Read Midnight in Berlin Online

Authors: James MacManus

Midnight in Berlin (7 page)

BOOK: Midnight in Berlin
5.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

“Call Frau Schmidt at the Salon and tell her I will be coming over at noon.”

“Yes, sir.”

He picked up the file on Macrae.

“Send this downstairs and say I want a decent photo, full face.”

A sudden scream rent the air, a terrible sound of pain and anguish, followed by a second almost more terrible strangulated gargling of someone trying to shout
but dragging the word out as if in recognition not just of imminent death but of a wider horror that would be visited on family and friends.

Bonner got up and closed the door. That was the trouble with having an office on the fourth floor. The view across the tree-lined Prinz-Albrechtstrasse was pleasant, especially in spring, but extra interrogation rooms had been built in the attic to complement those in the basement. Those rooms were directly above them and sometimes the interrogation teams did not close the soundproof doors properly. He would have to speak to someone about it.

Hilde picked up his cup.

“Of course,” she said. “More coffee?”

The Salon occupied a house on the corner of a block of shops and businesses in the residential area of Charlottenburg, a
quiet upper-class district that housed many foreign diplomats and their families. The ground floor had been altered to suggest a smart bar or restaurant, although there was no name above the entrance and the windows were heavily curtained.

Visitors were received at the door by a middle-aged woman wearing a tight-fitting full-length grey woollen coat, buttoned at the neck. The woman greeted Bonner with a nod of recognition and opened the door, showing him into a vestibule. Once the outer door had been closed, the curtains of the vestibule were pulled back by unseen hands to reveal a large room laid out as a restaurant dining room. A marble-topped counter ran the length of the back wall. There was a mirror behind the bar, above which fairy lights had been strung in swooping beads of light. Otherwise, the room was lit only by the red-shaded lamps on each table. A fanlight above a door at one end revealed a pink ceiling in the adjoining room.

Kitty Schmidt was waiting for Bonner at the bar, smoking and drinking coffee. She had aged in the two years since he had first met her. He had thought her quite glamorous then, in a dyed-blonde, big-bosomed sort of way. She had the commanding charm of a woman who had run the most famous brothel in Berlin in the late twenties. Kitty Schmidt certainly had secrets, and they interested the newly formed Gestapo in 1934. They had made her what Bonner thought was a very reasonable offer: cooperate with us and continue to run the brothel – and keep the money, or most of it anyway. The cooperation meant closure for a month while cameras and tape recorders were concealed in all the rooms.

This was a genuine offer, but Kitty Schmidt had not seen it that way. She had closed the Salon, paid off the girls and tried to escape. They had picked her up at the Dutch border six months later and brought her back to Berlin. Bonner had
personally conducted the interrogation in the basement. He'd stripped her and slapped her around a bit – to remind her where she was – and then made a rather different offer. Schmidt would reopen the Salon, but she would be given new girls hand-picked for the work. She would hand the profits over and be paid a weekly wage.

Kitty Schmidt had no choice but to agree. They had found her mother living in Hanover and a brother working in the Krupp armaments factory in Essen. It was a reserved occupation, but they conscripted him anyway just to make the point. And so the Salon started back in business. Bonner had personally chosen the girls, mostly from Munich, and to his irritation but not his surprise, Reinhard Heydrich had taken a keen interest in the procedure.

That is where Bonner had to admit his boss showed a flair for creative risk that amounted to genius. He despised Heydrich, and not just because he was an arriviste who had joined the party only when it had become successful. Like all such people, he had had to prove himself more Nazi than anyone else. Heydrich was cold, calculating, with the high intelligence of a well-educated man. He did not try to conceal his ambition, which seemed to gnaw away at him like cancer. He had a talent for spotting and exploiting the weakness in others, especially his colleagues in the Nazi Party.

What Bonner despised was the
in which Heydrich operated. There was a political calculation to his cruelty. It was almost as if the man had decided to promote himself in the party hierarchy by becoming more monstrous, more violently sadistic, than those around him. He had certainly succeeded. He was feared as much by those in power as by the Reich's many enemies. Even Himmler, the overall director of the Gestapo, was said to be wary of the protégé whom he had done so much to promote since they were introduced in 1932.

Above all, Bonner despised his superior officer because Heydrich had allowed personal ambition to corrupt the working practice of a secret policeman. It was not enough to trap the insects, as Heydrich termed his enemies; he had to pull their legs off as well. He was a psychopath whose pleasure in savagery was counterproductive and also ran against the grain of good secret-police practice. The most valuable weapon in the Gestapo's armoury, the priceless commodity that underpinned every secret operation, was solid, irrefutable information. As Bonner well knew, you don't get reliable information from those you torture to death.

He paused in front of Schmidt, raised his right arm and said, “
Heil Hitler

She smiled, raised the palm of her hand to him by way of reply and said, “
Guten Morgen

Bonner sat down and scowled. He had never been able to make this woman respond properly to the Hitlergruss. She did so, of course, when Heydrich came, because he terrified everyone. But somehow Bonner did not inspire the same fear.

“Coffee?” said Schmidt.

Bonner yawned. “Yes. Is Sara in?”

Schmidt nodded and reached over the bar and under the counter, pressing a hidden button. Seconds later, the door at the far end opened and a tall, dark-haired young woman walked in. She was wearing a tight-fitting, low-cut dress, different in style and colour from that of the woman on the door. She looked tired. He face was pale, the pallor accentuated by black lipstick and nail varnish. Her eyes were dark pools under long lashes. She had been working there for over a year and must be about twenty-three years old by now, thought Bonner.

“Tea?” he said to her.

The woman nodded, lit a cigarette, sat on a bar stool and stared ahead into the mirror. Bonner looked at her profile next to him and then at her reflection in the mirror. She had the moody look of a woman with secret sorrows, yet her eyes were lit with silent laughter. Her face held you, so that if you turned away for fear of being caught staring, you immediately wanted to turn back again.

She was Heydrich's masterstroke, an act so brazen that Bonner could still scarcely credit his boss with the nerve to take such a risk.

Sara was Jewish. Her real name was Ruth Sternschein, but the Nazis forced all Jews to take first names that denoted their racial origin. The women were all made to take the first name “Sara” and the men “Israel”. The names were stamped on their identity papers. So Ruth became Sara. She was the eldest child of a family of doctors in Hamburg. She'd been well educated and was studying law at university when her life ended. That was how she described it. She was twenty-two years old and her life didn't just change, it ended.

The reason was simple. The head of the Gestapo had decided that a Jewish girl would become the lead attraction in his Berlin brothel. Here, senior party members, army officers and foreign visitors dallied by night. Here, their every intimate move was photographed and recorded. Every one of the rooms, including the small swimming pool in the basement, had been wired for sound and film. These men were not just caught indulging in sexual excesses that defied imagination – they were in many cases caught doing so with a Jewish woman.

At a time when the mere suggestion of Jewish ancestry would bring shame and expulsion on any member of the Nazi
Party or senior member of the military, such illicit liaisons gave Reinhard Heydrich extraordinary power over those caught in the web. Heydrich himself would bring senior colleagues to the Salon for an evening's amusement. Those he wished to entrap and blackmail would be introduced to Sara. Sometimes no more than drink and some exceptionally good food were served, but on most occasions the guests slipped through the fanlight door and found a comfortable sitting room, where the girls on duty that night would be sipping tea, smoking and reading magazines.

A large crystal vase in a round centre table was filled with carnations. The rules were strict. The girls must all wear smart grey dresses as if about to go out for an evening drink or afternoon coffee. They were to have polite conversation with their guests, nothing political but usually harmless chat about the latest film, the weather or the birth of a polar bear cub at the zoo – anything but politics.

It had been Kitty Schmidt's idea that her Salon should create the illusion of a small social gathering at which two people who find each other attractive may discreetly, and immediately, indulge their desire. When the establishment had originally opened, sometime around 1927, the police were paid off and the major hotels informed that their wealthier guests would find discretion and entertainment behind the big door at 11 Giesebrechtstrasse. The word spread and soon senior military officers began to knock on the door, then foreign diplomats. As the Salon became well known, the prices went up and Schmidt developed a restaurant to sustain the illusion of a social rather than sexual ambience. When Heydrich took over, he liked the idea and improved it by supplying champagne in what became known as the Pink Room. He hired chefs to make sure the food was the best in Berlin and insisted that the wine and champagne be of the most expensive vintages.

The Salon's guests – they were always referred to as guests, never as customers or clients – made their choice by taking a carnation from the vase in the centre table and offering it to whoever had caught their eye. He would then follow the girl down a corridor along which heavy, soundproofed doors gave onto luxurious bedrooms.

If Sara was in the party room, she almost always became the first choice. She was sometimes allowed to wear a more daring dress than the other girls, usually a red dress in the oriental style with a long side slit. Her dark sultry looks, a full figure with a tight waist and the laughter in those eyes were enough to attract any man. No one suspected her racial origins, because who would expect such a place to employ a Jewess?

Sara usually only appeared in the Salon when Heydrich had special guests he wished to impress – or rather entrap. It was how he had got Fritsch just before Christmas. The army commander had been in with two fellow officers. They were drunk. Heydrich was not there. The army hated him, and with good reason. Sara had her orders. She made a play for the general at the bar. It had worked. The two were laughing and joking until well after midnight, when Sara had suggested a swim in the private pool; just us, she had said.

Fritsch was cautious, even if drunk.

“Just us – really?” he had asked.

“Of course.”

She had smiled sweetly and let one hand rest on his thigh. A few minutes later he was naked, moving his scarred body along the pool with a clumsy breaststroke as Sara swam beside him. And the cameras never stopped.

Sara had settled her account with life the moment they picked her up and drove her to Berlin. She knew her life was over and merely wished to find a swift way to end it. It was Joseph who had kept her alive.

Her twin brother had been a member of the underground communist party and, worse still, had joined a small resistance group in Hamburg. They did nothing too drastic, circulating underground leaflets attacking the party and especially the Führer, defacing party posters. Such offences merited execution, but when he was caught they sent him to a new concentration camp in the east instead and began to watch his family more closely.

As a well-known Jewish family, the Sternscheins were in any case already under the watchful eyes of the Gestapo. It was when Heydrich saw a surveillance photo of Sara smoking at a café that the idea came to him.

Bonner took Sara aside and briefed her. She had heard it all before. The target had to be charmed, seduced and compromised. The photographs must show him in acts of sufficient depravity to place his reputation and career beyond redemption. The target was an enemy of the Reich and thus must be destroyed. She listened, looked at two photographs, nodded and said nothing. What irritated Bonner about Sara was that she showed no gratitude. Her brother would have been executed by now, and she and her family would have been in a camp, but for Heydrich's intervention. Here she was, living a comfortable life in Berlin in a rented room next to the Salon, with all bills paid, and with little more to do than satisfy the lust of a few perverted middle-aged men.

In return, she received monthly letters from her brother, in his handwriting, assuring her of his survival in a camp called Buchenwald. Every three months, she was handed a photograph of her mother reading a current copy of Hamburg's evening newspaper in the front room of their home. Most Jews, thought Bonner, would have regarded that as an
act of mercy. Sara and her brother were at least safe. After all, things were going to get much worse for the rest of her tribe in Germany. The forced emigration programme had not had the required result, despite the terror tactics used against the community. There were simply too many left, maybe as many as six hundred thousand. Heydrich was said to be working on other solutions to the problem.

Bonner had never subscribed to the fiction that Jews were somehow responsible for the defeat in the last war. It was a central plank in the party ideology and it was important to support it vocally and publicly, and he did so. Privately, he had never had a problem with them. Jews always seemed to be bumping into history, or maybe history bumped into them, but frankly so what? He wasn't religious and didn't give a damn who had nailed Christ to the Cross.

BOOK: Midnight in Berlin
5.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Leveller by Julia Durango
The Qualities of Wood by Mary Vensel White
A Word Child by Iris Murdoch
The Art of War by Sun Tzu & James Clavell
Alutar: The Great Demon by Tuttle, Richard S.
The Sun Dwellers by Estes, David