CURRENTS OF WAR
Berlin, Germany – December 1923
Snow filled the residential street of upscale row houses, dazzling sunlight turning shadows into luminous purple. White diamond dust painted every building. Color faded to nothing at all. Air, still and silent, the powdery cover muted the city clatter from the main thoroughfares. Two children, one in heavy fur, the other in layers of worn wool, pushed their way down the empty lane through ankle-deep snow. They stopped in front of one of the three-story houses that though different, still looked the same as all the rest.
The girl in the fur coat turned to face the boy. With every word, the frosty breath of eight-year-old Gerda Ahlbrecht crawled up her cheeks and hazed over her cunning blue eyes. Her mischievous bent smile was so different than any other her young schoolmate had ever seen. It welcomed him to her long before she said the actual words.
“Ja, yes, Josef. We can play inside. Mama is out shopping. She never comes home until suppertime. And you know, Papa always stays at the office until late these days.”
At nine, Josef was tall for his age, but also quite thin. Stomping his feet in the snow and flapping his arms about never helped him stay warm, but he did them anyway. His breath bellowed with such intense whiteness, Gerda’s smile disappeared behind the diaphanous cloud. Josef waved his hand through the fog separating them, rematerializing her lovely face.
“I don’t want to get you in trouble, Gerda.”
“Why would you get me in trouble? You’re a good boy, aren’t you?”
Josef shrugged. “I suppose.”
Gerda took Josef’s mittened hand. “Come. I’d like very much to show you my doll collection.” The uncertainty in Josef’s face caused Gerda to add, “I have some games we can play by the fireplace. We have the brand new board game called, Auf und Ab! Lustiges Leiterspiel. Do you know it?”
Without waiting for a reply, Gerda led Josef across the street, up the front stoop, and through the grand white-painted door of the Ahlbrecht residence.
Gerda seemed accustomed to walking out of her snow boots. “Leave your boots here, but keep on your coat. We have no heating.”
As Josef followed Gerda up the wide staircase, he realized the whole house belonged to her, not just the three rooms on the bottom floor like his own apartment. The echo of his footfalls in the sheer expanse of the hallway and rooms made him feel small. His breath still formed little puffs of white.
Each enormous room he passed, void of furniture and life, seemed grand, but dilapidated, like the old men in the park stooped over their chessboards. Vines of dusty plaster flowers circled the rooms at the upper portion of the walls at least twice the height of his apartment. A similar round carving of florets blistered from the ceiling in the middle of each room—a bare wire hanging down from its center. The wood floors, once grand, still glinted some sheen along the edges near the walls, but where carpets and rugs had formerly graced, the old planks held a sad gray pallor. As Josef passed these deserted galleries, his silent wonder and comparison to his own crowded living conditions formed a small crease in his mind.
“We will play in here.” Gerda’s voice, exacting in its tone, jarred Josef’s wandering thoughts back to the moment. “It’s where we live mostly. The rest of the house is too cold.”
Stepping through the doorway into Gerda’s parents’ bedroom was like entering a magical wonderland, filled with everything that should have occupied the other empty rooms. Paintings gripped the walls like doorways to other times and places. Peculiar sculptures of golden girls in awkward poses crowded together with the angles and arches of unrecognizable artwork. Intricately-carved dressers, tables, and sideboards butted against odd furniture made of glass and stone. Chairs had funny angular shapes and weren’t comfortable at all.
Lording over the entire room, an ornate mahogany armoire pressed into the corner as if chiseled in place, forcing everything around the perimeter of the chamber into a frozen battle for space. None of it made sense to Josef’s eyes. But without understanding why, he immediately loved every bit of it.
As promised, Gerda led Josef to a several-tiered shelf showcasing her collection of dolls.
Josef nodded his appreciation and said, “Maybe I’ll get a bicycle for Chanukah.”
“What’s that, Chanukah?”
“Don’t know, exactly. Something to do with oil lasting eight days instead of one. It’s like Christmas, I guess. We get presents.” Josef flapped his arms and watched their cold breath mingle.
Gerda held out her open hand. “It’s a hard candy. It’s good. Tastes like cinnamon. It always reminds me of Christmas.”
Josef took the candy, unwrapped it, and pushed it into his mouth. His eyes showed his enjoyment. “Now I will know what Christmas tastes like.”
Gerda lingered a smile on Josef, then turned and pulled a game off the shelf. “Let’s play Schlangen und Leitern, Snakes and Ladders,” she said in a cloud of white.
Gerda assembled the board game on the carpet in front of the fireplace. The grimace of the brass grill gave Josef an extra shiver.
“Is it always so cold in your house, Gerda?”
“Momma says coal costs more than money. We have a lot of money, but no coal.”
“I guess, but money doesn’t keep you warm.”
Gerda’s cunning smile rippled the seriousness from her face. She went to a cabinet and turned back with handfuls of paper money.
“The other night, we laughed and laughed when Papa lit his cigar with these. I’m sure it would be okay if we use a little to keep warm while we played. Maybe it will last a long time like your Chanukah oil.”
One armful each of the large banknotes was enough to fill the yawning grate. Gerda touched the burning match to the edge of a crumpled bill. The flame bit into the paper with a greediness neither child expected. Like a curious mist, the flame spread across the surface of the currency, erupting in brilliant flashes of color. Josef and Gerda lurched back, falling across the Schlangen und Leitern board, scattering the carved wooden game pieces.
The fire settled down into the arms of the fireplace enclosure as it warmed the rosiness from the children’s cheeks. Josef and Gerda shared a glance, then slipped out of their coats.
Josef gave a shy response when Gerda handed him one of the game pieces. “I don’t know how to play this game.”
“That’s okay. It’s not hard—”
Two life-defining moments occurred at the same time: the fire of Papiermarks suddenly fizzled into a black, crusty shell, and a door slammed, followed by a shrill, impatient voice.
“Gerda! What are you up to? I saw smoke coming from the chimney.”
An undefined guilt blushed Josef’s face as his wide eyes caught those of equally startled Gerda.
“You must hide, Josef. Quickly, get into the armoire.”
Josef scurried to her instructions. From within the confines of the armoire, the slick texture of satin outer skirts pressed in on him like a cold morning fog. Sound was muffled. Whether he heard or imagined Frau Ahlbrecht’s footstep ascending the stairs and treading with serious gait down the barren hallway, he could not tell. The blood-scent of dozens of flower petal sachets drooping from iron-hooked wooden hangers, wended with vaporous precision into his nose and eyes, clawing at his skin with prickly sensations.
The few words exchanged between mother and daughter, though unintelligible, were clearly understood when Gerda burst into tears. Josef’s breath stilled for the long seconds it took before the armoire door swung open. Two astonished faces stared at one another. The eyes slit on the face towering above Josef’s.
“Was ist das? What is this?” came the voice of a snake. She grabbed Josef’s ear in a pinch, dragging him from the closet. “Was ist das?” she repeated, directing the hiss at Gerda.
“Muti, Momma, we were only playing?” Tears were already on Gerda’s face and in her voice.
Frau Ahlbrecht’s question came as an accusation. “You are the son of Herr Mühling, yes?”
Josef could do no more than nod.
Mother addressed daughter but kept her gaze on Josef. “I told you, you don’t play with die Untermenschen, sub-humans. We are already in enough trouble because of them.”
Frau Ahlbrecht made for the door. Josef suffered from clumsy lurches to keep up with his ear. In painful moments, he was deposited upon the front stoop.
With an admonishing tone usually spat at dogs, Frau Ahlbrecht dispatched Josef.
“Juden are not welcome here… ever.” She flicked her hand at him. “Geh! Geh!” Go! Go!
Josef’s downcast eyes and restrained sniffles cast a sullen mood over the tiny section of the living room that served as a dining room in the Mühling household. Josef’s father, a store fixtures manufacturer, shared looks with his wife, Ester, and younger son, Hirsch, before prying into Josef’s misery.
“Are you ill, Josef? Mutti, can you make Josef some hot garlic-ginger?”
Josef’s flushed cheeks and face awash with silent tears wasn’t the reply father expected. Mutti made a motion to go to her son. Father stayed her with a wave of his hand. Hirsch pushed back in his chair, but followed along with darting eyes.
“Come, tell us what makes a young boy so miserable. Have you discovered girls?” He winked at Mutti, who scowled back.
Josef’s lips hesitated, troubled at forming the words. “What is Untermenschen?”
Herr Mühling jerked, body rigid. His voice came out harsher than intended. “Who told you that?”
Josef stayed silent, staring at the tablecloth.
Hirsch’s inquisitiveness pushed the question. “What’s it mean, Papa, this Untermenschen?”
Father scowled, looking for a proper response. “It’s a bad word goyim, non-Jews, call people like us.”
Hirsch screwed up his six-year-old face. “What’s that mean, ‘people like us,’ Papa?”
Father ran his hand over his face smearing the moisture that suddenly formed. “We are Jews. We believe some things differently than the goyim. Many people don’t like that, so call us names.”
The taciturn man that he was, Herr Mühling settled on a simple, if unsatisfactory, solution.
“Son, this is our lot in life. You can’t fight an ignorant society. No good ever comes from it. Better your friends come from your own. Leave the goyim to theirs.”
The words from his father washed the veneer of the world from Josef’s eyes. This dire warning was hard for Josef to understand since most people treated him well. The suspicion he expected didn’t arrive so aggressively as his father predicted, maybe because he looked more ethnic German than most boys. His height and angular features got him nods from boys and smiles from girls.
He, like many of his male friends, was hopelessly enamored with the five-time World Heavyweight Champion, American prizefighter, Jack Dempsey, AKA The Manassas Mauler. By gleaning every photo they could get ahold of, and watching the newsreels of the fights, the boys practiced their boxing moves until a black eye or bloody mouth put an end to the fight.
In the early months, Josef’s boxing acumen earned him a nickname he’d never considered, but one he admired. Beyond his own front door, Dempsey was the name everyone knew him by. His natural confident demeanor, upright gait, and sinewy body, seemed a natural nickname for such a non-German nickname, but one almost everyone admired.
Dempsey never saw Gerda with the cunning smile again. It wasn’t because he adhered to Frau Ahlbrecht’s command, or his father’s advice, for he haunted her street on several occasions after that defining incident, hoping for a glimpse of her marble face beauty. Instead, he saw a van unloading a new family and their furniture through the white-painted door. Upon inquiry, he was told, in a derisive tone, that the Ahlbrecht family had left their friends and debtors in an ill manner, to parts unknown.