NOVEMBER 9, 1938, VIENNA
The shadow still swayed over the pavement. Franz Adler tried to blink away the memory of his brother’s dangling corpse and the silhouette it cast across the sidewalk, but the image looped over and over in his head.
A pane of glass erupted somewhere at street level, startling Franz. His hand slipped and he pierced Esther’s skin at the wrong angle. “Verdammt!” he swore under his breath as he yanked back the needle’s tip.
Three more windows shattered. The mob was so close. Its drunken cheers and raucous laughter infected the room. Franz could almost smell the stench of stale beer and body odor that must have wafted after it.
Concentrate, Adler! Finish suturing and go collect your daughter!
Eyes open or closed, the mental image persisted. As a surgeon, Franz had witnessed numerous deaths, but none compared with the memory of his own brother’s.
A damp November chill permeated the spacious apartment. Fearing a fire, the caretaker had shut off the boiler. The windows were draped and the lights off, save for the flickering flame of three candles that projected long writhing shadows against the walls. Franz had to squint through the weak light to study Esther’s blood-caked arm before him.
Another pane shattered three stories below. Franz heard a fresh wave of cheers as though it were some kind of feat to deface a city. But the voices grew more distant as the bulk of the mob stomped farther down Liechtenstein Strasse.
Esther Adler huddled for warmth under the blanket that Franz had wrapped around her shoulders. His sister-in-law’s complexion was ashen. Abrasions crisscrossed her face. But amazingly, her gray eyes still possessed a remnant of their usual calm. “Your hands, Franz,” Esther said in a hushed voice.
Franz glanced down at his shaky fingers. “Not enough light,” he muttered.
“We will manage.” A tremulous smile flitted across Esther’s lips. “With God’s help.”
“God?” Franz nodded to the curtains, which glowed red from the fires consuming Vienna. “Essie, how could it be any clearer that there is no God?” he snapped.
She closed her eyes for a moment. “I can’t believe that. I won’t.”
Franz took a slow breath and mentally aligned the edges of Esther’s jagged wound, estimating the number of stitches it would require. Twenty, possibly more. He hoped he had enough catgut to close the laceration, which snaked almost the entire length of Esther’s forearm but, remarkably, spared the largest nerves and blood vessels.
Hannah needs you, he reminded himself as he ran a fourth stitch through Esther’s flesh. She barely flinched, despite the lack of local anesthetic. Franz always carried his suture kit in his medical bag, but he silently cursed himself for not having brought the rest of his supplies upstairs sooner. From the moment he first heard the wireless broadcasts—Goebbels’s shrill shrieks of “Juden” this and “Juden” that—Franz had expected the worst. But he had not foreseen just how bloodthirsty the backlash would become. Who could have predicted this?
Earlier, Franz had tried to rush downstairs to get local anesthetic and bandages, but Esther grabbed his arm and, dripping blood onto his sleeve, begged him to proceed without freezing. She claimed to be more afraid of the injection than the stitches, but they both knew what she really feared: if the Brownshirts or other thugs caught Franz rummaging through his ground-floor surgery, he would never return. And his daughter, Hannah, was waiting.
“It’s fine, Franz,” Esther whispered. “Just continue. Please.”
Franz looked into her kind eyes. Narrow-faced with sharp features, Esther had deep-set gray eyes that made her look older than her thirty-two years. Though not conventionally pretty, she radiated intelligence, humor, and, especially, compassion. Her empathy was boundless. Even now, with her arm splayed open in the wake of her husband’s lynching, little more than an hour earlier, she seemed as concerned for her niece’s welfare as her own. But her trembling shoulders belied her composed expression.
“All right, Essie,” he said as he looped another stitch through her arm, bringing the ragged edges a little closer together.
“We must get Hannah away from here, Franz.” Esther motioned toward the silhouettes of flames dancing against the curtains. “Our time has run out, ja?”
Franz nodded, ashamed of having resisted for so long. Until the Nazis set Vienna ablaze, he had clung to his naive belief that their reign of terror was a dark but passing phase in history. That his countrymen would come to their collective senses. But his brother, Karl, had been right from the outset. Nothing, not even blood, would appease these crazed animals.
Franz gazed into Esther’s glistening eyes. Even though Karl was his only sibling and the best friend he had ever known, his loss paled compared with hers. Esther had no brothers or sisters, her parents were long dead, and Karl and she had been unable to conceive a child. Esther and Karl had only each other, but that had always been enough. Franz had never known a couple more deeply in love. He racked his brain for some consoling words, but none came to mind. His brother, the lawyer, had been the verbally gifted one. So Franz finished stitching in torturous silence. He was reaching for strips of a torn shirt to use as a bandage when he heard a plaintive scream. He froze, then rushed to the window.
“Vorsicht!” Esther cautioned. “Be careful! Don’t let them see you!”
Franz gently peeled back the edge of the drape, exposing only enough of a gap to peek out to the street below.
A group of stragglers—some were dressed in civilian clothing, others wore the brown shirts, matching caps, and bloodred swastika armbands of the storm troopers—milled about on the road like wolves circling their kill. In the center of them, an older woman lay sprawled on her back, flailing wildly. A blond woman in a long leather coat stood over her, pinning the fallen woman down with a foot to the chest.
Franz spotted a balding old man lying ten or so feet away. His torso was twisted unnaturally, with his knees facing in almost the opposite direction to his scrawny chest. A fat storm trooper hovered over him, holding a thick wooden club in his pudgy fingers. The trooper raised the club high over his head and let it hang suspended in the air for a long moment.
“No, no, no…,” Franz muttered.
The storm trooper swung the bat down like an ax into the victim’s midsection. Unconscious, possibly dead, the man didn’t respond. The woman shrieked again and was rewarded with a heavy kick.
The hair on Franz’s neck stood as he recognized the victims. “It’s the Yacobsens!”
Hannah loved visiting the Yacobsens’ bakery, at the end of their block. The kind old couple—“Tante Frieda” and “Onkel Moshe,” as his daughter called them—would shower the girl with delicious treats of strudel, pfitzauf, and linzer cake.
“Gott in Himmel!” Esther breathed from across the room. “What have they done?”
The fat storm trooper motioned to the blond woman. She grabbed Frieda by the wrist. The older woman resisted as best she could, but a second storm trooper sauntered over and jerked Frieda’s other arm back. She howled as though her shoulder had been dislocated. The two Nazis dragged the thrashing woman toward the fat storm trooper, who stood over her motionless husband, tapping his club against his open palm.
“How can they?” Franz croaked. “To an old woman? It’s madness!”
He watched the fat storm trooper cock his arm again. He pictured Karl’s swollen face and helpless eyes imploring him to act. Franz had never felt as impotent. Unable to stomach another moment, he spun from the window.
I must get Hannah!
Earlier, Franz had left his daughter at the neighboring apartment with the widowed Frau Lieberman before rushing out to retrieve Esther. After ushering his sister-in-law home through minefield-like streets, Franz had no choice but to suture her arm before she bled out. Now that he had closed the wound, he could not bear another minute apart from his daughter, who, though less than a hundred feet from him, felt worlds away.
Franz bolted for the door.
“No, Franz!” Esther cried after him. “Don’t go out now!”
“I can’t leave Hannah next door while the city burns.”
“Hannah is safe with Frau Lieberman!” Esther whispered. “We must not move right now. What if they are already inside the building? What if they hear you?”
“I will be quiet.”
“Franz, it’s too dangerous. Hannah is safer where she is.”
“I have to get her, Essie.”
“Just a little longer, Franz.” Her voice cracked. “For God’s sake, not now, of all times!”
Ignoring her protests, he opened the door. The dark hallway beyond was empty and silent. Holding his breath, Franz took a tentative step out the door. He glanced to either side and then took another.
“Papa?” a little voice mewed.
His heart almost stopped as he spied Hannah tiptoeing down the hall toward him. “Hannah!”
Behind his daughter, Franz saw a faint light emanating from a crack beneath the doorway to the neighboring apartment, and he sensed Frau Lieberman’s terrified presence. Franz padded toward Hannah, swept her up in his arms, and darted back into his flat. He pushed the door shut and gently clicked the dead bolt behind him.
Franz leaned over and smothered Hannah’s head in kisses. “Oh, liebchen.”
Esther threw her uninjured arm around Hannah as well.
Wriggling free of both of them, Hannah glimpsed her aunt’s bloodied arm. She stared at it, wide-eyed. “Tante Essie, what happened?”
Esther tucked her arm in like a wing and turned that side of her body away from her niece. “Your clumsy aunt.” She forced a smile. “This is my idea of how to clean up broken glass.”
The eight-year-old viewed Esther skeptically but did not comment. Earlier, Franz had told Hannah about the rioting, downplaying the violence and the intended targets. But Hannah had immediately seen through his explanation. In the six months since Nazi Germany had swallowed Austria, in the so-called Anschluss, Hannah had already suffered more than her share of state-mandated anti-Semitism. Though only half Jewish by birth, she had been expelled from school and teased, bullied, or shunned by her Gentile friends. Franz would never forget the day she came home from the park with a bloodied nose and swollen lip at the hands of one of her former best friends.
“Where is Onkel Karl?” Hannah demanded.
Franz glanced over at Esther. Their eyes locked, and they wordlessly agreed: Not tonight.
“He has gone … gone home,” Esther said softly.
“Is he all right?” Hannah asked.
Esther summoned a smile. “They can’t hurt him now, darling.”
Lips quivering, Hannah looked to Franz. “I’m afraid, Papa. The breaking glass and the shouting.”
“Everything will be all right,” he soothed. “As soon as I finish bandaging Essie, we will make cocoa.”
“I’m not thirsty.” Hannah flashed a shy little smile. “Besides, there is no gas to heat the cocoa. I just want to stay with you.”
Franz cleared the lump from his throat. “Of course, liebchen. Is Frau Lieberman all right?”
Hannah nodded. With her curly brown hair and darker coloring, she bore far more resemblance to Franz than she ever did to her blond, blue-eyed mother, Hilde. But she shared so many of Hilde’s expressions. And like her mother, Hannah could convey so much without uttering a word.
They returned to the sitting room, Hannah still clutching Franz’s hand. The girl carried herself with such poise that, much of the time, Franz was oblivious to her slight limp and other handicaps. Hannah’s head had been wedged too tightly in her mother’s birth canal, depriving her brain of oxygen for precious minutes. She’d had to be delivered by an emergency Caesarean section that left her with spastic weakness of her left arm and leg. Her relatively mild cerebral palsy was not the only birth trauma. Within days of the delivery, Hilde succumbed to an overwhelming postoperative infection, leaving Hannah motherless and Franz a widower.
Franz gently wrapped his arms around Hannah again, cradling her head against his chest and rocking her on the spot. Her soapy childlike fragrance only intensified his guilt. How will I keep you safe?
“Vienna—Austria—is no longer our home, liebchen,” Franz said. Six months earlier, uttering those same words would have been unimaginable. Before the rise of the Nazis, Franz had not even considered himself Jewish. He was an Austrian and a surgeon. Nothing more.
“Your father means that we have to leave the country,” Esther added gently.
Tears welled in Hannah’s eyes, but her lips broke into the most genuine smile Franz had seen in ages. “I so want to go, Papa.”
“We will go, little one.” Suddenly, nothing aside from Hannah’s safety mattered anymore. “We will.”
Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Kalla