Out of the Cold
By Susan Breall
When I was nine years old, I once asked my brother if he would rather burn to death or freeze to death. Jeffery, who at the age of eleven was much older and much wiser than I, chose freezing. Although I often relied on Jeffery’s scientific acumen on this and other worldly topics, he was unable to clearly articulate why freezing was the better choice. His unsatisfactory explanation led me to do my own research, in Scientific American, on the topic of burning and freezing. As a grown woman and school teacher, I sometimes thought about those scientific discussions of our childhood, and, for some inexplicable reason, I once posed the same question about burning or freezing to an elderly lady seated next to me on the outside deck of a cruise ship we had recently boarded for Alaska.
“Without question,” she answered, in what appeared to me to be an Austrian or German accent, “I would much rather burn to death!” She said this with such conviction, as we watched large pieces of ice jutting up out of the ocean, that I was taken aback.
“Really?” I said with surprise. “I would think that most people would prefer freezing to death. Freezing, after all, would preserve the body.”
“I will tell you something about my life which will help you fully understand my choice,” she said. “I imagine that you have the time to listen. We are both headed in the same direction.”
I nodded, pulled out a pack of cigarettes and offered her one. She grabbed at a cigarette with a thinly gloved hand and then introduced herself.
“My name is Rita Stolzman. Originally I am from East Berlin, about one hundred miles from what used to be called the Soviet Occupied Zone after the war. I was raised, as a very young girl, by a family that my parents had arranged to take care of me on the night they were both arrested by the German government. I never heard from my parents again and presumed they were dead. I was never told anything about them. East Berlin was a perilous place, and I well understood the importance of not asking too many questions. Life was much safer that way. I continued to live with my adopted family in Berlin until I was nineteen years old. My new name, growing up with my new family, was Katharina Muller.
“At the gymnasium where I attended school everyday, my teachers discovered that I had a gift for languages. I learned Russian, English and Italian. I graduated with great distinction. The year was 1954, not long after the Soviets had taken control of our city. It was at that time that I left my adopted family to live with and work for a wealthy diplomat on the eastern edge of the city. He was German, his wife Russian. My job was to teach his two children Italian and French and to take care of them when the husband and wife went off on business trips. One child had physical challenges, and I served as both nursemaid and teacher, helping the youngest to exercise her weak limbs.
“The job required that I wait for the two children outside their school and make sure they walked home safely. I would arrive early, wait until school had ended, and then meet the children outside the school building in the exact same spot every day. Once they arrived outside the gate, I would walk them back home and begin their language lessons. This was our usual routine. As the year progressed, I began to think about the monotony of my life with this family, and I began to wonder what would become of me. I knew I was lucky to have a job, lucky to be alive, but I worried about whether I would amount to anything more than a language teacher and nursemaid.
“One day, as I waited patiently for the children to arrive, a tall man with a full head of white hair approached me.
“‘Rita?’ he asked in a soft voice.
“‘My name is Katharina,’ I told him.
“‘No, it is not. Your name is Rita. Your parents sent me to find you.’
“I stared at his old worn face in disbelief. How did he know my real name? I was shocked to hear him speak of my parents. Were my real parents alive? If they were alive, why had they abandoned me all these years? Why hadn’t they tried to get in touch with me themselves? And if they were dead, why did this man know my true name? What did he want from me?
“‘I don’t believe you,’ I said.
“‘Is it proof that you wish? Your mother’s name was Sofia, your father’s, Yusef.’
“‘You used the past tense ‘was’. My parents are no longer living. Assuming I am correct, they could not have sent you for any reason.’
“At that precise moment, the children appeared in front of the iron gate. I walked briskly to greet them, leaving the stranger in the shadows of the building a few meters away. It was a dangerous time in the city, too dangerous to talk to any stranger standing on a street corner. I once heard about a man who talked too much to a postal clerk and was later taken away by the secret police never to be heard from again.
“I walked home with the children and began our usual routine. I brought out bread from the pantry and cheese from the cooling closet. We had our afternoon meal and then began our studies. The entire day was spent in the usual way it had been spent on all the previous days and all previous afternoons after school had finished. That day, however, I couldn’t put the old man out of my thoughts. I picked up my embroidery and embroidered feverishly as I reviewed Italian vocabulary words with the children. I reviewed the language lesson with such vigor that the children began to protest. Their protestations caused me to slow down and eventually finish with that evening’s lesson.
“The next day I arrived at school at the exact same time and at the exact same place. I looked around for the old man but did not see him. Day after day I would look for him by the corner of the street where he first appeared. Exactly one month later, as I stood on the street corner waiting, I saw him.
“‘My name is Katharina.’
“‘Listen to me. There is not much time to speak. I met your parents in Dachau. Your father saved my life when a commander put a nine millimeter pistol to my head and almost pulled the trigger. He convinced the commander that my scientific knowledge made me worth saving. I promised both your father and mother that if I ever escaped from that place I would find you. I promised I would help you.’
“‘Help me? Help me how?’
“‘Help you escape, leave Berlin. But before that can happen, I need you to do something.’
“As he said these words I could see the school children beginning to file out of the gate and the youngest girl starting to limp towards me.
“He pulled out of his pocket an old creased and faded photograph of a man and woman wearing heavy overcoats standing next to a bleak-looking government building. He handed it to me.
“‘This is what your parents looked like before they were taken away. Come to this location at least half an hour earlier tomorrow so I can tell you what needs to be done.’
“He left me with those brief instructions and the photograph; then turned his back and walked briskly down a side street.
“Of course I felt startled and frightened by the man. I didn’t know whether he was telling me the truth or not. And, although I had often thought about what it would be like to leave Germany, I was living at a time when it was virtually impossible to smuggle a novel or even an undergarment out of the country, let alone a girl of nineteen. I put the photograph into my coat pocket, walked the children back to the house and continued with our usual routine. I brought out bread from the pantry and cheese from the cooling closet for the afternoon meal. I worked with the children on their language lesson. I continued with my embroidery.
“That evening I sat for hours on the edge of the bed in my tiny bedroom, staring at the photograph under the strong light of a desk lamp. Were these my real parents? How did they die? Why didn’t I end up like them? I tried to look for any kind of similarity between their faces and my own. It was hard to reconcile the photograph with my ancient memory of what I thought my parents looked like. It was equally hard to stare at their faces within the creases of the photograph and see any resemblance at all. I wanted to believe these were my parents. I wanted to believe that they had sent this man to help me.
“After a sleepless night, I found myself standing outside the school building at the exact same spot where I always stood waiting for the children, only this time I came thirty minutes earlier. “At almost the exact moment I arrived, I saw the old man approaching from the side street he had disappeared down the previous day.
“‘My plan is to leave Berlin next Wednesday,’ he said in a whisper, after he came up close to me. ‘I need to know if you are coming with me.’
“‘I have so many questions that I need answered before I can even respond. What happened to my parents? How did they die? How did you escape? How could we possibly leave Berlin without being arrested?’
“‘Your parents died of hypothermia. They were placed into a tank of ice water as part of a cold water immersion experiment. They were given experimental Luftwaffe garments to wear in the ice water, but after six hours in temperatures as low as six degrees centigrade, they virtually froze to death. It was a terrible way to die. Those who die of hypothermia are not even able to scream.’
“After an agonizing pause, I continued with my questions.
“‘Why didn’t you end up the same way?’
“‘I am a scientist. I was first saved from a death by bullet fire, only to be forced to work on experiments related to the very conditions that killed your mother and father. Eventually, I began a research project that the Americans now find critical to their needs — research related to the minimization of cellular damage from nuclear fallout. This is where your participation becomes necessary.’
“‘What do you mean?’
“‘I have only partial information to give to the Americans. The complete formula is sitting with a pile of papers in the study of the man whose children you attend to. You need to memorize those papers or get them out of the study by Wednesday. In exchange for this information, you will be allowed to leave the country. The Americans will take care of everything on their end.’
“‘You …we …will be searched. There is not any way to get such papers across the border.’
“‘I understand that you are a very smart girl. You received very high marks in school. Memorize what is in those papers. Study them. Meet me here next Wednesday at six o’clock in the morning. You will find the papers in a leather-bound book in the desk drawer of the study. It is the drawer on the right-hand side. Do not bring anything with you when you come. We leave with nothing but the clothes on our backs.’
“I had no idea whether he was telling me the truth. I had only four days to decide if I would meet him again at the assigned location. Stunned by the information he gave me about the death of my parents, I was first inclined to refuse any of his directives. If, in fact, he was telling me the truth, wasn’t it his research that helped kill my parents? But the more I thought about it, the more curious I became as to what, if anything, was inside the right-hand drawer of the desk in the study. At least I could find out what was inside the desk. No one but the master of the house had ever been allowed entry into the study.
“I decided to sneak into the study the next morning at a time when both the husband and wife were at work and the children were still at school. The least I could do was to see if there was a leather-bound book inside the drawer. My heart raced as I opened the closed door to the study. The study smelled like old shoe leather and pipe tobacco. The light streamed in from the garden, and a key that I presumed to be for the drawer lay inside an open pencil case on top of the antique desk. Nothing could have been simpler than to open the desk drawer. I could hear the clock ticking down the hallway. I could hear my own heart pounding. I looked out the window beyond the garden to make sure no one was coming down the street. I then picked up the key, placed it into the keyhole of the drawer and opened it. The drawer opened with ease. The drawer was empty but for a small leather-encased notebook. Inside the notebook were scribbles — nothing but scribbles! There were no writings in German or even in Italian or Russian, for that matter. There was nothing to memorize. When I looked closer, however, I saw that the notations lightly scribbled in pencil could easily have been some sort of chemistry formula. But how was I ever to memorize such scribbles? I carefully placed the notebook back in the drawer, placed the key back in the pencil case and left the room.
“I was haunted all day and all night by the notebook. My sleep was troubled, and, when I finally dreamed, I dreamed of letters and numbers scribbled in pencil. The following day was remarkable only in that it was ordinary. I continued my usual routine and met the children outside the school gate at the normal time. I fixed them their afternoon meal in the normal way, and I continued to help with their usual studies. I resumed my embroidery as we went over subjunctive tenses. As I embroidered and worked on the grammar lesson with the children, I suddenly realized how easy it would be to embroider language or symbols within the pleats of my own skirt. I could embroider a pattern that no one would ever be able to detect as anything other than stitches. I could embroider the formula from the notebook into the pleats of my own clothing and under the hem.
“That night I thought about the symbols I had seen. The lightly scribbled notations were a language unto themselves. Having always had a gift for languages, I began to stitch what I remembered of the symbols into the pleats of a plaid skirt that I owned. I could remember many of the symbols, but not all of them. I needed to get back inside the study. I needed one more look at the notebook. The husband and wife would be at work the following morning, which provided me another opportunity to go back inside and take a look.
“The next day came, and the girl I tended to was sick with a cold. She stayed in bed and waited while I took the boy off to school. When I came home, both the husband and wife left for work. I checked on the girl to make sure she was sleeping. Then, making sure everyone else was gone, I crept quietly back into the study. The room was dark, and the curtains had been pulled across the windows. I looked around for the pencil case with the key, but both pencil case and key had disappeared from the top of the desk. I pulled on the desk drawers, but all of them were locked. As I tugged again on the drawer on the right hand side, I noticed the door to the study open slightly. The young girl was standing behind the door looking at me.
“‘What are you doing in Papa’s study?’ she asked with an accusing tone of voice.
“‘I was looking for you’ I said cautiously. ‘I thought you were playing hide and seek with me. I could not find you anywhere. You know you shouldn’t hide in your Papa’s study.’
“She looked at me quizzically, and then, in a soft whisper, she asked, ‘Do you want to see something secret?’
“‘I would like to very much.’
“She limped as quickly as she could over to the desk, ignoring her weak leg, and reached under the middle drawer. She looked as though she were pressing or pushing on a slat under the bottom of the middle drawer until all of the side drawers opened of their own accord. I made her close each of the drawers she had opened, thanked her for the secret and put her back in her bed. I waited until I was sure that she was asleep this time. Then I walked back to the study and retrieved the rest of the information from the leather-bound notebook inside the desk.
“I was too far along in the process of retrieving and stitching the information by hand to stop. I could not put the idea of leaving Germany out of my mind. That night I had a terrible dream that I was waiting for the old man at the assigned location, but he never came to meet me. In my dream it was snowing. The buildings around me were covered with ice. I was so cold that I began to freeze. I was terrified, but I was not too cold or too afraid to scream.
“I woke up in a terrible sweat. I was fairly certain that I had a fever. It was about five o’clock in the morning of the day I was to meet the old man back out on the street. I was filled with anxiety about the proposed rendezvous. I realized that I now possessed a piece of information that made my life extremely precarious. I weighed the pros and cons of what I had done and what trouble it could bring to me. I had not told anyone I had taken information from the leather-bound book. No one actually knew that I had ever walked into the study, let alone opened the desk drawer. No one save a little girl who saw me in her papa’s study. Yet the old man who gave me the information about the drawer’s contents, the same old man who professed to know my parents, the one who told me what I would find if I looked hard enough, had given me an awareness of something I should not have known about. That awareness created a danger unto itself, regardless of whether or not I had followed through.
“I realized that I had to leave. The knowledge I now possessed created a dangerous situation for me, even if I stayed in the house and pretended I had never met the old man from the street corner. The old man knew what I knew. There was a chance he could put my life in jeopardy and expose me to the husband and wife for whom I worked. Yet, there was also the chance he could really help me leave. I dressed quickly in my plaid skirt and sweater and walked briskly to the street corner to meet him.
“I saw him, from a distance, waiting with a younger man, in front of a black sedan. He stood at the same street corner where we had first met. Upon seeing him and the younger man with the car, I became frightened. My own heart’s pounding felt louder than the noise of a streetcar rumbling past me. I started to walk in the opposite direction of the assigned meeting place. The old man saw me and called out to me. Then I began to run away from him. He called out to me again and gave chase. I ran further down the street, but I could still hear him running behind me. I remember being surprised at his speed and at his ability to forcefully grab hold of me when he finally caught up to me further down the opposite end of the street.
“‘I am trying to help you, don’t you understand? Don’t run away. Please, please don’t run! I have something to show you.’
“With those words he pulled out of his pocket an old photograph of a woman and a small child. I recognized myself at once as the small child in the picture. The photograph was of me at a very young age, trying to stand up and grabbing hold of my mother’s skirt for balance. It was only after seeing that picture that I allowed myself to be ushered into the car by the younger man, who had driven it further down the street to our location. The younger man handed me a passport with my picture on it. The passport contained my true name.”
Rita Stolzman stopped speaking then and gestured for another cigarette. She remained silent and indicated only with a slight shrug of her shoulders that she had finished telling me her story. I wanted to know what happened after she was driven away in the sedan. I wanted to know if she had any problems crossing the border in her plaid skirt. She remained silent. I lit her cigarette and one of my own. We both sat quietly on the deck chairs without uttering a word. We sat together for a very long time in silence. I looked again at the ice floating on top of the water — and shivered.