Forever in India
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Arielle Bases
When I was a little girl, my grandmother, Hilde, used to tell me that people often could be best described as colors. She described my sister, Liora, as a bright, bright orange, wild, brilliant, and headstrong. “And you, Ayelle,” she said. “You are a deep green. Thoughtful, sensitive, with a gentle strength.”
I absorbed her description carefully as I did with everything she told me. “Isn’t green kind of boring?” I asked.
“Boring!” Her big, dark eyes widened in surprise. “Green is the color of leaves. Of trees. It’s the color of life. Green can never be boring.”
That is how my grandmother used to talk to me.
I was only a child then, but I still believe colors are the most accurate description of a person’s essence. If I had to pick one color to describe my grandmother, I would choose a rich purple, the color of a summer night sky. Lively, imaginative, and absolutely never boring. The reds and blues of my grandmother’s purple blend together, the combination softening the passion of red and the sadness of blue. The dark shade conceals depths of emotions, washing over her secrets with magic, whimsical brushes of color.
On a stifling August afternoon in 1937, Hilde Haskel ordered a coffee at the Romanisches Café and found a seat near a window. The summer sun brightened Berlin. Trolleys glided along Budapester Strasse. Children gathered around an ice cream cart parked on the sidewalk. And in the distance, a wistful red balloon disappeared into the sky over the dense trees in Hilde’s favorite part of the city, Tiergarten Park.
There was no doubt Berlin was beautiful on its surface, but the barbarism that had seeped into its soul terrified Hilde. Four years earlier, the Nazis had risen to power, spawning swastikas that spread like tentacles – on billboards, park benches, and painted in bloody red on Jewish stores and homes. Random violence erupted even in the loveliest places of what was once her city.
At twenty-three, there was so much Hilde wanted to do. Attend university. Learn new languages. Study chemistry. Take literature courses. Pursue an interesting career. But none of that seemed possible anymore for her in Berlin.
Hilde spooned sugar into her coffee. At one table, men and women laughed with such freedom, it appeared they were living in another city. At the counter, a couple spoke in quiet tones. The scents of tobacco smoke and strong coffee drifted through the café as did animated chatter and the sound of cups clicking on saucers.
As Hilde glanced towards the door, she spied a newspaper, The Times of India, atop the table next to her own. It was written in English, a language she had studied in school. She leaned over to decipher the words.
Just then, a man, cup and saucer in hand, approached her. His skin was tan and worn as if he spent time in the sun, and he had rumpled, dark hair that contrasted with his white, button-down shirt – his top two buttons undone. He wore no tie. There was a softness to his eyes and mouth that hinted at kindness and a good sense of humor, and the scent of the oaks in Tiergarten Park hung about him.
“Is that your paper?” Hilde asked. Her voice sounded less nonchalant than she had intended.
“Yes.” He placed his coffee cup on the table and sat across from her.
She twisted a curl of hair around her finger. He seemed to study her with appreciation. “This is interesting. Have you been to India?” she asked.
“Of course. It’s where I live.” He spoke with an educated Berlin accent.
Hilde hesitated for a moment.
“I’m pleased you find it interesting,” he continued as he leaned towards her, and now the scent of oak trees wafted in the air between them.
“I’ve always been fascinated by other countries,” Hilde said.
“Any place is better than Germany.”
He certainly was bold. Criticizing Germany in these times, to her, a stranger. She hoped no one had overheard him.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Hilde. And you?”
“Heinz. Heinz Gumpert.”
He was definitely handsome – more interesting than the other men she knew. He appeared to be at least ten years older than she, but, unlike most Berliners his age, his demeanor was calm, unafraid, but not naive or unaware. His deep brown eyes seemed to absorb everything in his surroundings. Hilde felt slightly self-conscious, wondering what he might be noticing about her.
She was aware men found her attractive. People often complimented her eyes. They were big and dark and dominated her face. She almost always wore make-up to accentuate them. And she had a good figure. Slim. Petite. Feminine.
She pulled out a cigarette, and Heinz bent towards her to light it.
“Are you here on business or for pleasure?” she asked.
“Pleasure? This is no pleasure for me. I can’t get out of here quick enough. At least in India there’s no antisemitism.”
Hilde appreciated that Heinz had revealed he was Jewish, although she had suspected that to be the case. She felt a bit safer in his presence.
Two young men entered the café wearing red armbands decorated with black swastikas. They trudged past Hilde and Heinz to the counter in their heavy boots, their pudgy faces set in expressions of self-importance.
Hilde observed with irritation that their laughter was too loud, their voices rough, and their language coarse and uneducated. She raised her eyebrows and tilted her head ever so slightly to the side. “How elegant,” she said. Then she leaned across the table towards Heinz and whispered, “I’m allergic to those uniforms. And their inhabitants.”
Heinz’s laugh seemed to originate in his belly and take over his upper torso, making his shoulders shake.Even after he stopped laughing, his eyes sparkled as if filled with bright ideas.
His laughter made Hilde more comfortable, as if for a moment, she, too, were unafraid. “When do you go back to India?” she asked.
“In several weeks. After I close the business, or what’s left of it.”
“Is that why you're here?”
“I'm buying pharmaceuticals for my company in Bombay. Stocking up, so to speak. This is hopefully my last trip to Germany.”
Hilde found his statement disappointing, but she didn't let on. “Where’s your family?”
“My father passed away, but my mother and siblings are already in India, and I'm grateful for that.” He didn't even lower his voice.
“Don't you realize you have to be careful what you say here?” she asked.
“I realize the situation better than most. Got my whole family out.” But this time he spoke softly, and Hilde wondered if he realized the truth of what she said or if he just acted out of consideration for her.
“Still. They’re far away. You’re here now. And here you have to be careful.”
“I suppose you’re right. I won’t be here long, though.”
“Lucky for you.” Hilde looked down at her coffee cup and ran her finger along the rim. Soon he would leave, and she would remain behind, stuck and suffocating.
“Don’t look so sad. There’s a way out for all of us. You just have to look beyond Germany. And Europe.”
She nodded but didn't really believe him. She finished her coffee, extinguished her cigarette, and gathered her purse. “Good luck in India.”
“What are you doing this evening?”
“Must you? So soon?” He seemed disappointed. “Stay for a little bit,” he pressed. “Just for one coffee. Let me invite you.”
Hilde wanted to stay and hear about India, but she knew her mother would never approve of her having coffee with a man who her family and friends did not know. Yet he looked so handsome, his tanned cheeks strong and sturdy. And she felt optimistic talking with him, a feeling she had almost forgotten. “All right,” she said. “One coffee.” She took out another cigarette which Heinz immediately lit. She drew deeply on it and then leaned back against her chair and exhaled. Smoke rose between them.
Heinz turned his full attention to her as if she were the only other person in the room. His eyes sparkled, and she sensed mischief and intensity in them. Hilde found the combination appealing.
She took another drag on her cigarette and breathed out a thin plume of smoke. “This is close to my work. I came directly from there.”
“What do you do?” Heinz asked.
“I’m a secretary for an attorney, Erich Cohn Bendit. Have you heard of him?”
“Isn’t he a Communist?”
She glanced at the Nazis three tables over. She would not be able to have a conversation with Heinz about anything that mattered at this table, in this café, where everyone could hear them.
“It's awfully stuffy in here,” she said.
He followed her glance to the uniformed men and then a hint of a smile ignited his eyes. Crinkles formed in the outside edges. “Would you like to sit on the patio?”
Heinz gathered his newspaper, stood up, and offered her the crook of his arm, which she accepted. He signaled to the waiter that they were moving outside and asked for a coffee for Hilde. As she walked with Heinz past the Nazis, she felt a little bit protected from them. She wondered if this feeling was valid or simply foolish.
The patio was noisier as it faced the wide avenue bustling with people leaving work. The noise gave them more privacy. She settled at the table and accepted her coffee from the waiter.
Perhaps it was the warm summer air or the freedom of feeling anonymous amongst the sounds of the city, but Hilde felt emboldened. “To answer your question – yes. Cohn is a Communist. And so am I.” She paused for a reaction and when none came, asked: “Are you surprised?”
“Do you want me to be?”
For a moment, Hilde didn’t know how to respond. She enjoyed shocking people, but no one had ever called her on it. “Communism is not much in fashion these days, especially if you don’t want trouble.” She leaned towards Heinz, almost whispering. “But I believe in social equality. Why should some people be filthy rich and others not have enough food to eat? And the Communists stand up to the Nazis. What about you?”
“I’m not involved in politics here. Jews have no voice in Germany.”
“Is it different in India?”
“Oh yes. For one thing, they don’t hate us there. I never liked Germany anyway – even when I was a child. Society is too severe. Appearances are so important.”
“I once loved the life here,” Hilde said. “As a small girl, I used to accompany my Vati to the museums. Sometimes we would stop in one of these cafés. The women looked so elegant with their short hair and lean dresses that dripped down their hips. I guess I was easy to impress in those days. Young and foolish.”
“There has always been anti-Semitism in Germany. I saw it back in the twenties. Of course I wasn’t as young as you then,” Heinz said.
“Or as foolish.”
A horn tooted, and the sound of engines on the nearby street almost drowned their conversation. Heinz and Hilde leaned close together so they could hear each other over the traffic. His face was serious, and his eyes no longer soft. “I don’t think you’re foolish. But you must get out of Europe. It’s no place for Jews.”
“I’d like to live in Palestine,” she said, and the words danced about her, light and hopeful.
“Are you a Zionist?” The hint of a smile resurfaced on his face.
She nodded. “That’s my biggest dream.” This she said in a whisper, not for fear of being overheard, but for fear of sounding silly or childish.
“An admirable one,” he said.
The noise on the street seemed to envelope them in their own private world. She wanted to touch his tan skin, to feel it against her face and neck. “I belonged to the Zionist Youth Group, Beitar. Before it was forbidden, of course. We share the hope of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. A place we can one day live in peace.”
“A Jewish Communist Zionist,” Heinz mused.
“Call me crazy.” Laughter lightened Hilde’s voice.
“On the contrary, I find you impressive.”
Hilde smiled, but she pulled slightly away. “My father would disagree. He has always been against me. He did not want me in the youth group. He thinks they will just make trouble for the Jews. And the Communists are even worse.”
Heinz shook his head.
“I suppose he’s frightened, too,” Hilde continued. “He slapped me the other day for coming home too late. He’s always been strict, but lately he’s unbearable.” Now she was telling him too much. Her emotions were overcoming her, her greatest downfall, according to her father. “Nya. Let’s talk about something else. Why India?”
“I was the rebel of my family,” Heinz said.
“Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.”
“I didn’t want to be a doctor like my sister or an attorney like my brother. I was interested in business, and I saw opportunities in India. My family had a pharmaceutical company in Breslau, and I began importing their products to Bombay.”
“Wasn’t it hard to be so far from home?”
“I never considered Germany home. I never fit in here. India’s my mulluk. That’s homeland in Hindi.”
She cocked her head and surveyed him. He certainly was unusual. She had never met anyone quite like him. “You’re quite an adventurer,” she said.
“I’m the kind of adventurer who keeps looking for a place where I’ll fit in.”
“You were clever to leave Germany when you did. I love to travel, but I’ve never been outside of Europe.”
“Well, then you must see India one day.” Heinz raised his cup to Hilde who did the same, her eyes shining with images of a world beyond Berlin.
On October 6, 1937, Hilde stood in the main hall of Anhalter-Bahnhof, Berlin’s central train station, next to her new husband.
“You are legally my wife.” Heinz’s voice was tender. “May I call you Weibchen?”
She kissed him for an answer.
Those past six weeks with Heinz had been her happiest. She and Heinz had spent every free moment together – walking in the parks, talking for hours, and laughing until they were doubled over.
She remembered their first kiss on the bank of the Spree River. Hilde had picked a blue wildflower and Heinz had said, “Centaurea cyanus - a cornflower” before touching her cheek. The caress was gentle, like a warm feather, and she could feel it on her face even after he had removed his hand. Then he kissed her, first gently on her lips, and then more forcefully, his arms wrapped around her. The reflection of the willow leaves rippled on the river’s surface, dappled by spots of white sunlight. As she kissed him back, Hilde felt that she, too, was dappled with sunbeams. As if every part of her body sparkled. As if she was more alive in that moment than she had been in months, in years, perhaps ever. And that night, when they snuck into his hotel room, she became liquid and had no choice but to float with him until cool sensations overcame her and she became a rushing body of water.
From the time Hilde had met Heinz, leaving with him for India was something she had hoped for, despite the risks. If he had left without her, the heaviness would have been unbearable. When he asked her to marry him, just five weeks after their meeting, she barely hesitated – and only because of her family. But he had promised to try to get them out, too.
The high glass ceilings and noisy crowds of Anhalter-Banhof contrasted sharply with Hilde’s petite parents and sister, Mullo, who stood contained and somber at her side. A huge poster of Hitler was plastered against the wall.
Heinz had already purchased their tickets to Trieste, Italy. From there, he and Hilde would board a ship to Bombay. Hilde wondered if Heinz would succeed in bringing her family to India, and if not, what would happen to them in Germany. Concerns about her own future loomed in her mind. She was moving with a man she had known for only a short time to a place she could not even imagine.
“Good luck, Hildchen.” Mullo glanced at a group of Nazi Youth who had congregated by the wall, speaking loudly and jingling their collection cans. She then turned back to Hilde with an expression of courage beyond her years.
“We will see each other soon,” Hilde told her sister with determination.
Mullo’s eyes met Hilde’s, but she did not respond.
I will always remember Mullo this way . . . defiant, Hilde promised herself.
Mutti held Hilde’s hand in hers. The skin on Mutti’s hand was paper-thin and mottled with blue and brown spots. She had aged too quickly in the last four years. When Hilde looked into her mother’s kind, dry eyes, she sensed fear tempered by hope that her daughter was being taken to a safer place.
But leaving her motherwas what Hilde dreaded most. Mutti who had read stories to her every night when she was a child. Mutti who had often gone hungry during the tough years of the Great War but had made sure Hilde always had enough to eat. Mutti who had brushed Hilde’s hair before her first date with Wolfgang. Who had told her she was smart in school. Who never complained. Who never raised her voice. Who felt Hilde’s pain and carried it for her. Who was so good.
Hilde’s eyes burned with tears.
“Ach,” her father said. “Don’t upset your Mutti.”
“You will join us as soon as possible,” Hilde said to both of her parents, her voice cracking with emotion.
Vati waved his hand in front of his face dismissively. “Stop worrying, Hildchen. This will pass. Besides, they won’t do anything to us. I have an Iron Cross, First Class.”
Her father's obstinate denial frustrated and frightened Hilde. How can he be so blind?
Still, she tried to remain stoic in an effort to make the moment easier for her mother. But she’d never been good at controlling her emotions. Tears streamed down her face.
Hilde had become oblivious to the noise of the trains and the frenetic energy in the station. She only saw the people she was leaving behind. She wanted to remember everything about them, the scent of cigar smoke that clung to her father's clothing, Mullo’s cheekiness which she had always resented, and Mutti.
Heinz touched Hilde’s elbow, signaling it was time to leave. She had not heard the conductor’s call or noticed the other people already boarding the train.
Her fatherhugged her. He felt smaller than she remembered. The last time she hugged him, she was a child, and everything seemed bigger then. He trembled slightly, and she realized he was vulnerable. It was a disconcerting thought.
Then he turned to Heinz and put his arm around his new son-in-law. Heinz faced him so Hilde could see the two men’s profiles. Vati was shorter, slighter than Heinz. He lowered his voice, but Hilde could still hear him. “Don’t let anything happen to my Hildchen.”
Vati’s accusatory tone alarmed Hilde, but it was too late to turn back or divulge her concerns to anyone. Certainly not to Heinz. And telling any family member would only make them worry.
“I won’t,” Heinz said, but his shoulders tightened and he moved slightly away from Vati.
Hilde kissed her mother, father, and sister, and held onto Heinz’s hand. She forced herself to smile so her family would remember her that way. Then she waved goodbye and stepped onto the train with her new husband.
Heinz squeezed her hand and whispered: “Auf Wiedersehen, schoene Deutschland.” Goodbye, beautiful Germany.
Hilde looked up at him, her eyes wet with emotion. She sensed he had made the remark to make her laugh, to lighten her sorrow. She turned for one last glimpse of her family. They stood on the platform, a small, grave unit, waving goodbye.
Then, in response to Heinz’s remark about Germany and in an effort to appear brave despite her pain, Hilde let out a wisp of a laugh which floated in the air above them as the doors shut and the train began to move.