In another time and place, Shomer still has Fanya and the children. He watches his wife as she lights the Hannukah candles on the windowsill. A hush has settled over the ghetto, and the children, Avrom and Bina, watch the weak, flickering lights of the candle stubs. Shomer watches them too, how they struggle to survive, to hold this flickering flame. He knows that soon, no matter what he’d do, these lights will burn out and die.
But for now, he has them all, and there is no happier man alive than Shomer, that one-time purveyor of lurid tales, back when there were still rags to print such nonsense; and after the lighting and the blessing, he takes the children out for a walk. How thin they are, he marvels, watching them spin their makeshift dreidels with the other children, squatting on their haunches in the corner like born gamblers. ‘And are we not all gamblers?’ he says to Yenkl, who materialises out of the Yiddish Theatre’s door, still dressed as Kuni Leml. ‘Betting against the odds?’
And Yenkl merely nods his head, and rolls a cigarette with long thin fingers. ‘They say the trains will soon take all of us all to the east,’ he says. ‘A promised land of miracles and plenty, eh, Shomer?’
And Shomer knows the children listen, and he knows that he cannot tell them. Rumours only, whispered, of what’s happening in the east, what they do to the Jews in those camps in Poland. Rumours only, and surely there can be nothing in them, there can be no truth—
And so his mind shies from the glare of time present and travels elsewhere, to another time and place of his own making, and to a sordid little tale of shund, that is to say, of pulp—of blackmail, violence, and murder.
She puffed on the cigarette with quick, nervous jerks of her hand. The fur coat she wore was mottled in places and her big, dark eyes looked at me with a sort of nervous excitement. ‘I am being blackmailed, you see, Herr Hitler.’
I hated the smell of tobacco. I hated the cold of my office, above the Jew baker’s shop. I hated London, and this cold, soulless island on which I’d found myself, a refugee. I hated what I had become.
‘It’s Wolf, now,’ I told her. ‘The name. Just Wolf.’
She shrugged. She didn’t care who or what I was.
You probably wouldn’t remember her, now. I will call her Elske Sturm, though that was not her real name, exactly. She often played the kind of girl who drowned at the end of the movie. Sometimes I wished a rain would come and drown the whole world, and everything in it. Once, I was going to conquer the world. Now I was a piece of gum stuck to a spassmacher’s shoe.
I said, ‘Blackmail, Fraulein Sturm?’
‘I have been sent pictures,’ she said. ‘Compromising photographs. The blackmailer threatens to, well, you can connect the dots.’
‘Is there any more?’ I said. There usually was.
She shrugged. It was a very Teutonic shrug. ‘The … other person in the photographs,’ she said. ‘He’s married.’
‘We’re in love.’ She said it like it meant nothing, and she was right, because it never does. It was just an ugly case of adultery, the kind I wouldn’t usually touch, but I needed the money. It was December, 1937, and it was a cold winter and only going to get worse. I was behind on my rent and down on my luck, and the old wound from the concentration camp the Communists had put me in after my Fall ached in cold weather.
‘Who is the other party?’
‘I’d rather not mention his name,’ she said quickly. ‘He is a prominent politician.’
‘… I see.’ And I did. She was just an actress, and no one expects high morals from a simple bird of paradise. They were pretty and empty-headed, and dirty pictures would just as likely help their careers as ruin them. ‘… does he know?’
She shrugged. ‘I don’t know,’ she said in a flat voice. ‘We haven’t spoken about it.’
She was lying, of course. She was never that good an actress. I took down the details. She had met with this man three times in different hotels around London. The blackmailer must have followed them, snapped photographs through the window of one of the rooms. I could imagine it easy enough. I said, ‘Do you have the note?’
‘Yes. Here.’ She pushed it across my desk. The message was short: Bring £300 in notes, Leave the bag by the Eleanor Cross, Sunday, 1pm, come alone, I will be watching you. No funny stuff.
‘I had to look up the Eleanor Cross,’ she said. ‘It’s that hideous monument outside Charing Cross Station.’
I nodded. I knew the place. I myself had arrived in London into that cesspit of racial impurity that was Charing Cross. It had become the gateway into London for us refugees from the Fall. The Jews and the Communists held Germany now in their filthy hands, and good, honest Volk, proud Aryans, were now the scum of Europe, beggars arriving on the filthy shores of England, cap in hand. How I hated them! How I hated them all!
‘You will make the drop? Alone?’
She bit her nails. ‘If that’s what you’d advise.’
‘And you will …?’
‘I will be there. You won’t see me.’
‘I would be ever so grateful,’ she said. She shimmered over to me. She draped herself over my desk and crossed her long pale legs, one over the other. ‘I remember you from the old days,’ she said. ‘I saw you speak once, in Munich. You were so magnetic on stage. When you spoke, I really believed in you, we all did, I think. You said Germany could be great again.’ She sighed. ‘But I guess you were wrong after all.’
‘Germany was betrayed!’ I said. ‘I would have led her to victory, to, to …!’ Words failed me. She smiled at me pityingly. Her long fingers reached down and curled around my collar. Her nails were painted crimson. She was a cheap whore like all actresses are. Her perfume mixed with the smell of her cigarette as she leaned close into me. Her lips were red and ripe for the picking. ‘I would be so grateful for your efforts …’ she said.
With an effort I pushed her away. I liked my women the way I liked my dogs, vicious and submissive at once. ‘I shall see you Sunday,’ I said, coldly. ‘A retainer of five pounds would suffice, Fraulein Sturm.’
For a moment her eyes flashed; then she laughed, her tongue darting in between those white teeth of hers, as though she held me in contempt. She took the money out of her purse and laid it on my desk.
‘Is that all,’ she said.
I let it go past me. These days, I let a lot of things slide.
‘Auf Wiedersehen,’ I said.
She nodded, wordlessly. Then she left my office, slamming the door shut in her wake. I guess for a woman of her kind seduction was just another transaction on the balance sheet of life, like buying bread or paying off a blackmailer. I sat there for a long moment, thinking of all I had lost. Then I got up, retrieved my raincoat and my fedora, and followed her.
A drunk Santa Claus bumped into me as I crossed Shaftesbury Avenue, his disgusting breath rancid on my face.
‘Scheisse!’ I said, trying to push him off. He staggered but stood his ground, and stared at me with mean little eyes.
‘Filthy foreigners,’ he mumbled. ‘Why don’t you all just fuck off back to your own country?’
Before I could reply I saw a couple of bobbies in uniform turn and look our way.
‘Forget it,’ I said, and began to walk away. He sneered behind me.
‘Run away now, little Kraut!’ he shouted. I hated his entire race at that point. Hate was a powerful motivator, it had once made me great, and it sustained me, still. I nearly went back at him, but the bobbies were watching, and I had my job, still.
I don’t know why I was following Elske. I did not quite believe her story. I followed her to Sakall’s, near the Hippodrome, on Little Newport Street. Sakall’s was one of the fashionable new establishments, opened by a Hungarian bit part actor, and it catered to many of the performers who trod the Hippodrome’s stage. There were usually a couple of photographers stationed outside, and I recognised Hoffmann, whom I used to be friendly with back in Munich. He waved when he saw me. There was a bottle of cheap red wine by his feet, which he raised in greeting at my approach. Already, he was quite drunk.
‘Wolf,’ he said. ‘It is good to see you.’
‘We have fallen on hard times, eh, my friend?’ He gave me a sardonic salute, arm extended, and chuckled. He was in his fifties and a good Aryan, and he had always served me well. ‘Yet still we carry on.’
I ignored him and his little jokes and fixed my eyes on the entrance to Sakall’s. The actress, Elske, disappeared inside. Hoffmann watched me watch her and chuckled again. ‘She’s a nice bit of totty and no mistake,’ he said.
‘Do you know who she’s meeting?’
‘Sure, sure. Some big shot out of Hollywood, one of those Warner brothers.’
He shrugged. ‘Who isn’t a Jew, these days,’ he said.
‘Is she looking for a job?’
‘Rumour has it she’s desperate to get out. California, Wolf!’ he said. ‘Picture it, the sand beaches and the palm trees and the girls …’
‘California,’ I told him coldly, ‘is filled with dirty Jews.’
‘Sure, sure,’ he said. ‘But that’s show business.’
It was cold. I rubbed my hands together, stamped my feet, but it didn’t really help. I remembered the cold of the Great War, the trenches and the stench of men’s fear. It is easier to be cold when one is younger.
‘Do you know if she’s seeing anyone?’
‘Seeing?’ he said. ‘I do not know about seeing. But word is she plays footsie with half the eligible bachelors of London. And they’re not always bachelors, either, if you get my meaning.’
‘Anyone in particular?’ I said, without much interest.
He shrugged, then brightened up suddenly. ‘That young whippersnapper of yours,’ he said. ‘That Heydrich.’
‘Heydrich?’ I said. ‘Reinhard Heydrich? Himmler’s man?’ I remembered him, vaguely. A thin faced former musician with a high pitched voice, who got kicked out of the Navy for conduct unbecoming of a gentleman. I remembered his wife better than him, Lina, a pleasant enough wench who was charmingly anti-Semitic. She almost came in her drawers every time she met me. She was the one who sent her husband for the job interview with Himmler.
‘He was in charge of intelligence, as far as I remember. He would have made a good detective if only he could keep it in his pants from time to time.’
‘Who of us can,’ Hoffmann said, philosophically.
‘But what is he doing in London? I thought the Communists had him.’
‘He got out even before the Reichstag burned,’ Hoffmann said. ‘He was always a practical man, as far as I remember.’
I could not even blame him, I realised. I had surrounded myself with ruthless, efficient men. Their loyalty was not in question—they had always been loyal first and foremost to themselves.
‘He’s got a place in town, as far as I know,’ Hoffmann said. ‘Wife and kids and all. I don’t know what he does, exactly. Something in the movies. A guy like him’s bound to land on his feet.’
I nodded, thoughtfully.
‘Thanks, Hoffmann,’ I said.
‘You going to stick around?’
‘No,’ I told him. ‘I think I saw all I needed to see.’
‘Go well, Wolf,’ he said. ‘Go in peace.’
‘We both,’ I told him, ‘know that’s unlikely.’
I could hear his chuckles all the way until I turned the corner.
I headed down Charing Cross Road to the train terminus. I wanted to see the drop point for myself. The night had thickened about me and the London fog rose from the pavements and made the movements of people seem like a sort of shadow play. Hoffman used to have a studio in Munich, but when the Communists took Germany, he ran. Many of my old comrades did, escaping like rats, and now they infested this town with their presence. Passing St Martin-in-the-Fields I could hear carol singers, and a beggar shook his metal bowl at me, hoping for alms that weren’t going to come. I could hear the whistle of the trains as they crossed over the river, my native tongue being spoken, the shrill cries of a boy selling the Evening Standard, the drunken laughter of revellers at a nearby pub.
I did not see the two men in the black uniform of the British Fascists. They blended perfectly into the dark.
When I reached sight of the station I stopped and simply stared. The Eleanor Cross was surrounded by recent arrivals, all milling about like cattle. The cross, I remembered, had been erected as an act of love, one of twelve monuments King Edward had put up in memory of his late wife. I hated sentimental fools. When Geli killed herself, with my own gun, I was outraged at her betrayal. How dared she defy me in this way!
I stared at the monument, thinking. It was a nice, busy spot. Easy to disappear in a crowd. I could see why the blackmailer chose it. I decided to buy myself a cup of hot chocolate, since I had money in my pocket for once. I had always had a fondness for sweet things. I turned, which was when I saw them. There were two of them and they were ugly in that English sort of way, as though they raise the boys alongside the pigs. They wore black with the jagged lightning bolt of the British Union of Fascists on the breast, and they had bad teeth, bad breath, and nasty grins.
‘Excuse me, fellows,’ I said, trying to look round them for an avenue of escape—just as the one on the right sank his fist into my stomach and knocked all the air out of me.
‘No need to apologise, old boy,’ the one on the left said pleasantly. He had a cosh in his hand.
It came down and connected with the back of my head. Pain exploded behind my eyes, and a million yellow stars swam in my field of vision and were replicated sixfold; but luckily I lost consciousness at that point.
‘So you’re the Charlie Hunt who’s been messing with my girl,’ the man said.
‘Eh?’ I said, confused.
‘He means you’re a c—’
‘That’s enough, Reggie.’
My head felt like a football that’s been kicked round in No Man’s Land during the Christmas Truce. I looked around me, carefully. I was in a dark warehouse of some sort. On the walls I could see posters for Oswald Mosley, the Smethwick MP and leader of the BUF. He had a thin aristocratic face and a thin moustache and a ghoul’s smile. Re-Elect Mosley! said the posters.
I was bound to a chair. Standing above me were the two Fascist goons and a third man. He wore a good suit, with lightning strike cufflinks, and he looked down on me with bloodshot eyes.
‘Who the fuck are you?’ I said.
He backhanded me. My head snapped sideways and the pain burned like a flame and I thought a tooth might have come loose.
‘I’m the one asking the questions here!’ he said.
I spat out blood, just missing his shoes, and he backhanded me again.
‘What were you doing with my girl?’ he said.
‘You’re not worthy to speak her name!’
He slapped me again. I was getting tired of it. Like Germany, a man can only take so much before he must resort to violence.
I wanted very much to kill him at that moment.
His two boys stood on either side of him and looked at me with amused butcher boys’ grins.
‘Fat pigs,’ I said, and tried to spit again, but there wasn’t much in me.
‘Who are you?’ the man in the suit said.
‘Wolf,’ I said. ‘My name’s Wolf. I’m a private eye.’
‘A what?’ he said, sounding confused.
‘A P.I. A gumshoe. A shamus. A dick!’
He looked even more confused, if that were possible. They don’t breed them for intelligence, in England, so much as for a sort of bovine endurance.
‘You mean, like in Agatha Christie?’ he said.
‘No, not like fucking Agatha Christie,’ I said, though really I was secretly very fond of her books. ‘More like Sam Spade.’
‘I don’t know what in God’s name you’re talking about,’ he said, but he looked a little less mad, all of a sudden. ‘Why were you seeing Elske?’
‘She hired me,’ I said.
Understanding dawned on his face, and then something else, too, a sort of look I recognised and didn’t much like. He shook his fat finger in my face. ‘You look kind of familiar,’ he said.
‘It’s just the light,’ I said.
‘No, no,’ he insisted. ‘You look like—no, you can’t be! I thought you were dead.’
‘I get that a lot,’ I told him.
He was beaming down on me now. ‘I don’t believe it!’ he said. ‘Boys, untie our guest. I’m so sorry, Mr.—’
‘Wolf,’ I said, tiredly. ‘It’s just Wolf, now.’
‘You could have led all of Germany!’ he said.
‘I was betrayed. Germany—!’ Tears choked my voice. ‘Germany has been prostituted, and I—’
‘Take it easy, old fellow,’ he said. His boys untied me. I rubbed my arms, trying to get my circulation back. I was getting too old for this scheisse.
‘Elske told you? About the letter?’
I said, ‘So you’re the second party.’
‘I’m sorry we got off on the wrong foot,’ he said. ‘I’m William Joyce.’
Now I knew why he seemed familiar. It was his voice, you could often hear it on the radio. He was the BUF’s Director of Propaganda, Mosley’s very own Joseph Goebbels. The way things were going, the British Fascists were going to win the next general election in a couple of years.
‘So you’re being blackmailed?’ I said. ‘Only Elske gave me the impression it was her that the blackmailer was targeting.’
‘Her!’ He laughed, an unsettling sound, like a gas explosion. ‘She’s an actress, and they never have any money of their own, Wolf.’
I nodded, though that was a mistake. My head felt very sore. I said, carefully, ‘So you are the party being blackmailed?’
‘Of course.’ He made a dismissive gesture. ‘Damned vultures. A man in my position is always in danger of being pursued. No doubt it would turn out to be a Jew behind it. Mark my words.’
‘And you intend to give Elske the money?’
He shrugged. ‘The problem with blackmailers, Wolf,’ he said sagely, ‘is that they’re never satisfied with just one drink. They have to keep milking the cow—’ and he made a rude jerking motion with his fist. Then he looked at me, with those cold, English eyes. ‘You say Elske hired you? I say good. A man of your keen analytical skills, your ruthless dedication—I couldn’t have made a better choice myself.’
He shook my hand, then patted me on the back. ‘You can make your own way back, can’t you?’ he said. He ushered me out of the room and down a corridor and out a back door and waved me goodbye cheerily enough. I found myself standing on Whitehall, outside one of those anonymous government buildings the purpose of which you never know; they could be anything, really. Big Ben was chiming the hour. It was late; I was cold; my head hurt diabolically. And a passing dog, stopping to sniff me, took a shit on my shoes before running off.
So I went home.
Several things were obvious to me. That I was being played, was one. That the players themselves were being played was another. It had sounded like just a little dirty bit of blackmail to begin with, but things are seldom this simple in real life.
‘So you see?’ I told Martha. ‘It all makes perfect sense, in a way, don’t you think?’
She glared at me, then farted. I was shaving in the shared bathroom in the hall and she was waiting for me to finish, with arms crossed, growing visibly impatient. She was a corpulent old crone who sold poisoned seeds for passers-by to feed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. I quite liked the old mass-murdering bitch. In a way, she was the only friend I had in this world.
‘You think this Heydrich guy is blackmailing this William Joyce guy?’ she said.
‘And you think Joyce sent this Elske woman to hire you, and then had you kidnapped?’
‘Exactly!’ I said. ‘It’s the old carrot and stick. He must be really worried about it, under all that bluster. Do this and I reward you, don’t do this and …’ I rubbed my head, where a sore bruise still very much lingered. ‘You get the picture.’
‘I don’t get shit,’ she said. ‘Are you finished in there?’
‘I’m shaving,’ I said. I touched my upper lip, tenderly. I used to have a moustache, but it was gone, now. I still missed it, sometimes. But it belonged in the past.
‘Listen, Wolfy,’ she said. ‘Old Martha really needs to have a shit, and soon.’ She farted again and then laughed delightedly. ‘You shave like a prostitute,’ she said.
‘Listen to me, you disgusting old bat!’ I screamed, waving my safety razor threateningly at her. ‘You don’t seem to see the bigger picture here!’
‘Ah oh,’ she said. She clutched her stomach and pushed past me into the bathroom despite my protestations, and before I could do anything to stop her she dropped her drawers and sat down on the toilet and I heard a vile, awful sound as she emptied her bowels. As the smell threatened to choke me, I tactically withdrew into the corridor, still holding the useless razor in my hand. Martha looked up at me and smiled dreamily. ‘I’m sure it will all work out, Wolf. It sounds like you have everything very much in hand.’
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, on a cold and miserable December just shy of Christmas Eve. I couldn’t care less about Santa Claus, and the only Rudolf I knew was Hess. I wore my old rain mac and my beat up fedora, and the shoes the dog had taken a shit on. I had a bump on my head, a Luger in my coat, and a heartfelt desire to be elsewhere. I was everything a private detective ought to be. I was looking after three hundred pounds.
Charing Cross Station was crowded by the time I got there. The trains were pulling in from Dover, and they dislodged their cargo of refugees at the platforms, so that the poor fools, the remains of their former lives bundled into cheap suitcases, stood blinking in the weak English light and wondered what the hell they were doing here. There is nothing worse than the daylight in England, it turns everyone into ghosts.
Policemen moved among the throngs, keeping an eye out for pickpockets and breaking fights. Relatives waiting anxiously scanned the oncoming faces for long lost loved ones and, when found, engaged in a human orgy of celebration that I found distasteful. This was the great rabble of Europe, fleeing the Communists. I loathed them, I would have exterminated them all if only I could.
The whole place was in chaos. I thought I saw the two Fascists who were in Joyce’s employ, but it was impossible to keep track of anything or anyone. Elske pushed through the crowds, carrying the money, dressed anonymously enough that no one thought to associate her with the glamorous figure she presented on screen. Carol singers mingled with a variety of Father Christmases and cab drivers and staggering drunks from the nearby pubs. I lost sight of Elske just as she was standing by the monument, and only for a moment. I pushed through the crowds towards her and when it parted I saw that the satchel she had carried was gone.
For a moment, I panicked. Then I caught sight of him, moving away with a sort of smooth certainty that made the crowd flow around him like water. He was dressed in red and white, but he wasn’t fat, not at all. He was a blade of a man and for a moment he turned his head and looked back, and our eyes met.
Recognition flared in his eyes, and with it came a sardonic smile. Then he pushed through the throngs, away from the station and onto the Strand, and I lost sight of him. I gave chase, shouting at the people to move out of my way, cursing as they shuffled and stood their ground like the livestock that they were. Nevertheless I gained ground and, emerging onto the busy street near Coutts Bank, I caught sight of him again, hurrying with long, assured strides past the British Medical Association Building. I ran, passed the Adelphi, and saw him turn unhurriedly to enter the Savoy on the other side of the street.
‘Reinhard!’ I yelled. ‘Reinhard, damn it!’
I pulled out my gun. I do not know what I would have done, whether I’d had shot him. It made no difference, in the end.
He turned at the sound of my voice. Again that smile briefly illuminated his face, cold and mocking. I couldn’t see the satchel. He began to raise his arm, perhaps in greeting, perhaps in a mocking salute of the kind they used to give me.
The car came out of nowhere.
It was a sleek black Daimler with its headlights shining through the fog. It hit Reinhard Heydrich’s body with a sickening crunch and didn’t stop. His body rolled and the car drove over it and sped away in the direction we’d just come from. I ran across to him. He lay there on the dirty ground, in the sludgy grey-white snow. His blood was very red under the street lights.
He tried to smile.
‘Wolf,’ he said. ‘It has been … a while.’
‘I thought you had more sense than that,’ I told him.
‘It was just a … bit of blackmail,’ he said. ‘She put me up to it, you know.’
‘Elske? Yes, I figured as much.’
‘She was … good in the sack.’ He coughed, and blood came gurgling out of his mouth, staining his white teeth. ‘I guess she … played me for a fool.’
I didn’t know what to tell him. That this wasn’t how it was meant to end? Heydrich was a rat, and he’d been killed like a rodent, and it was nothing more than he deserved, perhaps than any of us deserve, if you come down to it. I watched him die. He died well, I’ll give him that. I searched his body, quickly.
Then I got out of there before the police came.
There was a small Christmas tree on Berwick Street visible from my office; its lights illuminated the whores who congregated on that side of the street and threw elongated, talon-like shadows over the furtive punters. On the other end of the road there were children, squatting by the corner, gambling over the outcome of a spinning top. I hated them all.
Her perfume preceded her into my office. She stood in the doorway and surveyed the room and then lit up a cigarette.
‘It’s terrible,’ she said. ‘What happened.’
‘Poor Heydrich. I never suspected—’
‘Of course not,’ I said.
‘William was most grateful for your services,’ she said. She reached into her handbag and came out with a handful of notes and passed them to me. I had no choice. I took them.
‘He is a very important man, you know,’ she said. ‘They say Sir Oswald will become prime minister in the next elections, and William is going to be his right-hand man. He thinks the world of you, you know. You were always such an inspiration for their cause.’
‘The money,’ I said, ignoring her prattling. ‘It wasn’t on him.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘The pay-off. It was missing.’
She shrugged. ‘He must have hidden it somewhere.’
‘Perhaps.’ I noticed, behind her in the corridor, a packed suitcase. ‘Going someplace, Fraulein?’
‘Los Angeles,’ she said. ‘The ship sails tomorrow morning. I am just on my way to the train station.’ She smiled at me round her cigarette. ‘I’ve been offered a contract with one of the movie studios.’
‘You would work for Jews?’ I said.
‘A girl’s gotta eat.’
‘Your earrings,’ I said. ‘Are they new? They look expensive.’
She laughed, gaily. ‘I treated myself,’ she said, with no self-consciousness. ‘I must look my best, for the photographers.’
When she left I stared at the money she’d left me. I knew she’d used Heinrich to blackmail Joyce, and that, having got her hands on the money she needed, manipulated Joyce into eliminating Heydrich. I felt a grudging admiration for her. She was cool as Andersen’s Snow Queen, as nasty as a national socialist. A woman like that, I thought, could go far in show business.
Then I slid out the envelope that’s been sitting in my drawer. The ever-helpful Hoffmann had developed the negatives for me, the ones I had taken off of Heydrich’s corpse. I looked at the photos dispassionately. The naked couple portrayed in them was captured in stark relief, entwined in a variety of poses. As a study in animal reproduction they would have made for excellent woodcuts.
I tapped my fingers on the desk. A thought slowly stole into my head. It was a cold December, and it was only going to get colder. And as Elske had so eloquently put it, a girl’s gotta eat.
I took a sheet of blank paper, picked up a pen and, slowly, I began to write.
You killed the wrong man. I have the negatives. Bring £500. Come alone. I will be watching you …
I stared at the note for a while, then added, in a postscript, No funny stuff.
When I raised my head it had begun to snow outside the window; the snow fell in delicate shivers on the hard cold ground, and in the distance the bells began to toll. I rubbed my hands together to keep them warm. Old Martha stuck her head through the door and hiccupped. She was quite intoxicated. ‘Fancy a drink, Wolfy?’ she said.
‘I don’t drink,’ I told her.
‘Oh, come on,’ she said, ‘it’s the holidays.’
She disappeared and I could hear her heavy steps going back to her room. I was so cold, and it was going to be a cold winter. After a moment I got up, folded the note neatly and placed it in an envelope. I would mail it tomorrow, I thought. I put it in my coat pocket and left the office and went and knocked on Martha’s door.
‘Come in,’ she purred.
I sighed and went inside. She was sprawled in her armchair, covered in a dirty blanket, with half a bottle of gin in her hand.
She raised it in salute as I sat down.
‘Merry Christmas, Wolf,’ she said.
In another time and place, Shomer watches the children. It begins to snow, then, a beautiful, clean phenomenon, and the children run and laugh in the ghetto streets, and later play at being snow angels. He worries how to keep them warm, he worries if they’ll have food enough to eat, this winter, and he’s inexplicably fearful of trains, the trains that depart full from the Umschlagplatz, but always return empty.
He would do anything to keep them safe, to keep them warm, he would do anything to hear their laughter: but he also knows that while one may find an escape in What-Ifs, in flights of fancy, such an escape is only possible in one’s imagination. Ultimately, he thinks, though it breaks his heart, all such fantasy is futile.
But for now, they are here, they are together, on this night of Hannukah. When they return home, the candles have burned out, and everywhere it is dark. He puts the children to bed, and covers them, and sits with them as they fall asleep. His wife comes and sits with him, and he holds her hand.
‘Oh, Fanya,’ he says. ‘Fanya, they’re so beautiful!’
William Joyce (1906-1946) was a leading member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, serving as its Director of Propaganda. In 1939, and fearing arrest, he fled to Germany, where he became a naturalised citizen. He broadcast Nazi propaganda on the radio, and was nicknamed Lord Haw-Haw by the British media. He was hanged, in Wandsworth Prison, after the war.
Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942) was one of the prime architects of the Final Solution (he chaired the Wannsee Conference), director of the Reich’s Security Office (the SD), supervisor of the Einsatzgruppen, or Nazi death squads, and at the time of his death was the acting Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. He was a musician, a former naval officer, and a known womaniser. He died of his injuries following an assassination attempt in Prague.
Heinrich Hoffmann (1885-1957), Hitler’s official photographer, was an early member of the Nazi party and owner of a photography studio in Munich. It was there that Hitler met the 17-year-old Eva Braun, who was working as Hoffmann’s assistant. Hoffmann himself survived the war, and died at the age of 72.
There were several leading ladies of Nazi cinema, though none of their careers much survived after the war. Elske Sturm is a composite.
Shund, or Yiddish pulp fiction, flourished for many years prior to the war, and an author by the name of Shomer was one of its prolific practitioners. That Shomer, however, died peacefully in New York City in 1905; long before the Holocaust.