The House on Kronenstrasse

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

I dry off the cut and return to the bedroom. I kneel down to examine the place where I tumbled against the wall. There, at the bottom of the baseboard, is the little slit through which the mouse, flattening its body in that impossible way that is the special talent of mice, disappeared.

I look more closely at the slit. It is not a crack that has appeared from age or the gradual settling of the house but something made deliberately by some sort of woodworking tool. I run my fingers along the bottom of the baseboard. Sure enough, I find a series of such slits, perhaps eight or ten, along the length of the wall. They are perfect for mice to enter and leave, though I feel certain they were made for another purpose entirely.

I put my ear to the wall and hear faint scratchings on the other side. I knock once, twice, on the wall above the baseboard. The scratchings on the other side stop; my knocks echo hollowly in the room. I stand and go out into the hallway and then into the bedroom next door. I knock on the wall there; I hear the heavy sound and unyielding thwack of knuckles on plaster-covered brick.

Yes, I think, not knowing what to do with the knowledge. A false wall on the other side, in the bedroom I am now inhabiting. A space in which mice now live.

I go back to bed, though I sleep very little, and fitfully.

II. Hilde. Heidelberg, 1940

I'm amazed we managed to keep it hidden for so long—my continuing to work for the Arnholds the past four years. What Frau Arnhold said to me was true: to keep on doing so presented a danger of the utmost seriousness. I left then and there, no lengthy good-byes—in fact, no good-byes at all.

I do not know what I am going to do. I worry about them; I miss them more than I could have imagined. I've never made friends easily, and with what's left of my own family so far away, the Arnholds are my life.

I know they will be all right. An important newspaperman like Herr Arnhold—and Frau Arnhold, on the board of several prominent charities. How often did I serve the board members tea and sacher torte when they gathered in the parlor? With their means, and their countless influential relatives and friends, the Arnholds will find their way clean of this mess. I am sure of it.

But what about me? I don't have influential relatives or friends besides the Arnholds—and they are now powerless to be of any help to me.

I'm not in the habit of eavesdropping, but some months ago—perhaps it is already a year now—I was polishing silverware in the kitchen, as I had done weekly in the six or more years since their marriage, when I overheard Frau and Herr Arnhold talking in the dining room, next door. Frau Arnhold said that they should pack and leave at once,find a way to get to England—or better yet, America. That's out of the question, Herr Arnhold said. We're Germans. I'll not be chased away by some crackpot, whose days are clearly numbered in any case. A temporary insanitythat's all this is. Besides, German is the medium of my trade.

Frau Arnhold's reply was caustic: You need to be alive to use a languageeven German. I had never heard harsh words between them; I was quite taken aback. And in truth, Frau Arnhold's vehemence had frightened me. If they were to leave, what would become of Christiane and me? I could not imagine how I would find other work. Besides, I had been with the family since I was no more than a girl myself. I began working for Frau Arnhold's mother, alongside my own mother—their head housekeeper for twenty years or more—at the age of sixteen. In those days I knew Frau Arnhold as Sarah; she was only two years my junior. When she married, at the age of twenty, I followed her to her new house.

Twelve years of happy occupation—six in the mother's house, six in the daughter's—despite the danger and fear of the past four. We somehow managed to keep those at bay, to carry on—I was going to say as if nothing was happening, but that wouldn't quite capture the truth of it. Life simply has a way of moving forward, even under the most extraordinary circumstances. And in the midst of it all both of us fell pregnant, only five months apart, and then both of us had baby girls. And then, ten months ago, when Hermann was sent off for training, I moved in with them, though I kept my own house, to which I have now returned.

It is quiet here. Christiane is asleep. I feel so alone. What am I to do?

I will write tonight to my cousin in Bad Gandersheim. I met her just once, and she's only a second cousin by marriage. But her husband has a clerkship; perhaps he can find me cleaning work there.

I wonder if Christiane remembers her father. Ten months is a very long time in the life of a child not yet three.

I try to pray. For Hermann, lying in a grave somewhere in Poland. For our country. For the Arnholds, and all the Jews. To pray that I can find a way for Christiane and me to survive this madness. But I cannot pray. I stay for the longest time at the side of my bed, on my knees, as has always been my practice. But nothing comes. Only ashen words, empty of life.

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