A Night in Peacetime

By Brian Römmer

November 9, 1938. Kristallnacht.                                                      

Germany.

 

ON goes your dress now, Anna,” narrated Melanie as she finished playing with her favorite doll. “First your arms through the sleeves and then . . . wrap your most beautiful skirt around you; all nice in blue.”

Dishes and silverware clattered and chinked downstairs.

“Tomorrow,” Melanie carried on, “we’ll go shopping at your favorite boutique and buy you all kinds of new dresses; all for you alone. And then you’ll look your prettiest for the dinner with your friends. They’ll all be green with envy—I’ll make sure of it, even if I have to color them myself. And then . . .” She paused, trying to think what to add next.

“Mel . . . Melanie,” rang her mother’s voice from downstairs. “The table is set. Wash your hands and come and sit down.”

She hesitated for a moment, reluctant to give up so quickly.

“Melanie,” her mother called again.

“I’ll think up something tomorrow,” she assured Anna, and also partly herself.

Conforming to her mother’s wishes, she hastened out of her room and, after a quick rinse of her hands, descended the narrow flight of stairs.

“Don’t nudge the table,” Mama cautioned her from the kitchen. “Remember, it’s wobbly.”

Melanie sat down, with legs swinging. She let her eyes wander along the walls of the compact dining room, pausing at the doorways to the darkened rooms and coming to a stop at the kitchen.

“Where is everyone?” Melanie called to her mother.

“Papa and Josef are coming shortly. They went to the shop.”

“And Ofi? What about Ofi?” she asked, straining her neck. Ofi was Melanie’s nickname for her Grandfather.

“God da—” her mother muttered after a brief pause, loud enough that Melanie could hear it—or at least the first part. “Could you go fetch him for me, dear?”

“Yes, Mama,” she was quick to comply. She slipped of her seat and sought out her grandfather’s room in the darkened halls.

“Ofi, Ofi,” she called upon entering her grandfather’s room.

Ofi sat dully in his old desk chair, staring out in front of him.

Melanie approached him more calmly and gently nudged his arm. “Ofi.”

He turned to her slowly, like a door on dry hinges opening (with the squeaking of the old chair he sat on only furthering the effect) and cast large, curious eyes on her.

“What? What is it?” he asked. But before Melanie could answer, he asked in a different tone: “Is it raining outside?”

“No, Ofi . . . it’s not. Supper is ready and Mama wants us at the table. Come on.” She pulled him along by his hand. “We’re having liverwurst with cheese tonight, Ofi. Mama promised me. I asked her last week.” He nodded with an absent-minded look of curiosity.

She guided him to his seat. Mama brought in four plates, with liverwurst, cheese, and bread. Placing them down in the middle of table, she stuck out an index finger and cautioned Melanie: “Not yet, Mel.”

“Are Papa and Josef still not here?” Melanie asked.

“No, dear. But they should be here soon.”

“What are we having tonight for dinner?” Ofi asked.

“I just told you, Ofi,” Melanie protested.

“And it’s laying right in front of you,” Mama added coolly—she had already become accustomed to those antics of his.

“I don’t like to eat meat at night; it doesn’t settle well on my stomach,” he said.

“I know, Ofi. I have soup planned for you. It still needs a bit more time on the fire.”

He ran his hand over the tablecloth, noting the absence of something. “I like my soup with a glass of water.”

He looked up at Mama, who gave him a confirming look. “Well, where is it?” he inquired.

She sighed and went back into the kitchen. He carefully fidgeted around on his seat, straightening his shirt out and wiping it clean, as if only now realizing that he was wearing his current set of clothes. He then turned to Melanie and patted her on the head in a reassuring gesture of his previous show of affection towards her. She stared at him with her dark eyes, dark eyes which were one of the Levantine features she had inherited from her mother.

Mama returned and brought the water pitcher to pour him a glass. She then placed the pitcher on the table and was on the verge of sitting down when the phone rang. She hurried off to answer it.

“This water has an odd taste to it,” Ofi remarked to Melanie.

“Don’t you like it, Ofi?” she asked him.

“No, it’s alright. It just tastes different from what I recall.” He sniffed at it. “When I was young, our drinking water came straight from a spring nearby our town, not this sewer water that they give people now in these cities.”

“It’s sewer water?” Melanie exclaimed innocently, with a horror-stricken face.

“No . . .” —He chuckled his way through his words— “no, not really. I’m just exaggerating . . . a bit.” Her expression took a turn back towards normality, only to double back when he added a bit.

Ofi broke out in a louder laughter. “Sweet girl, you always make me laugh.”

When Ofi’s laughter died out, Mama’s voice became audible, sounding fretful and anxious. “Immediately? . . . Yes. Yes, alright . . . But we can’t go without you two . . . Okay. Don’t worry . . . I’ll see you there. Make sure nothing happens to Joseph.” In an unsteady whisper, she added, “I love you.”

In the dining room, Ofi inspected the dishes in the middle of the table like an art expert verifying the legitimacy of an artwork. Unlike Melanie, he seemed oblivious to what was taking place in the other room. The unease in Mama’s voice worried Melanie. She had never heard her quite like that.

A minute or two after the phone receiver clicked back on the hook, Mama reentered the dining room. Melanie’s curious eyes followed her as she came around the table and towards her.

“Melanie,” Mama said approaching, and descended into a crouch as she did so. “I want you to grab your most beloved things and put them in your schoolbag: your dolls and a few other important things. Nothing too big—so they can all fit in your bag. I will grab your clothes for you. We’re going on that trip. Remember how I told you we might go visit your cousins in Paris one of these days? Well, we finally found a train, but we’ll need to hurry otherwise we’ll miss it. Okay?”

Mama presented what seemed to Melanie like an odd smile. Melanie decided to ignore it, turning her thoughts instead to the trip to Paris. She hurried up to gather her things. First to be packed, automatically, was Anna, with wardrobe and all. She then grabbed her other dolls. And finally, a dark-green cloche hat with blue-checkered ribbon, which she treasured dearly, for it was handed down to her by her grandmother only a few weeks before her passing. Rather than wearing it Melanie placed the cloche hat in her bag.

Mama hurried into Melanie’s room, suitcase in hand, and packed all the clothes she could fit. She took Melanie by the hand and hurried back out of the room as swiftly as she had entered. Downstairs she added Ofi to the line and they left the house.

“Where are we going?” Melanie asked.

“To a tram. We’ll get on a tram and head for Aunt Vanessa’s, where we’ll meet up with Papa and Josef.”

“To Vanessa’s house?” Ofi exclaimed, halting in his steps. “I’m not going anywhere near that arrogant husband of hers.”

Mama looked back at him with a face of disbelieve. “Don’t be like that Dietrich.”

“If we’re going there, then you’ll have to go without me. I can return home by myself.” He slowly began turning around.

“No, Dietrich. Please. Now is not the time,” Mama implored him. “You have to come with us. Vanessa’s husband is not going to be there. And she herself longs to see you.”

“Oh, that’s nonsense.”

“It’ll only be for a few minutes . . . so we can meet up with Heinrich and Josef. I promise. Please, for your granddaughter’s sake, Dietrich.”

Melanie remained close to them, casting her gaze back and forth as she tried to follow their exchange of words. In between, she looked around and observed that the street was empty.

With much reluctance, which was only sufficiently reduced by the mention of Melanie, Ofi replied, “Okay, fine.”

They continued on till they reached the nearest tram stop, where they encountered a substantial crowd—given the time of day. From the briefcases and the business attire, it was apparent that the crowd consisted largely of commuters; and from what could be overheard, it seemed the tram had been severely delayed due to a disturbance somewhere along the line.

It didn’t take long after the three of them arrived before a jolt of movement passed through the crowd and announced the approach of the long-awaited tram. Mama, seemingly undeterred by the mass of people trying to reach the entryways of the tram, turned to Melanie and firmly commanded: “Don’t let go of Ofi’s hand.”

She took Melanie by her other hand, competing against the handle of Melanie’s suitcase for her grip, and began wriggling a passage through the crowd, turning the boarding of the tram into a life-and-death case. The crowd swayed from side to side as the people tottered to remain on their feet. Melanie lost her grip on her suitcase and on impulse bent down and picked it back up: first letting go of Mama’s hand and then—as the suitcase threatened to slip away from her for a second time—Ofi’s. She perceived it to take only an instant, but by the time she looked back up, Mama was out of sight—engulfed farther up ahead by the crowd—and Ofi was no longer directly behind her. She hesitated at first, but then, heeding Mama’s own words, she made her way back out of the crowd in pursuit of Ofi, whom she spotted wandering off in the direction of a crowded bar.

“Ofi, Ofi,” she shouted out after him, but her young soft voice was drowned out in between the murmuring of the bar costumers and the protests of the tram crowd.

Before she could catch up with him, he reached the bar and went in. She ran after him, with suitcase firmly gripped and her schoolbag swaying on her back. At the bar entrance, she slowed down and proceeded with caution, seeing as the place was filled from end to end with people. She passed as discreetly as she could in between them, avoiding bumping into them and as result calling attention to herself.

The bar patrons gave a friendly impression for the most part. Scattered about were some rowdy groups spasmodically making a commotion when the beer got the best of them. Bar lamps with ruffled glass shades hung down from the low ceiling and shone with a sharp, almost sparkling, brightness over and amongst the heads of the patrons.

After a bit of searching, Melanie caught sight of Ofi, sitting on a few empty crates near a corner consisting of junction between the wall and the bar counter, which spanned almost the entire width of the building. With a glass of beer in one hand and gesturing with the other hand, it appeared he had struck up a conversation with a group of young men sitting at the counter.

“Around the corner? I’ve never been to it,” said one of the young men.

“It’s the best jazz club in the entire city and, I dare say, probably the entire state.” Ofi replied.

Melanie moved with heightened caution up to Ofi, with her eyes inspecting the three young men facing him.

She tugged at the sleeve of Ofi’s coat. “Ofi,” she brought out softly, almost in a whisper, “we have to get back to the tram. To Mama. She said not to let go of your hand.”

As she spoke, her gaze remained fixed on the nearby young men and only strayed when they looked at her. Ofi took a sip of his beer and slowly oriented his gaze towards her.

“Your mother . . . Yes . . .” he reflected. “What happened to your mother, again?”

“We need to take the tram to Aunt Vanessa’s house. Mama’s at the tram.”

“We can wait for her here, then. I’m sure she’ll find us. Come on, have a seat on my lap. We might have to wait a while.”

Being shy around strangers, she felt inclined to agree with Ofi for the time being and not voice her concern any further. She climbed onto his lap.

“Is this your little girl?” one of the young men asked.

“This young darling here? She’s my granddaughter, Melanie,” Ofi said. “Greet these fellows, Mel.”

She waved timidly. And the young men introduced themselves one after the other. Hugo was the one nearest by. Martin was the youngest of the three, sitting in the middle. And Franz, who came across as sophisticated but also cordial, was the one originally speaking to Ofi.

The three of them were rather sharply dressed for their age. Each had their hair neatly combed back. And their shoes shined from a recent polish.

“And I’m Dietrich Holle,” Ofi said upon realizing he hadn’t introduced himself yet.

“What are you two doing at a bar on such a night like this?” Martin asked.

“Waiting for her mother, apparently,” Ofi responded.

“We’re going on a trip,” Melanie said excitedly, forgetting her wariness for a moment.

“Where to, if I may ask?” Martin continued.

“Paris. My cousins and uncle live there. I’ve already been there once before.”

Reversing the roles, Ofi asked, “And what brings you fellows here tonight?”

“We’re actually meeting up with our female companions here, and then we’re continuing on to some nightspot,” Martin said. “We’re not sure which yet. That was just what we were discussing when . . .”

“—I barged in?” Ofi added.

Martin laughed nervously while shaking his head. Ofi removed his concern with a casual wave of the hand.

“Well, this is the perfect opportunity to go to Das süße Leben.”

“That would be great, but we don’t know where exactly it is,” Franz said.

“Well, you’re going to have to find out if you want to keep those girls. I can show you boys to it. Like I said, it’s just around the corner; but it’s easy to miss.”

“That would be very helpful, but don’t you have to be elsewhere?” Franz asked, pointing at Ofi’s suitcase.

“Oh, no, that’s fine. We’re not in a hurry. The train leaves when it needs to leave; and we’ll be on it.”

“Do you like to dance, Melanie?” Martin asked.

Melanie shrugged. She didn’t put much thought into what Martin asked, as she was preoccupied with the thought of her mother.

Is she still at the tram? she wondered. Would she be angry with me for having let go of Ofi’s hand and for being here, sitting in this place instead of taking him back to the tram? But Ofi seems sure that it’s alright for us to be sitting here. He must have a better understanding of what’s happening. The murmuring of the bar patrons and the fact that she was sitting with Ofi at the opposite end of the bar from the entrance made it impossible for Melanie to tell what was happening outside.

“What grade are you in?” Hugo interjected through her thoughts.

“Second grade,” she responded.

“Do you enjoy school?” Martin asked.

“No, not really . . . The other kids sometimes say cruel things about my mother. They call her names and say she’s a bad person.  And sometimes they say cruel things about me, too. Because I’m her daughter they say I’m just like her, and my father, too, for having married her.”

“Why is that?” Martin inquired.

Hugo placed his hand on Martin’s shoulder, drawing his attention. Looking to his side and noticing Hugo’s lowered head, Martin withdrew his interrogative demeanor. Melanie looked around at Ofi and the three young men, observing the shifts in posture, evasive gazes wandering about, and lips pressed together with cheeks drawn back.

“But she’s not like that at all,” Melanie quickly added. “She’s a good person. She’s very nice and sweet, and she never does anything wrong. I don’t know why they say those things. But it’s not true. None of it is.”

Ofi placed a consoling hand on her head, stroking her dark-brown hair.

“When people say hurtful things like that, it’s because they don’t know any better. Don’t worry about them,” Franz said.

“It’s okay. We’re going to France now. So, it doesn’t bother me,” she said with a content smile.

The sound of heels tapping on the floor approached the patrons. Melanie cocked her head to see who it was. A group of three young women came and took their places at the young men’s side and greeted them warmly. Only one of the three girls had heels on which seemed capable of emitting such noticeable sound.

Franz introduced the young women to Melanie and Ofi: “That’s Julia, Hugo’s girlfriend. The fair-haired one next to Martin is Elsa, my little sister, and Martin’s date. And this breathtaking beauty is my fiancée, Katherine.”

“Congratulations are in order, then,” Ofi said, raising his glass.

“Girls, this is Dietrich Holle and his granddaughter, Melanie. They’re going to be showing us to a new club—well, new to us. It’s called Das süße Leben.”

“Should we immediately get going?” Katherine said.

“Are you in a hurry?” Franz asked. “We’re well on time.”

“And we should keep it that way.” In a whisper came: “And the amount of looks we’re attracting is unnerving even for my taste. I told you we should stop coming to this place.”

Franz eyes scanned the bar and took notice of what Katherine was referring to.

Ofi brought a swift end to the subject by adding, “The young lady speaks wisely: when you’re young there is no time to waste.”

They all headed out together, with Das süße Leben as destination. Outside, Melanie caught sight of the tram stop, fairly bare and without a sign of her mother. For a moment she tugged at Ofi’s hand, thinking of running off towards the tram stop, but checked herself upon realizing she wouldn’t know what to do upon reaching that desolate spot.

In a small alley which stopped in a dead-end halfway through the block, they came up to a red double-door which was designated by no more than an oval signboard with the name Das süße Leben written in black-letter typeface and set on a green background.

“Is it here?” Hugo asked. Ofi nodded. “It’s quite secluded. No wonder we haven’t been here before.”

“There’s a front door that faces the street, but that’s only opened on special occasions and for planned events,” Ofi explained.

Franz and Martin opened the door and held it open for the others. Melanie stepped inside, with Ofi encouraging her forward.

She was confronted with the sight of young people dancing in a most carefree way. Girls smiled while preforming moves devoid of any apparent reasoning. The boys moved with them while taking in the girls’ exhibition of new found freedom. They never stood still, never stopped to consider their next move, but instead continued in an endless flow of motion.

Ofi went in search of a free table to sit at. Melanie trailed behind him without for an instant taking her eyes of the dancers. Franz and Katherine followed the two of them while the other four didn’t waste any time and promptly moved to the dance floor.

“For a jazz club, this is quite an impressive venue,” Franz said.

“One of the men who co-owned this place was a good friend of mine. He passed not too long ago. This hall is only about ten years old. In the beginning, it was used for various kinds of dancing. As it was a new club, the owners decided to try out what was emerging at the time, jazz. It was a hit with the customers. And it’s been this hall’s niche ever since.”

“Everyone seems to be giving it their all. They’re not holding back,” Katherine remarked.

“I’ve seen it all the time. Once they get a feel for the fast, flowing melody, it’ll start to look like they’ve been doing this all their lives.”

“Do you like to dance to this kind of music too? Do you come here often?” Franz asked.

“Since the opening, my wife and I would drop in every now and again and have a few drinks and watch the young couples in the prime of their life and reminisce about that of our own. But by that time, my wife and I already had too many stiff joints to dance in such an erratic fashion.”

“Erratic? You say that almost disapprovingly,” Franz said.

“Well, you know what I mean. I say so only, probably, because I can’t experience it myself—an old man’s bitterness.”

“I’m sure that’s not true. You said it yourself about getting a feel for the music.”

“Oh, no.” Ofi waved dismissively. “I’ve been feeling the music all this time, but my aging body has long ago turned a deaf ear to it. And what about you two? Aren’t you going to dance?”

“I’m not sure if we should,” Franz said. “We recently heard from our doctor that we’re expecting a child.” An enthusiastic smile appeared on his face as he glanced at Katherine, who shared the expression. “It’s still rather early, but I’m already starting to take precautions.”

“But, Franz,” Katherine cried, with a seducing air. “I intend to dance tonight. I’m sure nothing will happen; I’ll be careful.”

“I’m sure no wrong will come of it,” Ofi said. “However, I would recommend leaving behind those shoes, though.” He pointed out Katherine’s stilettos. “They look like a sprained ankle waiting to happen.”

She gracefully slipped them off, keeping her legs together. Franz got up and offered his hand. “Shall we?” he said. She took his hand, with a playful smile, and they moved to the dance floor just in time for the start of a new song.

Ofi lay back in his chair and sighed softly. “Are you thirsty?” he asked Melanie.

She shook her head swiftly, unable to pry her eyes away from the dance floor for even a second. And now that Katherine and Franz had taken to the floor, there was a clear favorite in her eyes. With sheer black hair, Katherine reminded Melanie of her mother. Melanie watched on in silent awe as Katherine flowed with the music. Her dress, yellow and with a ruffled skirt section, glided over the reflective parquet floor. Her expression retained a playful smile throughout.

“They’re really enjoying themselves. It’s all about letting go and being free. Just doing what you feel like doing. Someday you’ll see for yourself, when you’re out there dancing on that parquet floor.”

“Really?” Melanie asked wide-eyed, looking away from the dance floor for the first time.

“Of course. Why not?”

She smiled coyly, and returned to watching the dancers.

“Mr. Holle, it’s a pleasure to have you drop by,” said a deftly dressed man standing next to Ofi.

Ofi hadn’t noticed him approaching, almost prompting him to jump out of his chair—which he would have done if his reflexes were as fast as they had once been. A relieved smile appeared on Ofi’s face upon realizing who the man was.

“Max Breker,” Ofi said. “Good to see you again.”

“Enjoying yourself?”

“As always.”

“Good to hear. Is there anything I could get you?”

“No, no. I’m fine.”

“How’s the family doing?”

“Good. All is good,” Ofi responded while nodding. “Have a seat—have a seat. You are the manager; you shouldn’t be standing there like some servant.”

Mr. Breker took a seat next to Ofi, facing the dance floor.

“This is my granddaughter, Melanie,” Ofi pointed out.

She turned around and waved.

“You two are at a club on a school night?” Mr. Breker asked.

“She has a few days off,” Ofi said.

“Off? Now?”

“Since yesterday.”

“Yesterday? Oh, yes, yesterday. I saw that in the newspaper. It’s horrible news. Soon there’ll be no end to what they’ll do . . . and get away with.” He shook his head in discontent.

“I take it that you spend a lot of your time in this place, and little elsewhere.”

“Well, I take this job very seriously . . . and this club.”

“It does show. You’ve really improved the place. The lighting has become something I wouldn’t ever have imagined. And I’ve heard that plenty of popular artists and bands are coming through here. You ought to be careful with that, though; you don’t want this place to be ruined by the infectious mediocrity of a mainstream crowd.”

“I know what you mean,” Mr. Breker said, reading into some subtext that may or may not have been there. “It’s a Wednesday, so it’s is one of the calmer nights. But either way, I try not to let them bother me. I’m sure it’s something that will pass with time, this mania of theirs. Although, lately, the situation is becoming a bit too precarious, if you ask me. Those Na—”

Ofi swiftly cut Mr. Breker off and changed the direction of the conversation: “Is this band going to play something a bit mellower tonight?”

Caught by surprise, Mr. Breker slowly uttered, “I wouldn’t bet on it. They’re not quite the type. Why? Would you want to make a request? I could arrange it.”

“No, no need. I was just wondering.”

After a moment passed and silence settled in, Mr. Breker tried to return to the previous matter: “Those Nationalists are truly—”

Ofi interrupted him again: “Please, Breker.” With a stern look directed out in front of him, Ofi said, “I don’t wish to speak of politics on such a night like this.”

“Oh, sorry,” Mr. Breker said in all sincerity. “It would never be my intention to—” He stopped mid-sentence and looked to his side, behind and past Ofi.

Mr. Breker’s abrupt silence prompted Ofi to turn and follow Mr. Breker’s gaze. Melanie followed Ofi’s example. Mr. Breker’s eyes were focused on the front entrance double doors, which were locked as accustomed. It sounded like someone, or something, was banging on the doors, but this was hard to distinguish over the music. The three of them looked curiously on at the doors, waiting to see if the noise would grow louder and confirm itself. The doors began to shake as the banging settled down and became more tactical: what began as random thuds now turned into one collective bump in rhythmic succession. They were coming through.

The double doors swung open violently and slammed against the wall. The band’s playing came to an abrupt halt. The dancers stopped and stared toward the front doorway, where a group of men in civilian apparel with belligerent intentions present on their faces now stood.

Mr. Breker sprang up from his chair and, approaching the men with firm steps, exclaimed: “What in God’s name are you attempting here?”

Three men stepped forward. The middle one spoke: “Mr. Breker, this club you run and the behavior perpetrated within it are an abomination and an utter disgrace to our community, city, and great nation as a whole. For far too long this heathenish music and vulgar dancing has been supported by way of your corrupt dealings. We have come here tonight—”

“With what right?” Mr. Breker exclaimed, cutting the man’s speech off. “You have no right to burst into my club like this. You’re trespassing here.” He extended a hand with upturned palm, pleading with the man’s empathy. “Mr. Lammers, countless times, while on my way to this very club, I’ve stopped and bought produce at your store, around the corner. Yet on this night you come tearing through my doors and speak all sorts of folly of my livelihood, prompting me to ask you: With what right?”

“Mr. Breker, as lawful citizens we have the right to hinder the illicit acts of those who break the law—and you are in no way exempted from that. And as dictated by the Reichstag, the performing of that degenerate African music is a debasement of our true Germanic culture. Rumor has it you even had the brazen audacity to have black musicians performing here recently. This operation you’ve been running here is highly illegal. We will be acting well within our rights by shutting this club down and by reporting all those present here tonight to the authorities.” He turned to command his motley crew. “Start making lists of the names, and place all the Jews and other degenerates under arrest, beginning with Mr. Breker.”

The crowd of clubbers broke out in a murmur of panic and outrage as the group of militant citizens spread out and advanced, equipped with rope, crowbars, makeshift wooden clubs, and pistols. With the dance floor being surrounded, the crowd retreated and contracted. The militants started pulling the crowd apart for interrogation. But before long, some resisted and threw out the first punches and kicks. Fights broke out. The wooden clubs were brought into use while those with firearms stood back issuing verbal threats, but were not as reckless as to deliver on them.

Ofi got up and grabbed Melanie by the arm. “We’re leaving,” he said firmly.

“What about Franz, Katherine, and the others?” Melanie asked.

“They’ll make it out just fine. Don’t worry about them now.”

As he led her to the side entrance, which had gone unnoticed by the militants, she took quick glances over her shoulder at the scuffle between the crowd and the militants. Martin, Julia, Hugo, and Elsa were near the edge of the two intertwined parties, fairly out of danger. It took Melanie a moment to spot Franz and Katherine, caught up near the middle. Franz stood in front of Katherine in an attempt to shield her from the chaotic scene that encompassed them.

Melanie turned around and checked her last few steps towards the door, for an instant losing sight of what was going on. As she placed her hand on the doorpost, a shriek rang out through the spacious hall. In Melanie’s ears, a familiar female voice rose above all others. Melanie stopped abruptly—with Ofi still holding onto her by the hand—and looked back with a horror-stricken face.

Katherine was standing with her hands stretched out in front of her in a gesture of pleading mercy while Franz lay unconscious on the ground next to her. A man of crude appearance stood opposite her, with a crowbar hanging along his side. He swung back and thrust the curved end into her abdomen. A short-lived gasp rolled free from her mouth, echoing as it bounced off the brick walls. Katherine fell to her knees, doubled over, and clutched her midriff.

What came to follow with Katherine and the others went by without Melanie as witness, as Ofi yanked her out of the doorway and into the dark ally.

“We have to get as far away from here as possible,” he said to her as they hurried out into the street and took any direction which fled the club.

Their steps resonated in the bareness of the city’s corridors as they hastened through one street and into another. They slowed down upon entering a desolate middleclass neighborhood. The streets here were engulfed in blackness and vaguely defined by glimmers of light hidden in the corner of a porch, abandoned behind an opaque window, trapped in the glass casing of a lamppost.

After what seemed like a decade of aimless wandering, Ofi stopped and said, “Are you hungry?”

Melanie shrugged.

“You must be. We haven’t eaten anything tonight. And I know I’m hungry. I think there’s a cheap restaurant nearby.”

They headed there, discovering it to be located on the corner of an intersection. They settled in a booth, sitting opposite each other.

“What do you want to eat?” Ofi asked her.

She didn’t answer. Her forehead—which barely made it over the tabletop as she sat hunched-over—hovered above her place mat.

A waitress came over and asked the customary “May I take your order?”

Ofi looked over at Melanie and hesitated to answer.

“Oh, I know,” he said in a moment of clarity. “Could you bring her some liverwurst and cheese on bread? And I would like some pea soup, with bread only, no meat.”

The waitress gave a single nod and walked away.

“That’s what you wanted, right?” Ofi asked Melanie. “Tonight . . . for supper, right?”

She remained unchanged.

Ofi sighed and lay back in his seat. He attempted to make conversation: “So, how’s it going with your dolls? What’s the one’s name again? Anna, right? Any new dresses you need me to approve of?”

A gleam appeared on Melanie’s cheek, but it wasn’t until it began sliding down that he realized that she was crying. Her head sagged down lower as she tried to conceal it.

“Why are you crying?” he asked with unaccustomed gentleness. “What is it? Aren’t you hungry? Or do you want something else to eat?”

She shook her head hopelessly and stammered her way through a whimper: “One—one of those men struck Franz to the floor . . . and then hit Katherine very hard in her belly.” She lifted her head, showing her tear-stained face. “Didn’t you see it, Ofi?”

“No . . . I didn’t see it,” he said and got up and moved over to her side of the booth, scooting up next to her.

“You must have,” she continued.

He pulled her closer and pressed her head against his chest. “I swear, I didn’t see it,” he said. “I was already out the door and couldn’t see what was happening inside the club anymore. I couldn’t catch sight of any of it.”

“We should’ve gone to the police. We should go back. What about the baby? Would it have gotten hurt? Because, he hit her right in the belly.”

Ofi hesitated a moment before answering, “I’m sure the baby wasn’t harmed. I’m sure they’re all alright. Don’t worry about it anymore; it’s over now. It’s all over,” he hushed her while stroking her hair. In his own thoughts he did his best to convince himself that there truly was nothing he could have done, regardless of what he had or hadn’t seen.

The waitress brought them their orders.

Ofi said to Melanie, “Dry off your cheeks and enjoy your meal. You’ve been waiting an entire week for this. As soon as you begin eating, you’ll start to feel better—I guarantee it. And don’t worry about Katherine and the others; they’ll be fine.”

She pulled out a slice of bread and began nibbling it. And while staring down at the plate in front of her, she tried to distract her thoughts from the current situation. The soft pink of the liverwurst lying on top of the yellow cheese brought her back to the week before, when she had put forward the request and, to her surprise, got Mama’s approval. With what had been going on at school, it was a pleasant reminder of what it felt like to have some—if only minor—control over her own life. Her longing for the fulfillment of that simple request warped all events between last week and the current moment. She gathered the liverwurst and cheese into a sandwich and ate it with resolution.

When she finished, Ofi remarked: “That was fast. See, I told you it would make you feel better.”

Melanie smiled at him. They sat next to each other, with her suitcase in between them and her satchel at her other side.

“So, how is it going with Anna, your doll?” Ofi asked again.

“Mama said she would take me to the boutique tomorrow to look for some new dresses for Anna, but I’m not sure what will happen now that we’re going to France.”

“Well, Paris has countless boutiques. Your mother would have to go out of her way to not walk into one,” Ofi said.

“When are we going?” she asked.

“Tonight, I would guess.”

“Won’t we miss the train, then?”

“Oh, no, you don’t have to worry about that. If we don’t go tonight, we’ll just take tomorrow’s train. Besides, we’ll get to the train station soon enough. We’ll head straight there after we leave this restaurant.”

“No, Ofi. We need to go to aunt Vanessa’s house first. That’s what Mama told us. Don’t you remember?”

“Oh, right . . .” He paused to collect his vague memories. “We’ll do that, then.” He motioned to the waitress for the bill.

“We should get going,” he said in a half-questioning manner to Melanie.

After paying the bill and gathering their luggage, they were back to walking through the streets; as Melanie supposed, in direction of Aunt Vanessa’s house, but it was hard to tell, as she didn’t know the city streets very well. Not too far away from the restaurant, Ofi came to a stop in front of a chocolate shop. It seemed to be of some prestige, with the name in big, bold, gold letters on top, giving it rather the appearance of a jewelry store.

“What do you say to an exquisite dessert?” Ofi asked.

“Won’t it be pricey?”

“Nonsense. When it comes to chocolate, there’s no such thing as too expensive.”

“Mama and Papa don’t seem to think so.”

“That’s because they still have much to learn.”

“Maybe I should stroll with you more often, Ofi,” she said with an innocent wittiness.

They entered the chocolate shop with Ofi laughing on indiscreetly. Sitting on red stools behind a U-shaped counter on opposite ends were two salespersons, a man and a woman. The shop room itself wasn’t as big as the façade of the building would suggest. Cabinets with transparent glass shelves—upon which boxes and packets of chocolate lay in storage—ran along the walls, removing any sense of spaciousness there might’ve been. Ofi approached the nearest salesperson, the woman.

“How may I be of service?” the saleswoman asked while diligently scanning them from head to toe and taking special notice of their luggage.

Melanie went along the U-shaped counter, visually absorbing the selection of chocolates on display. As she passed by the salesman, they inadvertently exchanged glances while he was in the midst of eyeing her satchel.

“Since this is a chocolate shop, we would like to browse and purchase some chocolate,” Ofi replied.

Ofi’s mocking answer made the saleswoman realize that he was irritated by the prying gazes. “Yes, of course. What kind, sir? Did you have something in mind?”

“Not quite. Maybe something with . . .” He paused and thought carefully for a moment before turning around and calling Melanie over. “What kinds of chocolate would you like?” he asked her.

“Ones with peanuts would be nice,” she said.

“Peanuts? Oh, you mean those with almonds and other types of nuts?”

She nodded.

“Those are quite nice,” he said. “Good choice. And? . . . What else would you like, dear?”

Melanie’s eyes widened with surprise and delight, and as much as she tried she couldn’t prevent a giddy smile from manifesting. “With caramel,” she said.

“Another good one.” He eyed the saleswoman to signify that those would indeed be their choices.

“We carry a wide selection of chocolates which contain a nut or caramel center. Did you have anything specific in mind, sir?” the saleswoman asked.

“No, just give us the best you carry.”

“And how many, sir?”

“Two packs of each.”

The saleswoman went along the shelves picking out the choices with the help of the salesman, who seemed reluctant to move from his spot and divert his eyes from the customers.

When the saleswoman returned, Ofi added, “Give me a box of Belgian chocolates, as well.”

Ofi paid with ease, as if he had money to waste; but in reality, he was now left with little more than change in his wallet. They left the store with paper bags up to their elbows and returned to walking through the streets.

“Now we’re going to Aunt Vanessa, right?” Melanie asked.

“Yes.”

“Are we close by?”

“Don’t you know where her house is?”

“Yes . . . But I don’t know where we are.”

He chuckled nervously. “To tell you the truth, I’m not all that sure, either.”

“Are we lost?” she asked with some concern.

“No . . . no. From the chocolate shop back there, I can tell we’ve entered one of the wealthy neighborhoods of the city. Just look at these buildings and this neatly paved brick road and sidewalk.”

Melanie took notice: every building looked like either a five-star hotel or a jewelry store, while the road seemed fit for comfortable barefoot walking.

“So, with that information, I at least know in which part of the city we are; and as result, I know what general direction we should take.”

“You really are smart, Ofi.”

“Of course I am,” he said chuckling. “Did you hear otherwise? I’m forgetful, not dimwitted; don’t get those two confused.”

As they continued making their way through the wealthy district, on two occasions they came across a neighborhood watchman, who cast suspicious, almost condemning, eyes on them but in the end went on by without uttering a word. Ofi did what he could by putting a hint of high-class bravado in his step and letting the chocolate store bags hang more conspicuously in front of the luggage.

Approaching the edge of the wealthy neighborhood, a monotonous whistling became audible as they passed in front of a clothing store. Before they could stop and seek out the source, the whistling ceased and an irresolute voice ordered, “Hey, you. Hey, you two. Halt.”

Puzzled, Ofi and Melanie stopped and turned around to face the store. At a sideward glance, nothing had seemed out of the ordinary with the store, but a more thorough scan revealed the glass panes of the display windows had been smashed in and the door had been rammed open and left hanging on a single hinge. It quickly became apparent why the store hadn’t originally aroused their suspicion: the display windows were set at a diagonal angle, allowing the shards of shattered glass to fall inside the display gallery rather than on the sidewalk.

A man approached, obscured in shadows. He took a few quick glances over his shoulder before stopping midway on route to the front of the store in a poorly lit spot.

“Good evening,” he said with a devious sense of politeness. “Nice night, isn’t it? Beautiful night, in fact.”

Someone from the back shouted something at the man, followed by laughter. The man glanced back and waved out of frustration.

“Where are you going?” he asked Ofi and Melanie.

Without answering, Ofi continued looking at the man squarely, trying to make out the details of his face.

“Do you have papers? And if so, may I see them?” the man queried on.

“Why should I show my papers to you? Sorry, but so far you’ve failed to identify yourself . . . if you’re still unaware,” Ofi said.

The man took a few steps forward, revealing his person more clearly. He was wearing civilian clothes and carried a wooden club which upon further inspection seemed to be nothing more than a detached table leg. He appeared to be barely out of his teens.

“I’m SS-Oberscharführer Kerner. I highly recommend you do as I say . . . to avoid any inconvenience, for either of us.” A smirk manifested on his face, and he took on a malevolent pose which didn’t seem all that convincing except to himself.

Another shout came, but this time it was louder: “Hurry up, you moron. Drop the theatrics and do it right.”

“He doesn’t know what he’s doing,” another voice said.

Without bothering to turn around and protest, the alleged officer said to Ofi in dry tone, “If you’re not willing to show me your papers, I will have to arrest you.”

“What identification do you have to verify your position?” Ofi asked.

“We are currently working incognito and are therefore not required to present any form of identification to civilians. Now give me your papers or face further action.”

“I have my papers right here.” Ofi tapped on the inner breast pocket of his coat.

“Step in here and present them to me.”

Ofi placed his suitcases on the ground and kneeled down to address Melanie. “Wait for me here. Okay, Mel?”

As he was about to pull away, Melanie grabbed his hand, forcibly calling his attention. “Don’t go, Ofi,” she pleaded with a frail voice. “Don’t go in there with those men.” Her eyes welled up with tears, but she was too tense with fright to let them stream free. She could only think back on what happened earlier that night. This time they were alone.

“It’ll be alright, dear. Nothing bad will happen,” he said.

He slipped his arm loose from her grip and walked in between the two large vacant windows. He presented his passport to the man. The man scanned the small document, made a pensive face, and revised it more meticulously after having failed to find anything incriminating the first time through. Disappointed, he returned it to Ofi. He peered into the darkness behind him and, like an evocation, hastened footsteps came in direction for the front. A somewhat irritated man came up next to the sergeant and grabbed the papers from him. He wasn’t much older than the other man.

SS-Hauptsturmführer Stärcke,” he curtly introduced himself.

“If you’re currently incognito, why would you give away your names?” Ofi inquired with a false naivety.

“They’re pseudonyms . . . of course.” He threw Ofi a cross last glance before returning his gaze to the documents, and asked: “Where are you heading? Or maybe I should ask: why are you carrying suitcases?”

“We’re going to visit some relatives in France.”

“At this time of night?”

“There were no other departure times available.”

“Where in France?” he asked as he looked the papers over for a second time. From just the puzzled expression on his face, it was clear to see that he was having difficulty reaching a conclusion on whether to let Ofi go.

“The capital, Paris.”

“Why? Isn’t the Fatherland beautiful and magnificent enough to please your taste? What does France have to offer that the Fatherland doesn’t?” he asked Ofi. He then promptly confirmed those questions to be rhetorical by not waiting for an answer, and proceeded: “Either way . . .”

“Hold on a minute,” Kerner said. “I know who this man is. His son took that bike shop in Orestesstraße over from that old Jew, Strauss. Not only that, but he actually married the Jew’s daughter.”

“That’s quite something.” Stärcke nodded slowly, while scanning Ofi’s facial expression. “I take it your son wanted to marry in order to take over the shop. But what about Strauss and the daughter? Was it their futile attempt to try and cleanse her blood?” In a half-sarcastic tone, he remarked to Kerner: “If only it worked like that.” And then vaguely addressing both Ofi and Kerner and neither at the same time: “A Jewess with not enough backbone to stand amongst her own kind; even they themselves now see the error of their ways. Jewish law dictates that the mother carries the Jewish blood.”

“But it’s the Nuremburg laws that govern,” Ofi retorted. “I’m surprised to hear that you’re so familiar with Jewish scripture and for even a moment dare to exalt it over the Reich’s ruling.”

“You may not appear a Jew, but you certainly sling filth like one. Don’t mistake yourself for a second; your papers might not have you designated as a Jew, and you might not even have a single drop of Jewish blood secretly coursing through your veins, but that doesn’t spare you from being associated with that fiendish race. And just the same as them, you’ll be imprisoned.”

“How dimwitted do you think I am, to not realize you two are not SS members? You two are no more than a group of reckless boys who think you are in one of those picture shows you go see every Friday. It would suit you best to let me go, before I report you for vandalism and impersonating paramilitary officers.”

“What makes you think that we need uniforms or a title to do what is right?” Stärcke said. He lifted his shirt to let show the gleaming leather of a black pistol-butt.

As this verbal exchange had gone on, Melanie looked on in fear. The two men continued to stare Ofi down. She looked from side to side, checking both ways of the street; there was no one. Her arms shivered at her side, but her chest felt too heavy to shiver along with them. As the two men neared Ofi, one of them glanced sternly over at her. As Ofi’s stance became more stressed, her fear grew wild. She hadn’t the slightest idea what was taking place (or about to take place) and this fed her sense of unrest all the more. She became oblivious to the scene in front of her as she slipped into deep thought.

Are they going to hurt him? Are they going to hurt me? Why are they talking to him? He did nothing wrong. He’s the best grandfather there is, and a good person who’s always kind. So is mama . . . And papa . . . And Josef. They’re all kind people. Why won’t people see this? Maybe it’s my fault. I shouldn’t have let go of Ofi’s and mama’s hand at the tram. She’s probably very angry with me now. I made a mistake . . . and now Ofi might get taken away because of it, because of me.

It all struck her now. It was as if she had been walking on a taut high-wire all that night, going along with Ofi’s will without thinking the consequences through or even realizing there were any at times, and now standing still at a seeming dead-end, she looked down at the distant ground below and behind her at the far out of reach starting point.

The man glowered at her once more and her mind was pushed to its limit. All her thoughts blended into one and her instinct took over. Without a single instant of hesitation, she darted off down the street, suitcases and bags still in hand. She ran for her life and more, with her eyes filling up with clinging tears. As she slipped out of the street, a bang broke through the clicking of her shoes on the pavement.

She made her way into a small park, scarcely lit with softly glowing lamps. A white structure reflected an aura of pale light. Melanie approached it. It was a gazebo on a raised platform, vacant and with no light emitting from within. She climbed the steps and slid onto the bench along the inside of the perimeter. For the first time, she wanted to be alone in the dark—not knowing who to turn to, who to trust. She suppressed her emotions and gave in to the sounds of her surroundings. Time seemed to stall. Every second seemed to wait on the bellowing of the wind. The foliage of the shrubs and trees nearby rustled softly, like voices hushing her absent weeping.

I might be able to find my way home . . . if I ask for help. Mama always said to go to the police if I got lost. But can I trust the police? Those two men said they were the police. I could go back home on my own, she tried to assure herself. Or maybe Mama and Papa will find me if I just stay here. And if they ask about Ofi? I left him there with those men. I left him. I am a bad person; my schoolmates were right.

A dark figure came up the steps. A raspy voice sounded: “Mel, thank God I found you. You should never run away from me like that.”

She slowly lifted her head and looked up at a shadowy face casting a faint cloud of condensed breath. All her fears and hopelessness came rushing out in an overwhelming outpouring of tears. Ofi put aside his frustration and gave her his empathy. He sat down beside her.

“Don’t cry. That’s too many tears for one night. Why are you crying? Were you scared? Is that why you ran?” There was a sense of guilt in his voice.

“I-I’m sor-sorry,” she stammered out amongst her tears.

“It’s okay. It’s okay.” He consoled her. “You just have to promise never to do that again. I can’t have you wandering through the city by yourself at night.”

“I’m sorry I left you Ofi,” she said.

“No, it’s okay. I understand you were afraid. You don’t have to cry or even worry; just don’t do it again.”

“I won’t,” she said shaking her head and pushing her tear-stained face against his coat.

He held her close and stroked her hair. “I know what will cheer you up.” With his free hand, he reached into one of the brown paper bags, pulled out a box of chocolates, and placed it on her lap. “Exchange your tears for some smiles,” he said absentmindedly. He wriggled his handkerchief free from out of his pant pocket and wiped her face dry with it.

The chocolate box remained on her lap unopened, prompting him to open it himself. He tried to persuade her by holding a chocolate nugget in front of her quivering lips. The aroma of chocolate wafted up to her nose. She grabbed the nugget and slipped it into her mouth. After a delay, her jaws awakened.

Hearing a crunch, he said, “Did you get one with a nut in it? You shouldn’t be eating one of those when your throat is strained from crying; it might whirl you into a coughing fit. Here, take one of the smooth, Belgian ones instead. They’re without a doubt the best.”

He rummage in the papers bags and pulled out one box after the other repeatedly as he struggled with deciphering the printings on the boxes in the dim lighting. He handed her the right box, and held onto another box for himself. With their faces veiled in shadows, only the smacking of their mouths confirmed to each other that they were both enjoying the chocolates.

He cleared his throat. “Caramel always dries the roof of my mouth and the back of my throat.”

“That’s because you eat it too quickly,” she murmured softly.

“You might be right,” he said, and stuffed the box back into the bag. Then he, without explaining his intentions, turned to her satchel and pulled forward her doll Anna. “Here she is. I hear she’s been living a lucrative life lately, thanks to you.” He gently nudged Melanie. “If only I was one of your dolls as well. A comfortable life I would’ve led.”

“But then you wouldn’t get to make any decisions—you’d be a puppet, and I could make you do whatever I want,” she remarked.

“Maybe that might be the foremost blessing of it all.”

She presented a confused face, but he didn’t catch sight of it, for he reverted to her satchel and came across the cloche hat. After fondly handling the soft fabric between his fingers, he donned her head with it. But as it was too large, it settled with the brim situated halfway over her eyes. She looked at him with a smile on her face, snuggled underneath the cloche hat.

“I bought that for your grandmother when we visited Berlin, as a wedding-anniversary present (she didn’t care too much for jewelry) at a posh women’s boutique which imported the newest styles directly out of Paris—ahead of the arrival of any trend. At that time it was sleek black and then, with the passing of time and frequent use, it faded to this dark forest green as the shimmering layer, achieved with a technique which was just surfacing at the time, drained out of the high quality felt, made from a type of very fine wool called merino. That strongly perfumed salesman stared at me with such intensity that I could hardly forget a word he said. He went on and on with so many details and elaborations that I couldn’t stop myself from buying it, even though I had already spotted something else which was more to my liking.” He suddenly broke out in a hearty laugh, but a short-lived one. “And now I can’t help but reminisce about your grandmother as I see that worn-out hat.” He readjusted the cloche hat on her head.

“Ofi, when will we meet up with Mama again?” she asked concernedly.

“Don’t worry. You shouldn’t worry. You shouldn’t ever be afraid of anything. Okay, Mel?”

He drew a deep breath. “That house over there . . .” he pointed out. “Could you take a look at it for me? My eyes aren’t too good. It seems familiar. I have a feeling we’re nearby.”

She walked over to the entrance of the gazebo and peered out in the direction Ofi was referring to. It dawned on her, the house, with its stoop light shining like a beacon through the trees, indeed did look familiar. And as she looked around she began to recognize the park itself. They were in front of Aunt Vanessa’s house.

“Ofi, we’re here,” she called. “We’re finally here.” She looked back, but Ofi didn’t seem to react.

With her eyes trained on him at a sideward angle, she approached him. She sat down at his side while keeping her eyes on his face, veiled in darkness. After scooting up closer, she grabbed his hand and rested her head against his upper arm.

While her head leaned sideways against Ofi, her eyes found comfort in a glimmer coming from the window of a store tucked away in a corner of the block. She slowly realized that the window was broken. The shattered glass lay on the ground, with each shard refracting and reflecting to its own will the light coming from a lamppost nearby, each giving its own account of the light’s trajectory. Ofi’s hand became uncomfortably cold, causing her to release her grip. She looked up one more time before grabbing her suitcase and the paper bags and walking out of the gazebo, through the park, and up to Aunt Vanessa’s house.

Standing in the porch light, she looked back at the white pavilion and discovered it to be empty. She wondered if he was still in that street, if the shockwave of the gun report had finally caught up with him and taken him away.

The door behind her opened to a vision of Aunt Vanessa, mouthing: “Thank God you’re here. We’ve been worried sick about you.” The words didn’t register. Melanie looked back at where her grandfather had once been.

___

Brian Römmer was born on the Caribbean island of Curaçao.


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