Home > Lilac Girls(10)

Lilac Girls(10)
Martha Hall Kelly

He leaned closer to her and lowered his voice. “Maybe you know the rule about curfew?”

“Yes,” Matka said, a tiny crease between her brows. She shifted in her shoes.

“That is a rule you can break.” The SS man took Matka’s medal between his thumb and forefinger and rubbed it, watching her the whole time.

“One needs a pink pass to violate curfew,” Matka said.

“I have them here in my pocket.” He dropped the medal and put his hand over his heart.

“I don’t understand,” Matka said.

“I think you do.”

“Are you saying you will let this go if I come visit you?”

“If that is what you heard—”

“The Germans I know are cultured people. I can’t imagine you would ask a mother of two to do that.”

The man cocked his head to one side, bit his lip, and picked up the shovel. “I am sorry you feel that way.”

“Wait,” Matka said.

The man lifted the shovel into the air above his head.

“My God, no!” Matka cried. She reached for his arm, but it was too late. Once the shovel was in the air, there was no stopping it.


At midnight, Father and I walked six blocks from our basement apartment to a nicer part of Düsseldorf, to the white stone townhomes where servants swept the streets and pinched back geraniums in window boxes. It was late September, but the air was warm still, “Führer-weather” they called it, since it permitted Hitler success in his campaigns. It had certainly worked with Poland.

I climbed the steps to the double doors, inset with filigreed, white-painted ironwork over frosted glass. I pressed the silver button. Was Katz even home? There was a faint glow behind the frosted glass, but the gas lanterns to either side of the door were not lit. Father waited on the street in the darkness, arms hugging his midsection.

I was twenty-five that year when Father’s symptoms grew bad enough for him to seek out his favorite old Jewish treater of the sick, a man named Katz. We were not allowed to call Jews doctors. The term “treaters of the sick” was preferred. Nor were Aryans allowed to frequent non-Aryan doctors, but my father seldom followed the rules.

The doorbell chimed somewhere deep in the house. I’d never set foot in a Jew’s house before and was in no hurry to do so, but Father insisted I accompany him. I wanted to spend as little time there as possible.

A brighter light appeared behind the frosted glass, and a dark shape moved toward me. The door to my right opened a crack to reveal a former medical school classmate of mine, one of the many Jewish students no longer welcome at the university. He was fully dressed, tucking his shirt into his pants.

“What do you want this time of night?” he said.

Behind him Katz descended the stairs, steps soundless on thick carpet, the train of his midnight-blue dressing gown fanned out behind him. He hesitated, hunched like a crone, eyes wide. Expecting the Gestapo?

Father hobbled up the front steps and stood next to me. “Excuse me, Herr Doktor,” he said, one hand on the doorjamb. “I am sorry to bother you, but the pain is unbearable.”

Once Katz recognized Father, he smiled and ushered us in. As we passed, the former medical student looked at me with narrowed eyes.

Katz led us into his paneled study, three times the size of our apartment, the walls lined with shelves of leather-bound books. It had a spiral staircase, which led up to the second level, to a railed balcony lined with more bookshelves. Katz turned a knob on the wall, and the crystal chandelier above us, hung with a thousand icicle pendants, came to life.

Katz eased Father down into a chair that looked like a king’s throne. I ran the tips of my fingers along the chair’s arm, across the red damask woven with threads of gold, smooth and cool.

“It’s no bother at all,” Katz said. “I was just reading. My bag, please, and a glass of water for Herr Oberheuser,” he said over his shoulder to the former medical student. The young man pressed his lips together in a hard line and left the room.

“How long has the pain been like this?” Katz asked.

I’d never known many Jews, but had read many accounts of them in schoolbooks and in Der Stürmer. Grasping and controlling. Cornering the market on law and medical jobs. But Katz seemed almost happy to see Father—strange, since we’d intruded on him at such an hour. This was a man happy in his work.

“Since dinner,” Father said, hugging his belly.

I was almost done with medical school at the time and could have counseled my father, but he insisted on seeing Katz.

I studied the room as Katz examined him. The black-and-white marble fireplace, the grand piano. The books on the shelves looked oiled and dusted, each one worth more than I made in a year, trimming roasts for Onkel Heinz part-time at his butcher shop. There was no doubt a well-used volume of Freud among them. Several lamps stood about the room throwing down pools of light even when no one was using them. If only Mutti could have seen that wastefulness.

Katz fingered the sides of Father’s neck. As he turned Father’s hand to take his pulse, the light caught a fat letter K monogrammed in silver thread on Katz’s dressing-gown sleeve.

“Working at the Horschaft factory may be causing this,” he said to Father. “I would stop working there immediately.”

Father winced, his skin sallow. “But we can’t live without that job.”

“Well, at least work in a ventilated area.”

The former medical student returned with a crystal glass of water and set it on the table next to us. Could he not bring himself to hand it to Father? Little did he know Father was on his side. If he hadn’t been so sick, Father would have hidden a whole tramcar of those people in our back bedroom.

Katz shook a pill from a bottle into Father’s hand and then smiled. “No charge.”

Was that how they did it? Got you hooked, then charged more later? Our schoolbooks outlined the various strategies Jews used to undermine hardworking Germans. They were taking over the medical world. My professors said they were stingy with their research results and barely shared findings outside their own circles.

While Father took his pill, I browsed the titles on the bookshelf: Clinical Surgery. Stages in Embryo Development in Humans and Vertebrates. Whole shelves of green leather tomes with titles such as Atlas of the Outer Eye Diseases and Atlas of Syphilis and Venereal Diseases.

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