They were ripping off the stars. Filthy fingers with broken dirt-encrusted nails were yanking and peeling and prying. Who would have thought they still had the strength? One woman was biting the threads that held hers tight to her torn jacket. She must have been a good seamstress in her day. Those who had managed to tear off their stars were throwing them to the ground. A man was spitting on his. Who would have thought he had the saliva as well as the strength? Charlotte’s mouth felt dry and foul from dehydration. Men and women and children were stomping the worn scraps of fabric into the mud, spreading a carpet of tarnished yellow misery over the fenced-in plot of French soil.
Charlotte crouched beside Vivi and began pulling out the stitches that held her daughter’s star to her soiled pink blouse. The law had stipulated that only children six or older had to wear the star, and Vivi was four, but the blouse had been left behind when another child had been abruptly added, in a moment of bureaucratic desperation, to a transport that had come up one short of the required one thousand bodies. Charlotte had taken the blouse before anyone else could – they were permitted possessions in the camp, if they still had any – but she hadn’t removed the star. Wearing a blouse with a dark six-pointed shadow where a star used to be, denying, even if you were only four, was asking for trouble. Now Charlotte could remove it. Only when she had, did she straighten and start pulling off her own.
For the rest of her life, every time she sat on an airplane and listened to a smiling stewardess warn that in case of trouble she was to put on her own oxygen mask before taking care of the child traveling with her, she would remember this morning and think the airlines had logic on their side but no heart.
She’d come across the scene in a square in Drancy, the suburb ten kilometers northeast of the city, not the camp for the detention and deportation of Jews, communists, socialists, and other enemies of the Reich. If she hadn’t already known staying in the area was safer than returning to her old haunts, the incidents that day would have persuaded her. She hadn’t wanted to watch, but neither had she been able to tear herself away. She’d stood riveted to the spot, mesmerized by the hatred, immobilized by the fear.
They had stripped the woman down to her brassiere and underpants, threadbare graying scraps of dignity or modesty or some barely remembered decency from better times. The brassiere was torn at the nipple, whether from current violence or past passion was impossible to tell. An old man with a tobacco-stained beard reached out a filthy hand and pinched the pink flesh. The crowd roared its delight. A young man brandishing a rifle used it to prod the woman first one way, then another, until she was stumbling on the high heels she was still wearing. The shoes made her nakedness more obscene. As she lurched, the crowd caught sight of a brown stain on the seat of her torn underpants. Again it was impossible to tell whether it was the sign of current terror or past slovenliness, but the jeering grew louder. It drowned out the sound of the church bell that had begun to toll and continued after the bell went silent. It was only two o’clock.
Collabo a woman in the crowd howled, collabo horizontale another screamed, and the women in the mob took up the cries and passed them around as they would, under other circumstances, have handed a baby from one to the other. Both instincts were primitive and protective, though in this case of self. Only the hardest or most forgetful among them, those who had never given a civil nod to a billeted soldier or uttered a merci for a door held could fail to see themselves in the place of that woman huddled in shame as her hair fell to the ground in greasy clumps. Her days of black market meat and eggs and shampoo were long gone.
Charlotte thought of the patches of hair missing from her own scalp as a result of the malnutrition. She’d been able to live with that, but when the tufts of Vivi’s fine baby hair had begun to come away in her hands, she’d stopped brushing it, as if that could do any good.
The women in the pack howled their rage, but the men, especially the silent men, were more dangerous, and not only because they brandished the rifles and wielded the shears and razors. The men reeked of sexual malice. Some of them clenched their crotches as they heckled and punched and kicked the woman. Others sweated and smirked and wiped the spittle from their mouths with the backs of their hands, then ran their tongues over their lips as if they could taste the thrill. Their country had been defeated. They had been humiliated. But this wreaking of vengeance, this rendering of justice, this half-naked woman, stained with blood and tears and feces, made them men again.
Two boys – they couldn’t have been older than sixteen or seventeen – began pushing the woman, her bald head glistening in the afternoon sunlight that slanted past the church steeple, toward a truck parked in a corner of the square. The three women, one almost naked, two half dressed, who were sprawled in the flatbed, didn’t look up when the boys shoved the newcomer among them.
Now the crowd was tightening the circle around another woman. This one was holding a baby. Her soiled cotton dress hung beltless, one sleeve torn away, but she was still wearing it. Perhaps the presence of the baby shamed the men, or perhaps it only tamped down the sexual voltage. She wasn’t cradling the baby against her the way a woman usually holds an infant, but carrying the child under one arm like a package. Its legs hung limp, its head, unsupported, drooped to one side on its fragile neck. Its eyes were closed, and its small face was screwed tight against the world.
Charlotte picked up Vivi, who’d been clinging to her skirt, and hid her daughter’s face in her neck. This was nothing a child should see. This was nothing anyone should witness.
One of the men who seemed to be in charge, if anyone could be said to be in charge, grabbed the woman by the hair and yanked her head back. The sound she let out was more a bleat than a cry. Charlotte waited for the baby to begin to wail. It merely screwed its face tighter.
The hair began to fall to the ground. It was longer than the short bob of the woman they’d stripped to her underwear and took more time. Perhaps that was what made the man in the crowd do it. He was getting bored. While the tondeur was still shearing the woman, the man darted forward and inked a swastika on her forehead. The crowd roared its glee.
Still whimpering, still clutching the silent baby, the woman was shoved toward the truck and another was hauled into the center of the square. Holding Vivi tighter, Charlotte began pushing her way through the mob. Drunk now on justice and the wine an enterprising woman and her young son had begun selling, but not yet satiated, the crowd pushed back against her, urging her to stay, sneering at her for her tenderheartedness, taunting her for her lack of patriotism. She put her hand on the back of Vivi’s head to shield her and kept going.
At the edge of the crowd, Berthe Bernheim, the woman from the camp whose stitches had been so expert she’d had to bite off her star, stopped her.
“You can’t leave,” she said and pointed to a group of women and one man in a corner of the square waiting their turn with the tondeur. “It’s not over.”
Charlotte shook her head. “As long as this goes on, it never will be,” she said and kept going.
Berthe Bernheim stood looking after her. “Holier than thou, that one,” she observed to no one in particular.
New York, 1954
Charlotte spotted the letter as soon as she stepped into her office. There was no reason it should have caught her eye. The desk was littered with papers and envelopes. Stacks of manuscripts and books filled the shelves of the small cubicle and spilled over onto the two chairs. Certainly the air-mail envelope didn’t make it stand out. Most of the books she published were American editions of European works, and a good deal of her mail arrived in those tissue-thin blue envelopes. The only explanation for its attracting her attention was that she’d already gone through her morning mail and the afternoon delivery hadn’t yet arrived. Perhaps the letter had gone to another editor by mistake, and he or she had left it on Charlotte’s desk while she was upstairs in the art department. Or perhaps the mail room had overlooked it in the morning sorting.
Gibbon & Field was a prestigious publishing house, but a certain loucheness lurked behind the scenes. That was the fault of Horace Field, the publisher. He was too forgiving, or perhaps only cannily manipulative. She’d had her earliest inkling of the trait the first Christmas after she’d come to work at the house. Leaving the office one evening at the same time, she and Horace had entered the elevator together to find a young man from the production department struggling to balance two or three oversize art books and several of a more conventional trim size. When he saw Horace, he colored an unhappy Christmas red.
“I see you’ve taken our ads to heart, Seth,” Horace said. “’There’s a book for everyone on your Christmas list.’”
The young man turned a deeper red and shot out of the elevator as soon as the doors opened. That was unusual. The staff usually deferred to Horace getting on and off elevators, and everywhere else.
“Are you going to take the books out of his salary?” she’d asked as they’d followed him across the lobby.
“Not on your life.”
“It would teach him a lesson.”
“The only lesson I want to teach him, Charlie, is to work his tail off for the greater glory of G&F.”
“And you think encouraging him to walk out the door with an armful of purloined books will do that?”
“I think the next time he asks for a raise and doesn’t get it, he’ll remember all the books he’s filched and feel guilty, or at least compensated. Same with the expense accounts the editors and travelers turn in. They think they’re stealing me blind, but a guilty conscience breeds contrition. Maybe even loyalty. They feel they owe the house something in return. That’s why I worry about you. Those expense accounts you file are a travesty. If the other editors get wind of them, they’ll never forgive you for spoiling the game.”
Horace’s philosophy permeated the entire publishing house from the grand larceny of the production department, run by a man rumored to have ties to the mafia, to the petty pilfering and general slacking off of the mailroom. That must be why the letter had been delivered late. And the timing was the only reason she noticed it. It had nothing to do with a sixth sense, in which she definitely did not believe.
She sat behind the desk and picked up the envelope. Her name and the G&F address were written not typed. The handwriting wasn’t familiar.
There was no return address on the upper left hand corner. She turned it over. As soon as she saw the name, she realized why she hadn’t recognized the handwriting. When had they put anything in writing? No, that wasn’t true. He’d written her once, a year or so after the end of the war. The letter had taken months to wind its way through the Drancy records and the various agencies to reach her in New York. She’d taken solace in that. He didn’t know where she was. And he was still in Germany. She’d never answered that letter. The return address on this one was Bogota, Columbia. So he’d got out after all. She was glad. She was also relieved. Central America was still a long distance away.