Rough draft of three chapters. The Fuhrer, his Niece and the Cook—the plot grows less thin
Hitler Will Only Do What’s Right
Herr Hitler granted me time off for a visit home. He told me: “Don’t ever forget where you came from.” In Berlin, the business to be in was housing. Everywhere, vacant lots sprouted new concrete. Entrepreneurs commandeered even the backyards of existing homes for improvement. Apparently the pent-up need, driven by improvements in the economy, and a new philosophy of life from the better, more forward-looking schools, called for great risks in the building trade. Life was to be clean, efficient, and without stain. Glass and stainless steel replaced wooden products. I found it refreshing to see building after building without the tacky loopiness so favored by the Bavarian homeowner. The layers of molding, the filigree, the pictorial plasterwork, were nowhere to be seen. The new places were cleanly designed; everything was bright and functional. One saw right angles and straight lines everywhere one looked. Granted, there was a sameness to the new housing, and it was easy to see how one could end up in an unfamiliar bedroom. If nothing else, the housing effort had resulted in a rich new source of jokes.
My mother wanted to know all about my new job with Herr Hitler, and of course I told her everything. Only later did I realize I had neglected any reference to Geli.
I enjoyed seeing her, and the cats too. Night was falling when I set out to visit Siggy. On the tram, I would have sworn I walked into a gunfight. I had heard arguments before, and taken part in a few, but that night I fully expected bullets to replace the bitterly enthusiastic verbal abuse that flew about the car with such abandon. It appeared you couldn’t ride home from work without politics tagging along. I had stepped onto the Nazi car, and nonbelievers rode at their own risk.
Eventually I took to the sidewalk, and the sidewalk took me deeper into the Friedrichshain, one of Berlin’s less savory neighborhoods. I had been here many times, but now I found myself sweating. I was a long way from Brechtesgaden. The whole city, my city, had taken on an atmosphere of violence. Shades were drawn over every window. There were people on the street who looked as if they lived in cellars and hadn’t been out in years. Every shoulder had its chip, every jacket seemed to hide a gun. I was determined not to stop for anything. Even the sight of an elderly man being pushed into an alleyway by four grinning Brownshirts could not divert me. He probably deserved it, anyway.
Siggy’s building had been torn down. The grand old pile had been disassembled Where it had stood, new foundations poked through the grass
He had taken a job in a newspaper. I discovered him beside a drawing table, a scissors in his hand and a frown on his face.
“How do you spell cannibal?” was the first thing he said.
‘You’re asking me?”
“How’s the new job?”
“I taught Hitler to drive.”
“The world will thank you.”
“But then we crashed.”
“Did he die?”
“Really, if you just listened—”
“Oh yes, it’s all wonderful if you’re not Jewish. Which, by the way, I am.”
“I’ve known that for some time. I consider it your only failing. But I’m will to overlook an accident of birth.”
“Thank you. But you misread the entire situation. We are Germany’s trial and Germany’s burden. The scum of the earth. My father died at Verdun, but all Jews are scum.”
“Surely you don’t believe all that nonsense. It’s just politics.”
“There’s no such thing as ‘just’ politics. If he’s not going to say what he means, why pick on us? Pick on the Eskimos.”
“There are no Eskimos in Germany. But I think you put too much emphasis on that froth.”
“You don’t see it, do you? You won’t see it until it’s too late. Have you read his book?”
“I’ve seen it.”
“Oh, well, everyone’s seen it, all right. It’s in bookcases all over Germany. And it stays in the bookcase. Why read it? Hitler will only do what’s right. Listen, if you’re going to write something for people to read, you’re not going to talk out your ass.”
“Here’s a fact. And you can put it in the bank. Someone needs to run things.”
“And by ‘things’ you mean people.”
“Of course I mean people. Don’t you see? Don’t you see how everything is teetering on the head of a pin?”
“I rest my case.”
“People need to be told what to do. Before everything goes out of control.”
“People need to be told. That’s why I’m starting a magazine.”
“You can’t do that.”
“It takes money. Lots.”
“That’s why I sold my mother’s house. That’s why I’ve taken this job.”
“How could you do that? Where will she live?”
“Have you noticed the new flats going up all over town?”
“They’re nice, but I wouldn’t want to live in one.”
“They’re horrible. But if no one lives in them, who’ll know? I’ve taken one for myself, too.”
“You’re sacrificing your mother.”
“What? It’s not as if I’ve moved her to a slum. We’ll be neighbors.”
“So she agreed?”
“Nearly. A few details need to be worked out.”
“You’ve never run a magazine.”
“You’d never fried an egg, either, ‘til you did.”
“You’re going to make fun of everything, aren’t you.”
“Only those things that need it.”
There are laws.”
“I’ll talk to Doctor Goebbels.”
“Absolutely not. The last thing I need is that twisted little rodent squirming in — Stay away from that one. Anyway, it turns out there are any number of people with something to say, who only need a place to say it. Even the big names are interested. Grosz…”
“What are you going to call it?”
“I’m thinking Sweet Potato — you know, ocarina.”
“You’re going to name your magazine after a toy?”
“It’s a serious instrument.”
“Can I put you down for a subscription?”
Actually, Siggy had a good idea for once. Politically, of course, he was all wrong. He was fighting the wrong revolution with the wrong revolutionaries; his struggle was the wrong struggle, his enemies were the wrong enemies. True, along with the current crop of new millionaire swindlers came a rising tide of pomposity, and he was just the pin to prick holes in that balloon. The trouble was, he thought Hitler and his party were as bad as everyone else. The German house needed cleaning, badly, and Hitler just might be the fellow for the job. The night clubs were full of Jews and negro music, and everywhere I walked that night I heard gasps of pleasure from the neon shadows that meant the further dilution of our blood. Copulation was general across Germany. There were no safeguards anywhere. No one had the balls to say “No!” But Hitler might. Hitler might just do it. Hitler might stop the madness.
There was a gaping hole next to the sidewalk where an apartment house had been torn down. Cats cried in the empty cellar. It was an old neighborhood, once elegant, now decayed, and the women had abandoned all pretension. They climbed the stairs to cold-water flats and cooked their cabbage on a common stove. I confess I found something refreshing in their directness.
“Want to party?”
“No thank you, Fraulein, not tonight.”
A man came scurrying along the fractured sidewalk. A man with a limp.
“Doctor Goebbels,” I called, and he nearly leapt into the cellar hole. He recovered quickly, though, and made to pull his hat down over his eyes.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Franz,” he laid a hand on my arm. “Come and see me tomorrow. Der Angriff” The Attack was the newspaper Goebbels edited. He dropped my arm and hurried off.
He seemed much calmer in his office next morning, only a bit ill at ease. But I was of no opinion. What the man did was his business. Happiness is a scarce enough commodity without human meddling. Plus, I respected him.
“I may need your help,” I said, “my friend is starting a magazine.”
“Excellent, excellent.” He rocked forward, snatching up a pen and dipping it in ink in one smooth motion. “I am a great lover of literature.” With his free hand he fished in a drawer and brought forth a stack of forms. “His name?”
This was entirely too formal. “Siggy.”
“Sieg-fried.” He wrote carefully. “It’s good that you’re letting me help. There are so many steps. They can’t let just anyone say things, you know. Last name?”
I felt a thin sweat break out on my forehead. “Mittendort.”
Goebbels nodded happily. “A good German name. Residence?”
“Look,” I said, “just a word—”
“No no no, I want to help. It’s a wonderful thing when someone sets out. —But tell me.”
“I’m, I’m not sure. He moves around.”
“Understandable in these times,” Goebbels said smoothly. “We’ll skip that. Now, the name of the proposed magazine? Do you know that?”
“Ha ha. Your friend considers himself to be droll, yes? —I personally love humor.”
“I don’t know what possessed him.”
“I would imagine he found the ambiguity charming. Myself, I prefer a more direct approach. Believe me, Franz, a friend of yours has nothing to fear. We need to support right-minded people. Really. If he needs a compositor, a plate maker, just ask. Publishing is a jungle, just a jungle.”
“I must be going.”
“So soon? But the paperwork, you have no idea. I tell you, government? It’s a dog from hell. Believe me. And to print anything you almost need permission from the Vatican. Printing permits, publishing permits, permits to have an opinion— No, I jest. Then there’s the party, my lord and master, and they have their own way, their particular way, regardless of the trouble it causes.”
“I thought you were the party.”
He stopped everything and stared at me for a moment, then laughed. “I’m afraid not. —You’re a dangerous man, Franz. Funny and dangerous. I only hope your friend with the magazine is not as dangerous. –He’s not one of these Dada fellows is he?”
“I thought Dada was dead.”
“It is. I killed it. No. –But your friend, sad to say, is walking into a minefield. Especially in these unsettled times. It’s not something for the faint of heart, I tell you.”
“I’m sure he realizes that.”
“These old free corps dinosaurs,” he said, “can be a tad unruly.” He shook his head, as if trying to get rid of a bad memory. Then he brightened. “—I know, tell him to come see me.”
“I can’t tell you how pleased he’ll be.”
“Happy to help. And believe me, I have nothing against anyone who tries to upset things. I’m all for it, really.”
“He’ll appreciate that.”
“So he is an agitator.”
“I really have to go.”
“No, we can use a man like that. Don’t be offended, it’s a good thing, believe me. —This ridiculous government we’ve saddled ourselves with— A valuable man.”
“Oh he is, more than you can imagine.”
“Be careful, I can imagine a great deal. Now tell me, he has people lined up? Contributors? Artists, writers?” He sat there, pen in hand, all expectant, but I had nothing to tell him.
It was only a newspaper office, a place of business, but a strange collection of young men had gathered around the front steps. Newspaper hawkers, but most were Brownshirts. Hitler’s people, all of them. They emanated an itchy restlessness, calculated, no doubt, to intimidate.
“Hallo, have you bought a paper yet?” one blandished a folded sheet of newsprint as he rolled his bicycle into my path.
“Kind of like selling ice to Eskimos, right here in front of the building, isn’t it?”
“And we could sell ice to Eskimos, if we wanted,” Another said, propelling himself from the railing where he lounged.
“And they’d buy it too, or we’d know why,” said the first.
“Fritz, he knows what I mean.”
“I’ll take a paper,” I said.
“He’ll take a paper?” the one called Fritz said. “Wouldn’t it be wiser to buy a paper?”
“That’s what I said.”
“That most definitely is not what you said, mien Herr. You said ‘take’. No one takes a paper. We sell papers. And what is your business here?”
“If you must know, I had an appointment with Doctor Goebbels.”
“’If I must know.’ Yes I must know. —Meeting with Doctor Goebbels, eh? Did he know?”
“He asked me to come and see him.” Hadn’t he? “You can check.”
“Oh, we’ll check. And if you’re making this up, if you’re a Red spy, —And you look like a Red to me—you’ll regret the day you were born.”
“Why would I make anything up?’
“To avoid having the shit kicked out of you.”
Even as we spoke one of the lads disppeared into the building, and my status rose immeasurably on his return. Sorry to trouble you, you know how it is, Fritz the hothead, Commies everywhere… The upshot was that we parted great friends.
That evening I accompanied Siggy to a night spot, but somehow neglected to mention my interview with Doctor Goebbels. An ex-dadaist entertained us. He billed himself as a comedian. For our edification he read aloud from a newspaper. From Der Angriff. Probably the very same edition I had purchased that morning after my interview. I hadn’t read it yet. His purpose, of course, was to make Doctor Goebbels’s words seem ridiculous. However, that type of thing requires a level of audience enthusiasm he was quite unable to generate.
“Cretinous peasants,” Siggy fumed.
“It’s just not funny,” I told him. “It’s Dada.”
“Is it? —But you’re right, it’s not funny. It’s tragic. How anyone with that type of mentality could get control of a newspaper—”
“You do realize he has a doctorate, don’t you. It’s Doctor Goebbels.”
“He has Hitler as a friend, everything else is dog spit.”
“I don’t believe Hitler allows himself to have friends, as you or I would understand the word.”
“You amaze me.”
“You just don’t understand him. He’s a generous man.”
The comedian was not finished. He had saved the best for last. “’If you have tears in your eyes, …swallow them.’ Friends,” said the comedian, “a direct quote from our very own Herr Doctor Goebbels. It reveals an unusual, not to say frightening, ignorance of human physiology. One can swallow a lie, one can swallow their words, one can even swallow a sob. You cannot swallow what is in your eye. Though a great many people swallow what they see.” No one laughed. The audience was a motley collection of people who looked like prize-fighters, but were probably truck drivers, loose women, and sailors who had wandered from the sea. Not one looked to have read a book in years. The comedian wasted not a moment on his failed joke. “Who here has read, actually read, Mien Kampf? Come on…”
I glanced around the room. There were no beer steins flying. “Is there no one here to heckle this asinine Red?” I must have said it out loud, for my last word had fallen in one of those lulls that happen in the nosiest places. It seemed to hang in the air forever. Everything stopped. People turned to stare, their beer suspended between table and lip. There was a general impression of bodies slowly rising to their feet. How had this agitator been allowed to perform without the SA being alerted? There should have been people prepared to silence him.
“Time to go,” I said.
Siggy gave me a thin smile. “Perhaps you’re right. –Still, he was just getting warmed up.”
“Let’s go. Do you want to get me killed?”
“Oh, I don’t think it will come to that.” And he slapped something on the table. It made a sound like a shot. I glanced down and could see the lurid banner of The Red Flag, the local communist newspaper. Several people sat down immediately, others patted their pockets absently and set off to buy cigarettes.
“Good thing you brought that.”
“Perhaps someday you’ll learn to hold your tongue.”
“Can we get out of here?”
“As long as you feel you’ve gotten your money’s worth. I know I haven’t. —But before you get us killed—”
“Wait ‘til you see my flat,” he said. “It’s really the most modern thing. The building even has its own radio station, so you don’t have to bother deciding what to listen to.”
We approached a building that reminded me of a piece of surgical equipment. “And every apartment has a balcony.” Siggy rattled on, ”Plenty of light and air. It’s not like a prison at all.”
“A symphony in steel and glass,” I told him, “but should your door be open?” The lock was smashed. Siggy had been robbed. Cushions were slit, pictures torn from the walls, sugar and flour had been poured out on the floor, there was broken glass everywhere. Someone had been determined to find something.
“All right. What have you been playing with?”
“Nothing. Well…wait a minute.” He went to his desk but the drawers had been emptied. “Oh for God’s sake. —All my files for the magazine. They’re gone. How the Hell did they know—” He must have noticed my expression. “Did you talk to someone?”
“Who would I talk to?”
“Some of your Nazi friends.”
“You think they’d do this?”
“You think they wouldn’t? Just to find something to give to the police?”
“That’s ridiculous. —Anyway, let’s get out of here. They might come back, whoever they are.”
“I’d think you’d want to stick around for the handshake.”
“Look, it wasn’t anyone I know. The Reds must have found out. Someone in the typesetter’s guild…”
“My God, there were letters from everyone in there. Brecht, Grosz, all the people they hate. —Who did you tell?”
“No one. All right. Goebbels.”
“He said he’d help.”
“You really have no idea, do you?”
“We could go to my parent’s. It will be safer.”
But I had barely fallen asleep before the police knocked.
I opened the door a crack and peeped out. Two burly Berlin cossacks, fondling truncheons. In the shadows of the hallway I saw steel helmets. The SA were there too.
“If you are asking if my name is Siegfried Mittendort, the answer is no.” I practically screamed it.
“Who is it?” My mother was right behind me.
“Don’t know,” I told her. “I see only clubs and steel helmets.”
“You know where he is then,” said the smaller of the two police.
“Who are you?”
“Kris Kringle. Police, open the door.”
“And your friends?”
“There are only police here. Where is Siegfried Mittendort?”
“Oh Siegfried Mittendort. I know him, he has a flat in Friedrichshain.
“We’ve checked it.”
“What do they want?” my mother could be insistent.
“I don’t know, they won’t tell me.”
“We want the fucking Red,” came a voice from down the hall. “Send out the Red.”
“You probably want to go back to sleep. Just tell us where he is.” The police were polite, so far.
“I’d tell you if I could.”
“It’s no good fooling with us. We’ll find him eventually.”
“Then why bother me?”
“The whole fucking house is Red. Kill them all!” Someone back by the stairs was getting extremely agitated.
“Are they insane?”
“My mother wants to know if you’re insane.”
“Of course not. We’re the police.”
“Police can be insane.”
“Not in this town. Look, let us in.”
“I’m afraid we’ve all gone to bed.”
“There’s you, though.”
“But it’s not my house.”
“So you are this Siegfried.”
“I am not, and I have a birth certificate to prove it. And my mother will vouch for me.”
“Jesus God, they’re communists. Kill them! Arrest them!”
The larger of the cossacks struck the door with his truncheon. He too had had enough. “Open it. We’re not fooling.”
They poured into the foyer, eight of them, to arrest one magazine publisher. Two police backed by six brownshirts. In addition to the steel helmets, the brownshirts were equipped with really good boots. They fanned out through the apartment sounding like a freight train in an avalanche.
They were primed for action and smashed the guest-bedroom door to kindling. I quickly ran down the list of probable prisons, for I fully intended to visit Siggy in jail, but the open window was the only sign of his occupancy.