Skeletons at the Feast
Shaye Areheart. 372 pp. $25
June 15, 2008
Chapter Oneusually, it was only when one of the local soldiers was home on leave that Anna and her girlfriends ever saw the sorts of young men with whom, in different times, they might have danced. And, as the war had dragged on, the pool of marriage prospects-in Anna's mind, often enough that meant merely her older brother Werner's acquaintances-dried up completely. The soldiers were either missing or disfigured or dead.
But then came the POWs. Seven of them, sent from the prison camp to help with the harvest.
And a week after the POWs arrived at Kaminheim, when the corn was almost completely harvested and everyone was about to begin to gather the sugar beets and the apples, there came four naval officers in search of a plow. They were planning to mark a groove through the estate that would be the start of an antitank trench. When it was complete, the trench would span the length of the district, bisecting some farms, skirting the edges of others. Meanwhile, different officers were visiting neighboring estates as well, and the Emmerichs were told that at some point in the coming month hundreds of foreigners and old men would follow them, and descend on the estate to actually construct the trench.
And while the very idea of an antitank trench was alarming, the presence of all those handsome young men-the Germans, the Brits, and that one very young Scot-made it a burden Anna was willing to shoulder. This was true, at least in part, because she didn't honestly believe the fighting would ever come this far west. It couldn't. Even the naval officers said this was a mere precaution. And so she would flirt with the Brits during the day in the fields, where she would work, too, and dance with the naval officers in the evenings in the manor house's small but elegant ballroom. Mutti would play the piano, joined after that first night by Callum Finella on Uncle Felix's accordion, while her father-though distracted by the news from the east-would look on benignly. Sometimes Theo would put his toy cavalrymen away and watch as well, appalled in the manner of any ten-year-old boy that these brave and accomplished soldiers wanted to waste their time with the likes of his sister and her friends. He followed the men around like a puppy.
Helmut did, too. But Helmut actually would work with the officers as long as their father allowed him away from the harvest, helping them to find their way around the endless acres of Kaminheim, and thus mark out the optimum design and placement of the trench. Then, after dinner, he would dance with Anna's friends-girls who, previously, he had insisted were too puerile to be interesting. Seeing them now through the eyes of the navy men, however, he was suddenly discovering their charms.
Certainly Anna worried about her older brother, Werner, who had already been wounded once in this war and was fighting somewhere to the south. But she had rarely spent any time with men as interesting as this eclectic group who had descended upon their farm that autumn. She and Helmut had learned to speak English in school, though she had taken her studies far more seriously than her brother, which meant that she alone in the assemblage could speak easily to everybody-the POWs during the day and the naval officers at night-and appreciate how erudite and experienced everyone was. At least, she thought, in comparison to her. She was, on occasion, left almost dizzy as she swiveled among conversations and translated asides and remarks. And the longer stories? She felt like a star-struck child. When she was in grade school she had met English families the winter her family had gone skiing in Switzerland, but by 1944 she remembered little more than a very large man in a very poor bear costume, and the way she and the English children together had endured his clownish shenanigans because all of the parents had thought the fellow was wildly entertaining. But since the war had begun, she hadn't been west of Berlin. In the early years, they had still taken summer holidays on the beaches of the Baltic or ventured to Danzig for concerts, but lately even those trips had ceased completely. Two of their POWs, however, had seen the pyramids; another had been to America; and Callum-the youngest of the group, the tallest of the group, and the only one from Scotland-had been born in India, where his father had been a colonial official, and had traveled extensively throughout Bengali and Burma and Madras as a little boy.
Even the German naval officers were more interesting than any of the country boys-or men-she had met in her district. They, too, had seen places in Europe and Africa she'd only read about in books.
Initially, she had worried that there might be unpleasant sparks when the Germans and the Brits crossed paths, especially on the first morning when the naval officers would be marking out a segment of the antitank trench in the very same beet fields where the POWs were working. But the two groups of men had largely ignored each other.
It was the next day, when she was working alongside the prisoners in the apple orchard, that one of the POWs-that exuberant young giant named Callum-segued from the usual flirtatious banter to which she had grown accustomed and had come to expect from him, to guarded innuendos about Adolf Hitler and then (even more problematic, in some ways) to questions about the work camps.
"You're such a nice girl, Anna, and so sharp," he said, as the two of them stood together beside a particularly wiry tree, resting for a moment midmorning. There was a military policeman who must have been somebody's grandfather standing guard a hundred meters away, but he was so old he probably wouldn't have heard a word they were saying if they had been standing directly beside him. "And your family is much more hospitable than necessary-given the circumstances and all." The POWs were sleeping in the bunkhouse that the farmhands had used before they had either run off or been commandeered by the Reich for work in the mines and the munitions factories.
"Thank you," she said simply. She was unsure where this conversation was going, but that opening, that apparent surprise that she was such a nice girl, had her slightly wary. She'd been laughing with Callum for days, and the thought crossed her mind that perhaps she had misjudged him. Grown too comfortable-too friendly-with him. With all the POWs.
"So, I was wondering," he continued, his voice nonchalant. "What do you think your Hitler is doing with the Jews?"
"My Hitler? You make him sound like one of my horses," she said, aware that she was not answering his question.
"I didn't mean that. I meant ..."
"What did you mean?"
"I had a mate in Scotland who was Jewish, a chum I played soccer with. We were friends, our parents were friends. He had family somewhere in Germany. And they just disappeared. There was talk of them trying to come to Edinburgh, but they couldn't get out. Eventually, the letters just dried up. Stopped coming. Then, at the stalag this summer, I met two chaps from Wales who had been in intelligence. And they said-"
She cut him off: "At school, they told me not to ask when I inquired. They told me I didn't know what I was talking about."
"But you asked?"
Aware that she couldn't help but sound oversensitive, she answered, "Maybe it would surprise you, but I do have a brain behind my eyes. Yes, I asked."
"It wouldn't surprise me a bit," he said, smiling.
"I asked them where the Jews were going," she continued. "Before the war, my parents had friends in Danzig who were Jewish. That's where my father went to university: Danzig. He grew up on a farm in another part of Prussia, but for a time he considered becoming a lawyer. But he's a very scientific man. And he likes working the earth too much. Anyway, he has never understood the Nazis' obsession with Jews. Never. My mother? It's different for her: She's lived her whole life here. She, too, thinks it's ridiculous, but she has always been a little oblivious of anything that doesn't involve the farm or this corner of the country."
"They're both party members, right?"
She nodded. "My father wouldn't have the contracts he has if he weren't a member of the party. Even I know that."
"Tell me, then: These friends. Your parents' Jewish friends. Where are they now?"
"One, I know, was my father's banker. I don't know his name, but he took very good care of Father and Mutti on their honeymoon. The inflation was so horrible that suddenly they couldn't pay their bills and Father's stocks were worth nothing. Somehow, the banker solved everything for them and they had a perfectly lovely holiday after that."
"What do you think became of him?"
"He and Father lost touch. But I can tell you this: My father wrote letters on his family's behalf to different people. I don't know who or what the letters were supposed to accomplish. But he wrote letters for other friends, too. And for a few weeks in the summer of 1940, my parents had some Jewish friends who lived with us: a younger couple and their baby. A little baby girl. She was adorable. They had lost their apartment in Danzig. I was thirteen and I always wanted to babysit, but the mother wouldn't let the child out of her sight." She could have gone on, but it was a memory she tried not to think about. There had been some talk about hiding the family-and hiding was indeed the word her parents had used-but so many people in the village had been aware of the Emmerichs' visitors from Danzig that the couple had refused her mother and father's offer of sanctuary and simply disappeared into the fog one August morning.
"I'm badgering you," he said. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to. I have a habit of talking too much. You might have noticed."
"You're inquisitive," she said, unable to mask the small tremor she heard in her voice. The truth was, she didn't want to be having this conversation. She knew she wouldn't dare discuss these sorts of things on one of the streets in the village or in a city. One never knew who might be listening or how they might be connected to the party. And, suddenly, she felt an odd spike of defensiveness. "But you tell me: How am I supposed to know where everyone is in the midst of a war?"
"Well," he said evenly. "You can keep track of the Jews because of the stars on their clothes. You've seen them."
"Yes, of course I have. I've seen them in Danzig and I've seen them in Berlin."
"I haven't been to Berlin lately. Or Danzig."
He used a handkerchief to wipe the perspiration away from his temples. The hair there was a bay that reminded her of Balga, her favorite horse. "The folks who will be coming to build the antitank trench," he began, and she could tell that he was choosing his words with great care. "You know, actually digging where those navy blokes are leaving the plow marks? They're the lucky ones."
"They'll be more prisoners like you."
"Maybe. But I think they're going to come instead from those work camps. Not the prison camps. It will take hundreds of people just to dig through your farm. And, besides, it's one thing to put a group of us soldiers to work harvesting apples and corn and sugar beets. Trust me, this is luxurious compared to life in the stalag, and we are all deeply appreciative of your family's kindness. But it's quite another to make us dig antitank trenches. The Red Cross and the folks who penned the Geneva convention wouldn't exactly approve."
"So, the workers will be the criminals from the camps? Communists and Gypsies. Why should that trouble me?"
"And Jews. That's my point, Anna. They're in those camps for no other reason than because they're Jewish."
"The Jews have been sent to the camps."
"No," she said. "No. That's not true."
"I'm sorry, Anna. But it is."
"The Jews have just been resettled," she continued, repeating what she had been told at school and at her meetings with other teen girls in the Bund Deutscher Mädel whenever she had asked the question, but until that moment had never said aloud herself. Somehow, verbalizing the idea made it seem ludicrous. She certainly didn't add what so many of her teachers or BDM leaders had added over the years: They have to be resettled because they are not Aryan. They are inferior in every imaginable way, they are worse than the Russians and the Poles. Most have nothing that resembles an Aryan conscience, and they are interested in nothing but their money and mezuzahs and diamonds. Many are evil; all are conniving.
"And doesn't even resettlement seem, I don't know, a trifle uncivilized-even if it really is what's occurring?" he went on. "Think of that little family that was with you when you were thirteen. Why do you think there was talk of hiding them? I mean, suppose my government in England just decided to 'resettle' the Catholics-to take away their homes, their animals, their possessions, and then just send them away?"
Another prisoner, the balding mason named Wally, passed by with one of the wicker baskets they used for the apples and gave Callum a look that Anna recognized instantly as the universal sign to shut up. His head was cocked slightly and his eyes were wide. Callum ignored him and continued, "Those intelligence chaps from Wales. They told us about another camp. One further east in Poland. They had heard rumors-"
"I've heard rumors. We've all heard rumors. I've listened to your propaganda on the radio."
"You listen to the BBC? That's illegal, Anna, you know that," he told her, his voice mocking her good-naturedly.
"Everyone listens. And you know that."
Wally dumped his apples in one of the shipping crates in the back of a wagon and started to say something, his mouth opening into an anxiety-ridden O, but then stopped himself and returned to the trees where he was working, shaking his head in bewilderment.
"Besides," she said, angry now, "what am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to go have tea with the führer and advise him on policy?" He paused, seeming to think about this, unsure what to say. She decided to press her advantage. "You would be in serious trouble, you know, if I told anyone what you were saying."
"Indeed I would. I am putting my trust completely at your discretion."
"Because you are very pretty and very smart, and until I was sent here I hadn't spoken to a girl who was either in a very, very long time."
"Spare me," she said, but she couldn't help being flattered. "I've gone just as long without the company of boys. They're all off fighting somewhere."
"Ah, but then your navy men arrived," he said, and she realized he was actually a little jealous of them. He seemed about to say more when Wally returned, this time accompanied by the Yorkshire schoolteacher named Arthur Frost. "Come along, Callum," Arthur said firmly, "those apples won't pick themselves. No more dillydallying."
Callum nodded agreeably and left, turning back to Anna once to bring his index and middle finger to the tip of his lips. At the time, she thought he was shushing her; later, she would conclude he had in fact blown her a kiss.
theo moved two of his toy cavalrymen to the front of his column, and then had them ride to the river that Anna had helped him paint a year ago now on a piece of barn board. The board was at least a meter and a half square and he could carry it by himself-but just barely. Helmut had found it and his father had sanded it flat. In addition to the river, he and Anna had also painted trees and wooden fences on it, and a long trench winding its way down one of the sides, all as if seen from a low-flying airplane. He had wanted to add barbed wire near the trench, but Anna had convinced him that it would reduce the number of conflicts he could reenact by limiting his scenarios to the Great War. The trench, she had suggested, could be a streambed that had dried up in the summer if he wanted to stage a battle from the nineteenth century.
"Or," he had suggested helpfully at the time, "one of the firefights Werner has been in."
"That's right," she had said, but he had been able to tell by the pause and the way her voice had quivered just the tiniest bit that for some reason she was troubled by the idea of him using his lead soldiers to reenact battles along the eastern front. He hadn't really expected at the time that he would, because he had only a pair of toy tanks, and battles these days demanded lots and lots of armor. Moreover, his two tanks were of a different scale than his lead soldiers. They were from another collection and they were barely the height of his fighting men, which meant that he rarely used them.
Excerpted from Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian Copyright © 2008 by Chris Bohjalian. Excerpted by permission.
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