Paris, Christmas Eve, 1941
SS Lieutenant Remy Schildmann marched his soldiers along rue des Martyrs, scattering the few shop- keepers and workmen still out just before curfew that dark night. The German soldiers, in France, were oblivious to Paris and didn’t care. They were oblivious to how the city’s glorious, distinctive residential buildings were built to Haussmann’s specifications, oblivious to the stealth of the falling snow, and oblivious to the terror they struck in the Parisians hidden by blackout shades as the squad came in goosestep up their street.
At Schildmann’s barked order, “Halt!” they jolted to a standstill before a large whole-block, stone-faced, five-floor structure marked by the perfect alignment and symmetry of its balconies, windows and mansard roofs. It was a perfect French architecture and would have bustled with occupants and visitors just six short months ago before the Germans came pouring into France, but that wasn’t the case. The soldiers were perfect German SS and a late-night visit was underway.
At number 217 they entered the building with its cuprous awning and leering gargoyles, clomped inside, across the parquet floor, their jackboots leaving snow prints behind, and climbed the twisting staircase up four floors. Lieutenant Schildmann led the way.
At the top of the landing they turned right and pounded on the locked walnut door. A peephole opened; Remy— Lieutenant Schildmann—shouted in French. “Open before we break this door down!” The door squeaked open, the soldiers stormed inside. Remy’s eyes swept around, taking it all in, understanding who they were dealing with. The spacious apartment featured elegant architectural flour- ishes: high ceilings, parquet flooring, floor-length windows and intricate wood and plasterwork. A young woman drew open the door then backed away, backing until pressed up against a white fireplace mantle and elegant gold fluting, arms wrapped around her torso, cowering, now turning away. To the woman’s right, just entering the room came a man maybe five years older than Remy’s 21 years. He was carrying a bottle of wine in his right hand and two stemmed glasses between the fingers of his left hand. A drink before bedtime was planned. He was still wearing suit pants and a white shirt from the day, with a smoking jacket. The wife was dressed in a long, willowy robin’s egg blue lounging dress, her long arms and bare feet exposed and safe—up to now—in her own home.
“Do you know why we’re here?” demanded Remy. At this point he was feeling feverish, hating everything about himself for what he was about to do. He shut off his feelings and commanded the inner German soldier clutching his heart to turn loose and step forward. It would take someone other than the Remy he knew to deal with this couple and, God forbid, their children if any were asleep in the
bedrooms. Luckily—for Remy, unluckily for the couple— his inner German stormed forth and spoke.
“We’ve come to take you to Gestapo headquarters. You must come and answer Captain Heiss’s questions.”
“But it’s late and we aren’t dressed. It’s Christmas Eve. We have no one for our daughter—” protested the husband, the father. Whereupon, one soldier reversed his carbine and struck the father in the face with the butt end of the gun. The man fell back, blood erupting in a spray from his nose and mouth.
“Take them downstairs,” Remy ordered. He needn’t have said a word; this was a nightly ritual, the rousting of Jews from their homes. They had already done a dozen others that night. The SS had started with a list of the most prom- inent among the Jewish population and was working its way through them, a shears pruning a thorny branch. The young man tonight, Nussbaum, was the reserve conductor of the Philharmonie de Paris who also played second violin. Now he and his wife were headed for the camps outside Paris for processing then off to Auschwitz or Treblinka in Poland. Remy knew they would likely die before New Year’s.
“The bedrooms?” asked Private Friedrich. “He said there was a child?”
“Nein,” said Remy, “I’ll do the bedrooms. You help with the vermin.”
With that, Remy strode toward the hallway and what- ever bedrooms awaited. There were three: the master bedroom, now empty; a second bedroom along the hallway, filled with stringed musical instruments and four chairs; a third bedroom, lights off. Remy flicked the light switch and stared into the face of a sleeping girl of three or four with brown curls clutching a rag doll to her chest, sound asleep. The image of her being trundled off to Auschwitz and certain death caused him to stagger. He all but went down to his knees. Already that night he’d sent a dozen children away on the camp trains and his heart was breaking. Could he stand to send away even one more? His job was to roust her up and drive her downstairs to join her parents in the prisoner lorry. But instead, the twist of her lips, the curls on her head, the tiny hands—something, or everything— brought him to a standing halt. He was death hurtling toward everyone in his path; now, he was not. Instead of driving her downstairs he was lifting her from beneath her bedcovers and carrying her to her armoire. Clutching the sleeping girl in his left arm he pulled open the right side door with his right hand. He jerked down a flurry of her clothes from their hangers and laid the sleeping child upon them. Just as quietly, he shut the door, slid the latch, turned and flicked off the only light. He stole back into the living room.
“What?” said Corporal Friedrich. “Where are the children?”
Remy shook his head. Here he was at a crossroad. “No children. Musical instruments, that sort of thing.”
Friedrich took a step toward the hallway. “Suppose I have a look, Lieutenant. Perhaps you missed something.”
“Corporal, I’m ordering you to proceed downstairs and prepare the prisoners for transport.”
“A quick look.”
“Corporal! Are you disobeying my direct order? There is nothing to discuss here.”
“Nothing, Lieutenant? Very well. But I’ll be back later tonight with orders from the captain. I can promise you that, sir.”
The “sir” was sarcastically emphasized. The man knew Remy all too well and had his ploy figured from the beginning. Friedrich would confront Remy’s captain, as was his right, and ask to return here—also his right.
“Sir, yes, sir,” Friedrich said at last, bowing to his lieu- tenant’s command. “I only hope you’ve searched well, sir.”
“I’ll be down momentarily, Corporal. First, I must locate the safe and see about jewelry and francs.” It was a standard procedure for the officer in charge of the detail to steal whatever valuables he might find lying around. Later, he would share with his troops—if he wished, and Remy always did.
No sooner was Corporal Friedrich gone from the apart- ment than Remy dashed to the telephone and dialed the phone number belonging to Claire Vallant. She picked up on the second ring.
“Claire. Come to 217 rue des Martyrs immediately. Third bedroom, armoire. A small girl is locked inside. Take her away from this madness. I’ll talk to you in the morning.”
Then he hung up without waiting for her reply.
But then what? He was suddenly dizzy. He considered his actions.
ONE OF THE FIRST CASUALTIES WHEN GERMANY CAME POURING into France six months earlier had been Remy Schildmann. In early July, after they signed the German-French armistice, Remy was all but abducted by his own father and driven to Nazi headquarters in Paris where he was delivered to the Kommandant and ordered to begin military training for the Führer’s army.
He was still in shock two days later. He had been stripped of his civilian clothes—the clothes of a student— and outfitted with the uniform of a Schutzstaffel—SS—
soldier without the SS lightning bolts—unearned and unbestowed. As yet. Due to his father’s Berlin connections, Remy was commissioned an SS lieutenant.
Remy reported for duty under Captain Daniel Schlossmaier, a severe, dangerous man who wasted no time letting Remy know he didn’t think the recruit had what it took to be an SS officer. He assigned Remy to the role of rouster—a member of a German team that, at night, went house to house rousting Jews from their slumbers in the middle of the night, separating some for the concentration camps and some for the citywide work details, and, in all cases, robbing them of everything of value. Remy was cut deeply by the enforced servitude; his heart ached for the Parisians he rousted, beat, sent to their deaths, and robbed blind. In the early morning hours, back in his bunk at head- quarters, he would pull his pillow over his head in those early days and cry himself to sleep.
But before long his skin thickened. In his mind he plotted how he would use his position to undermine the German war effort and the German occupation effort however possible. The victim was quickly becoming a traitor to Germany and a French loyalist with tendencies and strong intentions that went way beyond what he had known before they conscripted him. His feelings were now the feelings of a man. His plans for launching his own counter-offensive were the plans of a man soldier, no longer a student playing at war.
He learned everything he could about all the modern German guns and armaments. He took a course in explosives, and volunteered for training as an infiltrator, a forward scout who would enter countries before Germany declared war. The day came when he could no longer be denied. Captain Schlossmaier himself pinned the SS lightning bolts onto Remy’s collar one freezing morning in November when the snowflakes fell across the camp and the coal-fired furnaces of what was once a Paris electric substation, now commandeered to serve as a Nazi head- quarters, blazed industriously and warmed the freezing German administrative buildings.
AFTER SENDING CORPORAL FRIEDRICH DOWNSTAIRS WITH THE second-chair violinist and his wife, Remy found the wine bottle the husband had left on the fireplace mantle. It was open. Remy drank down a mouthful of the sparkling liquid. Then another. It was almost too much for him and for just a moment he felt an urge to roust the sleeping child from the armoire and take her downstairs with her parents. It would be far safer for him to do so. As it was, he was in danger of being shot for dereliction of duty if caught hiding the child. But a third drink of the alcohol warmed his gut and his extremities and his courage returned. To hell with the German high command and to hell with Friedrich and his returning here. He was saving the child, and that was the end of it.
He replaced the cork, set the bottle on the mantle, and headed for the door.
Pulling it closed behind him, he paused on the dimly lit landing, said a quick prayer for the girl, and clomped down the ancient stairs.
She now belonged to him.