The doorbell rang. I didn’t want to get up and answer it straight away. I was too absorbed in my history project. Whoever was there rang again and again. Then they kept their finger on the bell. It got louder and louder and started to hurt my ears. All right then. I opened the door, and there was Thomas standing on the step.
“Will you do something for me?”
“My mother’s expecting a parcel and I‘ve got to go out.”
“Why can’t you wait for it?”
“Because we’re going on a hike, and we’re going to build a campfire and cook on it.” His eyes were shining.
“Well I hope you don’t mess up your lovely new uniform.” I felt a bit mean as soon as I’d said it.
“You could join the Jungmädel.”
Hmm. Herr Silber kept saying he would buy me the uniform and Kurt thought it would be a good idea. Bear, though, said I would have plenty of time for those sorts of things later. Mutti just smiled and shrugged her shoulders every time the subject came up. Anyway, back then, I wasn’t sure I was thant keen on creepy crawlies and sleeping outside. I wished, though, that I could enjoy things like Thomas did.
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
“Well, can you take this parcel or not?”
“Yeah, I guess. Just leave a note on the door.”
“Well I hope you don’t get the hook-nose.”
“He’s a Jew.”
Thomas rolled his eyes. “Don’t you know anything? You know. Jesus-hater. Home-wrecker. Work-stealer.”
What was he talking about? “Oh, just put a note on the door and tell him to come here.”
Thomas jumped on the spot and clapped his hands. “Thanks.”
I shut the door and returned to my project. What an idiot! Getting so excited about going out into the countryside with a load of other idiots.
Soon I was once again trying to work out who German people were really supposed to be. Herr Lindemann was always going on about how we should be proud to be German and we should look at all the history books to see how great Germans really were. But we’re not. We’re poor and we keep losing wars.
Then I heard Bear coming down the stairs.
“Hey, Giselchen. Are you doing your homework on a nice sunny day like today? You should be out getting some fresh air.”
I smiled to myself. I knew why he was in such a good mood. He’d come back on leave last night and he’d gone for a walk with Helga Brassel. Maybe they’d kissed. I was a bit jealous in a way. Maybe when he came home now he wouldn’t have so much time for me. Never mind, though, I was glad he was happy. He was so nice, my big Bear brother. Especially when he was cheerful. And that always made it nicer for me as well.
He leaned over to see what I was writing. “Oh, oh, oh. The glorious German people. Do you think so, really?”
“It’s what Herr Lindemann says.”
“Well, if it’s what your teacher says, I suppose it must be true. Or at least you’d better pretend to agree just in case.”
As if I’d ever not do what my teacher told me. What was he thinking?
The doorbell rang again. Before I could get up out of my seat Bear had rushed to the front door and opened it. It was the parcel man. I could tell by the conversation.
“That right Giselchen? You’re to take in a parcel for Thomas’s Mutti?”
Did he have to call me that in front of other people? I quite liked it when we were at home together as a family. But I was growing up now and ought to be called by my proper name. “Yes,” I called.
A few moments later he came back into the kitchen with a large brown box. “I wonder what they’ve been buying? It’s not very heavy.”
“Was it the hook-nose?”
“The hook-nose.” What else had Thomas said? “The Jesus-hater?”
“Now then.” Bear’s eyes were flashing. I’d never known him be angry before. Well not with me, anyway. Sometimes when he and Kurt argued perhaps. “Do you mean was he Jewish? Yes he was – is. They’re just people, Gisela. Remember that. Just people.”
I felt my cheeks burning. I didn’t know what to say.
Bear made himself some breakfast and sat reading the newspaper. He was really cross with me and I didn’t really understand what I’d done wrong. Okay, so Thomas had been a bit cruel in what he’d said but hadn’t Herr Lindemann said almost the same thing? That the German people were good and it was others who were making life difficult for us. Didn’t that mean the Jews?
About an hour later Bear stood up. “I’m going for a walk.”
I would have liked to go with him but something about the way he looked at me told me that that wasn’t an option this time.
Not long after I’d done as much as I could on the history project. I was getting confused, anyway. It didn’t really make sense. Nobody seemed to like the Germans because of the war but Herr Lindemann had kept telling all of us in our class how great the German people were. And the Germans didn’t like the Jews but the Jews were some of the cleverest people around – good business men, doctors and lawyers. I was worried as well that Bear might still be cross and that he wouldn’t want to spend time with me – especially now that Helga was on the scene. Is that where he had gone now? Was that why he hadn’t wanted me to go with him? What could I do to get back into his good books?
I saw his boots standing in the shoe rack. They were pretty dirty. That was it. I could clean them for him.
I put out newspaper and organised the shoe-cleaning things. I brushed off the loose mud and rubbed the polish into the stiff leather. Then I brushed the boots vigorously until they began to shine, finally polishing them really hard with a duster. Goodness, they really gleamed now. I was enjoying this. There were other shoes that needed cleaning as well; Mutti’s working shoes, the ones I wore for school, an old pair of Kurt’s and even some that Vati had left behind. I polished until my arms ached and I had polish all over my arms. I guessed I probably had some on my face as well because I had to keep pushing my hair out of my eyes with my mucky fingers. I was determined now to make sure that all of the shoes really sparkled.
I was just finishing the last pair when I heard Bear whistling.
“Goodness,” he said, as he opened the door. “Somebody’s been busy.”
He definitely seemed in a better mood. He picked up his boots. “You’ll have to join the army if you can shine boots up like that. Where did you learn to clean shoes so well?”
It wasn’t really that clever, was it? I’d watched Vati do it hundreds of times.
“Did you see Helga again?” I couldn’t believe I’d just said that. It was none of my business.
He blushed then grinned. “Yes. I took her some flowers.”
Had they kissed again? Had they even kissed yet? I would have loved to know but didn’t dare ask.
“That’s nice.” Would somebody bring me flowers one day? Herr Silber often brought them for Mutti.
“Actually, do you fancy coming into town with me on the tram? We can go and have coffee and cake? At that nice little place near the synagogue.”
“Now? What about lunch?”
He shrugged. “The portions are big there, I’m told. They’ll make up for not having lunch. And they’re not too expensive, considering. Herr Silber gave me some money last night.”
“Yes, but don’t you want to save it?”
“Helga and her mother are going there this afternoon.”
“So wouldn’t you rather go on your own?”
“You’d be my excuse for going.”
I shook my head and then nodded. Why should I argue? I liked cake, didn’t I? It wasn’t often I got taken to a nice café.
I’d never been into this café before. It had always looked too smart. It was in one of the old buildings right in the middle of the town.
“Come on then,” said Bear pushing open the heavy wooden door.
It was a bit gloomy inside at first but my eyes soon got used to it. It was so elegant. There were white table cloths and pretty china and silver cutlery. There were candles and a small vase of flowers on every table.
There was such a strong smell of coffee and the coffee machine whooshed and spluttered all the time.
It was quite full. I thought everybody must have a Herr Silber who gave out money, then. The other people there weren’t like us, though. They were all smartly dressed. Some of the ladies were wearing fur stoles even though the weather was so warm.
It was the cakes, though, that astonished me, the most. There were large tarts, covered in fruit, big gateaux smothered in cream and fancy individual ones very cleverly iced. I had no idea which one to choose.
“Have you decided yet?” Bear was actually frowning as he studied the display.
Then I saw it though. My favourite. “Can I have some baked cheesecake?” I said.
“Good choice. Lemonade to drink?”
I nodded. I really would have liked a coffee, though but Bear would probably have said I was too young. I wasn’t, but I never wanted to argue with him.
Bear gave our order to the lady at the counter and a waitress in a very smart black dress and a starched white apron showed us over to the table. Bear gave her our ticket.
“One black coffee and a lemonade,” he said. He sat up very straight. I think he was trying to look smart. I found it hard not to giggle.
She wrote in her little notebook, smiled at me and then went towards the counter at the back of the shop.
Bear looked around. “Do you like it here?”
I nodded, though actually I wasn’t all that sure. I felt out of place.
A few more people came in. All of them were really well dressed. I had put my own best frock on – Bear had said I should. But it looked very dowdy compared with the ones other girls my age were wearing.
“Oh. Here they come.” Bear blushed bright red and looked away. “Don’t stare at them and if they do see you looking, pretend to be surprised.”
“Didn’t you tell her you were going to come here?”
He shook his head.
I quickly looked at Helga and Frau Brassel. Helga was wearing a pretty white dress that had a pattern of pink roses over it. Frau Brassel had on a grey silk dress with a hat and a fur stole to match. Would I ever be able to dress like that?
At that moment the waitress arrived with our drinks and slices of cake. Bear rubbed his hands together. “This looks good.”
The lemonade was delicious. The cake was rich and creamy. He’d been right; the portions were so big that it more than made up for not having lunch. By the time I’d eaten half of my slice I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to finish it all.
“Is the coffee all right?”
“The best I’ve ever tasted.”
“Will you go and talk to them?”
“Maybe, when we’ve all finished. If I get the chance.”
Suddenly somebody knocked on the window. I jumped. Kurt’s face was staring at me. What was he doing here? He hadn’t written to say he would have some leave.
He mouthed something at Bear and frowned.
“I think I’d better go and talk to him,” said Bear. “You wait here.”
I watched him walk out of the café and into the street. He and Kurt stood talking on the pavement. I couldn’t tell what they were saying.
I toyed with the last of my cake. I just couldn’t manage it. I pushed the plate away.
“Are you all finished here?”
I nodded. The waitress cleared away the plates, the cup and saucer and the glass. “Would you like anything else?”
I shook my head. “My brother will be back in a minute.”
The waitress smiled and nodded. “Take your time. It’s fine.”
He didn’t come back in a minute, though. Nor in five or ten. He and Kurt were talking for ages. Suddenly Kurt started shouting. I could hear him now all right. So could everybody else in the café.
“You should not be mixing with the scum like that. Don’t you know they’re taking our jobs and stealing our homes and businesses? This café should belong to a good German family, not people like them.”
Bear was shaking his head.
Kurt suddenly stared waving his arms around.
Bear started shouting, though I still couldn’t make out what he was saying.
Then Kurt leaned forward and punched Bear on the nose. It began to bleed. Bear swung his arm at Kurt and made his nose bleed in turn. Then they were on the ground. Punching and kicking each other.
“Help, somebody. Please stop my brothers fighting.” I shouted as loud as I could but everyone just stared at me as I ran out of the café.
“The bill?” said the waitress as she passed me near the doorway.
“It’s all right. We’ll take care of that.” Frau Brassel stood up and waved the waitress over to her.
By the time I got outside two men had pulled Bear and Kurt apart. Kurt shrugged himself away from the man who was holding him.
“If you’re going to defend that sort of scum you’re not my brother anymore.” He picked up his cap and walked off.
I punched Bear in the stomach. “Why do you and Kurt always have to fight?”
He looked such a mess. His best white shirt was covered in blood and dirty marks. There were some cuts on his face.
Helga and Frau Brassel came out at that moment. Frau Brassel shook her head and raised her eyebrows.
“Helga…?” Bear walked towards her. “I’m sorry you had to see that.”
Helga stared at him for a few seconds, frowned, linked arms with her mother and turned her back on him. The two women walked away towards the centre of the town.
I guessed he wouldn’t be kissing Helga anytime soon. He didn’t say a word on the tram journey home.