Read Those Who Save Us Online

Authors: Jenna Blum

Tags: #Historical - General, #War stories, #World War, #German American women, #Holocaust, #Underground movements, #Bildungsromans, #1939-1945, #Fiction, #Literary, #Sagas, #Germany, #Jewish (1939-1945), #Historical, #War & Military, #Young women, #1939-1945 - Underground movements, #General, #Germany - History - 1933-1945, #1939-1945 - Germany, #Fiction - Historical

Those Who Save Us

BOOK: Those Who Save Us
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THOSE WHO
S
AVE US

THOSE WHO
S
AVE US

JENNA BLUM

HARCOURT, INC .

Orlando Austin New York San Diego Toronto London

Copyright © 2004 by Jenna Blum

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

www.HarcourtBooks.com

Excerpts from this book have been previously published in slightly different form in the
Briar Cliff Review, Meridian,
and
Prairie Schooner.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Blum, Jenna.

Those who save us/Jenna Blum.—1st ed.

p. cm.

ISBN 0-15-101019-6

1. World War, 1939–1945—Underground movements—Fiction.

2. World War, 1939–1945—Germany—Fiction. 3. Germany—History—1933–1945—Fiction. 4. Holocaust, Jewish (1939–1945)—Fiction. 5. German American women—Fiction. 6. Young women—Fiction.

I. Title.

PS3602.L863T47 2004

813'.54—dc22 2003014777

Text set in Garamond MT

Designed by Cathy Riggs

Printed in the United States of America

First edition

A C E G I K J H F D B

This book is for my mother, Frances Joerg Blum, who took me to Germany and gave me the key:

Ich liebe Dich, meine Mutti.

And it is in beloved memory of my dad, Robert P. Blum, who would have said
Mazel tov.

I had voluntarily joined the ranks of the active SS and I had become too fond of the black uniform to relinquish it in this way.

—RUDOLF HOESS, COMMANDANT OF

AUSCHWITZ

THOSE WHO
S
AVE US

PROLOGUE

Trudy and Anna, 1993

T
HE FUNERAL IS WELL ATTENDED, THE NEW HEIDELburg Lutheran Church packed to capacity with farmers and their families who have come to bid farewell to one of their own. Since every seat is full, they also line the walls and crowd the vestibule. The men are comically unfamiliar in dark suits; they don’t get this dressed up for regular services. The women, however, wear what they do every Sunday no matter what the weather, skirt-and-sweater sets with hose and pumps. Their parkas, which are puffy and incongruous and signify the imminent return to life’s practicalities, are their sole concession to the cold.

And it is cold. December in Minnesota is a bad time to have to bury a loved one, Trudy Swenson thinks. In fact, it is quite impossible. The topsoil is frozen three feet down, and her father will have to be housed in a refrigeration unit in the county morgue until the earth thaws enough to receive him. Trudy tries to steer her mind away from how Jack will look after several months in storage. She makes an attempt to instead concentrate on the eulogy. But she must be suffering the disjointed cognition of the bereaved, for her thoughts have assumed a willful life of their own. They circle above her in the nave, presenting her with an aerial view of the church and its inhabitants: Trudy herself sitting very upright in the front row next to her mother, Anna; the minister droning on about a man who, from his description, could be any fellow here; the deceased looking dead in his casket; the rest of the town seated behind Trudy, staring at the back of her head. Trudy feels horribly conspicuous, and although she means her father no disrespect, she prays only for the service to be over.

Then it is, and the congregation rumbles to its feet and stands in expectation. Trudy realizes that they are waiting for her and Anna to depart the church ahead of everyone else, as is proper. She pauses to mumble a final good-bye to Jack; then she takes Anna’s elbow to help her from the pew. Anna allows Trudy to guide her past the ranks of impassive faces, but once they are outside she folds her arms to her sides and forges on alone. The two women take tiny cautious steps over the ice to Trudy’s car.

Trudy starts the ignition and sits shivering, waiting for the engine to warm up. The interior of the Civic won’t be comfortable until they have reached their destination, the farmhouse six miles north of here. The arctic air is like shards of glass in the lungs; it shakes Trudy to the bones until they threaten to snap.

Well, I thought that was a nice service, she says to Anna.

Anna is looking through the passenger’s window at the horizon. The Lutheran Church is built on the highest ridge in New Heidelburg, all the better to be close to God. From this vantage point in the summer, the countryside below is a dreaming checkerboard over which it seems that one could, with a running start, spread one’s arms and fly. Now it is a sullen and unbroken white.

Trudy tries again.

Short and simple, she says. Dad would have approved, don’t you think?

Slowly, Anna turns her pale gaze on the windshield and then upon her daughter, staring at Trudy as though she doesn’t know who Trudy is.

We must get to the house, she replies. I must set out the food. The people will be coming soon enough.

This is true; all around them, the New Heidelburgers are already climbing into their trucks and minivans. After a brief and respectful intermission to let the family members refresh their public faces, the townsfolk will descend upon the farmhouse, bearing casseroles and condolences. Trudy shifts into gear and accelerates out of the lot, noting Anna’s hands and feet jerk up, just a little, at the unaccustomed speed. Although Anna has lived nearly fifty years in this remote rural area, where people think nothing of traveling half an hour to buy groceries, she has never learned to drive. She turns back to her window to watch the fields as they blur past.

To Trudy, who abandoned New Heidelburg for the Twin Cities as soon as she finished high school thirty-five years earlier, this landscape is a study in monotony, as bleak and inhospitable as the steppes of Siberia. Snow and mud, gray sky, line after line of barbed-wire fencing swooping along the two-lane road. Silos and trailers. Even the cows are nowhere to be seen. It is early yet, three o’clock, but night comes quickly in this part of the country; it will be full dark in an hour. The knowledge of this, and how she will spend that time, makes Trudy feel desperate to be in her own kitchen, her study, in her classroom lecturing disenchanted students, anywhere but here. She suddenly decides she will return to Minneapolis sooner than planned, perhaps tomorrow morning. For one of the odd things about death, Trudy has discovered, is that in its wake one must go about business as usual; it seems heartless and wrong, but now that the rituals of mourning have been attended to, the sole task left to Trudy is to try and comprehend the enormity of this sudden change. And this she might as well do in the comfort of her home rather than sitting in silence with Anna.

First, however, there is the reception to be endured, so Trudy pulls into the farmhouse drive. As they pass through the windbreak of pines, fingers of sun pierce the clouds, transforming the spindrift in the fields into glittering sheets and highlighting the outbuildings in what seems to Trudy a shamelessly dramatic, ecclesiastical way. She parks and helps Anna from the car but paces around the dooryard long after Anna has gone inside. It is here, reportedly, that Jack had his fatal heart attack; the coroner has assured Trudy that Jack was dead before he hit the ground. Yet Trudy wonders: Did Jack pause, bewildered by the pain ripping through his left arm, his chest? Did he have time to realize what was happening to him? Trudy hopes not; it would ease her mind to know for certain, but Anna, the only witness, is as usual not talking. Trudy spends another minute peering at the tamped-down snow, trying to discern beneath it the path Jack followed so consistently from barn to porch that his boots wore ruts in the grass. But she can see nothing, and the sun fades behind a gauzy cataract of cloud, and finally Trudy sighs and climbs the steps into her mother’s house.

For the house has always been Anna’s, really. Jack and Trudy might as well have been boarders whose untidy but necessary presence Anna has patiently tolerated. After all, it is Anna who has scrubbed the floors, laundered the curtains, polished the windows with newspaper and vinegar, vacuumed the tops of doorways with a special attachment. It is Anna who has combated the farmwife’s enemies of soil and excrement, chaff and blood. This is ultimately a losing battle, since it is an axiom of agricultural life that whatever is outside must come in, sooner or later. But Anna has managed, through great and stubborn effort, to enforce some measure of Teutonic cleanliness here.

After hanging her coat, Trudy joins her mother in the kitchen. The two women work in silent and hurried concentration, ferrying the food Anna has cooked during the past forty-eight hours into the dining room. This is a dim and cavernous space of which Anna is inordinately proud, with dark wainscoting and fleurdelis wallpaper and a high ceiling that seems to float in the gloom. The mirror over the buffet is a milky glimmer; the heavy drapes filter out what little natural light there is. Trudy can’t recall the last time she was in this room. Sliding doors close it off from the rest of the house, protecting the prized oak furniture from the whips and scorns of everyday life. It has been reserved solely for company, which means that for the past several years it has not been used at all.

But it is the perfect setting for the occasion at hand, which demands the utmost in formality, and with this in mind Anna has been busy in here. The rug is striped from a vehement brushing. The sideboard and table are slippery with lemon oil. Soon their gleaming surfaces are hidden beneath trivets and Pyrex casseroles containing not the
Sauerbraten
and
Kartoffeln
of Anna’s native country but the recipes she has learned to make: noodle hot dish, ambrosia topped with a fluffy mound of Cool Whip, Jello ring with fruit. An exercise in excess, since the neighbors will arrive any minute bearing more of the same. Yet protocol requires that Anna provide for them nonetheless.

Trudy sets a wicker basket of rolls on the table and turns to her mother.

Did you make coffee? she asks, the first thing she has said to Anna since entering the house.

Anna waves a distracted hand.

I will do it, she says. You go make sure I have not overlooked anything.

Jawohl,
Trudy thinks.

She prowls from living room to kitchen and back again in a familiar circuit, even as she did as a girl, trailing Anna and asking questions to which Anna gave no answers. Naturally, everything is in perfect order. Upstairs, while checking for fresh hand towels in the bathroom, Trudy notices that Jack’s shaving gear is missing; in its place are Anna’s perfume bottles, each aligned a precise centimeter from the edge of the glass shelf. Trudy looks into her parents’ bedroom next: the bed is neatly made, but the floor is covered with labeled garbage bags. Jack’s clothes, ready for donation to the church. Trudy frowns and rubs her arms. She returns to the living room, takes her coat from the closet, and escapes to the porch, where she stands huddled and shaking.

She strains her eyes toward the road. A heavy blue dusk has fallen over the land, compressing the sky into the ground. By now there should be headlights moving in somber procession up the drive, beneath the black branches of the pines that border it. But there are none, and the only sound is the wind whistling over the fields.

Trudy waits until it is too dark to see. Then she walks back inside, switching on lamps as she goes. She finds Anna still in the dining room, sitting at the head of the table. Trudy can barely distinguish Anna from the shadows around her; she is merely another black solid shape, like the furniture.

Trudy fumbles for the wall switch and the frosted cups of the chandelier shed a sallow light. One of its bulbs has burned out.

I don’t think anyone’s coming, she tells Anna.

Anna appears not to have heard her. She is toying with a placemat, combing its tassels into straight lines. She looks tired, Trudy thinks. She is, perhaps, more pale than usual. But the loss of her husband will not leave any visible mark on her. Anna’s beauty is sunk in the bone. Although this is not Anna’s fault, Trudy finds it almost a personal affront that her mother should continue to be so composed and resplendent even now, even at seventy-three, in widow’s black.

Trudy starts to say something else—she has no idea whether it will be
I’m sorry
or
What did you expect?
—but Anna precludes this by nodding and getting to her feet. Without so much as a glance at Trudy or the untouched food, she proceeds through the double doors. Trudy hears nothing for a minute as Anna crosses the living room carpet; then there is the clocking of Anna’s heels on the stairs and in the hallway overhead. After this, a creak of springs as Anna settles onto the bed she has shared with Jack for over four decades. Then, again, silence.

Trudy remains where she is for a while, listening. When there is no further noise, she wanders into the kitchen and pours herself some of the coffee Anna has brewed in an industrial-sized urn. Trudy stands by the sink, not drinking but letting the cup warm her fingers, which are still stiff from being outside. She gazes through the window in the direction of what she knows is New Heidelburg, though she can’t see even the faint bruise of its lights on the horizon from here.

Trudy takes a sip of coffee. Why should she be surprised? she asks herself. Truth be told, she isn’t. The townsfolk have already paid their respects to Jack in the church. And now that he is gone, they no longer have any reason to be nice to his widow or her daughter. As they have wanted to do for years, ever since Jack first brought Anna to this country, the New Heidelburgers have washed their hands of her.

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