Fear and disbelief drip down the back of my neck. I am leaning against the wall, feeling cold, hard, merciless brick beneath my palm, hearing things—simple, life-giving things, such as breath and whispers and rustles of skirts—so loudly that I’m afraid my very listening will give me away. On my side, my Jewish charge, and I want to tell her to kneel, to get shorter, to do something other than stand there and look at me with those pleading eyes. To take off that necklace she wears, the little silver chain with the tarnished Star of David hanging limply from it.
No time, I remember, and it amazes me that even my thoughts come in short spurts.
My older brother Henk has practiced with me many times ever since he has taken it upon himself to open our home to the persecuted Jews. Many alarms I was sure were real turned out to be hoaxes, gentle deceptions, in benefit of my training. But this—no, this was no fraud. I had seen the tobacco-stained teeth out the window, the frilly mustaches. I had heard the front door slam and their feet ascend the stairway.
Leah’s hand edges into mine and I feel like falling into tears, enraged toward the Germans, hateful of everything they hold dear to them. How can they curse Leah, such a simple, innocent soul? What demon is tearing my continent, my precious Europe, apart so? Have these people not known kindness, and do they not understand how to imitate mercy?
Whispers in Yiddish. I can’t comprehend it. Funny, I think, that the soldier, the Jew, and I all speak different languages and come from different cultures, yet still live in mortal terror of the other.
Boots are getting nearer. They’re in the living room, perhaps, with the unstylish masses of Victorian furniture and its quaint view of the winding creek outside our townhouse window. From there it is a short leap into the hallway, then the closet door—from there, us, hiding behind the furs.
They don’t stop in the living room; steady, trim clicks are advancing down the hall. Leah’s hand grows a tighter grasp on mine, and my eyelids suddenly fall shut, staying tightly latched. I’m so still—my breath, my thoughts, my very heart has stopped—I’m afraid God might mistake me for dead.
The door cracks. The light bulb, hanging from a dusty string from the ceiling, suddenly tosses a pool of light upon the floor. The door wafts shut again, and here we are, together: three different people from three very different beliefs.
The hangers to our left start clacking and his shoe, with a forlorn stalk of a pants leg growing off of it, is right in front of me. I realize he smells of stale brandy, of restless wandering, of dust. I accidentally think of the shoe polish on the shelf right above our heads, that he might be able to use, but I scold myself for thinking that.
Suddenly he yanks a coat away and is staring into my face, then Leah’s. We both stand there, silent for a moment, as I wash my eyes over his clean-shaven, dirt-smudged face. He doesn’t look like Hitler—he looks more like Henk, an honest man caught up in something bigger than his imagination would let him ponder.
“Who are you?” he asks, voice rough.
“I’m Leis, sir, and this is Leah,” I whisper.
“And why ever are you here in this dusty closet?” As he speaks I see his teeth are darkened, a small scar meekly clinging to his lip.
“You scared us, sir,” I managed. “We hid as soon as we could.”
“Poor darlings. Come out—it’s cold in here,” he says, and he holds open the door for us as we uncertainly, defeatedly, trudge out to the hall.
Suddenly I remember—Leah’s necklace—her Star of David! If the soldier found that, he would have proof, proof that she’s a Jew, proof of her country, her heritage, her ancient culture. I glance at her neck but she’s torn it off and thrown it on the floor—I look back at it in the closet, watching its glitter, praying the soldier doesn’t notice it sparkling there, like a trout in a silver spring. He’s gone on, though, to the other soldiers, to present us.
“Which one of you is the Jew?” is our greeting, spouted from an older, fattened man. “Or are you both Jews?”
“Jew?” I whisper faintly. “There are no Jews . . .”
“Which one? There’s been reports of Jews hiding in this house! Which one of you is Jewish?”
Our soldier interjects, “They’re children, Setzlich. Danish besides.” Here he glances, silencingly, at us. “It has been said the Danish don’t lie. Jews indeed.”
“The Danish don’t lie,” mutters Setzlich, glaring at us both as his voice tumbles into a tumult of anger. “You idiot, Schmidt! The best lying in the business comes from the Danish—I swear, they’ve got the devil on their side!” His hand suddenly reached out and grasped my collar. “Girl,” he growled, “girl, how many rooms is this house?”
“This is all,” I say, truthfully, and, distrusting me, he slowly lets go of my dress. “The living room, bathroom, and closet.”His eyes stay on me. “Search the cursed closet again, Schmidt,” Setzlich whispers, voice trembling with loathing. “Goderstadt already got the bathroom. See if there’s any more. Then we’ll see if the Danish don’t lie.”
“Yes, sir,” says our soldier, and Leah and I exchange terrified looks. A search of the closet would mean the discovery of the Star of David twinkling on the floor, would mean our arrest, might even mean our deaths. My entire heart has suddenly twisted in torment—I can’t think, and can’t breathe. I hear him throwing a ruckus around in there—oh, why make it painful? Just expose us as liars, as protectors of the Jews, of God’s chosen people.
He comes out then, expressionless. “Nothing,” he says, and I look at him, confused. How could he have missed it there, meandering along the floor? He looks at me, oddly. “You know, you both look remarkably like my own two little girls,” he whispers, a little painfully, trying to force his chapped lips into a smile. “My two very good little girls. And so polite, too—the gentlemen will be competing for the attentions of you both. Trust me, I know these things.” A pause. “Godspeed.”
We all tilt there for a moment, on an unseen axis of disbelief.
“Let’s go, then, Setzlich.”
Setzlich casts suspicious glances between us but gathers his rifle and storms back out the door. Our soldier follows him, down the stairs and away, not once looking back.
For a moment Leah and I stand, side by side, watching the lace curtain billow out toward the street.
“It is a Passover,” she finally says.
It takes many days and nights for the war to drag on, many more close calls until the war in our country dies. And a week after this triumph is proclaimed across the face of the scarred and haggard world, a few days before the Germans retreat from our city of Copenhagen, I receive a small crumpled envelope in the mail. I open it on the doorstep, windswept with the ashes from the firecrackers of celebrations, and out of it pours a small note, written hurriedly in German—”You might want to give this back to Leah”—and a silver waterfall.
It takes me a moment to realize the broken chain, crooked on my palm, is the Star of David.