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It’s Berlin, 1932. Sophie is a smart and sexually precocious fourteen-year-old coming of age during Hitler’s rise to power. Forced to lead a double life when her father and her boyfriend become Nazi collaborators, she reserves her dreams of becoming an actress for her beloved elderly neighbor, Isaac Zarco, and his friends, most of whom are Jews working against the government in a secret group called the Ring. When a member is sent to Dachau, she realizes there must be a Nazi traitor in the group . . .
Through successive mysteries, reversals, and surprises—and a race against time—The Seventh Gate builds to a shattering end. In its chilling but sensuous evocation of the time and place, Richard Zimler’s novel is a love story and a tale of ferocious heroism.
“A moody, tightly constructed historical thriller that is both entertaining and instructive.” —The New York Times
“Explosive and prophetic.” —Newsday
“Mixing profound reflections on Jewish mysticism with scenes of elemental yet always tender sensuality, Zimler captures the Nazi era in the most human of terms, devoid of sentimentality but throbbing with life lived passionately in the midst of horror.” —Booklist (starred review)
“Zimler excellently captures the gamut of tumultuous emotions in his intense and detailed portrait of a city destined for war, and his exceptionally drawn characters struggling to survive in a world gone mad make for an unforgettable story.” —Library Journal (starred review)
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It may take me fifteen minutes to thread a needle, but I have a hunter's vision for the past. So I can see the low sky of that frigid afternoon in February 1932 as if the clouds were within my reach, and I am aware, too, that my mother's troubled face is pressed against our kitchen window, since she is anxious to shout out a warning to me in the courtyard below.
Regret, too, squeezes my heart; there was so much about Mama that I'd been too young to understand.
"It is very difficult to get rid of destiny once it has entered you, and you will need the grace of God to do so," Isaac Zarco once warned me with his hand of blessing resting on my head, and he was right. For the gray clouds of that day have never fully cleared. And my mother has never stopped gazing down at me.
I see Tonio, as well, sprawled on the ground, and Vera turning away from him. Do these images come to me because of their symmetry? After all, Vera and Tonio were destined to pull me in opposite directions.
Cloaked by the darkness of a December night in America, I can feel the rabbit-quick breathing of the eager fourteen-year-old girl that I was, and her depth of belief in herself — just as I can feel the absence of the same confidence inside the woman I would become. I am heading out with my best friend Tonio on another after-school adventure in a childhood built out of curiosity. Tonio, who has just turned fifteen, is small and lithe, with a sweet, thoughtful mouth and large chestnut eyes that often seem to show a suffering way beyond his years. They are an inheritance from his sad-natured Russian mother, and so there is an exotic appeal to him, as well — my chance to voyage far east of Germany.
He and I are stomping over the flagstones of our building's courtyard, talking excitedly, dressed in our heavy woolen coats and boots, vapor clouds puffing out of our mouths. Like most apartment houses in our neighborhood, the courtyard lies between a front building facing the street and a rear one that's hidden. My parents, my brother, and I live in the front. Tonio and his parents live in the back.
We are on our way to Straßburger Straße, where Tonio has heard that a broad linden tree has fallen, crushing a spiffy red American car. Small catastrophes like this etch tiny marks into our childhood, and he and I also extract a sweet, secret joy from making our parents wonder if racing to the scene of fires, burst water mains, and tramway collisions isn't a sign that we aren't quite right in the head. In fact, fear for the safety of her excitable, wayward daughter is why my mother will not turn from the window. I don't wave, of course; I resent her lack of trust the way some kids resent not getting enough attention.
Before Tonio and I reach the door to the front building — intending to walk through the entranceway to the street — it opens and two tiny children step toward us, twins most likely, since they are wearing matching Carnival costumes; most parties and balls in Berlin are scheduled for this evening — Saturday the 6th.
"Hello there," one of them says with an odd, adult-sounding voice.
We don't reply; their beautiful clothes leave us awestruck — checkerboard jackets and pants in scarlet and black, and floppy yellow hats topped with tiny silver bells. Curiosity overwhelms us. And jealousy too. Why didn't we think of putting on our costumes?
Stepping forward in a waddling way, they pass us and walk toward the rear building. When the larger of the two — barely three feet tall — turns around to smile, the diffuse northern light catches his face and we see that he has whiskers on his cheeks.
"Dwarfs," Tonio whispers to me.
They penguin-walk into the apartment house, and we follow them. Starting up the staircase, they talk in hushed voices about the ill-bred children behind them, most likely. Up three flights they go, laboriously, each step a hurdle that makes them seem to throw their hips out of joint.
We pursue them only to the first-floor landing, our rudeness finding a temporary height limit. "They're unheimlich," Tonio says. Unheimlich, meaning weirdly sinister, is his favorite word.
Rushing back to the courtyard, we see lights go on in Mr Zarco's sitting room. He lives alone on the third floor. Both his wife and son are long dead.
"Mr Zarco must be having a party," I tell Tonio.
"A very small party," he replies, laughing at his wordplay.
I laugh too, but only to keep him company. Tonio is the first boy I've had a crush on, but I've recently had to admit to myself that we do not share the same sense of humor. I've also concluded that I'll have to hide that difference from him if our marriage is to have any chance of success.
"I wish I'd gotten a better look at them," I say, casting my gaze up to my mother's now empty window. I resent that, too — that she nearly always misses out on the adventures that a mother and daughter should share.
The door to the courtyard opens again, and a couple in their twenties step out. The woman, slender with short blond hair, wears a sequined blue snout over her nose. The man, dressed as a bullfighter, has on a gold brocade vest and tights, and a tricorn black hat. He is gaunt and pale, and handsome in a desperate way, like a starving student in a romantic novel. They say hello, but their voices are hard to understand; the consonants and vowels seem smudged. We return their greetings this time. The woman smiles at us and makes quick hand signals to the bullfighter. Then they, too, cross the courtyard, enter the rear building, and climb up the staircase to Mr Zarco's apartment.
We're jittery with excitement by now, and we decide to wait to see who'll come next. Tonio lifts his nose and sniffs at the air, which smells of hops because we have a dozen breweries in the neighborhood. "Schultheis," he says, frowning.
He claims to be able to tell which brewery the scent is coming from and prefers the more pungent, stinging odor of Bötzow. I don't drink beer. I prefer wine — just like Greta Garbo, I always tell people.
After a few minutes, a gigantic woman wearing a gargoyle mask enters — a jutting awning of forehead over a big blunt nose, protruding chin, and gaping caveman mouth. "Best costume so far," I whisper to Tonio, thinking that scary creatures may be in style this year.
"She looks just right for the Katakombe," he says. The Katakombe is an avant-garde Berlin cabaret we snuck into a few months earlier.
The woman is well over six feet tall. I look down at her legs expecting to see her standing on stilts. But I can't see her feet; she's cloaked head to toe in black, with a long white scarf around her neck.
Black and white — Vera will never wear any other colors, but I don't know that yet.
"My god!" Tonio suddenly exclaims, gulping for air.
He races off to the side of the courtyard, toward the Munchenbergs' apartment.
"Sophie!" he calls. When I turn, he is waving me over frantically.
By now, the woman is directly in front of me. I wonder what the fuss is; it's comforting to be so small beside her and yet still be the center of my own world.
"What's your name?" she asks me.
It's her distended, lopsided smile — as though her bloated bottom lip might just drop off — that gives the truth away. I do not scream, though I want to. I cover my mouth with my hands. My heart seems to burst out of my chest.
Tonio keeps calling me, but I can't move; the word hingerissen, meaning overwhelmed and entranced, gains meaning for me forever after.
"I'm Vera," she tells me. Leaning down, she reaches out her hand with formal grace. Would I have taken it? I'll never know, because Tonio tugs me away.
"Get away from us!" he yells at the woman.
She tosses the end of her scarf over her shoulder and rushes past us, her head down.
"Monster!" Tonio calls after her.
Vera stops. When she turns, her eyes are hooded by rage. She marches back to us, each of her steps too long for a woman.
I can't prevent myself from staring at her; her mask-that-isn't-a-mask is something that should only exist in a nightmare, like blood oozing out of one's pillow. Who could turn away from such an impossibility?
My breathing seems to be deeper than ever before, and I know that I am right where I am meant to be. Years later, I will read the Greek myths and understand this feeling better; it is not often that one encounters a goddess, and even less frequently in the courtyard between two quiet, middle-class apartment houses. It was one of Isaac Zarco's ancestors who said that God appears to us in the form we can most appreciate, and maybe for me that form was Vera.
"You shouldn't talk to anyone so disrespectfully," the giant tells Tonio.
Her voice is gentle, the tone of a woman who has learned how to control herself in front of little creatures that sting.
"You're deformed!" he shrieks.
That may be true, but she is also quick and powerful; her open hand catches my friend on his shoulder, knocking him over. His cap tumbles off. By the time I've picked it up, Vera is entering the back building, tilting forward, as if carrying a leaden locket around her neck.
"Are you all right?" I ask Tonio.
Tears are caught in his lashes. "I'm fine!" he snaps. "Let's get the hell out of here!"
The boy is embarrassed about being knocked over, so we don't talk about it. We go to see the crushed red American luxury car, which turns out to be a small black Peugeot 201 Cabriolet and not nearly as flattened as we'd like.
"What a disappointment," he tells me. "I was really hoping it was a '32 Packard. They've got this hood ornament made of chrome-plated zinc that's called the Goddess of Speed. If the car had been really crushed, I'd have taken it. Imagine having one!"
"What's the ornament look like?"
"It's a winged angel holding up a tire."
A tire? The Goddess of Speed sounds ridiculous to me, but sparks of joy are in Tonio's eyes, so I tell him I'd love to see one. When Tonio is happy, he's irresistible.
A crowd of Berliners gathered around an accident will always include more than enough gaping singularities to please our precocious sense of the grotesque, including double-chinned businessmen with pencil-thin mustaches, my personal favorite, but Tonio doesn't share my delight in faces. He's examining the crushed Peugeot. After a while, silence nestles itself deeply inside me. Suddenly frigid, I watch a group of unemployed men squatting on Metzer Straße by a fire they've made with planks of wood and rags. Behind them, seeming to guard our neighborhood with its protective strength, is my favorite local landmark, the water tower, a cylinder of dark brick rising a hundred feet into the air. I used to imagine a bearded sorcerer living at its pinnacle, and a terrified girl being held captive. Raising my gaze to its highest windows, I think about how much I'd like to talk to the gigantic woman who walloped Tonio, which leads me to consider how little the bent steel of a smashed Peugeot means compared to a face that frightens children.
Darkness falls in an instant during the Berlin winter, and by the time we reach Prenzlauer Allee, we're walking backwards to keep the searing wind off our faces. A tap on my shoulder makes me gasp and nearly tumble over.
"Raffi, you idiot! You almost gave me a heart attack!"
Rafael Munchenberg, twenty-four years old, with flappy, elephant ears and the intense eyes of a chess master, faces me, then looks urgently down the street. He lives with his parents on the first floor of our building.
"Was ist los?" Tonio asks him. What's up?
"I need your help — both of you. I'm being followed."
"By who?" I ask, a flame of fear in my chest.
"Do you owe him some money?" Tonio asks. That question should tell you how little we know about politics.
"Of course not," Raffi scoffs.
"You're not making this up, are you?" I ask, squinting and shifting my weight to appear insistent; this wouldn't be the first dirty trick he'd played on me.
"Soph, don't make trouble!" he says gruffly, and he snatches my hand. "Come on!"
He runs me down the street into the Immanuel Church, Tonio close on our heels.
Of late, Raffi has tried to change his image by wearing his thick black hair slicked back, so that he looks like a rakish jazz trumpeter. In real life, however, he's a good-as-gold doctoral student in Egyptology, and when he can get funding, which isn't all that often given Germany's ruined economy, he goes to Egypt for months at a time. He was my favorite babysitter of all time because he'd read the scariest parts of Emil and the Detectives to me as many times as I liked and even permit me to eat toast on his lap no matter how many crumbs I might spill. We also used to bathe Hansi together and get as soaked as sponges, and even my normally impassive brother would laugh. Tonio and Raffi also play cards every other Friday evening, though I don't join them. I learned the hard way — from Tonio's resentful looks — that boys need some time alone.
We burst into the church. Two sparrowish women are praying in the second pew — knots of blue-gray hair above thick gray coats. Raffi puts his stunning, black felt hat on Tonio's head, takes the boy's ratty cap, and exchanges jackets with him.
"You look like a clown!" I whisper to Tonio after he's got on Raffi's coat, since the sleeves swallow his hands. "Besides, swapping clothes is the oldest trick in the book! I've seen it in a dozen movies." A slight exaggeration, but I think my point is well taken.
Tonio shoos me away. "Shush, Sophie!" The idea of being a decoy is apparently more important than manners.
"Both of you keep quiet," Raffi snaps. He's holding Tonio's jacket, since there's little point in trying to get it on. "It's dark out, Soph, and by the time they notice that Tonio isn't me, I'll be long gone. Besides, we're going out the back exit. Hurry!"
The icy wind swirling through the back alley makes me pull my sweater neck over my mouth and nose, so that the rest of what happens between us has always been accompanied in my memory by the warm smell of wool. Raffi gives me a quick kiss, then shushes up my questions and takes a thick envelope and piece of paper folded into a tight square from his pocket. "Keep these for me," he says. He holds my shoulders tight, telling me with his desperate look that he really is in trouble. "Don't give them to anyone. You hear me?"
"I won't. I swear!"
"Hide them — hurry!"
I slip the envelope and the paper underneath my blouse. They're rough against my skin, and disquieting — like forbidden thoughts.
"I love you, Soph," he says, smiling fleetingly.
Before I can ask him why he's in such a fix, he shakes Tonio's hand with masculine graciousness — a professor and his star pupil. "Tonio, once he sees you aren't me, he'll stop following you. And if he questions you, tell him I've run off to the circus!" He turns to me. "If I don't come back for what I've given you, then ... then ..." A creaking sound from inside the church makes Raffi jerk his head back. He looks like a thief awaiting a police siren ...
"But Raffi, where are you ..."
Before I can finish my sentence, he's running as fast as he can out of the alley and east down Immanuel-Kirche Straße toward the smokestacks of the Friedrichshain Brewery, his hand on his head to keep Tonio's cap from blowing off. We watch him in silence until he vanishes around the corner. Nobody steps out of the church or dashes past us. Tonio thinks Raffi must have seduced some Nazi's wife, since his mind is never further than one step from sex. Rubbing his frozen hands together, he says in an eager voice, "Good, now let's see what's in that envelope of his."
"We have to, Sophie. What if he doesn't come back? You heard him."
"Someone might be watching us."
Tonio and I decide to head to Frau Koslowski's grocery. We keep looking behind us, but no one is on our trail. We hide around corners just to make sure, making believe we're secret agents. Tonio presses against me hard as he looks over my shoulder, which I adore.
Frau Koslowski has already closed her shop for the afternoon, so we slip into the Köln Beer Garden, just around the corner, which is frequented by Brewery workers and billiards players. The carpeting of the indoor restaurant stinks like a urinal and the air is filled with enough cigar smoke to choke the Kaiser's army. We rush to the women's bathroom — Tonio's idea — and lock ourselves in a stall.
Tonio, panting with excitement, rips open the envelope. "Wow!" he whispers, and he takes out a stack of English one-pound notes in two different colors, brown and green. The brown ones become my favorites. I call them my Two Georges, because they have a picture of a bearded, serious-looking King George on the right — in profile — and a handsome, bare-chested St George killing a ferocious dragon on the left. We count the bills — fifty-four. "What do you think they're worth?" I ask.
"A fortune!" Tonio spreads them like a fan. "Buckingham Palace here I come!"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Seventh Gate"
Copyright © 2007 Richard Zimler.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
By the Same Author,
The First Gate,
The Second Gate,
The Third Gate,
The Fourth Gate,
The Fifth Gate,
The Sixth Gate,
The Seventh Gate,
What People are Saying About This
"A moody, tightly constructed historical thriller that is both entertaining and instructive."
"A gripping, heartbreaking, and beautiful thriller . . . unforgettable, poetic, and original."
"The Seventh Gate is not only a superb thriller but an intelligent and moving novel about the heartbreaking human condition."