Chapter 1 1
IT WAS LATE IN the season to put tables outside, but the unexpected sun had drawn crowds to the Alsterpavillon, all asking for the terrace, so that by noon the entire promenade had become one long outdoor café, people sipping coffee, wrapped in coats and mufflers against the wind coming off the lake, their faces tilted up to the sun.
“You look like a turtle,” Aaron said, glancing at his uncle sitting with his chin down in his coat, his great nose sticking out like a beak.
“Idiots, they think it’s summer.” He drew on his cigarette, a small shrug. “I’m cold all the time now.”
“Go to Israel.”
“Israel. What’s in Israel?”
“Sun at least.”
“And then you’re even farther away. Another ocean. So maybe that’s the idea.”
Aaron moved his hand, brushing this away. “Then come back with me.”
“To America. To sit around and argue with you.” He shook his head. “My work is here.”
Aaron looked up at him. “You can’t keep doing this. Your heart—”
“So then it’s something else. How can I stop? We got Pidulski. All these years and we got him. What is that worth? A man who kicked children to death. In the head, like a football.”
“So what is that worth?” he said, his voice rising. “To get him. On trial, so everybody sees. A little heart trouble? OK. I’ll take it.”
Aaron sipped his coffee, a second of calm. “Max, we need to talk about this. The doctor said—”
“Give up smoking,” Max said. “I’m not going to do that either.” Taking a noisy puff, illustrating.
“I have to go back.”
“You just got here.”
“You’re a big shot. You can take the time off.”
“Compassionate leave. It’s usually a few days.”
“What, to bury somebody? So hang around, it won’t be long.”
“You told me you were dying. You’re not dying.”
Max shrugged again. “Anyway, it’s cheaper for you to come here than talk on the phone. Calls to America. Who can afford that?” He paused. “I wanted to talk to you.”
“I know. I’m here, aren’t I?”
“But you don’t talk back. Days now and you don’t answer. Who else is there? You’re a son to me.” He looked toward the bright lake, taking a breath, a theatrical gesture, overcome.
“Max, we’ve been over this.”
“But you haven’t agreed yet.”
Aaron smiled and Max, catching it, smiled back.
“You want me to retire. Whatever that is. This is something you don’t walk away from, what we do. It’s not possible. For you either. We’re the only ones left in the family. Everyone else— Think about that. Everyone else. You don’t turn your back on that.”
“And still guilty. Still.”
“It’s different for me. I never knew them.”
“You knew your mother. You remember her.”
But what exactly? The way she smelled when she leaned down to kiss him good night, the day’s last trace of perfume. Sitting in her lap on the train. The voice, wrapping around him like a blanket. But her face was a face in photographs now, no longer someone he knew.
Max was shaking his head. “She waited too long. Herschel was right—get out now. And she says, ‘You go, I’ll come after.’ You know she wanted to keep you here with her? So think, if Herschel had agreed. You would have been killed too, like everybody else. And you think it’s not personal with you?”
“Why did she stay?” Aaron said quietly, as if it were a casual interest, the question he’d been asking all his life.
“She was helping people here. You know this. Herschel said, ‘Save yourself. Think of the child,’?” he said, nodding to Aaron. “But he’ll be safe with you, she says. I can’t leave now—” He stopped, the story still painful. “She thought she had more time. We all thought that. Except Herschel. The smart one. So you can thank God he didn’t wait. You’d be a statistic. A number. Like Minna.” He looked over. “She was tall, like you. That’s where you get it. And the hair.” He touched his own, a few wisps. “Not from our side.” He took a breath. “Did he talk about her? Herschel?”
“When the letters came.” The ones that meant she hadn’t abandoned them, however it felt. “She was always on her way. Soon. Any day. And then they stopped.” He looked up, answering the question. “He didn’t talk about her after that. He didn’t want to talk about—what happened. He said people didn’t want to hear about that.”
“People there. And by this time he’s Wiley. Weill isn’t good enough. More American than the Americans. As if it would make any difference—that they wouldn’t know what he was.”
“He blamed himself. Leaving her behind.”
“Ach,” Max said, a sound of dismissal. “And what good did that do?” He shook his head. “She didn’t die because she stayed. She died because they killed her. Don’t forget that. That’s what this is all about. They killed her. Everybody. That’s who we do this for. Your family.”
“Max, I never knew them.”
“Listen to them now, then. You can hear them if you listen.” He moved his hand, taking in the crowd, as if all the Weills, all the dead, were here in the crowd on the Binnenalster. “I hear them all the time. You don’t retire from that.” He moved his hand toward Aaron’s. “I’ll teach you what you don’t know. The archives. It’s all about the documents. Not all that cloak-and-dagger stuff Wiesenthal talks about. Liar. You listen to him, he found Eichmann himself. Shoved him in the car. Oh, the Mossad was there? Who would know, with Wiesenthal playing Superman?”
Aaron looked over. “Max.” The old rivalry, Max and Wiesenthal even sharing a Time cover. The Nazi Hunters. As if the feud were a Macy’s and Gimbel’s rivalry, with discount sales.
“All right. So it helps him raise money. Eichmann. Who cares about Pidulski? Except the children he murdered. Maybe I should do it too. Say I’m this close to Mengele,” he said, pinching his fingers. “To Schramm. You could always raise a few donations if you said you had a lead on him. Which I did once.” His voice went lower, private. “Imagine, to get him. After everything. But he got away. And then he cheated me. Dead. But no trial. No—” He caught himself drifting. “So now it’s Mengele if you want to raise money. Wiesenthal says he’s in Paraguay. No, Brazil. No, somewhere else. So here’s a check. Go find him.” He stopped. “We all do it. How else to keep going? Think how useful you would be. An American. The money’s in America. And maybe a little guilt too. A nice young American. Not some altekaka who talks with an accent. An FBI man—”
“I’m not FBI.”
“So whatever it is. Which you don’t say. You think I can’t guess? ‘For the government,’ except you don’t say what. So what else could it be?” He shook his head. “Herschel’s boy. Who can’t tell me what he does.”
“I did tell you. I’m an intelligence analyst.”
“Herschel said you were thinking of leaving the job. Before he died. That’s what gave me the idea.”
“You taking over the business.”
Aaron smiled. “The business.” As if it were real estate. Linen supply.
“Laugh if you want. OK, not a business. But not a charity either. I have to pay my people. Elena. The office rent. Nothing grows on trees. The World Jewish Council gives something. Then, donors. Maybe you could raise more. I don’t take for myself. A little. Not like Wiesenthal. And then pleading poverty. He puts the office in the living room. What next, a hair shirt?” He looked over. “But he gets the donations. And after Eichmann, even more. An impresario. Show business. Not justice. That’s what we gave Pidulski, justice.”
“And the children are still dead.”
Max said nothing, squinting against the glare on the water. “Yes, still dead.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t—”
Max waved his hand. “You think I don’t think about that too? What good?” He took out another cigarette. “You know what Confucius said?”
Aaron looked over, surprised.
“?‘Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.’?” Blowing a little smoke for effect. “So maybe I’m digging mine too, I don’t know.” He looked at Aaron. “But it’s worth it. Even if it’s that. My grave too. What else am I living for?”
Aaron said nothing, watching him smoke. Like his father, the same gestures, all three of them marked by some shadow on a gene.
“It’ll be like when you used to come in the summer. We’ll do things.”
Summers with Max. Sometimes just a few weeks, once a whole month, Herschel’s gift, Aaron passed from one brother to the other like a family heirloom that had to be shared. Max eager and then overwhelmed, his routine disrupted. Day trips to Lübeck, Max fully clothed on the beach, Aaron playing in the sand. A visit to the Buddenbrooks house, which Max insisted was a holy site of German literature, and which Aaron found stuffy and old. A borrowed cottage on a lake, Max reading files on the porch, Aaron trying to fish, make friends with the neighbors. Awkward, well-meaning summers. But what Aaron remembered were the good-byes, Max teary and fussing over the luggage, turning him over to the stewardess, his hands almost clutching at Aaron’s clothes, holding him back, as if he were asking for another chance. Then a kiss on the forehead, Aaron embarrassed without knowing why, the love so desperate.
“Tell me something,” Max said now. “This government work you do. That we don’t talk about. This analysis. Why do you do it?”
“Why?” He pretended to think. “Because I want the good guys to win.”
“Ah. And you know who they are?”
“I know who the bad guys are.”
Max looked over, his eyes almost impish. “Then you’re perfect for this job.”
Aaron looked away. A fountain in the lake was shooting water into the air. Beyond, on the larger Aussenalster, there were sails. The air around them was noisy with German, a soft buzzing, no one barking orders, just enjoying pastry in the sun, the war a long time ago.
“I have a job, Max.”
“Chasing Communists.” He put up his hand before Aaron could say anything. “Don’t bother. That’s what they do over there. A Red under every bed. Herschel was a Communist. You knew that, yes? Your own father. That’s why he had to leave. The Nazis went after the Communists first. And now here you—”
“He didn’t stay a Communist.”
“What would you have done? Round him up with the others?” He stopped. “All right. Never mind. We didn’t come here to argue. Just to warm me up before you pack me off to Israel. Some old people’s home there. All Jews. Talk about peaceful. But that’s why you’re thinking about leaving? You don’t want to be a part of that.” His voice softer, reeling him in. “Am I right?”
Aaron turned back to face him. “Always,” he said with a small smile. “Another Confucius. Did he really say that, by the way? About the two graves?”
“Who the hell knows? What do you think? They had a steno right there to take things down? Maybe it was Charlie Chan, I don’t know.” He looked over at him. “You wouldn’t have to move here. Just some of the time, because the documents—we could work something out. You could get the Americans involved again. It’s funny, when you think that’s how I started. With the Americans. All the DPs, all of them with stories, with testimony, and the Americans didn’t know what to do with it. Even the ones who could speak German. And I was a doctor, so I would take the medical histories. Then the rest. They would talk to me. What they saw, what happened to them, who did it. I realized this was evidence. So I got a job with the CIC. Collecting all this, making files. Documents. It’s all there. Everyone had to have a card, some record, in the DP camps. Sometimes they lied, but that becomes interesting too—why? But mostly they would tell you what happened. So I had the evidence before I had the Nazis. They could hide, you had to find them, but once I did, I had them. It was all in the documents. Witnesses. Dates. Everything.”
“I’ll show you.” He put up his hand again. “All right. Just think about it. No one’s pushing you. You know, the documents, they’re your inheritance. It’s like a house somebody leaves you, you have to take care of it. What are you going to do with them after I’m gone?”
“The German government has a department to handle war crimes.”
“And how many Nazis have they caught? Unless you drop one right in their laps. Shame them into it. You give them the documents, they’ll file them away, until everybody in the file is dead. This is your inheritance. You’ve got to think, take care of it. There are papers going all the way back to ’45, DP records, Red Cross travel permits, Fragebogen. This is a treasure. You don’t give this to the Germans.”
Aaron imagined the dusty files, ragged index cards once carried camp to camp, release forms, Max’s collected stories, typed up on an old Underwood with a fading ribbon. A treasure.
“And now, after the divorce, there’s no one— I mean, you do as you like. You don’t have to think about—” He took out another cigarette. “Maybe it’s a good time to make a change. Something new. What happened there anyway? If I can ask. Without getting my head snapped off.”
Aaron waited a second, then reached over and lit Max’s cigarette. “She said I was married to my job. The one you think I’m so anxious to leave.”
“Huh,” Max said, a grunt. “All right, so it’s none of my business. Who knows what goes on between people? Not even them sometimes. Things change.”
But not Claire, helpless as he drifted away from her into the Agency, the work he couldn’t talk about, until there was nothing to talk about.
Max moved away from it, looking around, up toward the busy Jungfernstieg behind them, the department stores and shopping arcades. “Look at this place. You should have seen it after the war. Everything gone, from the bombs. Everything. And now look.”
“Why Hamburg? I always wondered. Why didn’t you go back to Berlin?”
“I did. But everything there reminded me of before. And you could never get anything out of the Russians. Documents, any help. The Americans, yes, but not the Russians. And here in the British Zone things were much looser. You could get your hands on files quickly, no red tape—you just took. The truth was, they didn’t care. They thought the Americans were crazy, with all their trials. A little naïve. And they didn’t have the money, so it was all loose, you could just scoop things up. Perfect for me. Besides, Hamburg was never a Nazi city.”
“Neither was Berlin.”
“No. But here—it’s something new for me. No memories. And—” Looking up, almost twinkling. “It was good for the business. The press is here. Stern and Der Spiegel and Die Zeit—all here. More. So it’s good for contacts. Anyway, I came. I like the water, the boats. It’s pleasant.” He waved his hand toward the Binnenalster.
“But Germany. To stay after—”
“So I don’t buy a Volkswagen. Like the American Jews. No Volkswagens. No Mercedes. And they think that does it.” He looked up again to the Jungfernstieg. “So who’s hurting? Anyway, the people I want to find are here. Why go somewhere else if they’re here?”
“Or Brazil. Argentina.”
Max shrugged. “The big fish. Who else could afford to go so far? So let Wiesenthal waste his money and catch them. Paraguay. In the jungle yet.” A kind of verbal shudder. “And meanwhile there’s a man down in Altona. Like Pidulski. Keeps to himself. Polite to the neighbors. You’d never think to look there was blood on his hands. No one knows. A quiet life. Like it never happened. All those things—all in the past. We don’t talk about that. Until I find him. And then, we do. My present to the Germans. A mirror. Look at yourselves.”
His voice had gotten lower, as if he were talking to himself, and now he looked up, slightly embarrassed, overheard.
For a minute neither of them said anything, not sure where to go.
“Herschel was like that,” Aaron said finally. “He wouldn’t buy German cars, anything. Not even Bayer aspirin.”
Max looked down at his cigarette, still brooding. “How was it with him? At the end. He was in pain?”
“They gave him drugs.”
“Did they help?”
Aaron nodded. “Toward the end, I don’t think he felt anything. He was out most of the time.”
“Herschel.” He stubbed out the cigarette. “I hope it’s quick, when it’s me.”
“Don’t talk like that. Plenty of mileage left,” Aaron said, trying for a smile.
Max made a face. “The truth? I don’t see like I used to. That water? It’s like a flashbulb in my eyes. I have trouble with buttons. You think, what the hell is this? I can’t button a shirt? I watch television, sometimes I fall asleep. I’m watching the show, I’m interested, and the next thing I know I’m asleep. Stairs?” He waved his hand. “So when did this happen? Overnight, you’re an old man.”
“You don’t take care of yourself.”
“It ages you.”
“This business. Everything. I came out of the camp, my hair was white. What was left,” he said, touching his head. “But you know what’s happening now? I’m seeing people from that time. Years, you put it out of your mind, then all the sudden they’re there. I don’t mean I really see them, don’t worry, I’m not crazy yet, just that I think about them. Like Herschel, that’s what reminded me. You picture them in your mind. Daniel. I see Daniel all the time now. I never thought we’d have children. Too old. And then—Daniel. What does it mean, I’m seeing them? They’re all dead.” He cleared his throat, the thickness in his voice. “So, what? They’re waiting for me?”
“Max. It’s a way of holding on to them, that’s all.”
“I see the other ones too. The ones you don’t love. Even some of the guards. Not fuzzy, clear, the way they looked. Why would I want to hold on to them? Murderers.”
“Maybe we don’t get to pick. You remember things or you don’t. All of it.”
“But that time—”
“Max,” Aaron said, his voice soft. “It’s always going to be there if you keep it alive, the way you do. This work.”
“You think I should forget it?”
“Even if I wanted to—”
“You think I could let Daniel go? My own son?”
Max turned away, disturbed, then sat up straighter, gathering himself. “You just think I should let the rest of it go. Close the files. Let them get away with—”
“I’m just saying let someone else do it. It’s time.”
“So for once we agree,” Max said, looking at him.
Aaron shook his head. “I can’t be you.”
“Who else, then? Elena? She’s a typist.”
“You’ll kill yourself if you keep—”
“Digging my grave. Confucius says. I wish I’d never mentioned it. You know he never says how long it takes. Maybe I have time we don’t know about.”
“I hope so.”
Max met his eyes, then looked away. “We should go. I’m freezing out here. I won’t have to dig anything. Where’s the waiter?” He turned, shading his eyes against the sun. “Fritz.”
Not a waiter, a man with a newspaper under his arm coming down the steps from the street, his bulky form now throwing a shadow across the table.
“Max, it’s you? I thought you never went out.”
Young, somewhere in his thirties, not fat but thick, his clothes slightly disheveled, as if he had thrown them on without looking.
“It’s for him,” Max said, pointing to Aaron. “My nephew. From America. He’s come to work with me. My new partner. Aaron, Fritz Gruber.”
Fritz extended his hand. “Partner? For the Einzelgänger? What’s the English? Lone wolf. Now he runs with a pack?” he said, enjoying his own wordplay.
“Just one,” Aaron said easily, going with it.
“Join us,” Max said, starting to pull out a chair.
“Can’t. Work,” Fritz said, touching the newspaper.
“The man of letters,” Max said.
“You’re a writer?” Aaron said.
“Only this kind,” Fritz said, holding out the newspaper now. “Journalist.”
“A real journalist,” Max said. “Someone gets the facts straight.”
“I spelled his name right once,” Fritz said pleasantly. “He never got over it. So, you have anything for me?” he said to Max.
“If I did, you’d already have it.”
“I’m glad I ran into you. I was going to call. You know how to reach Pidulski’s son?”
“What, on the phone?”
“I want to talk to him. I had an idea. A series, Sons of the Reich. Growing up Nazi. What’s it like for the children now? What did they know? What do they remember? Here, take a look. I started with Horcher’s son.”
“He’ll never talk to you. Pidulski.”
“You’d be surprised. Anyway, I can try. You tell them one of the others talked and that makes it all right. It’s in the air now.” He turned to Aaron. “You picked a good time for this work. Since Eichmann, people are interested. Before, nobody wanted to know.”
“And what does Horcher’s son say?” Max said.
“What they all say at first. The good father. Always kind. Every Nazi, it turns out, had a child on his knee at home. What did they do at the office? No one knew. Desk work. But now, since Eichmann, we know what work. Schreibtischtäter. Desk murderers,” he translated for Aaron. “All the good fathers. So it’s difficult for them. To know what to feel now. You know how I got the idea? Eichmann’s son. He never changed his name. Eichmann did, but none of the children. They must have felt safe enough not to bother. And then the son starts dating a young woman and her father—so the rest you know. One thing leads to another and then to Eichmann. Because the son never changed his name. So what did he know?”
“And what did he?” Max said, curious.
“I don’t know. He’s in Argentina. I can only talk to the children here. The paper’s not so rich. So Pidulski’s number, yes? You won’t forget?”
“It’s still working,” Max said, tapping a finger against his temple.
“Yes? And how’s the rest? I heard you were in the hospital,” he said, playful but concerned.
“A checkup. Don’t get excited.”
“He does too much,” Fritz said to Aaron.
“And you with the coffee all day, all night?” Max said. “Let’s see who goes first. I’m writing the eulogy now.”
“You won’t be asked,” Fritz said, having fun with it. “Ilse thinks you’re a bad influence.”
“Huh,” Max said. “On such a blameless life.”
He started to get up to say good-bye and stopped halfway, an old man’s crouch, then froze. Aaron looked up. Max was blinking now, the blink a kind of windshield wiper, trying to see more clearly, his face white, staring past Fritz down the promenade. Aaron followed his glance—nothing, people at tables, a man in a coat walking past—then looked back at Max, alarmed now, feeling a rush of dread. It was happening. A sound in Max’s throat, indistinct, a stroke victim struggling to talk.
“Max,” he said, getting up, taking Max’s elbow.
But now Max rose a little, not paralyzed, lifting his arm, as if he were starting to point.
“It’s him.” Barely a whisper, his voice an odd croak, so that Fritz looked alarmed now too.
“Max, sit,” he said, moving to help Aaron.
“It’s him.” His face twisting, an involuntary tic.
“Stop him,” Max said, another hoarse whisper. “It’s him.” Lifting his hand higher and then suddenly clutching it to his chest, his body in spasm, falling.
Aaron grabbed his arm to break the fall, but Max pitched forward, knocking the coffee cups off the table, then the table itself, Fritz grabbing his other side as he went down, the table falling, a crash, people around them turning, too startled to respond, then getting up, moving back, a first instinct. He was down now, Aaron leaning over him.
“Max.” He looked up at the small crowd. “Somebody get a doctor.”
But Max was moving his head, a “no no” gesture. “It’s him. Otto. Go after—”
“Schramm.” Seeing the dead now, maybe all the other visions a getting-ready exercise.
“What did he say?” Fritz said.
“Nothing,” Aaron said quickly, covering. “A doctor?”
But now Max had rolled over onto his side, pointing arm still outstretched, looking again past Fritz down the terrace. A gasping sound, which only Aaron heard as “stop him.” Then a scraping of chairs as people cleared a space around him. Aaron looked up, following Max’s gaze. The man in a coat still walking.
“Please. Please.” Max’s voice still faint, but frantic now.
“He’s having an attack.” A voice behind them. “Somebody do something.”
“Stop him,” Max grunted.
The man passed a few more tables, then turned for a second, hearing the commotion. A winter coat, a hat, the face almost hidden by the brim, features blurred, as if the camera catching them had been shaking. He looked down the promenade, a quick scan, then turned to them, his face still for an instant, a snapshot, just one, and then turned again, walking on, everyone else now coming toward Max, only one walking away, beginning to hurry, late for something.
“See. See,” Max said to Aaron.
But what had he seen? An ordinary face, already forgotten. And now Max was clutching at his chest again, clearly in trouble.
“My god,” Fritz said, for something to say. “Should we move him—”
“No, don’t move him.” Someone in the crowd. “Let the ambulance people do it. That’s the first thing.”
Max had grabbed Aaron’s lapel. “Aaron. Don’t lose him.”
“Shh. Nobody’s losing anything. Be quiet. The ambulance is coming.”
He looked up, past the crowd. Maybe the man would turn again, another look at his face. But he was gone, through the doors of the Nivea Building or swallowed up by the crowds in the Gänsemarkt.
Another clutch at his lapel. “I can’t die. Not now.”
“Nobody’s dying.” His stomach falling as he said it. The only one left, the last part of him, and suddenly he felt a helpless panic. Do something.
“Can you breathe?” He loosened Max’s tie. What else? “Where’s your medicine?” he said, starting to go through Max’s pockets.
A half smile. “At home.”
“At home. You’re supposed to carry it.” Don’t scold. Not now. What was the point? “Is there pain?” Nodding to the heart, just filling time until a stretcher arrived, someone who knew what to do. Was that a siren coming from the Jungfernstieg?
“You saw?” Max said. “You saw?”
Aaron nodded, brushing it aside.
“What’s he saying?” Fritz said.
Aaron looked up. How to explain? Maybe what it would be like now, seeing people for real, not just in a confused mind’s eye.
“He’s agitated, that’s all.”
“Did you see the look on his face? I’ve never seen him like that.”
“A heart attack. They say it grabs you like a fist. The shock of it. Oh, here—”
Some waiters had come to clear away the tables for the emergency unit, sweep up the shards of broken water glasses, the other customers forming a ring around them. Aaron thought of an operating theater, people staring down at the body. And then two men in uniforms were putting Max onto a stretcher, lifting him. He grabbed Aaron’s hand.
“I can’t die now. After.”
“After we get him.”
“Shh. You’ll be fine. We’re going to the hospital.”
A paramedic placed an oxygen mask over Max’s face.
“Get him? Get who?” Fritz said.
“It’s nothing. He thought he saw somebody.”
“And he has an attack? Who, the devil?”
“Schramm,” Aaron said, preoccupied, feeling Max’s hand.
Fritz looked at him. “Schramm? Somebody dead? He’s seeing a dead man?”
“He’s—having an attack. He doesn’t know what he’s saying.”
“To think, if that’s the last person he sees. To end like that.”
“He’s not ending,” Aaron said, starting to follow the men to the ambulance.
“I didn’t mean— I’ll come with you,” Fritz said. Then, before Aaron could object, “You may need the German. Anyway, I’m fond of him.”
“Yes,” Aaron said, looking at Max, small even on the narrow stretcher. The only one left.