Saturday, October 1, 2011


Berlin 1936 -- Friday, February 7
 “Shameful.” The old man barely mouthed the word.
John Becker saw him and shared the sentiment.
The man sat at the back of the crowded subway car and shook his head almost imperceptibly. “Shameful.”
Becker turned to the two SS guards bullying a middle-aged Jew at the front of the car. The silent passengers fidgeted, their winter clothes too much for the subterranean warmth. Melted snow thickened the humidity with the smell of wet wool. The train’s steady rumble did nothing to distract the passengers from the only conversation on their car.
“So are you a Jew, or aren’t you?” seethed the short, thin SS lieutenant, scowling through his small steel spectacles.
Both SS guards wore crisp black uniforms. They were so pitch black from head to toe that Becker couldn’t make out the first crease in their shirts. Their pointed caps featured the trademark silver death’s head skull-on-crossbones medallion in the center of the headband. The SS uniforms were utterly chilling, even without the men who wore them.
“Don’t stand so close to proper Aryans!” shouted the thuggish hulk of an SS corporal.
The Jew shifted a couple feet back into his corner.
“How does it feel to have Jewish blood coursing through your veins?” hissed the officer.
Becker’s blood boiled as he stood in the middle of the car, but his face was impassive. This sort of thing could be happening now to his adored childhood nanny, Esther. That thought enraged him even more. He hated that he could do nothing here. He knew he would do his part soon.
Becker glanced back at the short old man.
“Unbelievable,” the man whispered to himself incautiously, dangerously.
Ja, you Jewish pig, how does it feel?” shouted the towering SS guard up front.
Becker watched the short officer stare in icy silence. The Jew struggled for the dignity to return the stare. The sadistic Nazi’s glare forced him to avert his gaze.
“Thick-headed Nazis,” muttered the old man in the back, loud enough for Becker to hear.
Becker sensed a collective gasp. He watched nearby passengers shuffle nervously. Sweat began to bead on many faces. The train windows fogged up even more. The smell of collective perspiration was stifling.
Passengers at the old man’s end watched the short SS officer turn his head toward them. Had he heard the old man? The possibility hung in the air like a suffocating smog.
The old man bowed his head toward the floor, frightened to death by his indiscretion. He closed his eyes and began to tremble.
The Tempelhof underground line stopped, exchanged a few passengers, and resumed course. Fresh air temporarily relieved the stale conditions inside the car. But new passengers instantly sensed and joined the collective paralysis. The SS officer’s stare identified the old man as the center of the disturbance.
Finally the officer released his glare and turned to face the closed doors in front of him. Even the Jew joined the collective exhalation. The old man stopped shaking.
“What do you mean, ‘Thick-headed Nazis’?!?” shouted a young man in the back.
The SS guards turned, paused, and stomped from the Jew to the old man.
Ja, What is that supposed to mean?” barked the tall corporal as he jerked the man out of his seat.
Self-gratified silence from the young informer.
Self-righteous silence from other passengers, chins upturned, offering their moral support to buoy the SS men.
Anxious silence from some, heads turned away in impotent embarrassment.
And gaping, terrified silence from the frail old man.
The clanking and screeching steel wheels of the train fell on deaf ears all around.
Without warning, the tall guard’s fist cracked the old man’s jaw.
The man crumbled to the floor, heaving in pain. Between two pairs of sparkling black boots, he spat blood and broken dentures onto the floor.
“You can come tell us what’s on your mind,” mocked the officer.
Both guards jerked the man’s slight frame upright, and dragged him out the opening train doors at the next stop.
Another draft of fresh air.
Becker watched the Jew breathe a sigh of relief mixed with melancholy. Even the young informant seemed shocked by the fruits of his effort, which still littered the floor before him. He faced the slightest signs of disgust from a few bold passengers. Others, mostly young riders, nodded their approval.
Becker’s blank face masked his revulsion at what had become of his birth country.
He was taller than average, still athletic at thirty, with thick sandy-blond hair and blue-gray eyes. John Becker, born Johannes, was returning to his boarding house this Friday evening after a company training session off-grounds. With his long, tan trench coat, he wore the dark yellow scarf his mother sent him from London. His gray felt fedora matched nearly half the men’s hats in Berlin. He wore the hat low on his face, nearly touching his upturned coat collar on one side. He knew it looked a little odd, but he liked to shield his face from view.
Next to him stood Maria Geberich, a co-worker whose commute overlapped his own. Maria looked English, Becker thought. Her cheekbones were prominent but slightly lower and flatter than many Germans’. Her dark brown hair and large dark eyes seemed out of place in Nordic Berlin, as did her smooth, pale white skin. She was also on the shorter side for northern Germany. Unlike most women of the day, Maria never wore her hair up. She always let most or all of it fall to her shoulders. Today, some of it was pulled behind a large hair barrette she wore in place of a hat. Maria’s hips and chest were womanly, but not excessive. She was healthy, lovely, beautiful, and thirty years old, exactly Becker’s age. She looked good in anything, and best in black, which she wore today, including her black coat.
Becker still wondered why she wasn’t married. She remained a mystery to him after more than a year of close observation at work and at all sorts of odd hours outside her apartment. Why did she keep to herself so much? She repeatedly rebuffed his advances. Becker wasn’t used to that. Yet she was regularly flirtatious. Becker understood some people’s isolation. But he was missing something about Maria.
Around Maria as much as anywhere, Becker had to maintain his apolitical persona. He would need her when the time came, but he didn’t want any risks before then. So he expressed no opinion of the brutality they had just witnessed, and he avoided her eye contact.
At the next stop, one young passenger gently pushed the broken dentures out the open door with his foot. Two more stops passed. Each stop freshened the air and brought a wave of new passengers to relax the tension.
Maria uneasily and softly resumed their conversation. “We’ll miss you this weekend. Our office parties are a real treat, don’t you think? They make working in the Kristner mailroom a unique experience. The Carnival party in particular is such a splendid affair, with all those Rhineland games and dishes. A real treat of Catholic revelry here in dour Lutheran Berlin.” She lowered her voice for the last part and looked around to see if anyone was offended.
“I’m dreadfully sorry to miss it, Fräulein Geberich. Maybe next year.” He hoped not. After fifteen months in Germany, he was eager for the go-ahead from London. He was running a holding pattern until London ordered him to strike and then pull out of the country.
Suddenly, Becker sensed he was being watched. He turned, and sure enough, a tall woman in her fifties had boarded in the back of the subway car. She wore a long, dark blue overcoat and a black hat. She stood just on the edge of earshot. Worse, Becker thought he recognized her as they made eye contact. She evidently strained to remember the connection as well, somewhere in the distant past. She had to be some family friend from the Black Forest region.
Becker moved slightly to his right so that Maria turned to him and farther away from the woman. Now the woman had little chance of understanding Maria. Becker could control his own volume and speech.
“Next year, Herr Becker?” Maria continued. “Carnival isn’t the only occasion when we have a party, you know. Hopefully you won’t keep running off to Prague every time we all get together?”
“Hopefully not.” Becker kept a peripheral watch on that strangely familiar woman. He did not need his identity blown by some incidental encounter on the underground.
“Why do you go so often to visit your aunt, anyway? That’s a long trip for just a weekend.”
Dammit, why does she have to pry like this, at just such an exposed moment? Isn’t our train change coming soon?
Becker peered out the open underground doors for the name of the station – Stettiner Bahnhof. Then he glanced sidelong to confirm the continuing menace of the friendly-looking familiar woman in blue.
Four more stops until they changed lines, he thought, and until a pause to this conversation.
“My aunt helped my mother raise me while my father traveled so much in his job as a railroad inspector.” He offered his well rehearsed biography, ready to embellish it if necessary.
“In Prague?”
“No.” Becker was irritated at Maria’s very public inquisitiveness. He had tried for months to no avail to cultivate a more private relationship. She pushed him into group settings every time he tried. She was attractive and intriguing, worth the effort, and not just for professional reasons.
“I grew up in Hanover,” he said. “When my uncle retired, he moved back to his native Prague with my aunt. They lived in the German quarter, and she stayed there after he died. She has no children and just a couple of friends in Prague. She was like a second mother to me, and I’ve tried to visit her often since my uncle died.”
This was too much for the mysterious woman to be hearing. Some of it matched his real biography, and some did not. It could only stimulate the stranger to recover her memory before he found his. Becker might have to exit the train before planned. He hesitated to draw Maria’s attention to any irregularities.
Three more stops.
Becker and the familiar woman in blue kept catching each other’s eyes. The connection far predated his service, and that was bad. In younger years, Becker had traveled in Germany among old family and friends. They knew he had become a proud Englishman. Identification now, especially in front of Maria, would ruin his mission and endanger his life. Captured enemies of the Third Reich faced torture before execution. Some of them were strung up by piano wire, which took its time in slicing through the victim’s neck.
Now several stops after the brutal beating, the car’s commuters slowly resumed reading, or blank underground stares.
Then a new passenger took a position near the silent Jew. Becker watched the passenger back into a corner. But rather than retreat into his own little space, the new man darted his eyes from one passenger to the next. Becker recognized the trademark behavior of a detective or a secret agent.
Becker watched as the agent sensed the tension in this underground car. The agent seemed both puzzled and curious. His eyes quickly followed all the furtive glances toward the fresh bloodstains on the opposite floor of the car. When the agent noticed this grim sight, he cracked a slight grin. With that hint of sadism, Becker knew he had a bad guy on his hands, probably Gestapo. Becker had so far avoided the agent’s eye contact. Now he turned his head slightly more toward Maria, and dropped the Gestapo agent from his sight.
Automatically, Becker reviewed his situation. So far, no suspicious answers to Maria, no nervous voice, no harm done. Yet the dangers were stacking up. He faced unwanted questioning from Maria; an unknown familiar face from the past; and an evil Third Reich agent within earshot. Becker could not wait to escape this train.
“Don’t you ever get away from the city yourself?” he asked. Becker planned to push Maria through the conversation for the last three stops.
A long pause ensued. As Maria looked into the distance of her own thought, her mood suddenly changed. “Rarely. Not for a very long time have I had someone to visit anywhere but this city. I was born in Bonn, and when my parents died in a house fire, I moved in with my older brother in Berlin, who had a civil service job here.”
Becker started to remember. That familiar woman was a childhood neighbor of his mother’s. He’d met her briefly some fifteen years earlier. He struggled to remember her name.
A smile of recognition swept over the familiar woman’s face at precisely the same moment. Becker noticed it and knew he had to escape, even if the woman meant him no harm.
He glanced as casually as possible toward the front end of the car. There stood the Gestapo agent, with his gaze locked on Becker in a tight spot.
This was it. Becker could not have his false biography collapse before Maria’s eyes. Nor could he allow her to be shocked at his Englishness in view of the Gestapo. Becker had to walk – or run – for his life. Next stop: Friedrich Strasse. Almost there. The smiling, dreaded woman approached.
Not seeing the woman in blue, Maria returned Becker’s questioning, “And how did you land in the big city?”
Becker cut off the conversation as the underground train stopped. “I just remembered I need to buy opera tickets for next weekend. I’ll need to step out here.” The underground doors opened. “I’m terribly sorry to cut you off so abruptly.” He backed out of the doors.
Too late. The woman in blue was right there, in the shuffle of hundreds of passengers crowding on and off the underground. “Herr Becker, I believe it is?” she asked barely above a whisper.
Maria looked surprised at Becker’s acquaintance with the unknown, older, attractive woman.
Becker finished his good-bye to Maria and ignored the stranger. “I’ll see you on Monday.” He exited the train and almost ran toward the staircase and the smell of fresh wet snow above.
The woman in blue followed her curiosity and rushed out the open train doors. Becker saw her with a quick glance to his rear. That glance earned him the warning that he must beat a quick retreat. But it cost him a much greater obstacle to his get-away.
The Gestapo agent had moved to the threshold of the subway doors and was still watching Becker. When Becker looked backwards nervously for the agent, their eyes met. The agent’s whole body leaned forward to start a running.
Damn! Becker’s canter became a gallop out of the underground station. Here I am a few blocks from Gestapo headquarters, being chased by one of their own!
Becker knew he shouldn’t have looked directly at the agent. But the man had moved to the subway doorway, away from where Becker had expected him. Now the Gestapo man had to know that Becker had identified him on the train. So he had to know that Becker had something to hide.
Halt! Halt! Stop that man!!!” shouted the Gestapo agent.
Becker dashed up the crowded stairs and around the first landing. He wanted to beat it out before the shouts of “Halt!” could inspire some Nazi enthusiast in the crowd to hold him back. For a moment, he got tangled up with some commuters coming down the stairs in front of him. Once he reached the top, he would have to vanish instantly.
Becker leaped up several stairs at a time. He removed and dropped his mother’s yellow scarf, too distinctive in a chase. Becker felt the rush of adrenaline, but he controlled it and even enjoyed it. It allowed him to observe his surroundings as if others were frozen in time.
He saw light snow falling and melting on the street. He heard the massive swastika banners snapping above the street in the strong breeze. He looked up to see the banners even more striking in spotlights than by daylight. All around him, the roads and sidewalks crowded with Berliners headed home at five-thirty this Friday evening.
Becker could run for it. But right next to the government district teeming with swastika armbands, he ruled that out. He could keep climbing to the elevated railway. But he risked getting cornered if no train were there. What was left? Slow street traffic passed the underground’s exit.
Just in front of him, Becker saw a streetcar pulling away. In a short sprint reminiscent of his Cambridge days, he reached the accelerating tram and leaped onto it.
Scrambling aboard, he managed a quick look backwards. The Gestapo agent snapped his head up and down the street, eager to find his prey. Becker climbed into the tram, catching his breath. He leaned around a tall passenger just enough to look back and see his hunter staring at the tram!
The Gestapo agent searched frantically for a car. After two failures to hail moving cars, the agent opened the front passenger door of an occupied taxi. He berated the protesting passengers and assumed the cab’s command. It took off after Becker’s streetcar moving southward on Friedrich Strasse.
Across the intersection with Unter den Linden, the traffic became more chaotic, delaying the Gestapo agent’s taxi. But Becker’s tram was also slowed, and Becker watched the cab slowly close in on him. He would get caught if he stayed here. So when his tram moved behind another one ahead on the tracks, Becker jumped off.
He knew his jump was visible to his pursuer. He bent down to hide behind passing cars. Then he shuffled quickly to the next streetcar in front. He got some odd looks for his crouched posture, especially when he suddenly and athletically leaped toward the departing streetcar. Had the Gestapo agent spotted this last move? Becker guessed that the angle shielded him from his hunter’s sight lines.
Yet a minute or two into his new ride, Becker noticed excitement among the rear passengers. “Look at that car!” shouted one.
No! Becker stood on his toes and looked over everyone’s heads. He identified the top of the pursuing cab. It drove down the street along the tram tracks. Becker moved toward the back of the tram for a better view, leaving a couple rows of passengers to shield him.
The Gestapo’s cab was so far back in the crowded traffic that another car pulled in front of it, onto the faster lane of tram tracks. Becker could see his Gestapo hunter in the front passenger seat waving wildly at the driver. The cab approached dangerously close to the car in front of it, whose driver refused to budge. The Gestapo agent flailed his hands around in such an impatient frenzy that he reminded Becker of Hitler newsreels.
Then Becker saw the cab driver try something bold. Next to Becker’s tram tracks were the opposite tracks, for oncoming streetcars. The cab driver drove around the slow curve to the right, blind to oncoming traffic. He quickly jerked his cab left onto the oncoming tracks. Becker saw him angle his head to the left, looking for any oncoming tram or car. The cab jerked back behind Becker’s tram. Becker shot his own glance to his right and behind, to see if any tram were approaching from the other direction. No such luck. He felt trapped and thought about jumping onto an unsuspecting car on the right.
The cab accelerated into the oncoming tracks to the left, with the Gestapo agent visibly yelling nonstop. His driver gained on the tram, and began overtaking it. From within the tram, Becker scanned his memory of the surrounding streets south of Potsdamer Platz. He was going to be trapped before the next stop!
The cab approached the front of the moving tram. The Gestapo agent rolled down his window to wave for the driver to stop. But at that moment, an oncoming tram appeared around the corner, just seconds from a head-on collision with the Gestapo’s taxi.
The cab’s right side was blocked by Becker’s tram. The driver’s only choice was to swing a leftward u-turn into oncoming automobile traffic. His masterful skid found a gap. Then he braked in place to wait for the intervening tram to pass. As soon as it had, the driver cut another sharp u-turn, back onto the tram tracks toward Becker’s streetcar.
Becker saw the cab approaching again, now a half-block behind. He had only a minute or two left. Looking out the window, he strained to identify his precise location: Ufer Strasse, just before crossing the Landwehr Canal bridge.
The canal. Its shadowy pathways were superb for hiding. Becker watched the Gestapo’s taxi approach his streetcar for a second time. As the cab overtook his tram on the left, Becker seized his moment. He pulled open a right-side door, and jumped from the moving streetcar. One woman passenger screamed. The tram plowed ahead.
Becker rolled into his fall on the street, only bruising his knees, before dodging a car just in time. He ran across the busy road, past honking horns and headlights. He saw the tram stop abruptly a block ahead. Time was short. The Gestapo agent would search the streetcar and learn about Becker’s jump.
Becker clambered down the street’s retaining wall to the broad path by the canal. As soon as he reached the walkway, he heard the Gestapo agent screaming, “Halt! Halt!” on the street above. Becker heard car tires keep driving through the snowy wet street. Next came a single gunshot and more commands for the traffic to stop. Now tires skidded and stopped. Only seconds remained until the agent would arrive at the bridge right above.
Becker looked at the canal going under the bridge and panicked. The cobblestone path ended here – his intended escape route under the bridge did not exist! Anyone looking down from the street above would see him where he stood, and for several hundred feet down the canal path. Becker could risk dashing down the path, but his shoes would clap loudly against the flat cobblestones. If he did not find cover in time, he could be shot in the back.
Then there was the canal itself. A recent thaw had melted most of its ice, though a few large, thick pieces still floated in the dark water. Submersion would kill the most robust man within minutes.
He should not have counted on hiding under the bridge, thought Becker. He should have hopped onto a passing car above. Now he had another split-second decision to make.
A half-minute later, the Gestapo agent scrutinized the canal path from the bridge above, waving his gun around aimlessly. No one was in sight. The breeze rippled across the canal surface. The traces of Becker’s careful entry into the water were gone.
Several feet under, he swam away in black silence. The freezing cold quickly tightened his muscles. It ached to his bones. It assaulted his heart and lungs and brain. The escape had worked. Now Becker had to survive it.
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