So this is what hope feels like.
Word came that a Berlin pastor would hold an Easter Service at the North End of the Lagerstrasse. I suppose it was a way to give the impression of 'decent conditions' to the Red Cross, which occasionally inspects the camp. I have no interest in the Easter story, and would have gladly stayed in the barracks for those few free hours, but the day was warm and since Sophia and Alexis are gone, the barracks seem haunted.
The pastor recited the usual litany. Faith, hope, etc. and my attention wandered. It was monstrous to be celebrating resurrection in a death camp. And then I heard "Am Anfang war das Wort." It took my tired brain a moment to translate it. But before I had even registered its meaning, he repeated it in Greek and he had my full attention then. He continued the sermon in German and I cursed myself for learning it so slowly, and I strained to make sense of what he said. There were words I could not get, but I got the important ones,
"Der Dichter....nicht als Prophet. Der Dichter als Retter".
The bard not as prophet. The bard as savior. Janice's exact words that day in Athens.
Understanding came like the falling away of blindness. Janice was safe, and had come for me.
I raised my head and along with the morning sunlight on my closed eyes I felt the tiniest bubble of laughter welling up inside of me as I thought to myself, "What took you so long, my darling?"
After the service, I elbowed my way to the front. I could not get close to the pastor, who was surrounded by guards, but I shouted "Herr Pfarrer". He turned his head around at the sound, but I don't know if he saw me. I lost sight of him as he was led back into the Administration Barracks.
April 6, 1942
I have been on a wood detail today. We cut and stacked wood for eleven hours, counting roll calls. I am bruised, filthy, and dangerously exhausted. I will not be able to walk tomorrow, and will have to be helped, half paralyzed, to roll call. I cannot endure this much longer. Where are you Janice? I can't have been wrong. I know you are out there.
Here end the letters of the Bible-journal. .
* * * * *
April 8, 1942
It is over.
I had just finished writing and, after sliding the book inside my dress for safety, had fallen asleep sitting on the floor against the wall. The Stubova came in and kicked me, but not hard, and that alone should have told me something. She said to get up; two guards from the Office of the Kommandant were there to get me.
At the Administration block, I had begun to hope that somehow Janice would miraculously appear and take me away. However, there was no one in the office but Kommandant Koegel himself, with a letter in his hand. When he asked me if I spoke German, I lied and told him no. I had an inkling of what I was about to hear and I wanted to hear it in English to be sure I understood. But it turned out to be very brief. He sent one of the guards out and he returned within a very few minutes with an English prisoner I did not know.
Smoothing the letter in front of him on the desk, Kommandant Koegel said, "Reichsmarschall Goering scheint sich f�r Ihren Fall zu interessieren, Fr�ulein Pappas".
The Englishwoman repeated:
"Reichsmarschall. Goering seems to be interested in your case, Miss Pappas."
"Laut dieses Briefes von dem Luftwaffe Ministerium hat er Ihre sofortige Entlastung befohlen".
"According to this letter from the Air Force Ministry, he has ordered your immediate release."
"Sie haben enorm viel Gl�ck, Fr�ulein Pappas. Es ist eine Seltenheit, dass ein Haftling auf diese Weise den Gefangenenlager verl�sst. Hier sind Kleid und Mantel f�r die Entlassung. Bitte unterschreiben Sie diese Unterlagen fuer Ihre Entlassung. Die Aufseherin werden Sie zur Dusche f�hren. "
"You have enormous good fortune, Miss Pappas. It is very rare that a prisoner leaves the camp in this way. This dress and coat are for your release. Please sign these papers for your release. The guard will lead you to a place where you can shower."
As if in a trance, I signed where he indicated, followed the guards, washed as thoroughly as I could in the cold water, and put on a stranger's clothing.
The same guard led me to the gate of the concentration camp. As we came closer to the gate, my fear increased that it was some sort of trick and I would be shot as I crossed the threshold. But the guard stopped and the gate swung open. I stood there stupefied for a moment. Then I shuffled out timidly into the thick evening fog. After three paces I saw a figure rush toward me. I stopped in my tracks, fearful that it would all be reversed and I would be led back. It took several long seconds for me to realize what I was seeing and I covered my mouth with my hands as I broke into sobs.
She was sobbing too, as we stood there shivering in the fog, both of us afraid if we moved it would all disappear. She held me tightly, one hand around my back, one hand stroking my ragged short hair..
"Oh my God, Darling, what have they done to you. Your hair, your hair."
I could not speak at all, and just wept; it seemed to be all I ever did. Gently she guided me back to the car and held me in her arms.
As we drove away from the camp, onto the night highway, my sobbing finally subsided. I could barely see her in the darkness of the blacked out highway, but I whispered to the halo of hair that seemed to give off its own light.
"You came, just as you promised. You followed me into hell."
* * * * *
We drove into Berlin, to a block of apartments where the driver let us out. He was uniformed, which confused me, but Janice just took my arm and said, "I'll explain." She brought me to an apartment on the third floor where, with a minimum of words, she prepared a bath for me, the first hot bath I had had in three months. After letting me undress alone, she came in and knelt on the floor next to the tub. Seeing me naked and emaciated, and covered with bruises and scars, she broke into tears again, and we cried once more, our foreheads pressed together. Then she washed me gently, carefully, and told me everything.
"I was arrested when I got back from Iraklion. They found the truck, of course. Fortunately there was no connection with Sal and so he stayed free and was able to collect the money to get me out again. But it took him a week to call in every favor, sell all the big things he had. Did you know he had an anti-aircraft cannon? It broke his heart to have to sell it. We went immediately to the prison at Salonika but it was the day after you were transported. We thought you were taken to Dachau with Nigel, and lost more time dealing with our people in Munich. It went on and on, took another week to find out you were at Ravensbr�ck. By then you were out of our reach and I knew I would have to go pretty high up to get you out. It took another week before I could locate and then get to Rommel, who was in Tangiers, but he had no authority here at all. The camps are Himmler's turf, and Himmler hates him. I was at my wit's end. Then he thought of Goering."
"Goering? Why Goering? "
Goering is a collector. Of antiques, and art. He has half the treasures of Europe at his estate at Karinhall".
"What has that got to do with us?"
"Just let me tell the story, will you?" she said as she poured shampoo into my hair and gently massaged my head while she washed it. It reminded me of my mother's hands.
"So, two months after you were arrested, I finally got an audience with Goering, who is about as high as you can go short of the big monkey himself. And I made him an offer he couldn't refuse."
"What do you have that could possibly interest Goering?" But as I said it, my heart sank; I already knew the answer.
"The five scrolls."
"Nooo", I wailed. "Those are priceless. After all our work?"
"Listen. First of all, I would sacrifice ALL the scrolls in an instant to get you out of that inferno. Second, we have photographic copies of these scrolls anyhow; losing the originals is NOT the end of the world. Besides, there is more to the story. Because the deal almost didn't go through anyhow. They couldn't find your records at Ravensbr�ck. You see, they looked among the Americans, under your real name. I assumed they arrested you for carrying phony papers and never imagined that you would stay with the false I.D. Finally I thought of having them look among the Greeks, under Amphipolous. Then, after we had established that you could be located, I had to go back and get the scrolls and bring them to Goering. He wouldn't budge until he had all five in his fat hands. I was absolutely frantic that I would lose you in the meantime. So to let you know I was coming, to give you something to hang on to, I arranged to have Pastor Praehauser try to get word to you. He couldn't, as it turned out, not directly, but hoped to get a message to you through the Easter sermon. That was his idea. But it was all so flimsy. I wasn't even sure you were still alive. Then the pastor thought he spotted you, but he wasn't sure. You looked so....different from my description of you.
"How could you be sure Goering wouldn't just take the scrolls?"
"They aren't much good to him. Without you to translate them they are just pretty rolls of parchment."
"What? I'm supposed to translate the scrolls for the Nazis? You also promised him that? Gods, it gets worse and worse."
"Yes, the fact that the scrolls are in such an idiosyncratic Greek meant that their own Greek scholars would have very little to go on, and it would take them years to get to the point where we are now. That guaranteed your liberation and safety. Goering needs you."
"Okay. So you gave the scroll to the Nazis. Now what's to prevent us from fleeing Germany with the copies?"
"Well, there's more." She started washing my hair again, and moved on her knees around behind me where I couldn't see her. I sensed there was going to be more bad news.
"Goering has Stavros."
"Stavros. Oh no!"
She came around where I could see her again and took my hand.
"He is in Spandau, and he knows the whole story. I have seen him already, he's in good condition, and we will be able to visit him every week. Those are the terms of the deal. You are free, he is not. As long as we work, Goering provides this apartment and our food, and Stavros stays alive."
An air tight arrangement. Already I am suffocating.
* * * * *
April 12, 1942.
Goering has given me time to recover, I guess, since he has not ordered us to appear. In the meantime, Janice has bought me clothing, since of course I have none in Germany. I am so emaciated I look terrible in everything, but she has gotten me some overalls, the kind that the women wear in the factories. They feel all right, For going out, she brought me some grey wool slacks and a pullover sweater. I will wear them tomorrow to visit Stavros. She wears the same khaki pants she wore in Greece, but with a dark blue turtleneck sweater. She looks beautiful wearing it, but she looks beautiful to me every minute, no matter what she wears.
I have told Janice what I discovered about the Book of John, that it plagiarizes from the Logos Scroll. Since that is one of the scrolls that Goering has in his possession, we have agreed to conceal this information as long as possible. One way to keep him from stumbling upon it himself is to put off 'translating' the Logos scroll until last. He doesn't have to know that we had already finished with it.
We have been to Spandau today to see Stavros, through whom we are all three held hostage.
The guard led us into a basement room with three stools. It had the ominous look of an interrogation room, with a single bare bulb hanging on a cord in the center, and a battered steel table shoved up against a dirty green wall. Janice and I both knew such rooms.
But then the door opened again the same wiry old guard brought Stavros in. He was haggard, but not otherwise abused. His lovely white hair was yellowed and thin.
"Have they hurt you?" was all I could ask, which was foolish because in front of the guard he couldn't have told us anyhow. But he smiled weakly and assured us that he was all right, and he was more interested in hearing about how I was. I did not tell him any of the details of Ravensbr�ck, and gave the impression that I had spent most of the time in jails, which, it was common knowledge, were usually more humane than the concentration camps. I wondered if he was concealing as much from me as I was from him.
At one time, when the guard was out of earshot, bought off with a smoke, Stavros took my hands and said, tears in his tired eyes, "Why don't you try to escape, Meli? Don't stay in Berlin because of me. I am an old man. You are young and have so much to do. Go with my blessing. Go on! Go on!"
"No, Stavros." Janice spoke for both of us. "We are a family. We are here and we will never abandon you. Never!"
We handed over the food and cigarettes and underwear that we were allowed to bring him. The cigarettes I knew from experience were as good as cash, and could purchase him better treatment, a bit of soap or more food. We had obtained everything, of course, from Goering's office. How many collaborators were in the same position we were, saving or helping their loved ones by aiding the Nazis?
He asked about events outside, and we told him what we could. But we also managed to whisper that the Allies were in Africa. There was hope. And so, dwelling on the big picture, of ultimate allied victory, and on the very small details, our love and care of him, we comforted him and ourselves. We had to hold out. Only hold out.
April 18, 1942
We were summoned this morning to the Luftwaffe Ministerium in the Leipzigerstrasse to receive instruction from Goering. It appears that my work will now begin.
The Reichsmarschall is fat, bemedaled, insufferable, bloated and overbearing. He talked of little other than his jewels and his antiques, which he has stolen from all over Europe. In fact he had some beautiful rings on his fat fingers, but they made him look foppish. He had a sort of sleepy look to him, but Janice says he is morphine addicted, and that would explain it. He had only one of the five scrolls on his table, and he caressed it continuously while he spoke to us. Janice did most of the talking, I spoke only basic German, and was in no position to negotiate with him. But she made it absolutely clear that the scrolls were useless without me to decipher them. He agreed. Apparently his own men had looked them over and could not make anything out of them. And so the devil's pact was made. We had life and limb, and Stavros. Goering had our souls.
Three other people were in the room with us, though we were introduced to none of them. A male secretary who made notes, a uniformed adjutant and a bland looking man in a gray suit sitting in the background. He was so bland he was almost invisible. He reminded me of Himmler, myopic and colorless. He had not a single outstanding feature; if you turned your head away you would forget you had seen him.
And suddenly I knew with certainty that he was to be the surveillance, the link to Goering that would report our whereabouts and our activities. I was careful not to stare at him but, snatching glances at him, memorized his features, his thinning hair, his long pale cheeks, his small eyes behind wire rimmed spectacles. I would watch for him as he watched us.
When we left Goering bowed from the waist, understanding perhaps that we would not return a handshake, and we would despise a Hitler salute. But he was impeccably polite, as if I had never been in one of his concentration camps.
Outside, in the Leipzigerstrasse, Janice asked without introduction, "Did you get a good look at the man?
Yes, of course. Geheimstaatspolizei, I'm sure. I bet we see him every day."
* * * * *
May 15, 1942
The weather has been fair and I feel strong enough to go out. We took this day to walk around the city to Janice's old haunts. "I used to love this place. Berlin was the most exciting city in Europe, before the Nazis came to power in '33. It practically glowed and smoked with decadence."
"What an image," I said. "Makes me feel like coughing."
"Oh no, it would have made you feel like dancing!" She shaded her eyes and pointed in the direction of the park. "Right over there, in the Budapester Strasse was a club called 'Monokel' where you could dance with the most dashing men in Germany. Men in tux's and tails, men in officers' uniforms, men with flashing eyes to die for��and every damned one of them was a woman."
"Berlin transvestites. Hard to imagine."
"Oh, yes, and the male equivalent was the "El Dorado", over on the Kurfuerstendamm. The city was wide open Mel, like one big party, except for the constant street fights between the Communists and the Nazi Brownshirts. We just thought the fighting was part of the show. Then in 1933, almost from one day to the next, the Nazis came into power and it was suddenly all over. Then everything was National Socialism.
"Where do you suppose all those pretty boys are now?"
"In the camps, I suppose. Dead I suppose."
I didn't want to talk about the camps.
"Is that when you met Dietrich? "
"Yes, in January 1930. They were filming Blue Angel. I'll never forget it." She looked off into the middle distance, summoning recollections. "It was my 18th birthday as a matter of fact, and that was my birthday gift. Harry knew von Sternberg you see, as well as Dietrich, and took me down to UFA's Neubabelberg studios one afternoon to watch the filming. They were doing the scene where Dietrich sings "Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt..." She sang a verse of the song in her warm alto voice. "Then they filmed the whole scene again in English, and Dietrich sang the English version, "Falling in Love Again". You know, they made two versions of the film simultaneously. And Dietrich was a little plump then, but just as predatory.
"Is it true that she had a girlfriend, or were you just pulling Nigel's leg?"
"Oh, no. She liked the girls; it was no secret. If you got a bouquet of violets, you knew she was interested. I got some too, for my birthday."
"You were courted by Dietrich???! But you didn't!....Did you?
"Na. At eighteen I wasn't ready for Marlene Dietrich. Way too rich for my blood, at that age. But now I'm kind of sorry I didn't. Would have made a great story. But she still managed to corrupt me."
"WHAT did she do to you?"
" Well, aside from stirring my interest in...eh...ladies, she gave me my first cigar."
* * * * *
May 10, 1942
I am regaining my normal weight and my hair. I am still gaunt but I no longer look cadaverous. Janice looks at me again the way she did in Athens, and waits for a sign from me that she can be amorous. But I have not wanted to make love. We sleep together every night in each other's arms, and often in the evening she sits in bed reading while I sleep, my head tucked up against her hip. I feel no arousal when she kisses me. I know that she is deeply hurt, but I cannot reverse the weeks and months of Ravensbr�ck. A part of me is crippled, or polluted, or dead. I am not sure which.
She knows that I love her more than ever, need her more than ever. But I can't make love to anyone. I feel dirty -- and guilty. Guilty of Nigel's death, guilty of letting Sophia and Alexis die when I promised to take care of them, guilty of working for the Nazis. The very bed we sleep in belongs to Goering. Wherever my skin touches the sheets, it crawls, worse than from the lice in the camp.
May 30, 1942
The RAF has bombed Cologne with incendiary bombs. There have been air raids in Germany for many months now, but the Cologne raid was massive, and much of the city was destroyed. A city just like this one. Retaliation, I suppose for the terrible raids on London. Of course the allies must win this war. And in a war, bombs are dropped. But how could it come to this? I cannot get my mind around it.
June 4, 1942
We no longer see any Jews. Jewish shops are closed all over Germany. Jewish deportations are widespread, although there are rumors that Jews are in hiding all over the city. All over Germany.
"King of Deceit", the scroll which Goering has assigned to us to translate is about gambling. It seems trivial beside the great events happening all around us and does not hold my interest the way the others did. Just as well. It disgusts me that we are giving him the stories of our ancestors. He pollutes them just by reading them. It is a slight comfort to know that at least in this case, we have not handed over one of the Great Works that Gabrielle was capable of creating.
June 19, 1942
We do the work on the scrolls and drag our feet as much as possible. Goering has our translation checked by his own linguists, and so we cannot stray too far from the truth. And that colorless Gestapo man is always on the periphery. He is either too inept to remain concealed, or we are supposed to know we are being watched. If so, it is having its desired effect. We have sought no contacts with the Resistance, made no attempts to get information to Sal. My spirit is too broken. Except for loving Janice, I am empty, morally and emotionally. But Janice is like a caged lion; her enormous energy confined to our little apartment, protecting Stavros, protecting me. She waits -- I can see it in her patient eyes -- for an opening, an opportunity to act.
July 16, 1942
Little by little we begin to feel the shortages, and even if we are provided for by our Nazi masters, we see the deprivations all around us. Particularly visible is the shortage of clothes and shoes. Factories that had produced shoes and textiles now produce for the Wehrmacht. Life of clothing is also shortened by the harsh soap and scrubbing. The soap that comes in grainy green cakes is abrasive, smells of cheap perfume and so poor chemically that one has to scrub hard to get dirt out, wearing out the fabric. The paper "Der Angriff" recommends keeping a basin of soapy water in the kitchen for repeated washing. And to use sand and soda to clean surfaces instead of soap. Fitting, for a country so soiled, to not be able to wash itself clean.
* * * * *
August 20, 1942.
It was some kind of Nazi holiday today. The Hitlerjugend were parading around in their miniature uniforms, their little Sam Brown belts and insignias, piping out their 'Heil Hitler's, and our building was hung with a dozen Nazi flags. There were red Swastika flags on every window but ours and the Hoffmanns. I saw our watcher across the street looking up at our building too. I pointed him out to Janice and we decided, perhaps recklessly, to warn the Hoffmans. We knocked on their door and Frau Hoffmann answered the door and at our warning seemed to make some kind of decision. Then she invited us into her apartment.
Mr. Hoffmann stood behind her. He is a paler version of Stavros but with the same dignity and we learned that he is a doctor at the famous old Charit� hospital. They made some Ersatz coffee and offered us some buttered bread, apologizing for the lack of jam.
We told him openly that we were Americans, which he knew, and that we were translating documents for the Luftwaffe Ministerium, which he didn't know. A look of panic came over Frau Hoffmann's face at the mention of Goering, but Janice reassured her immediately.
"We work under compulsion, Frau Hoffmann. We have no sympathies with the Nazis and make no secret of it. Goering keeps Mel's uncle hostage to ensure we will continue working. And we know who he uses for surveillance. There is a pale, bland looking man downstairs whom we see hanging around all the time.
"He looks like Himmler but without the mustache?"
"I know who you mean then. That's Hermann Meyer. A very dangerous man.
"You know him by name!?"
"Oh, yes. He is known around here as an "alter Kamarad", one of the low numbers."
Janice said, "Oh, yes. I remember. The low numbers. Early party members and the Sturmabteilung. The lowlife that first started parading around in brown shirts and long boots."
Hoffmann nodded. "Yes, he was in the SA, back before the Putsch in 1923. Then, after the SA was replaced by the SS, he traded in his brown shirt for the business suit of the secret police. Nazi to the bone. His speciality is locating hidden Jews, even children, and having them deported to the east. But he is too stupid to have advanced very far in the party. He is just smart enough to be an informer, a watcher, as you called him. Always waiting for his big opportunity to be promoted to the inner ranks. He is the shame of Germany.
"I know all about the shame of Germany, Herr Hoffmann. I was in Ravensbr�ck. Surely you know about the camps."
"Yes, we know. And, we try to help. We are not what we seem."
"You seem like proper National Socialists to us. Except for not flying the flag."
"Yes. We try hard to seem so. And we WILL fly the flag starting tomorrow. But we have smuggled many people out, Jews and resistors, through the Charit� hospital. You would be amazed how many Jews we are helping to escape to Sweden, and how the dead sometimes save the living."
He was speaking in riddles as far as I could see, but Janice immediately grasped what he was talking about. "You have my respect Herr Hoffmann, but in that case you should avoid contact with us. Meyer watches us every day, and there others from the Luftwaffe Ministry who show up from time to time to see our work. We are dangerous to you, you know. We are prisoners and collaborators at the same time."
"Yes. So are we." He took his wife's hand. "So is half of Germany. Here is the hostage that the Nazis hold to keep us in line." He handed over a framed picture of a beautiful blond boy of about nineteen in a Wehrmacht uniform. A bright open face, innocent and serious at the same time. The archetypal Aryan, the pulsing blood of the Nazi state. And the spitting image of Nigel.
"That is our son Wolfgang. Wolfie, our only child. "He was drafted with his whole class, but in fact he is an astronomer. His telescope is over there next to the piano. He is on the Russian front He sends us letters every week to assure us he is well. But how can anyone be well fighting a war in a foreign land?"
September 2, 1942
Janice has been to see the Hoffmanns again. The lioness pacing its cage. She wants to know about the Resistance even if she cannot join it. She says there is an underground connected with the Charit�, and Hoffmann is part of it. Jews are smuggled out of Berlin in coffins along with the actual dead from the hospital. They are passed along to others who get them through to Sweden. The thought of lying in a coffin, even to escape Nazism, fills me with horror.
On October 2, 1942
Air raids are more numerous now. When the sirens go off we have to run to the cellar with the Germans, including various Nazi neighbors who eye us with contempt. The city authorities have dismantled moveable public monuments and brought them to safer places, and piled up sandbags against the ones they cannot move � church windows, valuable facades and the like. Germany is beginning to see the price of conquest.
Goering has accepted the bland translation of the last scroll and has given us the next one from the pile. It is another comic scroll, dealing with the character of Joxer and the effect of a bell. It seems to be from Gabrielle's comedy period. Not the sort of thing the master race prefers in its ancient sagas. We will doctor it to make Joxer seem more heroic, if necessary.
October 15, 1942
The cold has come early and so has snow. Civilians have been called upon to donate winter clothing to front-line soldiers, since textile factories cannot produce fast enough even for the Wehrmacht. But civilians are also running out of warm clothing. The allied sea blockade prevented imports of raw materials. Janice came home yesterday with a winter coat for me. It is very warm but has a bristly feel to it and she explained that it is because wool now is made from unkempt sheep and unrefined wool.
The war-time food too is mostly "Ersatz". Food is scarce in general. The main staple in this country has always been potatoes, but since the end of 1941 these have been hard to find. Farm workers have been drafted away from their fields and the crops left before they were harvested. And in this deadly winter, the crop has frozen in the ground. And the part of the crop that can be saved is shipped only with difficulty because of shortage of freight cars, most of which are provisioning troops in the east. The main food now is "R�ben" a coarse sort of yam. If you look around you can tell immediately who has influence. Those are the ones who still look healthy.
November 12 1942
El Alamein has fallen to the British led by Montgomery.The first significant Allied victory. Rommel is in retreat.
November 30, 1942
It is still only November and it is bitter cold. Coal is scarce, like everything else, and the city buildings are heated only enough to keep the pipes from bursting. People wear coats indoors as well as outdoors. The coldest winter in memory, people are saying. I shudder thinking about the women I have left behind in Ravensbr�ck. They still stand their four roll calls on the Lagerstrasse, dying in twos and threes and lying where they have fallen until the roll call is over. I see faces in my mind's eye of women whose names I never learned, thin battered women whom I am certain are dead and cremated by now. Have become part of the smoke that accuses Germany.
December 5, 1942
We have visited Stavros again in Spandau. He had the same guard as the last time, as corrupt as all the others, but for the usual bribe he reports on Stavros' health, and leaves us alone for 20 minutes. For ten cigarettes. Favors are cheap at Spandau. Unlike at the Luftwaffe Ministerium. We whisper the good news that El Alamein has fallen. But Stavros himself alarms us with the report that he has had a visitor. A bland and faceless man in spectacles. Only a few small questions, no threats. But the news is ominous. Herman Meyer is mining for information. Something to offer to Goering to advance himself. I feel helpless rage.
December 20, 1942
The newspapers play down the fact that there is a crisis on the Russian front but there is an unmistakable sense that the war is at some sort of turning point. The Hoffmanns have taken a slight risk and visited us last night. Frau Hoffmann got a letter from Wolfie which seems to portend defeat. I am amazed that such a letter got past the military censors. Frau Hoffmann's eyes filled as she handed the letter to Janice, who read it quietly first and then handed it to me. It said:
"Around me everything is collapsing, a whole army is dying, day and night are on fire ... I don't know much about war. No human being has died by my hand. I haven't even fired live ammunition from my pistol. I should have liked to count stars for another few decades, but nothing will ever come of it now, I suppose. I am prepared for whatever happens. I have loved the stars too deeply to be afraid of the dark."
Frau Hoffmann's eyes filled. Herr Hoffmann looked at his hands for a moment and then spoke.
"We could have been a great civilization. We had come so far-- in music, and thought, and culture. We had Goethe, and Beethoven, and Kant. But something has infected us like a disease of the spirit. Something monstrous. And we have discovered that culture is the thinnest veneer. The truth is that we are all opportunists, and rather cowardly. We have edged centimeter by centimeter into evil, into the betrayal of our highest ideals, of our own laws, of our neighbors. And now of our children."
There was nothing I could say to comfort him.
December 25, 1942
It is a year exactly since my arrest. Christmas is ruined for me; it will always be the anniversary of my abduction into hell.
A Christmas package came today from Goering. Some of the spoils of war. I suppose he thought we would feel honored to be able to enjoy them. Janice opened the box, then leaned over it, gripping it by the sides with an expression of disgust on her face, as if she looked into a toilet.
"That sonofabitch." She lifted out some of the items. Grape leaves, olives, jam, a bottle of wine, all with Greek labels. "Food stolen from hungry Greeks, to buy our cooperation."
"What should we do with it? Send it back to Goering?"
"No, we'll bring it back to where it belongs, with a hungry Greek."
We brought it to Spandau, to Stavros, for the little hour we were allowed to spend with him. It pleased him to eat Greek food again, and he even offered a glass of the wine to his guard. The old guard has grown used to us and to our bribes and treats Stavros well, and we were grateful for such small kindnesses.
* * * * *
January 20, 1943
It is Goering's birthday next week and he is hosting a party at the Luftwaffe Ministerium. A grotesque affront to the misery and hardships caused by the war. The film 'Triumph des Willens" will be shown. An ominous sign of just how badly the war is going in Russia. Janice and I have been summoned to attend as Goering's personal archaeologists. He even sent over some formal dresses for us to wear. He has made it quite clear that our appearance is not optional.
January 25, 1943
Goering has given us the "Logos" scroll for translation. Gabrielle's Revelation. We will, at all costs, conceal the value of this scroll from Goering. The only question is how.
January 27, 1943
We showed up as commanded to let ourselves be displayed. I balked at the last minute and told Janice I could not go through with it. She pointed out, correctly, that if we were going to join Hoffmann, we had to keep up the appearance of full cooperation, to "fly the flag" just as he did. To bolster me she gave me a glass of cognac, which on an empty stomach only made me dizzy, and by the time we reached the Luffwaffe Ministry, my vision was blurred .
An SS man in full dress black uniform and polished black riding boots met us at the door. I must have staggered slightly for he took me by the arm and led me into the room where others were similarly dressed. Tall men in black fitted jodhpurs and jackets with double SS runes like bolts of lightning on the collar, with the death's head insignia on their caps and with the black sheathed ornamental daggers. There was something powerful and sadistic in that uniform. I was leaning, I realized, on the arm of an officer of death and in my intoxication I thought I recognized him.
Holding me by the arm. Leading me into a room full of warlords. All those battles he had fought for Xena's soul, and now he was claiming mine. He guided me to Goering, bowed from the waist, and disappeared again into the crowd. The god of war had not acknowledged me. Perhaps it had all been my imagination.
Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering was swollen and grandiose in white military dress, like a drum major. If he were not so powerful and deadly, he would have been a clown. He smiled, his wide mouth making his fat cheeks even fatter and said with theatrical formality, "Ich gr�sse Sie, meine Damen." We said nothing; he expected us to say nothing. Everyone there knew we were merely prize captives. And after everyone had gotten a good look at us and we sat down to supper.
It was food the Nazis had pillaged from all over Europe, from their own hungry people. I thought of the soup and bread we got once a day at Ravensbruck and the memory of that hunger made me want to eat, but I could scarcely make myself swallow. I kept food in my mouth though, for while I chewed I did not have to speak. Janice, my protector, my bulwark of strength, did that, primarily with Goering, keeping the delicate balance of our own and Stavros' safety. But I could see the gall she choked down, as I choked down stolen food.
The food at least cleared my head so I could think again. I needed to think. I was among the elite of the Third Reich and I need to have my wits about me. Mercifully, the supper was soon over, and the lights went out. Leni Riefenstahl's masterpiece of cinema and propaganda began.
- - -
The film opens over Nuremberg, Germany's most medieval city. A plane flies low and sweeps over roof tops and avenues, casting a shadow. An ominous foreboding shadow. The plane lands for the huge party rally of 1935 and the Fuehrer steps out, accompanied by Goebbels and other party officials
The motorcade begins and I am awed by Riefenstahl's skill. Winding its way through the streets festooned with Nazi banners and choked with cheering crowds, the cortege moves, bearing its glorious leader. The camera mounted in the shade behind Adolf Hitler is directed over his shoulder where he faces the sun and the whole front of his body seems to radiate light. There is a close-up of his hand held up in a careless salute, and the sunlight glows off his palm. Then, a stroke of genius, so quick and subtle you scarcely register what has happened. A camera pointed toward the front of the car catches a beam of sunlight reflecting off the windshield directly in front of Hitler and you are momentarily dazzled by the brilliance of the Fuehrer. The light bearer. Like Prometheus. Like Lucifer.
The next morning one sees a city of tents. Germany's youth awakens to reveille. Hordes of golden young men wash, showing their firm Aryan chests. They engage in horseplay, and laughing and singing, they drag in a cart of firewood to fuel the cooking fires. I recognized the wood cart. Just like the one I dragged in Ravensbr�ck.
In the stadium, Adolf Hitler looks out on ten thousand boys of the Hitler Youth standing at attention. The boys are lined up ten by ten, in blocks on the wide field of the stadium, ready to be counted. A sort of national roll call. I remember roll call.
I look at the masses on the flickering screen, the masses of German boys and men who stand at attention Blond boys, serious and innocent, who looked like Wolfie. The cinemagraphic face of Germany. But I had learned the truth, and so had Wolfie.
Ravensbr�ck was the truth.
The grim Russian front was the truth.
The last scene was in the stadium at night. Columns of light. Searchlights. Patriotic speeches. Martial music. Then one is outside again on the streets of Nuremberg. Torch light parades. White fog roils behind silhouettes of square jawed men. Everything surrounded by wafting mist lit by huge bonfires in the town square. Inspirational fires. National Socialist fires.
The lights came on and people began to talk. To again show us off as his trophies, Goering approached us, trailing an audience of sycophants. Then, stepping out of the shadows, Goebbels appeared, as always, in his black leather coat. The two men stood side by side, grotesque in their travesty of the Aryan ideal. The bloated voluptuary and the limping cripple with the leering face of a skull. Both of them looked at us with unconcealed prurience. Goebbels' head came only up to my chest and he stared at it constantly. He was repellent, like a roach, in his black carapace. He took my hand and bowed deeply, and when he let go of it, I wiped it on my dress.
Then it was time for us to meet to Leni Riefenstahl , the director of the film.
She was surprisingly attractive. And she spoke in a very refined, formal German. I had seen many faces of evil since the war began, but this was the first time it appeared as an intelligent, creative woman. She was intrigued by our work on the scrolls. I looked over and saw Goering beaming at us and realized that he had managed to tie her film and our scrolls together. The Warrior Film of the Third Reich, and the Warrior Scrolls. Goering went so far as to toast the three of us, with his stolen French champagne, to salute the film and the scrolls of the supreme Aryan woman warrior. We weren't just guests, I finally grasped, we were part of the spectacle.
I felt nauseous.
It must have shown on my face, for Janice, turned to Goering and said in a way that would not tolerate argument, "Fr�ulein Pappas has not been well. Please excuse us." Riefenstahl however caught us at the door and she invited us to visit her. She began to write down her address with a borrowed fountain pen. But it leaked, and black ink trickled over her finger tips. She handed us the smeared paper, and said, "Goodbye for now. Sorry, I can't offer you my hand." And she held up her ink-stained fingers. I backed away from her and with dangerous abruptness, left the room. Ares, or his creature, still stood at attention in his splendid black uniform just outside the door, and bowed again from the waist as we passed. By then I was practically running.
* * * * *
That night, we lay awake side by side.
"Did you see him?"
"No, but it wouldn't surprise me if he was there -- all those Nazi warlords. And the film, that must have been his greatest glory! I thought we had put him away in the cave."
"No. The God of War is never put away. The struggle is ongoing. And we have to get away from him again. We've done the very thing that Stavros warned us not to do. We've compromised. 'To do nothing in wartime is criminal' he said. 'A man must know who he is.'"
"'And a woman, too.' Yeah, I remember."
"Did you see Riefenstahl's hands? That's our hands too, Janice. We are collaborators in the same way she is. We have to get out. "
"But how? What about Stavros?
"We'll buy his freedom the same way you bought mine. With more scrolls to Goering. He won't be able to translate them. And maybe we can save photocopies to work from ourselves. Anything is better than this".
January 28, 1943
We have been to Spandau to see Stavros. The same guard, the old one, brought him out and we handed him the usual 10 cigarettes. But this time he waved them away. Janice just shrugged and took them back. Stavros looked more haggard than ever before, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his prison jacket, his eyes rimmed in red. I was glad we had found a way to free him.
We told him our plan, to buy his freedom with more of the scrolls. As we expected, he refused.
Janice sat knee to knee with him and said "Goering is not a fool, Stavros. Not with respect to antiquities. He will know the value of the scrolls and will keep them safe. They won't disappear. We'll know where they are and then after the war....."
Stavros looked at us with deep sorrow and said softly, his voice weak and hoarse, "No. You cannot treat with the devil. The scrolls belong to you, to free Greeks. Offering them to the Nazis is like trying to buy my freedom with the Parthenon. I am worthless now anyhow. Look what they have done."
He pulled his hands out of his pockets and held them up, wrapped in bandages. "They have broken my hands." The sorrow in his face, I grasped, was not from pain, but from the realization that he would never again hold the violin.
"Who did this" Janice demanded through clenched teeth.
"Meyer...the one who looks like Himmler. He asked more questions about you. I don't know what he wanted, what words he was looking for. Names, I guess."
"But there ARE no names!," Janice said, laying her head in her hands. We aren't doing anything. We are as much in Goering's power as you are. This," she delicately touched his hands, "was all for nothing. Oh, Stavros."
Stavros sat up straight and said, with determination, "Listen to me, my dears, my daughters, you must go. You must flee to Sweden. I want you to leave. I insist."
"Stavros," I put my hand on his thin shoulder that had once been so strong, that had once carried me. "This is all the more reason to get you out. We'll take you home to Athens where we will all be safe again."
"Those scrolls are ancient history. I will not let you do it. Promise me you won't do it until you have talked with me again. Give me a day to think of a way. There are other solutions."
We agreed to wait a day, although we were certain there was no other solution. I already planned to send a message to Goering.
We stayed another half hour, as we did every week, and left the usual cigarettes and food and clean clothing. He assured us that a doctor had seen his hands and would changes the bandages. When we got up to leave he embraced us and wept, which he had not done before. We thought at first it was about his hands, at the sorrow of losing his music, and from pain. We held his fragile body tightly, kissed him on his weathered cheeks, this beloved adopted father to us both. But it was more than pain. They were the tears of sacrifice.
They were the tears of goodbye.
The next day we got a call from the prison, from the old guard who had refused the cigarettes. Stavros had cut his throat during the night and bled to death alone in his cell.
Stavros Pappas, knew who he was and he had found a way to free himself and us.
January 29, 1943
If Stavros' death is to have any meaning, we must act quickly, before Goering knows he has lost his hold on us. We have packed everything of value: the one scroll and our basic survival gear, warm clothing, a little food, and all the money in the house.
We have spoken to the Hoffmanns, our only hope. Mr. Hoffmann will arrange to get us out of Berlin by way of the 'morgue' underground of the Charit�. A truck goes daily out of the city loaded with corpses of Berlin dead. There will be coffins there for us also. I cringed at the thought, but Herr Hoffmann assured us that it was not a long trip, and many people had gotten out that way. Fitting, I thought. When we leave Nazi Berlin tonight, we will be leaving what Germany has become. A charnel house.
* * * * *
The following Journal entries were set down one month after the fact, in Sweden. They have been back-dated to correspond to the dates of the actual events.
January 29, 1943
We had not forgotten about Meyer, but we hoped we could act quickly enough. He had seen us leave Spandau and must have found out about the suicide about the same time we did. And he knew exactly what we would do. He also knew that nothing would profit him more, make him a bigger hero to his superiors than catching us in flight.
He was smart enough to catch us, but stupid enough to come to the apartment to confront us, at the very last moment, when we were packed, and armed and on the alert. And he was both stupid AND greedy because he came alone. I heard him let himself in with a key and surprise Janice at our desk. He stood in front of her with his pistol drawn and told her in his best authoritative voice to call me. But I knew how to move without sound -- I had learned that at Ravensbr�ck -- and in one long step I was behind him. Janice stood impassive, and did not move her eyes away from him as I raised my gun to his head .
I cocked the trigger and that tiny click was the loudest sound in the room. Had he thought about it even for a second, he would have realized that he still had the upper hand, but his first reflex was to turn around. In that instant�
The sound was deafening as the bullet crashed through his face. His own gun discharged upward as he fell to his knees and then backwards, onto the floor.
I crawled over on my hands and knees to the man who, miraculously, was still alive, though half his face was shot away. He writhed blindly, lying on his back, monstrous in his gore, monstrous in what he represented to me. Something, some last moral fiber in me snapped. I knelt over him.
"Listen to me, Hermann Meyer. You wanted words, names...to make you rich. But words can also kill. Here are some names for you." I placed the muzzle on his chest. "This one is for Nigel". His body jerked as I pulled the trigger.
My eyes filled with tears and my voice broke. "And this is for... Sophia." I fired a third time.
"And Alexis". I pulled the trigger again.
He no longer moved. There was no point other than my own grief, to shoot again. "This is for Wolfie." I fired a fifth time.
There was a bullet left in the chamber and I cocked the trigger one final time. I whispered...to myself, my eyes closed, and felt a final twitch of the chest under my hand as the bullet exploded into the dead heart.
"This is for Stavros".
* * * * *
Janice had been standing by me the whole time, gun in hand, but she saw that what I had begun was for me to finish. And when it was finished, she lifted me to my feet and gently put the pistol back in my pack. I stood there paralyzed with what had just happened, while Janice calmly unbuttoned and removed my shirt, which was drenched with blood. She wiped my hands clean with it and I stood there like a child and let myself be dressed in my heavy pullover and coat. She then lifted my small rucksack onto my back, shouldered her own and, just to be sure I was all right, she laid her hand on my cheek and said gently, "We're free now, Mel. Let's go."
Going by foot and then by Strassenbahn, we took about an hour to get to the Charit� morgue. Dr. Koenig and an assistant were ready for us and led us to a storage room filled with rough wooden boxes about seven feet in length. Coffins. My heart leapt into my throat. I climbed in and put my pack between my ankles. I would not let him nail the lid on, until he explained that two nails were necessary at least, to keep it from falling off. And I could pound it open from inside if I had to. There were air holes on both sides, but nothing to keep out the terrifying darkness as the lid went on. "Close your eyes," he said. "It's more bearable that away. You have lie that way for two hours." I heard Janice's voice over me, "See you in a couple of hours, Meli". She had never called me Meli before. I heard them nailing the lid on her coffin as well. Then they loaded us onto the truck with the other boxes.
We were lying among the dead.
We stopped again and again. For traffic, or obstacles, or inspections. Over and over again panic rose in me and over and over again I remembered that Janice was lying right next to me feeling the same terror, and for her sake, I thought, I had to stay calm. It was more than two hours. It was, it seemed, half of my lifetime.
Finally, I heard the men climb up on the truck again. I felt myself being lifted down and for a brief moment I was rigid with fear that we were at the cemetery and would be buried with the others. I braced my arms to try to push off the lid but found at the first attempt the nails wouldn't budge. I was about to scream when someone pried the lid off from outside. We were on a dark road in a woods. A hand reached in and pulled me to a sitting position and said gruffly. "Get up and walk. We still have to get to the cemetery". My legs collapsed under me at first, but then with an agonizing prickling sensation, the circulation returned and I crawled over to a rock to pull myself up.
Janice's coffin had been set down next to mine and she was having just as much trouble getting her legs to work as I had. But as soon as she got out of the box, our rescuers hammered the coffins shut again and loaded them back onto the truck. Their job done, they drove off immediately, without saying anything to us about what we were to do. Instructions and comfort were not part of the package.
A man in ragged farmer's clothes suddenly appeared with a lantern. With a minimum of speech, he led us to what looked like a communal barn. By the dim light of his lantern I could see there were four cows which, although they smelled rather strongly, provided welcome warmth. The farmer was in a hurry to leave and simply opened a trap door well disguised with bundles of straw, and revealed a cavern some six feet by ten feet, walled with planks of wood and containing blankets.
"You sleep here." He pointed to an empty stall. "Any noise, you jump in here." He pointed to the trap door. Don't come out without the signal. Three--one--three." He pointed to a steel bucket and to a water pump outside the barn. "There's water. Don't make any noise." And then he hurried away, taking the lantern with him.
Janice set her pack down and sat down next to it, rubbing her legs.
"Not a very chatty people, the Germans. I guess that means we set up camp, right?
"Yeah, guess so. I'll get us some water."
* * * * *
It was the darkness I guess, and the icy ground, and my shaky legs. I filled the bucket but as I turned from the pump I stumbled, and went sprawling, and was jolted by the icy water spilling across me, drenching me from chest to knees. The last thing I needed on our long trek north was to be sick, and so I hurried back to the barn and peeled off my wet clothes. Janice handed me one of the blankets, but I could not get warm and my teeth were chattering and so Janice undressed too and wrapped herself with me in both our blankets. We lay there in the straw until I stopped shivering and Janice began to giggle.
"Do you remember the last time we were wrapped this way in a blanket?
"Of course I do, in Athens, during that big thunderstorm. Only that time I held YOU."
"Yes, and then you ran away."
"I was afraid."
Suddenly her voice got serious. "Don't be afraid now. I'm here. I've always been here. I've been with you since Greece. Not since Athens. Since Amphipolis. Since Gabrielle."
It was true. I no longer felt afraid, or trapped, or soiled by complicity. Lying there naked with her in the darkness, seeking so basic a thing as warmth, in a barn smelling of cows, I seemed to come back to the beginning -- and I felt the evil begin to fade. It seemed to evaporate with the icy water on my skin. And the guilt too, for all those who had succumbed while I survived. I felt Janice's steady heartbeat against my back, and it seemed to beat as well for the hearts that were gone. Berlin was behind us. Ravensbr�ck was behind us. We had lain among corpses, but we still lived. We lived and were free again, and in each other's arms. I felt solace seep into me along with her heat.
More than solace. It was...what I had felt that summer evening in Athens�. the beginning of arousal.
"Janice". I hoped she was not asleep.
"Yes?" She was awake.
I took her hand from around my waist and pulled it up to my lips, and kissed her palm -- and then slid it down again over my breast. She didn't speak but I felt her press a bit closer to me. I was conscious of her thighs against me, and the crispness of her intimate hair against my back, and of her sweet breasts which suddenly had nipples. And then I knew I was alive again when I felt -- wetness. Mine and hers. Slowly, still tentative, I guided her hand over my belly and down between my legs. She did not try to excite me; I did not yet want her to, but she waited, as she had for so long, and let me lead her. Her shorter body could not curve around me, and her face reached only to my shoulder blades. I felt the moisture of her mouth as she kissed my back and I wanted suddenly to feel her on my lips. I turned to face her, and for the first time in a year we kissed like lovers, reaching deep inside each other's mouths, like shared breathing, in and out. By then I was aflame and I curved my arm around her hips and pulled her tightly to me. As she slid her leg between my thighs I was already slippery with desire.
And then, ohh, she entered me.
It was the simplest loving we had ever done. In the most basic way we reaffirmed the love of our bodies, -- for the other part of our love was never at risk. After a very few minutes I gave her what for months I had feared I could no longer give, a lover's climax -- long and strong, that set my heart pounding. She felt it against her cheek and laughed with happiness at finally reclaiming me.
Before we fell asleep in the final hours of the night, Janice murmured into my neck. "I can hardly wait until we get to Sweden where your sexual desires can coincide with our having a real room and a real bed. I mean I can't BELIEVE we just made love in the hay. In the middle of winter!"
I laughed. "I will try to be more considerate in the future. And less trite!"
We slept the rest of that night, close by the trap door to the secret cellar and at the first sound in the morning clambered inside it. But it was just one of the farmers bringing us bread. He reminded us that we always had to stay in or near the hole, since patrols were common and not all the village could be trusted. We spent the rest of the day there, sleeping on and off, in the giddy joy of love re-consummated in a cow stall.
* * * * *
February 1, 1943
During the second night, just after we had fallen asleep under the trap door, the signal came. I was instantly awake while Janice shook her head into wakefulness. The signal three-one-three was repeated and we heard a woman's voice say "Kommt heraus. Hier sind Freunde".
'Friends here.' Wonderful words. I lifted the hatch and was momentarily blinded by a flashlight sweeping across my face. Then it pointed at the floor, at two well scuffed boots. My eyes trailed upward seeing dark pants disappearing under a long black coat. At the hip, on a wide belt over the coat there was a holstered gun. At the top of the coat was a small face under a wool cap, ringed by curls. Looming behind her, half a head taller, was a boy, holding a rifle across his chest. She said simply. "Ich bin Lisabetta", and reached out her hand to pull first me and then Janice up out of our hiding place. We said our names and she repeated them. With no time for further social niceties, she simply nodded her head in the direction of the boy, "Mein Sohn, Theo," then turned off the flashlight and led us out of the barn into the night.
We shouldered our packs and she led us out over the field, northward. There was no moon and only a vague ambient grayness by which to make out the outline of the person ahead. There was nothing to do but walk in silence, following the slender shape that guided us over the dark terrain. We heard only the sound of our breathing in the cold night air, and our feet, crunching through patches of ice. Theo took up the rear.
I looked up into the crystal clarity of the night sky, at the dense spray of stars. Wolfie's stars. I had not looked at them in years, although at one time I knew many of the constellations. They were a sort of comfort; they reminded me of the distant past, and so implied that there would also be a future. Our ancestors had seen those stars. Xena and Gabrielle, sleeping outdoors, would surely have studied them in the Grecian night sky. I looked around for a familiar constellation, and saw Ursa Major, the Big Dipper.
Just then we heard a sound, and all four of us dropped to a crouch in readiness until it revealed itself as some field animal we had startled. But it reminded us that there was always danger. Lisabetta whispered to me over her shoulder,
"Do you have a gun?"
I said "Yes".
"Do you know how to use it?"
The whole route and the speed with which we walked it was perfectly timed, for just as the sky began to lighten, Lisabetta led us to a woodshed behind a farmhouse at the edge of dense woods. Inside was a small stove and after dropping her pack, she loaded kindling into it.
Janice bent to help her, but said with concern, "Aren't you afraid the farmer will see the smoke and know we are here?"
"He knows we are here."
We settled in on the wooden floor around the stove as the sun rose completely. For some ten minutes we all leaned on our elbows, catching our breath, loosening the laces on our shoes, waiting for the stove to take the bitter cold out of the air. There was a can of water in the corner, with a layer of ice at the top which she heated on the stove. It was only hot water, but we drank it and it warmed us from the inside.
I realized that I could finally take a good look at Lisabetta and her son, and they also could see who they had rescued. She wore a long black wool coat, hooded and pulled in at the waist like a monk's robe with a wide leather belt. Her features were large, eyebrows long and distinct, and dark curls sprouted from under a black knitted cap. Around her neck, in curious disparity with the dark coat, she wore a white satin scarf, like an aviator's scarf. A suggestion of ornament, I guessed, in a life that could not possibly have room for vanity.
Both mother and son were very dark, not German looking at all. More like Turks or Greeks...or Jews.
Seeing me study her face, Lisabetta said, "Yes, we are Jewish. Are you surprised?"
"That Jews would stay in Germany when they are able to escape? Yes."
"We thought we were Germans, that this was our country too. But then the Nazis came to power and we found out we weren't Germans, only Jews.
"Yes, I see," I said, thinking of Sophia. "It must be difficult. After all the years of having a normal existence, to suddenly have it all collapse. To not know any more who you are or where you belong."
"Oh, I know who I am," she answered. "I am a free woman, and my children are free. THIS makes me free." She laid her hand on the pistol on her thigh. For the first time I noticed it was a Luger. Guns had suddenly taken on an enormous importance in my life. I knew far more about them than I ever wanted to.
"How did you come upon a Luger?"
"I didn't come upon it. I killed a soldier for it."
She had not said "I killed a Nazi." She said "a soldier." A German boy, like Wolfie, perhaps. This woman, obviously, made no apologies.
As if reading my thoughts she continued. "My husband was a Social Democrat and a peaceful man. They took him in 1939. But we are still free, my children and I. If we die, it will not be in a concentration camp." Her hand was still on the Luger.
"Children. You have another child?"
Yes. Julia. She is eleven. You will see her in Heringsdorf. She takes the radio messages. She is the only eleven year old female radio operator in the Resistance. Maybe in Europe.
I smiled in admiration. "Maybe on earth!"
We laughed and I realized it was the second time in two days. Laughter was returning to my life.
Laughter and lust. I looked over at the curve of Janice's body as she stretched out on her side, talking softly to Theo, about Phoenicians, and about Babylon.
"But why didn't you just escape to Sweden? Aren't you afraid for your children?
"That's an easy way out. I could use my children as an excuse for anything. For running away, for hiding, for betraying my neighbors, for collaborating, for killing other Jews. You see, I had to take a stand some place. I took it here." She gestured to our surroundings. "Yes, my children are in danger, Julia less so since she stays in Heringsdorf by the radio, but they are free. And they have learned courage. I have tried to send them on to Sweden, but they refuse to go. We have grown very close this last year. It is a good way to live I think."
I looked at this small woman in the dim light of our hiding place, and at her son, and I saw faces that could have been at Thermopylae, or Jericho.
She tapped me gently on my foot with her boot. "Get some sleep now. We have another twenty kilometers to go tonight."
"Right", I agreed. And curling up against Janice , I found it suddenly easy to do.
* * * * *
February 1, 1943
Lisabetta took us on another forced march the next night. The moon was the thinnest crescent and the only light shed on the earth that night was from the stars. There was no light on the ground, in the fields or on the roads. All of Germany seemed to be dark. But the eye will see whatever light there is, and the white scarf at her neck, gathering starlight, gave off a soft sheen, enough that we could see it to follow her. She seemed to know every meter of the escape route north. This slender Jewish woman with two children and no husband walked night after night, along this dangerous route, and brought strangers to freedom. Strangers who weren't even Jewish. Endured cold and exhaustion and the risk of capture, or death by violence, for something so abstract as identity. Just as war tore away the veneer of civilization and exposed the greed and cowardice in humankind, its conflicts and hardships could also burnish souls to a fine luster and reveal beauty that in a life in peacetime might never have emerged.
I was wrong about her sort fighting at Jericho. Those were battles of men, of conquest and rebellion. This woman belonged in a different context. She would have fought in Attica, in the ranks of Amazons, protecting her valley, her village, her children. And she would have been ferocious. I suspected that she had obtained the aviator's scarf in the same way she had gotten the Luger.
February 2, 1943
We arrived at Heringsdorf, the last stop-off point, as we had at the others, just as the sky began to lighten. Lisabetta led us in a wide curve away from the main village to a nondescript house partly hidden by trees. Through the whole night's march, fearing our voices would carry on the cold winter air, we had fallen into the habit of silence. And so, as we neared the house, the only acknowledgment of our arrival was the cry of seagulls telling us that we were near the sea. Lisabetta let us in from a side entrance, blocked from view by trees. As we filed into the entry way and removed our heavy outer clothing, a young girl came up the stairs from the cellar and ran to embrace her mother. I blinked for a moment at a face that was strangely familiar. I searched in my memory and it came to me with a stab of sorrow. Long honey-colored hair contrasted with a line of dark eyebrows.
So must Sophia have looked at the age of eleven.
After preparing a simple warm meal for us all, the usual Ersatz coffee, and bread and cheese, Lisabetta led us to the 'radio' cellar where we found a large bed with a lumpy, slightly dank mattress. But we took off our shoes and stretched out and it was paradise compared to the ground we had slept on the day before.
While Janice and I lay together, trying again to sleep in a strange place, we listened to the sounds from overhead. The teasing of an older brother, the complaint of a younger child demanding justice, the ultimatum of an exasperated parent, laughter. A lot of laughter. The comforting sounds of a family.
We slept most of the day in Lisabetta's cellar, and in the early evening we were awakened by the sound of Julia coming down the stairs to take up her post again. She snapped on a small light and shaded it, producing an orange glow in the alcove where the radio was set up. She hunched over it, her cheek in her hand, the bulky earphones huge on her child's head. I realized that this family, for years perhaps, had spent day and night in hiding. To protect themselves from the lethal glare of Nazism, they had become creatures of the night. But I also knew, had heard in their laughter, that there was so much inner light in them that they could not be afraid of the dark.
Suddenly Julia yanked off the heavy headset and ran up the stairs calling out "Mutti!". Janice was awake by then and we put on our shoes and hurried after her to find out what the news was.
Mother and daughter stood together in the kitchen. Lisabetta turned to us, was about to speak, then put her hand on her daughter's shoulder and said, "Tell them".
Julia grinned at being the one to give the news, and said in a voice far too sweet for such solemn report,
"Stalingrad has fallen, the entire Sixth Army destroyed. The Germans are halted in Russia.".
Stalingrad. The death of an army.
I nodded and smiled, pleased of course that Hitler's armies were defeated, the German invasion of Russia being turned back. One of the dead or captured was Wolfgang Hoffmann. Nothing in this war, it seemed, was gained without sacrifice.
"Since you are awake now," Lisabetta said, "we can sit down to eat. I have saved a little Schnapps for such an occasion as this and we can celebrate. You won't be able to go out on the boat until tonight anyhow, so we have time."
We helped her prepare a simple meal and for the next few hours we celebrated quietly, the way you celebrate when you are in hiding and running for your life. With the exception of Julia, who expressed disgust, we each got a small glass of the Schnapps. "To Freedom," we said, and drank.
The Schnapps burned all the way down and both warmed me and also set me to brooding. Brooding on the land I was about to leave, where I had lost the last of my blood family, where I had seen mass murder and had sat down to supper with the murderers, and where I myself had finally murdered � without remorse.
But the last people we saw on German soil were these. I looked at Theo, who had been in steady conversation with Janice for two days. She had been telling him about Harry Covington's work and her own, all the work that still needed doing. He seemed transfixed and if she'd had a contract she would have signed him up to go on a dig with her after the war.
And at Julia, who was curled up next to her mother reading a book about horses. I turned to Lisabetta. "Julia reminds me of a friend I had. A Greek woman. An opera singer."
Lisabetta touched her daughter's hair. "That's remarkable, because Julia also sings. Not opera of course, but the usual songs children sing. She has quite a lovely voice for a child, with vibrato, and you should hear her sing "Der Kuckuck und der Esel." Julia, blushing deeply, declined to perform, and instead stood up and said, "It's time for the radio report."
Lisabetta explained. "The bay is heavily patrolled. We have to get confirmation that visibility is low, and that the rescue boat has made it through. We have contacts at G�hren across the bay, and at the Stubbenkammer lighthouse, which can tell us how much cover we have. Without fog cover, you haven't a chance."
We went down again to the radio cellar and even though her mother was there and could have done it, Julia took up her post with authority, and put the headset on. We stood around the low light as around a bonfire and could hear the static in the earphones as Julia turned the knobs with little girl's hands. Hands that held our lives that night.
After a very few minutes she looked up at me and said the word we needed to hear.
Fog at G�hren and fog at Stubbenkammer. We had the cover we needed, and could leave.
When Theo and Lisabetta went upstairs, Julia stayed. There were more reports to take, and she wouldn't go down to the beach with us in any case. She stood up, to say goodbye to me. I leaned over and embraced her, and she laid her head on my chest for the briefest moment. A touch only. But in that second I looked down again at ragged honey-colored hair that I had held once in my sleep, and felt tears well up inside of me.
I kissed her quickly on her hair left her to her radio, and to her songs.
* * * * *
When the rowboat arrived to take us to the trawler offshore, we stood with Lisabetta for a moment without speaking. I was sorry to leave the company of this woman who had led us both to freedom and I hugged her, long and affectionately.
All I could think of to say was, "University of South Carolina. Remember those words. After the war, if we all survive, if your children learn English, I can promise a place for them. Write me there. The letter will find me. I'm serious."
She nodded and said, "So am I. If we make it through, you will hear from us. We'll come." I heard certainty in her voice.
I touched the white scarf that was still around her neck and said, "And bring this along. It becomes you."
* * * * *
As we sailed out into the Baltic in the darkness toward Sweden, we stood at the stern and watched the few coastal lights disappear. Soon we were in the greenish darkness of a fog covered sea.
I thought of the long lines of defeated German soldiers plodding eastward into Russia, into captivity, perhaps with a young astronomer among them. A counterpart to the lines of defeated British soldiers with Nigel in their midst, winding down to the beach at Dunkirk.
Strings of soldiers all over Europe. Marching and retreating, capturing, being captured, killing, cowering, dying. I could picture it in my mind as a macabre ballet, a vast dance of death.
Media vita in morte sumus.
But I was alive. My lover was alive. I put my arm through the bulky sleeve of her coat and sweater. I had to lean way in to press my lips against her ear and whisper, "I love you". She turned and whispered back. "Always."
We sailed in near total darkness; the only light was the tiny lamp over the compass that was shielded so that it could not be seen out over the water. The only light was our light, the light we carried with us.
"We will come back soon enough. We have work to do and a lot to tell," Janice said.
"The Scroll!!" Suddenly I remembered the most important thing we carried.
"I have it. Don't worry." The Logos Scroll, from our enigmatic bard, sage and puerile at once, that discovered the secret of creation and laughed at it. It had survived the perils of the Reich, as we had.
"We will come back, Meli, and tell all the stories, of Xena and Gabrielle, of the Book of John, of Nigel and Stavros, and Sophia, and Lisabetta. It is important to tell the stories, so that we know who we are."
I came around and embraced her from behind and felt the long cylinder holding Gabrielle's scroll strapped diagonally across her back. Like Xena's sword.
I whispered again, "In Arche en ho Logos," and in the darkness felt the nodding of her head.