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A Lost Novel of World War II
By Martin Freud, Helen Fry, Anette Fuhrmeister
The History PressCopyright © 2010 Martin Freud
All rights reserved.
I was thinking ... and when I was thinking simple things, I thought in English. I had been living in London for over a year. Although I was not exactly a maharajah in my home town, I was at least a young man with a profession and the opportunity to progress in my career. A dental technician is a useful and reputable occupation and even well paid. And here I was now living as a refugee in England with no work permit, forgetting the little I had learnt in my previous life. People treated me like one half of a pair of gloves found lying on the street – of no commercial value.
I'm sure my mother was right to persuade me to leave the country. I can divulge only a little of my past as my mother is still in my home country and anything I say, write down or do, could harm her. I will say only this much: I am from a country that used to be free and happy until Hitler came along and forced us into submission with arms and no resistance.
I received some aid here in London but not to the extent that I could live it up in the Grosvenor House or even anywhere in Mayfair; I was living in King's Cross in a basic boarding house. Unfortunately it so happened that I was the only young man in the house. The other guests, mainly elderly ladies, were also from countries that Hitler had already occupied – or was going to in the near future. The more prudent amongst us did not wait but emigrated well before he seized power.
My room was a tiny garret on the top floor, just big enough to sleep in but with no real space in which to live during the day. Once, when I was in the communal living room, I had no time to relax because all the ladies started bossing me around and asking me to do things for them. As they were older than I, and female too, they believed this was their right. If they had their own way I might have spent all day on ladders, hanging blackout curtains and filling gaps with black paper to achieve perfect darkness.
I should have started with the fact that war had just broken out. As I headed for the lounge, I could overhear one of the ladies saying: 'Where is that insolent lazy-bones hiding?' It was one of the elderly ladies with a very deep voice. 'I've been looking for him all day. I want him to go to the W.W. for me to get some more drawing pins before they run out.'
'I don't know what you mean,' said a lady with a much higher voice. 'I don't think he's insolent. He is modest and shy and often looks at one with his kind eyes. I tell you it makes me feel quite motherly towards him.'
'That's only when he wants something from you; some toast made or some trousers ironed.' Now this was slightly unfair in my opinion; it was over a week since anyone had made me any toast or ironed my trousers.
I came into the room. 'Please excuse me,' I said. 'You were speaking about me.'
I don't think I put that quite right; I should have said 'Excuse me for listening in' but I wanted to be as polite as possible. My aim was to take a book from the shelf, and there was the danger that they would come up with another thing for me to do, as in: 'Leave the book there and go and fill some sandbags instead.'
All this took place yesterday. As I came into the room today, there was no one there. It was unusually quiet. I took out a book on Charlotte Corday since I was researching the history of famous murderers of tyrants. Not that I wanted to murder a tyrant myself. Personally, I didn't feel I could murder anyone, even less a tyrant, but I was interested in the method: how to plan grand deeds and how to execute them, peaceful deeds that are not murderous ones.
I was daydreaming, pleasantly seated on the biggest and most comfortable sofa. The only good reading light was to my left. The Charlotte Corday book was on my lap, with my thumb marking the spot where the beautiful murderess buys a kitchen knife from an ironmonger near the Palais Royal at the crack of dawn. My legs were dangling down the side of the seat and to my right there was a glass of water. I gazed at the cheap clock on the mantelpiece, its hands gratifyingly inching towards 7 p.m. Any minute the dinner gong would sound. I was only on half board, entitled to breakfast and dinner. This arrangement was more appropriate for those who worked and lunched in the city. Shouldn't the gong have sounded by now? Earlier today there had been some unrest: furniture was shifted, doors banged and phones rang. The silence now was pleasant in contrast.
I heard footsteps and quickly sat up straight, removing my legs from the cushion. It was only the chambermaid with whom I was having a minor feud. My circumstances dictated that I could not tip her but that was no reason for her to treat me with contempt and not speak to me in her mother tongue, which was Scottish. She came in, took the clock off the mantelpiece, stuck it under her arm and left the room without saying a word. Aha, I thought, we're having soft-boiled eggs for dinner or something that needs to be timed accurately. She came back in. This time she took my half-empty glass of water without a word of apology and disappeared again. Aha, I thought. Frau Pokorny has visitors and they are serving orangeade for which they need more glasses. Frau Pokorny lived comfortably – her daughters were married and living in the United States and sent her money regularly. The boarding house charged 6d per glass which was surely a 100 per cent mark-up since sugar and fruit were still cheap.
The girl came back again, this time approaching me directly. I clutched my book resolutely. She grabbed the reading lamp, unscrewed the light bulb and stuck it in her apron pocket. She used a cloth to hold the bulb so as not to burn her hands; then left me behind in complete darkness. This seemed to me to overstep the mark of what I could endure. I was a paying customer even if I was being helped financially. Besides, I was no more than three days behind with the rent. Ready to complain to the chambermaid, I carefully felt my way out of the room.
The hallway was full of boxes. The chambermaid was now unscrewing the bulbs from the lamps in reception and filling a basket with them. The doors to the bedroom on the ground floor were wide open and all the rooms empty. There was no sign of the landlady. On the desk I found a letter addressed to me. It was the weekly bill which was normally due in four days time. I owed 15/4 and this morning's breakfast was the last meal they were charging me for. Underneath the bill I found the following:
Dear Mr ..., I trust that you will pay the outstanding amount of 15/4 as soon as you receive your next benefit payment. We are closing here and are moving to a new site. I am only able to take the ladies with me, as we are already at full capacity. I'm sure you will find somewhere else to stay.
It was not only water and light that had been taken from me; it was now the roof over my head. I could just about see into the kitchen downstairs. The crockery and cutlery was all packed up and there was no sign of the gong either.
'When are you closing up?' I asked the chambermaid. She shrugged and remained silent. I may as well have spoken to her in Farsi. The sooner I left, the sooner I would find somewhere else to stay. Two men came in and started to remove the suitcases. Emergency lighting on the stairs enabled me to make my way up to my room to pack. Only when I had opened and closed all the cupboard drawers did I realise that there was nothing I could pack because I had no possessions. There was no point in taking a pile of old papers and magazines. My spare shirt and second pair of socks were in the wash with little chance of retrieving them now that I owed laundry money. I put on my shoes with the bitter feeling that horses and cows could grow new hooves but the heels on my shoes would not grow back. They would only wear down further. My slippers weren't worth taking either. I packed only my razor and toothbrush. The towel and bedding were part of the hostel inventory. My flute was already in my trouser pocket and I had sold my coat last April. I had never owned a hat. I was as ready as I could ever be.
But ... where were my documents?
I remembered they were being held at the central office responsible for refugees, and since they were in the process of moving premises as well, my papers had been deposited safely. In case we were interned, they promised they would send the documents straight to the Lagerkommando. My mother can't write to me now the war has broken out so she won't mind if I don't have an address for the time being.
'Adieu, Mansarde,' I called. 'Goodbye to all you mice! You'll miss me when you look for cheese rinds under the bed.' At dinner I liked to save a piece of cheese to eat in bed at night. I went back downstairs and deposited the Charlotte Corday in one of the baskets the maid was now filling with books. There was little hope that these items would arrive in one piece, as there were light bulbs at the bottom and books on top. But what can you expect from a chambermaid who won't even speak to you in her native tongue?
If I hadn't walked the route to King's Cross so often in daylight, I would have been lost. The darkness was merciless. It was a blackout because of the war. From time to time, when I could see nothing at all, I stood still and waited. When cars passed and shed their lights on the streets for a few seconds I got up and moved a few metres further on. I had no real plans of where to go. Five pennies was all I had. If only I owned luggage or better clothes I could have stayed in a boarding house and lived on credit until my next payment. But from the way I looked, I could expect no courtesy. My only item of respectable clothing was the immaculately kept gas mask with a brand-new white hemp cord; but everyone knew that these were free, not for sale and compulsory to carry around. I had a few telephone numbers of fellow emigrants who lived in posh hotels but I wasn't brave enough to invest my few pennies in the risky venture of a phone call. And how would they treat me in reception? My heels were worn and my tie was pieced together from bits of one of the ladies' old dressing gowns.
It had been some time since the last car had passed me to cast a faint light on my path. I should have spent less time thinking and more time paying attention. Now I was truly lost. I could hear cars passing in the distance but I must have landed in a side street with no traffic. I rationalised – I may be lost but even if it seems like I'm in the midst of a deserted mine, I am in a million-strong city. Within a few metres of here there must be people in their dressing gowns and slippers, playing with their offspring, making toast and reading the Evening Standard. If it weren't for the blackout curtains I could make them out, I was sure of it. Someone had to come by and help me out sooner or later. I felt around for something solid and sat down. Something crashed to the ground. I must have knocked over an empty milk bottle in the darkness. It shattered but luckily I was unaffected as there was no dampness and the stones remained dry and warm. As I was seated comfortably I thought that I might as well continue my train of thought ...
I came from a country that used to be free and happy. We spoke German at home, that much was true, but was that reason enough for Herr Hitler to come along and take over? I was almost always a good boy and often stayed at home to help my mother, although she did send me to the mountains to live with her brother for a while to build up my strength because I was a weak child. I wondered why my mother, teacher and priest all tried to convince me to be a good and honest young man and put up with no injustice from others? When this was put to the test and I followed these directives, it caused only shock and dismay. The first time this happened was when I was buying a new exercise book. This was immediately after the invasion of the German troops and in the midst of jubilation. The window display of the stationers with the funny name was almost empty. Only the owner, an old man with a grey beard, sat there with a sign around his neck – Saujud, swine of a Jew. It was written with no orthographic errors unlike the other signs in similar shops, and this was rare. An SA man guarded the shop. It was already obvious to me that no one would be able to buy an exercise book in the foreseeable future. I didn't walk on. It was a disgrace to humanity; and I felt sorry for the man in the window display with the sign around his neck. He had always been so kind to me and friendly. Perhaps I could help.
'Why don't you let me sit in the window in his place?' I asked the SA man. A few people who had been eyeing the display came a little closer so that they could follow what was happening. 'Just think,' I continued, loud enough for the others to hear, 'how embarrassing it must be for the old man. Imagine if it was your father.'
One of the women said, 'Really, what is the point? Why should an old Jew sit in the window like that?' The other women murmured their approval. At this time and location it wasn't unusual for the crowd to change their opinion. It resulted in the SA officer setting the old man free. People weren't really that bad; they were easily led astray. One only has to lead them on the right path again. With these comforting thoughts in my mind I fell asleep.
The next attempt was less successful. Two days later, quite early in the morning, I passed a group of elderly women who were being led away by the SA for cleaning duties. I think they were mainly wives of old officers and aristocrats, loyal to the emperor. They were carrying heavy buckets filled to the brim with lye, brushes, brooms and cleaning rags. A particularly unsavoury rabble who had recently converted to the new regime followed them, scoffing and jeering loudly. One old lady with snow-white hair stopped to rest. She could go no further with the amount she was carrying. I stepped in, took her bucket and said: 'Gnaedige Frau' ('Madam, let me carry that for you'). I was not sure why they felt they had to beat me to a pulp for this act of politeness. If I had not pretended to be dead, they would have carried on relentlessly. My poor mother hardly recognised me. I had to stay at home for a few days so my wounds could heal.
I was disappointed – I had no chance! How could I change the mind of 80 million people? I had to change my methods. I would either need several hundred kind helpers or I would have to speak to larger groups of people at one time. It would not be easy recruiting helpers, so I chose the alternative – to speak to the masses. Sadly, this was not as easy as I had imagined. The masses that gathered to hear the speech of a bigwig might have listened to what I had to say. The speech they had come to hear was to be about the extermination of the inner enemy. I got no further than 'In the name of humanity' before the Gestapo grabbed me by the collar of my overcoat. I managed to free myself by slipping out of the coat and darting between their legs. I then was able to get through to the next street by running into a house with two exits, and then jumped onto a tram.
I remembered my coat pocket held the deposit receipt for my faltboot, my collapsible boat. Here I had left a copy of a book from the library. The author was a Jewish philosopher and it was about the freedom of speech. There was a register showing who the current holder of the copy was. If the Gestapo followed this lead, they would track me down within a few hours. When I got home, I told my friends and family. Everyone was shocked. My friends all contributed money to enable me to cross the border straight away. Once out of the country I was passed from pillar to post until I finally ended up here in England.
A car finally approached. It was heavy and moving very slowly. I got up and ran towards it, waving my arms in the headlights. I hoped this car would give me a lift, at least to somewhere I had a chance of finding my way from. It stopped. It was a Rolls Royce with a slightly unusual shape. The bonnet was exceptionally wide and the roof was very high. The driver and his partner were wearing top hats and there was a large black box behind them – it was a hearse. I decided against the lift. 'Sorry,' I called out and stepped back on to the pavement. The car with the sombre profession appeared to have gotten lost in the blackout; the headlights were aimed towards the houses and walls, on the lookout for a clue to their current position – a street sign perhaps or something else. This proved to be fortuitous for me because the gloomy memory of the hearse was soon replaced by something far more pleasant. A larger-than-life image of a beautiful girl with long flowing hair and rosy cheeks was glowing in the darkness. Her white neck was shimmering and her shapely arms were beckoning me. For a few seconds I thought I was witnessing a miracle, but then I understood. The headlights were directed at a large poster and had singled out this perfectly sharp image. I could not make out what her sweet smile was extolling: soap, toothpaste or shampoo? Something to eat or strengthen the nerves or perhaps washing powder? The fair image disappeared. The searchlights found a clue to our whereabouts. We were only a few hundred metres away from Upper Regent Street.
Excerpted from Any Survivors? by Martin Freud, Helen Fry, Anette Fuhrmeister. Copyright © 2010 Martin Freud. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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