The House on Kronenstrasse

Her mother's last words led to a place Christiane had fled as a child—and where truth lay concealed

Back in the bedroom I fumble in the dark to remove the bulb from the table lamp and screw in one of the new sixty-watt bulbs I bought with the tools, in what now seems like another life.

A memory rears up: I must have been about twelve. I am fumbling in the dark to find my lamp, which I knocked from my bedside table when I leaped from the bed, awakened by a surge of nausea. I rush to the bathroom. Stumbling down the corridor, flinging open the bathroom door, I make it just in time—flip open the toilet lid and heave out the contents of my stomach. The bathroom has two doors, as in many other pre-war apartments on the Upper West Side. I lift my head to see that the second door, which leads into my mother's bedroom, is ajar. I see through the sliver that my mother, too, is awake; she seems to be crouching. I see only the crown of her head above the bed. She is praying, I suppose, as she often does.

She raises her head, and I find myself looking, through the queasy haze of my sickness, directly into my mother's eyes. I jump to my feet with the shock of it, for she is looking at me as if she does not know me. This is something different from the distance that has always existed between us. I am expecting her to call out—Christiane, is that you? Are you all right?—but she doesn't; she just continues to look right through me. I see then that she is clutching something, though I cannot see what it is.

Then she does say my name: Christiane. No inquiry, just my name. She utters my name a second time, and her face crumples; she clutches more tightly at whatever she's holding, and bows her head. I watch as her shoulders heave with grief.

I quietly close the door, rinse out my mouth, and creep back to my room.

I never mentioned this incident to my mother. But then, we failed to discuss a great many things.

Now I sit down in the comfortable chair by the bed. I closed the locket before leaving the tomb space. I snap it open again and look closely at the photographs.

What I see is not possible. And yet here it is, in my hands.

VI. Hilde. Heidelberg, 1940

Doctor Ullrich has just left. He did not even try to disguise the truth.

There is little hope.

Cerebral meningitis.

He says Christiane will probably not survive the night.

I have no one to turn to.

I do not know what to do.

The doctor has gone. Christiane is in my arms. She has not been conscious now for several hours.

I pray she will open her eyes. I pray I will have a chance to look one last time into her dear little soul. I want to tell her with my own eyes that no child has ever been more loved, that God will watch over her on her journey.

A mother should not outlive her child.

A knock. Who could it be? Dr. Ullrich again? Perhaps he has some medicine—or has realized his mistake. Not meningitis but something else—some other fever that is sure to break very soon.

No miracle medicine or new diagnosis. It is Frau Ballin. She is very distressed. The SS, she says: they're going door to door, tipped off that someone on our street is harboring Jews. They have pickaxes, guns; they are breaking into locked attics. They will tear down walls, Frau Ballin says.

How did she know? Who else has detected the truth?

She is wringing her hands. "You must leave," she blurts out. "Now. For Christiane's sake."

I am still holding Christiane. Frau Ballin looks down at her and puts her hand to Christiane's head; then she jumps back in horror. Only now does she see what must be in my face.

"It's too late," I whisper. "I cannot save her."

"You can save yourself," Frau Ballin says.

"Nothing of me will be left to save," I say, my voice dry stone transformed to sound.

Frau Ballin leans forward and presses her trembling mouth to my ear. She whispers, "The other child—the little Arnhold girl. Save her then, in Christiane's place."

Now my entire being is stone; I fear I am unable to move.

"They're at the end of the street. You have twenty minutes, perhaps twenty-five."

Frau Ballin pries Christiane from my arms, which have closed around her like granite.

"Your papers. Yours and Christiane's. And one change of clothes for each of you. Hurry!"

I move as in a dream—as in a nightmare. From a drawer in my bedroom I take my papers, from the closet a change of clothing for each of us. Frau Ballin, holding Christiane, follows me like a shadow. On an impulse I grab a little maroon dress, pull Christiane from Frau Ballin's arms—she is still wearing only her undergarments—and quickly dress her in it. I hand my child back to my friend. For a moment our eyes meet.

Then to the wall. I pull away the dressing table, peel off the contractor's tape; recently dried paint comes away with it. I push on the panel; it falls inward. I reach for the flashlight we keep on the inside of the space. Frau Ballin is behind me. She crouches and hands me my child, limp now, and gasping a little for breath.

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