In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs it is the rule.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
* * *
Monday, May 17th, 1937
The Cathay Hotel
As it turned out, I did not sleep well that night. In fact, I barely slept at all.
It had nothing to do with the prospect of getting papers, or the prospect of perhaps, eventually, escaping Shanghai — of running. No. Rather, it was due to Monsieur Simonov's terrible story, of the casual violence which had cost him his son and daughter-in-law, his family … his story, triggered —
I will not say, memories; memories are discrete, benign things, that one recalls at will, whether happy or sad. They are the past, they are not real.
In my case, there exists a whole suite of sights, and sounds, and sensations and tastes from a specific time in my past, a horrible time, and I do not recall them; I have no control over them, they come flooding back upon me, whenever they wish —
I witnessed something horrible, when I was thirteen.
I was actually more than just a witness; in some ways, I was a participant. I wish I hadn't been there, I wish the whole thing had never happened, oh, how I wish the whole thing had never happened, and not at all for my own sake —
It is all a part of me, now, it is all a part of the person I have become, for better or worse …
Father was there. We never speak of it.
The only person on Earth I've told about it is Jack; of course. And even with him, I've never burdened him with the full story, the true extent of the horror, the true impact it has had on me.
When we refer to it — which isn't often — we do so elliptically, in a kind of shorthand. We just call it, 'Berlin'.
* * *
In the summer of 1934 — our last summer in Europe — Father and I went on an extended driving tour.
We had been on such trips before, of course; we usually spent several weeks out of each summer, driving through Europe, combining Father's business travel, with pleasure …
This time was different. We were returning to the States in early September. Father had largely wrapped up his business affairs, and we had already vacated our flat in Geneva, having arranged to ship our things on to Grandfather's and Grandmother's flat in Paris, or back home. The idea, then, was for us to take a much more relaxed, and leisurely tour, with just a few stops for business along the way. Father had worked very hard, for the Bank, in Europe; I believe it was recognized, that he was due a long vacation.
So it was, that when we left Geneva, we headed south and west; into southern France, and the French Riviera.
We had a routine, in our road trips, and Father and I fell into our roles, happily.
As I said before, I was the navigator, and the one to read from the guide-books, and often enough, the history-books I'd brought along; there are few places in Europe that aren't steeped in layers and layers of history, from pre-Roman tribal times, to today. Father, of course, was the driver, and the facilitator, and my partner in exploration; often suggesting detours, and segues into different areas of interest, to either or both of us …
We did, indeed, make a good traveling-team. And we were never closer, than we were on one of our driving trips.
I learned a few things about Father on this last trip, too.
As I've mentioned, we had the habit, on these trips, of speaking to each other in a mixture of French and German; he spoke German to me, while I spoke French to him. The idea was for us to help each other with our command of idiom.
By that last summer in Europe, I'd become quite fluent in German; and as we drove, and talked, I discovered that Father — when speaking German, at any rate — had a dry, and rather mordant wit. I enjoyed it, very much; he frequently had me smiling, and even quietly laughing. He would also say things, and express opinions, that I was sure he would never venture in English.
I suppose I did the same thing. I know that when we bantered, I tended to use the kind of French I would use with my friends, at school; colloquial, a little cocky, a little daring, and laced with slang. More than once he had to stop me, and ask me — in German, of course — the meaning of a particular word or phrase. More than once, my answer would result in a raised eyebrow, and an obvious effort not to laugh.
I have discovered, since, that it is not unusual for people who are multi-lingual, to express themselves quite differently, in different languages. Still; it was an eye-opening experience, for the both of us, I believe; and it brought us much closer.
We did a week in Nice, sunning and swimming, and eating socca, the local delicacy which is a sort of flat pancake, made out of chickpeas … And from there, we explored inland Provence, with a day in Aix-en-Provence here, and then two days in Avignon, the one-time and rival seat of Popes and anti-Popes, with its enormous medieval palaces, largely in ruins; and then, onward. All the time, we headed gradually northward, making for Lyons first, where Father had a business appointment, and from there, inevitably, to Paris —
It should have been a perfectly relaxing time, free of care, for Father. World events conspired to keep this from being the case.
While we were in Nice, in late July, there was an attempted coup — a putsch — in Austria. The coup, which was promulgated by the Austrian Nazi Party, failed; but the Austrian Chancellor, Dolfuss, was murdered. News out of Vienna was confused, for several days.
Father had both friends and business associates in Vienna. He said little, but I knew he was badly worried; he placed several long-distance telephone calls, and sent out wires. I knew we stayed an extra two days in Nice, until he was reassured.
Father was, and is, very fond of Vienna, and of all things Viennese. That there could be an attempted coup, there — another one — shook him.
We were in Lyons, when the next blow struck. The newspaper headline said it all; 'von Hindenburg est mort'.
This was very big news.
Von Hindenburg was the President of Germany; he had also been the Field Marshal in overall command at the end of the Great War. Everyone in Europe knew, even I knew at not-quite-fourteen, that he and the German Army were the counterbalances to Chancellor Hitler and the Nazis …
Europe held its breath.
And the very next day, came the news; Chancellor Hitler had made himself President — apparently quite legally — as well as Chancellor. And on top of that, he had had the German Army swear an oath of loyalty to himself, personally. By name.
Father said it was either an act of genius, or of desperation; and that in any case, we would know shortly whether it worked. There had been some kind of trouble in Germany in June, some kind of revolt in the Nazi Party ranks; it was said that hundreds had been killed. More trouble seemed likely.
We had been scheduled to go to Berlin in early August. Father quietly rearranged his business meetings to take place as late as possible, while we waited in Paris to see what happened.
And so it was, that Father and I found ourselves checking into the historic Adlon Hotel, at Number One, Unter den Linden, Berlin, one night in the last week of August.
* * *
"You just drove across the border from Belgium — ? Just the two of you — ?"
We were in the bar of the Adlon, after freshening up in our suite. The manager, in the effortlessly smooth manner of good hotel-managers everywhere, had contrived to steer us to a large round table full of American and British expatriates. Looking back, I think he wanted us to be forewarned.
Not that we entirely needed to be.
"Yes," from Father; simply. He was seemingly preoccupied with filling his pipe.
"And … that went smoothly for you, then — ?" from the same, American voice. It belonged to a red-haired man, who was a newspaper correspondent; several of the men present, were such.
It was odd, hearing English — especially American-accented English — again, after such a long time.
"Actually," said Father, casually, as he tamped down the the tobacco in his pipe-bowl — "no. It didn't. We were detained, for several hours. I was questioned, rather closely, and our luggage was searched."
"Let me see," from another American, with black hair and a droll expression. "They were plainclothesmen, some of them in raincoats, and they said almost nothing, beyond asking you about where you'd been, who you'd spoken to, and what your business was, over and over again — ?"
"Umm-hmm" from Father, around the stem of his pipe. He puffed on it a moment, to get it going; then he removed it from his mouth. "Actually, they seemed very interested about any cameras we might have. We didn't happen to have one with us; and they seemed rather … incredulous, of the fact."
"Gestapo," from the red-haired American, with a wry expression. "You were bound to have a run-in with them, eventually. Probably better to get it over with, sooner. Welcome to Germany."
"'Gestapo' — ?" from Father; with a raised eyebrow.
"'Geheime Staatspolizei'," from the American. "They're pretty much everywhere. They probably thought you were one of us … with the Press, I mean. It's getting harder and harder for us to do our jobs, here."
He did not need to translate the full name for us. It was the German for 'Secret State Police'.
I felt cold.
They had not questioned me, beyond asking my name, address and nationality … and, the whereabouts of my camera. As Father had said, they seemed disbelieving of my, of our, lack of one.
But they had taken my passport. And they had separated me from Father.
They had put me in a windowless room, with only a table and two chairs; and they had left me alone, there, and locked the door from the outside.
And I had stayed there, for two hours.
It was a terrifying experience. I was scared, almost witless. I had almost cried. Fourteen … not-quite-yet-fourteen years old, to be precise … and separated from Father, and separated from my passport, in a country in which seemingly anything could happen —
Two hours is an eternity, a Hell, under such circumstances. All I could think, was that no-one knew where we were …
I was evidently not the only one with that thought.
"Hmmm … " from a heavyset man, wearing tweeds, and smoking another pipe. He had been introduced to us, as being with the American Consulate. He now took out his pocket-book, and a pen; and he uncapped the pen, and looked at us. "Mister Piers Williamson, and — ?" He looked at me.
"Rhys, sir," I supplied.
"That's right; I'm sorry. I'll go ahead and make sure the Consul knows you're here … and if you're going to be doing any more driving by yourselves, near the border, it might be a good idea to let us know in advance. The Germans are a little sensitive, about that part of the country."
"Apparently," from Father; drily. "Still. I was under the impression that the Rhineland was a demilitarized zone — ?"
"For the present … " A meaningful pause. "If I might make another suggestion?"
"During your time in Berlin, it would not be a bad idea to let other people know, generally, of your whereabouts … where you're going, when you expect to return; that sort of thing. And you might want to keep our telephone number handy, too. In fact," he went on, laboriously extracting two cards from his wallet, and then handing one to each of us, "you should keep these with you; just in case."
"Thank you, sir," from Father. He took his card, and then shot the tweedy man a quizzical look. "But if you'll pardon me … is this degree of concern really warranted — ? I was last here three years ago, in '31, and I felt perfectly safe then; and the political scene was much more chaotic, at the time."
The tweedy man exchanged glances with one or two of his friends; and then he shrugged.
"Oh, I daresay you'll be perfectly safe, here; you're an American, a prominent businessman, and you're neither a Jew, nor a Communist. Your biggest danger is being invited to an official dinner, somewhere or other; the Propaganda Ministry is very anxious to put things in the best possible light … Still. It has been an eventful summer, here. And, it has been an eventful month." He shot Father another meaningful glance.
"Hmph," from Father, around the stem of his pipe.
"You need to tell them about the marchers," said the droll, dark-haired man. "The Brownshirts, and the SS." His expression was ironic.
"Oh, Lord," from the tweedy, Consulate man. He rolled his eyes, and puffed on his pipe, once, gathering his thoughts.
"You know about the SA, the Sturmabteilung, don't you?" This, from the red-haired man. "Hitler's bully-boys — ?"
The German word translated as 'Storm Detachment', or 'Storm Troopers'. They are quite famous, now; but even back then, I'd heard of them. They fought street battles with the Communists and the Social Democrats, and with the Jews and the Gypsies, on the Party's behalf. They wore brown uniforms, and had the reputation of being thugs.
"Oh, yes," from Father. "They helped make my last visit … memorable. But I was under the impression, that street fighting was a thing of the past, here — ?"
"Well, it's strictly verboten. But there's still more than a million of 'em, of Brownshirts, I mean; and they need something to do, to earn their keep. So, they march around here in Berlin, carrying their ridiculous standards — they look like leftover Hollywood movie props, from a bad movie about ancient Rome — "
" — looking for people to beat up," finished the droll, black-haired man. "Trouble is, they're running low on obvious Jews, and Communists." He shook his head, mock-sadly. "What's a poor Storm Trooper to do — ?"
"It isn't really a joke," from the tweedy, consular man, with a sideways look at the black-haired man. He turned to address Father again. "They march with their standards; and if you're caught out on the sidewalk when a unit goes by, you're expected to give the Nazi salute, and 'Heil Hitler', and everything; and you'd best be enthusiastic about it. If you don't salute, or aren't enthusiastic enough to suit them, they will beat you, badly; we get reports at the Consulate, and the Embassy, all the time. They're no respecters of nationality, or of age … " His eyes flicked to mine.
"Oh, I don't know," from the droll man. "From what we've heard, their chief, Röhm, respected teenage boys very much, before Hitler had him liquidated — "
"Oh, hush up, Herb," from the red-haired man; with a glance at me.
"Sorry … sorry." The black-haired man managed to look a little sheepish.
I kept my face very still.
"You are referring to the events of June, I take it — ?" This from Father, neutrally.
"That's right. The purge; they're calling it 'The Night of Long Knives' … "
Father puffed on his pipe, once. "If you don't mind my asking — what, exactly, happened — ? One got the impression that there was considerably more to the story, than what we saw in the newspapers."
"I'll say," from the red-haired man. He glanced at the tweedy Consular man; but it was clearly more his place to explain, as a reporter, so he plunged ahead. "Well. The official story is, that they prevented a coup, a putsch. But what really happened is that Röhm, the head of the SA, over-reached. He wanted control of the Army; I guess he figured, that with upwards of three million bully-boy Storm Troopers behind him, he rated it. As if," he went on, scornfully, "the German Army would every stand for it. Or, as if Hitler would ever let it happen. Talk about handing over the keys of the kingdom … "
"Hmph," from the tweedy Consular man, appreciatively.
"So in the end, Hitler moved on him … He used his blackshirts, the SS — they're kind of his Praetorian Guard — and he liquidated most of the Storm Troopers' top leadership; nobody knows how many, it could be dozens, it could be several hundred — "
"But that leaves the rank-and-file," the droll, dark-haired man interjected. "They're still marching around, getting paid for it — nice work, if you can get it! — only now, the SS, the Shutzstaffel, are marching around with their own standards, too. I guess they're keeping an eye on each other; the final showdown between them will be at the Nuremberg Party rally, next month … I wonder what will happen — ? But, anyway, between the two of them, you'd better be ready to throw up your arm … " He crooked a smile. "If you can bug out your eyes, and foam at the mouth a little when you yell out 'Heil Hitler', it's better. That's what I do. Seems to impress 'em, no end."
"Don't listen to him," from the red-haired man; but with affection, I thought. "He's going to get himself expelled, or worse, someday … Actually, it's easy to avoid the marchers; they make a lot of noise, as they go. All you have to do is turn a corner, or duck into a café, or a shop, until they're gone. We do it all the time; it gets to be habit."
"I see," said Father, calmly. I wondered what he was thinking.
"But whatever you do — seriously — don't duck into a Jewish shop, if you're trying to avoid the marchers; that'll just get both of you beaten up, you and the shopkeepers."
"And how does one tell if a particular shop is Jewish — ?" from Father, drily.
"Oh, that's easy," from the red-haired man; as he stubbed out one cigaret in the ashtray, and reached for his cigaret-case. "They're all marked."
* * *
I tried to like Berlin; in spite of everything.
It is a very handsome city. It is not a beautiful city, like Paris; but then, no place is as beautiful as Paris. Berlin, though, I thought, had a certain pleasing regularity to its building facades, a certain stony grace.
Then, too, it was August, and the weather was warm, and clear; many, many buildings and establishments had flower-boxes in front of them, and flower-boxes up on balconies, and they were all full of riotous blooms. The air was relatively clean; and most of the building-fronts seemed well-scrubbed, without the deep, black stains of coal-smoke which are part of city living almost everywhere in Europe.
The Adlon was supremely comfortable, if a little formal; and it was superbly located. The magnificent Brandenburg Gate, the very symbol of Berlin, was essentially next door; and the Reichstag building, stately and imposing even in its burned-out state, was close by.
I noticed that the shell of the Reichstag seemed deserted; there was no apparent repair or rebuilding work under way, even though the fire had taken place in February of the previous year. I asked Father about it.
His reply was prefaced with a German expression that made me blink. I might have translated it as a particularly mordant version of, 'Don't hold your breath'; it had a wonderfully German cynicism to it.
"The Reichstag fire is what brought Herr Hitler to power," he'd said, as we walked the Unter Den Linden. "It was the excuse for the enabling laws, which made him the absolute ruler of of Germany. I suspect the building will be left exactly is it is, indefinitely, to serve as a symbol. A crude one."
"I see, sir."
As I said, I tried to like Berlin.
In fact, we did have a pleasant day. We strolled through the Tiergarten, as pleasingly beautiful as any city park I'd ever seen, except New York's Central Park, of course. We went to the Pergamon Museum, on the Museumsinsel, in the Spree; it was new, and magnificent, and enormous, with entire city gates and walls from antiquity re-erected inside; I gaped at them. And after that we simply roamed, wherever we felt like roaming, consulting our Baedeker's, even taking the U-Bahn, the subway, twice —
We wound up having ice cream, at an open-air café, not far from our hotel.
It was, perhaps, a rather one-sided treat.
"Here you are, sir," from the stout waiter, in German; and a silver dish of sherbet appeared in front of Father. "And you, sir," he continued, and an enormous, oblong dish, filled with multiple scoops of ice cream, and thick chocolate sauce, and a sliced banana, appeared in front of me.
"Danke," said Father, to the waiter.
I was horrified.
"Sir … I'm sure I won't be able to finish all this," I said, a little helplessly; after the stout waiter had retired. In fact, after seven years in the School in the Sky, rich food — or just too much of any kind of food — had a tendency to give me stomach problems.
"It is a banana split. It is part of your American heritage." He carefully spooned up a small bite of his sherbet, and a faint upwards crook appeared at the corner of his mouth. "However; after I finish this, I might be persuaded to help you out."
The 'Banana Split, American Style' had been his suggestion, of course. If I'd ever seen one, back in the States, I didn't remember it.
"Thank you, sir," I said, with just a hint of irony. "That would be very kind of you."
It was a very nice café, off of the ground floor of a large hotel. The hotel was situated on a corner; the café took up the apex of the triangle, formed by the intersecting streets. The whole affair was roofed over by awnings, and shaded by trees, welcome on this hot day. The tables and chairs were separated from the sidewalk by a thickly-painted iron railing; outside the railing was a low box hedge, and some tubs of red geraniums. I could smell the spicy scent of the geraniums, from where I sat.
As I ate, slowly, I considered the things about Berlin, about Germany, which I did not like.
For one thing, there was the constant, upthrust, straight-armed saluting, the clicking of heels, and the unending refrains of 'Heil Hitler' …
Germany was a civilized country, perhaps the most civilized in Europe. I could not believe that its citizens would take such things seriously. To me such displays all seemed to belong to a Marx Brothers movie. But it seemed clear to me, that very many of them did, indeed, take it all seriously …
Worse, far worse, was the ugly and inexplicable treatment of Jews.
At breakfast that morning, I'd read — I'd tried to read — the 'Völkischer Beobachter', the Nazi Party newspaper. I hadn't gotten far. It was a disgusting thing, full of slanders and outright lies … and many, perhaps most, of the lies had been about Jews.
As I've said before, I simply do not understand anti-Semitism; on some deep level, I just cannot comprehend it, it makes no sense to me. To see an entire newspaper — perhaps the most important one in Germany — riddled with anti-Jewish slurs, all but devoted to them, was repulsive and frightening, even to my younger self.
Much worse was to come.
We'd been warned that Jewish-owned shops and businesses would be marked, by the Storm Troopers …
We hadn't seen any such, in the immediate vicinity of the Unter den Linden, of course; it was Berlin's most fashionable, most prestigious neighborhood … perhaps there were no Jewish-owned establishments in the vicinity; I didn't know.
But in our explorations, that day, in different neighborhoods, we had come across a number of such marked places.
Some of the markings were simple. We'd seen the Star of David, in crude white paint, several times … the crudeness of the reproduction had made the symbol seem almost inexpressibly sinister. And then, too, we'd seen 'Not for Aryans', more than once —
Many of the other slogans were vulgar, or openly obscene, or both. The degree of unreasoning hatred expressed in the daubed-on signage was astonishing. And I knew instinctively, as a young person knows, why the signs weren't cleaned off, or erased; because far worse would come, to those establishments, if they did so …
I thought very much about my friend Emile, that day in Berlin. My best friend Emile.
He was, thank God, safe in America, by then; we had written each other, several times, and we would continue to write. But I remembered the concealed fear, the quiet, near-desperation, of his family as they waited for their visas in Geneva. I remembered how well, how nicely they'd treated me, when I'd been their guest, over some of the school holidays —
Mostly, I remembered Emile. He was, and is, an extremely kind and gentle soul, and almost as morbidly sensitive as I am. The idea of Emile, subjected to … this, to all of this … was stomach-churning. It was horrific. …
I'd been staring down, blankly, at my slathered ice cream, lost in my thoughts; I made myself look up, at the other patrons of the café.
They were somewhat older; naturally enough, it was a weekday afternoon, after all. They seemed perfectly ordinary; well-dressed, even expensively-dressed — it was an expensive hotel — and, perhaps, a little on the large side. If last night's menu was any guide, the local cuisine tended towards being heavy, with rich creams and sauces, and portions which seemed large.
One couple opposite me, behind Father, was interesting. The man was large, white-haired and florid, with enormous side-whiskers; I imagined him as some Austro-Hungarian aristocrat in exile, which, on second thought, didn't seem completely unlikely … The woman was equally large, with bulky, black shoes, a conservative, patterned dress, and a cloche hat —
A flicker of motion, on the street outside, caught my eye.
I looked; and I saw a boy, trotting across the street in the strong sunshine, carrying some suit-bags, slung over his shoulder.
He was striking. He was beautiful, even; blond — he was bare-headed — and in his shirtsleeves, with his sleeves rolled up. I thought he was a year, or two, older than I … and he had one of those faces, that just seemed to radiate happiness, and good-nature. He had a red neckerchief, which I thought gave him a rather dashing air —
I am human. I could not stop myself, from looking at him. I believe I stared.
The boy saw my look; and he smiled at me, openly and warmly.
I smiled back; of course.
I have thought back to that exchange of smiles, many, many times, since.
I do not think it was sexual, in any way, or an acknowledgement by him, of my obvious interest in him … No; no. Rather, I think it was just a good-natured smile, from a good-natured boy, who was enjoying a beautiful summer day, enjoying himself, enjoying life …
In any case, I looked down, for a moment, embarrassed; and then I glanced back up, in time to see him disappear, into a hotel doorway. It was a good guess, that he worked for a cleaner's shop, that served the hotel's guests …
A long moment passed. I made myself look back towards the Hapsburg-looking gentleman —
"Ahem." Father cleared his throat.
I looked up at him. He, in his turn, looked at me, innocently; and then, he flicked his eyes downward, expressively, towards the mounds of softening ice cream, and chocolate sauce, and sliced banana, remaining in my oblong dish —
"Oh — ! Oh, yes, Father, please take it. I'm done." I pushed the dish towards him.
"Are you sure — ?"
"Yes, sir." And I was; I'd already eaten more of it than I'd intended, and I could feel the beginnings of a slight queasiness, that meant possible trouble, later.
"Well. If you insist … " And with that, he drew the dish towards him, and took a spoonful of ice-cream-and-chocolate-sauce, and I was left trying not to laugh at the look of carefully-restrained bliss that crossed his features …
As we'd been told, we heard them, long before we saw them.
Father's left-over ice cream was half-gone, when we heard singing, in the distance.
The singing grew slowly closer.
I didn't know the song; I assumed it was some Nazi Party anthem … but from the way some of the voices went off-key, at odd times, I thought it likely that a recent visit to a beer hall had been involved in the mix.
Some of the patrons on the other side of the café were looking back down the street, opposite us. Father lifted an eyebrow.
"Do you think we should go inside, sir?" I asked it quietly, in French.
"I think not," he said, after a moment; still in German. "We are in a café, after all; and, we can be through the lobby doors in a few steps, if necessary … and, I think I should see this." A thin, wry smile, from him. "I would like to be able to tell some of my colleagues at the Bank, about the experience." This, drily.
At last, they came into view, on the street fronting the opposite side of the café. They were marching, in rather poor order; they wore brown shirts, with leather belts crossing this chest, and rather odd-looking brown caps. They also wore high, heavy-looking boots. One of their number carried their standard; a pole, with a cross-piece, from which hung a red flag, with the usual swastika. It did indeed look like a cheap movie-prop, to me.
No one in the café rose to deliver the Nazi salute; but, to my surprise, two middle-aged women on the far side of the café applauded, with smiles, and genuine enthusiasm.
The Brownshirts noticed.
Their leader — he was a lean man, with dark hair under his cap, and a rather hawk-like face — stopped his men, and with words, and exaggerated gestures, had them line up again, into some sort of order; and then, with another gesture, they started a rather ragged, inexpert, goose-step march.
More, many more, café patrons started applauding, now; there were open cries of enthusiastic approval. Several of the men rose to their feet, clapping. I could see the faces of the Storm Troopers, grinning, faces turned toward us, drinking in the applause —
I looked at Father. After a glance at the Storm Troopers, he'd turned away; he gave me a quick, ironic twitch of an eyebrow, but nothing more …
I noticed the florid, bewhiskered man; he was sitting up very straight in his chair, his eyes resolutely before him, not acknowledging the Storm Troopers' progress. I mentally reclassified him from Austrian Hapsburg, to German Hohenzollern, a Kaiser's Man, and I liked him and respected him the better for it …
The Brownshirts reached the corner, and with difficulty, turned it, and began goose-stepping down the street on our side of the café. Father and I were sitting right up against the painted iron railing; it was really too close for comfort —
A flurry of movement.
The boy with the red neckerchief burst out of a hotel service-entrance, his head turned back, calling out some cheerful joke to someone behind him; he was laden with yet more suit-bags, four or five, or more of them, slung over his shoulders —
He and the Storm Troopers saw each other, at the same instant.
It was one of those fatal moments. Prey, and predator, perceiving each other at the same time, freezing for a second, before bursting into motion —
It was the red neckerchief, of course.
I confirmed, much later, that it was the symbol of a Communist youth group, which had battled the Storm Troopers on the streets, and which had been subsequently outlawed by the Reich Government … but we hardly needed the confirmation. Events told us. We knew.
They were on him, in a flash.
He might have gotten away, if he'd dropped the suit-bags, and run for it; he was young, and the Storm Troopers had been drinking, and they wore heavy boots … but he kept the suit bags, and tried to get back to the hotel service-entrance —
They were on him.
They stripped him, first. I learned later, this was standard, for such affairs. 'Stripped', though, is far too mild a word for it; the clothes were ripped off of him, and cut away from him, in just seconds, just heartbeats, all with a practiced, savage, vicious efficiency —
I gasped; transfixed. I believe everyone gasped.
The beating started in earnest, next.
They crowded around the boy; taking turns holding him, hitting him as hard as they could with their big, meaty fists, the full weight of their beer-fed bodies behind each blow, laughing, all the time —
"Non — !" I cried out, in horror. "Non — ! Arrêtez — !", and in a second, I was out of my chair, and half-way over the railing, intending to do what, I do not know —
Arms grabbed me, from behind. An irresistible weight yanked me back down into my chair.
"Rhys! Stop! Stop, and be quiet!" from my father, in English, and in a terrible tone of voice I had never heard from him, before. "Tais-toi! Tais-toi!" he added, and a hand came, to cover my mouth —
Shouts and anguished exclamations, from many of the café patrons, now. Somewhere behind me, a woman screamed, in a high voice, and then screamed again —
I wish Father had covered my eyes, rather than my mouth.
Once the boy was down, the kicking began.
It was indescribably brutal. The Storm Troopers competed for chances to land their heavily-booted blows, to the form that lay on the ground — again, and again, and again —
At last, one figure broke away from the knot around the boy; he carried the red neckerchief high in the air, as a trophy. The rest of his fellows followed, soon enough, cheering, as the first figure approached the Nazi standard. The standard was carefully lowered, and the neckerchief was tied around the pole-and-crosspiece, amid more cheers, and back-slapping …
As I watched, still pinned in Father's arms, three women appeared, running out from the hotel service-entrance. They ran fast, heads down, hunched-over; but they were weeping, openly, the one in front was wailing, distraught, loud, her mouth open, her face contorted —
One woman gathered up the suit-bags, one-by-one, keeping her face towards the Storm Troopers, obviously terrified. The other two took the boy — or what was left of him — by the shoulders and feet, and the three of them struggled with their burdens, still weeping, and they ran, hunched-over, as best they could, back to the service entrance —
I looked, for a moment, at the pool of blood on the pavement; it was enormous, and it was beginning to run into the gutters —
I leaned forward over the railing, convulsively, twisting partway out of Father's arms, and I vomited into the box-hedges. I vomited again, and again, and again …
The sound of women, crying, in the café behind me. The sound of dismayed voices. One trembling, male, "Heil Hitler" —
I looked up, at last; and I saw the hatchet-faced squad leader. He was walking the perimeter of the café, slowly, gazing in on the patrons. The air of power, of brutality, and of menace, was overwhelming …
His eyes fell on us; on Father, and me.
His eyes fell on me. His eyes met mine.
The boy who had frantically called out, 'No, no, stop!' in French — I could see that he knew me …
Another frozen moment.
Father's arm tightened around my waist; and then, all at once, I was lifted up, out of my chair, off of my feet, swinging away from the railing —
Three long strides to the lobby door; and then, we were through —
Father set me down on my feet; and then, half-guiding me, half-supporting me, he quick-marched us across the cool marble floor to the gentlemen's lavatory —
"Go inside and wash up. Quickly. I will wait here."
I said nothing; I just did as he told me, finishing my miserable retching into the washbasin, under the helpless eyes of the attendant, with his white towels draped over his arm —
When I was finished, and I'd washed my face and washed out my mouth, I re-emerged; and Father walked us briskly, if a little less urgently, to the side-entrance of the hotel, where there was a taxi-stand, and a line of waiting cabs …
We took a cab back to the Adlon; although it was only two-and-a-half blocks away. The cab-driver asked us no questions, and made no comment.
* * *
Father had intended to stay at least two more nights in Berlin. I believe he even had an appointment with Doctor Schacht, the President of the Reichsbank, a tremendously important person who was generally well-liked by Americans …
Instead, he cancelled all of his appointments, and arranged for the return of the rental-car; and he booked us on the overnight sleeper, to Paris.
* * *
Night. Air. Motion.
I lay in my berth, in my compartment, under a single sheet; and I watched the play of light and shadow, on the ceiling, overhead.
The summertime air was warm, and the flow of it, over my face, my body, was essential. I'd left the compartment window open, a few inches — the window frame was solid steel, and the window-pane was thick, heavy glass … I might find coal-smuts, from the locomotive, in the morning; but I didn't care. The air was essential.
Too, the open window let in the sounds of our travel; the distant chuffing of the locomotive. The clicking of the wheels. The occasional, high-pitched whistle, as we approached some grade-crossing; European train-whistles are so much higher-pitched than ours in America, but I'd gotten used to them, I didn't really remember American trains, so well —
You're thinking, I told myself. Stop it. Make your mind a blank, and maybe you'll get some sleep.
The pattern of light, on the ceiling. The feel of the air, the smell of it … the air smelled of woods, and of rain; we had passed through a rain shower not so long ago, there were still drops trailing down the inside of the window …
As God was merciful, it was a French train; a Chemins de Fer de l'Est train, with an all-French crew, from the conductor and engine-driver down to the dining-car stewards, and that helped, oh how it helped …
Not that the dining-car, or food, was any kind of option for me. I couldn't face the prospect of eating, of food —
Well, Father had more-or-less forced me to drink some tonic water; and I have to admit, it helped, certainly more than the tot of brandy he'd initially proposed, would have …
What had really helped was this; retiring to my compartment, and to my bed, alone, and away from the other passengers.
Especially the German-speaking ones.
That's not fair, I told myself. You can't paint all Germans with the same brush. Most of the Germans at the café had been horrified, traumatized, the three women who had run out to collect the boy had been crying, hard, and, after all, the boy himself had been German —
You're doing it again. Stop it. Just, stop.
The rhythmic, fast chuffing of the locomotive. The slight creaking of the sleeper-car, as we rounded a very gentle curve. A hint, just a hint, of coal-smoke in the air, now; yes, there would be some coal-smuts, come morning.
I tried to concentrate on the light and shadow, on the ceiling above me. I tried to make it crowd out everything else … so that I could sleep.
Maybe the boy wasn't dead.
I'd tried to tell myself, that maybe the boy wasn't dead. I mean, I had no way of knowing, for sure; yes, he'd been savagely beaten, but maybe he was still alive, maybe he'd been seen by a doctor, maybe he'd even regained consciousness, by now —
I knew better.
The blows — especially the kicking — had been far too vicious, far too strong; they'd been meant to kill. The blood — most of it had come from his head, from his mouth — well, there'd been far too much of it. Rivers of blood; a whole lake, of blood. It had been horrible to see.
But then the women had come out, to pick him up —
There had been a terrible … slackness, to him. He had been utterly, utterly limp, in a way that no living person, I thought, no living thing, could ever be, even in unconsciousness …
It was that horrible slackness, that had sent me over the edge, had made me vomit …
I felt my stomach lurch, again, at the memory; the picture, that was stuck in my mind.
I shook my head, in the darkness; angry with myself, all over again. You have to stop this, I told myself. Think of something else. Think of someone else …
I thought of Grandmother and Grandfather, and the last time we'd all been together in Paris, over the Christmas holiday … and I thought of Emile, whom I still missed, very much … I was so glad Emile was safe, and would never have to face anything like this, would never have to face the Sturmabteilung, the Storm Troopers —
I remembered the hatchet-faced squad leader; pacing along the iron railing, after the killing.
His eyes, as he'd looked directly at me. What had passed between us, then …
I had never believed, truly believed, in evil, before. Certainly not in living human beings. All the people I'd ever known had been fundamentally decent, and good, occasionally flawed, perhaps, but decent human persons, nevertheless —
I knew better, now.
I had seen evil. I had looked it in the eye. And it had perceived me, in return …
This time, I rubbed my hands over my face. I pressed the heels of my palms, into my eyes. I made a low, moaning sound, to myself.
Stop, I told myself. Just, please, stop …
Sleeper-trains do not make many station-stops; by definition.
Of course we slowed, going through stations.
I could always tell; first the rhythm of the locomotive's 'chuff-chuff-chuff' would slow, and then the clacking of the wheels would change, would grow more complex, as we passed over switches and connectors … and then, at last, would come the flash of lights on the compartment walls, the ceiling, as we passed the lit-up station …
I believe we stopped once, in Göttingen. I knew we would stop in Metz, in France, over the border.
And I knew we would stop, somewhere, for passport control.
For now, the 'chuff, chuff, chuff' of the locomotive speeded up, again, and the lights were few and far between, as I stared at the compartment ceiling, and felt the flow of air over me, and willed myself not to think …
I still did not sleep. My thoughts kept whirling, replaying themselves, betraying me … but I did get to a certain point where my fatigue made everything around me seem a little dream-like, a little surreal …
And then, eventually, at last, I heard and felt the clacking of our wheels change in frequency, and rhythm once again; and the chuffing of the locomotive slowed down, once again —
Only this time, the chuffing grew slower, and slower, and then slower, still, until finally, there was a soft squeal of the breaks being gently applied … and it went on for some time, as we slowed so gradually, that I couldn't tell the moment when we were actually stopped …
The station-light on the ceiling was fixed; unmoving.
A hiss of escaping steam, from the locomotive forward of us; and then the much fainter, echoing, metallic 'chug, chug, chug,' sound that locomotives make, when they are under steam, but temporarily at rest.
The faint sound of voices, speaking German, from the platform.
On a sleeper-train that crosses borders, one surrenders one's passport to the conductor, before retiring. I had done so with mine. I had done this any number of times before, in Europe. Neither Father, nor I, had ever been disturbed in our beds.
But this was my first — and I hoped, last — time, leaving Germany.
I lay in my berth, and listened; still in my fatigued, almost-dreaming state.
From somewhere up forward, the sound of a door closing, emphatically. Then, measured, unhurried footsteps, on the platform. A pause, and then the sound of a door closing, again, only this time, closer —
The hollow, metallic, faint, 'chug, chug, chug' from the idling locomotive … A pause, and then another, 'chug, chug, chug' …
At last, after a stretch of time which I could not measure, the sound of the closing door came from our own sleeper-car.
Footsteps, in the passageway outside of the compartments. Heavy ones. The murmur of voices, kept low. The footsteps, and the murmurs, receded.
A much longer, protracted pause; and then, the sound of a door on our own car closing, with a solid bang …
The hollow 'chug, chug, chug,' pause, 'chug, chug, chug' from the idling locomotive. The sound of escaping steam.
I do not know how long I lay in the darkness, looking up at the ceiling, listening. It must have been minutes. It seemed like hours, in my sleepless state.
But at last, finally, came footsteps along the platform, again. More low voices; and then, low laughter, at a shared joke …
"Auf Wiedersehen," from a voice, with a French accent; it startled me, it seemed to come from almost directly below my own open window.
"À bientôt," came the reply, in a German accent —
A brief, silent pause.
And then, two pulls from the locomotive's whistle — that high-pitched, European, 'wheet', 'wheet' again — and then, the first loud, real 'Chuff' from the locomotive, followed by another 'chuff', and 'chuff', and 'chuff' —
The rectangle of light on the compartment ceiling, moved. Finally. At last.
The clacking, from the wheels, again, coming slow, at first, then picking up speed —
I waited, awake, a few minutes. After all, I did not know if our station-stop had been right on the border, or a little to one side …
And I knew I was being ridiculous. We had been safe enough, on board the sleeper, all along. No-one would haul Father off of a sleeper-train, in the middle of the night, for more questioning about our cross-border driving-trip. Even more so, because the stop had been in the Saar-land, a partition of Germany, a League mandate, under the Treaty of Versailles —
Although I did not know what arrangements the Saar had with greater Germany, when it came to policing. When in came to the Geheime Staatspolizei.
I had not been so very worried about Father's safety, or my own.
Rather, I had deeply wanted, in my heart of hearts, to be shed of Germany. I had wanted it, so badly … I wanted, and needed, to be shed of this nightmarish place, where secret policemen stopped people at will, where hotel desk-clerks gave the stiff-armed, Nazi 'Heil Hitler' salute —
Where uniformed thugs could beat a boy to death in the street. In the middle of a beautiful summer day. For the crime of wearing a red neckerchief.
I lay still, for a few more minutes; feeling the renewed wash of warm air over my body, listening to the clacking of the wheels, and the quick, rhythmic 'chuff-chuff-chuff-chuff' of the locomotive —
Until at last we reached some point, or some landmark, and the locomotive driver gave a long, long pull on the whistle, a prolonged 'Wheeeeet — !', and then again, 'Wheeeeet — !'
I thought I knew what it meant.
There was something glad, and triumphant, and personal, in that whistle-pull …
We had crossed into France. We were no longer in Germany; we were in France, we were in the safety and freedom and sanity of France.
I exhaled, and closed my eyes, and I let the rocking of the berth, and the sounds of the wheels and the flow of the warm air take me, and soon enough I fell into a light sleep; just skimming the surface of sleep, really, but sleep, regardless …
Mercifully, the dreams and images did not come, that night.
They came soon enough; and I suspect, now, that they always will; from time to time, at any rate. But they did not come that night.
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