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Authors: Helen Maryles Shankman

In the Land of Armadillos

BOOK: In the Land of Armadillos
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CONTENTS

Epigraph

In the Land of Armadillos

The Partizans

The Messiah

They Were Like Family to Me

The Jew Hater

The Golem of Żuków

A Decent Man

New York City, 1989

Acknowledgments

About Helen Maryles Shankman

For Brenda and Barry Maryles, with love and awe

Our eyes register the light of dead stars.

—André Schwarz-Bart,
The Last of the Just

IN THE LAND OF ARMADILLOS

T
he man took up his pen and wrote:

My own darling,

From my new office, I can see the village square. The houses are very old, with slanted roofs, all painted cheerful colors. In the distance, I can see church spires, little cottages with thatched roofs, lovely rolling fields. Just outside my window, a cherry tree has burst into bloom. All day long, I have been going around like I'm sleepwalking, remembering the day I met you, when we went for that long walk under the cherry trees in the Stadtwald, and the blossoms filled the air like snow. I couldn't tell you then, but I was trembling with desire as I picked them one by one out of your shining hair.

You scold me for my lack of letters. Well, my darling, you can hardly blame me for that! They keep moving me around, putting me where I am most needed, but finally, I have a posting where I can receive mail. Now I am sitting at my own desk, in my own office, looking out the window of our new home.
Your
new home, my darling.

Dearest little bunny, I wake up, I go to work, I sign papers, I direct people to go here, to go there, to do this and that, but all day long, I am thinking of you. How can I describe how much you mean to me, the touch of your hand, your trusting smile?

My secretary has just walked in with an armload of work for me to do; so I must say goodbye now, but I dispatch this to you with a hundred kisses. Save some for yourself, and give the rest to Peter, my brave little soldier. I am enclosing some new stamps for his collection. I can't wait until we are together again. Nothing makes any sense without you by my side.

Your adoring husband,

Max

With care, he folded the letter around the stamps, slid it into an envelope, sealed it, laid it in his out-box. That done, he took a leather-bound diary from his desk drawer and smoothed it open to a new page. After noting the date in the top left corner, he wrote:

Seems that I am General of the Jews again. This time they've put me in charge of the work details, assigning them to the jobs they are best suited for. I can't complain, at least it's indoors, better than my last position, where I always had to be ready to march off into the forest to do a job, no matter how foul the weather.

Shooting women and children is not what I signed up for; I'm a soldier, I miss the smoke and strategy of the battlefield. Still, a soldier must do what he is told, or all discipline disappears, and the war is lost.

Anyway, that's all over now. For my calm demeanor in the disposition of difficult duties, I have been rewarded with a promotion and this beautiful villa overlooking the market square. My years of hard work are finally paying off.

Still, I am left with some disquieting images: the composure of the Jewish women as they dug their own graves; the courage of the men who offered no pleading, no tears; and I cannot forget the attractive figures of pretty young girls as they put down their shovels and turned to face me. At least I did what I could to ensure that they didn't suffer. Those who came up before my rifle fell without a sound.

Only in that moment, as I sighted down the barrel, pointed it at their hearts, did I feel a flutter of emotion. Otherwise, I ate well, I slept like a baby. I should feel something, shouldn't I? What does it mean?

I can see that having my own office is making me something of a philosopher! I still have so much to do before my little Hasenpfeffer gets here. All in all, I am confident that everything will be better when I am together with my family again. I am counting the days.

*  *  *

It was the end of October, and still Gerda hadn't arrived. One thing after another conspired to keep Max Haas the solitary occupant of the magnificent villa. First Gerda had wanted Peter to finish the school year with his friends. Then she had wavered about leaving her parents behind in Köln. The most recent delay was due to her fears over an increase in deadly attacks by those murderous partizans.

And in the meantime, the villa wasn't ready. The walls needed plastering, the pipes were leaking. Max sighed. What he needed were skilled construction workers, plumbers, painters. Instead, he was issued a steady parade of dentists, tailors, furriers, and law clerks. Irritated, he assigned them to a crew digging drainage ditches and sent them on their way.

It was the end of the day. He told his secretary he was leaving and went to see if Gruber was in his office. Max knocked; there was a flurry of sounds from within, then something fell and rolled slowly across the floor. The door opened and Gruber's secretary emerged, flustered and a little breathless.

His boss from the Sicherheitspolizei was seating himself behind his desk. He was a cheerful, heavyset man with sparse black hair and a square, pleasant face, which was now flushed and damp.

“I'm going,” Max said.

“Oh,” Gruber said in surprise, looking at the fat gold watch on his wrist. “How did it get so late? Will we see you tonight?”

There was a party at the SS club later, a Beerfest, an opportunity to express fraternity with the enlisted men. Max always went, it was good for morale. “Of course. And you?”

Gruber waggled his eyebrows, gave him an enigmatic smile. “That all depends on Honi. Listen, how is it going with your villa? Are you finding workers?”

A sensitive subject. “I find lots of lawyers and university professors. No bricklayers or housepainters.”

“I think I may have someone for you.” Gruber leaned forward, pushed a buzzer. “Honi, those papers I told you to put aside,” he cooed. While he waited, Max looked out the window. An officer and a few SS men were having fun with some Jews, making them do jumping jacks in the middle of the market square. One of them, a juicy one, collapsed. The officer drew his gun and walked over to where he lay gasping on the cobblestones.

Just then the secretary opened the door and sashayed across the room, her skirt drawn tight over her hips, the fabric clinging enthusiastically to every stride.

“I don't know anything about art,” Gruber admitted as he slid the form across the desk. “But I know you're looking for a painter. Honi tells me he's very famous.”

“Oh yes, Sturmbannführer,” she exclaimed, her eyes wide with excitement. “He's been in many exhibitions, he's even had books published. Maybe you've seen some of them. There was
The Thief of Yesterday and Tomorrow,
also
The Town Inside the Hourglass.
” She was very proud of this Tobias Rey, obviously a local boy made good. Honi was Volksdeutsche, Polish-born but of German descent.

Max looked down at the paper in his hands. The photograph showed a man perhaps in his early thirties, gaunt, with longish hair, dark pouchy eyes, a small sardonic smile. Nothing much for a Jew to smile about these days, he thought.

“He can't be worse than my last painter,” he said.

Gruber was caressing his secretary's cheek with a stubby finger. “Good,” he said, but he didn't take his eyes from the bland, pretty face. “I'll see that he reports to you tomorrow.”

*  *  *

Years later, alone in his cell, he would remember that morning, how the air was fresh from the east, bringing with it a smell of cows and wood smoke that was not altogether disagreeable; the sight of the cherry tree outside his window, the branches cased in clear ice; the color of the light as it fell in bars across the ashen, angular man at the other end of the table.

Max was in the dining room, taking his morning coffee from the set of Meissen china his housekeeper had found in the china closet, left behind by the previous owner, when the painter presented himself. Instead of shuffling in with bowed head, exhibiting the proper mix of fear and submission due to his position and race, the famous Tobias Rey shambled in and plopped himself down on a chair, folding one sharp knee over the other. He wore a chalk-striped suit that was too large for his slender frame. Max was no expert on these things, but even he could tell that the suit showed vestiges of a good tailor and an elegant cut.

Later, Toby would say that he had hoped Max would shoot him right then and there for his insolence. In his cell, Max would wonder again why he hadn't.

“So,” Max said. “Ever paint a house?”

Tobias Rey shrugged, a simple lifting and dropping of the shoulders.

“Standartenführer Gruber's secretary is very impressed with you. Are you fucking her?”

A smile threatened the corners of the artist's mouth. Max could almost hear his thoughts.
If I smile, he'll beat me. If I don't smile, he'll beat me.

“No.”

“Well, what have you painted?”

There were dark smudges under his eyes. “I used to paint watercolors,” he said. “Oil paintings. In the surrealist manner. Your Führer would probably find my work degenerate.”

“Do you have any examples?”

The gray lips lifted in a bleak smile, and now he resembled the black-and-white picture on his work papers.

“No. But you do.” He gestured at a stack of boxes in the corner, arrived yesterday from Köln. Poking out of the top was a snow globe from Berchtesgaden, some plush animals, picture books. “That book, the one on top. It's mine.”

Max's eyebrows arched up. He retrieved the book and ruffled through the pages, smiling at the depictions of cinnabar-colored armadillos perambulating over electric-blue hills. It had been so long since he'd seen his family, his son was little more than the memory of a dark head on a pillow. “
In the Land of Armadillos
 . . . this is Peter's favorite book. You did this?”

The artist shrugged again. Max found himself moved to offer the man a cigarette, leaning forward to light it for him. Tobias Rey wound his skinny body around his seat and blew smoke into the air, barely looking grateful. Max tried to keep the enthusiasm from his voice. “You're very talented. What else have you done?”

BOOK: In the Land of Armadillos
11.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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