This is a story I submitted for a contest at thefirstline.com. It was rejected. With the research and writing I have been involved in for my first novel, this topic jumped right out at me when I read the first line, for obvious reasons.
“Unfortunately, there is no mistake,” she said, closing the file. “You have the rest of the day to gather your things Dr. Pflaum.”
Johann was stunned. Two nights ago he was dancing with the University president’s daughter, dreaming of asking her out to dinner and a film. Now he was losing his job for being Jewish, something he had no idea he was until a moment ago.
Frau Seith’s office was Spartan, truly a credit to German efficiency. The walls were bare save a portrait of the University’s founder, a scowling warrior with a receding hairline and overcompensating whiskers, directly above her chair. Her desk was nearly empty save a blotter, a perfectly aligned pile of papers upon which Johann’s file was now resting, and a pen resting on the blotter and aligned with its edge at an uncannily perfect 180-degree angle.
“I don’t understand. My grandmother…?” Johann asked, almost pleading.
“I showed you the report Herr Pflaum.” She had forgotten his title. Or had she? “In the census of 1905 your grandmother indicated she is of Jewish descent. As I am sure you are aware the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service was signed on April 7th, almost 2 months ago. It provides for an exemption for veterans of the war, but you did not serve.”
“I was too young. I only finished my degree two years ago.”
“Well there you are. This is a respectable school and we cannot be seen to be flouting the law.”
“My grandmother never said anything about…my mother isn’t Jewish. We’ve never been to any temples. I had no idea— “
“It is regrettable that the new law does not clearly define what a Jew is, Herr Pflaum. But the law is the law, and Herr Gercke of the Ministry of the Interior has recommended recognizing anyone with even one Jewish great-grandparent as Jewish. It’s fallen on me to protect the interests, and of course the reputation of the school. This is not up for debate. Good day.” Frau Seith’s voice became cold and hard on “Good day.”
Johann stopped being stunned and starting being afraid. He stuttered a weak goodbye and excused himself.
Frau Seith was right. The passage of this first overtly anti-Semitic law of the 20th Century and the new German Regime had already led to chaos. The law didn’t define exactly what it was “restoring” Civil Service from, but it had established the first step in what the Nazi Party had been promising for more than a decade, before it had even come to power: open season on Jews.
And apparently he was a Jew now.
He took his time cleaning out his desk and left the campus with a small crate holding his books and papers. He decided to stop by the Wirtschaft Zum Ochsen for a beer and to say goodbye to the other math professors, who tended to gather there on Friday evenings. Maybe they would have some idea of what to do.
He entered the pub and saw a few of his colleagues well, former colleagues, at the usual table. As he approached they grew silent and all looked away.
So that’s how it’s going to be.
Anger and shame welled inside Johann. On a whim he walked to another table and sat. The waitress, oblivious to the drama that had just played out, took his order for a beer. He wasn’t hungry.
It was a typical Friday at the Wirtschaft, allowing for the bit about discovering that one is now unemployed, a pariah, and drinking alone. Small groups of people, some from the University, others from the nearby shops and factories gathered, laughing and drinking inside its dimly lit wood-paneled walls. The steady buzz quieted Johann’s busy mind.
Johann remembered a morning during the tumultuous election in March. He walked across town every day from his room to the university campus, and this took him through the market where Frau Kirsch sold baked goods in the winter and fresh fruit in the summer. He had purchased apples for himself there once or twice, and had been considering asking her if she had strudel for him to bring to the University president’s daughter.
On that particular morning there were a handful of brown shirts in front of her stand screaming at her, calling her a “dirty Jew” and much worse. A small crowd of spectators had gathered nearby, but no one helped. Frau Kirsch’s eyes briefly met his and he merely rushed by, too afraid to help.
She wasn’t there the next morning. He never saw her again.
Within a few weeks the Nazis won a majority in the elections. Hitler announced the boycott of Jewish businesses, and the tide of events and public opinion assuaged Johann’s guilt. He had acted just like everyone else. There was nothing he could have done.
But now things were different.
The restaurant was starting to fill, and he felt eyes on him from his former colleagues. The waitress was looking at him too. Did they tell her something? Was this what the rest of his life was going to be like? He finished his beer and signaled to her. She settled his check with a perfunctory “thank you.”
The sun was still in the sky and it was warm for late May. Flowers dotted the edges of the road as he walked toward his end of town. The birds sang as they finished their day’s work. People were walking to and from jobs and shops. Despite today’s shocking news it was still Spring and the world still burst with new life.
A few blocks away, on the way home, was the grocer. He needed some coffee and something for his dinner tonight.
“I can’t help you, Herr Pflaum.”
The grocer looked terrified. So terrified that his expression distracted Johann and it took a moment for Johann to understand. Frau Seith shopped here too.
“Th-there’s a market for your…you…in the eastern quarter. Sir.” The grocer stammered.
“Thank you.” Johann said resignedly, and turned to leave.
He should have ordered something at the Wirtschaft while they still thought he was a human being, Johann thought wryly.
If he rushed, he could make it over to the Jewish neighborhood and get something for the weekend. It would be difficult with this crate of books, but he had to eat tonight.
The town looked peaceful as he made his way east. He had read about there being significant violence against Jews in other parts of the country, but in this town the incidents had been smaller and, relatively speaking, rather tame. This had made it easy for him to ignore.
As he carried the crate— the remains of his professional life— a typical Friday evening played out before his eyes. Children were playing ball or riding bicycles. Men and women were tending to gardens. Small groups of people chatted politely. Shopkeepers were cleaning their storefronts and preparing to close. As his life fell apart, theirs went on uninterrupted. It was easy for them to ignore what was happening, just as it had been for him.
He approached what appeared to be a market square. There was a mixture of people here, some clad in the unique dress of Orthodox Jews, other less differently, but still noticeably different. Others dressed just like Johann. He found a grocer and bought what he needed.
When he finally arrived back at his room everything seemed normal. Frau Seith’s crusade to ruin his life either hadn’t made it to his home yet, or was only going to extend as far as his professional life and food shopping.
Saturday morning brought a new day and a new life. There were no more lesson plans to be written. No more books to retrieve from the library. And no more University President’s daughters to dream about.
By evening he realized he didn’t have to go to the Jewish quarter for groceries or even a beer. There were other shops and restaurants in town that had no idea who he was. He could still have a normal life.
Of course there was the problem of work. What kind of work could a disgraced mathematician find? The new law made any sort of teaching job out of reach for him. He was 27 years old and couldn’t account for any of his past without having to explain how he had lost his last position.
He spent the next few days floating around the city, despondent. When he received a final paycheck in the mail from the University, reality set in. He cashed the check, cleaned out his account, and packed his bags.
Two days later he was back at his childhood home in the big city.
“How could you do this to me?” He shouted at his mother.
His mother lived alone. His father has passed away a few years earlier and she was collecting a healthy pension. She had seemed completely oblivious to all of it. The new government, the new laws against Jews, the violence that had been sprouting all over Germany.
“I did this to you?” His mother sat back in her chair so fast she spilled her coffee.
“I had everything. I worked so hard! My life is ruined!”
“And this is my fault? What should I have done? Burned down city hall after you were born to destroy the records? Disowned my own mother? Had my Jewish blood surgically removed? Are you ashamed of me now?” Her eyes blazed with anger, but the corners of her mouth turned down at the same time.
“I didn’t know! I had no idea what to do!”
“Would knowing would have helped? I should’ve said ‘Johann, my mother turned her back on her Jewish family before I was born, but may have checked the Jewish box on a census. You should know this in case anti-Semites take over the government. Be sure to wear clean underwear.’”
“This isn’t funny. My life is ruined!”
“Your life is changed, dear. So is mine. If you are Jewish, then I am even more Jewish. We need to stick together now more than ever. I fear this is only the beginning.” She put her arms out and tried to hug Johann. He turned away and stomped to his room down the hall and slammed the door.
Klaus Reichert, a wealthy friend from Johann’s college days got him a job as a bookkeeper for his father’s large department store.
Johann spent his days on a warehouse floor the size of a large barn, surrounded by crates of clothes, dishes, and other dry goods, from every corner of the German Empire. He worked at a simple desk that Frau Seith would have been proud of, except the portrait of her University founder was replaced with posters of shipping schedules and price lists. It was humiliating compared to a distinguished position as a mathematics professor, and it was hard to not look down at his coworkers, but it was easy work.
Living with his mother was more difficult. He was up every morning so he could use their single bathroom early enough to be out of her way. She had a simple breakfast ready in the tiny room that served as both kitchen and living room. The radio was on until the news inevitably turned to the subject that occupied the gulf between them, and then they finished their breakfast in awkward silence.
His mother seemed to be trying to restore as much of their routine from his college days as she could. She fell into the role she had filled since his childhood: cooking meals, washing clothes, cleaning up after him, and even buying him new clothes. But Johann knew that his angry outburst when he had first returned was still unresolved, but he couldn’t bring himself to apologize or to accept her attempts at reconciliation. Just as he was paralyzed when he saw those brown shirts attacking Frau Kirsch, he was helpless to reach out to his own mother.
Weekends consisted of awkward attempts to either restore bonds or avoid encounters with childhood friends. He hadn’t expected to be back when he had left for his teaching position a few years ago, and explaining why had returned was either painful or potentially dangerous. Society, already divided after the war, was started to rend itself.
Klaus lived alone in an apartment that could fit three of Johann’s home in just the bathroom. After a night with friends at dinner and theater they sat in Karl’s sitting room on Norwegian aged pine chairs, drinking Swiss chocolate, and listening to an Italian aria on Karl’s phonograph.
“You know I would do anything to help you and your mother, Johann.”
“Yes, I do. You’ve already proven that. I’m just worried that things might get worse. There’s no reason for you to risk this” Johann waved a hand around the room “for us.”
“Yes Johann, there is.”
Rather than simply succeeding as an accountant, Johann flourished. By 1935 he had two people working for him, despite the economic troubles Germany was facing. The only reason he didn’t move out on his own or get a better place for both he and his mother was his fear of unnecessary interaction with the burgeoning new anti-Jewish bureaucracy.
Acting like a pacified German was much more comfortable than admitting to be being Jewish.
A Jewish neighborhood materialized between the retail store and Johann’s home over those two years. It was probably there in 1933, but as time progressed it became a more apparent. Some mornings he would see trash thrown in the streets and graffiti on the walls and doors. In the evening it would be gone.
Over time this neighborhood developed its own an open market. It became crowded and Johann would frequently detour around it, partially to avoid the crowds and partly because, if he was honest with himself, he was afraid of being associated with the Jews.
The warehouse floor where Johann worked accepted deliveries from the retailer’s suppliers. It could be loud and busy at times, but being accustomed to a classroom, Johann appreciated the company.
One day while he was working on the monthly tax numbers, he heard commotion from the other end of the floor. It was loud enough that he stopped and went to see.
There were two Germans standing next to a truck filled with shovels, picks, and axes. Each man held an axe handle in the air menacingly.
Next to it was a smaller truck manned by two Jewish men. Their cart had shirt boxes. The men were frozen in place, eyes as wide as saucers.
In between the trucks was Friedrich, the warehouse manager. His hands were up in appeasement, and he was shaking his head.
“I won’t unload my goods next to them!” One of the Germans said.
“Herr Roth, you’re free to leave and come back later.”
“This is our policy, Herr Roth. I’m sorry if it upsets you.” Johann didn’t know when or where Klaus had entered the warehouse floor from. He looked imposing in his bespoke suit, and expensive-looking fedora.
“I don’t have time to make and extra trip back here!” Roth exclaimed.
“Then I suggest you stop shouting and unload truck.” Klaus responded.
Roth fumed and raised his axe handle, while Klaus simply stood his ground.
They broke their gaze when they heard the sound of a truck and saw that the Jews were leaving.
Roth started to smile, but then Klaus interrupted.
“And now you can leave too, Roth, we don’t tolerate threats here. Goodbye” Klaus turned and walked away from him.
Roth left, outraged. When he was gone Friedrich finally spoke.
“Thank you for that, sir. I think you may have saved my life, and maybe the Rosenberg’s too. I’ll have to send a courier to them to schedule a new delivery, and to make sure Roth didn’t harass them on the way home.” Friedrich gasped.
Klaus was shaking, and lighting a cigarette.
“It’s my responsibility as the store manager. I may need to move my office back here, or hire some security. Maybe both.” He said thoughtfully.
Johann replayed that scene in his head over and over again all the way home that evening.
In the morning he made his mother breakfast and gave her a hug before he left for work.
In September of that year the Nuremburg Laws were passed, and with them Johann received good news, relatively speaking.
The laws finally defined who was Jewish, who was German, and who was “mixed.” Johann’s grandmother made him “mixed, second grade.” There were limitations on who he could marry, but was eligible for citizenship. His mother was “mixed, first grade.” She too had similar limitations, but was able to remain a citizen.
He would never return to the University, but he could keep his current job and maybe even look into a better apartment. There might even be a woman willing to marry him somewhere, if she were willing to apply for approval.
“I have to thank you again Klaus, it looks like things are working out.” The leaves were starting to turn, but it was still warm enough for coffee and cake outside at the cafe in the city square. Tables and booths were set up, selling beer and food for a small Oktoberfest celebration.
“You really think so, Johann?” Klaus raised an eyebrow.
“Well, I can keep my position. My mother and I can keep our apartment. There’s no danger to you or your father for keeping me employed.”
“Ah yes. You and your mother are safe. At least for now. But what about your future?”
“What do you mean?”
“Can a mixed blood like you even get married? I’m not sure I even understand the rules.” Klaus said “mixed blood” derisively, but it was clear that the derision was aimed at the government, not Johann. An older woman at a nearby table spun and looked at them. Klaus stared back at her until she finally looked away nervously.
“Well, I uh….”
“This is all unbelievable Johann. Digging into someone’s family and using it to determine if they can marry? If they can own property?” he lowered his voice “they came to my father and offered to sell him one of his competitors for 10 Pfennigs on the Mark because he’s a Jew. Do you believe that? This is madness.”
“What can you do?”
“I can try to help people. I helped you because you’re my friend and it was the right thing to do. But that doesn’t mean I’m finished. I can’t help but wonder about all the people that are so much worse off than you were.” Klaus looked down into his cup.
Johann had dodged a bullet, and was still feeling sorry for himself. But here was Klaus, who had taken a personal risk to help him and a physical risk in the warehouse a few months ago, yet still felt he hadn’t done enough. Johann insisted on paying for the coffee and cakes, but still had problems falling asleep that night.
He was on his way home from work one brisk evening in November. On a whim he decided to cross through the Jewish neighborhood. There was a crowd gathered at one street corner. He heard shouting,
“Dirty Jew cow! She stole from me!”
He came closer and saw a young man towering over an older woman. For a moment he thought he saw Frau Kirsch, but it wasn’t her.
“Thief! This scarf isn’t worth 3 Marks!” He raised his hand and she cowered. She was pinned between the man and what appeared to be her table.
Johann took a few steps closer without realizing it. Then he stepped closer and cleared his throat. Everyone looked in his direction, including the young man.
“Excuse me. You said she stole from you?”
“These scarves are overpriced!”
“So you haven’t bought one.”
“They’re overpriced I said!”
“I thought all good Aryans were boycotting Jewish businesses? What’s the difference?”
“Oh, and why are you here? Are you a Jew -lover?”
Johann took another step toward him. The man was at least 3 centimeters taller than Johann, and had a few kilos on him at least.
“Are you here avoiding the boycott and looking for good prices, or just trying to find old ladies that you might be able to best in a fight?” Johann asked.
A few people in the crowd chuckled. Johann felt taller and somewhat stronger.
“Forget it. Jew-lover.” He spat and walked away.
Only then did it register to Johann that the thug had assumed he was not Jewish.
He looked to the old woman. Before he could ask if she was ok, she spoke.
“Why did you stop him? The risk…?”
The crowd started to disperse.
“Do you need help carrying these things? I want to make sure you get home safely.” Johann smiled and held out his hand.
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