Liesl Wolfe coughed as she made her way through the crowded, smog-choked streets of Berlin. Her shift at the textile plant where she worked had ended twenty minutes ago, and she was searching for a ration line that was not terribly long – or at least one where she could get food before her next shift began tomorrow morning.
A ragged-looking woman with an equally ragged child jostled her. The woman gave her a pleading look, gesturing to the child with sooty hands. Liesl shook her head and kept walking. The woman was playing a dangerous game; Fuhrer Stalin disliked begging. Some people, though, had no other choice. Liesl pitied them. She would have given the pair money if she had any, but she only had the ration card she had earned for eight hours of tedious factory work. She needed that for her husband and herself.
A clock rang out the time somewhere in the distance. Liesl counted the chimes and sighed. Six o’clock. Dieter would be wondering where she was. She’d have to get in line now or go home empty-handed. She groaned when she realized the nearest ration line was a block away and almost as long. There wasn’t another option, though, so she set her shoulders and walked to the end of the line.
The other people in the line were largely silent. If they did speak, it was only small talk about families and neighbors. Nobody talked about work, or food, or ration lines, or the thousands of things people might think to complain about. The Fuhrer’s spies were everywhere, and one never knew what they might take amiss. Two decades of occupation didn’t teach you everything an irritable Russian might be offended by, and Liesl was pretty sure it wouldn’t take much. Not for the first time, she wished Britain and America had beaten Germany at the Battle of the Bulge. She wrapped her threadbare coat more tightly around herself and shivered.
Time passed. Slowly, the line inched towards the kitchen. Other people passed by. Some glanced briefly at the long line, but only briefly. Nobody stared. The police were rather touchy about that.
Shouts rang out at the end of the street, and heavy boots thudded past. Liesl glanced over her shoulder to see two men wrestling in the middle of the street, then looked straight ahead again. The police would take care of it, and they would not appreciate bystanders showing too much attention.
The clocks rang out seven by the time Liesl got her small ration. She looked the worker straight in the eye and said, “Danke.” He ignored her, almost racing to move on to the next person in line. She had expected as much. Fuhrer Stalin hated Germany, and he had systematically outlawed the German language in the years since the takeover. Only the bravest or most foolish dared to speak even a few words of it in public. Liesl idly wondered which one she was. At least the clerk had seemed inclined to ignore it. She had landed in jail for as much before. Dieter hated it when she did that.
She glanced over her shoulder briefly to make sure the clerk really was ignoring her, then set out at a brisk pace for home.
When Liesl arrived home, all the windows were closed, their drab, thin curtains drawn shut. The air stank of brandy. She groaned, then shook herself and flipped on the single electric light that graced the tiny flat. There was an empty bottle on the table and a second lay tipped on its side, spilling its contents across the scarred wood. Her husband, Dieter, was slumped face-first on the table, oblivious to the world. She ignored him and set herself to cleaning up the mess. Once that was done, she hunted through the apartment for any other bottles he might have stashed away. I could have sworn I cleaned out his supply just two weeks ago. Where is he getting it?
She didn’t really blame him for his drinking. If she had been through everything he had, she would probably be doing much worse than drinking herself into oblivion four nights a week. Besides, the worst he ever did was shout, and he usually passed out before he consumed very much. Dieter had no stomach for alcohol.
The fact that she didn’t blame him did not mean that she approved of the habit, though. Harmless or not, she didn’t appreciate coming home to her husband passed out on the table, nor did she appreciate what his drinking did to their dwindling supply of money. She suppressed the urge to close her eyes as she opened up the closet and reached inside for the small box where they kept their money. Thirty rubles. At least he hadn’t spent anything. Maybe a neighbor was supplying him with it. She put the box back on the shelf and shoved it to the back of the closet. Then she went downstairs to the washroom and lugged up a bucket of cold water. She dipped an empty brandy bottle in it, then dumped the bottle out on Dieter’s face. He sputtered awake.
Liesl put her hands on her hips and stared him down as he slowly came to his senses and looked up at her. He blinked a couple times before his vision focused. “You cleaned me out again, didn’t you?” he said, mock accusation in his voice.
“Of course I did. That way there’ll be at least a couple days I don’t have to come home to you passed out drunk. Until you get more, that is. Who gave it to you this time?”
He rubbed his eyes with one hand, turning the inside of his wrist towards her. She caught a glimpse of the old scar there and turned away. He noticed her motion and lowered his hand. “I’m sorry, Liesl, I know you don’t like it, it’s just…” he gestured helplessly around him.
She sighed and sank into a chair next to him. She understood. Dieter had spent two years in Auschwitz-Birkenau, which Fuhrer Stalin had appropriated during the takeover, for his involvement with a resistance movement that wanted to drive out the Russians. The Russians had forced him to work in the crematorium, and the smoke-like smog outside and the closeness of the small apartment reminded him of things in his past that he would much rather forget. “I know. I just wish you could find a better way to deal with it,” she said.
He groaned and slammed his hand onto the table. “How? I can’t even leave the apartment. Not that the apartment is a huge improvement over the street.”
She reached over and rubbed his back. It was true that he couldn’t leave the apartment. Besides the fact that the smog gave him panic attacks, there was the scar on his wrist where he had cut out his concentration camp tattoo. Anyone who saw that would know that he was an escaped prisoner. It was safer for him to stay inside. Unfortunately, that meant he couldn’t work, which meant they had to survive on her ration and whatever money she could bring in doing odd jobs.
Suddenly reminded of the food she had brought home, Liesl reached across the small table to drag it closer. “Dinner,” she said.
Dieter didn’t look up. “I’m not hungry.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You haven’t eaten all day. A bottle and a half of brandy does not count. Eat.” She started dividing up the meager portion of bread and meat. Her husband remained slumped on the table.
“I spoke German today,” she said to fill the silence.
Dieter’s head jerked up. “Why? What does it do, besides get you thrown in jail every couple weeks? How long is it going to be before the Russians send you away?”
She shrugged. “The clerk ignored me.”
“But why do you take that risk?”
“Because it shows we are not beaten.”
“And what’s worth more, a tiny show of defiance or your life?”
“Listen to me! One of these days they’ll just shoot you in the street or haul you off to… to…” He smashed his hand down on the rickety table again, sending a small crack down the middle. “Don’t you understand, Liesl?” he shouted. “One of these days they’ll kill you!”
She reached out and grabbed his chin, turning his head to face her. “That didn’t stop you.”
He slumped forwards again. “It’s different. I was fourteen when I got involved with the resistance. My parents started it; it was all I’d ever known. I didn’t really understand what I was doing. Now I spend half my day tormented by waking nightmares about Auschwitz and spend the other half scared stiff that you’ll do something stupid and get yourself sent there. I couldn’t take that. I’d die.” The way he said it left Liesl with no doubt that he was telling the truth.
She sighed, feeling guilt twist inside her. He glanced sideways at her. “What are you not telling me?”
She hunched her shoulders and gave him a small smile. He just looked at her. “Liesl.”
“I’ve done things a lot more reckless than saying danke to a clerk.” She twisted in her chair and pulled up the back of her shirt. Dieter leaned in closer to see what she was trying to show him. A small black eagle was tattooed roughly on her back.
He groaned. “You didn’t. Please tell me you didn’t join the resistance.”
She pulled her shirt down and looked him in the eye. “I did. And I’m not leaving it.”
He didn’t respond. Instead, he got up and retrieved a knife from the wall. She turned to follow his motion. “What are you doing?”
“The first time anyone sees that thing, you’ll be dead. I’m going to get rid of it for you.”
Liesl thought of the way he had carved up his own wrist to remove the Auschwitz tattoo and swallowed hard. “Dieter. Listen. Please. I can’t just sit around and do nothing while the Soviets destroy our people. I don’t have that in me. You’ve always known that. I have to do something, even if it’s just drawing symbols on the side of a building.”
He paused. “I know. But you’re going to get yourself killed.”
“What about you?” she exploded. “Did they break you at Auschwitz? Have you given up? Your parents, your whole family died for this! Are you just going to walk away? Is this what all those people who didn’t make it out died for?”
Dieter dropped the knife to the floor with a loud clatter. Liesl knew that attack had been unfair. Over one hundred and fifty men had tried to break out of Auschwitz at the same time as him. Only eleven had made it. Dieter still felt guilty about being one of the few to survive.
Liesl watched as Dieter clenched and unclenched his hands, his back still to her. “I can’t. I can’t even leave the apartment without panicking. You see factories puffing out smoke. I see the crematoria at Auschwitz. You see a city. I see hell itself. I can’t go out there. How am I supposed to do anything useful for anyone? I…”
Liesl pushed herself out of her chair and wrapped her arms around her husband. “Shhh. Don’t you dare say you should have died in that place. God spared you for a reason.”
He leaned down and buried his face in her hair. “I’m not so sure.”
She leaned back and looked him the eyes. “You survived Auschwitz. You fought your way out. You can get out of this, too, my warrior.”
He smiled slightly at her name for him and opened his mouth to reply. She reached up and placed a finger on his lips.
“Come with me tonight when I go out. You’ll be okay.”
He looked back at her seriously. “Will you be okay?”
She smiled. “Only God knows that.” Then she kissed him.
Liesl could feel the tension in Dieter’s muscles through his shirt. He had spent the entire walk through the streets glancing around as if frightened someone might recognize her – when he wasn’t squeezing his eyes shut in an attempt to block out the memories the city sparked in him. She kept her hand around his waist the whole time, a reminder that he wasn’t alone. Now they were crouched behind a Soviet administrative office. Liesl pulled a piece of charcoal out of her pocket.
Dieter watched the alley, tension evident in his posture as Liesl raised her chalk to the side of the building. She sketched out a few quick lines, then started in on the details. Dieter’s hand rested protectively on the small of her back the whole time. She smiled a little as she worked. She felt safer with him around.
A few minutes later, she leaned back and looked at her finished work. A black eagle like the one tattooed on her back graced the sturdy brick wall. Dieter turned from his watching to look at it for a minute.
“Why the eagle?” he asked. “I know my parents used it, but I never really asked why. I guess I wasn’t old enough to care.”
“I guess it’s a symbol of German national pride, or something like that. That’s what Fox said. He really likes symbols.”
They rose and, after a quick check of the street, ducked out from behind the building and started walking.
“So Fox is your leader?” Dieter asked.
She nodded. “That’s not his real name. They’ve changed a lot since your father’s day, but not that. No real names.”
“What’s your name?”
“Little Wolf. Subtle.”
She smiled. “That’s the irony of it all. Fox picked that, not me.”
They walked in silence for a moment, then she looked over at him. “Are you still angry?”
He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m not angry. I’m just worried about you. You’re taking a big risk.”
“No less than the one you or your parents took. The way I look at it, we’re all going to die eventually anyways. I’d rather go out fighting than sitting down.”
“You got that from my mother.”
“Your mother was a brave woman. And she was right.”
“It got her killed.”
“She didn’t regret it.”
“Do you regret it?”
Dieter rubbed at the old scar on his wrist. “I don’t know yet.”
Liesl grabbed his wrist and kissed his scar. “I don’t think you do.”
He pulled her in close as they walked. “I wish I had that much faith in me.”
The clock tolled ten o’clock. Dieter stiffened even further, his grip on Liesl’s waist tightening. “That was the curfew bell. We need to get home.”
Liesl opened her mouth to argue, then nodded. It would be best not to push Dieter at this point. She took a quick glance over her shoulder and walked a little faster. Dieter gave a little sigh of relief and picked up his pace accordingly.
When they reached their building, a middle-aged woman was leaning against the door. Dieter froze, but Liesl recognized the woman. “It’s alright,” she said. “Rose is one of Fox’s messengers.”
“Little Wolf,” she said tersely. “Fox wants to see you. Same place as always.”
Liesl nodded. All the resistance members had a spot known only to them and Fox where they met their enigmatic leader.
The woman looked at Dieter. “You’re Peter Wolfe’s boy, aren’t you? We thought you were dead in one of those Russian death camps.”
Dieter didn’t answer.
“Where have you been, then? This fight hasn’t been the same since your parents died. We could use someone with your fire.”
“Rose,” Liesl said, a warning in her eyes.
“Did they break you, boy? Did you sell out? Do you know what the name Wolfe could do for us? You could lead us instead of that overcautious fool.”
He looked away. “I haven’t sold out, but I’m not ready to come back, either.”
“When will you be ready? We need you.”
Dieter turned back and looked her in the eyes. “No. No you don’t.”
Liesl coughed and tried to huddle deeper into her worn coat. The biting winter wind went right through it, making her efforts useless. She glanced at the ration lines that were winding around the block and shook her head. They could go to bed hungry tonight. Getting food could take hours, and it was freezing out. Not that tomorrow would be any better, but she could always hope. She tugged the coat tighter and kept walking.
It had been five months since Dieter had gone out with her. He hadn’t gone again. She hadn’t asked him to. The meeting with Rose seemed to have unnerved him.
Fifteen minutes later, she stumbled into their tiny flat on frozen feet. The windows were tightly shut and the curtains taped to the wall in an attempt to keep the drafts out. By the temperature of the apartment, it wasn’t working.
She shivered as she shut the door behind her. The smell of brandy hung in the air, but it was days old. Dieter hadn’t been drinking as much since the night they’d gone out. She hoped that was a good sign.
Today he was sitting at the table, studying an old newspaper that was spread out in front of him. He frowned and rubbed at something with his thumb.
“Taking an interest in Soviet propaganda?” she asked. The Soviets approved everything the newspapers printed. It wasn’t so much news as a public relations campaign.
Dieter glanced up, then flipped the newspaper closed and slid it aside. “Not much else to read around here. He glanced at her empty hands. “No food tonight?”
She shook her head. “It’s freezing out there and I swear the lines are two kilometers long. I didn’t have the energy for that tonight.”
“Are you going to be all right tomorrow with no food? I could get it for you if you want to stay here.”
Liesl smiled, then sat down beside him. “I’ll be fine.” She doubted Dieter would make it more than a block before he froze up in panic, but it made her happy to see him try. She leaned in to kiss him. “My warrior,” she murmured.
He pulled away. Liesl looked at him in concern. “Are you all right?”
“Does the resistance publish its own newspaper?”
Liesl blinked, surprised. “No. Your parents did, didn’t they?”
He nodded, his eyes far away. “They should start. It might get them some attention. Besides, people need some real news to read, not that.” He gestured at the newspaper he’d pushed away earlier.
“We’d need someone to find stories and someone to print it and a place to print it and ink and paper and a million other things. We don’t have the resources. It’s a good idea, though.”
Dieter shrugged. “I guess I should have expected that.”
Liesl reached out to rub his shoulder. “Something else is bothering you. What is it?”
“I’ve been thinking about my family.”
“I see.” Liesl dragged her chair a little closer to his and snuggled up under his arm. He shifted unconsciously to accommodate her.
He looked at her and smiled a little, but it faded quickly. He stared into space. “My parents, my aunt and uncle, even my older brothers. They were all willing to fight and die to free Germany from the Russians. They were ready for it.”
“So were you.”
He shook his head. “I was young. The resistance, my family’s cause was all I’d ever known. I just went along. I don’t think I really knew what I was fighting for and what I was risking until Auschwitz.
“Auschwitz destroyed whoever I was before. I know what I was fighting for now and what I’ll risk if I start again. And I don’t think I’m brave enough to risk it. If I’d known back then, I would have run. It’s not that I don’t believe in my parent’s cause. It’s just… I don’t believe enough to fight for it.”
Liesl pulled away enough that she could look him in the eyes. “But you did fight.”
“And knowing what I know now, I don’t think I could do it again. I’m not that brave.”
“Yes, you are.”
He shook his head again. “I can’t take up my parents’ mantle. I don’t believe in their dream like they did.” He looked at her. “I’m a coward.”
“You lived through Auschwitz, Dieter, and now people are demanding that you face that again. You’re not a coward. You’re just human.”
“I don’t believe in their dream anymore.”
“What do you believe in?”
He waved a hand around their tiny apartment. “This. Reality. My parents were the best people I ever knew. They lost. One hundred and fifty of us tried to escape Auschwitz. Eleven made it out. We lost. Good guys lose, Liesl. I’m not brave enough to die for a hopeless cause.”
“You don’t believe that. I know you don’t. Let me know when you figure that out.” She pushed herself up out of her chair and started walking towards the small second room that served as a bedroom. “It’s late. Get some sleep.”
Dieter stared after Liesl for a long time. Am I losing her? he wondered. Is she ashamed of the coward she married?
The shadows looked like accusing faces. His parents, wondering why their only surviving son had forsaken their cause. Matthias, who had sacrificed his life during the escape from Auschwitz so that Dieter could, as he put it, “go home and marry that pretty girl of yours.” The countless people who had protected him with their lives at Auschwitz so that the last remaining Wolfe could escape and carry on the fight. He looked down at the table and saw their faces in the rough grain of the wood. He squeezed his eyes shut. I don’t believe anymore. Oh, God, what’s happened to me? Is this what I want to be? A solitary tear leaked out and splashed down on the table.
The newspaper he had been looking at earlier caught his eye. He pulled it over and opened it up so that he could see what he had drawn on the center page. Auschwitz-Birkenau. Everything he could remember about the place where he had once thought he would die. Why had he drawn it? He couldn’t remember what had sparked it. Maybe he’d thought Liesl could take it to Fox. Maybe the resistance could use it to destroy that hell on earth. He shook his head. From what he’d heard of the man, Fox would never do something like that. He was too cautious. He’d rather deface buildings than do anything important. Dieter flung the paper across the room. Good guys lose, he’d said. Was that what he really believed? Was that what he really wanted to believe? He didn’t know.
The room seemed to be pressing in on him, collapsing under the weight of a thousand accusing eyes. Suddenly not caring what was outside, he got up and flung open the door, absently grabbing Liesl’s ration card. He almost ran down the hallway and out of the building. As the door closed behind him, he froze. Even at night, the industrial smog was obvious. The factory chimneys spewed smoke into the sky, a scene eerily reminiscent of the smoke that had filled the air over the Auschwitz crematoria. He swallowed down a sob. He knew people who had died in the gas chambers and been burned in the crematoria. He knew people who had worked there. He’d worked there. He’d spent two years terrified of the place. Part of him rationalized that this wasn’t the same. The rest of him demanded that he run before it was too late.
He looked down at the ration card in his hand. He took a deep breath and stepped out into the smog. One more step. Then another. The smell of smoke filled his nose and he gagged, falling to his knees in the street. He shook as he tried to hold back another sob and push himself back up to his feet. A few more steps. A person passed through the smog ahead of him and his mind screamed “guard.” His legs failed him and dropped him to the street again. Tears coursed down his face. I can’t. I can’t. A cry broke loose from his throat as he sat, helpless, in the middle of the street.
Auschwitz never lets you go. Those had been the words of the guard at the gate when he had first arrived there. Dieter let out a desperate, hysterical laugh. Auschwitz claims another victim. He laughed again. I was supposed to be free from that place. He started sobbing again as the smog swirled above him, freezing him to the ground. His tears mingled with the mad laughter of a broken man.
After a long time, his gaze fell on the ration card that had fallen in the street when he had collapsed. Liesl. He took a deep breath, then reached for the ration card and pushed himself to his feet, wobbling. The smell of smoke returned. Was it his imagination, or was it real? He didn’t know. He took a few more steps. Liesl. He had escaped Auschwitz for her. She deserved better than this. He moved forward, shaking. Oh, Lord, he prayed. I can’t. I can’t do it. He kept walking.
The ration line appeared ahead. There were still people standing around, waiting, but the line was much shorter than Liesl had said it was when she passed it. He stumbled to the end of the line and breathed deeply, trying to ignore the smog that he pulled in with every breath. I made it.
The line moved quickly and before too long he had Liesl’s ration in hand and was starting on his way back to the tenement. One step. Two steps. Desperate prayers ran through his mind. Three steps. Four. Keep moving, he thought. Keep moving.
The murk of the polluted street gave way to his building. Almost there. A factory puffed out its contribution to the smog behind the tenement. For a minute, it looked like it was on fire. Visions of Liesl burning combined in his mind with memories of smoke over the Auschwitz crematoria. He fell again.
“No!” he shouted before he even realized he had spoken. “No more.” He pushed himself up, breathing hard. Auschwitz is winning. “No,” he gasped again. “Not anymore.” Just a few more steps. He forced himself to cross the last ground between him and the building. He opened the door and stepped inside, slamming it behind him. He leaned against the wall and sighed heavily. I made it. I won. He laughed again, a real laugh this time. “I won,” he whispered. He felt like shouting.
He staggered up the stairs to the apartment, his body still shaking. He pushed open the door to the flat and stepped in. Liesl was sitting at the table, scratching nervously at the paint. Her head snapped up as he entered, and she practically leaped out of her chair. “Dieter! Where were you? I was scared stiff.”
He smiled and dropped the food on the table. Then he grabbed his wife and twirled her around before grabbing her in a tight embrace. “I won,” he whispered in her ear. She laid her head on his shoulder, not asking what he meant. He had a feeling that she knew.
Liesl sat at the table next to Dieter, watching as he sketched some more details on his map of Auschwitz. He glanced at her and smiled. She smiled back. He looked back at his plans, marking potential weaknesses in the defenses. She leaned her head on his shoulder. A feeling of quiet peace pervaded the room. They would fight together, she knew. She had seen it in his eyes when he walked in. He had found a cause to believe in again.
She leaned back and looked up and sent a prayer up to heaven. Thank you for giving him something to fight for.
A single candle flickered on the table, lighting Dieter’s work, dispelling the shadows.