12 May 1940, Cologne
“Why can’t you understand, Gertraud?” Max started raising his voice. “It is too late my love.” He pulled out the dark wooden chair and sat down. His head sank into his hands as if he had lost a bet in a horse race. A big bet.
Gertraud was leaning against the wall, staring at the fissure through the ceiling. She observed it carefully to avoid looking at him. Her cold, ice-blue eyes filled with water, but she held her head up steady and showed no emotion.
“The war just started but we have already lost it.” Max still kept his blond haired head in his hands. He was still facing the table and it was difficult for Gertraud to catch her husband’s following words. “You are German. You should leave me.”
“Don’t you say that.” Her voice sounded almost angry. “After losing so many of your people, many of our friends, family…” Gertraud sat down in front of him. The words got stuck in her throat. She could not resist biting her nails, which she used to do only in uncomfortable situations. In addition, she needed some kind of a distraction since she could not buy tobacco from Herr Grinberg, an old Jewish man who owned the nearby shop. They had known each other for more than three decades. She found memories of his morning greetings when she past with the children painful to think about. “We will figure out something, we have to… for the children, Max”.
Spying with one eye through the minuscule gap of the keyhole, Mathilde eagerly followed the stormless fight between her parents from her bedroom that she shared with Hans, the youngest member of the family.
Mother got up again from the table. “Will other come later to discuss the plans?” she asked.
On the evenings of the secret meetings, Mathilde could not rest nor sleep. She listened carefully every time, even after Father had told her not to, under any circumstances.
“They must be on their way,” father replied and went to the kitchen table to pour himself a glass of brandy. The bottle was almost empty.
“Mathilde, what are you doing?” Hans asked his sister, getting out of bed. “Why don’t you sleep?”
“Quiet, you!” she whispered making threatening facial expressions. He had been feeling, more and more lately, as if there were thoughts and feelings that she would not share with him.
Not like she did before.
Recalling merciless nightmares, Mathilde was suddenly interrupted by air raid sirens from the street. As her eyesight wandered back to reality, the next thing she saw through the keyhole was her parents rushing into their room from the kitchen. The latch hit their daughter’s head and she winced. The high-pitched sound of the siren and the punch that pushed her onto the floor made Mathilde lose consciousness. Her father, without thinking, grabbed her from the floor and ran down to the basement as fast as his feet could bear. Mother carried Hans, and just before they reached the safe basement, a bomb dropped nearby on the street. So close, the walls trembled.
Right after everyone was safely tucked away into the basement another bomb dropped. Following the deafening sound, Hans let out a fearful scream and could not stop quiver. The bomb must have hit the house. In the arms of her father, Mathilde woken by the tremendous noise started kicking the air as if the dark dreams had found her again.
“Everything is alright, Mathilde!” Mother held Hans as close to her as she could.
Another bomb nearby. Hans screamed again and shut his eyes.
Mathilde grabbed onto her father, and tried to focus on the fact that this was going to end soon and everything would be as it was before.
But it was hard to remain positive when the electricity went off, leaving them in complete darkness.
29 May 1944, Paris
“Prost auf unseren Fuhrer!”
“Prost!” Emma raised her glass as well, with a well-presented smile on her face. Cheers! The champagne tasted delicious, she thought. ‘Drink it carefully’ – she repeated to herself ‘Don’t let it go to your head!”- She knew the various effects of drinking abundantly, and she never wished to be drunk, especially in service.
“How do you do, meine Liebhaberin?” Dieter asked his dear – Emma. “Are you enjoying the party?”
“I am very well, although I miss the music. I feel like I could dance!” Emma tangled her arms around Dieter’s neck and looked deep in his eyes with her sparkling visage. This was one of the hardest parts of her operation. Pretending to adore a man she hated.
Smiling all day long, giggling at his humour, kissing him…
Dieter was promoted General Major of the Waffen-SS and he had been thrown a small party to celebrate. It was a great opportunity for him to introduce his gracious and enthralling partner, Emma, whom he met three months earlier in a little Parisian tavern. It was love at first sight, he thought, and nothing could stop him from falling for her. Nothing. Big mistake.
The party was also a great opportunity for Emma to carry on with her work.
Colonel Claus Gruber was her main target. He arrived to France with the purpose of fastening up the process of silencing the French Jews. They had sent their best man; the Colonel was responsible for the execution of 2,000 people in West Germany.
And that was just last year.
Suddenly, Emma found him twenty feet away, casually chatting with another officer.
He did no longer stand strictly still as usual; the glass he held was almost empty. This explained his laughter and the redness of his sharp cheekbones. As he turned back into his serious self, he became bored of the conversation and sipped the last bit of champagne out of his glass.
His eyes caught up with Emma’s inquisitive look on him. She did not get embarrassed, did not even blush and it made the Colonel even more curious about this beautiful, but mysterious woman.
After a few seconds of their peculiar staring, the Colonel interrupted his partner in the middle of his sentence, apologized, and moved towards her.
She turned to Dieter, who was accepting acknowledgements from other officers and majors, and embraced him. He looked at her confused – she has been acting bizarrely lately, in a good way. And it was true. She was more spontaneous and relaxed around him, as if holding onto him might provide her protection and safety.
Dieter wondered if these could be the signs of her finally loving him back. How wrong.
The Colonel stepped in front of the celebrated General and his unique companion, saluted to Dieter and then they both burst into quiet laughter. Emma did not understand it.
“Congratulations for the promotion, General Major!” started the Colonel.
“Danke schöen, Colonel Gruber!” Dieter replied politely.
“Now, please apologize for my rudeness, but let me ask you aboutyour enchanting companion. Mademoiselle…?”
“Fräulein. Fräulein Emma Schuller” Emma replied fiercely, but with a seductive smile on her face.
“Oh, so the lady is German, indeed? What a pleasure!” Colonel Gruber kissed her hand. “Let me guess my dear, Cologne?”
“Frankfurt am Main.”
“Interesting, very interesting. Are you sure?”
Her heartbeat fastened. For a moment, Emma believed she had been unveiled.
“I can assure you Colonel that I know which city I was born and raised in!” Dieter let out an honest laugh at his love’s fierce humour. The Colonel and Emma joined him.
“I apologize on behalf of the Fräulein, but we have to agree she has got fire!” He put his arms around Emma and pulled her closer to himself.
“Now that I am sure about!” They laughed again. “So what is a beautiful young woman like yourself doing so far away from home, if I may ask?”
Before letting any word out, she wanted to make sure she provided the correct information about herself, the information she learnt thoroughly.
Spy, German, London, loss…
“I am the secretary of Kurt Lischka, the new Gestapo chief. After he was assigned to Paris, he needed a bilingual secretary. I took the role immediately. It seemed like a good opportunity to put my French to use.”
“Well, Fräulein Emma Schuller, I am impressed! Beautiful and smart. What else do you need, General Strauss?” In one hand, he held his glass of champagne, while the other was shaking Dieter’s hand. “I am afraid if I stay, I might start courting your Fräulein, but it would not be appropriate of me. Enjoy the rest of your evening! Prost!”
He raised his glass at them and left the room. Dieter seemed to enjoy the conversation with the Colonel, as he escorted him out of the door with his eyes after he left. As he turned back to Emma, his facial expression turned too, into a more serious version of himself.
“Will you marry me, Emma Schuller?” Dieter kneeled down in front of her, pulling a ring out of his pocket. Suddenly, all eyes turned on them, and the people celebrating Dieter were now all looking at her, waiting.
She never hated him as much as she did now, putting such pressure on her in front of everyone. Emma imagined running away from this double life, from the war, from Dieter, far away forever. But it was happening.
And with a heavy sight that no one but her noticed, she replied to Dieter.
“Yes,” she said.