The acclaimed author of The Good German “deftly captures the ambience” (The New York Times Book Review) of postwar East Berlin in his “thought-provoking, pulse-pounding” (Wall Street Journal) New York Times bestseller—a sweeping spy thriller about a city caught between political idealism and the harsh realities of Soviet occupation.
Berlin, 1948. Almost four years after the war’s end, the city is still in ruins, a physical wasteland and a political symbol about to rupture. In the West, a defiant, blockaded city is barely surviving on airlifted supplies; in the East, the heady early days of political reconstruction are being undermined by the murky compromises of the Cold War. Espionage, like the black market, is a fact of life. Even culture has become a battleground, with German intellectuals being lured back from exile to add credibility to the competing sectors.
Alex Meier, a young Jewish writer, fled the Nazis for America before the war. But the politics of his youth have now put him in the crosshairs of the McCarthy witch-hunts. Faced with deportation and the loss of his family, he makes a desperate bargain with the fledgling CIA: he will earn his way back to America by acting as their agent in his native Berlin. But almost from the start things go fatally wrong. A kidnapping misfires, an East German agent is killed, and Alex finds himself a wanted man. Worse, he discovers his real assignment—to spy on the woman he left behind, the only woman he has ever loved. Changing sides in Berlin is as easy as crossing a sector border. But where do we draw the lines of our moral boundaries? At betrayal? Survival? Murder? Joseph Kanon’s compelling thriller is a love story that brilliantly brings a shadowy period of history vividly to life.
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THEY WERE STILL A few miles out when he heard the planes, a low steady droning, coming closer, the way the bombers must have sounded. Now loaded with food and sacks of coal. After Köpenick he could make out their lights in the sky, dropping toward the dark city, one plane after another, every thirty seconds they said, if that were possible, unloading then taking off again, the lights now a line of vanishing dots, like tracer bullets.
“How does anyone sleep?”
“You don’t hear them after a while,” Martin said. “You get used to it.”
Maybe Martin had, new to Berlin. But what about the others, who remembered huddling in shelters every night, waiting to die, listening to the engine sounds—how near?—the whining thrust as the nose was pulled up, free of the weight of its bombs, now floating somewhere overhead.
“So many planes,” Alex said, almost to himself. “How long can they keep it going?” Die Luftbrücke, Berlin’s lifeline now, with little parachutes of candy for the children, for the photographers.
“Not much longer,” Martin said, certain. “Think of the expense. And for what? They’re trying to make two cities. Two mayors, two police. But there’s only one city. Berlin is still where it is, in the Soviet zone. They can’t move it. They should leave now. Let things get back to normal.”
“Well, normal,” Alex said. The planes were getting louder, almost overhead, Tempelhof only one district west. “And will the Russians leave too?”
“I think so, yes,” Martin said, something he’d considered. “They stay for each other. The Americans don’t leave because the Russians—” He stopped. “But of course they’ll have to. It’s not reasonable,” he said, a French use of the word. “Why would the Russians stay? If Germany were neutral. Not a threat anymore.”
“Neutral but Socialist?”
“How else now? After the Fascists. It’s what everyone wants, I think, don’t you?” He caught himself. “Forgive me. Of course you do. You’ve come back for this, a Socialist Germany. To make the future with us. It was the dream of your book. I’ve told you, I think, I’m a great admirer—”
“Yes, thank you,” Alex said, weary.
Martin had joined him when he changed cars at the Czech border, straw-colored hair slicked back, face scrubbed and eager, the bright-eyed conviction of a Hitler Youth. He was the first young man Alex had met since he arrived, all the others buried or missing, irretrievable. Then a few dragging steps and Alex saw why: a Goebbels clubfoot had kept him out of the war. With the leg and the slick hair he even looked a little like Goebbels, without the hollow cheeks, the predator eyes. Now he was brimming with high spirits, his initial formal reticence soon a flood of talk. How much Der letzte Zaun had meant to him. How pleasing it was that Alex had decided to make his home in the East, “voting with your feet.” How difficult the first years had been, the cold, the starvation rations, and how much better it was now, you could see it every day. Brecht had come—had Alex known him in America? Thomas Mann? Martin was a great admirer of Brecht too. Perhaps he could dramatize Alex’s Der letzte Zaun, an important antifascist work, something that might appeal to him.
“He’d have to talk to Jack Warner first,” Alex said, smiling to himself. “He controls the rights.”
“There was a film? I didn’t realize. Of course we never saw American films.”
“No, there was going to be, but he never made it.”
The Last Fence, a Book-of-the-Month-Club Selection, the lucky break that supported his exile. Warners bought it for Cagney, then Raft, then George Brent, then the war came and they wanted battle pictures, not prison-camp escapes, so the project was shelved, another might-have-been on a shelf full of them. But the sale paid for the house in Santa Monica, not far from Brecht’s, in fact.
“But you were able to read it?” Alex said. “There were copies in Germany?” Really asking, who are you? A representative from the Kulturbund, yes, the artists’ association, but what else? Everyone here had a history now, had to be accounted for.
“In Switzerland you could get the Querido edition.” The émigré press in Amsterdam, which explained the book, but not Martin. “Of course, there were still many copies of Der Untergang in Germany, even after it was banned.”
Downfall, the book that had made his reputation, presumably the reason Germany wanted him back—Brecht and Anna Seghers and Arnold Zweig had all come home and now Alex Meier, Germany’s exiles returning. To the East, even culture part of the new war. He thought of Brecht ignored in California, Seghers invisible in Mexico City, now celebrated again, pictures in the paper, speeches of welcome by Party officials.
There had been a lunch for him earlier at the first town over the border. They had left Prague at dawn to be in time for it, the streets still dark, slick with rain, the way they always seemed to be in Kafka. Then miles of stubby fields, farmhouses needing paint, ducks splashing in mud. At the border town—what was it called?—Martin had been there with welcoming flowers, the mayor and town council turned out in Sunday suits, worn and boxy, a formal lunch at the Rathaus. Photographs were taken for Neues Deutschland, Alex shaking hands with the mayor, the prodigal son come home. He was asked to say a few words. Sing for his supper. What he was here for, why they offered the resident visa in the first place, to make the future with us.
He had expected somehow to find all of Germany in ruins, the country you saw in Life, digging out, but the landscape after lunch was really a continuation of the morning’s drive, shabby farms and poor roads, their shoulders chewed up by years of tanks and heavy trucks. Not the Germany he’d known, the big house in Lützowplatz. Still, Germany. He felt his stomach tighten, the same familiar apprehension, waiting for the knock on the door. Now lunch with the mayor, the bad old days something in the past.
They avoided Dresden. “It would break your heart,” Martin had said. “The swine. They bombed everything. For no reason.” But what reason could there have been? Or for Warsaw, Rotterdam, any of them, maybe Martin too young to remember the cheering in the streets then. Alex said nothing, looking out at the gray winter fields. Where was everybody? But it was late in the year for farmwork and anyway the men were gone.
Martin insisted on sitting with him in the back, an implied higher status than the driver, which meant they talked all the way to Berlin.
“Excuse me, you don’t mind? It’s such an opportunity for me. I’ve always wondered. The family in Downfall? These were actual people you knew? It’s like Buddenbrooks?”
“Actual people? No,” Alex said.
Were they still alive? Irene and Elsbeth and Erich, old Fritz, the people of his life, swallowed up in the war, maybe just names now on a refugee list, untraceable, their only existence in Alex’s pages, something Fritz would have hated.
“It’s not us, these people,” he’d yelled at Alex. “My father never gambled, not like that.”
“It’s not you,” Alex had said calmly.
“Everybody says it’s us. They say it at the club. You should hear Stolberg. ‘Only a Jew would write such things.’”
“Well, a Jew did,” Alex said.
“Half a Jew,” Fritz snapped, then more quietly, “Anyway, your father’s a good man. Stolberg’s just like the rest of them.” He looked up. “So it’s not us?”
“It’s any Junker family. You know how writers use things—a look, a mannerism, you use everything you know.”
“Oh, and so now we’re Junkers. And I suppose we lost the war too. Pickelhauben.”
“Read the book,” Alex had said, knowing Fritz never would.
“What does it mean, anyway? Downfall. What happens to them? The father gambles? So what?”
“They lose their money,” Alex said.
Old Fritz turned, embarrassed now. “Well, that’s easy enough to do. In the inflation everybody lost something.”
Alex waited, the air settling around them. “It’s not you,” he said again.
And Fritz believed him.
“But the camp in The Last Fence,” Martin was saying. “That’s Sachsenhausen, yes? They said at the office you’d been in Sachsenhausen.”
“Oranienburg, in the first camp there. They built Sachsenhausen later. They put us in an old brewery. Right in the center of town. People could see through the windows. So everyone knew.”
“But it was as you describe? You were tortured?” Martin said, unable to resist.
“No. Everyone was beaten. But the worst things—I was lucky.” Hands tied behind their backs then hung from poles until the shoulder joints separated, torn from the sockets, screams they couldn’t help, pain so terrible they finally passed out. “I wasn’t there long enough. Somebody got me out. You could still do that then. ’33. If you knew the right people.” The one thing old Fritz had left, connections.
“But in the book—”
“It’s meant to be any camp.”
“It’s nice, though, don’t you agree, to know what the author has in his mind, what he sees?”
“Well, Sachsenhausen then,” Alex said, tired of it. “The layout was described to me, so I knew what it was like. Then you invent.”
“?’33,” Martin said, backing off. “When they rounded up the Communists. You were in the Party even then?”
“No, not then,” Alex said. “I just got caught in the net. If you were sympathetic. If you had Communist friends. They scooped up all the fish and you were caught. You didn’t need to have a card.”
“And now the Americans are doing it, putting Communists in jail. They said that’s why you left.” A question. “They’re trying to destroy the Party. Just like the Nazis.” The only way it made sense to the Kulturbund.
“They’re not sending people to Sachsenhausen,” Alex said evenly. “It’s not illegal to be a Communist.”
“But I thought—”
“They want you to tell them who the others are. Give them names. And if you don’t—then that’s illegal. So they catch you that way.”
“And then to jail,” Martin said, following the logic.
“Sometimes,” Alex said vaguely.
Or deportation, the Dutch passport of convenience that had once saved his life now something to use against him. “Might I remind you, you are a guest in this country?” The congressman with the thick athlete’s neck, who probably thought exile a greater threat than prison. And let Alex slip away.
“So you came home to Germany,” Martin said, making a story.
“Yes, home,” Alex said, looking out the window again.
“So, that’s good,” Martin said, the story’s end.
There were city buildings now, the jagged graveyard streets of the newsreels, Friedrichshain probably, given the direction they were coming from. He tried to picture the map in his head—Grosse Frankfurter Strasse?—looking for some familiar landmark, but all he could see were faceless bombed-out buildings heaped with rubble. He thought of the women handing down pails of debris, hammering mortar off reusable bricks—and four years later the rubble was still here, mountains of it. How much had there been? Standing walls were pockmarked by shelling, marooned in empty spaces where buildings had collapsed, leaving gaps for the wind to rush through. The streets, at least, had been cleared but were still lined on either side with piles of bricks and smashed porcelain and twisted metal. Even the smell of bombing, the burned wood and the sour lime of broken cement, was still in the air. But maybe, like the airlift planes, you didn’t notice after a while.
“You still have family in Germany?” Martin was asking.
“No. No one,” Alex said. “They waited too long.” He turned to Martin, as if it needed to be explained. “My father had the Iron Cross. He thought it would protect him.”
But did he? Or was it simply a cover for a fatalism so knowing and desperate that it couldn’t be admitted? It was almost as if he had exhausted himself getting Alex out. How much had it cost? Enough to wipe out Fritz’s debts? More?
“You owe him your gratitude,” was all his father would say.
“You should come too,” Alex had said.
His father shook his head. “There’s no need. Not for me. I’m not the one they send to prison for having such friends. The Engel boy, he was always trouble. Who does he think he is, Liebknecht? Times like these, you stay quiet.” He took Alex’s shoulder. “You’ll be back. This is Germany, you know, not some Slavic— So it passes and you’ll come back. Nothing is forever. Not the Nazis. Now don’t worry your mother.”
But it turned out the Nazis were forever, long enough anyway to turn his parents into ash, seeping into the soil somewhere in Poland.
“There’s Alexanderplatz up ahead,” Martin said.
The welcome lunch and bad roads had made the trip longer than they’d expected, and it was late now, their car lights stronger than the occasional streetlamp shining a pale cone on the rubble. On the side streets there were no lights at all. Alex leaned forward, peering, oddly excited now that they were really here. Berlin. He could make out the scaffolding of a building site and then, beyond a cleared, formless space, the dark hulk of the palace, singed with soot, the dome just a steel frame, but still standing, the last Hohenzollern. Across from it the cathedral was a blackened shell. Alex had expected the city center, the inevitable showcase, to be visibly recovering, but it was the same as Friedrichshain, more rubble, endless, the old Schinkel buildings gutted and sagging. Unter den Linden was dark, the lindens themselves scorched clumps. There was scarcely any traffic, just a few military cars driving slowly, as if they were patrolling the empty street. At Friedrichstrasse, no one was waiting to cross. A sign in Cyrillic pointed to the station. The city was as quiet as a village on some remote steppe. Berlin.
All the way in Martin had talked about the Adlon, where Alex was to stay until a flat could be arranged. It was for Martin a place of mythic glamour, of Weimar first nights, Lubitsch in a fur collar coat. “Brecht and Weigel are there too, you know.” Which seemed to confirm not only the hotel’s status, but Alex’s own. But now that they were almost there, with no lights visible up ahead, no awning or doormen whistling down taxis, he began to apologize.
“Of course it’s only the annex. You know the main building was burned. But very comfortable I’m told. And the dining room is almost like before.” He checked his watch. “It’s late, but I’m sure for you they would—”
“No, that’s all right. I just want to go to bed. It’s been—”
“Of course,” Martin said, but with such heavy disappointment that Alex realized he’d been hoping to join him for dinner, a meal off the ration book. Instead, he handed Alex an envelope. “Here are all the papers you’ll need. Identity card. Kulturbund membership—the food is excellent there, by the way. You understand, for members only.”
“No starving artists?”
A joke, but Martin looked at him blankly.
“No one starves here. Now tomorrow we have the reception for you. At the Kulturbund. Four o’clock. It’s not far, around the corner, so I will come for you at three thirty.”
“That’s all right. I can find—”
“It’s my pleasure,” Martin said. “Come.” Nodding to the driver to bring the suitcase.
The functioning part of the Adlon was in the back, at the end of a pathway through the gutted front. The staff greeted him with a stage formality, bowing, their uniforms and cutaways part of the surreal theatrical effect. Through a door he could see the starched linen on the dining tables. No one seemed to notice the charred timbers, the boarded windows.
“Alex?” A throaty woman’s voice. “My God, to see you here.”
He turned. “Ruth. I thought you’d gone to New York.” Not just gone to New York, been hospitalized there, the breakdown he’d heard about in whispers.
“Yes, but now here. Brecht needs me here, so I came.”
Martin lifted his head at this.
“I’m sorry,” Alex said, introducing them. “Ruth Berlau, Martin—”
“Schramm. Martin Schramm.” He dipped his head.
“Ruth is Brecht’s assistant,” Alex said, smiling. “Right hand. Collaborator.” Mistress. He remembered the teary afternoons at Salka’s house on Mabery Road, worn down by a backstairs life.
“His secretary,” Ruth said to Martin, correcting Alex but flattered.
“I’m a great admirer of Herr Brecht’s work,” Martin said, almost clicking his heels, a courtier.
“So is he,” Ruth said, deadpan, so that Alex wasn’t sure he could laugh.
She seemed smaller, more fragile, as if the hospital had drawn some force out of her.
“You’re staying here?” he said.
“Yes, just down the hall. From Bert.”
Not mentioning Helene Weigel, his wife, down the hall with him, the geography of infidelity. He imagined the women passing in the lobby, eyeing each other, years of it now.
“Of course a smaller room. Not like the great artist’s.” An ironic smile, used to servants’ quarters. “They’re going to give him a theater, you know. Isn’t it wonderful? All his plays, whatever he decides. We’re doing Mother Courage first. At the Deutsches Theater. He was hoping for the Schiff, but not yet, maybe later. But the Deutsches is good, the acoustics—”
“Who’s playing Courage?”
“Helene,” she said simply. Now finally Brecht’s star as well as his wife. Alex thought of the wasted years of exile, keeping house for him, ignoring the mistress, an actress without her language. “You’ll have to come to the theater. She’ll be pleased to see you again. You know Schulberg is here?” Wanting to gossip, California in common. She jerked her head. “In the army. Over in the West. Which is lucky for us. Food packages from the PX—he’s very generous.” Alex felt Martin shift position, uncomfortable. “Not for Bert, of course. They give him anything he wants. But for the cast, always hungry. So Helene gets food for them. Imagine what they would say if they knew they were flying in food for Weigel?” She looked up at him, as if the thought had jogged her memory. “So tell me, what happened with the committee? Did you testify?”
“But there was a subpoena?” Asking something else.
“So,” she said, taking in the lobby, his presence explained. “Then you can’t go back.” Something else remembered, glancing behind him. “Marjorie’s not with you?”
Alex shook his head. “She’s getting a divorce.” He raised his hand. “We should have done it years ago.”
“But what happens to Peter? The way you are with him—”
“He’ll come visit,” Alex said, stopping her.
“But he stays with her,” she said, not letting go.
“Well, with the way things are—”
“You like a fugitive, you mean. That’s what they want—hound us all like fugitives. Only Bert was too clever for them. Did you see? No one understood anything he said. Dummkopfs. And what? They thanked him for his testimony. Only he could do that. Outfox them.”
“But he left anyway.” His bridges burning too. “So now we’re both here,” Alex said, looking at her.
“We’re so happy to have our writers back,” Martin said before she could answer. “A wonderful thing, yes? To be in your own country. Your own language. Think what that means for a writer.”
Ruth looked up at this, then retreated, like a timid animal poking its head through the bushes then skittering away, frightened by the scent in the air.
“Yes, and here I am talking and you want to go to your room.” She put her hand on Alex’s arm. “So come see us.” But who exactly? Brecht and Ruth or all three? A hopeless tangle. She smiled shyly. “He’s happy here, you know. The theater. A German audience. That’s everything for him.” Her eyes shining a little now, an acolyte’s pleasure. The same look, oddly, he’d seen in Martin’s, both in thrall to some idea that seemed worth a sacrifice.
“I will,” he said, then noticed the overnight bag at her feet. “But you’re going away?”
“No, no, just to Leipzig. They want to put on Galileo. Bert doesn’t think they’re serious, but someone has to go. One day, two maybe. It’s all right, they keep my room for me here. You can’t make such arrangements by letter. You have to go.” So someone would.
The room, on the third floor, still had blackout curtains hanging heavily to the floor, and the bellboy, barely in his teens, made an elaborate show of drawing them, then demonstrating the light switches, the candle and matches, in case of power cuts. He nodded to the luggage rack with its single suitcase.
“Are you expecting more bags?”
“Not tonight. In a few days.” The rest of his life, sitting somewhere on a railway siding, waiting for the new flat to be ready. But why wasn’t it? It occurred to him, now that he’d seen the city, that flats must be prizes awarded by the Party. It wasn’t ready because someone was still in it, packing, being shuffled off somewhere else, the way Jews had been told to leave.
“Is there anything else I can get for you?” A bottle from the cellar, a girl, a bellboy’s usual late night services, but offered now without innuendo, vice out of style in the workers’ state, the boy himself too young to know the old code. Maybe one of the boys defending the city with panzerfausts during the last days. Now waiting for a tip.
“Oh,” Alex said, picking up one of the envelopes from Martin, his walking-around money. He handed a note to the boy.
“Excuse me, perhaps you have Western currency?” Then, almost stammering, “I mean, you are coming from there.”
“Sorry. I came through Prague. No West marks. Just these.”
The boy looked at him. “Not marks. Do you have a dollar?”
Alex stopped, surprised. The contact line, sooner than he expected. Not even a day to settle in. The boy was still staring at him. Speaking code after all, a new vice, not too young for this. Or was Alex imagining it all?
He took out his wallet and handed the boy the folded dollar bill, watching as the boy looked at it, then handed it back.
“You are from Berlin? From before?”
“Naturally you would be interested to see your old home? A matter of curiosity. It’s often the first thing people want to do. Who’ve been away.”
“Lützowplatz,” Alex said, waiting.
Now the boy nodded. “In the West,” he said, already another city in his mind. “You can walk there. Through the park. In the morning.” Instructions. “Early. Before eight, if you would be up.”
“There’s no trouble crossing?”
The boy looked puzzled for a second. “Trouble? To walk in the Tiergarten?”
“At the sector crossing.”
The boy almost smiled. “It’s a street only. Sometimes they stop a car. To inspect for the black market. But not someone who walks in the park.” He paused. “Early,” he said again. “So, now good night.” He held out his hand. “Excuse me. The East marks? Since you don’t have West? Vielen Dank,” he said, palming the note and backing toward the door, a practiced move, part of the Adlon touch. But did he have any idea what he’d done? Just delivering a message, pocketing a tip, no questions asked. Or something more, already part of it?
Alex took off his coat and lay on the bed, too tired to get undressed, staring at the dim chandelier overhead. They’d told him the most likely places for bugs were telephones and lighting fixtures. Had the chandelier been listening? He thought over everything the boy had said, how it would sound. But what could be more innocent than a walk in the park?
In the silence he could hear the planes again, muffled, as if he were listening from below in one of the hotel shelters. Some of the guests would have been in furs, not wanting to lose them if their rooms disappeared by the time the all clear sounded. Could you actually hear fire, flames licking at walls just overhead? Then the shelter became the cell in Oranienburg, not the barracks, the interrogation cell, airless, the old nightmare, and he willed his eyes open, short of breath, and went over to the windows.
Why have blackout curtains now, live in the dark? In California you could keep the windows open, never be shut in. He pushed the heavy drapes apart, then felt the first draft of cold air seeping through. Still, better than living in a tomb. Anything was better than that.
The view faced the back, the hills of rubble that had been Wilhelmstrasse off to the left, an empty stretch of wasteland ahead, barely visible by moonlight. The new view from the Adlon. Maybe that’s why the curtains. Inside, cocooned, you could still imagine the ministries lined up in their grave permanence, not the ghost town that was actually there, a faint ashy gray in the pale light.
What Lützowplatz would be like too. The world of his childhood already belonged to memory, to old photographs. Bicycles by the Landwehrkanal, afternoons in the park, Aunt Lotte’s fussy visits—you didn’t expect any of these to survive. Things changed. Cars in the photographs looked faintly comical. But now the city itself was gone, streets no longer there, wiped not just from memory but from any time, the standing ruins like bones left behind, carrion.
And he’d come to feed on it too, a prize catch, already caught, the bargain he’d had to make. Do whatever they wanted. And what would that be? Not just a walk in the park. He lay there, the room getting colder, seeing Ruth’s cautious eyes. Did you testify? In exile you learned to get by, principle an extravagance you could no longer afford. A lesson he thought he knew, all those years of it, and then thrown away in one heedless refusal. Would it have mattered, giving them names they already had? What if he’d done the practical thing, cooperated with the committee? But no bargain had been offered, not then. And he’d seen the faces before, the jowls and smirks, when they’d been Nazis, the same bullying voices, and he couldn’t do it. An act of contempt, cause for deportation, and then a different bargain, the one the committee would not know about.
“It’s perfect,” Don Campbell had said when they met in Frankfurt. “Telling the committee to go fuck themselves? Not even Brecht did that. Talk about lefty credentials. The Russians would never think— Perfect.”
“Perfect,” Alex had said, a monotone.
“And they want you. They think they’re pulling a fast one, getting you.”
“But I’m pulling the fast one,” Alex said, his voice still flat.
Don looked up. “That’s right. A fast one on them. And a fast one on the committee. Work with us, we’ll get you back in. New papers from State.” He nodded. “A guarantee. Uncle Sam takes care of his own.” He paused. “And you see your kid.”
The closing argument, why it was perfect, Alex’s cuffs.
“How long do I do this?”
“They’ll give you privileges,” Don said, not answering. “They do that with writers. Like they’re movie stars. Extra payoks.”
“Food packages. Off ration. You’ll need them too.” He lowered his voice. “Wait till you see it. The Socialist paradise.”
“I am a Socialist,” Alex said, a wry turn to his mouth. Fifteen years ago, before life had tied him up in knots. “I believe in a just society.”
Don looked at him, disconcerted, then brought things back. “That’s why you’re perfect.”
He drifted into a half sleep, eyes closed but his mind still awake, sorting through the long day, the mayor’s welcoming speech, posing for Neues Deutschland, and now there was tomorrow’s reception to get through, and all the days after that. His picture would be in the papers. Irene would know he was here, if she was still alive. But why would she be? Any of them? You still have family in Germany, Martin had asked. His parents’ deaths at least had been confirmed.
“We had to check, if you had any people left,” Don had said. “The Russians use that sometimes. If the family’s in their zone.”
“Use them how?”
“Pressure. Bait. Make sure you cooperate.”
“Imagine,” Alex said.
Don looked up at him. “But it’s not an issue here. We have the records. They’re both gone, your mother, your—”
“I could have told you that.”
“We like to make sure.”
“I had an aunt. Lotte. She married into a Gentile family, so—”
“I wouldn’t hold out a lot of hope.” He took out a pen. “What’s the married name? I can put a query through the OMGUS files.”
Don raised an eyebrow. “Really? Von?”
“Really. They got it from Friedrich Wilhelm himself. After the Battle of Fehrbellin.” Then, seeing Don’s blank stare, “It’s an old name.”
“Nice. Rich relatives.”
Alex smiled. “Not anymore. They went through all the money. Lotte’s too, probably.”
“Where was this? Berlin?”
Alex nodded. “And Pomerania. They had property there.”
Don shook his head. “Commies broke up all the big estates. If she’s still alive, she’s probably somewhere in the West. A lot of them left after.”
“That would make her easier to trace then.”
“Easy. Try to find records in that—”
“But if you do turn anything up—on any of them.” He caught Don’s expression. “I knew the family.”
“But they’re not related. Just the aunt.”
“That’s right, just the aunt.”
Not related. Everything else.
But nothing came back on Lotte. Old Fritz had died and Erich’s army records listed him as taken POW in Russia, which probably meant the same thing. But Irene and Elsbeth had vanished. The final downfall, even the name itself gone now.
It was Elsbeth who had kept the family genealogy, in a large leather book that sat on a sideboard in the country house.
“The christening records go back to the thirteenth century,” she had said, a caretaker’s pride.
“Ouf,” Irene said, “and what were they doing? Getting drunk and planting beets. What else is it good for?” This with a wave of her hand to the flat fields stretching toward the Baltic. “It’s still beets. Beets and beets. Farmers.”
“What’s wrong with farmers? You should be proud,” old Fritz said.
“Anyway, the Poles do all the work. Nobody in this family ever did anything.”
Lazily picking up her lemonade and leaning back against the lawn chair, as if offering herself as living proof. One of those summer afternoons, the air too still to carry the smell of the sea, just the baking fields. Irene in shorts, her long leg propped up, making a triangle.
“Well, now is your chance to do something then,” old Fritz said, already sipping beer. “Instead of hanging around with riffraff. Drug addicts. Pansies. Out every night.”
Irene sniffed, an old complaint, not worth answering. “But still living at home.”
“Of course living at home. A girl not yet married.”
“So what should I do? Drive a tractor maybe.”
Alex smiled, imagining her up on the high seat, her hair a braided crown, like the model worker in a Russian poster. Women with wrenches, rolling up their sleeves. Not languidly painting her toenails, as she had been doing earlier, each stroke a kind of invitation, looking up and meeting his eyes, even the nail polish now part of the secret between them.
That had been the summer of sex, hanging thick in the air like pollen. The first time, every guy feels like a conqueror, a producer in California had once told him, but that hadn’t been how it had felt. A buoyant giddiness he was afraid would show on his face, a heat rising off his skin, like sunburn, flushed with it. The furtive pleasure of being let in on a secret no one else seemed to know. People just kept doing what they’d been doing before. As if nothing had changed.
No one suspected. Not Erich, not old Fritz, not even Elsbeth, usually aware of the slightest change in Irene’s moods. The risk of being caught became part of the sex. Her room at night, trying not to make a sound, gasps in his ear. On the stairs, a maid’s footsteps overhead. An outbuilding on the farm, smelling of must, the hay scratchy. Behind the dunes, naked to the sharp air, with Erich only a few yards away, at the water’s edge, the wind in his ears so that he couldn’t hear Irene panting, her release. Every part of her body open to him, his mouth all over her, and still he couldn’t get enough. Not that summer, when they were drunk with sex.
“Do? You can marry Karl Stolberg. That would be doing something. The Stolbergs have a hundred thousand acres. At least a hundred thousand.”
“Oh, then why not a von Armin? They have even more. Twice that.”
“There’s no von Armin the right age,” Fritz said, not rising to the tease.
“Then I’ll wait,” Irene said.
Fritz snorted. “You think a girl has forever to decide this?”
“Anyway, who needs more land? Why don’t you auction me off? Get some cash. Good Pomeranian stock. Untouched.” She looked over at Alex, a sly smile. “How much for a bridal night?”
“Irene, how can you talk like this?” Elsbeth said, her mouth narrowing. “To father.”
But it was Elsbeth, prim and conventional, who was offended, not Fritz, who enjoyed jousting with Irene, a daughter cut from the same rough cloth.
“Let’s hope he doesn’t ask for proof,” Fritz said. “Untouched.”
“Papa,” Elsbeth said.
“Well, it’d be worth the wait. For a von Armin,” Irene said, enjoying herself. “But then—I don’t know—maybe not. The von Bernuths only marry for love. Isn’t that right? Just like you and Mama.”
“That was different.”
“Yes? How many acres did she bring?”
“Don’t make fun of your mother.”
A woman Alex remembered always in the same full skirt, piled hair held by a tortoise comb, a Wilhelmine figure who spent her days running the house—the long, rich meals, the polishing and dusting—as if nothing had changed outside the heavy front doors, the kaiser still in place, the angry noises in the street better ignored, a time before politics.
“I can also run a trace through CROWCASS,” Campbell had said.
“Registry of war criminals. Convicted. Suspected.”
“No. They weren’t like that.”
“If you say so. Nobody was, not now. Just ask them.”
Alex shook his head. “You didn’t know them. They were in their own world. Fritz—I don’t think he ever had an idea in his head. Just shooting birds and chasing the maids.”
“Game birds. And deer. Hunting. It’s a big thing in that part of the world. Was, anyway.”
The house parties, long cold days in the fields, beaters up ahead, then a rush of birds up through the trees, yellow birch against the dark green firs. Lined up for pictures with the day’s kill laid out in front, bonfires, bottles of Sekt, dinners that went on all evening. Sometimes an invitation farther east, the thick forests of East Prussia, wild boar.
“I thought you said they were broke.”
“It doesn’t cost anything to be a guest—they were one of the old families. Anyway, they had enough for that.” He looked at Don. “He didn’t care about Hitler, any of that. They never talked about politics.”
Until it was all they talked about, the unavoidable poisoned air everyone breathed, even the dinner table under siege.
“I won’t have it in this house,” Fritz said. “All this talk. Bolsheviks.”
“Bolsheviks,” Erich said, dismissive, his father’s bluster by now a familiar joke. “It’s not Russia here.”
“So what, then? Hooligans? Maybe you prefer hooligans. Otto Wolff and the rest of your gang. Socialists. What does it even mean, ‘Socialists’? Kurt Engel. A Jew—” Catching himself, aware of Alex down the table. “Fighting in the streets. We had enough of that after the war. Spartakists. That woman Luxemburg. Of course dead. How else would she end up?”
“We’re not fighting in the streets,” Erich said, an exaggerated patience. “The Nazis are fighting.”
“And cracking skulls. Yours, if you’re not careful, and then what? Politics.” Almost spitting it out. “I don’t want trouble. Not in this house.” What he wanted was his wife, with the tortoise comb, the boiled beef with horseradish sauce, and Kaiserschmarren for dessert, life the way it had been. He looked at Erich. “You have responsibilities.”
“So go stick my head in the sand. How much room is left down there, where you stick yours?”
“Bolsheviks. And how do you think that’s going to end? No property rights, that’s how.”
“Don’t worry,” Irene said, “by that time we won’t have any property left, so what’s the difference?”
“Quatsch,” Fritz said, genuinely angry.
“Well, how much is left? This house, yes, Berlin. But the country? I know you’ve been selling it off. You think nobody knows, but everybody talks. How much is left?”
“Enough to feed you. Where do you think the money goes? You think your dresses are free? Food?” His hand sweeping over the long table with the silver carving dishes.
“So it’s for us. Not the card games. Those women you—”
“Irene,” Elsbeth said.
“Oh, what’s the difference? Mother’s dead. Everybody knows.”
“Alex, you talk to them,” Fritz said, shifting, suddenly embarrassed. “How can someone at this table be with the Bolsheviks? Does that make sense? They kill people like us.”
“But what is the choice?” Alex said quietly. “The Nazis? They’ll kill everybody before they’re through.”
“Hindenburg will never accept that man. Von Papen—”
“Has no one behind him.”
“I tell you. He will never accept him.”
“Oh, you know this?” Erich said. “Your friends at the club?”
“He has to form a government,” Alex said.
“Not with Communists. Socialists.”
Alex looked at him. “Then you’ve made your choice.”
“I don’t choose any of them,” Fritz said, exasperated. “They’re all—” He turned to Erich. “You’ll see. All the same. Keep out of it. Keep your head down.” Alex’s father’s advice too, burrowing in.
He opened his eyes. A sound, stopping. Not the airplanes, still humming in the distance. Closer, in the hall. Footsteps. He listened, holding his breath. Where had they stopped? Just outside? The way he used to listen after Oranienburg, an ear to the door even when he was asleep. The middle of the night. No, there was a faint light outside the window. Not yet morning but not night anymore. Then the steps started again, soft, not wanting to be heard. He got up and went over to the door, listening.
But why would they be checking on him at this hour? Suspecting what? We just want information, Don had said. Some ears to the ground. There’s no danger to you. If you’re careful. Hedging. Careful of what? People listening at doors. The hall was still. Alex turned the knob, easing the door open a crack. A dim night-light, empty corridor. But someone had been here. Then he saw the shoes at the next door, just polished, the Adlon overnight service, even in the ruins. He leaned against the doorjamb, feeling foolish. But it might have been somebody.
And now he was up, restless, the room closing in again. If he lay down they’d come back, not dreams exactly, bits of his life that still hovered in the air here. He should change, have a bath, but he didn’t want to run water now, risk pipes clanging, let everyone know he was up. What he wanted, just for a while, was to be invisible, someone nobody could see. Another ghost.
He pulled on his overcoat and started down the hall, as quiet as the shoe boy, keeping to the carpet runner. The lobby was deserted except for the night porter, half asleep, whose surprised look Alex had to answer before he’d unlock the door.
“Couldn’t sleep. I thought I’d take a walk.”
“A walk,” the porter said. “It’s not safe, nights. It’s the DPs. I know, they’ve had a rough time, still—”
Alex looked out at the deserted street. “It’ll be light soon.”
“The kids are worse. Children, you think, and then they’re all over you. They picked me clean. Me.”
Alex nodded, glancing down at the door lock.
“Friedrichstrasse should be all right. Police by the station, so the gangs stay away. You don’t want to go into the park, not at this hour.” Hand still on the door, waiting. A concern for Alex’s safety or something to put in a report later? The night porter at the Adlon would see things, be a useful source. Alex looked at him. Well, where? And suddenly he knew.
“I want to see if something’s still there.”
Outside he glanced across the square to the Brandenburg Gate, covered in scaffolding, the Quadriga gone, and turned right toward Wilhelmstrasse. Streets he would know even in the dark. He could walk straight down to Hitler’s Chancellery, have a gloating moment. You didn’t win, not in the end. But who did? Now that it was all just rubble.
Instead he made his way east, Französische Strasse to the Gendarmenmarkt, both churches in ruins, the concert hall smashed, only a path cleared through the wreckage. Given this, how could the house have escaped? But faster now, because maybe it had. Odd buildings had been spared, as if the flames had just skipped over them. The post office on Französische Strasse had made it through. Why not a town house tucked away on a side street, the pompous architecture at least solid, built to last. But as he reached Hausvogteiplatz, his heart sank. Every building on the square seemed to have taken a hit, the small park at the center now a huge gaping hole. Where the U-Bahn station had been. He walked toward the edge, ignoring the warning signs, visible in the half-light. Why hadn’t they at least covered over the open wound? People could fall in. The least of their worries. Out of the square, really a triangle, and then Kleine Jägerstrasse, just a dog’s leg off Niederwallstrasse, not even a full block long, a few old buildings and the von Bernuth house. Still there.
He went farther into the little street. Not all of it. The roof was gone and most of the inside gutted, but the big old front doors were intact, and through a blasted section of the façade he could see the great staircase, hanging from its support wall, no longer going anywhere, the second floor open air. The sconces along the staircase wall, once gas, were still in place, even singed pieces of wallpaper, the same familiar pattern, now exposed to the street, all privacy gone, a woman whose clothes had been ripped away.
Alex stared for a few minutes, then stepped back to the pile of rubble across the street and sat down, taking out a cigarette. The von Bernuth house. All the thick carpeting and carved mahogany gone, presumably ash now. Had they rescued the silver or any of the Caspar David Friedrichs in their old-master frames? Or had all that been removed before the raids started?
The house had always been in the wrong part of town. Even in Fritz’s grandfather’s time the big town houses were being built near the Tiergarten, Vossstrasse, and then even farther west. But old Friedrich, whose lucky bet on a railway stock made the house possible, didn’t know Berlin well—he liked the feel of Hausvogteiplatz, the bargain price for the lot. When the clothing factories began to move in, the new office buildings, it was too late. The von Bernuths had a mansion in the middle of a commercial neighborhood. More amusement than stigma attached to this—it was considered a joke on old Friedrich, another family story.
Alex had heard them all. How the elder Friedrich invested in railroad after failing railroad, hoping for the pay dirt of another Anhalter-Bayerische line. How Fritz’s father accidentally shot a tenant, then gave him one of the farms when he recovered. How a note to a mistress was put in the wrong envelope. The sunny, overdressed years before the first war. He knew the stories because Irene and Elsbeth told them to him. It was part of their charm that the von Bernuths saw their family history as a comedy, a series of hapless misadventures. And then when the real stories ran out, he made up more, a book of them.
“You’ve made us more interesting than we are,” Irene had said.
At night there were only a few lights in Kleine Jägerstrasse, so the house had seemed that much brighter, light pouring out the windows, the door lamps like beacons, waiting for guests. There were always people, the girls’ friends staying over, parties when they were older. Elsbeth was the pretty one, creamy and delicate as a Dresden doll, but it was Irene people came for, her jokes and careless sensuality, the swollen lower lip, the tangle of blond hair, forever falling out of place. And after the parties, the house cleaned and aired, there were the Sunday lunches, the long table and stiff napkins, one rich course after another, swimming in gravy, the platters almost too heavy for the maids. Saddle of venison and red cabbage and spaetzle, or pork stuffed with prunes, soups thickened with cream, breast of veal, potatoes Anna, a full afternoon of food. His aunt Lotte, who’d married Fritz’s brother Hermann, had warned him. “There’s always another course, so just take a little or you’ll never get through it.” Lotte had giggled. “They have to lie down afterward. They can’t move.” Desserts. Stewed fruit and elaborate cakes, a Spanische Windtorte. A Sunday lunch of the last century, before the money had begun to run out.
He finished the cigarette and stood up, wiping the dust off his coat. In Hausvogteiplatz a few people were on their way to work, the sky finally morning. He could see details now, not just shadowy clumps. The brass knocker on the door was gone, valuable scrap, the interiors long since ransacked. He pushed at the door.
“What do you want there?” An old man with a worker’s cap.
“Nothing.” He hesitated. “I knew the family. The owners.”
The man shook his head. “What owners? It belongs to the bank,” he said, indicating the big office building on Kurstrasse, new to Alex. “The Reichsbank.” An unexpected pride in his voice, not just any bank.
“Well, a family used to live here.”
The man nodded. “I saw you sitting here. So you’re looking for them? It’s a long time now. Since anybody was here. The bank was going to knock it down. To put up a new building. That was the idea. But then the war started and that was the end of that.”
“So it just sat here?”
“They used it for storage. Files, things like that. But then it was hit and everything went up. People thought maybe there were safes here. You know, for the gold. But we never moved it.”
“I was night watchman. At the bank. I saw it, you know. The gold. In bars. But it was never moved here. I thought that’s what you wanted, to see if there was anything to take. But there’s nothing. Here, look.” He pushed the door open. “Nothing.”
Not even broken pieces of furniture, scavenged for firewood, just bricks and chunks of plaster. He looked across what had been the hall to the suspended piece of staircase. The built-in closet underneath it, dumping ground for umbrellas and trunks and boots, had been cut away, surgically removed by blast. The newel post had been ripped away too. Where they used to stand the Christmas tree, the first thing you saw when you came in, draped with strings of electric candles.
“Careful of the glass,” the old man said.
Alex took a step, then stopped. What was the point? “That’s all right,” he said. “I just wanted to see if the house was still here.”
The man closed the door behind them, a watchman’s instinct.
“A thousand years Adolf said. Now look.” He turned to Alex. “How is it you didn’t know? About the house. You were in the army?”
“No. I was away.” Evading.
“Away,” the man said, leaping somewhere else. “Not so many come back from that. You hear the stories—” Wanting to hear Alex’s, what the camps were like, and now it was too late to correct him, too many layers of embarrassment. When Alex said nothing the man sighed and looked away. “Well, it was no picnic here either,” he said, his hand taking in the street. “Night after night. A thousand years. What a liar. And now we’ve got the Russians. That’s what he gave us instead. The Russians. A thousand years of them.” A quick glance at Alex, to see how he was responding to this. “I never thought I’d see that. Russians in Berlin. Any of it.” He hesitated, not sure how to ask. “You’re a Jew?”
“Half,” Alex said.
“Half. That didn’t matter to them, did it?”
“Swine. And now they blame us. The Germans did it. Who? Me? No, those liars. They say the Jews brought it on themselves, but I don’t agree. It was them. They took everything too far.” A pause, awkward, the easiness gone. He touched his hat. “Well, so.”
Alex watched him go, his shoes loud on the pavement. Kleine Jägerstrasse had always been an echo chamber, sounds bouncing between the buildings. That night they had heard shouts first, running footsteps, then heavy boots, stopping just outside, not sure where to go next, a tension you could almost feel through the door. Erich had outrun them only by seconds, just long enough to slip through the side door before the maid bolted it, eyes wide with fear. Kurt Engel was bleeding from a gash in his scalp, Erich holding him up, his own face bloody from a smashed nose. Fritz and the girls had rushed in from the sitting room, little involuntary cries, the whole house beginning to flutter. Then more shouts in the street.
Alex peeked through the curtains. “SA,” he said. “Did they see you come in?”
“Who cares what they saw?” Fritz said. “Call the police.”
“The police won’t do anything,” Erich said.
“What’s that? Blood?” Fritz said. “Are you hurt? Ilse, get some water—”
The maid began to run then stopped short as the brass knocker began pounding on the door.
“Open up! Scum!”
Alex could hear the sharp intake of breath in the room, the beginning of panic. Elsbeth was swallowing, her eyes darting nervously.
“Call the police,” Fritz said.
“Papa,” Erich said. “They’ll kill us.”
“In my house?” Fritz said.
“Open!” Another pounding, even the heavy door shaking with it.
“Over here,” Irene said, opening the closet door under the stairs. “Quick.”
Erich put his arm around Kurt’s waist and half dragged him behind the Christmas tree.
“Turn on the tree lights,” Irene said to the maid.
“You have to answer them,” Alex said to Fritz, watching Irene shut the closet door and move two wrapped presents up against it, part of the display spread under the tree.
“Who is that?” Fritz shouted. “What do you want?”
Alex nodded at Fritz, who looked around, a directive to stay still, then went over and opened the door.
“What is the meaning of this? What do you want? You should be ashamed of yourself. Are you drunk?”
The leader, a burly man in his twenties, rushed through, then stopped, not expecting the lights, girls in dresses.
“They came in here. There’s nowhere else—”
“Who? What are you talking about?”
“Jewish scum. Communists.”
“Here? Don’t be ridiculous.”
“We’ll see for ourselves,” he said, moving into the hall.
Fritz stood in front of him, a stage gesture. “How dare you? Make trouble in this house? At this time of year?” he said, taking in the tree. “Do you think you’re in some beer hall? One more step and I’ll get the police and then you’ll see where you are.”
“Get out of the way,” the man said, pushing Fritz’s shoulder, his nerve back, the men now behind him.
“Stop that,” Alex said, reaching for the man’s hand.
The man swerved, shoving Alex instead. “Oh yes?” Another shove, toward the tree. “What about you? Were you at the meeting too? Maybe another Jew. You look—” Peering at him, nose wrinkled, so that for one stopped second Alex wondered if there really was some telltale Semitic scent.
“That’s my son,” Fritz said. “Take your hands off him.” The voice icy, the authority of generations. Alex looked at him. No hesitation.
The SA man stepped back. “If you’re hiding them—” He signaled for his men to fan out.
“What makes you think you can do this? What right?”
“What right?” the SA man repeated, jeering.
“Effie, call the police,” Fritz said to another maid.
“Call them,” the SA man said. “They’re looking too. Let them do the dirty work for once.”
“Dirty work,” Fritz said. “That’s all you know. You and your—”
“Here’s the water,” Ilse said, carrying in a pitcher, the old request.
“Water?” the SA man said.
Fritz looked at the rest of them, suddenly at a loss.
“Thank you, Ilse,” Alex said, moving over to take the pitcher. “For the tree,” he said to the SA man. “They dry out and then there’s a danger of fire.” He knelt down and poured some water into the support stand. “It doesn’t take much,” he said, hoping it wouldn’t overflow, the basin already full. He glanced over toward the closet. Don’t even look, draw anyone’s attention. But then he saw the blood seeping out from under the door. Just a thin tickle but there, blood always jarring, something the eye went to, like a snake.
He stood up and went to the other side of the tree, away from the closet. Sounds overhead now, doors being slammed.
“So that’s what it is now?” Fritz said, no longer looking at the SA man. “You do whatever you want. In my house. My house.” The only way he understood it.
The SA man ignored him, busy shouting to the men upstairs, then turned, his voice heavy with contempt. “A man who would hide Jews. Vermin.”
“Nobody’s hiding anybody. You’re making a fool of yourself. Ah, now we’ll see.” The knocker rapped again. He went to the door. “Police. Now we’ll see. Come. Thank you. This gangster and his men broke in. You hear them? They’re all over the house.”
But the policeman seemed more embarrassed than alarmed. “Well, Hans,” he said to the SA man. “What’s this?”
“Communists. Two. Maybe more. They’re here—he’s hiding them. There’s nowhere else in the street.”
“Hans, this is the von Bernuth house.” He turned to Fritz. “I’m sorry for this.”
“I told him. No one’s here. And he comes right in—”
“Call your men,” the policeman said quietly. “You have no business here.”
A reluctant shout upstairs, Hans surly but not prepared to defy the police.
“Oh.” Almost a gasp, involuntary. Ilse had spotted the blood. Still behind a wrapped present, out of the SA’s line of sight.
Alex went over to her quickly, taking her elbow. “It’s okay,” he said, maneuvering her toward the sitting room. “Nerves,” he said to the policeman. “She’s easily upset.”
“I know. But it’s all over. The police are here.”
The SA men were clomping down the stairs.
“Now look. Frightening the maids,” Fritz said. “I hope they keep you locked up.”
“Get her out of here,” Alex said, handing Ilse to Irene, almost a whisper, then went back to stand by the closet, in front of the blood.
“Is that everyone?” the policeman said, watching them file out, awkward and sheepish. “So. I’m sorry for your trouble. A misunderstanding. Now good night.”
“But aren’t you going to arrest him?” Fritz said.
“A man breaks into your house—”
“Breaks in here?” He pointed to the door. “I don’t see any signs of that. You opened the door to him, yes?”
“Do you think he was a guest? I’d have this rabble in my house?”
“It was maybe too much enthusiasm,” the policeman said, “looking for Communists. Better, I think, to forget this evening. In the Christmas spirit.” He glanced again at the tree, then the present underneath. A few inches.
“Yes,” Irene said, coming back. “Just go. Leave us, please.”
Fritz said nothing for a minute, looking at the policeman, then turned away. “Rabble.”
Outside Hans was back at the steps, one last threat. “We’ll watch. And when we get them, it won’t go so easy for you. You’ll see.”
The policeman pushed him away from the door. “Shut up. Idiot. He’s von Bernuth.”
Alex closed the door, bolting it, then waved to the maid. “The drapes. Every window.”
The room itself seemed to exhale, everyone stuck in place for a moment, listening for sounds outside.
Alex went over to Fritz. “Thank you. For saying that.”
Fritz looked at him, a quick nod, then, confused by the intimacy, moved away. “Such things. In Germany.”
“Oh God,” Irene said, suddenly frantic, moving the presents and opening the closet door. “Help me.”
“Are they gone?” Erich said, nose still bleeding. He slid out, pulling Kurt with him. “Now do you see?” he said to Fritz.
Fritz said nothing, his body slack.
“Here, let me,” Irene said, moving into Erich’s place, cradling Kurt’s head in her lap. “Where’s the water?” Dabbing at his head with her handkerchief to stanch the blood around the cut.
“Careful. You’ll get blood on your dress,” Elsbeth said.
“Oh, my dress,” Irene said, dismissive.
Alex helped Erich to his feet. “Are you all right? Is your nose broken?”
“I don’t think so. How do you know? I mean, how does it—”
“Never mind that,” Irene said “This is going to need stitches. Ilse, call the doctor.”
“Now?” Erich said. “You heard them. They’re watching the house.”
“Get Lessing. Tell him to bring flowers. A Christmas call,” she said, but offhand, distracted, her eyes on Kurt.
It was then that Alex finally took it in, her hand soothing the side of his face, her body draped over his. He felt a prickling on his skin, peeking through a crack at something he wasn’t meant to see. The way her hand moved, soft, familiar. He stood still, hearing the blood in his ears. How long? All the while? Erich’s friend. Always around. But when? Not the summer, the air thick with sex, no one but the two of them. That couldn’t have been a lie. But then when? She looked up suddenly, feeling his stare, caught, and he knew again. How long? Did they do the same things? At least she didn’t look away, pretend he hadn’t seen, didn’t know. It would be in his face. She held his look. I’m sorry. I’m not sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. It’s not about you. Don’t look at me like that. It’s different. I couldn’t help it. You have no right—
“I’ll get Lessing,” he said, breaking into her look, all the words, and then he turned to the door and it was over.
Outside he had stood for a minute, expecting to see a waiting SA uniform come out of the shadows, but no one was there. The street had been as empty and quiet as it was now, and he wondered for a second if both of them, the memory and this gray morning, were part of the same Berlin dream. The people he’d just seen were dead, lost to the past. And in the half-light the grim street now seemed something he’d imagined too. When he woke up, the hot Pacific sun would be burning off the morning fog and he’d be getting Peter ready for school, hurrying him for the bus, nursing a coffee.
He turned back to Hausvogteiplatz. Except he was awake, here, and it had already started. “Just settle in and we’ll be in touch,” Campbell had said. Some vague timetable, a week or two, not the moment he got here, the first meeting already set. “You can walk there. Through the park. Early.” Why so soon? He looked up. No fog to burn off. As light as Berlin was going to get.
Just as the bellboy had said, he had no trouble at the sector boundary. A barrier had been set up for car inspections, but even those seemed random and listless. Pedestrians just walked across the street. The Tiergarten had been broken up into garden allotments and was still bare of the tall trees of his childhood, but at least the debris he’d seen in photographs—a downed plane, burned-out trucks—had been cleared away. Now what? There were two ways to Lützowplatz, zigzagging down past the embassy quarter or straight out to the Grosser Stern and then down. Did it matter? No one had said how the meeting would happen, maybe not until he was out of the park, so he just kept to the road. A few people in dingy overcoats had already begun to gather near the charred Reichstag to swap watches and heirlooms and PX tins, the new Wertheim’s. No birds, an eerie quiet.
He was almost at the Victory Column when the car pulled up.
“Meier? Get in.”
An American voice. For a second Alex hesitated, not reaching for the door handle, as if there were still a choice.
“Get in.” Boyish, no hat, short military hair.
In the car, he offered his hand. “Willy Hauck. Nice to have you here.” Pronouncing Willy with a v.
“Not since I was a kid. Detroit. My father took a job there and never came back. I didn’t think I’d ever be back either, but here we are. Berliner Luft.” The German accented now with a lifetime of flat lake vowels, the voice crackling and on the run, like Lee Tracy’s.
“You didn’t want to come?”
He shrugged. “Things are happening here. So they move you up faster. They recruited me out of the army. G-2. They like it better if you went to Yale, but what the hell, I had the language, so off you go—beautiful Berlin.” He gestured toward the window. “That’s how most of us got here. If you can speak Kraut. Campbell’s got Polish too. His old man.”
“It used to be something else. Lots of z’s and who the hell knows. So. We haven’t got a lot of time. You want to be at Lützowplatz same time it would take to walk there.” They were driving out the other side of the circle, toward Charlottenburg. “Anybody behind you?”
“I don’t think so. Why the big hurry? I didn’t expect you to—”
“Something came up. So, let’s do exits first.”
Alex looked at him, a question.
“In case something goes wrong and you have to exit.”
“Try to remember this, you can’t write it down, okay? BOB’s at twenty-one Föhrenweg, out in Dahlem.”
“Berlin Operations Base. That’s your last resort. We have to assume it’s watched, so you turn up there you’re blown and all we can do is get you out of the country.”
“Twenty-one Föhrenweg,” Alex said.
“You know who used to live across the street? Max Schmeling.” Oddly proud of this, as if it meant something. “But like I say, that’s the fire exit. Otherwise, use the regular meetings if you need to get in touch.”
“Depends where they set you up. Writers, people like that, they’ve been mostly putting in Prenzlauer Berg. Not a lot of bomb damage, so the buildings are in fairly good shape. So we’re assuming there. Close to Volkspark Friedrichshain, where you’ll like to walk.”
“And bump into somebody?”
“Near the fountains with the fairy tale characters. Know it?”
Alex shook his head. “Never been there.”
Hauck grinned. “A real West Ender, huh? Berlin stops at the Romanisches.”
“We never had any reason to go there, that’s all.”
“And now it’s home.”
“I go every day?”
“When you can. We’ll set up a time. It would make more sense with a dog, but with the rationing— But you still like to get out, get some exercise, clear the cobwebs.”
“I do, actually.”
“See? So you establish a routine. If they put you further out, we’ll have to change the place. Weissensee, you walk the lake. But that’s bigger houses. They keep those for the elite.”
“Not the help.”
“I didn’t mean it that way. The Party elite. Officials. Don’t worry, they like writers. You’re at the Adlon, right?”
“In the lap of luxury.”
Willy looked at him from the side. “They’ll want you to do things. Public appearances. They had Anna Seghers at a factory. Cutting a ribbon. Major Dymshits loves writers.”
“I thought they briefed you. Chief Cultural Officer. Or whatever the title is. Anyway, he calls the shots for the Soviets. He’s a big fan of yours. He’s the one told them to make the offer. To bring you over. He loves German writers.”
Alex gazed out the window, blocks of ruins, as bad as in the East.
“What am I supposed to find out about him? Whether he reads Thomas Mann?”
Willy turned. “What are you asking?”
“I don’t know. Cultural Officer. Why? How is that useful?”
“Let me explain something to you. We got a couple of wars going on here right now. Not just the airlift. Dymshits runs the propaganda one and he’s doing all right. The Soviets think they’ve got the moral high ground. Don’t ask me how. They come in here and rape everything in sight and they’re supposed to be the heroes. The first victims. The ones the Nazis hated before they hated anybody else. But they won. Not us, them. We’re just passing out candy bars in France. And now we’re the ones getting into bed with old Nazis. On the radio anyway. And anywhere else they can twist a knife in. Old Nazis—is that the future you want? Or the Soviet model? A fresh Socialist start. Of course the Soviets used the Nazis too—who the fuck else was there?—but somehow that never comes out, just ours.”
“That’s what you want me to do? Find out if they’ve got Nazis in the Kulturbund?”
“Sure. If they do,” Willy said, looking away.
“What did Campbell tell you?”
“Whatever I could pick up. I still don’t see the point, but never mind. I’m here.”
Willy headed the car back toward the Tiergarten, then slowed to a stop, idling by the curb.
“Look, Campbell told me about it. Those fucks on the committee. Reds under every bed. If they knew what the Soviets were really up to— So we got you by the short and curlies. Sometimes that’s the way it happens. But, like you say, you’re here. You’re going to meet a lot of people. I want to know who might be—open to a little business.”
Willy nodded. “Maybe the future doesn’t look as bright as it used to. Maybe somebody’s beginning to wonder, maybe he needs a little money. I want to know. That’s the point.”
“All right,” Alex said quietly.
“Next, don’t get yourself killed.”
Alex looked at him. “I thought I was just collecting a little gossip.”
“The Russians don’t see it that way. It’s Dodge City here. You want to watch your back. Everywhere. The sectors don’t mean anything. They think it’s all theirs. People disappear—broad daylight, they just grab them—and we complain and they say they don’t know what we’re talking about. People get killed too. It’s a dangerous place for amateurs. I didn’t ask for this, you know? Civilian, first time out. But Campbell said you’d be okay. Said you were motivated.” Holding onto the word.
“That’s one way of putting it. If you’re a shit like Campbell.”
Willy leaned back, surprised, then smiled. “Yeah. Well. It’s a shitty business.”
Alex looked over. “What else? You didn’t get me out my first morning to tell me to keep my ears open. Something came up, you said.”
Willy stared back for a second. “Good. You listen. That’s something you can’t—”
“What came up?”
“Pay dirt. For you. You’ve been promoted.”
“You’re a protected source now. Not just an information source.”
“It means nobody at BOB knows about you.”
“Except me. So there’s less risk if there’s a leak. BOB knows I’ve got a protected source in the East, but not who.”
“Remember you asked us to run a trace on some friends of yours?”
“And nothing came up.”
“That’s because they got married. New names. Then one of them popped up in a CROWCASS file, with a cross-ref to the maiden name. Elsbeth von Bernuth. Now Frau Mutter. Frau Doctor Mutter.”
“Why was she in a CROWCASS file?”
“He was. Doctor in the Wehrmacht. That automatically gets you a file.”
“What’s he supposed to have done?”
“Nothing. For the Wehrmacht. Just patch up the troops, what you’d expect. Before the Wehrmacht’s a little different. He was knocking off people in mental homes. The euthanasia program, to keep the Aryan bloodlines pure. No more cripples or idiots. Just the ones in brown shirts.”
“He was tried for this?”
“No. If we put every Nazi doctor on trial— Eugenics was a big deal here. Lots of doctors signed on. Not nice, bumping people off, but all legal. Anyway, that was before. CROWCASS was only interested in war crimes and there they came up empty.”
Willy nodded. “Both. In the British sector. Practicing.”
“And you want me to contact her?”
“That’s up to you. Campbell said you were kissing cousins.”
“My aunt married her uncle,” Alex said, distracted. How had he done it? Injections? A pill before bedtime? Gas? Purifying the race. Had Elsbeth known? Or just waited at home, pretending not to. In exile you imagine people as you left them, not what they become. What had it been like here, day to day?
Willy was watching him.
“Why is this pay dirt?”
“This one isn’t. But then I got the bright idea maybe the other one married too.”
Alex looked up. “Irene?”
“Engel,” Alex said flatly.
“No, Gerhardt. Frau Engelbert Gerhardt. Enka to his friends. Funny thing is, he was supposed to be a little light in the loafers. Makeup artist, for chrissake.”
“Out at Ufa. Pictures.”
“Keep him out of trouble probably. They were putting them in camps. So, a happily married man. Goebbels didn’t care as long as things looked okay. And he could screw the actresses.” He raised his head. “Who’s Engel?”
“An old boyfriend,” he said, seeing her cradling his head.
Willy was peering at him. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. She’s alive?”
“And kicking. So we thought you’d like to see her.”
Alex looked at him.
“Be friends again. Closer than ever.”
A small jump in his stomach, wary. “Why?”
“It would be the most natural thing in the world. You were practically family.” Willy took out a cigarette.
“Practically,” Alex said, waiting.
“She’d want you to meet her new friends too, don’t you think?”
“Just tell me.”
Willy leaned forward, lighting the cigarette. “Gerhardt didn’t make it. Bombing raid. Which left her a widow. Technically, anyway.”
“So now there’s a new friend. Not that anybody would blame her for that. Not easy, a woman on her own in Berlin.” He paused, taking a drag on the cigarette. “But a break for us.”
“Alexander Markovsky. Not so bad. A wife back in Moscow, but that doesn’t count for much. They all do, don’t they? Anyway, very fond of your cousin. How she feels about him I don’t know. You tell me. Let’s hope she’s crazy about him. We wouldn’t want her to walk out on him, now that you’re in the picture.” A faint smile. “That’s why I wanted to see you first, give you a heads-up. Forget Dymshits. You’ve got a real job.”
Alex followed the trail of Willy’s smoke, not breathing, then looked back.
“You want me to spy on her,” he said, forcing the word out. “Nobody said anything about this. I’m not—” His voice trailed off, as if it were walking away.
Willy took a breath. “That’s not the way this works. You don’t get to pick.”
“We’re not interested in her. We’re interested in him,” Willy said, explaining to a child. “He works for Maltsev. Major General Maltsev. State Security. That’s about as inside Karlshorst as we’re likely to get. We’ve never had a chance like this, somebody close to Maltsev. You want a ticket back, this is it.”
A tightening around his chest, short of air.
“When did Campbell know about this?”
“I don’t know,” Willy said, surprised at the question. “You’d have to ask him.”
“But he’s not here.”
Willy looked at him. “Does it matter?”
Alex turned, facing out. “And what do you think he tells her?” He paused. “In bed.”
“Maybe nothing. Maybe something. And it’s what he’s going to tell you. Without even knowing it. Just because you’re around. Anyway, it’s a little late for second thoughts, isn’t it?” He glanced at his watch. “I’d better get you to Lützowplatz. It’s been awhile. Even for a slow walker.”
“I never said I’d do something like this.”
“Who are you worried about? Markovsky? He’s a thug, just like the rest of them. Your friend? Ask yourself what she’s doing with him. There aren’t any good guys in this one.”
“I thought we were the good guys.”
“We are. You don’t want to forget that.” He tossed the cigarette out the window and put the car in gear. “Look, you have a problem, you’d better tell me now. You can go right back to the Adlon. Hang out with your new friends. If you want to live here. But I thought the deal was you wanted to get back to the States. Show us what a good citizen you are.”
“By doing this.”
“Well, this is what we have.” Willy turned back into the park. “So what’s the problem? Is there something I should know?”
Alex shook his head. “It’s just—someone you know.”
“How long since you’ve seen her? Irene.”
“A lot happens in fifteen years. Especially here. You think you know her? Maybe not so much anymore.” He slowed the car. “Not someone sleeping with Markovsky.”
Alex stared straight ahead. When he woke up, he’d be getting Peter ready for school.
“Here’s the bridge. You should get out here. If anybody’s watching, they’ll be expecting you to walk over.”
“Why would they be watching?”
“It’s what they do.” He looked over at Alex. “You all right? You look— You know, we all get cold feet in the beginning. You’ll be okay. A chance like this.” A verbal pat on the shoulder, part of the team.
Alex sat for another minute. The kitchen would be bright with sun, even that early.
“What do I do? I mean, how do I contact her?”
“She’ll be at your party. You’re a big deal. Everyone wants to meet you.”
“With the boyfriend?”
“Unless he’s out at Karlshorst.”
“Doing whatever he does.”
“At the moment, running interference between Moscow and the SED, the German Party. They have this idea that Moscow should stop robbing the zone blind with reparations. And send back the POWs.”
“And he’s going to talk to me about all this?”
Willy looked at him. “You’d be surprised what people will say. Once they trust you.” He nodded to the window. “You’d better go. See if your house is still there. Which side of the square was it?”
Alex stared out the window. You think you know her? Maybe not so much anymore. It was easy to cross a line in Berlin, as easy as going from one sector to another. Finish your cereal, he’d be saying to Peter.
“The east side,” he said finally.
“We’re not expecting gold right away. It’s all valuable. Just keeping track. Where he goes when he’s away. When he’s coming back.”
Alex opened the car door and turned. “The kind of thing you’d tell your mistress.”
Willy met his look. “We’ll be in touch.”
On the bridge, the one he’d crossed a thousand times coming home from the park, there was a stalled army truck with a Union Jack on its door, soldiers busy with wrenches. The British sector, where Elsbeth’s husband was practicing medicine again. First do no harm. He glanced down at the thick oily water of the Landwehrkanal. There had been bodies here after the war, floating for months. A lot happens in fifteen years. At the end of the bridge there was a car parked across the street, maybe waiting to see him come into the square. What they did in Berlin. It didn’t matter if they were really watching, as long as you thought they might be. Oranienburg with the peek hole in the door.
Willy’s car came up from behind and passed him. Don’t look. You’ve walked here to see the house, the predictable motions of homecoming. But when he reached the square nothing was there, no sturdy door or hanging staircase, just an empty space where the house had been. For a second he felt light-headed, lost, as if he had ended up in the wrong street. He had expected at least some fragment of their lives, maybe the frame of the big window where his mother had kept the piano, the ground-floor corner where his father’s study had been. Then the evenings would come back, his mother’s music, her long conservatory fingers, hair pulled back in a tight bun so that not even a wisp would fall in her eyes, his father wreathed in cigarette smoke, head back, listening, the music rising and falling. How he would always remember them, in a room filled with music. But that had all been erased, not even a headstone of rubble left. A vacant lot. And a parked car waiting for someone. He crossed the street, looking preoccupied, as if he hadn’t noticed it. Up ahead he could still see Willy’s car, driving slowly, probably keeping a rearview eye on him until he turned back. Two cars watching.
He looked away from the parked car and started down Schillstrasse. The rubble had been cleared here, a standing wall without the usual heaps of brick in front. Behind him the sound of a motor, gears switching. Not the parked car, still motionless where it sat. Maybe the British truck. Then, suddenly, there was a screech of tires, a burst of speed, and another car shot into his line of vision then turned in toward the wall, cutting him off, brakes slamming, a man jumping out the back, grabbing his upper arm, the force of it shoving him against the wall. He felt a sharp pain in his shoulder, a pinpoint of focus, everything else a blur, too fast.
“Get in.” A low growl, yanking him now toward the open car door and all he could think was, broad daylight, you do this in broad daylight. But only one. Shouldn’t there be two to pin him, two to make the snatch? The other was waiting behind the wheel. Easy pickings, a writer. If they knew who he was. Not just a man Willy had dropped off. A little drive through the park. Which made him the enemy now, just talking to Willy, and he realized suddenly, as the man was pushing his head down to force him into the car, that this would mean Oranienburg. Or a new Oranienburg. With no one to bribe him out this time. People disappear. Maybe for good, the car a kind of coffin. But only one of them.
Alex pushed back hard, swiveling, flinging the man against the car, and pulled his arm free.
“Scheisse!” Lunging for Alex again, pushing him against the standing wall.
Another screech of tires, Willy’s car backing down the street toward them, a fishtail swerving. No other cars to dodge, coming fast.
The man had grabbed Alex again, a stronger grip this time, still sure of himself, one man. Not even thinking, jerking to some electrical charge running through him, Alex smashed his knee into the man’s groin. A surprised gasp, then a grunt, the man bending over, still trying to hold onto Alex’s sleeve. But this was the split second, the one chance, and Alex yanked himself free, starting to run. He heard a car door open, the driver spilling out in alarm. Two of them.
And then a swirl of sounds, the kicked man howling and pulling himself up to lunge again, the driver’s footsteps running back to block Alex that way, the scream of brakes as Willy’s car stopped, another door slamming and then a loud crack, jarring, that made all the other sounds go away. For a second everything stopped, the shot still echoing in the air. Then Alex heard the driver inhale, a rasp, and fall to the street, a thump as his body hit. The first man turned, pulling a gun out of his pocket and fired at Willy, who ducked. A moan from the other side of the car, the driver clutching his stomach. Willy jumped up and fired again, hitting the first man, then crouching back down. But not fast enough, the man’s return bullet catching him in the chest, his eyes widening in disbelief. The shot was deafening, loud enough to rip the air, to bring British soldiers running across the bridge, but the square was still empty, as if the sounds hadn’t reached them yet, hadn’t left the inside of Alex’s head, where they drowned out his own ragged breathing. I could die. I could die here.
Willy slumped against his car and fired again, this one higher, hitting the first man in the throat. He teetered for an instant, blood gushing, then fell across the hood of the car and slid to the ground, leaving a streak of blood down the side, his overcoat matted with it. His body went still, legs twisted at some unnatural angle. In the sudden quiet Alex heard the car engine, still idling, waiting for him to be bundled in the back, taken somewhere for questioning. Watch your back. He gulped some air, sidestepping the body, and started running toward Willy.
“Are you all right?” Still panting.
Willy was on the ground, his head propped against the car’s tire. He winced, an answer. “It fucking hurts,” he said, his breathing labored now. “I always wondered.”
Alex looked into the square again. Still nobody, the parked car empty, not the one he should have been worried about.
“I never saw them,” Willy said flatly. “That’s how good they are.”
They heard a groan from the other car, the driver trying to move. Willy looked at Alex, his eyes darting with alarm.
“Take the gun. No witnesses.”
“Are you crazy—”
Willy grabbed his wrist, clutching it. “No witnesses. He’s seen you.” He looked at Alex’s face, then squinted from the pain and opened his eyes again, an act of will. “Nobody knows. You’re still protected.” He squeezed his wrist again. “Take the gun. Quick, before—”
“I can’t,” Alex said, almost a whisper. “I never—”
“They’ll kill you. That’s what this is. Do it. In the head. Don’t think, just do it. Then run like hell.”
“What about you?”
Willy twisted his mouth, then looked again at Alex. “Do it, for chrissake. Take the gun.”
Alex looked at it, still clutched in Willy’s hand, and started prying his fingers off. There was the sound of a motor in the distance. How far? He took the gun and walked over to the other car. A faint moaning, the driver opening his eyes at the sound of footsteps. A startled look, what prey must feel like at the end. The driver tried to raise his hand, his gun weaving. Do it. Don’t think. Alex fired. A roar of sound, then a splat as the driver’s head ripped open, the insides oozing, then stopping. No witnesses. Alex stared at the man for a second, feeling his stomach heave. But there was nothing to bring up, just the taste of bile, too early for food.
The motor again. He glanced toward the bridge. The British truck. Don’t think. Run. He raced over to Willy. Eyes closed. Alex felt his neck for a pulse but there was nothing, the skin already cool or was that his imagination? The morning was cold. You could see your breath, coming now in quick puffs. The sound of the truck again. Oddly, the other car engine was still running and for one crazy second Alex fought the impulse to turn it off. Disappear. Now. No one here but the dead. No witnesses.
He darted behind Willy’s car and then followed the standing wall until there was a break and he could slip behind. Not as neat as the square here, piles of rubble. But what did it matter? Run. In a few seconds they’d be here. He listened to the sound of his shoes crunching on the dust and mortar and he realized he had never run so fast, that he was somehow trying to outrun the sound of his own running, make it disappear. An old woman was stopped at the next corner and turned, terrified, and he saw what she must be seeing, a man running too fast, still waving a gun in his hand, his shoes slipping on loose bricks as if he were splashing through puddles, and he knew he should stop, slow down, but he couldn’t. He kept running, away from the British soldiers who must now be swarming over the cars in Lützowplatz. Running from the old woman, who must have seen his face. Running away from all of it, all the lines he never thought he would cross, sprinting over them.
It was only when he reached the Budapester Strasse bridge, where there were a few cars, that he put the gun in his coat pocket and slowed to a walk. He felt the sweat on his face. Sweating in the early morning cold. Slow down. Breathe. No witnesses. On the bridge, after a quick glance around, he tossed the gun over, a plop in the water, and then started to walk again, forcing himself not to run, draw attention. A man’s startled eyes as you aimed a gun. His head opening. That’s what this is.
By the time he reached the Adlon, he was breathing normally again, a guest just back from a long walk. A new doorman, the day shift, said good morning, and for an anxious moment Alex wondered if anything showed in his face. How do you look after you’ve killed a man? But the doorman simply waved him through. No one knew. Upstairs, he lay on the bed and kept replaying Lützowplatz in his mind. Willy’s grimace. They move you up faster here. His panic, running, and now this strange troubled relief afterward. Nothing in his face. Getting away with something. And now what? A protected source, one contact. But someone knew enough to follow Willy. They knew he was here, even if they didn’t know who he was. Three bodies in the square, two guns, an impossible arithmetic. They’d be looking. Whoever they were.
When he finally did close his eyes it was not so much sleep as sheer animal exhaustion, the body shutting down for repair, a void, like the space where his house had been. Irene with a Russian. Frau Gerhardt. Someone he didn’t know, even if he’d known every part of her. It would be easier that way, someone he didn’t know. You want a ticket back, this is it. When he heard the knocking on the door he was at the von Bernuth house, the SA pounding, Kurt bleeding, Irene meeting his eyes. But it was only Martin coming to collect him. His eyes were still scratchy, tired. No hot water, an astringent splash of cold. They’d be waiting at the Kulturbund, maybe one of them open for a little business. Not understanding what it would mean until he was in it, over his head.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Leaving Berlin includes an introduction, discussion questions and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When German-Jewish novelist Alex Meier returns to his native country after fifteen years of exile in the United States, he finds postwar Berlin in ruins and divided into American, British, French, and Soviet sectors. Alex, along with such luminaries as playwright Bertolt Brecht, has been invited to take up residence in what will soon become East Germany with the purpose of helping to shape culture in the fledgling socialist state. His Soviet keepers do not know that the CIA made a secret deal with Alex when the House Un-American Activities Committee ousted him from American soil: if he feeds US intelligence information about the Russian presence in Berlin, the US will allow him to return and be reunited with his young son in Los Angeles.
But for now, Alex must spy on the only woman he ever loved, Irene. The daughter of a prominent Berlin family, Irene survives in postwar Berlin as the mistress of an official in the Soviet Military Administration. Soon Irene’s brother, Erich, a German soldier presumed dead, reappears in Berlin, with explosive information about German POWs being used as slave labor by the Russians. Realizing that the only person he can trust is himself, Alex starts to orchestrate a dangerous plan to move Irene and Erich to a place of safety far from Berlin.
With impeccable attention to historical detail and spectacularly vivid writing, Joseph Kanon recreates a humbled but still vital Berlin in the first uncertain years after the fall of the Third Reich. There, amidst the rubble and ruin, Kanon finds the roots of the moral uncertainty that would shroud the intelligence gathering of the Cold War for nearly half a century to follow.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. When the Allies agreed to a joint occupation of Germany and its capital, the arrangement was expected to be temporary, an interim step toward a demilitarized neutral Germany. But four years later, the time of Leaving Berlin, we see those lines of occupation hardening into permanent borders that would last for forty years. What happened in these first four crucial postwar years?
2. On page 38, Willy tells Alex that the Communists were claiming the “moral high ground.” What did they think justified this? Why was the East so successful in attracting exiled cultural figures? Were there ideological as well as practical reasons?
3. Soon after Alex learns that his former lover Irene is the mistress of a Soviet State Security official, she admits that she only sleeps with Markovsky to ensure her own safety. How does Irene’s pragmatism distinguish her from others in the novel? Do you think she was changed by the war, or is she fundamentally the same person now living in different circumstances?
4. The community of exiles returning to Germany in the novel revolves largely around the historical figure Bertolt Brecht and his production, Mother Courage and Her Children. Yet Alex remains slightly critical of the dramatist’s pretentions throughout, mentioning at one point that “what Brecht had really been in exile from all these years was not Berlin, but the twenties, with their tart, almost thrilling nihilism” (79). Is this a fair criticism? How large a role do you think self-interest played in Brecht’s decision to return? How had exile changed him?
5. Each of the American spies Alex encounters is taken aback by his natural talent for espionage. How might Alex’s profession as a novelist inform his ability to manipulate both American and Soviet intelligence?
6. Markovsky notes with pleasure how rubble from Nazi Germany’s ruins are repurposed to build “a new city right on top of the old one” (172). How do Kanon’s descriptions of ruins throughout the novel confirm or refute Markovsky’s ideas of renewal?
7. On page 218, Fritsch’s film pitch brings Alex back to “California, a producer pointing at him with a cigar, rewriting the world.” Where else does the novel show the blurring of the lines between journalism, art, and propaganda? Are any of the writers or radio producers in the novel free from having their work used as propaganda?
8. When Alex travels with Roberta Kleinbard to Oranienburg in order to see her imprisoned husband, the Russian guard sneers that her name is Jewish. “Nothing had changed,” Alex claims, “new uniforms” (252). In what ways is the Soviet administration in East Berlin similar to the Nazi regime? In what ways is it fundamentally different?
9. When Markus’s mother is released from the Russian camps after her sentence for “counterrevolutionary statements” is commuted, he reacts to her return with confusion and dismay. Why is he unable to embrace her? Is he afraid of his own emotions, or simply hardened to the point where he doesn’t feel? Or is it a more complicated response?
10. When Irene asks Alex if he loves her, as they prepare to say goodbye, he responds, “I do [. . .] But I can see you better now. All of you. Erich. Elsbeth. You. Before I just saw what I wanted to see.” (368). What has changed in Alex that allows him now to see reality instead of a more comforting illusion? In what ways does Irene, too, now see Alex more clearly?
11. After all the subterfuge Alex uses to protect himself, Irene, and Erich in East Germany, he passes the Brandenburg Gate and enters West Berlin without ceremony. In a decade’s time the Berlin Wall would have blocked Alex’s unimpeded passage, and Kanon takes care to describe his protagonist’s path down the Luisenstrasse so that his footsteps trace the fated border. How does this retrospective knowledge impact the meaning of the last paragraph of the book?
Ideas for Enhancing your Book Club
1. Read and discuss one of Joseph Kanon’s other acclaimed espionage thrillers in your book club, such as Istanbul Passage or The Good German. How does the author’s attention to historical accuracy inform these works? Why do you think Kanon is drawn to the years immediately following World War II as a setting for his fiction? What themes do the books have in common?
2. Germany’s fate in the years following World War II continues to fascinate people across the world. Consider transitional Berlin as represented in Leaving Berlin and compare the idealistic vision many characters have for their future city with the reality of what East Berlin will become after the wall is erected. Can you think of another nation in political upheaval, past or present, that you would like to see represented in a novel? What other nations can you think of that have been divided into separate zones or sectors for long periods of time? What is the usual result of such a division? Discuss.
3. Stage a reading of Mother Courage and Her Children with your book club, assigning a different character to each of your members. How do you interpret Brecht’s work in the context of postwar Germany? Explore where the themes of the play intersect with the themes of Leaving Berlin.