TWENTY - Klara
“We will leave at 20:00. I am taking you to Dischingen. I have a house there, where you will stay until things calm down,” he declares. How does he propose to get me there...it is in the middle of Germany!
The bang on the door makes me jump. I am still processing Gunter’s decree that I am to go to Dischingen, and look up at him. He’d said his man would not be here until later. If he is surprised, he is not showing it. Simply nodding at me, directing me to hide in the other room, he strides to the door to fling it open. All his actions are so definitive, just like his words. There is no room for argument!
I follow the conversation going on outside, and with every word that is spoken, my heart sinks. They are here! For me! And then I hear the final nail hammer into my coffin with his booming voice, “Klara!”
I walk out and stand next to him. As always, he is the only wall between me and certain death. My eyes find Gunter’s hard face. There is no emotion there, certainly not any gives me hope. He looks furious. But then that is the expression he wears more often than not. I stare at him, willing him to look at me, to give me some hope. There is nothing but stoney determination on his face. I feel...betrayed, yes, I feel betrayed. The presence of the soldiers is the only thing that has kept me from accusing him of lying and treachery.
He simply grabs my elbow and stalk out of the house, presumably toward the Commandant’s office. While Gunter is talking to Hitler, I take the time to come to terms with what is happening. The soldiers are, obviously, here to take me to Prague. The story that Gunter had spun to keep them coming after me is no longer enough to keep them away.
Ever since I learned of Papa’s death, I have insisted on going back, on giving myself up in an attempt to give Ester and Mama a chance to escape. What noble thoughts! At the first sign of this actually happening, I go back to being the coward that I am! Am I really so selfish that I now expect...no, demand protection from this man who kept me safe for this long? So callous that I think of nothing but saving my own hide?
Now, I am just grateful to him for giving me this little bit of time to prepare myself for the inevitable. I look at Gunter again. He looks almost...guilty. Why, I wonder? I can see from his actions that he was not expecting this to happen. Why then does he look guilty? I want him to look at me. I want to tell him that I understand now that he has always been truthful to me. He has tried to keep me from falling into the hands of the SS.
The thought of the SS sends a chill down my spine. I hope I am afforded a quick death. I know that it is a futile hope. They will want to know where Mama and Ester are. They will also want to know the names of Otto, Tomas, Frank and Fischer. I will try to hold out for as long as I can. Give them time. As for Mama and Ester, I truly do not know where they are, which is a blessing.
For the longest time, Gunter does not look at me, but goes through the motions of getting into the car and telling his driver our destination. Finally, as the car hurtles toward Prague he speaks to me for the first time.
Just the one word. I hear the pain, the guilt and I now understand. He is feeling guilty that he no longer has a say in the proceedings and cannot keep me safe as he has promised. He is an honorable man, who has shown nothing but kindness to me. I cannot leave him feeling guilty for not preventing the unavoidable.
I look up at him and say, “I know you tried to help me, and I thank you for that. But I am ready, now, to face the consequences of my actions.”
He doesn’t say anything to that, simply reaches out and covers my hands, which are clasped together tightly in my lap, with his. There’s a world of words in the one sturdy touch.
I hate it. It gives me hope and I can’t afford hope anymore. He keeps his hand over mine throughout the drive. The gloomy, depressing journey comes to an end all too soon, in front of the dreadful Petschek Palace. All my insides climb into my throat.
I realise that I am trembling hard when he squeezes my hands with his. It is meant to convey reassurance. I don’t know how he can expect me to feel anything other than terror.
Joachim jumps out to open Gunter’s door as soon as he stops the car. Gunter gives my hand another squeeze and unfolds himself out of the space that must feel cramped for his rather large body. He holds his hand out for me to take. I place my hand in his and step out.
If I were not clutching his hand with all my might, I would not have felt the slight tremor that passed through him. If I had not seen him so closely in tight situations, I might have not understood its significance.
As it is, I now know that he is not completely unaffected by this. I feel strange knowing that this brave man is afraid....for me. I try to gauge what is going on in his head right now. It isa good way to keep my mind off what is to happen to me.
I am certain the foyer of Petschek Palace is grand. The carpet under my feet certainly is. The rest...I just can’t take it in. I grip Gunter’s hand like it is the last thing keeping me alive. He is, quite likely, truly the only thing standing between me and a horrific death.
I keep my eyes on the floor, not daring to look around and trudge after him. He is careful to keep a slower pace than he would have otherwise. Once again, I am touched by his consideration.
A large door opens up ahead and my head jerks up. Gunter let’s go of my hand that very instant. I feel the loss acutely...like I am suddenly all alone, adrift in a hostile sea. That is not too far from the truth. Gunter stalks in through the door, not waiting for me. The soldier behind me ushers me in, before closing the door behind me.
Karl Hermann Frank! That despicable turncoat! He walks out from behind a large desk, “Herr Generalmajor!" He is speaking with Gunter, but his eyes are roving over me. A salacious smile slithers onto his face as he looks back at Gunter, “I can see why you wanted some time with her before handing her over, Generalmajor. Maybe I will also follow your lead and enjoy her charms for a few days.”
I take a couple of steps back at his dirty perusal of me. The closed door stops my retreat, as does Gunter’s sharp gaze.
“Frank. How is Fuchs?” Gunter asks.
Frank does not immediately reply, but raises his voice, “Koch. Take the woman down below.”
All air leaves my lungs. I have prepared for this moment for some time now, and yet, when it is actually time to go into the dungeon, my legs are turning to jelly. I wish I were brave. I want to walk confidently to my fate. I can’t. I simply square my shoulders, tip my chin up and hope that the wobble in my step is not visible.
The soldier, Koch, comes back in through the door and grabs my arms. My eyes find Gunter’s. I hope they tell him what I cannot say in words. That I have reconciled with the reality. What I see in his eyes staggers me. There is so much strength there. His eyes are telling me to not give up!
As Koch turns me towards the door, Gunter demands, “Well?”
He is obviously reminding Frank that he is yet to answer the question Gunter had asked.
As the door closes behind me, I hear it. “Fuchs died an hour ago.”