Jet is a delinquent from a wealthy Manhattan family. His favorite teacher at his exclusive school dies and is replaced by a mysterious German man. He tries to find out more about Heinrich while gri...
[Berlin, Germany: January 1944]
“Captain Stoller, thank goodness you’re finally home.”
“What is it, Gertrude? I hear no Beethoven playing. I thought Frau Stoller would be home by now.” Albert took off his thick black overcoat and officer’s hat. He handed them to his plump, elderly maid. His smile faded at her dour expression.
“Frau Stoller is home. She’s in the bedroom, quite distressed. She’s been so ill this week; I’m afraid she may be worse. Not that it’s my place, Herr Captain, but I do believe it would be wise if you would send her to a doctor.”
“I appreciate your concern, Gertrude. Let me talk to her.”
“Dinner will be ready in an hour. I made something light but hot.”
“Thank you.” Albert nodded and made his way upstairs in their posh townhouse. He went to their bedroom door and softly knocked.
“Hilda... darling, I’m home.”
“Albert...” she called out and then started sobbing. He opened the door and saw her lying on their bed, hugging a pillow. Tears were running down her cheeks. Albert quickly locked the door and sat beside her. He scooped her up in his arms and stroked her glossy, crimson hair.
“What is it?”
“Something... very frightening.” Hilda threw her arms around his neck and tightly squeezed. She whispered, “I’m pregnant.”
Joy filled him at hearing those words. He had longed for them for almost six years. Albert parted slightly and looked into her cerulean eyes; he had never seen them so full of anxiety. He stood up, checked outside their bedroom door, and sat back down beside her.
“Darling, what’s the worry? This is wonderful news. We can have everything we’ve ever wanted now.”
“But, Albert... I can’t... I won’t have our child here in Germany. How can you ask it of me?”
“But we can’t leave. It’s too late for us now. The only way I can protect you is by not making any sudden moves. Moving your family from Vienna to Switzerland was more a stroke of luck than my doing, and that was five years ago. Now things are even more heavily scrutinized.”
“Damn it, Albert! Why did you make us stay here! The world has gone crazy and we’re in the middle of all of it! I can’t stand it any more.”
“Hilda, be quiet!” Albert gripped her arms and drew her close to him. He whispered in her ear, “There are spies everywhere.”
“How can I go on with this charade any longer?”
“Because our child would be danger if you don’t. You must be brave.” Albert hugged her to him and let her cry on his shoulder a little more. His joy sank into a dread. “I’m so sorry. I made a mistake. I didn’t know things were going to get this way. I thought the best way to protect you was by joining the SS.”
“After all, who goes looking for undesirables among SS officers’ wives?”
“Hilda, don’t be so maudlin. It’s too dangerous now. Listen, I’ll try to get a transfer to the countryside if it would alleviate your fears.”
“Don’t you see, my fears are over our child. This child is unwanted by society and our marriage is technically illegal.”
“Our child is wanted by me and that’s what matters. As for our marriage, it was made official in the sight of God. It doesn’t matter to me about Nazi technicalities, you are my wife regardless.” Albert stood up and tugged her with him. “It’ll make you feel better to play a little before dinner. Let’s put on the charade of a happy SS officer and his wife expecting their first child. For her sake.”
Hilda stated laughing and swiping away the remains of tears. “So you think it’s going to be a girl?”
“I hope so. It’ll be fun to have another girl around to pamper and spoil. Besides...” Albert leaned closer, dropping his smile. “...boys grow to men and have to face wars.”
Hilda nodded. “Okay. I’m fine now. I think I just needed a good cry before putting on the act again.”
“It’s okay. By the way. A new man is taking over my section. This Saturday he’s holding a ball for all of his men and their wives. He’s quite anxious to meet you. It turns out he happens to be one of your fans.”
“Oh really? What’s his name?”
“General Issimo. He has a peculiar aide that just goes by the nick-name Scar.”
“How odd. Well... I’ll do my best to be charming.”
Albert glanced around the ballroom filled with various Nazi officials and patted Hilda’s hand that rested in the crook of his elbow. “There are the Schulzes talking to Von Boyen. I don’t see Frau Von Boyen.”
“She’s gone visiting her aunt, but you know why.”
“He’s one angry drunk.”
“Albert, hush! We’ll gossip when we get home.”
“Gossip is the only real entertainment at these things,” Albert griped, scowling at the men all dressed in crisp, stark black uniforms and the women in pale, floor-length ball gowns.
The reception hall at General Issimo’s house was large; it was done in scarlet, marble, and dark wood finish. An over-sized painting of Hitler hung over a massive fireplace. Albert knew the Issimo was probably making a large show of loyalty to deflect his true feelings. Albert’s experience had been that the true believer Nazis were usually more sedate.
“Captain Stoller, I’ve been waiting for you and your lovely wife to arrive.” A hawkish looking man declared, walking up with an extended hand. Albert took his hand and shook it.
“Hilda, this is General Horus Issimo, my new commander. General, this is my wife, Frau Stoller.”
“Really, Stoller. You’re too modest to introduce her so simply. How about ‘the lovely and talented Hilda Sulzbach’?”
“You flatter me, Herr General. My husband says that you enjoy my concerts.”
“I’m a great admirer, Frau Stoller. Please allow me a dance.” Issimo glanced over at Albert and gave him a cool glance. “With your permission?”
Albert glanced at Hilda; she nodded and smiled. Issimo lead her out to the dance floor. Albert went over to the buffet table and started making small talk with other officers, while keeping his eyes on Hilda. There was something unsettling about her dancing with Issimo.
It wasn’t that he was jealous of her dancing with other men; it was the uncomfortable expression on her face. The General was whispering something to her, holding her too close. He took a deep breath and controlled his urge to interrupt the dance. Instead he would have to wait until the next dance and rescue her at a socially graceful moment.
[Berlin, Germany: mid-April 1944]
Albert opened the door to his townhouse and was greeted by a frantic, high pitched violin playing that was more akin to noise. He smirked, removed his officer’s hat, and walked to Hilda’s music conservatory near their parlor.
“Well, you must have had a horrible day,” he said pulling up a chair beside her music stand. She dragged the bow across the strings and shot Albert a hostile look. “I haven’t been home long enough to get under your skin. What is it, darling?”
“We had a caller.” Albert didn’t miss the sharp tone in Hilda’s voice. He raised an eyebrow and waited while she set aside her violin in its stand. “Your commanding officer stopped by.”
“That’s strange. He knew I’d be at the office all day; he should have looked for me there.”
“He was looking for me, Albert. The man had the audacity to show his face here and...” Hilda paused. Her skin flushed and she wouldn’t meet him in the eye.
“For the last three months the man has been sending me gifts after my concerts and he has been trying to see me when ever you’re busy. I just thought to ignore him.”
“Why didn’t you tell me!”
“Because I didn’t want you to get angry. I thought he would just get bored and move on. Today, though, he made his intentions known.”
“He asked me to go away with him next week when you would be in Hamburg.”
Albert bolted out of the chair and started pacing, hot rage started building in his stomach. He glanced at Hilda’s face. She appeared as if she were in agony.
“It’s horrible enough for him to suggest this to you when I’m under his authority. It puts a grinding pressure on you. But he knows... everyone knows... you’re carrying my child. That’s beyond the pale.”
“Albert! What’s that look in your eyes! I’ve never see you like this!” Hilda grabbed his arms and looked up into his eyes. Albert’s briefly embraced her.
“I’ll be home for dinner.”
“Albert, don’t do something foolish!”
“Not even Der Fuhrer would condone his behavior towards you!” Albert parted from Hilda and ran out of his townhouse, ignoring Hilda’s frantic shouts.
It wasn’t long before he arrived at the General’s lavish downtown home. It was starting to turn dusk as he pounded on the dark, burgundy door. He wasn’t shocked to see Scar answer the door. He pushed aside the emaciated man, but an iron grip grabbed Albert’s left arm. Albert swung his fist at Scar’s face. The man dodged and slugged Albert’s jaw.
“Stop!” Issimo commanded, stepping into the hallway. “Let him go, Scar.”
Albert shrugged off Scar and marched up to Issimo’s face. “If you ever approach my wife again, I will kill you. Make no mistake, my family is the most precious thing in my life.”
“Really, Stoller. Threatening a superior officer could send you to a labor camp. If I knew it would cause such an offense, I wouldn’t have approached her.”
“Offended? How could I not be?”
“You should be thanking me. You see, I like to test the wives of men who handle sensitive information. You never know which ones are loyal. Your wife happens to be very loyal to you.”
“I never have doubted her fidelity to me,” Albert said, stepping back from the General. He turned to leave. “Never do this again.”
“Don’t worry, Stoller. I’ll never be bothered with you or your wife ever again.”
Albert shivered as he ran out into the crisp, Spring night. He slowed and walked towards his home. There was something unsettling about the whole exchange. He shrugged it off and headed back to his home; he had a need to see that Hilda was safe.
[three evenings later]
Albert prepared himself a scotch in the dim parlor and listened to Gertrude leave out the back door. He looked over to his grandfather clock and realized it was an hour too early for her to leave. He shook his head in annoyance and took a sip.
The last three days had been very busy. The Allied Forces were pressing closer into German territory and the Eastern Front was disastrous, even though very few SS officers were brave enough to talk about it.
He took a second sip and mulled over what he could do to occupy his time. Hilda had gone to bed early and he had read every book in their house. He walked over to the thick drapes when he heard screeching tires in front of his townhouse. He drew them back and got startled.
The sight struck terror in his heart; it was the Gestapo lead by Scar. They were headed to his front door. The scotch glass slipped from his hand as the door was busted open.
“Halt, Stoller! You and Frau Stoller are under arrest.” Scar pulled a gun on him after walking into the parlor. Four men charged upstairs towards Hilda. Albert raised his hands and glared.
“This is some ridiculous mistake.” Albert fought to keep cool as he heard the men grab Hilda and drag her downstairs. She ran to Albert’s arms.
“I’m afraid not. An informer, Gertrude Schmidt, has told us about Frau Stoller being Jewish. Of course, General Issimo is willing to be understanding, Heinrich. All you have to do is admit she lied to you. We’ll take her away and then your name will remain unblemished. Right now, you are considered a race traitor. Denounce her and save yourself!”
“Never! Whatever happens to her, happens to me.” Albert said, clutching Hilda tightly. She was trembling, but not crying. That caused a surge of pride in Albert. Scar flashed them a wolfish, toothy smile.
“If that’s what you wish.” Scar slightly waved his gun towards the door. Albert guided Hilda. He felt her stand tall and square her shoulders. He squeezed her shoulder and stood a little taller as well.
The train ride had been a hellish nightmare Albert could have never imagined it. He kept his arms around Hilda the whole time. They were forced to stand with people pressed in around them so tightly he found it difficult to breath. The odors were nauseating and the darkness made the trip even more disorienting. No talking could be heard over the loud clatter of the train wheels.
As he and Hilda were pushed onto the boxcar, Scar gave them each a patch to wear. Hilda’s was a yellow, six-pointed star; Albert’s was a red, inverted triangle. Her badge signified her Jewish heritage, whereas, Albert’s marked him an enemy of the state and an Aryan who had committed miscegenation with a Jew.
Albert’s sense of dread heightened when the train came to a halt. The door to their boxcar opened, allowing in harsh light. The sounds of barking dogs and shouting men came at Albert as he and Hilda were forced to disembark with the others. It was a tangle of people, confused and afraid. Albert clutched Hilda to him as guards started dividing people into two lines.
“Wait! Those two prisoners! Bring them to me.”
Albert knew that voice even though he hadn’t heard it in three years. He and Hilda were pushed towards the front of the line where a well-built, older man in an SS uniform stood.
“Captain Van Bogart,” Albert whispered as the man came walking up. Bogart wore a sour expression. He shook his head and glared at Albert.
“I never expected my star pupil to end up here. And for what? Fucking a Jewish woman. Really, Albert, you should have been honest and told us what you had married. Then you could have found a nice Aryan woman to settle down with. You know I would have helped you out. Now it’s too late. You’ve betrayed the Fatherland and Der Fuhrer.”
“I did nothing wrong! She’s my wife and not ashamed of it.”
“Then why didn’t you proudly tell me when you started courting her?”
“Because she would have ended up here or in danger. It’s not right what’s happening!”
“Then why did you serve the SS? Are you crazy or were you just trying to sabotage us.”
“I did it to protect her. I thought no one would suspect her if I was a loyal Nazi. Now I see I was a fool. I should have taken her and ran as far from Germany as possible. I just never really dreamed things would turn as ugly as this!”
“Albert! Please,” Hilda begged and squeezed his hand. He looked at her. “Don’t blame yourself. I could have left, but I didn’t imagine it coming to this either.”
“Shut up, whore!” Bogart snapped. Albert quickly landed a left jab on Bogart’s chin, but the man swiftly jammed his nightstick into Albert stomach. He crumpled to the ground, hearing Hilda scream his name. “Say your farewell. This is the last kindness you’ll receive from me.”
Albert scrambled to his feet and embraced Hilda. She wrapped her arms around his chest. “I’m so sorry I didn’t protect you and our child from all of this. Oh... Hilda, I love you so much.”
“Albert, I hold no regrets of our life together. I will always love you.” He leaned over and gave her a fierce, intense kiss. He held her close until they were yanked apart by guards. He watched as she was shuffled into a line of other women and elderly folks.
“Escort the former Captain to Becker and his gang. I think that should teach Stoller what happens to people who betray the Fatherland.” Two guards grabbed each of Albert’s elbows and dragged him off towards a long brick building.
The stench in the bright room was overwhelming. There were fifteen men in worn striped uniforms; each had gold, six-pointed stars on the left chest. Their heads were shaved and they each looked emaciated, their eyes all looked at Albert with incredulity.
“Becker! You have a new Sonderkommando. Get him ready for this next round,” the guard on Albert’s left shoved him towards the group of Jewish men and then left.
A tall man that looked to be in his forties stepped forward. Albert glanced at the pink triangle imposed on a gold triangle. He knew this man was not only Jewish, but also defined as a sexual deviant by the Nazis.
“Change into those clothes in the corner. Hurry! We must also shave your head.” Becker said coolly. There was a strong air of authority about the man.
“Shave my head?”
“Lice is rampant. Hurry or you’ll bring disaster on all of our heads!”
Albert yanked off his tie and white shirt. Becker ripped the red triangle off of Albert's shirt and waited to put it on Albert’s new striped shirt.
“Listen carefully. Your life depends on your ability to follow everything I say. Gold, come shave his hair off.”
A very young man stepped forward with some clippers. Albert sat down, he was too stunned to protest. After his hair was gone, he finished dressing in the soiled, rough clothing.
“What was your profession?” Becker asked.
“I was a soldier. A linguist.”
“Not a barber or a dentist?”
“No,” Albert answered in bafflement.
“Your crime must have been heinous to be sent to us. Work beside Cohn. He was dentist and he’ll show you what to do,” Becker ordered. Cohn was a graying man with a harsh expression. “By the way, did you come here with anyone?”
“Was she sick or pregnant?”
“Then you need to prepare yourself. She will most likely be in there.”
“What do you mean?” Albert asked. Before Becker could answer a loud bell sounded. Nazi guards came in through the front doors.
“It’s time!” shouted a guard.
Becker grabbed Albert by the elbow and looked him directly in the eyes. “No matter what you see, don’t freeze up. Do not halt your work, cry out, or anything that will give them an excuse. They’ll put a bullet in your head and then kill the rest of us as punishment. Understand?”
“Question nothing. Just follow us and you have a chance to live a little while longer. That, as long as you’re one of us, is the goal: to buy as much time as you can. It’s all an elaborate game we play with them.”
Albert nodded. Cohn came up to them and nodded to the door. “Just keep your mind empty, son. It’s the best advice I can give.”
“Look at him. He’s not one of us. He’s here to spy for Bogart,” Gold whispered in anger towards Becker while keeping his narrowed eyes on the guards.
“Keep it to yourself. It doesn’t matter if he’s a Jew. After the next hour, he’ll be one of us, if he keeps it together.”
Albert tried to take a deep breath, but the powerful stench caused him to choke. A guard came forward and unlatched a heavy metal door and pushed it aside. Becker whistled and the other prisoners formed two lines side by side. Albert stood beside Cohn and tried to peer in the darkness of the chamber. After several long minutes the guard gave the signal; Becker lead them into the dark chamber.
The horror of the scene almost knocked Albert to his feet, but Cohn grabbed his elbow and helped him over to the pyramid of naked bodies in the middle of the room. Young, old, men, women, children. They all had ghastly grimaces on their faces. All Albert could do was watch as Becker and the other started peeling apart the bodies and dragging them towards the room they had just left.
Cohn nudged him and Albert started to help him take the bodies into the next room. At first his hands shook, his mind was numb with shock. Then the thought of Hilda ran through his head. Hadn’t Becker said she would be in here? His hands wouldn’t stop trembling as they got further down the pile.
The sight Albert dreaded hit his eyes as he dragged an older man down. It was Hilda’s face, battered. Her beautiful crimson hair had been shaved, but he could still recognize her.
He froze and murmured, “Hilda...” Cohn quickly slapped a hand over Albert’s mouth and shook his head.
“Becker! Trade,” Cohn called out. He yanked Albert away to another end of the tangle of bodies. Becker looked over at Albert and nodded. Albert watched Becker begin to loosen Hilda’s body from the others around her. Cohn pushed Albert to the side and whisper, “Mourn later. Work now or die.”
“I want to die!”
“Well, I don’t. So keep your mouth shut and work.” Cohn picked up a dead elderly woman in his arms and glared at Albert. “Live a little longer because she would have wanted it. You’ll only dishonor her with suicide. Fight and at least go out like a man and not a selfish boy.”
Albert nodded and set himself to the grim task ahead. He followed Cohn into the room beside the chamber and watched him as he pried apart the mouth of the elderly woman. He picked up his pliers and set about roughly yanking her teeth out.
“Remember, they’re dead so they can’t feel it. We work quickly. Jerk the teeth out and put them in that bucket over there. The gold filled teeth go in that slotted lock box. They watch us every minute so don’t think to steal a damn thing.”
Albert picked up a pair of pliers and set about work. He had never done anything like this in his life and it set his mind on edge. He turned his head to look for Hilda.
“Don’t. Becker has her. If you look, the guards will beat us for laziness.”
“What is he doing to her?”
“Best you didn’t know for now. Soon enough you’ll learn all about what we do here. No, no, no. Pull molars straight down. Break the jaw if you have to.”
They worked in silence for what seemed like an horrible eternity. Becker came over and knelt down beside Albert. His eyes glanced around.
“Just do as I a say if you hope to keep your wife’s wedding band. I’ll drop it by my foot. You swallow it and then hide it later. If you don’t swallow it, they’ll find it when they frisk us and beat you for stealing.” The brief flash of gold landed at Albert’s feet.
Albert scooped it up as Gold made a slight distraction at the other end of the room. Albert didn’t look at it. He tossed it in his mouth and forced himself to swallow with difficulty. “Get back to work. We’re almost finished.”
True to Becker’s word they were frisked and marched to a small brick house beside the crematorium. It was at the crematorium that Albert briefly saw Hilda for one last time as Becker set her in the oven.
He turned away as the grief threatened to knock him to his feet. Cohn jerked him upright and shook his head with a glare. Albert realized the guards were watching them with everything from blank stares to ghastly leers. It was the ones with leers that sickened Albert.
When they were left in the room Becker put his hand on Albert’s shoulder. “It’s safe to vomit it up. Can you make yourself? You’ll learn soon enough.”
Albert nodded, needing no incentive. He rushed to the white porcelain bathroom, sunk to his hands and knees, and vomited for all he was worth. Not much came up but thick bile and Hilda’s wedding band.
“The first day is always the hardest because it’s the day you lose your loved ones,” Becker said, getting a wet towel. He handed it to Albert and cleaned up the mess. Becker picked up Hilda’s wedding band and cleaned it off. He handed it to Albert. “Take yours off as well. That’s odd that they didn’t make you take it off.”
“I used to know Van Bogart. He and I were having words. They took me directly to you.”
“Well, they won’t make that mistake tomorrow. If you wish to keep them, store them in that can hidden on the third rafter. There is a leather cord in there you can tie them together. Here.” Becker held up a cigarette.
“I don’t smoke.”
“Best take it up. It’ll give you something to do. Besides, we get all the booze and cigarettes we can handle. Food is better here too.”
“Why is this happening to me? Why Hilda? She did nothing to deserve that.”
“She was Jewish. That’s a crime in Germany. So... you aren’t Jewish, are you?”
“No. I was married to her.”
“Listen, the other’s don’t trust you because we could all tell you were wearing part of an SS uniform when you came in. Be straight with us, were you?”
Albert looked to the door way where the others were crowded in, peering at him like a circus curiosity. He nodded.
“Yes, I was. I had hoped that it would save her from discovery. It didn’t.”
“You’re the only non-Jewish man we’ve ever seen assigned to Sonderkommandos. No doubt they found you particularly offensive to their sensibilities.”
“I did nothing wrong except not leave Germany with her. Now she and my child are gone because of my stupidity.”
“I came to tell you that your wife was carrying a girl. I figured you may have wanted to know. I was a mortician before I came here so I knew how to check,” Becker said. He lit a cigarette and handed to Albert. He took his first drag and let the nicotine hit him, causing a heavy sensation. “Why don’t you give her a name?”
“Rose. I would have named her Rose after my mother,” Albert said.
“That’s a fine name. You won’t sleep tonight so I suggest you drink some Vodka.”
Albert nodded. He let Becker hide his wedding bands and lead him out to the common room with the others. They all sat in a loose circle, sipping the strong drink. Albert gulped down the drinks, but fond no release that first night.
To be continued.