Read an Excerpt
THERE WERE TWO HOURS left of 1938. In Danzig it had been snowing on and off all day, and a gang of children was enjoying a snowball fight in front of the grain warehouses which lined the old waterfront.
John Russell paused to watch them for a few moments, then walked on up the cobbled street toward the blue and yellow lights.
The Sweden Bar was far from crowded, and those few faces that turned his way weren’t exactly brimming over with festive spirit. In fact,
most of them looked like they’d rather be somewhere else.
It was an easy thing to want. The Christmas decorations hadn’t been removed, just allowed to drop, and they now formed part of the flooring, along with patches of melting slush, floating cigarette butts,
and the odd broken bottle. The bar was famous for the savagery of its international brawls, but on this particular night the various groups of
Swedes, Finns, and Letts seemed devoid of the energy needed to get one started. Usually a table or two of German naval ratings could be relied upon to provide the necessary spark, but the only Germans present were a couple of aging prostitutes, and they were getting ready to leave.
Russell took a stool at the bar, bought himself a Goldwasser, and glanced through the month-old copy of the New York Herald Tribune which, for some inexplicable reason, was lying there. One of his own articles was in it, a piece on German attitudes to their pets. It was accompanied by a cute-looking photograph of a Schnauzer.
Seeing him reading, a solitary Swede two stools down asked him, in perfect English, if he spoke that language. Russell admitted that he did.
“You are English!” the Swede exclaimed, and shifted his considerable bulk to the stool adjoining Russell’s.
Their conversation went from friendly to sentimental, and sentimental to maudlin, at what seemed like a breakneck pace. Three
Goldwassers later, the Swede was telling him that he, Lars, was not the true father of his children. Vibeke had never admitted it, but he knew it to be true.
Russell gave him an encouraging pat on the shoulder, and Lars sunk forward, his head making a dull clunk as it hit the polished surface of the bar. “Happy New Year,” Russell murmured. He shifted the
Swede’s head slightly to ease the man’s breathing, and got up to leave.
Outside, the sky was beginning to clear, the air almost cold enough to sober him up. An organ was playing in the Protestant Seamen’s
Church, nothing hymnal, just a slow lament, as if the organist were saying a personal farewell to the year gone by. It was a quarter to midnight.
Russell walked back across the city, conscious of the moisture seeping in through the holes in his shoes. There were lots of couples on
Langer Markt, laughing and squealing as they clutched each other for balance on the slippery sidewalks.
He cut over to Breite Gasse and reached the Holz-Markt just as the bells began pealing in the New Year. The square was full of celebrating people, and an insistent hand pulled him into a circle of revelers dancing and singing in the snow. When the song ended and the circle broke up, the Polish girl on his left reached up and brushed her lips against his, eyes shining with happiness. It was, he thought, a betterthan-
expected opening to 1939.
HIS HOTEL'S RECEPTION AREA was deserted, and the sounds of celebration emanating from the kitchen at the back suggested the night staff were enjoying their own private party. Russell gave up the idea of making himself a hot chocolate while his shoes dried in one of the ovens, and took his key. He clambered up the stairs to the third floor,
and trundled down the corridor to his room. Closing the door behind him, he became painfully aware that the occupants of the neighboring rooms were still welcoming in the new year, loud singing on one side,
floor-shaking sex on the other. He took off his shoes and socks, dried his wet feet with a towel, and sank back onto the vibrating bed.
There was a discreet, barely audible tap on his door.
Cursing, he levered himself off the bed and pulled the door open.
A man in a crumpled suit and open shirt stared back at him.
“Mr. John Russell,” the man said in English, as if he were introducing
Russell to himself. The Russian accent was slight, but unmistakable.
“Could I talk with you for a few minutes?”
“It’s a bit late . . .” Russell began. The man’s face was vaguely familiar.
“But why not?” he continued, as the singers next door reached for a new and louder chorus. “A journalist should never turn down a conversation,”
he murmured, mostly to himself, as he let the man in.
“Take the chair,” he suggested.
His visitor sat back and crossed one leg over the other, hitching up his trouser as he did so. “We have met before,” he said. “A long time ago.
My name is Shchepkin. Yevgeny Grigorovich Shchepkin. We. . . .”
“Yes,” Russell interrupted, as the memory clicked into place. “The discussion group on journalism at the Fifth Congress. The summer of twenty-four.”
Shchepkin nodded his acknowledgment. “I remember your contributions,”
he said. “Full of passion,” he added, his eyes circling the room and resting, for a few seconds, on his host’s dilapidated shoes.
Russell perched himself on the edge of the bed. “As you said—a long time ago.” He and Ilse had met at that conference and set in motion their ten year cycle of marriage, parenthood, separation, and divorce. Shchepkin’s hair had been black and wavy in 1924; now it was a close-cropped gray. They were both a little older than the century,
Russell guessed, and Shchepkin was wearing pretty well, considering what he’d probably been through the last fifteen years. He had a handsome face of indeterminate nationality, with deep brown eyes above prominent slanting cheekbones, an aquiline nose, and lips just the full side of perfect. He could have passed for a citizen of most
European countries, and probably had.
The Russian completed his survey of the room. “This is a dreadful hotel,” he said.
Russell laughed. “Is that what you wanted to talk about?”
“No. Of course not.”
“So what are you here for?”
“Ah.” Shchepkin hitched his trouser again. “I am here to offer you work.”
Russell raised an eyebrow. “You? Who exactly do you represent?”
The Russian shrugged. “My country. The Writer’s Union. It doesn’t matter. You will be working for us. You know who we are.”
“No,” Russell said. “I mean, no I’m not interested. I—”
“Don’t be so hasty,” Shchepkin said. “Hear me out. We aren’t asking you to do anything which your German hosts could object to.” The
Russian allowed himself a smile. “Let me tell you exactly what we have in mind. We want a series of articles about positive aspects of the Nazi regime.” He paused for a few seconds, waiting in vain for Russell to demand an explanation. “You are not German but you live in Berlin,”
Shchepkin went on. “You once had a reputation as a journalist of the left, and though that reputation has—shall we say—faded, no one could accuse you of being an apologist for the Nazis . . .”
“But you want me to be just that.”
“No, no. We want positive aspects, not a positive picture overall.
That would not be believable.”
Russell was curious in spite of himself. Or because of the Goldwassers.
“Do you just need my name on these articles?” he asked. “Or do you want me to write them as well?”
“Oh, we want you to write them. We like your style—all that irony.”
Russell shook his head: Stalin and irony didn’t seem like much of a match.
Shchepkin misread the gesture. “Look,” he said, “let me put all my cards on the table.”
Shchepkin offered a wry smile in return. “Well, most of them anyway.
Look, we are aware of your situation. You have a German son and a German lady-friend, and you want to stay in Germany if you possibly can. Of course if a war breaks out you will have to leave, or else they will intern you. But until that moment comes—and maybe it won’t—
miracles do happen—until it does you want to earn your living as a journalist without upsetting your hosts. What better way than this? You write nice things about the Nazis—not too nice, of course; it has to be credible—but you stress their good side.”
“Does shit have a good side?” Russell wondered out loud.
“Come, come,” Shchepkin insisted, “you know better than that.
Unemployment eliminated, a renewed sense of community, healthy children, cruises for workers, cars for the people. . . .”
“You should work for Joe Goebbels.”
Shchepkin gave him a mock-reproachful look.
“Okay,” Russell said, “I take your point. Let me ask you a question.
There’s only one reason you’d want that sort of article: You’re softening up your own people for some sort of deal with the devil. Right?”
Shchepkin flexed his shoulders in an eloquent shrug.
The Russian grunted. “Why deal with the devil? I don’t know what the leadership is thinking. But I could make an educated guess and so could you.”
Russell could. “The western powers are trying to push Hitler east,
so Stalin has to push him west? Are we talking about a non-aggression pact, or something more?”
Shchepkin looked almost affronted. “What more could there be?
Any deal with that man can only be temporary. We know what he is.”
Russell nodded. It made sense. He closed his eyes, as if it were possible to blank out the approaching calamity. On the other side of the opposite wall, his musical neighbors were intoning one of those Polish river songs which could reduce a statue to tears. Through the wall behind him silence had fallen, but his bed was still quivering like a tuning fork.
“We’d also like some information,” Shchepkin was saying, almost apologetically. “Nothing military,” he added quickly, seeing the look on
Russell’s face. “No armament statistics or those naval plans that Sherlock
Holmes is always being asked to recover. Nothing of that sort. We just want a better idea of what ordinary Germans are thinking. How they are taking the changes in working conditions, how they are likely to react if war comes—that sort of thing. We don’t want any secrets,
just your opinions. And nothing on paper. You can deliver them in person,
on a monthly basis.”
Russell looked skeptical.
Shchepkin ploughed on. “You will be well paid—very well. In any currency, any bank, any country, that you choose. You can move into a better apartment block. . . .”
“I like my apartment block.”
“You can buy things for your son, your girlfriend. You can have your shoes mended.”
“I don’t. . . .”
“The money is only an extra. You were with us once. . . .”
“A long long time ago.”
“Yes, I know. But you cared about your fellow human beings. I
heard you talk. That doesn’t change. And if we go under there will be nothing left.”
“A cynic might say there’s not much to choose between you.”
“The cynic would be wrong,” Shchepkin replied, exasperated and perhaps a little angry. “We have spilled blood, yes. But reluctantly, and in hope of a better future. They enjoy it. Their idea of progress is a
“One more thing. If money and politics don’t persuade you, think of this. We will be grateful, and we have influence almost everywhere.
And a man like you, in a situation like yours, is going to need influential friends.”
“No doubt about that.”
Shchepkin was on his feet. “Think about it, Mr. Russell,” he said,
drawing an envelope from the inside pocket of his jacket and placing it on the nightstand. “All the details are in here—how many words,
delivery dates, fees, and so on. If you decide to do the articles, write to our press attaché in Berlin, telling him who you are, and that you’ve had the idea for them yourself. He will ask you to send him one in the post. The Gestapo will read it, and pass it on. You will then receive your first fee and suggestions for future stories. The last-but-one letters of the opening sentence will spell out the name of a city outside Germany which you can reach fairly easily. Prague, perhaps, or Cracow. You will spend the last weekend of the month in that city, and be sure to make your hotel reservation at least a week in advance. Once you are there,
someone will contact you.”
“I’ll think about it,” Russell said, mostly to avoid further argument.
He wanted to spend his weekends with Paul, and with Effi, his girlfriend,
not the Shchepkins of this world.
The Russian nodded and let himself out. As if on cue, the Polish choir lapsed into silence.
RUSSELL WAS WOKEN BY the scream of a locomotive whistle. Or at least, that was his first impression. Lying there awake all he could hear was a gathering swell of high-pitched voices. It sounded like a school playground full of terrified children.
He threw on some clothes and made his way downstairs. It was still dark, the street deserted, the tramlines hidden beneath a virginal sheet of snow. In the train station booking hall across the street a couple of would-be travelers were hunched in their seats, eyes averted,
praying that they hadn’t strayed into dangerous territory. Russell strode through the unmanned ticket barrier. There were trucks in the goods yard beyond the far platform, and a train stretched out past the station throat. People were gathered under the yellow lights, mostly families by the look of them, because there were lots of children. And there were men in uniform. Brownshirts.
A sudden shrill whistle from the locomotive produced an eerie echo from the milling crowd, as if all the children had shrieked at once.
Russell took the subway steps two at a time, half-expecting to find that the tunnel had been blocked off. It hadn’t. On the far side, he emerged into a milling crowd of shouting, screaming people. He had already guessed what was happening—this was a kindertransport,
one of the trains hired to transport the ten thousand Jewish children that Britain had agreed to accept after Kristallnacht. The shriek had risen at the moment the guards started separating the children from their parents, and the two groups were now being shoved apart by snarling brownshirts. Parents were backing away, tears running down their cheeks, as their children were herded onto the train, some waving frantically, some almost reluctantly, as if they feared to recognize the separation.
Further up the platform a violent dispute was underway between an
SA Truppführer and a woman with a red cross on her sleeve. Both were screaming at the other, he in German, she in northern-accented English.
The woman was beside herself with anger, almost spitting in the brownshirt’s eye, and it was obviously taking everything he had not to smash his fist into her face. A few feet away one of the mothers was being helped to her feet by another woman. Blood was streaming from her nose.
Russell strode up to the brownshirt and the Englishwoman and flashed his Foreign Ministry press accreditation, which at least gave the man a new outlet for his anger.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” the Truppführer shouted. He had a depressingly porcine face, and the bulk to go with it.
“Trying to help,” Russell said calmly. “I speak English.”
“Well then tell this English bitch to get back on the train with the kike brats where she belongs.”
Russell turned to the woman, a petite brunette who couldn’t have been much more than twenty-five. “He’s not worth screaming at,” he told her in English. “And it won’t do you any good. In fact, you’ll only make matters worse.”
“I . . .” She seemed at a loss for words.
“I know,” Russell said. “You can’t believe people could behave like this. But this lot do. All the time.”
As if to emphasize the point, the Truppführer started shouting again. When she started shouting back he reached for her arm, and she kicked him in the shin. He backhanded her across the face with what seemed like enormous force, spinning her round and dumping her face-first on the snowy platform. She groaned and shook her head.
Russell put himself between them. “Look,” he said to the man,
“this will get you court-martialed if you’re not careful. The Führer doesn’t want you giving the English this sort of a propaganda victory.”
The British woman was groggily raising herself onto all fours. The stormtrooper took one last look at his victim, made a “pah!” noise of which any pantomime villain would have been proud, and strode away down the platform.
Russell helped her to her feet.
“What did you say to him?” she asked, gingerly feeling an alreadyswelling cheek.
“I appealed to his better nature.”
“There must be someone. . . .” she began.
“There isn’t,” he assured her. “The laws don’t apply to Jews, or anyone who acts on their behalf. Just look after the children. They look like they need it.”
“I don’t need you to tell me. . . .”
“I know you don’t. I’m just trying. . . .”
She was looking past his shoulder. “He’s coming back.”
The Truppführer had a Sturmführer with him, a smaller man with round glasses and a chubby face. Out of uniform—assuming they ever took them off—he put them down as a shopkeeper and minor civil servant.
“Your papers,” the Sturmführer demanded.
“They’re in my hotel room.”
“What is your name?”
“You are English?”
“I’m an English journalist. I live in the Reich, and I have full accreditation from the Ministry of Propaganda in Berlin.”
“We shall check that.”
“And what are you doing here?”
“I came to see what was happening. As journalists do. I intervened in the argument between your colleague and this Red Cross worker because
I thought his behavior was damaging the reputation of the Reich.”
The Sturmführer paused for thought, then turned to his subordinate.
“I’m sure my colleague regrets any misunderstanding,” he said meaningfully.
The Truppführer looked at the woman. “I apologize,” he said woodenly.
“He apologizes,” Russell told her.
“Tell him to go to hell,” she said.
“She accepts your apology,” Russell told the two brownshirts.
“Good. Now she must get back on the train, and you must come with us.”
Russell sighed. “You should get on the train,” he told her. “You won’t get anywhere by protesting.”
She took a deep breath. “All right,” she said, as if it was anything but.
“Thank you,” she added, offering her hand.
Russell took it. “Tell the press when you get back to civilization,” he said, “and good luck.”
He watched her mount the steps and disappear into the train. The children were all aboard now; most had their faces pressed against the windows, frantically wiping their breath from the glass to get a last clear look at their parents. A few had managed to force back the sliding ventilators and wedge their faces in the narrow gap. Some were shouting,
some pleading. Most were crying.