Hans leaned back even further into the shadows, his heartbeat pulsing up into his ears. Thank God the doorway was slightly indented from the street, otherwise they would have surely spotted him. Trying to stay calm, his body became consumed by the rhythmic pounding of heavy boots on cobblestone, only twenty yards from his labored, irregular breathing.
“Not safe to pick up the passports today; too many SS in the city for the big rally,” he speculated. Instantly, he pictured his dutiful wife Marthe, carefully folding the Goose-Down comforter over the edge of the assigned bed while she waited patiently for him to come to her. The room would be immaculate; in fact so neat and clean you could eat off of the floor, and the family pictures would hang straight, not crooked on the walls, as was so often seen in the other boarding houses, die besteigend hause, around the city. Indeed, everyone commented on how much pride Marthe always took in her work.
A sudden lull on the streets prompted Hans to venture slowly from his hiding place, but five paces out, he could see a crowd composed of men, women, and children gathering up ahead. Booing and hissing, they all seemed riveted on something and he was about to quietly slip by them, when he glanced over and stopped, appalled.
A frail, dark-haired woman stood silently in the middle of the sidewalk with a large, wooden Jewish Star draped over her neck. Laughing and taking turns, people couldn’t resist the urge to poke at the cumbersome object, and with each harsh jab, she cringed as her neck twisted back and forth; still, she couldn’t bring herself to move away—her senses had been too dulled.
An elderly man attempted to walk by as inconspicuously as possible, but it was no use.
As soon as an SS guard caught sight of the yarmulke he was wearing on his head, he was hauled over and handed an ordinary toothbrush.
Hans watched in horror as the Nazis kicked the old man twice, knocking him down to his knees. Dazed, pleading softly in Yiddish, the man gazed up at his tormenters, a small stream of spittle forming out of one side of his cracked lips. But they stood firm; they were on a quest.
“Clean, you good-for-nothing Jude!” they jeered. “Clean the streets! That’s all you’re good for. Now do your job!”
Forcing him to scrub the streets with the toothbrush, the guards kept shoving him down with their thick, black boots every time he tried to sit up or even pause. At one point, the old man managed to stop just long enough to peer over at the frail woman, and for a split second, the mutual bond of despair was palpable. But in a flash it was gone, self-survival trumping everything.
Hans didn’t dare remain any longer. For the last several months he had witnessed so much of this kind of treatment, he had learned protesting would be pointless, so he returned home, his forehead constricted and his eyebrows a single, determined line.
As the late afternoon light filtered through his small apartment, he sensed that by now, Marthe would be across town, so anxious she would mostly probably be nauseous. But today, there was nothing he could do about it, and opted to finish his meticulous work instead.
From out of his top right hand drawer, he pulled out several typed papers comprised of two hundred Jewish names, all placed in his trust. Next to the papers were at least five regular German passports, and five passports with the infamous “J” written on them. He positioned each one in front of him, then he carefully started transferring the Jewish names and their photos fromthe Jewish passports onto regular German passports. It was a painstaking process. Each passport had to be carefully executed, and if he made an error, he had to start all over again.
“Irene ‘Sarah’ Greenfeld will now be Lisle Guttman,” he muttered as he omitted the obligatory ‘Sarah’ attached to the woman’s identification and added a Christian first and last name. He glanced over at the woman’s husband’s old passport, and made a mental note to change his from Leo ‘Israel’ Greenfeld, to Ernest Guttman.
As the grandfather clock’s pendulum slowly ticked back and forth, Hans worked on, unconscious of time. By contrast, Marthe, on the other side of the city, agonized over every minute. These days, if Hans didn’t show, she automatically assumed there might be danger, and already, she could feel her stomach churning. Still, she dusted and cleaned, grateful for her housekeeping job at the Sailerstrasse Boarding House with its good pay and how it had turned out to be the perfect vehicle for their underground activities.
Every morning she would vigorously sweep, dust, and clean each room, always making sure she finished her day with the lodging that contained the designated comforter. The comforter itself was ordinary looking; a dark brown Muhldorfer, once lush in its color and texture, now faded and worn. But stitched inside its soft folds, German and Jewish passports were strategically placed, ready for the simple exchanges that Marthe and Hans did with their co-conspirator, Herr Kaiser.
So far, the system had been impeccable. Herr Kaiser was a longtime boarder, so naturally, the comforter was housed in his room. Friends for years, he and Hans had known each other as far back as 1920, when they were both new, young professors at the University. But as Hitler’s power increased, they had stood by and watched the firing of their Jewish colleagues, one by one. Finally, after two Kaier’s beers each in Han’s apartment one night, they knew neither of them could sit by while their countrymen were in so much trouble. Something had to be done.
Herr Kaiser came up with the idea first about the passports, but because Hans was an art professor, it fell on his shoulders to do the actual forgery. Soon, he had become so proficient at these fabrications, Marthe kidded him that when Hitler was gone and their world returned to normal, perhaps he could continue this as an occupation, enabling them both to retire up in the mountains, in Mittenwald perhaps, where the snow sometimes packed twenty feet, and the quaint cottages were a reminder of better times. But Hans would listen to her fantasy for only a few seconds, chuckle, then shoo her away so he could concentrate on his passports.
Standing in the door jam of the final room, Marthe could hear Herr Kaiser and another man ambling up the creaky hallway steps. As each swollen step groaned, she braced herself before telling him the bad news: no new passports today.
“Good evening, Frau Hauptman. How are you this fine day?” His jovial tone proved Herr Kaiser assumed all was well.
“Good evening, Herr Kaiser,” she answered, darting her eyes towards the comforter and just barely shaking her head.
Startled, Herr Kaiser looked concerned, his eyebrows arching up towards each other. But ever the consummate actor, he never missed a beat. “Ah, you have done a fine job of cleaning as usual, Frau Hauptman, fine job, fine job. Thank you very much.”
His mouth stayed open in an ‘O,’ poised to say something else, but Herr Guttermann, the concierge, walked past them on his way to his room at the end of the hall. Herr Kaiser shut his mouth with a click, and nodding politely to Herr Gutterman and Marthe, went into his own room, closing his door and leaving Marthe to hurry home to find out just exactly what had gone wrong.
Marthe’s and Herr Kaiser’s cautious instincts about Herr Gutterman were not wasted. Raised by a single mother, the concierge’s life had bounced back and forth from poverty and illiteracy to shame and non-stop humiliation. Winters seemed the hardest, when he and his brother and sisters clung together in the kitchen, a cluster of small hands, arms, and legs, squatting on a single bench, trying to keep warm enough to sit down and eat whatever meager food their mother could piece together. As they gnawed on their bread, he would watch their mother burning worthless WWI German currency in their stove to use as fuel rather than money, her face dead, her eyes hollow.
She neither read to them at night, nor told them fairytales; the only time she had the energy to talk to her children at all was at the supper table, as she regaled them with stories about the depravity of the Jews. Then she would come alive, her face animated and her eyes shiny, convinced these people were the single cause of Germany’s downfall.
“Jews kill Gentile children, then use their blood to make Matzohs,” she would insist, puffing up a size, certain that at least her children would grow up to be good, untainted Germans.
Yet her son Peter Gutterman was different. Unlike the classic Aryan looks of his brothers and sisters, he was small and dark, a fact that had always haunted him. By the time he was full grown, a childhood of taunts, threats, and street pummeling had filled him with venom.
But as Hitler rose to prominence, Herr Gutterman grew hopeful. Here at last, was someone who could raise Germany up from its ashes and simultaneously, punish those responsible for its ruination. And when the Nuremberg Laws were passed, he was particularly pleased; denying Jews citizenship was only the beginning as far as he was concerned. He took particular delight in seeing a neighborhood interfaith couple forced to wear individual placquards over their bodies. Mimi, who had always given him and his family sugar cookies, had to wear a sign that read: “At this place I am the greatest swine: I take Jews and make them mine!” Her husband Sidney’s read: “As a Jewish boy I always take German girls up to my room!” And although his early memories of her freshly baked cookies covered in a small basket had remained imprinted somewhere in his limbric brain, he still managed to turn his head the other way when passing them on the street.
Kiosks, slathered with posters announcing the boycott of Jewish-owned stores, triggered first a tip of his hat, then a chuckle to himself. He would even, on occasion, mouth the words: “Defend yourselves! Do not buy from Jews!” He was in Heaven.
Marthe’s key clicking in their front door lock made Hans twitch. Then, breathing a sigh of relief, he walked over to his wife and hugged her for almost twenty seconds without a word.
“What happened today?” she finally asked.
“Because of the upcoming rally tonight, I felt there were far too many SS around to be totally safe. Don’t worry. I worked on more of the passports, and next week when the city clears a little, we can continue.” He stroked his wife’s slight shoulders and back gently between her shoulder blades like he used to do when they were first married.
She could feel her body relaxing muscle by muscle. “Hans, what if we are caught? Is it really worth——”
He cut her off. “Don’t even talk that way! Think about all the people we’ve known that no longer have lives: Frau Greenberg, David Honig, all the professors at the University, Moishe Federman, remember him? Why, he was best man at our wedding for Gott’s sake! Think about it, Marthe!”
Marthe nodded, trying not to cry. He was right, of course. She would just have to learn to conquer her fears.
They fell asleep that night holding onto each other and listening to the booming loud speakers that had been set up in the main square. Hitler’s voice infiltrated everywhere, thundering and vibrating his message about how he was going to take over the world. Over and over again he bellowed his immense plans, until his gutteral tones became less strident, less intrusive, and just seconds before they drifted off to sleep, only a background hum, wafting in and out.
In the ensuing weeks, although fifty more passports were exchanged easily, Marthe noticed a shift in Herr Gutterman’s behavior. Before, he had always tipped his hat to Herr Kaiser as a gentlemanly gesture, but now he would only stare at the boarder, and smileless, say hello. One day, exiting Herr Kaiser’s room, she caught the concierge standing on the landing watching her closely, yet when she caught his eye, he simply nodded, deep in thought. As he padded down the hallway, she could feel the tiny hairs on her arms starting to rise along with their gooseflesh brothers.
She immediately brought up her concerns to Herr Kaiser, but in his typical way, he resonated his deep laugh and warned her not to worry so much. “Please go about your business,” he reassured her. “Leave Herr Gutterman to me. I’ll take care of things. You know, his bark is a lot harsher than his bite.”
Remaining calm was not in her nature, but as she sewed each muslin ‘envelope’ containing a passport into the thick down batting, she repeated a little prayer like a mantra, consoling herself that by the time Herr Kaiser would extract the packages from out of the comforter, she would most probably be halfway across town.
Every few days, the city was changing. Increasingly, Jewish stores were being emptied, their inhabitants either gone, or too frightened to come to work, and from out of nowhere, one of the first Jewish ghettos was instituted, a blatant reminder of the new Germany. Now, Marthe had to get to work each morning by walking past a big sign posted outside its large, black iron gates: “Wohngebiet der Juden. Betreten Verboten;” “Living area for Jews. Entrance is prohibited.” She would peer in quickly, then scurry on. Sometimes, dark-circled, glassy-eyed children stood just behind their gates, and if the SS guard’s head was turned away for a few moments, extend their hands, palms up, silently begging for food. But she dared not stop. Above all, she mustn’t arouse any suspicion, particularly now that they were so close to their goal.
By late October, Herr Gutterman was openly hostile. Instead of any ‘hellos’ to Herr Kaiser, he just glowered, and with his consistent bragging to some of the other boarders about his close connections with the SS, Marthe feared the worst. He was an important man, he would sputter, proudly displaying the bold Swastika armband he had stolen from off of a truck just two days before, along with an SS dagger, an iron cross, and a frayed copy of Mein Kampf.
“Hans, I really worry about Herr Kaiser,” Marthe insisted each night.
“Herr Kaiser is amazing. He has a couple of good connections. You’ll see, he’ll know how to take care of himself. But I do worry about you. Perhaps this shall be the last ‘run’ for you, Marthe
“Why now? I have been worried for weeks!” Marthe snapped, ignoring his outstretched hand.
“Well, I do believe Herr Gutterman is getting worse from what you’ve just told me, and besides, these passports will be the last fifty on the list.”
“Fifty! How can I possibly sew all of them into the comforter in time?”
“My dear, you’ll just have to sew faster than you’ve ever sewn before. It appears we have no other choice.”
The next day, all the rooms were less spotless than usual in the Sailerstrasse Boarding House. Rapid dusting, makeshift floor mops, and scratches on the floors from furniture being shoved quickly out of the way had allowed Marthe an extra hour and a half by the end of her shift, giving her time to sew fifty envelopes into good hiding places in the quilt.
Finally, when she heard Herr Kaiser trudging up the old steps, achy, tingling fingers made it difficult for her to turn the knob, but she managed to fumble through and open the door to face her friend. Suddenly, she heard Herr Gutterman calling out from down below: “Herr Kaiser, come here, if you will. There’s something I must talk to you about.”
Marthe hesitated. She stared at Herr Kaiser’s face: impassive, unsuspecting. She watched him shrug his shoulders, then do an about-face and go back down the stairs. She leaned over the railing and strained to hear any discourses, any arguments. Silence. She locked his door as quietly as possible and tiptoed down the steps, stopping each time they creaked, but Herr Gutterman did not open the door to his downstairs office, and she couldn’t hear any sounds coming out of it. As she exited the front door, she thought she heard a chair turning over, but kept running.
Herr Kaiser was not so fortunate. When he had entered Herr Gutterman’s office, the concierge took a couple of minutes to water his one sad-looking plant, fix a couple of small statues on his shelves, and dust off his desk, calm, collected, no emotions on his face. All of a sudden, it was as if some blood vessel had burst, oozing up into his cheeks and turning them red and puffy. Like a madman, he ran around his desk, knocked a chair over while he grabbed a cane, and raising it up, struck the boarder across the face. “You Jew-lover, I know now you’re up to no good! You swine, you will have to pay for this! Don’t you realize how close I am with the SS? How dare you have anything to do with Jews!”
Stunned, Herr Kaiser managed to sputter a few words. “Wha...what are you talking about? I don’t understand...”
“Frau Burger said she saw you talking to a Jew on the street a few weeks ago, and Frau Schmidt even saw you going into a Jewish store one evening. Both of them have given me their sworn testimony on this! Now what do you say to me, you swine!” His eyes almost popped out of their sockets as he staggered towards Herr Kaiser, his left hand holding several sheets up in the air. A second later, he drew a small whistle from out of his pocket and blew it, piercing the air and catapulting a terrified Herr Kaiser spread-eagled across the floor. Instantly, an SS guard appeared from out of nowhere, his uniform fastidious, menacing.
The co-conspirator was led away screaming, but somewhere inside he kept hoping the other boarders or Marthe, if she were still there, would go for help. But Marthe was gone, and the boarders all knew the drill too well; no one there would ever risk everything for the sake of someone else, not these days.
Later that night, nestled in Hans’ arms, Marthe started to shiver.
“What is wrong, dear one?” His voice was particularly smooth, liquid, like honey dripping over her freshly made sponge cake, just out of the oven.
“I am not sure, but in my heart, I feel something is not right.” She turned and presented him with her back, soft, warm, in need of comfort.
He draped his right arm over her stomach. “You are not due back at the boarding house for several days. By that time Herr Kaiser will have distributed the last passports, we will be finished with our work, and we can return to our old schedule, all right, my darling?”
Marthe nodded and closed her eyes, knowing the tears would come soon.
* * * * * * *
In the small border town of Kietz, Gertl Grynszpan couldn’t sleep even if she wanted to. Wedged in next to dozens of other Polish-born German Jews, she had trouble breathing in the stifling, overcrowded railway freight car and besides, her full bladder was keeping her awake. Still, she didn’t dare ask a border guard if she could go to the bathroom; it was enough just to hope for decent treatment without adding special privileges. Gagging, she could see the pools of urine spilling out in circular patterns on the floor and hear the young children whimpering, as they fidgeted next to their mothers every ten seconds..
“Mama, tell me again, why are we here? Why did the police come in the middle of the night and take us away?” Her fourteen-year-old daughter Berta wasn’t quite old enough to interpret her mother’s frightened eyes.
“I don’t know Berta, but hopefully we can go home soon. Now try to sleep. Go shushy...” she whispered, using the same, comforting words she had always uttered when sending her children off to sleep. As Berta and her young sister huddled against their mother, the teenager’s mind wouldn’t stay still. If they make us go to Poland, I will write Herschel in Paris to send us money; he has always taken care of us ever since Papa died. My brother will never let us down.
Just thinking of Herschel relaxed her and she started to doze off, when suddenly, hoarse, glottal words ripped through the night air. “Get up! You must cross the border now! Your new home will be in Lodz, Poland. Now, get going!” The guard’s ferocity matched his hate-filled face.
By the time they had reached Lodz, they were marched behind large wrought-iron gates and herded into various buildings whose shutters creaked and moaned in the wind as they trudged by. Once inside their sleeping quarters, although it was difficult for Berta to pull out a piece of paper and pen, she managed to scribblee a quick note to her brother:
are penniless. Please send some money
to us at Lodz. Love to you from us
She gently unclipped a pendant from around her neck that she had always treasured and handed it over to a woman who claimed she could get the note out safely to Herschel. She knew she would have to lie to her mother later and claim her heirloom jewelry had gotten lost in the shuffle somehow when they were detained at the border. But for now, Herschel’s help was top priority.
Herschel did receive the note a few days later, and promptly threw up his consomme avec pain lunch. That afternoon, wandering the pulsing Parisian streets and fuming, he ended up at a shop where he purchased a small, but accurate gun; he had had enough. The next day, before anyone knew to stop him, he entered the German Embassy, marched directly up to the first official he saw and shot him squarely in the chest, then turned to face four guards with pistols aimed at his head.
Ernst vom Rath, a bit player in the Nazi government, would have surely gone through his entire life unknown and unappreciated had it not been for his encounter with Herschel, instantly engraving his name into history books forever. As vom Rath lay dying, Herschel told the police, “Being a Jew is not a crime. I am not a dog. I have a right to live and the Jewish people have a right to exist on this earth!”
But Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, was not convinced. When vom Rath died, he blamed all Jews for Herschel’s work, and devised an immediate plan of retaliation.
* * * * * * *
In the dark, Marthe dressed haphazardly, with missed buttons and an unzippered-to-the-top skirt, anxious to get to work early and make sure all was well with Herr Kaiser. But approaching the boarding house, she stalled. There, in front of the entrance, were all sorts of furniture pieces, along with boxes and trunks overflowing with clothing, knick-knacks, books, and dishes, all juxtaposed against the building and blocking the sidewalk. Passerby’s, trying to edge their way through, had given up and finally, simply milled around with the boarders, comparing notes and talking excitedly.
“What is happening?” Marthe asked one of them leaning against a sofa back.
“Why, haven’t you heard? They’ve arrested Herr Kaiser, and Herr Gutterman is leaving us to join the Gestapo!”
“Arrested Herr Kaiser?” Marthe’s heart quickened. “Why?”
“They said he had Jewish connections; I don’t really know the details.” The boarder sounded slightly annoyed; after all, Herr Kaiser’s safety wasn’t nearly as important as losing a good concierge.
Barely touching the banister, Marthe flew up the stairs to Herr Kaiser’s room. There, she encountered the movers already starting to haul off his furniture piece by piece. The comforter still lay inert, neatly folded on the end of the bed, but she didn’t dare check for passports in front of the big burly men. Instead, she feigned a nonchalant attitude while dusting, humming slightly as she worked her way over towards the bed. They seemed amused by her cleaning at the last minute, but she didn’t care; it provided her with an excuse to stay close as they took everything downstairs to load onto a large van.
Checking the comforter was another thing altogether. She had performed her job so well,
she had to struggle to push two fingers way up into the batting. Frantically twisting her hand to the right then to the left, she couldn’t feel anything. She breathed a sigh of relief, and started to withdraw her fingers. Then she felt it. One of the hard, leather corners blocked her hand on the way out, bending her index finger. She shoved her other trembling fingers to the left of the passport, touching another hard edge, and another, and another until finally, she realized all fifty of them were still there, intact, ready for an exchange.
“You, please, let us finish our job. Danke,” one of the movers grumbled as he came into the room on his eighth trip from downstairs.
She jumped up and moved to the window, her body tingling like dozens of tiny flat-headed pins bouncing around inside her. Paralyzed, she watched the rest of the furniture being carted off past her: his bedside table, dressing table with the beveled-edge mirror, and wooden-needled phonograph player were all being taken down to the street, while the Beidermeier armoire and cherry wood chest set, as well as a foot-worn red, gold, brown, and black Oriental rug were hoisted up into the small van. Angling further out of the window, her heart still pounding, she could see the men slowly filling up the van with not only Herr Kaiser’s furniture, but other people’s property as well, people who had been arrested earlier that day. Decent antiques could still fetch a good price at local auction houses.
Ducking back in from the window’s ledge, she scooped up the comforter just in time to hear Herr Gutterman’s triumphant voice blasting from down below.
“I tell you, it was one of the most exciting moments of my life, Frau Lieppman. I should have joined up with the Fuhrer a long time ago. Yes, it is a very big honor to be part of this great movement!”
Marthe quickly returned the comforter to the end of the bed, seconds before a mover came into the room, grabbed it, and flung it carelessly over his shoulder and back, draping him like a toga. He marched downstairs and flung it out on the street where it remained, along with Herr Kaiser’s less important items, abandoned and unguarded.
Just visualizing people strolling by the quilt, talking in low casual tones, unaware of its importance, her heart picked up speed. As Herr Gutterman’s voice faded around the corner, she double-stepped down the stairs and hurried across the street to a local restaurant, to wait for the right moment to recover the comforter. But with each passing hour of slowly-sipped tea, Marthe became more and more agitated. She didn’t dare attempt a rescue in the midst of so much activity, yet the thought of fifty Jews unable to obtain their freedom made it difficult to breathe.
“Madam, are you planning on staying at your table all day?” the waiter’s tone was unmistakable.
It was obvious she needed a new hiding place; her watch post was becoming too apparent. Quickly paying the bill, she deposited a large tip on the table under a napkin and went searching for another place to lay low. An old, abandoned car proved to be perfect. Near an alleyway, it was off the beaten path, and crouching down behind it, she settled in for a better, darker time to rescue the passports.
As night colored the sky with navy blues and deep roses, she noticed fewer people around. This was her chance. She stood up, stretched, then started to come out from behind the car when she heard the first sound. Unable to identify it at first, its eerie quality immediately put her on edge. Brief, crystal-like notes were being repeated all over the streets like someone shattering bottles against stone walls. At first it was faint, scattered. But as the din increased, so did the thuds and the crashes, until Marthe became truly alarmed.
She raced around the corner to a neighboring street where she knew a Jewish school was located. Stunned, she could hear screams coming from inside as she watched one of the children opening up a window and yelling, “Help us, they’ve locked us in—please dear Gott, help us!” The girl struggled to climb out onto the windowsill to escape, but someone inside pulled her back, kicking and screaming.
“They’re burning a synagogue down the block. Come look!” a man bellowed as he ran by. Marthe saw other people streaming towards a paint-encrusted building she must have passed by hundreds of times in the past, but never noticed. Its wooden front doors were wide open and inside, men in brown shirts and swastikas were pouring gasoline on the seats, even the holy arks, then in unison, igniting everything. As the flames danced and crackled, Marthe could hear the fire trucks coming, their sirens howling so loudly she had to cover her ears. When they arrived, their brakes shuddered and squealed as firemen leapt off of die loschfahrzeuge and sprung into action, concentrating only on the neighboring buildings. The synagogue was left to burn.
Once each section of the temple started to kindle, the old, white walls grayed, then blackened with smoke. Flames reached up and licked the large Jewish star, making each of the six points melt then disappear until finally, all that was left of the symbol was a small part of the original center, hollowed out, erased forever.
Hans paced non-stop in his living room. He had not heard from Marthe all day, which, in itself was not that unusual, but with evening settling in and still no sign of her, he started to panic. What if something actually had happened to Herr Kaiser? Perhaps Marthe was right, perhaps...his thoughts raced around in circles until he thought he was going to explode. He had to get out of the apartment and go to her.
He began his trek towards the boarding house under hazy streetlights, gently beaming down a spotted path for several city blocks until suddenly, he heard a scream, then a loud, harrowing thud. Barreling toward the noise, all of a sudden he felt something graze his cheek. He stopped, slid his hand down his face until he got to his jaw, his fingers moistened and stained red. Looking at the fresh blood, he thought, what the hell is going on?
Up ahead, a mob had gathered around the old Wasserman store. Chairs, pipes, bricks, loose cobblestone, anything they could grab, were being hurled at the storefront windows, and when the plate glass cracked then shattered, the crowd cheered, laughing and slapping each other on their backs.
Hans hurried on, his heart ping-ponging, his mouth dry. Passing by his favorite movie house, he could feel another crowd swelling behind him, driving him inside. At first he couldn’t see anything in the pitch-black theater. People were pressing against him so violently, he had to cling on to the wall for support. But as his eyes grew accustomed to the half-light, he could discern a few people down in the front row being dragged up on stage, crying and pleading.
After the house lights were flipped on, he recognized several of the victims. It was members of the Federman family: Moshe Federman, Sadie, and Sarah cowering together Stage Right, sobbing, as two guards came forward and started beating them. Half-hearted cries of protest burst from the front row, while Judith Federman and her sons Leo and Hirsch were forced to watch their family attacked.
Nausea instantly filled Han’s throat and mouth, making him gag. Pushing his way out of the theater, he broke into a dead run to the boardinghouse, gulping air and saying the Av Harachamin, a prayer for Jewish martyrs. Around the corner, broken glass glistened on the streets as the largest mob that night swelled and rumbled down by the Lieberstrasse House.
In front of the building, a lone man straddled several huge crates stacked together, waving his arms and shouting, “Germany is for true Germans only. Juden es Vorboten! Jews are forbidden!”
The crowd took up the cry. “Germany is for true Germans, Germany is for true Germans! Juden es Verboten!”
Hans stepped in closer. Reflections from the different fires bounced and flickered against buildings, cars, and faces, reminding Hans of a horror picture he and Marthe had seen not so long before, where a vampire’s face was illuminated by the glow from people’s torches. The orator’s face remained hidden from view, and the swell of the swarm kept his voice unrecognizable. But then the crowd cheered again, and the man slowly turned his face in Hans’ direction; it was Herr Gutterman, distorted with power and rage.
Hans gasped, and when people turned to stare at him, immediately ducked back into the shadows of a nearby alley, frantic at the thought of trying to find, then extricate Marthe from this frenzy. Seconds later, he slowly inched his way out when suddenly, two small arms encircled him from behind. Jerking backward, he nearly knocked Marthe over as they both fell hard onto an overflowing garbage can, all four legs splayed upward.
“I thought I would never find you!” Hans murmured, stroking her hair and trying to blink back tears.
“Hans, the comforter...Herr Kaiser....it’s horrible...” Marthe could only string a few words together at one time as she stood up, flipping off bits of garbage from her skirt.
“What is it? What are you trying to say?” Hans demanded.
Finally, she managed to spit out a complete sentence. “Herr Kaiser was arrested before he could transfer the passports! All fifty of them are still in the comforter!”
They both pivoted towards the forgotten coverlet, thrown recklessly over a dresser sitting on the sidewalk to the left of Herr Gutterman. Then slowly, they turned towards each other, their eyes the size of potholes.
Krystallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, was in full swing; books were yanked out of stores and libraries and thrown onto huge bonfires that hissed and crackled up towards the blackened sky, as frenzied people danced up and down, laughing, howling, out of control.
Marthe and Hans watched Herr Gutterman suddenly leap down from his makeshift podium to yell, “Help me people; let’s fill this comforter with more books so we can make the biggest fire in the world! We’ll wipe out every Communist intellectual and Jewish book in existence!”
With the help of three other men, they pulled the comforter over to a nearby store and started loading it up with dozens of books. Hoisting it up like a tent, they marched over to the fire and on the count of, ‘ one-two-three-Go.!’ flipped the books up into the air and onto the fire.
The crowd loved it. After that, a chorus of ‘one-two-three-Go!’ accompanied each new load-and-toss of books onto the growing fire. On the last trip, the coverlet came dangerously close to the fire, and Hans had to pin Marthe back from racing over to try to stop the proceedings.
After a while, Herr Gutterman and his cohorts had depleted all the books and were on to the next inspired insult. “Let’s gather up the glass from the street and throw it all into their ghetto. Let glass rain down on all the Juden! Down on all the Juden!!”
People applauded, stomped, and cheered before picking up shards of glass to fling beyond the ghetto walls. Bleeding hands left the glass red, but they were oblivious; this night was too exciting to worry about such trivialities.
Frustrated, Herr Gutterman searched around for something to speed up the process. His eyes lit on the comforter and he ran towards it, calling out for everyone to bring their glass pieces over to him. As he lay the comforter flat on the street, people dumped the jagged shards onto its soft folds, mounding a pile of glass at least one to two feet high. Then, four or five men each grabbed a corner of the comforter and started to move over to the iron gates just outside the ghetto, the coverlet swinging back and forth. Muffled sounds of crushed glass echoed eerily: crussshhh— crussshhh— crussshhh— it repeated, until finally, the men halted in front of the gates.
‘One-two-three, go!’ Everyone screamed, watching the glass fly up into the air, disappear into the dark, then fall like slivered rain from a noiseless sky onto the courtyard of the ghetto.
Craving an encore, Herr Gutterman started in again. “Let’s do it again, only this time, let the comforter GO! Ready?”
The crowd followed suit, chanting, “One-two-three—Let GO!” Suddenly, the entire comforter was released, flying over the gates like an Arabian carpet floating in space.
Hans and Marthe held their breaths. From out of the ghetto came only silence; no one stepped out nor even poked out their head. After a few minutes, the crowd drifted off, tired of this game and eager for higher stakes. As the footsteps faded, Marthe and Hans stepped forward cautiously, gripping each other’s hand, hoping to see any form of life rustling behind those apartment walls. But there was only the hollowness of a ghost town that had once existed, now seemingly boarded up and abandoned.
Later that night, safe in their apartment, Hans and Marthe collapsed together on their sofa, sobbing and promising each other they would leave Germany at the next possible opportunity. But first, they had to make sure. In the morning, after a hurried cup of coffee and day-old apple streudel, they gingerly walked down Lebenstrausse Street, stopping by the ghetto gates. Still, there was no sign of life.
And no sign of the comforter.
They needn’t have worried. As the official stamp had punched down on each German passport at the Bahnsteig Bahnhof railroad station earlier that morning, fifty men, women, and children, their faces smooth with relief, boarded a train out of Germany.