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The Price of Escape

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March 15, 2011

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Photograph via Flickr by autowitch

 

Excerpt from The Price of Escape, available in bookstores April 5th.

Samuel Berkow could have sent one of the clerks to check on why the Martin belts hadn’t been delivered to the store just yet, but he wanted to go out. The warehouse was in the Saint Pauli district near the Elbe shipyards a short distance away. Despite the whorehouses and ruckus bars, Samuel liked the docks. It was the only place where you could feel some resistance to the Nazis; at least the fed up workers still had the guts to protest.

Though it was June, the sun was nowhere to be seen. In fact, the day was like a day in January. It wasn’t raining, but there was smoke and fog everywhere and it seemed as if soot belched by the cargo ships and factories was drizzly dripping down the side of the buildings. Samuel walked quickly, past the fish shops and restaurants, and more than a few beer joints and cheap hotels that lined the dreary streets to the river. When he was still a few blocks from the docks, he saw the tower of the Landungsbrücken building on the shores of the Elbe. The clock marked four o’clock. He would be seeing his Uncle Jacob at seven.

The port area, after sundown, was a dangerous place for anyone who didn’t belong. It was full of sailors, spies, and agents, not to speak of thieves and muggers who preyed on the emigrants, many of whom were from Eastern Europe and paid exorbitant prices to live in the hotels. They hid gold and silver sewn inside their jackets, which they would give to dubious smugglers who promised to get them on ferries to London or Rotterdam.

It was here near the Überseebrücke jetty on the waterfront square where the radio had said trouble was brewing. It reported that one of the munitions factories was running well short of its quota and some workers—Communists and anarchists, the radio commentator had said—were claiming they had been working nonstop. They had also not been paid for five weeks and had not had a single day off—so they said—and felt that they had been unduly asked to sacrifice for the soldiers on the front.

When Samuel reached the square, he saw trouble. A group of workers in green overalls had gathered in front of the customs and shipping offices near the Landungsbrücken building and had erected a makeshift stage out of pallets and plywood taken from the nearby warehouses. Speakers were hectoring the workers, stirring them up.

Samuel could see that the demonstrators had sticks, pipes, and wooden struts in their hand. A few were brave enough to carry signs protesting the lack of pay or illustrating the Communist symbol—a gigantic clinched fist.

A dozen stevedores in blue outfits soon joined the factory workers from the shipyards on the other end of the square. Samuel, wearing a raincoat over his suit, looked out of place here, and so he decided to watch the demonstration from under a wooden canopy by an empty loading dock. To his right he saw two men watching the demonstration; one of them leisurely smoked a cigarette on the running board of a black car and looked through binoculars while the other spoke animatedly into a walkie-talkie—he was watching the protesters and reporting on what he saw.

Otherwise, the square was ominously empty.

From where he stood, Samuel could see that the demonstrators had sticks, pipes, and wooden struts in their hand. A few were brave enough to carry signs protesting the lack of pay or illustrating the Communist symbol—a gigantic clinched fist.

Mass gatherings had been prohibited by the Gestapo and on several occasions, strikers and protesters had been beaten and shot. They were provoking the government. Nothing good would come of this.

Suddenly the wind blew hard and the voices grew quiet. Samuel heard the creaking and jangling of wires from the cranes in the shipyard across the river and one or two foghorns sounding in the distance. The snapping of the flags that flew above and from the standards of many buildings could also be heard.

Samuel felt his blood beating faster.

Suddenly he heard a rumbling behind him. Dozens of SS and Gestapo came thundering down the street he had just walked on. The noise grew increasingly louder until his eardrums vibrated. The first thing Berkow saw were the boots, almost in unison, pounding the cobblestones like the running of bulls. And then he saw a dozen brown shirts with Nazi armbands passing him with billy clubs and rifles in their hands.

If he had crossed their path, they would have trampled him.

He then saw a larger group of policemen rushing the protesters from across the square. They seemed to come out of nowhere, but clearly they had been hiding in the Altereb Tunnel connecting Hamburg to the other docks across the Elbe. They had waited for the signal to charge.

The stevedores suddenly moved back, pulled out their guns, and began firing at the workers as well. They were surrounded now, with nowhere to escape. Bullets and billy clubs started flying and the workers did all they could to protect themselves with their sticks and signs. One or two tried to scale the walls of the customs building and were shot down. Sirens sounded and five or six jeeps with soldiers came into the square.

But the soldiers weren’t needed. The massacre was over. Samuel could see only shadows because of the blue smoke and fog, but he knew that thirty to forty men had been mowed down.

Just then, a man and a boy came into the square holding hands, wearing dark suits, white shirts, and black hats. Samuel made a vague attempt to get them to turn back, but they were striding quickly, talking among themselves. He saw the Nazi with the walkie-talkie wink to his colleague before pulling a gun out of his coat pocket. Without hesitating, he fired three or four shots pointblank and the Hasidic Jews staggered to the ground.

Samuel fell back against the wall. He heard laughter and clapping. His throat and tongue were dry, his chest ached. He couldn’t believe what had just happened. Two people killed in a flash, like ashes flicked from a cigarette.

He felt disgust, but there was nothing he could do. If the Nazis had seen him, he, too, would’ve been killed.

When the car drove off, Samuel turned up his collar and hurried back to the store the way he had come. He would be seeing his Uncle Jacob in a few hours. What would he tell him? That he had come within an inch of being killed or that the Martin belts had never made it from England?

      *    *   *  *       

“Come in, come in,” Jacob welcomed his nephew into the foyer of his apartment hours later. His reading glasses were perched on his deeply lined forehead. He helped Samuel off with his raincoat and hung it on the metal rack behind the front door. “What’s it like outside?”

Samuel knew that his uncle was not referring to the Hamburg weather. “You know that I wear it more for warmth than rain—”

“—Stop it. You know what I’m talking about. What I heard on the radio.”

Samuel sucked in on his teeth. “There was a big confrontation between factory workers and the SS. Several men were killed near the docks; at least that’s what I heard.”

“Last week it was a brown shirt rally claiming that no country in the world wanted to accept the Polish Jews Hitler was only too happy to deport. You mix beer with stupidity and before you know it, ten Jews are dead.”

Samuel shook his head, saying nothing of what he had seen.

“The only power we have left is to leave—and even that is quickly disappearing,” his uncle went on. He led Berkow by the hand toward the den where he and his cousins were never allowed to play when they were kids. The room hadn’t changed much: the old peeling upright, never played now; the bookcases filled with dusty tomes in gold and brown leather; and the two armchairs where his father and uncle sat when they needed to discuss things privately.

On the wall were two Dürer etchings of a printing press seen from different angles.

His uncle called out as they passed the kitchen. “Lottie, bring the tea to the den. Two cups. My nephew’s here. And any of those English toffee cookies we have left.”

“Yes, Herr Berkow,” she called back.

Samuel took the blue chair his father normally occupied. Jacob sat down across from him. He removed his glasses from his head and placed them on the table. “I’ve called you over, Samuel, because any day you’ll be arrested. I want you to leave Germany now.”

The curtains had been drawn back and pinned behind hooks. The cool June air entered the room; his uncle always left the windows slightly open. Samuel could see the row of chestnut trees that lined Lutterothstrasse down below his Uncle Jacob’s apartment. Across the street was a small park full of linden trees. Samuel had played with his cousins in the park, holding on to the iron bars laughing and squealing as the red carousel spun.

It had been a more innocent time.

His uncle shook his head. “You have to leave Europe, Samuel. Once Franco consolidates power, he will begin rounding Jews up.”

He wanted to tell his uncle what he had seen, but he couldn’t. “I don’t know if I’m ready to leave.”

Jacob put his hand on Samuel’s leg. “I’ve written to Heinrich to tell him you’re coming. Guatemala City is obviously not Hamburg, but Heinrich seems to think it is a welcoming environment for Jews in general. One thing is certain. You can’t stay here. I’ve already bought your ticket for the boat to Panama.”

“Uncle Jacob, don’t you think I have a say in this? I’m a grown man.”

“I promised your father to keep an eye on you. There’s no other choice.”

“I could go stay with my mother and sister in Palma. Mallorca is quiet and Franco is ignoring Hitler’s orders to arrest Jews.”

His uncle shook his head. “You have to leave Europe, Samuel. Once Franco consolidates power, he will begin rounding Jews up.” Jacob shifted in his armchair, trying to find a more comfortable position. “Besides, your mother’s coming back to Hamburg this week. I’ve tried to dissuade her, but she and your sister, well, they are so much alike that they can’t get along. Two years with your sister is enough. I’m sure you know what I mean,” he said smiling.

Samuel nodded. He didn’t understand his mother. Why had she refused to come back for her husband’s funeral after thirty-five years of marriage?

“There’s no future for you here.”

“And what will you do, uncle?” Samuel asked, trying to change the subject. “Will you join Erna and Greta in London?”

Jacob was dressed in the same three-piece herring bone suit he had worn to work two days earlier. The only change was that he now wore black slippers instead of shoes. “No, I want to stay and keep watch over the store. The moment I leave, the Nazis will confiscate everything just like they did in Berlin. And you can forget about compensation—all the time and money your father, God rest his soul, invested will be gone.”

“If I can leave, Uncle, so can you.”

“I’m an old man. What’s the point of moving to London now? The change alone would kill me. No, I am staying here. Besides, I need to get your mother out.”

“That’s my responsibility.”

“No, no, no,” his uncle tssked. “You remind her too much of your father. I’ve already begun making plans for her to go to Cuba with her sister. I will get her out, I promise you, on the St. Louis.”

Lottie came in carrying a tray with a covered teapot, two mismatched cups, and a small plate of toffee cookies. She had arrived from Leipzig thirty years ago—already thin and tired—had grown only thinner and more tired over the years. When Jacob’s wife Gertie died years ago, she became a family fixture, taking care of Jacob, his son, and three daughters. Now that all the children were gone, Lottie was in charge of his uncle.

Jacob stood up to take the tray from her hand. “You can go now, Lottie. It’s late.”

The maid looked down at Samuel and smiled a faint smile, barely an acknowledgment. He couldn’t understand how his uncle tolerated her all these years since she was always in a bad mood. She rarely talked and when she talked, she snapped.

…there were rumors of labor camps where Jews were both starved and forced to work at hard labor. But he still didn’t want to believe it—not in the Germany he had fought for, nearly died for, during the Great War.

“Your dinner is on the stove—corned beef and cabbage. If you don’t eat it by 8 o’clock, it will be a soggy mess.”

“Thank you,” Jacob said, tapping her hand and putting the tray on the butler’s table. “I will see you tomorrow at 9, as usual.”

“As usual,” she echoed taking the cover off the pot and pouring the tea into their cups—it was mint tea, the family tradition.

The sweet aroma comforted Samuel.

As soon as the maid was out of earshot, his uncle said: “I’ve paid a lot to get you a visa for Panama and Guatemala. At another time, this would be called a bribe. It may take a month, maybe more, to get them.”

Samuel didn’t know what to say. He had just witnessed murder.

Samuel had not foreseen the threat to the Jews of Germany until Kristallnacht. There had always been anti-Semitism—odd remarks, strange insinuations, even direct declarations—but the idea that hating or killing Jews could become state policy he could not imagine. And there were rumors of labor camps where Jews were both starved and forced to work at hard labor. But he still didn’t want to believe it—not in the Germany he had fought for, nearly died for, during the Great War.

“Himmler is just trying to impress Hitler.”

Jacob raised an eyebrow. “Samuel, you yourself saw the bricks and crates being thrown through the windows of our Berlin store. The wives of our customers were there with their poodles, cheering and applauding… Himmler is the head of the Gestapo. He’s the man behind it all. The architect of the Final Solution. Listen to me: you have to wake up, son.”

“I am awake, Uncle,” Samuel replied, bristling. He had half a mind to tell his uncle what he had just seen on the docks to both gauge his reaction and for him to realize that Samuel knew exactly what was going on.

“I know you had a hard time of it during the War, your incarceration. Then the situation with Lena must have been very painful. May I be blunt, Samuel?”

Berkow shrugged his shoulders.

“You’re thirty-seven years old. When I was your age, I was already married with children. You walk around as if waiting for something to change your life and fill the big hole inside of you. We all love you but this love will turn to pity unless you do something with your life. I know what I am telling you. You think your story is written, but it isn’t. You’d be surprised at what you’re capable of doing, if only you would stop being so cautious. I don’t know, maybe those six months in the sanatorium after the war took the life out of you.”

Samuel walked over to the window and looked out. The streetlights had been lit and he could see the tram stopping at the intersection of Lutterothstrasse and Hagenbeckstrasse. A few people clambered up the tram to go downtown. He had seen quite a bit—as a soldier, as a wounded veteran, as a buyer for his father’s store, his short visit to Shanghai where he saw how the Japanese dismembered and mutilated corpses during its invasion of China in 1937.

What his uncle said about him was cruel. He had seen too much unexpected suffering. What would another departure mean? If he left now, he would never return to Germany.

“I know your mother’s angry your father left me the store, but after all, I was his partner. Your father knew I would look after you. Berta would give all the money to your sister or some stupid cause to save dachshunds or poodles.”

“I’ve never understood my mother.” Samuel knew this was a strange thing for a son to say, someone who shared her blood. His mother only showed emotion when she played Beethoven’s Appassionata over and over again on the piano. She never touched human hands with as much feeling as she touched the piano keys. She was so incapable of giving affection, much less love. His father had deserved a hundred medals for putting up with her all those years.

“You’re too trusting. You’ve always been. You’re a goodhearted person, someone who believes there’s a correct way to behave. You’re what some people would call a ‘straight arrow.’ ”

Samuel sat back down. He watched his uncle reach for the teapot. He missed the handle. Samuel had observed this at the store. His uncle’s eyes were failing.

“Can I serve you?”

His uncle waved him away. “I can take care of myself.” He grabbed the teapot and poured the tea, hand shaking, but hitting the target.

“Samuel, you should’ve been born with more guile.”

“What do you mean, uncle?”

Jacob smiled. “You’re too trusting. You’ve always been. You’re a goodhearted person, someone who believes there’s a correct way to behave. You’re what some people would call a ‘straight arrow.’ ”

Samuel sipped the tea. It was hot. He took a cookie and dipped it in the cup. His hand was shaking, too, his scalp felt hot, but he would not contradict his uncle. “I will take that as a compliment.”

Jacob smiled again. “Of course it is. Now take my son Heinrich. He’s nothing like you—all guile and no heart.”

“That’s not fair, uncle.”

“Now, now, Samuel. I think I know my own son.”

Though Samuel defended his cousin, Jacob was right. He was thinking now how he had contributed to Heinrich’s suspicious attitude. He had once left his cousin in the lurch—both of them were aware of it when it happened—yet Samuel had never owned up to his role. More than a lapse, Samuel had betrayed his cousin and he knew that before Heinrich would lift a finger for him he would have to expiate—he would do it when they came together in Guatemala.

There was no other way.

G

unger_author-1.jpgDavid Unger was born in Guatemala City in 1950 and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Price of Escape (Akashic Books, 2011), Para mi, eres divina (Random House Mondadori, Mexico, 2011), Ni chicha, ni limonada (F & G Editores, Guatemala, 2009; Recorded Books, 2010), and Life in the Damn Tropics (Wisconsin University Press; Plaza y Janes, Mexico, 2004; Locus Press, Taiwan, 2007). He has translated sixteen books into English, including works by Nicanor Parra, Silvia Molina, Elena Garro, Barbara Jacobs, Mario Benedetti, and Rigoberta Menchu. He is considered one of Guatemala’s major living writers even though he writes exclusively in English.

Writer’s Recommendations:

Many of Graham Greene’s novels deal with moral ambivalence, in the so-called third world; his work has certainly influenced The Price of Escape.

To learn more about Guatemala, I would suggest Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer’s Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala and Miguel Angel Asturias’s El señor presidente.

For a poetic/political appreciation of the role of the United Fruit Company in Latin America, take a look at Pablo Neruda’s poem, “The United Fruit Company” in Robert Bly’s Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems (Beacon Press, 1993).

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