February 20, 1939
YAEL: Madison Square Garden. New York, USA
If we fail today, we might as well throw in the towel.
My ears hammer against the roarin’ crowd. We must stop the rallying call for a Nazi Party in America. The last thing we need in the middle of the Depression is a fascist party here to support the one the Nazis are building in Germany. Everyone’s still nursin’ their wounds from the Great War.
I catch the cold iron bar—the one I spent all night sawin’ off with my hacksaw—on the first bounce. But the clank it makes between Sieg Heil chants signals our death warrant. My heart freezes as I scan forty-thousand blinkin’ eyes around the arena. I wonder which ones have read through my fake salute? Blood thrusts through my veins like water loadin’ in a fire hose. I almost vomit. Dangit! I’m my own worst enemy.
The pumpin’ in my body mounts like a geyser ready to blow. Right here and now, maybe I should grab my fellow fighters and exit the Germandom defiling the Garden. Yes. Madison Square Garden. New York City, USA. The last time I was here I was sixteen and my best pal, Harry Levine, knocked out another heavyweight to win the 1936 Golden Glove. Now, just three years later, the Bund’s American Führer, Fritz Kuhn, is celebrating Der Tag—The Day—on Washington’s birthday in the most iconic American arena we have.
Another cheer goes up and shakes the ceiling rafters. The heat from heiling bodies curdles my stomach as if I’d swallowed gasoline. I fume when I think about how Kuhn is bastardizing our American symbol into a red, white and blue Nuremberg Rally on our sacred Washington’s Birthday, February 20, 1939. Today, the stainin’ of an American symbol, tomorrow our country could be consumed by a brewin’ dictatorship if Hitler marches on Europe. The disgust rears saliva in the back of my throat. I hack out the salty vile.
Even if I’m not as stupid as I am brave, my options are limited. Blockin’ the aisles, seven hundred brown-shirted, swastika wielding, high-booted Hitler replicas are poundin’ their boots against the coliseum floor to the beat of the drum corps. Many of them are not much older than me. Addin’ insult to injury, the mockin’ color guards wave their swastika flags side by side with American ones. I clamp myself to the floor. Let’s face it. At this point, I have one choice. Pray no one kills me.
Beads of sweat simmer on my brow. Any false hopes of escape are dashed as a glint bounces off the brass knuckles of my worst nightmare, Axel Von du Croy. The light licks my good wool suit. Well, my only suit. Behind the uniformed soldier, his fixer, Frank Schenk, pokes another Gestapo-type Stormtrooper and grabs a third. He leads a squadthrough the masses toward us, disrupting unified party cheers of Free America. Free America. Free America.
But we, they call us the Newark Minutemen, are trained boxers. We won’t be knocked out without a fight. Our members are scattered throughout The Garden. To the left are Maxie and Al Fisher, Nat Arno, and Abie Bain. Nearby are Puddy Hinkes, Harry Levine, and his cousin Benny. And then there’s me, Yael Newman. The eight of us muscle against the press of fanatics, forcin’ our way through the crowd. We wedge between Hitler disciples and chafe against Nazi regalia. The evil glares tell me we’re not makin’ friends. We clamber over seats, step on black boots and duck under Hitler salutes. We’re searchin’ for the other members of our militia to gain a foothold that will help disrupt this ominous occasion. I’m countin’ on the rest of our scattered troops to slide their hidden iron bars down their sleeves into their fists. As I dodge a swastika-banded arm, my own bar falls again. But this time, I catch it breathlessly before it sets off alarms. Harry and I hurry toward the swarmin’ center aisle.
An amplified German accent booms. “Fellow Americans. American Patriots. I do not come before you tonight as a stranger. You will have heard of me through the Jewish-controlled press as a creature with horns, a cloven hoof, and a long tail.” I glance up at the stage. Below the towering portrait of George Washington, the Hitler uniformed Bund leader, Führer Fritz Julius Kuhn, leans into the microphone at the podium.
The hard-faced, square-jawed Führer pronounces what he calls a unified Germandom in America. “We Gentiles are fighting for an Aryan-ruled United States, insulated from dirty blacks, Japanese, Chinese, vermin Jews, dishonest Arabs, homosexuals, Catholics, and even useless cripples and alcoholics.” This shadow-Hitler party is putting democracy up for negotiation. There’s no doubt. I’ll bet my right arm that the Nazis are gonna start another world war.
Around me, the shoulder-belt wearin’ audience raises Hitler salutes to the six-foot, two-hundred plus pound bully. They’re cheering a man who is dehumanizing people. Peerin’ into the crowd, I cringe at the notion that so many good German-Americans who could be my own neighbors have bought into the Nazi stance. Sure they have inherited the high cheeked look. But it’s more. They have assumed that stiff carriage, that humorless expression. That mind that screams discipline and punctuality, rules and obedience. A heart that freezes everything they touch, like a tongue that freezes on an icy flagpole.
Kuhn commands his Aryan audience to demand that the government be returned to the American people. “We, the German-American Nazi Bund, will protect America against Jewish Communism parasites,” he says. My teeth clench. He’s a master at twisting thoughts. “We will protect our glorious republic and defend our Constitution from the slimy conspirators and . . . WE WILL MAKE AMERICA GREAT.”
Führer Kuhn stuns me with his words. From the next aisle, the commander of our Newark Minutemen, prizefighter Nat Arno, waves at me to keep movin’. But my distraction is costly. In the time it takes me to blink, khaki arms trimmed with a black spider woven on a red armband lock around me. They drag me toward the exit to the tune of a female voice singin’ the American anthem. “Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming—”
Chapter 1: Put on The Gloves
February 20, 1933
YAEL: Yael’s Apt. Hawthorne Avenue. Newark, NJ
It’s dark, but the light seeps through my closed eyes.
“Farshiltn!” my mother swears.
One eye peeks at Mama across the room. She picks up a worn leather bag in the kitchen near the scratched enamel gas stove. She zips the bag closed and tip-toes toward me.
My small bed creaks when she sits down. She runs her fingers through my hair. “Good morning my ‘golden kherd farshlofn kop,” she says the ending in Yiddish. Translated, that means blond-haired sleepy head. I stir under the scratchy blanket but pretend I’m not really awake. My Ma, Esther, whispers, “Your katzisher-kop of a father forgot this.”
I open my eyes.
She holds up the leather bag.
I can’t help myself. I giggle.
She puts her finger to her mouth to shush me so I won’t wake my two older brothers. Our beds are close, packed into the converted living room we share as our bedroom in the third story apartment above the candy shop. Ma and Pop sleep in the only bedroom. Ma used to curse at us in Yiddish when we jumped on her bed, tellin’ us to never forget we were born in there and to not knock the portrait of our Russian grandfather off the wall. Then we’d make her laugh. But she’s not laughing now. “I need you to take this to Papa at the docks,” she whispers. “He’s working for Mr. Zwillman. It’s his food and clothes.” She sets it next to the bed.
“How many days will he be gone this time?” I ask.
Mama holds up five fingers and plants a kiss on my head. My brothers would never let her do that, but I’m gonna let her until I turn thirteen in a few months. “Dress warmly,” she says. She plonks Pop’s worn boots and socks next to the bed and hands me some change. “Geyn, geyn,” she says. “Take the trolley so you won’t be late for school.” She returns to the kitchen and her chores.
I swing my legs off the bed and press the change into the pocket of the pants I wore to bed. My feet scuffle against the cold floor until I pull on the scratchy socks and slide into the oversized boots. Our drafty apartment warns me about the unfriendly morning I must face, so I sneak my brother Dov’s sweater off his bed. I tug it over my head and come face to face with boxer Benny Leonard. Not the real life Benny Leonard. But the photo of my icon on the cover of Muscle Builder magazine that’s taped on the wall above my bed. My father says Leonard is a more important Jew than Albert Einstein since more people know who he is. Pop’s promised to take me to a match. I’m gonna be a boxer just like Leonard. He attacks like a machine gun. Perfect aim. Rapid fire. And he believes he’s gonna win. I slip on a coat and gloves and grab the leather bag. As I open the door, Mama pulls down a wool newsboy cap over my ears and pushes a cream cheese sandwich into my empty hand.
YAEL: Third Ward and Newark Bay Docks. Newark, NJ
On the trolley toward the docks, I clutch the suitcase between my legs so it won’t bounce. The window is frosty, but I can see Prince Street of the Third Ward where we used to live. Carts begin to line the curbs next to the shops. Pop says in this part of town they still don’t have hot water upstairs in the apartments like we do.
We pass the live poultry market where I often shop with Mama to buy chicken for Friday dinners. When we’re at the market, Ma sticks her hand in the cage and picks the chicken with the most fat on the bottom. The butcher chops it’s head off and plucks the feathers. My oldest brother, Marty, can’t stand all the blood splattered in the sawdust, but it doesn’t bother me.
The trolley clacks past dry goods stores, soda fountain shops, movie houses, bakeries, breweries, and synagogues. We stop for passengers. As bodies pack the trolley, the accents of Russians, Irish, Germans, and Italians collide. I can’t help but breathe in the hodgepodge of baked bread mixed with freshly gutted fish. Last week, I picked out a fish at the market. My ma smelled the gills and made me throw it back into the tank. Mama drives the butcher crazy. She embarrasses me when she makes him clean out the meat grinder every time. Still, he admires her.
I draw a triangle on the frosty window with the finger that sticks out of my glove and wipe away the film inside the shape. Through the cleared glass, I spot men waitin’ in the soup lines. Their knees judder against their baggy clothes like a car engine without enough fuel. Jobs are rare these days. My father and uncles are lucky. They’re bootleggers for Longie Zwillman. Pop calls Longie the King of the Jewish mob. Pop makes good money at the docks where runner boats drop booze. That’s illegal. The cops don’t bother him, though, because Longie takes care of everyone. With my finger, I add an upside-down triangle to make a star.
Just as I arrive at the foggy Newark bay docks, an old war truck swerves around me. “This ain’t a place for a kid!” the gunman hangin’ off the side yells at me. The curlin’ fog reminds me of ghosts clawin’ for my throat. Through it, it’s hard to spot any ship riggin’. I can only see the tips of bouncin’ bows. I balance myself along a braided boat line that guides me down the dock toward Pop’s runner boat at the end of the pier. I swing the suitcase to pitch me forward. As I near the boat, the mist shifts just enough for me to see my tall father. Next to him another man scratches the red stubble across his face. They’re securing ropes over the side of their boat.
When Pop opens a thermos and fills two cups, I’m close enough to sniff the roasted coffee, but he still doesn’t know I’m here. The opportunity is too good to pass. I smile to myself and spring into the boat, landin’ with a bang. Pop and the man swing around with guns aimed at my head. I dodge the flyin’ coffee just in time.
“Drek!” Pop curses. “Yael Newman! You know better than that.” He and his mate tuck the guns back under their shirts into their waistbands. Red-faced, he won’t look at me.
With my heart in my throat, I try to break the ice. “You forgot your clothes bag, Pop. I brought it for ya.” I hold his scuffed suitcase high like a trophy. My brother’s sweater swings across my knees.
After an awkward moment, Pop pulls the bag, along with me, into his arms for a hug. “Danks my son. I would have frozen and starved. Then what good would I be to Mr. Zwillman?” He slides the suitcase and pumps my cap over my eyes and back up again. The crow’s feet that bloom into a dozen crinkles around his eyes when he smiles warm me. When my father smiles, nothing in the world can hurt me.
“Joseph,” Pop’s friend says. “Longie Zwillman wouldn’t abandon you. He’s as loyal as any Jewish mob boss can be.”
“Longie takes care of his own,” my pop says. “Yael, this is my pal, Ruby.” He nods toward his partner.
Ruby extends his hand toward me, shakes it, and will not let go. “Oy vey,” Ruby says in his heavy Yiddish accent. “Your father’s right. You are very strong. I can see why you want to be a boxer.”
Suddenly, we hear heavy boots clomp against the wooden dock. Through the haunting fog, we see three men dressed like German soldiers appear and disappear. They remind me of that Grim Reaper flick with the creeper who has black holes for eyes. Their military coats sway in the wind. Adolph Hitler’s new German party haunts everyone now, even in America.
“Quick, Yael, hide,” Pop whispers, nudgin’ me. “Get under the bow.”
I scramble inside the shelter and close the canvas cover from inside. I hear Pop and Ruby’s coffee cups rattle inside the crate.
Peerin’ through a rip in the canvas, I see my hat floatin’ on the deck. With a pinch in my chest, I hear the men’s boots scrape to a stop.
“Gut morning, Kamerads,” the soldier says in a heavy German accent.
“May we help you?” my father asks. He lifts his flat, tweed cap, runs his hands through his wavy copper hair, and replaces the hat.
“How considerate,” the soldier cajoles. “I like a man with hospitality.” He squeezes the peak of his military cap.
The canvas slit is just big enough for me to see him and his tall, sinewy partner jump down into the boat. Their high black boots splash the water. With a hitch in my throat, I bend my eyes toward the dock and view the knees of a brawny third soldier.
“That’s a Yiddish accent I hear, yah?” the leader in the boat says. He trudges toward me. Before I know what hits me, a cold splash spurts through the opening and thwacks my eye. I bite my fist. He’s so close that any tweet will give me away. “My doctor in Berlin was Jewish,” he adds. “But our new German Chancellor, Führer Hitler, scared him out of town.” Through blurry vision, I see him whip a full-faced grin to the soldier on the dock.
The taller soldier behind him roams around. He checks under seats and opens crates. The black swastika on his blood-red armband plugs a lump in my throat. He rubs his sharp chin and points to the ledge of the boat. “It’s okay for me to sit here, sir?” His wry, amused voice solicits my father’s permission. As the soldier sits on the ledge without waitin’ for an answer, Pop rubs the stubble on his square jaw. The man spreads his legs. “I hope you will excuse our intrusion.” He apologizes in that fake polite way.
At the front of the boat, the leader hops up on the bow above my hidin’ place. His loud landin’ jolts me. “So, meine Freunde,” he says. “Please, have a seat. Relax on your nice boat.” He unbuttons his overcoat and the flaps slap against the canvas. Even from where I crouch under the cover, the mud on his boots reeks of rotten eggs.
Pop and Ruby follow orders and sit across from the other intruder on the boat ledge. This soldier also unbuttons his dark coat to reveal his military Sam Browne belt, supported by a narrow strap passin’ diagonally over his right shoulder. He reaches with his long arms, removes the thermos from the crate, and pours himself coffee. “Nothing like a hot cup of coffee,” he says. He wipes germs off the cup with his sleeve. “Grateful for your hospitality.” His eyes close as the muddy liquid passes between his lips. “Let me ask you,” he inhales and only then does he open his eyes. “As Americans, do you believe in democracy?”
Without a word, Pop clenches and opens his fists.
“Democracy gives you free choice, yes?” the soldier says with a condescending edge.
I hear Pop ignore him with all his might. After livin’ under the boots of Russia, my father knows the importance of bein’ able to say what’s on your mind. My throat clogs, fightin’ a scream that wants to shatter this transparent intruder into dust.
“My Kamerads and I believe in free choice, too. Don’t we?” the soldier says. He flips his head toward each of his men. “So, we are going to give you free choice today. You can choose. Hmh? You can freely surprise us with the treasures hidden on your boat. Or, we can tear you and the boat limb from limb.” He spreads his arms and smirks. “You choose.”
A cold sweat runs down my spine. They’re threatening my pop. I see his jowls bulge. He won’t let these terrorists win.
“You’ve made a mistake,” Ruby says. “There’s nothing we can do for you.”
A thin metal pipe dangles in my line of sight. It’s so close, my breath fogs it’s skin. The man sittin’ above me rubs it. My heart pops. Does he know I’m down here? I watch the steel Luger pistol roll between his hands. Then, with one swift movement, I hear him bang the grip of the barrel on the wooden bow above my head twice, flip it over, and clack the muzzle against the plank. My chest pounds. I hold my breath, imagining a bullet exiting through the gun, splintering the wood and burying itself into my skull.
The soldier on the ledge of the boat aims his weapon at him.
Ruby whips out his gun and aims it at the leader above me.
The third partner on the dock aims his gun down at Ruby. “Halt!” he shouts.
The man from the ledge of the boat jumps up, seizes the gun from Ruby, and shoves him back into his seat. He pats Pop’s waist, finds his pistol, and disarms him.
Pop raises his hands and steps back.
The black boot in front of me kicks my gray cap and it slides across the slick deck. “Hmm,” he murmurs. ”Do you think the stowaway can help us? He spreads his leathered legs. “Come join us, my boy!”
My brain reels for what seems like forever. I try to convince myself I’m hidden and safe. Maybe this soldier isn’t really talkin’ to me. Could be that ignoring the order is my best choice. On the other hand, if I explode through the tarp, I can surprise attack and push these evil men into the freezin’ water. The starburst from the risin’ sun beams through the canvas hole. It blinds me. l lose control of my own free will. In that moment, I push the canvas aside, crawl between the man’s legs, and search my father’s steel eyes. Papa flicks his eyebrows, signaling me to calm. I stiffen my trembling legs.
The officer rotates me with the tip of his gun. The medals on his chest rattle. “You could pass for a German lad with your blond hair and blue eyes,” he says as he runs the barrel through my hair. “A shame you have the dirty blood of a Jew.” He props his other leather-gloved hand on his silver swastika belt buckle.
The strappin’ soldier standin’ on the dock spreads his legs. The wood thumps below his heel. “You know who we are boy?”
My eyes roll up at him. “You are Americans in the German Nazi party. Like Hitler is in Germany,” I say as steadily as I can.
“Well said.” The man’s stiff iron grin stamps his cruel manner down on me. “And you know what American-Nazis are going to do for this great country?”
“Build an Aryan movement under the swastika,” I answer.
The three Nazis laugh. One almost chokes. “Your father has been filling your blond head,” the leader next to me says. “So, mein junger Freund. What does this mean?” He stomps his foot and water splashes up my wool pants. The freezin’ wet doesn’t cool my searin’ body.
“We true Americans are going to take our country back,” he continues and leans in close. As he speaks, his face muscles move his wiry eyebrows. “We’re going to clean up America. Because our country has gotten all mixed up with all these different colored Jews, Niggers, Catholics, the unclean gays. They have muddied our pure white blood.”
“When we mix blood, kid, we lose common morals,” his cohort from the boat ledge adds. “And civilization falls. That’s the last thing any of us would want to happen to America. Don’t you agree?”
The Nazi from the wharf extends his skin-tight gloved hand to me. “Get up here, boy!” he orders.
Pop nods to me. “Do as they say.”
The German soldier from the boat ledge yanks me by the collar. My throat gags and gasps at the same time. My fingers claw at his hands and my legs pedal against his hips. He shoves me toward the Nazi on the wharf and lifts himself up on the dock. The soldier on the dock locks his arm around my neck, but not before I fill my lungs.
“Chop nicht—take it easy!” my father says.
The leader from the bow waves his luger. “Why don’t you show us what you know we want. Maybe we can make a deal?”
The gun cocks and my pop finds himself starin’ down the iron barrel. He stands. “Of course. My choice,” Pop says as he raises his hands. He wags his head at Ruby. They wrap their chapped hands around the spiky ropes hangin’ over the side of the boat. They pull up a long, steel torpedo. Pop unscrews the warhead and extracts canisters of booze hidden inside.
The leader reaches in his pocket and removes a small metal box. He plucks a rolled-up cigarette from it and pinches it between his lips. He strikes a match against the side of the box and lights the cigarette. “Ingenious!” he says as he bares his teeth. “The bombs are rigged with air so they can float.” He inhales and then holds the cigarette between his two right fingers. “See, now we can be Freunde,” he says to my father. He blows the smoke and stabs it with his right hand. “Heil Hitler!” He waits for Pop and Ruby to return the salute. They refuse. He grins and neighs like a horse.
The American-Nazi leader rubs his leather-covered palms together. He throws Pop’s worn suitcase onto the dock at my feet. He springs from the boat onto the wharf and joins me. “Shnell!” the leader barks at Pop and Ruby. “Get the merchandise out and into the truck at the end of the dock.”
Then he orders his soldiers. “We don’t have all morning. Get these vermin working.” The soldiers aim their guns at my father and Ruby and watch them labor.
The leader sits down on the edge of the dock next to me. “Junge! Open the suitcase,” he says as if he’s celebrating his birthday. “Show me the goodies you brought us.”
I click the latches and hand him my mother’s homemade food from the bag. His cigarette flips off his fingertips and sails into the gnashin’ water below. He chomps into the thick bread that sandwiches my mother’s lamb from Friday night. Crumbs flip everywhere. He pats the dock. “Relax with me, Junge,” he says.
Burnin’ with outrage, I raise my chin and watch Pop and Ruby unload the bottles.
“I said sit!” he shouts. My insides curdle like milk with lemon as the foreign beast chews my family’s food like a horse. But I do as he commands.
His chewin’ pricks my nerves like barbwire, but not as bad as the German tune he hums. I distract myself by watchin’ Pop lift crates. His powerful chest loads with air each time he hoists. His strong back stretches his jacket when he lifts.
When Pop and Ruby finish, they stand on the dock between the two other soldiers.
The Nazi leader pushes himself up and kicks my thigh. I have never been so close to raw evil before, glimpsing its underbelly, reading it’s pockmarks and bulgin’ red veins. The Nazi extends his hand. He tries to overpower me.
“We had a deal,” Pop’s monotone voice warns.
A stillness wafts. I scramble up on my own.
Pop grits his jaw and narrows his eyes.
The Nazi’s breath scalds my neck for what seems like minutes.
“Abhauen!“ the commander yells at me to scram. Maybe manmade evil has a soft spot? I’m not sure, but I hesitate. If I flee, my fear will give it power.
My father breaks the stalemate. “Yael, leave.” The sound of my name flutters against my cheek like a moth. “Geyn. My malach.”
I step backwards, heal-first, down the dock, alternating my eyes between the raiders and the footprints my wet shoes stamp against the wood. I strain to hear the voices, but the splashin’ water against the pylons muffles them. My father vanishes and reappears through the smoky fog. I hear the Nazis command Pop and Ruby to strip off their shirts and put their hands behind their backs.
In a moment when the fog clears, father’s chalky torso appears. His arm blurs and he slinks a knife from underneath his belt. He swings it. The fog hinders my view. But the sounds tell the story. I hear the knife clack against the dock. My throat moans.
The haze thins. The soldiers’ licorice-colored coats waft through the mist. Pop and Ruby struggle. The Nazis bind the prisoners’ pink arms behind their backs. I watch, horrified as one of the crow-like men slips a muddy rope-loop around each of the bare necks.
The commander scoops up the knife from the dock and points it at my father’s face. “You dropped your knife,” he jeers. A loud, low fog horn in the harbor bellows. “Hold him still,” I hear him say. The officer twists the blade into my father’s chest. He carves a swastika. The whale-like drone of the foghorn swallows Pop’s groan.
My heart rants at the men. Stop! How could you? My thoughts race in circles like a marble loopin’ down a pipe.Then my heart rants at me. Act! My desperation double-crosses me. My boots nail to the wharf. My feet won’t move.
The two other Nazis push Pop and Ruby off the pier. The early sun paints the sea under them a yellow green. I grasp one last look from my pop’s valiant eyes as he falls. My heart rips like a cotton bedsheet torn for rags. There is a snap. My father and Ruby swing from the pylons. Their ankles quiver. Then their heavy shoes dangle toward the waves. Their bodies bounce against the post, knock into each other and revolve like two stones on strings.
The American-Nazi waves his Heil Hitler salute at me. Now that I’ve grasped evil, its shadow stands toe to toe with me. I have nowhere to hide. That only leaves me one choice—to fight for my life.
KRISTA: Bookstore. Hawthorne Avenue. Newark, NJ
Papa shakes me so hard that the hair braid I’m sucking on flicks out of my mouth. When he bellows bloodcurdling threats into my hearing ear, my heart wishes I could erase the upside-down triangle off the damp bookshop window. I drew it so I could see inside through the dark. I promise him I’ll never toy with the Jude symbol again, that yellow Star of David I saw in Papa’s German newspaper. There was a photo of a Jewish shop window near our old home in Berlin. The idea came to me when my older sister, Heidi, stamped her face against the frosty window. The cold made her cheek turn red and hid the bruise under her eye. My father rubs the symbol so hard with his bare palm that it seems like he’s trying to erase my reflection, too. Shivering, I wipe the rain off my face and watch it spring off the glassy sidewalk like it’s afraid of breaking the bricks.
I know I must not cry or Papa will get madder. He’s already angry at the rain for ruining his new uniform. He’s so proud to be an officer in America for the National Socialist Party under our new leader, Adolph Hitler. He calls his group the Friends of New Germany. Yesterday, he said, “Be grateful that I’m helping the new Führer take back what’s ours.” Heidi told me we are lucky and Papa and the Nazis around the world will finally be treated with respect. She said we might even raise an army even though Germany’s not allowed.
My father pounds on the bookstore door. “Aufmachen!” he hollers. “I know you’re in there. Open up!” I know my father expects obedience, so I don’t flinch when he dents the wood door panel with his fist. But I don’t like how he treats people, and I guess my face shows it because Heidi blocks his view. I glance at her. Since my mother died giving birth to me, Heidi’s the only mother I’ve ever known. I’m torn between thanking her for saving me from a knuckling and wishing I could stand up to Papa on my own. I see Heidi zip up her jacket to her neck and I copy her.
There is movement inside the shop. The light waltzes and spills across shelves and boxes and tables of books. A willowy figure appears and bends his wire-rimmed glasses until they hold behind his ears. His alarmed eyes peer through the window at Heidi and me. He scuttles to the door of his store and unlocks it.
Before the man can speak, Papa forces open the unlatched door. My father shoves the thin man into a pile of books stacked on the floor. The books collapse like the burning Reichstag Building that Führer Hitler blamed on the Communists. Heidi and I crouch down, hiding under Papa’s shadow as the musty smell of the shop pinches my nose.
The shaken man on the floor adjusts his glasses. “Günther?” his low voice cracks. How does he know our father? He even calls him by his first name, like an old friend.
My father grabs the top book from a pile on a table. “A Farewell to Arms,” he reads. “Ach! Hemingway. Insolent writer! He insults our Kamerad in Italy, Benito Mussolini.” Last year, when I read this book about the Great War in school, Papa complained the story betrays our German soldiers, making them feel their fight in the Great War was a waste of time. My teacher said the book is just about learning to expect the unexpected. He told us the book’s not about war, but about love, and that feelings just happen to people who connect. I’m close enough to my father to smell a sour belch. Abruptly, Papa rears his arm back like a catapult. I jerk sideways to avoid getting struck. He hurls the book at the shopkeeper’s head, who isn’t as lucky.
The man rolls, his chin curls against his chest. His elbows hoist him off the ground and he stands on his knees. I imagine he once stood like a statue. His strong cheekbones push against his weathered face as if they’d fought against windy rain for too long. He palms his head. Red ooze paints his light hair. When he sees his blood-smeared hand, his eyes dart from my father to me. His olive eyes graze my green ones. “How did you find me?” he asks Papa.
“Töchter!” Papa orders my sister and me. “Empty the boxes. Put the filth of the treacherous authors on the floor where it belongs.” He picks up another book. “The Metamorphosis by Kafka,” he reads. “Actually, the man in this story who turns into a beetle is a wonderful metaphor of the Jew, don’t you think, mein Freund?” He chucks the book at his enemy, who ducks just in time.
I instinctively step to help the man, but Heidi grabs me before my father sees. She’s right, as always. This man must have done something very bad.
“Papa, can I keep this book?” Heidi holds up Westen nichts Neues.“My friend is thirteen, too, and she read All Quiet on the Western Front last summer.” She nudges me with her eyes to grab a book of my own.
“If Heidi gets one, I want this one, Papa.” I hold Emil und die Detektive close to my nose and sniff the green apple smell of new ink. Back in Berlin, I used to read this adventure to my imaginary mother up in heaven, about a hero who rallied the city to catch the bank robbers. For a moment, the memory transforms me into a warrior leading the charge.
Papa marches toward us and whips Heidi’s book from her hand. He backhands me across my arm with it. “This book is dirt written by that unpatriotic author, Remarque,” he exclaims. “He dares to present Germans as cowards afraid of war!” He wings the book at a bookshelf and reams of paper cascade to the floor. The Three Penny Opera, Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Bambi. “The German man will throw these books aside, so his character can live!” Papa cries.
I squeeze my book. When I’m sure no one is looking, I stuff it into the pocket of my jacket. The man kneeling on the floor sees me. I exchange furtive glances with him. His face is unfamiliar. But somehow, I know him. Maybe he was at the school gathering on Sunday for Führer Kuhn’s Eintopf, the one-pot sauerkraut and beans dinner that helps us save money for important donations to the Party. Or maybe I met him the night we all dressed up and went to the New York Philharmonic to hear Hanz Pfitzer because Papa wanted us to experience respectable music that’s everything American jazz isn’t. Plus, he told us, listening to the Party’s music would bring us all together under one roof—Gleichshaltung. I remember Heidi and I wore matching new dresses and Papa wore his white bow tie and long tails. He reminds me of a penguin in that suit, but I don’t dare tell him. After all, he’s my father.
Papa scolds the man on the floor. “We no longer tolerate vulgar words that criticize German soldiers.” Then he turns to Heidi and me. “Let’s recite Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels’ command for burning books. Mein Freund here has been away from Berlin for a long time now. Not sure if he knows it.”
We chant the mantra we’ve heard many times before. “From this wreckage the new times will arise from the flame that burns in our hearts.” Papa has told us that burning blasphemous books gives us hope, especially in America.
“Heidi! Krista!’ he yells. “Gehen! Meet me at home. Schnell!”
Something bad is going to happen. I can feel it in my bones. “What are you going to do, Papa?” I look down at the stranger and my heart shivers with his. His caked hair sticks to his cracked glasses. His heaving chest stings my heart.
Heidi yanks me out the front door and hustles me down the slick sidewalk. Moments later, a bellowing roar scorches our ears and nostrils. I turn and see my father preaching to the burning shop. What happened? He tips his bottle of bootleg whiskey to his lips. Then hot orange flames glint in his eyes. As the fire cremates the bookstore, I strain to understand his muffled words above the crackling rumble. My hearing isn’t good enough to hear. He flicks a roasting cigarette into the heap.