The House on Kronenstrasse

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

Now Frau Arnhold tells me about the wall. About building a little chamber of confinement upstairs, in one of the bedrooms. We would match the baseboard that runs around the rest of the room, placing some slits beneath it to allow for the passage of air. We would build in a removable panel through which they could on occasion—perhaps once a week—crawl out. We would seal it with painter's tape, and I could keep a little can of matching wall paint in the cupboard to paint over the tape each time I resealed it. I could move my dressing table in front of it, which would cover this panel completely. One piece of baseboard would also be removable; through this I would pass food and remove waste on a daily basis.

Frau Arnhold's voice is calm as she lays out the details, the same voice she used in the past to go over the weekly program with the cook, the junior housemaid, and me—the lunch and dinner menus and schedules of duties. In her eyes, though, is the plainest desperation I have ever seen.

Hermann kept a well-equipped tool shed at the back of our small garden. I go outside into the blackness, and turn on my flashlight only when I am in the windowless shed. I do a quick inventory.

It is as if before going off to fight, Hermann had some premonition of how events would unfold, of this then unthinkable situation in which I now find myself. Nearly everything we need is on hand. After we were married, Hermann remodeled the house, which had belonged to his parents, both of whom had died long ago. He did all the work himself—papering, carpeting, painting, even building new cabinets for the kitchen. Neatly stacked in one corner of the tool shed is enough leftover baseboard to cover a length of wall, as well as a dozen or more lengths of wood suitable for framing and an adequate amount of plaster and lath. We'll need some paint, I calculate, and also some heavy glue, if I can find it.

In the tool shed I feel Hermann's presence so strongly that I swoon. I fancy I can smell him too—his reedy scent, which always made me think of the forest. I feel my knees giving way, and I sink to the floor. I reach for the hammer on the shelf opposite me and stroke the handle Hermann held so often, so naturally. I picture him swinging it, whistling in that quietly cheerful way he had, glancing over at me with the faintest of smiles.

We tuck Rachel into the bed with Christiane. She promptly falls asleep, and then we set to work.

First, we plan the frame. We work very slowly with the handsaw to minimize the sound. Then we work with the plaster and lath to construct the extra sections of wall; this takes a very long time. Fortunately, the baseboard is cut into suitable lengths, so we do not need to use the handsaw again and once more risk attracting attention.

By dawn our work is done, down to the fashioning of the removable panel.

Upon waking, Christiane is pleased to have Rachel and her parents with us. Five months younger than Rachel, who is now a little over three, Christiane has known Rachel all her life. Frau Arnhold was always glad to pass along Rachel's beautifully made clothes.

When I explain to Christiane that she must not tell anyone the Arnholds are staying with us, that it is a secret of great importance, her little eyes grow solemn and she nods wisely. "Secret," she whispers. "Christiane tell nobody."

At around eight o'clock that morning Herr Arnhold hands me a large wad of bills. It is a significant sum, enough to last us all a long time. I hope, however, that poor Frau and Herr Arnhold and little Rachel will not need to stay trapped between two walls for a long time, like rodents.

I do not ask questions, but I imagine that the plan for the new papers Herr Arnhold referred to is already in play—that in the very near future some powerful friend or colleague of his will knock on the door and hand me an envelope containing what they need to execute their escape.

The Arnholds retreat to the armoire (the new wall will not be ready until I can buy the few things we need), because we cannot keep the curtains drawn any longer; this is the hour I typically open them, and the neighbors do not miss a thing. We punch several holes into the thin backing of the armoire for air. I leave them with a jug of water, a loaf of bread, and a bedpan for their toilet.

I take my shopping bag, and Christiane and I head out. I visit three stores to find what we need. I feared we would return missing some critical item, but within two hours we are back at the house, fully equipped.

My ability to pray seems suddenly to have returned. I pray fervently for everyone I've failed to pray for in weeks. I pray that the papers will arrive soon, pray for the moment I'll be able to bestow one last embrace on this family that is closer to me than any real family I have left, and to wish them Godspeed.

III. Christiane. Heidelberg, 1985

The next morning I rise early. I eat a piece of bread and drink two cups of instant coffee. I splash water on my face, get dressed, and step out into the mild autumn Heidelberg day.

I walk toward the city center. Above the hills in the distance the sun is still dragging itself upward, spreading wan streaks of white light through swatches of thin cloud. Around me the charming façades of 200-year-old buildings, beautifully restored and maintained, lie about the dreadful events that took place here an eyeblink of fifty years ago.

I find a hardware store, housed in what must once have been the foyer of an elegant mansion. An impressive chandelier hangs from the vaulted ceiling, sending a shocking blaze of light out into the space.

A salesman approaches, and I stutter the names of the things I have come to buy. Finally I go behind the counter and point to the items I want. I eye a medium-size ax, but decide not to take it; it seems a suspicious item, and I don't want to draw attention to myself.

The clerk packs my purchases into a brown paper bag, and I pay.

I don't yet feel like returning home, so, clutching my bag of tools, I walk all the way to the old university, stopping to rest in front of Saint Peter's Church. I feel mocked by its idyllic beauty. All around me students carrying book bags wander and mill, exuding the unflappable confidence of young people raised in peace and destined for lives of privilege, success, and ease.

I cross the river and hike up to the Philosopher's Walk, where I sit for a long time looking down onto the city. The air is invigorating, and filled with the scent of a rich variety of trees: cypress and yucca and Japanese cherry, and numerous others I don't recognize. I gaze at the stone commemorating the German poet Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, who fell in love with Heidelberg in the early 1800s. I have never heard of him, let alone read his work, but I think about the expansive culture of which he was a part, and then think about how Germany thrust itself into its nightmare of destruction.

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