Authors: Catrin Collier
The scene was so beautiful I intended to say something profound and poetic but instead blurted, ‘The moonlight looks like a silver road.’ It sounded childish. Claus didn’t seem to mind, he told me that it was the road to our future, then he set his glass on the parapet and gazed into my eyes.
Embarrassed, I turned away. It was easier to look at the pier than at him, but the silence between us was so uncomfortable I begged him to take me there. He asked if I meant the pier or our future. When I said both, he said, ‘We’ll start with the pier, the longest in the Baltic.’ Then he said he’d get ready for bed. I shivered but not from the cold.
He went inside and hung his uniform tunic in the wardrobe. I looked back at the pier and the flocks of swans sleeping beneath it – their heads tucked under their wings, their curled bodies bobbing up and down with the movement of the waves – and I wanted to be closer to them on the beach. Running and laughing in the moonlight, as I had done so many times with Wilhelm and Paul after we had sneaked out late at night when we had holidayed here with Papa and Mama.
Claus returned and asked if I was happy. Of course, I said yes. Then he kissed me on the lips, such a gentle kiss I wasn’t afraid any more. In that instant I truly felt that I was experiencing the happiest moment on the happiest day of my life. He told me not to stay out on the balcony too long, then he went into the bathroom.
I returned to the bedroom when I heard the bathroom door close. The linen sheets were cool, crisp with the kind of starch only hotels seem to use. I lay there wondering what it would be like to sleep with Claus not only that night, but every night for the rest of my life.
The bathroom door opened and he walked out naked. I couldn’t look at him. I hadn’t seen a naked man or boy since the twins were ten years old and had swum nude in the lake. (A practice Greta had put a stop to.)
He threw back the bedclothes and climbed in beside me. His legs touched mine: they were long, cold and hairy. I began to shake and couldn’t stop. He pulled me towards him and said, ‘There’s no need to be nervous, Charlotte. It’s a perfectly natural function, and a necessary one to have children.’
He flung back the sheet and lifted my nightdress. I tried to cover myself but he gripped both my hands in one of his and said, ‘It’s all right, it’s allowed, we’re married. How about you undress so I can see you properly? Here, if you sit up, I’ll help you.’
I recalled what Mama had said, and remembered that I had promised to obey Claus before God only that morning. I allowed him to undress me. When I was naked he went to the bathroom for a towel and laid it beneath me. I begged him to turn out the light but he said he needed to see what he was doing. He gripped my breasts painfully. I tensed myself and he rolled on top of me, forcing my legs apart with his.
I cried out as he lunged into me. I had never felt such pain. He put one hand over my mouth, so I couldn’t make any more noise, then he pinned me down and thrust himself into me again and again and again ...
There was no love or tenderness in what he did, there couldn’t possibly have been. It was brutal. It killed every hope and expectation I had of married life. I was hurt, humiliated and wounded, and not only in my body. I couldn’t believe that the horrible, degrading, bestial act could be the culmination of all the poetry and romance of love – and my dreams.
I did what I always do when I am faced with something unpleasant and painful like a visit to the dentist or doctor – I closed my eyes and tried to pretend that I was somewhere else and it wasn’t really happening. But I couldn’t. He continued to force himself on me until I lost count of the number of times. No sooner did I think he was finished than he started again. It went on and on until I wished I were dead.
Grey light was filtering through the curtains when he finally rolled away from me. He actually smiled and said, ‘That wasn’t so bad, was it?’
I couldn’t answer him.
He looked down at the bed and told me to clean myself up. The towel he had placed beneath me was soaked with blood, as were my nightdress and the négligée which I had left on the sheet. I rolled them into a bundle, crawled off the bed and went into the bathroom.
I turned on the taps, sat on the bath and cried. When the tub was full I lowered myself in and tried to scrub away the blood. Afterwards, I wrapped myself in the hotel’s bathrobe, and crept out into the bedroom. He was lying on his back on the bed snoring. I tiptoed into the sitting room, fetched this diary, returned to the bathroom and locked myself in. At least here I can be alone.
The pain is so severe I can hardly move, and walking is agony. How am I going to face him when he wakes? I only hope he won’t want to do anything so disgusting ever again. If he does, how will I endure it?
How do other women cope? Mama? Grafin von Letteberg? Why did I marry? It would have been far better to have died an old maid.
Laura was waiting at Berlin airport. She was so well-organized that less than twenty minutes after Charlotte’s plane had landed, a porter was loading her luggage into the car Laura had hired. After the initial greetings and euphoria at their reunion was over, Charlotte noticed Laura looked tired and that she’d lost weight. She wondered if her granddaughter had been working too hard, or if the change was down to the documents she’d found in the archives.
Charlotte sat in the passenger seat and closed the car door. Laura climbed into the driver’s seat and slotted the key into the ignition.
‘I’ve booked a room for you in my hotel for tonight and I have flight tickets for Warsaw for tomorrow. But they can be changed if you’d like to rest for a day or two before going on to Poland.’
‘I’d like to leave as soon as possible.’
‘Tomorrow soon enough for you?’ Laura looked sideways at her grandmother.
‘It is. Your time really is your own for the next couple of weeks?’ Charlotte glanced out of the window but saw nothing familiar. Berlin had changed so much from the city she had once known.
‘I have absolutely nothing lined up for the next three months. I’ve been promising myself a break for some time.’ Now that she was actually with her grandmother Laura realized how difficult it would be to raise all the questions about the past that she’d listed in her mind.
‘And you’re well?’ Charlotte tried to sound tactful.
‘Perfectly. How long do you intend to stay in Poland?’ Laura edged the car out into the stream of traffic exiting the airport.
‘As long as it takes me to see everything I want.’
‘I wish I could ignore clocks and calendars the way you do.’
‘I’ve been an absolute slave to the clock these past six months but,’ Charlotte revealed, ‘I’ve finished illustrating the fairy tales.’
‘All of them?’
‘All of them. And, although I say it myself, it’s my best work to date.’
‘You must have worked non-stop.’ ‘It felt like it.’
‘Claus sounded happy on the telephone when I last spoke to him’ ‘He is euphoric, but with Carolyn for a wife, a new baby to look forward to and a business he loves that’s going well, he has every right to be smug.’
‘Lucky Claus.’ Laura stopped at traffic lights.
Charlotte laid her hand over Laura’s on the steering wheel. ‘How are you really, Laura?’
‘Tired. The last documentary was emotionally draining. I interviewed dozens of people who didn’t realize that their family and close friends were spying on them. The Stasi may be history, but it will take years for the bitter legacy that the organization has left in Germany to be forgotten.’
‘I suspect that, like the evils of the Second World War, the bitterness won’t end until the generation who lived through it are all buried,’ Charlotte said sadly. ‘Laura, you can call me an interfering old busybody if you want, but you don’t look at all well. Is it because of the Nazi documents you found? If it is, I promise I will answer all your questions, but, if you don’t mind, not until we’re in Poland.’
‘You can’t answer them now?’
‘I’d prefer not to. Not because I want to make you wait, but – and I know this must sound strange – there are things that I am not sure about even now. Not events. I remember those clearly enough. But how I felt about them at the time and how differently I feel about them now.’
‘I think I can understand that.’ The lights changed and Laura drove off.
‘Is anything else worrying you?’ Charlotte probed.
‘What makes you ask?’
‘Something your father said about a Somali boy.’
‘If he was worried about my marrying an African national he doesn’t have to any more. It didn’t work out. Ahmed has moved on.’ She looked across at Charlotte. ‘Back to his wife and daughter.’
‘I’m sorry, Laura.’
‘You’re not shocked about him being married?’
‘I know you, and you would never have embarked on an affair with a married man unless you loved him.’
‘I did,’ Laura concurred.
‘I hope he was worthy of you and that you have been left with some happy memories of your time together.’
‘I wish everyone was as tolerant and understanding as you, Oma,’ Laura said feelingly. ‘We were very much in love, and yes, we did make a few happy memories.’
‘Then I’m glad.’
‘How are my parents and Luke?’ Laura changed the subject.
‘Your parents are your parents. Luke, on the other hand, is driving your father to exasperation.’
‘Good old Luke. I feel better just for seeing you. I’m glad we’re able to spend some time together, Oma. I’m in sore need of good companionship and advice.’
‘The companionship is easy. The advice I’m not too sure about. Is it personal or career you’re looking for?’
‘Then you won’t get either from me. I’d prefer to take the coward’s way out and sit on the fence, because I can’t stand people coming back to me and saying, “I did what you suggested and look at the result. It’s all your fault.”’
Laura managed a smile. ‘Has anyone ever dared do that to you?’
‘Only family.’ Charlotte brushed her hand against Laura’s cheek.
‘In my experience, worrying never achieves anything, darling. Most of us make choices only when we are forced to, and if we make the wrong ones, time will tell soon enough. In the end, life works out the way it’s supposed to.’
‘I wish I could believe that.’
‘Try to keep what you want in mind, and look ahead, not back.’ ‘I do, but the only thought that consoles me these days is that, a
hundred years from now, no one will care about anything I did or didn’t do.’
‘You need to stop worrying about other people, Laura, and consider yourself more. I’m sorry that you’ve lost your love; let’s hope that somewhere out there, another knight in shining armour is waiting for you.’
‘At the moment I wouldn’t recognize him if he turned up riding a white charger and wearing silver battle armour. As for my career, I’ve been offered a job, a permanent one, that pays an obscene amount of money, working for an American television station.’
‘Are you going to take it?’
‘Despite the advantage of being closer to you and Claus, I’m not sure I want to live in the States, or make the kind of films they want me to produce. Twee stories about underdogs who become cheerleaders or quarterbacks.’
‘Then don’t take it,’ Charlotte said decisively.
Laura laughed as she drove into the hotel car park. ‘Why is it that a few words from you always puts everything into perspective? You’re absolutely right. The last thing I want to do is take it. And I’ve just this minute decided I won’t.’
Laura followed her grandmother into her room after they’d dined in the hotel restaurant. She picked up the copy of
One Last Summer
, which Charlotte had taken out of her hand luggage and placed together with her diary on the bedside table.
‘You still carry this everywhere?’
‘Yes,’ Charlotte confirmed.
‘You must have read it a hundred times.’
‘Probably two hundred,’ Charlotte replied. ‘Did you read the copy I gave you?’
‘The beginning.’ Laura took the book and sat in the chair closest to the window.
‘You didn’t finish it?’
‘I couldn’t bear to. All that Russian gloom and suffering was too much for me. That poor man imprisoned in a Siberian gulag, waking every morning to inhuman brutality and starvation rations. Forced by the freezing misery of his surroundings to live out every day in his head; having to resort to imagining himself in another time, another place, with the only woman he had ever loved.’
‘Couldn’t you see that his reality was his dream world?’ Charlotte argued. ‘His life in the camp held no more significance than a fleeting nightmare.’
‘I couldn’t bear the thought of him only having his past. No future, no bearable present beyond that conjured by his imagination. Nothing to look forward to except death.’
‘It would have been far worse for him if he hadn’t had that past. It gave him a reason to live, to keep fighting for survival. As for a future, when you live within the world of your imagination, anything is possible.’
‘No amount of imagination could make up for the filth, degradation and inhuman conditions in that camp.’ Laura turned the book over in her hands. ‘I wanted more for him.’
‘Perhaps you’ll appreciate the book better when you’re my age.’ Charlotte sat on the dressing-table stool, unpinned her hair and brushed it out with fifty strokes, just as she’d done every night of her adult life. ‘Your mother is hoping that I’ll have a word with you.’
‘Did she stipulate what kind of word?’
‘Something about settling down. I told her that I intended to have several words with you.’
‘You’re incorrigible and I love you.’ Laura kissed her grandmother on the cheek.
‘Even though I was once a card-carrying Nazi?’ Charlotte said softly.
‘Then it wasn’t a mistake.’ Laura suddenly became serious, and Charlotte knew that her granddaughter had been hoping she could provide proof it was just that – a mistake.
‘No, it wasn’t.’
‘If you tell me about it, I’ll try to understand.’
‘In the 1930s, most of the people I knew were card-carrying “good Nazis”. It was what everyone aspired to be. A good citizen, a good Nazi, a loyal follower of the Führer, who had given the German people everything they wanted and more. We really believed the slogan: “One people, one country, one leader.” A law was passed in 1936 making it compulsory for every German boy and girl to join the Hitler Youth, but we didn’t need to be coerced. We loved the Hitler Youth. It meant trips away from home and our parents’ watchful eyes. Instruction in sailing, riding, shooting, fencing, skiing, gymnastics – and flying. Even after the war, when everyone knew exactly what the Nazis had done, some of my school friends still insisted that the Hitler years were the best years of their life.’
‘I know about Hitler’s economic miracle,’ Laura said uneasily. ‘But the horrors – the camps, the Jews; people must have known what was going on.’
‘I was a child but I can just about remember what it was like in East Prussia in the twenties. There was a breakdown of law and order. Raging inflation devalued wages before they were earned. Rival gangs fought in the streets. Allenstein was full of beggars – crippled ex-servicemen, the unemployed and their children. My father was inundated with offers from people prepared to work just for bread. I’m not saying conditions were worse in Germany than America and Britain during the world slump, but Germany was a defeated and humiliated nation that had been forced to hand over large slices of territory when the peace treaties were signed after the First World War. Hitler gave everyone hope. He restored national pride and he gave people scapegoats to blame for the Depression. So, in answer to your question, yes, everyone knew the Nazis were anti-Semitic. It was impossible not to know given the amount of anti-Jewish and anti-Communist propaganda on the radio, in the newspapers, on posters, in films, not to mention spoon-fed to us in the Hitler Youth. But we Germans were told so often we were members of a superior race that most young people, and I’m ashamed to say that includes me, really believed we were special. Yes, we saw Jews being persecuted in the streets. My Jewish friends were expelled from school. We knew they’d lost the right to work, vote and own property. The official line was they were going to be resettled. There were rumours of Madagascar and the East. But most people argued, my father among them, that Hitler’s anti-Jewish laws were a small price to pay for full stomachs and full employment.’
‘And it ended in the Holocaust.’
‘Yes, it did.’ Charlotte’s eyes creased in pain. ‘And all I and every German who lived through that time can do is acknowledge that, to Germany’s eternal shame, it happened and we must beg forgiveness. Not that I think for one moment we deserve to receive it.’
‘I can’t imagine being indifferent to the persecution of a minority,’ Laura said quietly.
‘You and Claus wouldn’t have been, because, unlike me when I was young, both of you are special and sensitive people. My father was not easily taken in but he joined the Nazi Party the same night he heard Hitler speak for the first time. Then, when Hitler became Chancellor, everything changed.’
‘Overnight?’ Laura set
One Last Summer
‘It seemed like it. My father’s closest friend was a master builder and architect. His family could barely scrape by on what he made from doing odd jobs. Every time we visited them before Hitler came to power we took them a basket of food. As we did most of my parents’ friends.’
‘You were rich?’ Laura asked in surprise.
‘My father owned a few farms; the tenants paid their rent in produce. We had more food than we needed for our personal use, and my father couldn’t bring himself to sell the surplus while his friends and their children were starving. As a result the farms made no money and became run-down. When Hitler came to power he started building – roads, schools, youth hostels, factories. Within four years my father’s friend had made enough money to build an enormous house for his family and buy acres of land on which he erected houses and workshops.’
‘All your family were Nazis?’
‘Before the war, yes,’ Charlotte confirmed. ‘My father arranged for me, my brothers, and sister to become full Party members on our eighteenth birthdays, so we wouldn’t have to wait until we were twenty-one – the usual age for joining. Your Great-Aunt Greta was an area organizer for the BDM, the Hitler Youth group for girls. I performed in the musical section of the Allenstein Hitler Youth group, and both my brothers were in the Hitler Youth before they became officers in the Wehrmacht. My father had been Burgomaster of the town and my mother organized fundraising events. After the war not many Germans were willing to admit that their family had been Party members. But I can’t deny it, and you have every right to be horrified.’ Charlotte picked up her diary. ‘I know you can read modern German; can you read old-fashioned handwritten Gothic script?’
‘After a month spent delving into the Document Center here, I can.’
‘This is a diary I began on my eighteenth birthday and kept during the war and for a short while afterwards. Would you like to read it?’