December 18, 2012
“By appointing Hitler Chancellor of the Reich you have handed over our sacred German fatherland to one of the greatest demagogues of all time. I prophesy to you this evil man will plunge our Reich into the abyss and will inflict immeasurable woe on our nation. Further generations will curse you in your grave for this action.”
Former general Erich Ludendorff in a telegram to President Paul von Hindenburg
For seventeen-year-old Christine Bölz, the war began with a surprise invitation to the Bauermans’ holiday party. On that brilliant fall day in 1938, it was impossible to imagine the horrors to come. The air was as crisp and sweet as the crimson apples hanging in the orchards that lined the gentle foothills of the Kocher River valley. The sun was shining in a blue September sky quilted with tall, cottony clouds that swept rolling shadows over the countryside. It was quiet in the hills, except for the scolding jays and scurrying squirrels as they gathered seeds and nuts for the coming winter. Wood smoke and the mossy scent of spruce intermingled to produce a smoldering, earthy aroma that, despite the fall chill in the air, gave the morning depth and texture.
Due to a shortage of rain that year, the leaf-covered trails of the forest were dry, and Christine could have run along the steep, rocky sections without fear of slipping. Instead, she took Isaac Bauerman’s hand and let him help her down the lichen-covered boulder, wondering what he’d think if he knew how much time she spent in the woods. Normally, she would have leapt off the side of Devil’s Rock as if she were immortal, landing squarely on the slippery layers of pine needles and spongy earth, knees bent to keep from tumbling forward. But she didn’t jump this time, because she didn’t want him to think she was a lumbering tomboy who lacked class or manners or grace. Worse than that, she didn’t want him to think that she didn’t have the sense to realize that the legend about the boulder–that some boys playing hooky from church had once been struck and killed by lightning there–was nothing more than a spooky fable. He’d laughed when she told him, but after, as they gripped the boulder’s cracks and fissures and moved down its ancient side, she wished she hadn’t bored him with such a foolish, childhood tale.
“How did you know where I…” she said. “I mean…How did you find…”
“I looked in my father’s desk for your wage records and got your address,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind that I invited myself over and joined you on your walk.”
She walked faster, so he wouldn’t see her smile. “It’s all right with me,” she said. It was more than all right with her; it meant that the hollow sensation she felt whenever they were apart had disappeared. For now, at least. As soon as she woke up that day, she’d started counting the hours until she could go to her job at his house. After a breakfast of warm goat’s milk and brown bread with plum jam, she did her chores, then tried to read, but it was no use. She couldn’t stay at home another minute. Instead of watching the clock, she decided to go into the hills to search for edelweiss and alpine roses for Oma and Opa’s anniversary table.
“But what would your parents think if they knew you were here?” she asked.
“They wouldn’t think anything,” he said. He hurried ahead, then walked backwards in front of her, acting as if she was going to step on his toes and hopping out of the way just in time. He laughed and she smiled, mesmerized by his playful grin.
She knew that Isaac spent hours reading and studying, and could probably recite the Latin names for the strawberries and hazelnuts that grew wild along the grassy knolls. More than likely, he could identify each species of bird, even in flight, and the different animals that had left paw tracks in the soft earth. But his knowledge came from pictures in books, while hers came from observation and years of folklore. She’d spent her childhood exploring the rolling hills and black forests that surrounded their hometown of Hessental. She was familiar with every winding trail and ancient tree, knew every cave and stream. What began as an early morning chore, collecting the edible mushrooms that her father had patiently taught her to identify, soon became her favorite pastime. She loved to escape the village, to walk along the edges of fields, cross the railroad tracks, and follow the rutted wagon trails until they tapered into narrow, wooded paths. It was her time alone; time to let her thoughts roam free.
She couldn’t count the number of times she’d climbed to the thirteenth-century cathedral ruins in the heart of the forest, to daydream in the protected nest of soft grass formed by its three crumbling walls. The flying buttresses and cathedral windows were empty now, serving as nothing more than stone frames for evergreen boughs, milky skies, or twinkling stars cradled in the white sickle of a quarter moon. But she often stood where she estimated the altar would have been, trying to imagine the lives of those who prayed and married and cried beneath the arches; knights in armor and priests with long beards, baronesses roped in jewels and ladies-in-waiting trailing behind.
Her favorite time to hike to the highest point of the hill was early sunrise in the summer, when the dew extracted earthy scents from the soil, and the air filled with the fragrance of pine. She loved the first hushed day of winter too, when the world had settled into a slumber, and newly fallen snow sugarcoated the sheared yellow wheat fields and the gray, bare branches of trees. She was at home here, deep within the high-skirted evergreens, where the sunlight barely broke through to the musty forest floor, while Isaac was at home in a gabled mansion on the other side of town, where iron gates were flanked by trimmed hedges, and mammoth doors stood beneath ancient archways carved with stone gargoyles and medieval saints.
“Well,” she said. “What would Luisa Freiberg think of you being here?”
“I don’t know what she would think,” he said, falling in beside her. “And I don’t care.”
If she’d known he was going to show up at her family’s house on Schellergasse Strasse that morning, waiting in silence on the stone steps behind her until she closed the oversized wrought iron latch on her front door, she would have worn her Sunday coat, not the tan wool overcoat that hung down to her ankles. It was thick and warm, a Christmas present from her beloved Oma, but its stiff collar and frayed pockets did little to hide the fact that in its former life it’d been a carriage blanket.
Now, as she led Isaac through the forest and down the hill towards the apple and pear orchards, she kept touching the coat’s buttons, running her fingers along its overlapped front, to make sure it concealed the old play clothes she had on underneath. The gathered arms of her childhood dress were too short, the stitch-less hem too high, the unbuttoned bust too tight, and the navy-gingham too childish. Her leggings, held up by straps buttoned to her undershirt, were gray and nappy, covered by hundreds of pills and snags from catching on bushes and ragged bark. But it was what she always wore to hike, because, before today, she’d always come alone. In this outfit, she didn’t need to worry about ruining her clothes when she knelt in the dirt to pick wild mushrooms from beneath a damp fern or had to crawl on the ground to gather beechnuts for cooking oil.
Like everyone else in her family, nearly all her clothes were reconstructed from printed cotton sheets or hand-me-downs. And until she’d started working for the Bauermans, she’d thought nothing of it. The majority of girls and women in her village dressed as she did, in worn dresses and skirts, starched aprons with mended pockets, and high, lace-up shoes. But now, when she went to her afternoon job at Isaac’s house, she always wore one of her two Sunday dresses. They were the best she owned, bartered for with brown eggs and goat’s milk at the local clothing shop.
This upset Mutti—her mother’s name was Rose–who’d already been working full-time at the Bauermans’ for the past ten years. The dresses were for church, not for dishes, washing clothes, and polishing silver. But Christine wore them anyway, ignoring Mutti’s hard look when she walked into the Bauermans’ beige-tiled kitchen. Sometimes, Christine borrowed a dress from her best friend, Kate, to wear to work, with promises to return it unsoiled. And when getting ready, she was always careful to brush and re-braid her hair, making sure the blonde plaits were straight and even. But this morning, when Isaac had surprised her, her hair was in a haphazard braid down her back.
To her relief, Isaac was wearing his brown work pants, suspenders, and a blue flannel shirt, the clothes he wore for cutting grass or chopping wood, instead of the pressed black trousers, white shirt, and navy vest he wore to Universität. Because, even though the Bauermans were one of the last wealthy families in town, Isaac’s father made certain that his children knew the virtues of labor. He gave Isaac and his younger sister, Gabriella, regular chores.
“I know what your parents would think,” Christine said, keeping her eyes on the red dirt path.
They made their way out of the dark interior of the forest, through thinning trees and gangly saplings, and emerged at the grassy edge of the highest apple orchard. Six white sheep were in the clearing, their woolly heads rising in unison at Christine and Isaac’s sudden appearance. Christine stopped and held up her hand, signaling Isaac to stand still. The sheep gazed back at them, then resumed their job of trimming the grass in the orchard. Satisfied that the sheep weren’t going to run off, Christine dropped her hand and moved forward, but Isaac grabbed it and pulled her back.
He was over six-foot, with broad shoulders and muscular arms, a giant compared to her petite frame. And now that they were face-to-face, she felt blood rise in her cheeks as she looked up into his shining, chestnut eyes. She knew each feature by heart, the dark waves of hair that fell across his forehead, the chiseled jaw, the smooth, tanned skin of his brawny neck.
“And how would you know what my parents think?” he said, grinning. “Did you and my mother sit down over coffee and cake, so she could tell you all about it?”
“Nein,” Christine said, laughing. “Your mother didn’t invite me for coffee.”
Isaac’s mother, Nina, was a fair and generous employer, occasionally sending home gifts for Christine’s family: Lindzertorte cookies, Apfelstrudel, or Plaumkuchen, plum cake. At first, Mutti tried to object to Nina’s gifts, but it was no use. Nina would shake her head and insist, saying it made her feel good to help the less fortunate. At the Bauermans’ they had real coffee, not Ersatz Kaffee, or chicory, and every so often, Isaac’s mother sent a pound home with Christine. But it wasn’t Nina Bauerman’s policy to sit down and drink from her best china with the help.
“Mutti said it was understood about you and Luisa,” Christine said, distracted by the strength of his wide, warm hand gripping hers. She pulled her hand away and started walking again, her heart pounding.
“There’s no understanding,” he said, following her. “And I don’t care what anyone thinks. Besides, I thought you knew. Luisa is leaving for the Sorbonne.”
“But she’ll be back. Right? And Mutti told me… Frau Bauerman always says: ‘Use the best silverware tonight, Rose. Luisa and her family are coming for dinner.’ And just last week, ‘It’s Luisa’s birthday, so please buy the best herrings to make Matjesheringe in Rahmsosse, it’s her favorite. And make sure that Isaac and Luisa are seated next to each other for afternoon coffee and cake.”
“It’s only because our families are close. My mother grew up with Luisa’s mother.”
“Your parents are hoping…”
“My mother knows how I feel. And so does Luisa.”
“And your father?”
“My father can’t say anything. His parents protested his engagement to my mother because she wasn’t a practicing Jew. But he ignored them and got married anyway. He’s not going to tell me what to do.”
“And what are you doing?” she said, shoving her hands deep in the pockets of her coat.
“I’m enjoying a hike on a beautiful day with a beautiful girl,” he said. “Is there something wrong with that?”
His words sent a thrill coursing through her. She turned away and strolled downhill, past the last row of twisted apples trees to a wooden bench, its thick supports buried in the sloped earth. She gathered her coat around her legs and sat down, hoping he wouldn’t notice the trembling of her hands and knees. Isaac sat next to her, elbows propped on the short backrest, legs outstretched.
From here, they could see where the train tracks left the station, then bent along a wide, slow curve before running parallel to the hills. Beyond the tracks, neatly-plowed fields rolled out in brown furrows towards the village, huddled on one end of the vast, green-and-brown patchwork valley. Wood smoke curled from chimneys towards hills patterned with trees, their leaves turning to autumn’s red, yellow, and gold. The silver ribbon of the Kocher River meandered through the center of town, its winding curves banked by high stone walls, its length cut into sections by covered bridges. They could see the spherical stone steeple of the Gothic church of St Michael’s, soaring high above the market square. To the east, the pointed, brownstone steeple of the Lutheran church across the street from Christine’s house, rose tall and noble above a congregation of clay-tiled rooftops. Each steeple sheltered a trio of massive iron bells that rang each daylight hour and echoed through the Sunday morning streets with majestic peals of an ancient call to worship. Beneath the sea of orange clay rooftops turned the life of the village.
Within a crooked maze of cobblestoned streets and stepped alleys, between centuries-old fountains and ivy-covered statues, children laughed and ran, kicking balls, and jumping rope. The village bakery filled the cool fall air with the aromas of freshly baked pretzels, rolls, and Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte, Black Forest cherry tarts. Chimney sweeps walked from house to house in top hats and soot-covered clothes, their oversized black brooms carried over their shoulders like bottlebrushes for giants. Inside the Metzgerei, or butcher shop, apron-clad women counted out their coins, inspecting and selecting fresh wurst and braten for the midday meal and sharing news and greetings in front of the impeccably clean white counter. Beneath a gathering of striped umbrellas in the spacious market square, farmers’ wives arranged crates of apples and purple turnips in preparation for the open-air market. They organized buckets of pink and violet zinnias beside sunflowers, and stacked wooden cages of clucking brown hens and white ducks beside mounds of pumpkins. At the corner Krone, old men sat in worn, wooden booths and sipped warm, dark beer, elaborating on the stories of their lives. It had always seemed to Christine that there was an urgency to their reminiscing, as if they were afraid of forgetting the important details, or afraid of being forgotten themselves. Behind tall, sandstone houses, compact, fenced-in yards housed flocks of chickens, tidy vegetable gardens, and two or three pear or plum trees. In medieval barns, hard-working farmers piled hay and fed beet scraps and withered potatoes to pigs. The second-story windows of each Bavarian half-timbered house were pushed wide open, spilling out feather beds to freshen in the sun.
Christine couldn’t explain why, but this scene filled her with a mixture of resentment and love. She’d never dream of telling anyone, but there were times when she found it boring and predictable. Just as they were certain of night turning to day, everyone knew that at the end of the month, the whole village would gather in the town square to celebrate the Fall Wine Festival. And every spring, on the first of May, the Maypole would signal the start of the Bakery Festival. In the summer, the front of the Town Hall and the market place fountain would be overgrown with grapevines and ivy, and the young girls and boys would put on their red-and-white outfits to celebrate the Salz-Seder Festival.
At the same time, she was aware of the simple beauty of her homeland–the hills, the vineyards, the castles–and understood that there would never be another place where she felt so loved and secure. This centuries-old Schwabian village, known for Hohenloe wines and salt springs, symbolized home and family, and would always be part of who she was. Here, she knew where her place was. Like her younger sister, Maria, and two little brothers, Heinrich and Karl, she knew where she belonged in the order of things.
Isaac’s sudden appearance on her doorstep felt like a previously hidden clue on a treasure map, or a newly discovered fork in familiar road. Something was about to change. She could feel it in the cool fall breeze.
Restless, she jumped to her feet and plucked two gleaming apples from the branches of the nearest tree. Isaac stood, and she tossed one in his direction. He snatched it from the air and dropped it into his pocket. Then he started towards her and she ran, from one row of trees to the next, her long coat gathered up in her hands.
Isaac shouted and caught up to her, then grabbed her around the waist and spun her off the ground, twirling her around and around, as if she weighed no more than a child. The startled sheep scattered in all directions, then gathered, panting and staring, beneath an oak on the edge of the orchard. Finally, Isaac stopped spinning. Christine laughed and struggled to get away, but he wouldn’t let go. Then she gave in and he let her down, holding her close until her feet touched the ground. She looked into his eyes, her chest flushing with heat, her knees trembling. He wrapped her arms behind her back and drew her closer. Inhaling the intoxicating fragrance that was uniquely his– fresh-cut wood, spice soap, and clean pine–she swallowed, feeling his warm breath on her lips.
“I don’t want to be with Luisa,” he said. “She’s nothing more than another little sister to me. Besides, she loves herring too much. She’s starting to smell like a fish.” He smiled down at her, and she lowered her eyes.
“But we’re from two different worlds,” she said in a quiet voice. “My mother says…”
He lifted her chin, put his fingers over her lips, and said, “It doesn’t matter.”
But Christine knew it mattered. Maybe not to her, and maybe not to him, but somewhere along the way, it would matter. According to her mother, she was wasting her time looking for affections from someone like him. He was the son of a wealthy lawyer, and she was the daughter of a poor mason. His mother grew roses and raised money for charity, while her mother scrubbed his family’s floors and washed their clothes. He had attended school for twelve years and was now in Universität, studying to be a doctor or a lawyer, he hadn’t decided which. She’d loved school and had received good grades, as long as she and her fellow students weren’t being pulled out of class to gather a late harvest or pluck potato bugs from the farmer’s fields.
Looking back, she found it ironic how hard she’d studied. Her foolish hope was to be a teacher or a nurse. It wasn’t until she was eleven, when she found out that it cost money to go to school for more than eight years, that she gave up on her dreams of being anything more than a good mother and a hard-working wife. Her parents, like the majority of the people in her village, didn’t have the extra ten marks per month for middle school, or twenty per month plus the cost of books, for high school. Bloom where you’re planted, Oma always said. But Christine’s roots were restless, wondering what it would be like in more fertile soil.
Isaac talked to her of classical music, culture and politics as she stood at the ironing board starching his father’s shirts. He talked to her while she worked in the garden, telling her he’d been to Berlin, to see operas and theater. He described the world as if he’d seen it himself-Africa, China, America-using colorful descriptions of landscape and people. He was fluent in English and had taught her a few words, and had read every book in the family library, some of them twice.
And then, there was the fact that the Bauermans were Jewish.
Isaac’s father, Abraham, was fully Jewish. Nina was half-Jewish, half-Lutheran. It didn’t matter that the Bauermans were non-practicing. Most of the people in the village saw them as Jewish. And anyone who was a member of the Nazi party—although it was sometimes hard to tell who was and who wasn’t–considered them Jews. Isaac had explained that, while his father would have liked his children to embrace his religion, his mother wasn’t the type of woman who had the time or inclination to follow anyone else’s rules. She didn’t feel any more Jewish than she did Lutheran, so she wasn’t about to force Isaac and his sister into making choices before they were old enough to make up their own minds. But in the Nazis’ eyes, they were all Jews, and Christine knew that some people of the people in her village would look down on the fact that he was a Jew and she was a Christian.
“Why are you looking so sad?” he said.
“I’m not,” she said, trying to smile. Then he lowered his mouth to hers and kissed her, and she couldn’t remember how to breathe.
After a few blissful moments, he drew away, breathing hard. “I told you,” he said. “Luisa knows how I feel. We laugh about our parents trying so hard to make us a couple. She knows how I feel about you, and she wants me to be happy. And I have a confession to make. The real reason I came to see you today is because my father has given me permission to bring a date to our holiday celebration. And I’ll feel a fool if you don’t say yes.”
Christine stared at him, wide-eyed, her heart leaping in her chest, making her think of the startled sheep bounding across the grass.
The Bauermans’ holiday celebration was an important occasion, the one social gathering where all village officials, dignitaries, and lawyers, along with other influential people from nearby cities, always made an appearance. Christine didn’t personally know anyone who had attended the party as a guest, because the people she knew were factory workers, farmers, butchers, and masons.
But last year, Mutti had allowed her to help in the kitchen with the caterers, arranging expensive cheese and teaspoons of black caviar on crudités and scalloped crackers. Delivering the food to the servers at the end of the hall, she’d been mesmerized by what she’d seen and heard; the colorful scene reminding her of picture pages from a fairytale. Violins filled the air, and sparkling champagne overflowed in crystal glasses. Men in their finest tuxedos, and women in long shimmering gowns, seemed to float as they waltzed across marble floors, like flowers that had pulled up their roots from the cold winter garden and glided into the light and warmth of the grand house. A million tiny lights twinkled on every banister and molding, and a shining menorah lit every decorated room. A huge evergreen tree, covered in silver and gold, towered to the ceiling in the foyer. Mutti kept reminding Christine she was there to work, not to stand there, eyes wide and mouth open, bewitched like a silly schoolgirl.
Now Isaac was asking her to be his date at the biggest celebration in the village; not to arrange sandwiches and drinks on a silver tray, but as one of those women wearing an elegant, flowing gown. His question hung in the air between them and she had no idea what to say. As if to punctuate her hesitation, the rhythmic chop of a wood axe echoed from the valley below. Finally, the shrill whistle of a train declaring its arrival at the village station broke her trance.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” he asked.
“We used to watch from across the street,” she said, smiling.
“What do you mean?”
“We used to watch you. Me and my sister, Maria, and my best friend Kate. We used to watch the rich people stepping out of their automobiles in their fancy clothes to come to your parents’ party. We saw you and your little sister greeting people at the door.”
“Ugh,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I hated that. All the ladies wanted a hug. And all the men patted me on the head like a dog. Even now, I’m taller than most of them, but they still insist on whacking me on the shoulder, saying things like…good boy, good boy, or your father’s a good man, a good man.”
“But you were so handsome in your black tuxedo. Kate and Maria thought so too. And little Gabriella is the spitting image of your mother, with her auburn hair and dark brown eyes.”
“Well, I don’t have to do that this year. Besides, Gabriella loves the job. She’ll be happy to have it to herself. She loves the attention.” Then, to her surprise, his face went dark. “But I’m afraid there won’t be as many people as usual.”
“Why not?” she asked, suddenly afraid it had something to do with the reason he’d invited her.
“A lot of my parents’ Jewish friends have left the country,” he said. “Their invitations came back marked: ‘Return to sender. Adresse Unbekanntes’.”
The sudden change in his mood surprised her, and she tried to change the subject. She didn’t want this glorious moment to be ruined. “I don’t see how I can say yes,” she said. “I don’t have a nice enough dress.”
“We’ll find a dress,” he said, reaching for her. “My mother has closet full of them. And if you can’t find one you like, I’ll take you shopping. Either way, you’ll be the most beautiful girl at the party.” Then he kissed her again, and the rest of the world, along with its cares and worries, disappeared.
A half hour later, they walked hand-in-hand out of the hills. In the fields, local farmers spread manure from horse-drawn wagons and tilled the remnants of summer wheat into the ground, using giant grey oxen to pull their plows.
To the east, a train was approaching from the village, its black length growing short and squat as it rounded the wide curve. Christine and Isaac stood near the crossing, his arms around her waist, to watch it pass. The locomotive picked up speed as it turned into the straightaway, then thundered past, hot currents of air pulling on their clothes and hair. Great swells of gray smoke billowed out from the hot stack, and the smell of burning coal filled the air. The giant cast-iron wheels clacked along the tracks, insistent and loud, consuming all other noise in the train’s frantic, mighty rush towards its next destination. Christine laughed and waved to the passengers behind the glass windows, trying to imagine what distant and exciting places they were headed. After the last car passed, she and Isaac ran all the way back to the village.
Ellen Marie Wiseman was born and raised in Three Mile Bay, a tiny hamlet in Northern New York, A first generation American, Ellen has traveled frequently to visit her family in Germany, where she fell in love with the country’s history and culture. She lives peacefully on the shores of Lake Ontario with her husband and three dogs.
Adapted from The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman. Copyright © 2012 by Ellen Marie Wiseman. With the permission of the publisher, Kensington House Pub Ltd.