The Things We Cherished
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Pamela Jenoff
Roger wiped his boots on the mat and looked up expectantly. Forty-three, the number above the doorway of the row house read. He compared it to the slip of paper in his hand once more. The address was correct. He raised his arm, then hesitated, wondering if it was too soon to knock again.
As he reached forward, the door swung open, leaving his hand flailing in mid-air. A slight woman with dark hair and pale skin appeared in the doorway. They stared at each other for a moment, not speaking. Roger had never met his brother’s wife. There had been a photograph of an impromptu wedding in Geneva, a hastily scrawled letter, as Hans’ invariably were, apologizing that circumstances had not enabled them to have proper nuptials, or at least come to Wadowice and make introductions to the family before they wed. Their mother, always eager to find an excuse for Hans’ inattentiveness, had speculated in a more outspoken way than was proper that perhaps Hans’ bride might be with child. But six months later, the woman who stood before him was willowy, showing no evidence of an impending birth.
“You must be Roger,” she said, stepping aside. “I’m Magda. Come in.”
“Vielen Dank.” She was taller than he had imagined. In the photograph she had appeared more slight, clinging to Hans’ side in the shadow of an alpine slope, gazing up at him with an expression that seemed midway between trepidation and awe. Here in her own home without her husband, she seemed to fill the space, moving through the light-filled house with ease.
“I can show you to your room, if you’re tired from the journey,” she offered, as she led him into the sitting room. “Or perhaps some tea.”
“Tea would be nice,” he replied, setting down his bag and taking the chair she indicated. “If it isn’t too much trouble.”
“Not at all. Hans would have been here, but he’s been called away on business.” Business, Roger reflected, as Magda disappeared into the kitchen. No one was quite sure what his brother did, and Roger often had the sense that it was better not to ask. Hans, five years Roger’s senior, had studied politics, choosing not to enroll in the university here and taking off instead for Berlin. After graduation, he had gone into the diplomatic service and been detailed to the consulate in Breslau, an office that had ceased to exist now that Germany had invaded Poland and no longer recognized its national sovereignty. Hans kept his official residence here, but seemed to travel endlessly throughout the country and abroad, meeting with contacts.
Roger looked around the house, simply furnished with a lack of personal effects that belied the fact Hans and Magda hadn’t been here long. It was more spacious than he had imagined, given Hans’ modest government salary and his refusal to accept help from their mother. Of course the location, in the Jewish quarter and close to the synagogue, could hardly be considered ideal in light of the present German administration and that likely kept the value low.
The invitation to stay with his brother had come as a surprise to Roger, prompted, he was sure, by their mother’s urging. It wasn’t that Hans was inhospitable—he simply moved in his own orb and it would have never occurred to him to ask. Roger felt awkward about accepting, an interloper among the newlyweds. But the coincidence of his brother having a house so close to the university was too fortuitous to ignore, and the price of rent too dear for their mother to pay when it wasn’t necessary.
Not that it seemed, he contemplated now, that his presence would be much of an intrusion. The few touches that did decorate the house were all Magda, from the embroidered slipcovers to the handful of framed photographs scattered about the room. There did not seem to be a trace of his brother anywhere, not his pipe or shoes or any of the usual clutter that Hans had left in his wake for most of their youth. Roger imagined Magda alone in the large house night after night, and wondered with more empathy than he expected to feel for the woman he had just met if she was lonely here.
Magda returned with a tea tray, which she set on the low table in front of him. There was not any sugar and he wondered if it was due to rationing. Surely the shortages here could not be as bad as back home. He picked up one of the cups. “That’s a beautiful timepiece,” he remarked, pointing to the clock on the mantel.
She sat down in the chair opposite him. “It was my father’s dearest possession. We found him holding it when he died.”
He waited to see if there was something more she wanted to say, but her expression turned vague as she picked up her teacup, lost in private thoughts. “Where are you from?” he asked, realizing how little he knew about his brother’s wife.
“How did you and Hans meet?” The question sounded more intrusive than he had intended.
But Magda did not seem offended. “I worked in a café in Berlin. Your brother used to come in when he was in town.” Her eyes seemed to dance at the memory. Sipping his tea, Roger imagined the meeting. He pictured Hans holding court at a table, a circle of onlookers watching as he pontificated on current events, debated politics long into the night. Magda could not have helped but been smitten. And what had drawn Hans to the quiet barista, he wondered? Her beauty, for starters. Magda, with her perfect posture and luminous blue-gray eyes, had a quiet grace that would have made her the focus of attention over other women who were louder or better dressed. Even his brother, so often preoccupied, could not have failed to notice her.
“After Hans graduated, we were separated by a distance for some time while he took this assignment. And then we married and I moved here.” She spoke hurriedly, fidgeting with the cuffs of her dress, offering more information in response than the question necessitated. Was she nervous at his presence? He wondered for the first time if she minded the intrusion.
“It’s very gracious of you to have me in your home. I hope it isn’t too much of a bother.” He felt certain from her contemplative expression that it was the first time anyone had asked.
“Not at all.” Her voice sounded sincere. “It will be good to have someone else here.” She closed her mouth quickly, raising a hand to her flushed cheeks as if she had said too much.
She stood abruptly, setting down her still-full teacup and gesturing for him to follow her. There was something striking about her gait as she climbed the stairs, a way of walking that was so smooth and effortless, she traveled without seeming to really move at all.
As they passed the second floor landing, he counted through the open doors three rooms, a bedroom and a study and another room that seemed in disuse. “The water closet is just here,” she said pointing to a fourth, closed door. She continued up the stairs to the third floor, opening the door at the top. “This is yours.”
They started forward at the same time. “Oh!” Magda said, as they jostled against one another in the doorway, which was too small for both to pass. They stood motionless for a second, her arm warm against his side.
“Excuse me,” he said finally, feeling his face go red as he leapt back to let her pass. He berated himself inwardly, certain that she must be appalled by his lack of manners.
But Magda let out a tinkling laugh, as though his gaffe was an intentional joke, and her good nature instantly put his awkwardness at ease. She walked into the room and gestured to the expanse of space beneath a sloping roof. A simple bed, chair and desk were the only furnishings, giving the space an uncluttered feel that he rather liked. The smell of fresh lemon cleanser filled the air.
“It’s lovely,” he remarked.
Neither spoke for several seconds. “I’ll leave you to get settled,” she said at last. She paused, mouth still open, as though there were something more she wanted to say. Then she turned abruptly and vanished down the stairs, leaving a sense of emptiness in her wake.
The next afternoon, Roger stood on the doorstep of the house once more, unsure of whether to knock or walk right in this time. He settled somewhere in between, rapping once lightly, then opening the door a crack without waiting. “Hello,” he called.
Something was different, he sensed immediately as he stepped into the foyer. He had left early that morning without seeing Magda and spent the better part of the day at the university, picking up the required texts, making contact with his tutor about their first meeting. Now, as he started up the steps, juggling an armful of books, he detected an unmistakable energy in the air that had not been present previously.
“Good afternoon.” Magda greeted him hurriedly, not stopping as she passed him on her way down the steps. He stared after her, puzzled at her coolness. Had he done something to offend her? But she had already disappeared into the kitchen. He proceeded upward. As he reached the second floor landing, he heard a male voice, muffled and deep, through the now-closed door to the study and he knew then the reason for the change: Hans had returned.
As Roger continued on to the third floor, the door to the study below flew open. “My brother!” Hans bounded up the stairs, clapping Roger on the back. “Welcome to my home.” There was a proprietary note in his brother’s voice that was impossible to ignore.
“Thank you,” he managed, struggling not to drop the books. Hans had aged in the almost two years since their last meeting. Though his broad-shouldered build still had a youthful air, his sandy hair had thinned and there were new lines beneath his hazel eyes.
Hans swept the stack of books from Roger’s arms. “Come, let’s catch up.”
Reluctantly, Roger followed Hans into the study. The desk and floor were covered with papers, and the familiar smell of pipe smoke hung sickly sweet in the air.
“You’ve settled in all right, I take it?” He slipped seamlessly from German into their native Polish. “Found everything you need?”
“Indeed. Magda has been most hospitable.” She entered the room as he spoke, hesitating as though caught off guard by her own name. With shaking hands, she sat down two cups of tea between the stacks of paper on the desk. Did her husband make her nervous, Roger wondered? She had not seemed this way the day before.
As Magda straightened, Hans caught her hand and their eyes met. “Danke, Liebchen.” There was a genuine look of affection that passed between them, making Roger squirm and filling him with a strange sense of disappointment.
“So . . .” Hans said, turning back to Roger when Magda had gone. His white shirt was rumpled, the sleeves rolled up, a faint gray line of dirt at the collar. And his jowl, usually clean shaven, had a fine coat of stubble. Where had he been, Roger wondered? He did not ask, of course, knowing Hans would not say.
Hans smiled then, his perfect teeth whiter and more disarming than Roger recalled. The Dykmans boys had been blond as children, owing to their Scandinavian roots. But where Roger’s coloring had darkened with adolescence, Hans had remained fair. That, along with his crisp, unaccented German, was an asset that enabled him to blend in, causing people to forget the fact that he was a foreigner here.
A foreigner, sort of. Breslau, or Wroclaw as the Poles called it, had been batted between the control of the Poles and Germans and their neighbors like a ball in a game of table tennis for centuries. Though the city, part of Upper Silesia, was predominantly German now, it maintained a distinctly Polish undercurrent, and signs of the Slavic culture were everywhere—in the shops, the cuisine—even if people did speak the language a bit less and in a softer tone these days.
“So mother is well?” Hans asked, interrupting Roger’s thoughts. His expression and tone seemed genuine, in sharp contrast to the infrequency of his letters and almost nonexistent visits. That was the thing about Hans—despite the fact that he was self-absorbed, he was almost impossible to dislike. He was never arrogant or dismissive, and had a way of getting people to his side while they thought their ideas were their own. The worst that one could say about him was that his work, whatever that was exactly, consumed him with a kind of passion that made him distracted, unable to ever be entirely present.
Hans’ charisma had translated well into his professional world. He was a diplomat in the truest sense of the word, and he managed to keep the goodwill of the present German administration even as he worked, Roger suspected, covertly against them. In fact, it was likely Hans’ influence that enabled him to come to Breslau and study at the university during a time when Poles were less than welcome here.
“I’m sorry to have been gone and not able to greet you,” Hans apologized, not waiting for an answer to his previous question. “The situation right now . . .” He waved his hand around his head in the direction of the front window. “It’s terribly bad and getting worse, I’m afraid.”
Hans spoke as though Roger knew what he meant, and in some sense he did. Germany had been under the Reich for more than seven years. The changes were perhaps less abrupt here than in the countries the Nazis had come to occupy more recently, such as Poland. Roger had been there when they had marched into Wadowice, the tanks preposterously large in the narrow town streets, Great Danes in a china shop. Here, he imagined, the shift had been gradual: shops closed one by one, people who had lived quietly intermingled for decades suddenly forced to wear armbands and only associate among their own.
Roger recalled the previous morning as he arrived at the train station a family with four small children clustered around a pile of luggage. The mother’s face was drawn with exhaustion, her lips pressed so tightly she had barely the strength to thank him as he held the door for them. She carried a sizeable toddler who bore his own tiny version of the armband with the Star of David, and Roger noticed then that they had no pram. He wondered now how they had gotten to their final destination from the train station since Jews were forbidden from streetcars. At the time, the woman had struck him as just a harried mother traveling with children. But now he wondered if it was something more. Where were they going and was it by choice?
“Well, it’s getting late,” Hans said, standing, and Roger knew that was his cue to do the same. As they walked into the hallway, they encountered Magda, returning to clear the cups.
“Dinner at six?” she asked, looking up at Hans, her face bright. “I’ve managed to find some cutlets for schnitzel.”
But Hans shook his head. “I’ll just take a tray.” He turned to Roger. “You’ll forgive me for not joining you,” he said. “I need to leave again first thing in the morning and there’s much to be done before then.” Roger could not help but notice how Magda’s face fell as her husband brushed past her. He held his breath, waiting for her to turn to him and ask him to join her for dinner. But she retreated silently from the study.
Having been dismissed, Roger picked up his books and carried them to the third floor, settling down at the desk to read. He gazed out the window, across the soot-blackened chimneys at the gray, late afternoon sky. His eyes dropped to the courtyard below, which was adjacent to the White Stork Synagogue. The large neoclassical structure stood in sharp contrast to the modest Jewish house of worship in their home town of Wadowice. It was magnificent, or at least it had been, Roger could tell, before the mobs that taken to the street on Kristallnacht almost two years earlier had ravaged the building, shattering the windows and burning the prayer books within. But it had not been entirely destroyed and was, perhaps, the city’s only still functioning synagogue.
Today was Friday, their sabbath, and a small group of men had clustered outside the desecrated synagogue, talking. Roger wondered how they could be so nonchalant, as if nothing had changed and their very presence might not be putting their lives in danger. But maybe, he reflected, this was the one place where they could feel as if life as they once knew it still existed.
A beam of sunlight broke through the clouds then, illuminating the jagged remnants of the synagogue’s stained-glass windows. He could see into the women’s section, a raised balcony on the second story, separated from the main sanctuary with a thin lace curtain that somehow survived unscathed. Tonight the balcony was empty, but he could imagine it coming to life on the holidays, the pews filled with women hugging and talking, children scampering restlessly beneath their feet before being cowed into sitting still.
His thoughts returned to Magda, her disappointed expression. As if on cue, he heard her on the floor below, her presence given away by the quiet scratching of her shoes. He would have eaten with her, if only she had asked. But of course it wouldn’t be proper for him to suggest it. He looked down at his books. He should work through the evening anyway, prepare for the first of his lectures the following day.
That evening, a tray appeared outside his door, though he did not hear Magda leave it. The house was eerily still and the Victrola did not play below, as it had the previous night. How odd, he reflected, that a house could be quieter with three people in it than it had been with two.
When his eyes had grown bleary from reading, he carried his tray down to the kitchen. As he started back upstairs, he passed Magda, who had come from the washroom on the second-floor landing. Her face was freshly scrubbed and in that moment he saw her as scarcely more than a girl, with an innocence and vulnerability to her that tugged at his heart. He cleared his throat as though there was something he wanted to say, and she looked at him expectantly. But no words came out and a moment later she opened the door to the bedroom and a thin sliver of the room appeared, the intimacy of the space she and his brother shared somehow an affront. She did not look up again but closed the door with a click, leaving him in the hallway alone.
The next morning he started down the stairs on his way to the university. Roger could tell before he even reached the second floor landing that Hans was gone by the calm that seemed to have been restored. Indeed, the visit had been so swift it might never have happened at all.
The door to Hans and Magda’s bedroom was ajar and through the opening he could see Magda. He drew nearer, drawn in by her sure, fluid movements. He wondered if her mood had brightened, or if she was even more bereft by her husband’s departure. Impulsively, he walked to the door. “Magda?” he knocked, then pushed the door open slightly. “I’ll take dinner with you this evening, if . . .”
He stopped short. Magda pulled a large mahogany armoire from the wall—how she had managed to move such a heavy object he could not fathom—and she was kneeling behind it. He wondered if she had lost something. Startled, she jumped to her feet and started to push the armoire back into place.
“Can I help?” he asked., moving closer.
“N-nein, danke,” she managed, clearly flustered. “I was just trying to dust.” But she held no cloth or other cleaning supplies, Roger noticed. He leaned forward, peering over her shoulder. She moved to the side, trying to block his view, but he could see that there was a large gaping hole in the wall.
“What’s that?” he asked. The question was perhaps too intrusive to be asked of this woman he had only just met. But there was something about her that caused him to feel like they had known each other much longer, a sense that he had met her long before. She did not respond. He walked to the spot beside her and together they slid the armoire back against the wall. As they did, their fingers brushed and she pulled back quickly. He hoped that he had not offended her. “Magda, what’s behind the wall?” She did not answer and for a second he wondered if she was angry.
“A place,” she said simply. “For hiding things.”
Her face seemed to cave inward. “Or people,” she replied reluctantly.
People. His mind whirled. Was she scared that the Nazis might arrest them in retribution for Hans’ work? It had to be something more than that. There were people, he knew, who hid Jews from the Nazis. Perhaps Magda was somehow involved in such work. But surely he would have known.
He studied the space behind her once more. It was narrow, just big enough for one person, maybe two if the second was a child. No, the hiding place was too small to be of use to others. It was intended for Magda herself.
The realization hit him in the stomach like a rock. Surely Magda wasn’t . . . he pictured the Jews as the yarmulke-clad men he had seen lingering outside the White Stork Synagogue, their shawl-covered wives. “Magda, are you . . . ?” He did not finish the question.
“My father was killed during Kristallnacht,” she said, her voice monotone. “When the rioting started, he insisted upon going to the shop where he worked to rescue his beloved clock. We begged him not to go out, but he insisted and the next morning we found him in the backroom of the shop, murdered.” Her eyes did not meet his. “After that, I managed to leave.”
“And the rest of your family?”
“My mother, Hannah, passed a few years ago from a heart condition. And my older brother, Stefan, left Germany before the war. He was trying to make it to England, or at least that’s what we thought; I’ve not heard from him since he went.”
Roger studied Magda, considering her anew. The raven hair now seemed a liability, a stamp somehow that she did not fit in. He was seized with the longing to shave her locks, for even shorn she would still be beautiful.
“Does Hans know?”
She nodded. “We spoke about it once, long ago. We don’t talk about it anymore, though. He has enough to worry about.”
Roger contemplated what she had said. Suddenly he imagined standing in her shoes, living with the fear day by day, alone. Then a vision swept him of Magda disappearing, and he was seized with an emptiness and terror that he had never known in his entire life.
“Magda . . . ” He took a step toward her and wordlessly she folded into his arms, trembling like a bird that might break if he held her too hard. She pulled back and looked up at him and in that moment it was impossible to breathe.
Then without speaking further, she turned on her heel and was gone.
Copyright © 2011 by Pam Jenoff. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. The Things We Cherished will be published in July 2011 and can be purchased from Random House, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble.
Pam Jenoff is the author of The Kommandant’s Girl, The Diplomat’s Wife, Almost Home, and Hidden Things. She attended George Washington University, Cambridge University in England, where she received a master’s in history, and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. A former Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army and State Department officer, she lives in Philadelphia, where she works as an attorney.