Read A Stranger in the Family Online

Authors: Robert Barnard

A Stranger in the Family (15 page)

As he walked towards her she took it from the pocket and threw it on the floor.

‘There it is. Take it. You know I’ve always hated you going into these matters from the past.’

‘That doesn’t excuse theft.’ He slit open the envelope and took out a single sheet. He cast his eye over the content. ‘I have been informed by the Austrian embassy in London … my old friend Mrs Madison … I am an old man with an old man’s fallible memory … if you would care to pay me a visit I will tell you what I know and what I suspect … I regard it as your right to be told … Helmut Erheim.’

Kit looked at Isla, who suddenly seemed to cast a threatening shadow. She was staring at the letter, her face drained of blood.

‘This is a letter about things connected with my adoptive grandfather. I don’t see how it in any way concerns you or why you should object to my following it up.’

‘You would take no notice of my objections in any case.’

‘That’s true. I think since I’m doing something that upsets you it would be as well if I moved out of the house.’

‘Please yourself,’ said Isla Novello.

Ten minutes later Kit had packed the two changes of clothes he had with him, the Marks & Sparks underwear and the big Victorian novel that he had been reading since the day he had first walked up Seldon Road in search of number 35. It was not a very lavish collection of possessions. Perhaps he had suspected from the start that the answer to his fundamental question was not here, or was only partly to be found in the Novello family. He was surprised to discover that he could leave the Novellos without much thought of coming back.


The Errand Boy

Kit walked around the wide, open spaces of Vienna, wishing he had Genevieve and her artistic sensitivity with him to point out
beauties and assertions of a power now long since crumbled. His appointment with Helmut Erheim was for half past twelve, and from time to time he stopped for a coffee or a fruit juice, often opening the man’s letter to see if he had missed any points of interest. The handwriting was difficult, but the hand that had written it was firm and confident.

Dear Mr Philipson,

I have been informed by the Austrian embassy in London that you are interested
in finding out about the life and career of the late Walter Greenspan. It was my old friend Mrs Madison who contacted me, and it is certainly a fascinating subject – his career was as interesting and varied as the number of pseudonyms he went under. I would be delighted to talk to you.

Please remember I am an old man with an old man’s fallible memory, and the time when I knew this man was a tumultuous one in which much may have got jumbled together in the memory of a player in that national tragedy. If you would care to pay me a visit I will tell you what I know and what I suspect, but you must not give absolute trust to all the details of what I tell you. The broad thrust, however, will be true and clear. I regard it as your right to be told, and I will tell it without sensationalism or self-righteousness. Remember I was for a time involved with the things Greenspan did, and I was therefore, though in small ways, contaminated by them.

I look forward to meeting you.

Helmut Erheim.

Kit folded up the letter and put it back in his pocket. Then he downed the dregs of his coffee
and stood up. The April sunshine was weak, but pleasantly so, and he walked in the direction of the synagogue and the old Jewish Museum, now amalgamated and closed, with all its memories, mostly bad, distributed elsewhere. Finally, he made his way to the house in which Herr Erheim lived.

When he found it, he stood for a moment on the little step outside and tried to prepare himself. But how can you prepare yourself for something you have no knowledge of or presentiment about? Of the man he was going to meet he knew nothing, or next to nothing. So he had to be ready for uncertainty, and for an uncertainty that would remain after the interview if, as the letter had warned, he could not put total credence in the testimony. He put his finger on the bell and rang it.

The response was very quick. He had been waited for, maybe even looked for. Did he appear so English that he could be picked out from the native Viennese throng? Bolts were pulled on the other side of the door and it opened confidently. Waiting to welcome him, smiling and making a little bob, was a square-shouldered woman in her early thirties, in a white blouse and lavish black skirt with large embroidered flowers. A warm, optimistic, friendly person.

‘Welcome to Vienna, Herr Philipson! Herr
Erheim is expecting you and is looking forward to your talk.’

She stood aside and he came into a tiny square hallway at the bottom of a wooden staircase.

‘Thank you,’ murmured Kit. ‘Is it up?’ The woman laughed.

‘The only way is up.’

‘Difficult for an old man to negotiate,’ commented Kit.


‘To cope with. To climb up.’

‘Oh, Grandad rarely leaves his flat these days. If he ever does there are attendants who help him down in a wheelchair. He does not enjoy that. To tell you the truth he loves his apartment and would rather not leave it.’

‘I can understand that. He is your grandfather, you say?’

‘Great-grandfather in fact, but that is a mouthful to say over and over again. I am his nurse, pupil, companion. Everything possible. I love him very much and always have. I am studying World Literature at Vienna University, so it is very convenient. I live with Grandad and do all I can for him, and study as well.’ They paused at the first floor, swallowed, then mounted the next flight of wooden stairway.

‘Last one. He has the whole of what you English would call the second floor. We call it the
third floor. It used to be the museum curator’s. He is very comfortable here. All his friends make sure of that.’ She opened the door. ‘Grandpapa – here is your English visitor!’

The room was a substantial one, obviously the flat’s living room, which had gained a large bed to accommodate the old man; it was facing the door, and the old man sat up in the bed, royally genial and welcoming, wearing a dressing gown and a woollen hat that made him look like a Dickens illustration. There was apparently pleasure and welcome in his smiles and gestures, but behind these, Kit suspected, also a certain cunning and a pleasure in combat. Perhaps he saw Kit’s visit as a challenge.

‘So you have come to Vienna especially to see me. I am flattered, but I’m unsure precisely what you want of me. Heidi – a tray for Mr … er … Philipson, and one for me. A simple lunch, my dear boy, but you must have a glass of wine with it. I am forbidden wine by my doctor, so I will have one too. Austrian wine is ridiculously underrated.’

Heidi fetched a bottle already opened from the little kitchen area and poured for them both large and well-filled glasses. Though he was not hungry, Kit tucked into the cold meats and salad on the little tray that Heidi had put on his knee. She came back from the kitchen with a light coat
on. Her grandfather looked at her with pride.

‘That’s right, Heidi. Go to your lectures. If I could have gone to lectures when I was a youngster then perhaps I would have been a better man … Or there again, perhaps not.’ When Heidi had closed the door behind her Erheim, grinning conspiratorially, added: ‘Now, while you are eating you must tell me about yourself, and when we have finished the repast and the bottle I will tell you what I know about Walter Greenspan, and what my connection with him was. Is that agreed?’

Kit nodded, but this was something he had not expected. He cleared his throat nervously.

‘I was brought up in Glasgow by my adoptive parents. My mother was a university lecturer in the Faculty of Fine Arts, and my father was a deputy editor on one of the Glasgow daily papers. We were a close, happy family.’

‘A very literate, professional family, is that right?’

‘Very much so. But not too solemn.’

‘But these, you say, were not your real parents?’

‘That’s not how I would put it … but no. As I told you in my letter in response to yours, I had a few very shadowy memories of the first three years of my life. I suspected that perhaps my real mother had died. But, as I say, I was happy with
my adoptive parents – what I call in my mind my real parents – so I didn’t enquire in case it was a painful matter for them. In fact, over the years, I’m afraid I forgot my memories of anything else.’

Herr Erheim nodded.

‘Things began to change when my father fell ill. The main thing I knew about his early life was that he was one of the Kindertransport – the children who got out of Germany just before the war started.’

‘You don’t need to fill in the background for me. I lived through it.’

‘Of course. Well, he was one of the last out, and was always grateful for that – and perhaps a bit guilty-feeling towards all those who didn’t get out.’

‘The dead children. Yes, I can understand that. And the name he went under – was it Jürgen Greenspan?’

‘“Went under”? I don’t understand … You know, I never asked about his and Hilda’s surname before they were adopted by the Philipsons.’

‘Never mind,’ said Erheim, with a wave of the hand putting the matter aside. ‘I think I once met your father, though of course, that was when he was so young there is little to be said about him. Quiet and serious, I’d guess.’

‘Yes. He remained that. I think that while he was ill he must have persuaded Genevieve to come clean with me over the “adoption” – give me all the facts. He must have thought it was well time. But my mother was diagnosed as having late-stage breast cancer not very long after his death, and so we never had the in-depth session. We talked about it but she was too weak for scenes. She only directed me towards her address book, and told me my birth mother was named Novello. I had vague memories of an earlier family and a strange plane trip, so I checked the old newspaper files and discovered I’d been abducted.’

‘And that is what you’ve been investigating since, is it?’


Unsure of what should be the correct reaction to an announcement of a childhood abduction, Herr Erheim waved his eloquent hand in the direction of the bottle.

‘Have another glass of this not entirely despicable wine …’

‘It’s very good. But I’m no expert …’

Herr Erheim bowed his thanks.

‘Now let me tell you how I came to meet the man who interests you, and what I came to know.’ He settled back comfortably against his pillows. ‘The first meeting came in 1932.’

‘So early? Before Jürgen’s birth.’

‘Exactly. And before the Nazi takeover of this once-great country of Austria. I was only half Austrian – my mother’s side – and I grew up mainly in Germany, but I have a peculiar tenderness for this country and its capital. In that year, 1932, I was twelve, and I was in Berlin rather loosely boarding with an uncle of mine. The economic situation was appalling, and I organised a little band of child musicians who went around the bars and the clubs of the capital in the early evening – before their own entertainment started, and early enough for us not to be told we ought to be in bed. We had boys and girls in this band, and we played New Orleans stuff, stuff from the latest musicals –
, No, No
and so on – and though I say it myself we were quite good. I was the organiser, the clarinet player and the master of ceremonies. It must have been in that last role that I caught Greenspan’s eye. It was in the Hofmeister Bar, and when we were leaving after the collection had been taken he beckoned me over. “Very good,” he said. “You’re a promising lad. Here’s my card. If you’re ever in Vienna or Frankfurt the card has my contact numbers there. I’ll find something for you to do. A lad like you deserves a better life than glorified begging. Now remember, and keep this card.
There’s bad times coming for us Jews.”’

Kit seemed to see in the man’s face a shadow of the surprise the young Erheim must have felt.

‘Was this news to you?’

‘Completely. Both that the Jews had a bad time coming, and that I could be identified with “the Jews”. Of course, I knew I was Jewish, but thought that that was no more important than that some Germans were Prussians, some were Bavarians. So what, I’d always felt? Well, in the years that followed I learnt what it meant to be a Jew, and it was nothing like being a Prussian.’

‘Hadn’t you read newspapers?’

‘What boy of twelve reads newspapers? Then, in the summer of 1936, I went with a young English writer to Vienna. It was wonderful – a dream city – the buildings, the landscape, the mountains. I won’t tell you what the English boy and I got up to. We played, we quarrelled, we made up. I quite enjoyed the quarrels but I didn’t really enjoy the makings up. I’d taken that card with me. One day when we’d had an almighty row I rang the number, spoke to Greenspan, then went to see him. The English boy went back to Berlin. I stayed on working for my new benefactor.’

‘What were you doing?’

Erheim looked at Kit, but blinked. He seemed
uncertain whether to boast or apologise about his activities.

‘Getting people and their money out of the country.’

‘Yes, I’d heard hints of that. By “people” you mean Jews, I suppose.’

‘Yes, almost entirely – just one or two Gentiles who’d fallen foul of the German or Austrian governments. We got rich Jews out, also their children, their mistresses. We ran a superb business – he ran, I should say. I was just the messenger boy.’

‘What did the “messenger boy” do?’

‘Delivered tickets, collected inordinate fees for services rendered … and quite a lot of stuff for Mr Greenspan himself.’ He winked. He’d decided to be brazen. ‘Personal stuff?’


‘Yes, oh yes, women. It was when I was doing personal stuff that I saw the boy who I think became your father.’

‘You visited the family?’

‘Yes. You’ve heard of the mother?’

‘I read a bit of a diary written by Jürgen’s sister, Hilde. There were mentions of the mother. Hilde’s view of her was in a way contradictory, but she obviously thought her mother was being unfair to her husband in many of the things she said about him to the children.’

Erheim, after trying to suppress his reaction, burst out into a howl of laughter.

‘Unfair? Oh dear me, what a sad joke! The woman was obsessed with him. He could do anything and be forgiven. How do you think Jürgen came into the world, years after his sister, except as a result of a session of “forgiveness”? Oh dear – women don’t come more
than Elisabeth Greenspan, as she called herself. When he was away from her, which was almost all the time, she could judge him justly. As soon as he reappeared, she went weak at the knees. I thought it was strange that Walter Greenspan told me all this, but I think it was a kind of boasting.’

‘You say “as she called herself”. Was Elisabeth not married to him?’

Erheim’s face twisted in ridicule.

‘She had gone through a ceremony which had no legal validity at all. I think Walter Greenspan had got some of his actor friends to put something together that might fox her. He rejoiced in her naivety. The only thing he ever did to oblige her, getting the children on board that train, was, I thought, a little word of thanks for the joy that her artlessness had given him over the years.’

‘Sad, sad,’ said Kit. ‘What happened to her?’

Erheim shrugged.

‘What happened to Jews in Central Europe? She was no different from the rest. Enough of her, young man. She was not important.’

Kit was for a moment speechless. It was the man’s first big mistake, the moment when the curtains briefly collapsed, showing the cynical hardness Erheim would surely conceal from most of his visitors.

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