’ve never run away from anything in my entire life.”
“You didn’t even go with your wife. Your adjutant took her and the children away. You were already gone.”
“I was there. I saw it.”
“I’ll make you pay for your crime,” he said. “I’ll kill you myself.”
“Who do you think you’re talking to, Boy?”
I grabbed his shirtfront and shook him as if he were a puppy. When I pushed him from me, he stumbled back, hitting a table, knocking off the phone’s receiver. I looked at him, and he threw himself at me, knocking me and the phone over the low table. When our bodies hit the floor, my pistol gouged my back. Our legs bashed into the small table and chairs as we scrambled against each other. His boots battered my shins, and his broken nails scraped at my chest and throat. His head banged against the foot of the bed, and he dragged off the bedclothes, trying to shove them into my face. I pushed him from me, and rolled away. I yanked one of the cushions from the chair and crushed it over his face. I reached behind me for my gun. He kicked and clawed. One shot from my weapon stopped him.
Breathing heavily, I disentangled myself from him. He lay still. I looked down at him, then grabbed the bedspread and sheets and laid them on the floor beside him. I kicked away the chair cushion and rolled the body onto the bedclothes. His eyes were open. I wrapped the spread around him, covering his staring face. I opened the closet door, pulled out my clothes and luggage. I dragged his body across the floor and shoved it into the closet. His shoulders and back thumped loudly against the back of the closet. I stood motionless, holding my breath, listening for any sound from the adjoining room, or from the hall. I bent his legs and shoved them into the closet. There was no movement. I forced the door closed.
I grabbed my luggage and pulled out my wallet and papers. I dressed quickly, layering several changes of clothes under my greatcoat. I shoved the remaining clothes into the dumbwaiter, pushed the empty luggage under the bed, and locked and chained the door to the hallway. I yanked the phone wire out of the wall. When I opened the window, the night air hit me coldly in the face, but I forced myself through the narrow window onto the fire escape. Few lights were on in the hotel windows. Night sounds swarmed around me as I crept down the metal stairs, dropping the last few feet to the sidewalk. I stood a moment against the building, watching the street. No one was around.
I made my way to my car, unlocked it, but I didn’t turn on the lights until I was far from the hotel, until I was speeding away as fast as I could. No, that wasn’t running away. That was saving myself. Anyone else would have done the same. We have to watch out for ourselves. No one else will.
“Can you do something for me?” I said to Dieter.
“Of course. Anything. What do you want?”
“Cyanide? Zyklon B?”
“No, not for them. Cyanide tablets.”
“For the girl?”
“Just shoot her,” said Dieter. “It’ll be quicker.”
“Not for the girl. For me.”
“You’re not serious, Max. What on earth for?”
“I don’t think I can bear what’s going to come after.”
“You can bear it, Max. We all can.”
I shook my head. Dieter emptied the wine bottle, then drained his glass.
“Dieter, I’ve never asked anything of you before.”
“You’re just stressed, Max, with Hans’ illness. And the probation. And the Front moving so close.”
“It’s not those things.”
“I’m not surprised you feel this way. I don’t know what I’d do if they used the file on me. But it won’t be as bad as you think. It never is.”
“You don’t understand. You’re not listening.”
“It won’t be that bad, Max. You’ll get through it. We all will.”
“Can you get them for me? From your cousin?”
“There are other ways.”
“Three should be enough.”
“Max, we’ll get through this.”
“Listen. Can you get me at least three?”
“Why don’t you go to South America?” said Dieter. “That’s what everyone else is going to do.”
“Listen. This is important. Are you listening to me?” said Ilse. “Are you?”
“Yes, yes,” said Marta, wiping Hans’ face and lifting him from the bath. “Get into the tub.”
“Get into the tub.”
Marta frowned as she wrapped Hans in the heavy towel and handed him to me.
“What?” she said. “What is it now?”
“Is this soap Jew-soap?” said Ilse.
“Is it what?” said Marta.
“Is it Jew-soap?”
“Jew-soap? No Jew’s been in my bathroom to use my soap.”
“No,” said Ilse. “Is it Jew-soap? Is it the soap made from the dead Jews?”
“Max, what’s she talking about?”
“I never heard it before,” I said.
I shifted Hans so my shirt wouldn’t get wet. He bounced up and down in my arms. Ilse stood, naked, her hands on her hips, next to the bath.
“I don’t know where she gets these ideas,” I said.
“Who told you such a thing?” said Marta.
“This morning, when she was mopping,” said Ilse. “She said…”
“That housekeeper has to go, Max.”
“She’s a good housekeeper.”
“I don’t like her around the children.”
“Ilse probably misunderstood what she was saying.”
“No, I didn’t. She said…”
“I want a housekeeper who’s not an inmate.”
“What did she say about the soap, Ilse?”
“She said the fat from the dead Jews was being boiled into soap.”
“Oh, my God, Max. That’s it. I want that Jew out of my house.”
“She’s not a Jew. She’s a Pole.”
“I don’t care what she is.”
“And then she said…”
“I want a housekeeper from Berlin.”
“You know that’s not possible. I’ll get another girl in her place.”
“Not an inmate.”
“Who else am I supposed to get?”
“Not an inmate. I’ve had enough of them.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
“Not a Jew.”
“I said I’ll take care of it.”
“But is this Jew-soap or not?” said Ilse.
Excerpt from The Kommandant’s Mistress,
Revised & Expanded, 20th Anniversary Edition
© 1993, 1994, 2000, 2012 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman.
May not be reprinted or excerpted without written permission.
Please do not support piracy of Intellectual Property.
(1st edition published by HarperCollins 1993; Harper Perennial 1994)
(originally published under pseudonym “Sherri)
(2nd edition published by Arcade 2000)
(includes translations of Verdi’s La Traviata)
(originally published under pseudonym “Sherri”)