Home > Lilac Girls(11)

Lilac Girls(11)
Martha Hall Kelly

“You like to read?” Katz asked.

“Herta graduates soon from medical school,” Father said. “On an accelerated track. She’s interested in surgery.” I excelled in the few surgery classes I was allowed to take, but being a woman, under national socialism, I was not allowed to specialize in surgery.

“Ah, the surgeon,” Katz said, smiling. “King of doctors, or at least the surgeons think so.” He pulled one of the green books from the shelf. “Atlas of General Surgery. Have you read it?”

I said nothing as he pushed the book toward me. It seemed some Jews shared.

“Once you learn everything in here, bring it back, and I’ll give you another,” he said.

I did not touch it. What would people say, me taking the book of a Jew?

“You are too generous, Herr Doktor,” Father said.

“I insist,” Katz said, still holding the book out.

It looked heavy, the leather cover soft, embossed in gold. Could I borrow such a thing? I wanted it. Not so much to read it. I had textbooks. Ugly and secondhand, other people’s notes scratched in their margins, breadcrumbs in their gutters. This book was a beautiful thing. It would be nice to be seen with it, to walk into class and drop it casually on my desk. Mutti would rage at Father for allowing me to take it, but that alone was worth it.

I took the book from Katz and turned away.

“She’s speechless,” Father said. “And a fast reader. She’ll return it soon.”

IT WAS A USEFUL BOOK, in some ways more detailed than our medical school textbooks. In less than one week, I read from “Inflammation and Repair of Tissue” through “Cancer of the Lymphatic System.” The text and color plates provided additional insight into my father’s condition. Epithelioma. Sarcoma. Radium treatments.

Once I made it through the last chapter of Katz’s book, “Amputations and Prosthesis,” and practiced two new surgical knots described there, I walked to the Jew’s house to return it, hoping for another.

When I arrived, the front doors were wide open, and the SS were carrying cardboard boxes of books, Katz’s black medical bag, and a white wicker baby carriage, its wheels spinning in midair, to the curb. Someone was plunking out a German folk tune on Katz’s piano.

I held the book tight to my chest and left for home. Katz would not be coming back for it. Everyone knew of these arrests. Most of the time they happened in the night. It was sad to see someone’s possessions taken in such a way, but the Jews had been warned. They knew the Führer’s requirements. This was unfortunate, but not new, and it was for the good of Germany.

Less than a week later I spied a new family with five sons and a daughter carrying suitcases and a birdcage into that house.

MY MOTHER WAS HAPPY to work in her brother Heinz’s meat market, across the bridge in Oberkassel, a wealthy part of town, and she had gotten me a job there too. It was a small shop, but Heinz filled every inch with meat. He hung hams and long ribs of pork outside along the front of the store like socks on a clothesline and displayed whole hogs spread-eagled, bellies slit wide, glistening entrails scooped and saved.

At first I blanched at the sight, but as a medical student interested in surgery, I gradually grew to see beauty in the most unlikely places. The startling ivory of a splayed rib cage. A calf’s severed head, peaceful as if asleep, a fringe of lashes black against the damp fur.

“I make good use of every part of an animal,” Heinz often said. “Everything but the squeal.” He boiled pig parts on the stove all day until the windows fogged and the shop somehow smelled both putrid and sweet as only a butcher shop can.

As greater numbers of Jews left the city, we became one of the few quality meat shops left, and business improved daily. One afternoon Heinz passed along news benefiting the customers lined up two deep at the front counter.

“You have to get over there to the platz, ladies. They are selling everything from the warehouses. I heard Frau Brandt found a sable coat there with a silk lining. Hurry, now.”

No one said they were selling items taken from the Jews, but we all knew.

“How awful they took people’s things away like that,” said Tante Ilsa, Heinz’s wife, who avoided the shop as much as she could. When she did come, she brought me a jar of her strawberry marmalade, which I’d once complimented. Ilsa kept her coat wrapped tight around her even though it was summer and stayed only two minutes. “It’s a sin to pick through someone’s things as if they’re dead.”

Tante Ilsa paid for most of my medical school costs. A kind praying mantis of a woman, tall and gentle with a head too small for her body, she’d been left a great deal of money by her mother and used it sparingly, no matter how Onkel Heinz brayed.

Heinz smiled, causing his piggy eyes to disappear into the folds of his fat face. “Oh, don’t worry, Ilsa. They probably are dead by now,” he said.

The patrons turned away, but I knew he was right. If Ilsa was not careful, her own considerable belongings would end up there alongside the Jews’. The gold cross around her neck was no protection. Did Ilsa know what Heinz did in the refrigerated room? Perhaps on an instinctual level, the way a calf knows to become restless on slaughter day.

“You shed a tear when the Jew Krystel’s shop closed, Ilsa. My own wife a Jew friend, shopping at the competition. That is loyalty, nicht?”

“He has those baby hens I like.”

“Had, Ilsa. It doesn’t help my business when this gets around. Soon you’ll be on the Pranger-Liste.”

I held my tongue, but I’d already seen Tante Ilsa’s name on the Pranger-Liste, the public list of German women who shopped at Jewish stores, posted about the town, a black stripe running diagonally across it.

“You don’t see Krystel’s wife in here,” Heinz said. “Thank God. And no more Frau Zates, either. Wants a cabbage but will only pay for a half. Who buys half a cabbage? I cut it, and who buys the other half? No one, that’s who.”

“Why should she buy whole when she needs only half?” Ilsa asked.

“Mein Gott, she does it on purpose. Can’t you see?”

“Keep your thumb off the scale, or you’ll have no customers, Heinz.”

Mutti and I left Heinz and Ilsa to bicker and walked along to the sale at the platz. It was rare Mutti had any time to shop, since she was up at five-thirty each day to do mending before she cleaned houses or worked in the shop. Thanks to the Führer’s economic miracle, she was working fewer afternoon hours but still seemed just as tired at day’s end. She took my hand as we crossed the street, and I felt her rough skin. I could barely look at her dishpan hands, red and peeling from cleaning toilets and dishes. No amount of lanolin cream could heal them.

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