A Compromising Photograph

A Compromising Photograph

A Compromising Photograph

It was six o’clock on an August morning when an old war hero hobbled up to the front door as Anni was sitting in the kitchen drinking a cup of the bitter chicory that now stood in for coffee. Anni was listening to a bird and trying to decide what kind of warbler it was when its song was drowned out by the sharp trilling of the bell, a signal that traveled from the front door of the big house down a cable in the hall to the kitchen, where a series of clappers mounted on the side wall vibrated with alarm. She stood up from the table. Her mother had come down from upstairs, where she had been putting an inexperienced young housemaid through her paces. There was murmuring in the hallway that passed into the parlor. A few minutes later, the front door opened again, and the old soldier took his leave in low tones, his single boot crunching on the gravel as he retreated down the path.

Anni’s mother closed the door and stood in the hallway with a field post dangling from her hand. Her back was to Anni, her shoulder slumped. Slowly, Anni walked over to her and took the letter from her. She opened it, glancing at the official type, the heading from a command post in the East, and the string of code that directed the message back to the army base in Stolp. It declared her father a defender of the Reich and announced that he had fallen in a panzer operation near Kursk. For his bravery, he was to be awarded a third and posthumous Iron Cross.

There was the harsh sound of a bird outside that rose like an angry yak, yak, yak and then subsided, followed by a response farther off in the trees, a slow cooing that descended into a mournful cry.

The house fell quiet. Anni’s mother made a call to her parents in Potsdam, then retreated to her room upstairs, where Anni could hear her weeping as she stood anxiously at the door. She was afraid to go in, so she was left with nothing to do but to walk around the base, confused by the fact that she was not feeling as much as she thought she should. She only knew that was extremely lonely without her mother to comfort her.

Numbly, she walked up the side road to the back gates, then continued out to the forest. By the time she got back, she had still not yet shed a tear. She went up to her father’s study, lined with portraits and still impregnated with the rich smell of tobacco, and went to the desk where an unopened packet of cigarettes lay out in an ashtray. Pulling open the drawer, she took out a little silver camera hidden under a pile of papers. She turned it over. It was loaded with film. She stuffed it into her pocket and hurried back down to the living room. Opening the drinks cabinet next to the sideboard, she took out a bottle of Schnapps.

Perhaps it was the anger lurking beneath the numbness that moved her to hurry out the front door with the bottle of Schnapps under her arm. She could not have said.

She started walking towards the alley of elder trees leading out to the main road, walking quickly as if she were afraid someone might order her back at any moment. She snapped a picture of a munitions truck as it went by. A Volkswagen passed by with a farmer and his family inside, and she took a picture of them, too.

When she reached the center of town, she passed through the old city gates into the medieval town. It was market day, and the cobblestones on the main square were crowded with booths where the vendors set out their wares. Parked in the middle of the square was the butcher’s van, a few sides of horse meat hanging from hooks with flies buzzing around their loins and a couple of scrappy links of sausage set out on metal trays. An old woman was sitting on a three-legged stool beside the van skinning a couple of rabbits.

The butcher’s assistant was a boy in a blood-stained white coat. It was Josef, the younger brother of Anni’s friend Jula at school. Behind him, his father was chopping the horse meat with a cleaver as his mother pasted the ration stamps onto pieces of paper that she collected into a little book.

At the front of the line, Anni made a show of looking for her ration book in her pocket. Josef gave her a grin. She glanced at the women standing in line, then back at Josef, then behind him towards the back of the van, where his father was hauling up another side of scrawny horse meat. “Voßstraße,” murmured Josef under his breath, “second entry on the left.”

She took the long way to be sure no one was following her. Her mother had forbidden her to buy anything on the black market, but she sometimes sneaked a packet of butter back for Marta so the pies would taste the way they should.

On the Voßstraße, there were a couple of farm hands in mud-caked boots and black corduroy vests loitering on the corner. One of them caught her eye and nodded, touching two fingers to his cap.

The front door of the building opened with a creak. There was a row of mailboxes in the hall, and the walls were a dull brown, the paint cracked and peeling. As if to warn off intruders, someone had drawn graffiti of a skull and crossbones with the eyes and nose hollowed out from the plaster and menacingly bared teeth scratched into the paint. The place smelled of boiled cabbage, and she could hear two women gossiping on the upstairs landing.

A door opened, and an old man came into the hallway, his wrinkled hands stained with sod. He nodded and led her back into the rabbit warren of courtyards, hobbling across them with his cane tapping against the stones until he stopped at a flight of stairs leading down into a basement.

The room was full of mops and brooms. In front of a window caked in dust was a stack of crates loaded with packages of tea and sugar. There were a couple of cartons of cigarettes sitting on a shelf beside a few tins of fruit and a packet of silk stockings. An old woman in widow’s weeds was sitting on a rusty metal chair. Her eyes touched on Anni and then strayed up towards the door, where the old man was waiting, the muddy heels of his boots visible at the top of the stairs, the smell of tobacco from his pipe wafting back into the room.

Anni took a couple of coins out of her pocket. The old woman murmured to herself as she counted them. “Three Marks,” she said in Polish.

“Speak German,” Anni demanded, although she understood perfectly well what the old woman had said.

The old woman opened a metal box and pulled out three boxes of Agfafilm. “An officer brought a couple of rolls from Paris this morning. Three Marks each.”

Anni hesitated. It was enough to go to the cinema several times over, but she was starting to feel a mounting agitation, a buzzing in her ears and a tension in her arms and legs that made her feel as if she wanted to break into a run. Whenever something bad happened, she always went out and took pictures – it helped her think. She needed the film.

“I can pay two Marks each.”

The old woman shook her head. “I paid more for these ones.” Her gaze was steady. Anni pulled a wad of bills out of her pocket and handed her another six Marks. The woman took the boxes down from the shelf and wrapped them up in a piece of newspaper. She tucked the wad of bills into her apron and handed Anni the bundle.

Down by the canal, Anni found a bench. She pulled the top off the bottle of Schnapps and took a gulp. Her hands had started to shake, and her ears were ringing. The tears welled up, but she pushed them back and took another swig from the bottle. It was the first time she had ever been drunk, and the alcohol went straight to her head—everything around her seemed to grow softer as if she were looking through a haze, as if a filter had been placed over her camera lens. She slumped back on the bench, then stood up, fighting back the tears, and burst out singing, belting out the last stanza of the Horst Wessel Song:

RAISE the flag! The ranks tightly closed!

The SA march with quiet, steady step.

Comrades shot by the Red Front and reactionaries

March in spirit in our ranks.

As she sang, she raised her arm in the Hitler salute. Why did she do that? She herself could not have said whether she meant it ironically or in deadly earnest.

No one seemed to take notice of Anni’s performance except for an old lady sitting on a bench with her dog yapping at her heels. The dog rushed towards Anni, barking. She tried to ignore it, taking another swig of the Schnapps until she realized with a start that there was a man leaning up against a tree no more than a hundred feet away. He was in his forties, with a black tie short above his white shirt and wearing a brown leather jacket. He was watching her with a mixture of disapproval and amusement.

She stood up and knocked over the bottle, which shattered into pieces, the Schnapps spilling out onto the ground. She picked up a few of the shards of glass and stuffed them in her pocket. The man came towards her, the old woman looking from him to Anni and back again with an expression of great interest in what was about to transpire. The dog was still snapping at Anni’s heels. She stood there, a drop of red blood springing up on her thumb where she had cut it on a shard of glass. The alcohol was starting to wear off, her hand was throbbing, and she could feel the sticky blood on her fingers.

The man pulled a police badge out of his pocket. “Violation of Public Order Law No. 4356,” he said, holding his hands out for the pieces of glass. Anni gave them to him, wiping a streak of blood on her skirt. The officer sniffed the shards, then looked at her. “Fine Schnapps,” he said. “Not much of this about anymore. Where did you get it?”

“My father had it in the cellar,” Anni replied, truthfully enough.

“Your father?”

“General Helmuth von Ebbing. He’s the commander at the base.” She omitted to mention that he was dead.

The officer pointed to the package wrapped up in newspaper sticking out of her pocket. Anni took it out and gave it to him. Slowly, the plainclothesman untied it. The old lady was calling her dog back, but it refused to go, snuffling at Anni’s shins and panting with Schadenfreude.

“Film,” said the officer. “Not much of this about anymore, either. Where did you get that?”

Anni shrugged. “My father had it, too.”

“How about you show me your identity card and ration book?”

Anni took them out of her pocket, her hands shaking as she handed them to him. She no longer felt drunk, just sick. The officer held the identity card up to the light, the bright sun shining through the thin brown paper.

“You’d better come back with me to the station.”

The old woman on the bench was feeding a raft of ducks swarming towards her off the water, their plumage ruffled as they lunged greedily towards the vegetable peels she was tossing out onto the grass. The biggest duck was pushing the little ones out of the way, its yellow beak darting back and forth across the bank of the canal as it took command of the scraps of food. The old woman laughed, murmuring softly as she tossed out another potato peel. The dog turned and chased the ducks back into the water, and they scattered in a flap of feathers.

The plainclothesman tapped Anni on the shoulder and nodded towards the street that led back to the police station. As she began to walk, Anni could hear his leather boots squeaking and feel him behind her as a prickling of the skin on her back. There had been a swastika stamped on his badge when he pulled it out, which meant he was a party member. It made her nervous.

The police station was a big stone building behind the main square. Anni turned hot and then cold as they marched up the street, her back now damp with sweat. The officer climbed the wide stairs and opened the ceremonial front doors. Inside was a long hallway with a receiving window, and behind the window was a police sergeant with an impressive set of white whiskers that extended well beyond his cheeks. He jangled his keys as he looked up, rolls of fat spilling out of his uniform.

“Well, young lady,” he said jovially enough. “May I see your papers?”

Anni took out her purse as the plainclothesman set the dripping shards of glass down on the ledge. A drop of Schnapps rolled slowly down the side of the counter and landed on the floor. The sergeant looked at it, then at the papers Anni had set down beside the shards, her photograph stapled to the brown card. He opened a ledger on the desk and filled in her name and identification number along with the time. Then he looked up at the plainclothesman.

“Black market purchase?” he said, and the plainclothesman nodded. The sergeant filled this into the ledger, then got up from the desk and pulled the keyring out of his pocket.

As he unlocked the side door, Anni peered onto the station floor. She could see row upon row of desks, and in the corner a holding cell with a man sitting on a stool, cap in hand, gazing blankly out into the middle of the room like a bored circus animal. A young officer was seated at a desk by the tall windows that faced onto the street, his fingers flying across the typewriter keys. The machine gave a sharp ping every time he pushed back the carriage return for a new line.

“We’ll have to search you now, young lady.”

A policewoman began patting Anni down around the waist and under her armpits. It was only a moment before she discovered the bulge in Anni’s jacket. Slowly, she opened the coat to reveal the little camera.

“What the hell is this?” said the sergeant as the policewoman handed it to him, glancing at the plainclothes officer who was standing by the door, writing in the incident book. He shut the book with a snap and pushed it back across the ledge. The policewoman took Anni by the arm. Anni resisted the urge to pull away. She did not want to be touched by this stern woman in her frumpy brown suit and tie and lace-up shoes, but she knew she had no choice.

The sergeant was peering at the camera suspiciously, picking it up and turning it over in his large paws, taking off the lens cap and looking the wrong way down the lens. “It’s some kind of goddamn spy camera,” he said, handing it to the plainclothesman.

The policemen at the desks looked up from their work. The young officer’s typing came to a halt. The police matron looked disapproving. After a pause, the plainclothesman turned to Anni.

“Who the hell are you, anyway?”

The man in the holding cell looked up as if something interesting might finally be about to happen.

“My father is General Helmuth von Ebbing,” said Anni. “I live on the base.”

The sergeant nodded to the matron, who went to make a call. The camera seemed to disappear into the man’s enormous fist as if he were a magician hiding it for a special trick. With an adroit gesture that took Anni by surprise, he pressed the button that wound the film forward, then snapped open the latch that held the film compartment shut, pulled out the roll, and handed it to the plainclothes officer. Clearly a man who had handled a weapon before.

“Box it up, Officer Strunk,” he said. “I think internal security should see this.”

“But there’s nothing on it!”

The policewoman had come back. “Anneliese von Ebbing,” she confirmed. Daughter of General von Ebbing, recently deceased.”

The matron finished her pat-down, feeling under Anni’s arms and down her legs, putting her hands behind the backs of her knees and checking her shoes. Anni wanted to yell at her to stop, but she kept quiet. The industrious Strunk was filling in the paperwork for the new piece of evidence in a painstakingly slow script, taking special care over the loops of the “f’s” and the “g’s.” When he was done, he looked up from the ledger.

The sergeant surveyed the camera and the rolls of film, now tagged and boxed. “We’ll let you go for now,” he said. “Out of respect for your father. But we’ll be sending these over to internal security.” He turned to the typist, who nodded as he pulled the sheet of paper out of his typewriter and laid it down on the desk before taking a fresh form out of the drawer.

Outside, Anni started running towards the tram stop. A tram came around the corner, and she leapt onto it. She wanted to get away from the police station and back to the safety of home as fast as she could.

It was past four, and the shops were closed, but the sky held streaks of pink and yellow, the afternoon sunlight turning the stone buildings a deep gold. The tram trundled back through the marketplace, which was empty now that the stalls had all been packed down.

There was a girl in a yellow dress sitting next to Anni. Her skin was freckled and brown, her blonde hair almost white. She gave Anni a smile, and Anni smiled back, but she was thinking of the last time her father had kissed her before he left, his lips brushing the top of her head. There was the high-pitched screech of a rocket coming in and the shudder of the impact and a furnace of heat as it burst into flames, men screaming as they scrambled across the seats and pulled at the doors. Anni’s father was wrapped in a ball of fire, hollering for the men to clear the wreckage. There were tears running down Anni’s face – she couldn’t stop them, even when the girl turned to look at her. She reached out and touched Anni on the shoulder, then, just as quickly, withdrew her hand.

Anni pulled the bell. Standing on the pavement, the breeze rubbed gently against her arms. She cut across the fields behind the back gates of the base, then hurried past the infirmary towards the big house.

When she had gone out, her mother had been sitting in the living room listening to a waltz on the gramophone, a record her father had given her for their anniversary. There had been a vase of flowers on the table by the chair where she was sitting, the blossoms blown, the petals starting to drop on the table. Anni had given her a kiss and said she would be back soon. Her mother had nodded and then turned back to the music, too distracted even to ask where Anni was going. She was standing at the door now as Anni came up the driveway, her hands twisting in her pockets, dressed in a black skirt and sweater with an amethyst brooch at her breast. Her face was bare of makeup, and it occurred to Anni for the first time that she looked old, her cheeks swollen from crying and dark circles under her eyes. She grabbed Anni in a tight embrace.

“Are you all right, darling? I should never have let you go out.” She wiped Anni’s brow with her hands, then turned and went back into the house, heading down the hallway to the kitchen, where she called for Marta to serve the dinner.

In the living room, the side table had been polished and the pile of records put back on the shelf. There was a spent petal lying on the floor. Anni bent down to pick it up as Marta rushed over to her, grasping her like a child, caressing her and smoothing her hair back, but Anni did not want Marta to touch her, only her mother. She pulled away and hurried upstairs.

For a moment, she stood alone on the landing. The door to her mother’s room was still shut, and the hallway was empty except for the little Biedermeier table beside the banister. There was a hole worn through on the carpet that had not been repaired and a line of photographs on the wall, one of her grandparents on their wedding day, another of her father at the military academy. On the opposite wall, there was a little painting in a gilt frame, a beautiful oil of a lake in the middle of a moonlit forest daubed in blacks, golds, and silvers streaked with emerald green. It was her favorite of all the pictures they owned. She stopped and stared into its depths for a moment, feeling its stillness, then put her hand to the doorknob of her room. It was bathed in early evening light, the leaves of the trees outside making dappled patterns across the bedspread.

There was a clothesline strung up in the middle of the room with a series of newly developed photographs hanging up to dry. Her darkroom was in the closet, trays and metal tongs and bottles of chemicals lined up on the shelf her father had built. She pulled a picture down – a soldier smoking a cigarette. The paper had bent up and down in little hillocks as it dried, making curves and hollows over the surface so that one of the soldier’s eyes was caught in the light, the other eye looking back at her in a deadpan stare.

Her mother called her down to dinner. Anni hung the photo up again and hurried downstairs. The table was set for a light supper, a plate of cold meats with a tureen of soup, a loaf of bread, and a glass of wine for her mother from a bottle Marta had brought up from the cellar. They sat quietly, her mother with her head bowed. It was not until they finished the soup that she looked up.

“I always knew we might lose your father. But it was his duty, you know.”

Her mother turned back to her plate. She had always been one to keep her feelings to herself, but still Anni was surprised by how little she had said since the news of her father’s death had arrived. Her mother hadn’t even come to rescue Anni from the police station when she was in trouble. Anni felt a rush of anger towards her that was immediately followed by a sense of guilt. She felt loneliness like a physical pain stabbing at her chest and looked away, staring out the window towards the forest as the tears welled up. She pushed them away.

Marta brought in a bowl of wild strawberries and a jug of cream for dessert. Anni pushed a strawberry around listlessly with her fork, then got up from the table and went up to her room, where she locked the door. She pulled out her pocketknife and started cutting down the clothesline, then took the bottles of chemicals out of the cupboard and pulled the trays and bottles down from the shelf. She poured the chemicals down the sink, then stuffed everything into her backpack, which she carried out to the dump at the back of the base. In the darkness, she tossed everything out and covered the mound with leaves and grass. She knew she needed to get rid of it all.

Back in the house, she picked up the enlarger and carried it down to the cellar, where she locked it in a wardrobe. She took her photographs up to the attic and clambering into the crawl space, where several boxes of her father’s memorabilia were stacked in a corner. She opened one and stuffed a handful of photographs into it, mixing them with her father’s letters from the front. The rest of the photographs she buried in the cupboard that held her father’s old uniforms. No one would look for them there.

That night, she lay in bed with the curtains open so that she could see the stars. There was a glow on the horizon, a haze illuminating the line of trees on the alley into town. On the other side, there was the inky black of the countryside. She could hear the rustling of leaves in the wind. The tears came in fits and starts and then subsided for a moment before welling up again. Finally, she was exhausted, falling asleep around three, tossing and turning with fitful dreams before she woke up again at five and lay listening to the first sounds of the birds outside. She fell asleep again as the light came up in the sky.


Over the next few days, a stream of visitors attended Anni and her mother. There were more phone calls from Anni’s grandparents. On the second day, the old war hero came for another visit and, with utmost tact, made clear that command of the garrison had now officially been passed to him, meaning that they must leave the house. Her mother began to make preparations for the funeral service, and the director of the funeral home arrived in a dark sedan for a consultation. All of these events meant that the bell was ringing constantly. On the third day, however, there was a ring that was different in tone – longer, with a distinct air of demand, several bursts that echoed along the hallway from the kitchen, making Anni jump.

She lifted the corner of the curtain in the upstairs window and looked down into the courtyard. There were three men standing on the gravel – from above, she could see the flat tops of their caps trimmed with silver braid and the shoulders of their uniforms with white arrows on the lapels. One of them was standing with his back to her, and Anni could see a scarlet armband with the black swastika floating in a field of snowy white above his left elbow and a pistol holstered on his belt.

The doorbell rang again. Her mother was out. She let the curtain fall and began heading downstairs. Marta had come out of the kitchen and was pulling her apron off as she hurried down the hall. Anni stood at the top of the landing, watching as Marta opened the front door. She saw the faces of the two officers now, the commander with fat cheeks, thin lips, and dyed black hair, and the second man blonde, with cool slate-grey eyes, and holding a brown envelope under his arm. Behind them was a young recruit standing with his hands behind his back. It was Hans Hoffman, who had just finished school the year before, his highest ambition to join the SS.

Marta glanced up the stairs and caught Anni’s eye. Anni came down slowly, checking in the mirror to make sure that the collar of her blouse was straight and smoothing her hair down to make herself more presentable. The senior officer looked her up and down with an air that seemed to take in her expensive clothes, her pale face and flushed cheeks, and the half-twist at the corner of her mouth where she was trying to force a smile. He also seemed to take in the fine bowl of china on the hall table, the patched oriental runner on the floor, and the comely cook in her linen dress with plaits wound around her head. Somehow, he managed to convey that he was aware that the general who had occupied this house was no longer there to protect them.

“You are Anneliese von Ebbing?” he said. “We require a few moments of your time.”

Anni took them into the sitting room, where stands of lilies occupied every corner of the room. As unmoved by this display of mourning as he had been by the patched runner in the hall and the strained expression on Anni’s face, the commander removed his cap and sat down on the horsehair sofa, the portrait of Hitler looking down on him benevolently. The other officer took a seat in Anni’s mother’s high-backed chair. Hans remained standing by the door with his arms behind his back, avoiding Anni’s gaze as he examined the opposite wall. Anni had always disliked Hans, the son of a local undertaker who would have turned his own father in if he had suspected him of disloyalty. There was no chance he would come to her defense.

The commander shifted in his chair, brushing an imperceptible speck of dust off the sleeve of his jacket and leaning forward so that he was staring at Anni. “By Order of the Führer No. 10435, photographs of life on the domestic front must be restricted to subject matter consistent with national aims,” he said, nodding to Hans, who saluted and left the room. Anni could hear him climbing the stairs in his boots as she felt prickles of sweat stinging in her armpits.

“We are building a new society, creating a future in which Germany will be stronger and purer. The Reich is engaged in a bitter struggle against forces whose only object is to subject us to the yoke of Bolshevist imperialism or pull us back into the gutter of capitalist decadence.” The officer paused, peering over his glasses. “Any threats to the nation will be handled with the utmost efficiency. Anything less would be to dishonor the sacrifices our soldiers are making in Russia, in France, in North Africa, in Greece. It would be an insult,” here he paused, attending with care to the middle button on his uniform, “to your father. However, considering your age, and out of respect for your family, we may be willing to reduce your sentence if you provide us with the information we require.”

Anni stared at him. Reduce her sentence? The pictures she had taken with the little spy camera had been nothing special.

She could not quite place the commander, this man with translucent skin and thinning hair who was seated in their living room, but she suspected he must be one of those men of the lower orders who had recently been promoted, the ones her father had so often complained about. Perhaps he was the kind of person of low social standing who accorded the party his extreme loyalty as a consequence, for whom it was his whole horizon, and whose submission to the older codes of conduct might be dangerously loosened by recent social changes. Her father had spoken about these men, how you had to keep an eye on them, how you could no longer be sure they knew their place.

She heard the front door open and her mother come into the hall, wiping her shoes on the mat and putting her packages down on the table. Her heart leapt as her mother paused at the closed door of the sitting room. Marta, she imagined, would be standing at the swing door from the kitchen giving her a warning glance before she came in, perhaps whispering a word or two to inform her of the situation.

The junior officer stood up and opened the door, where Anni’s mother stood motionless in the hallway as the cook’s skirts disappeared around the corner. Neatening his tie, the commander got up and strode towards the lady with his hand outstretched. Anni rose, too, and the four of them stood there, her mother glancing around the room. She was dressed in a black suit with a beige blouse, her red hair flaming under her black hat. Under her veil, she was wearing barely any makeup. Only her lips, which were moving back and forth, betrayed any emotion. She set her purse down and shook the secret policeman’s hand. Upstairs, Hans was moving a piece of furniture around, tossing something out of a drawer. There was a crash as a row of books came tumbling off a shelf.

“I was sorry to hear of your loss,” said the commander, bowing deeply. “Your husband was a fine soldier.” Anni could hear her bed rolling across the floor.

“Thank you for your kind words,” said her mother. “My brother-in-law the Graf will be especially grateful, I’m sure.” There was a note of warning in her voice.

The commander stood up and nodded to his colleague, then glanced at the ceiling before bowing to her mother. Anni heard a crash as a lamp fell off a table upstairs. “Your daughter has taken some photographs that require an explanation. No, no, please, do not protest. The evidence is incontrovertible. She must accompany us for questioning.”

The blood rushed to Anni’s mother’s face, and her eyes flashed, then went dim like a candle being snuffed out. That extinction frightened Anni more than anything else that was happening. Her mother was not going to object. It must mean that their position had changed very much indeed.

The junior officer opened the door and called upstairs to Hans. The light was fading, and the corridor was tinged with blue. Anni glanced up the staircase to her room, then back towards her mother, who gave her an almost imperceptible nod that told her that she had to go with them. She followed the officers out to the car, every bone in her body screaming that it was an impertinence.

The junior officer guided her into the vehicle with a gesture that made her neck crack and her eyes smart. The commander gave her mother a final salute. As the motorcade made its way out of the courtyard, Anni turned in the back seat of the car and watched her mother standing on the doorstep. Marta was by her side, holding her arm. They both looked pale, her mother clutching onto Marta as if she were the only outcropping of solid rock in the midst of a raging current.

Anni sat facing away from the officers, staring out the window as her mind turned away from what was happening to her, reaching for more pleasant memories of a childhood holiday on the island of Rügen. She remembered the dunes where she built sand castles as her mother laughed and waved from a little green beach cabin. Her father used to dare her to go for a swim in the Baltic, staying in as long as she could before she scurried back to the comfort of her blanket and towel. In the mid-afternoon, they retired to a cafe along the promenade for tea, then had dinner at the hotel. The last time Anni was there, it had been crowded with children evacuated from Berlin, the sea full of bobbing heads, the kids screaming as they ran headlong down the beach, pulling the limpets off the rocks and tossing them into the water before dashing in. Half of them didn’t even know how to swim.

The car drew up to a low building on a newly built housing estate. The commander got out of the car and strode inside. He already seemed to be thinking about something else, as if there were more important matters demanding his attention than a deviant teenager. Hans got down from his motor scooter, pulling off his helmet and chewing on a wad of tobacco as he, too, disappeared. Anni shot daggers at him with her eyes.

Inside, she was hit by the harsh odor of disinfectant barely masking the deeper stench of fear. The junior officer marched her down to an office where a secretary pulled a series of forms out of her desk and began filling them out in triplicate. She went through the forms so slowly that Anni wanted to scream. Eventually, she took Anni into a side room where a camera was set up on a tripod, handing her a chalkboard with her name and a string of numbers scrawled across it. The flash popped. The woman ordered Anni to undress. Awkwardly, Anni took off her clothes. The woman sent her down the hall to the showers, where she washed herself down with lukewarm water. When she came back, the woman handed her a prison uniform.

At the door to the women’s unit, there was a female guard sitting behind a plate glass window like an insect embalmed in amber. Anni stared at the rows of cells on either side of the hallway. An old woman was looking through one of the iron grilles, her eyes darting back and forth from Anni to her captors. The junior officer ignored her, taking Anni down to a cell that stood open in the middle of the row. He slammed the metal door shut, then a key turned in the padlock. His steps receded back down the corridor.

“Bread, more bread,” the old woman pleaded.

The door of the unit clanged shut, and there was silence.

Anni looked around. The mattress on the cot was bare except for a thin gray blanket. A toilet and sink were mounted on the opposite wall, and the whole cell stank of urine.

She wasn’t going to be there long, she was sure of it. Her mother might not have been able to prevent her from being arrested, but she would be doing everything she could to make sure Anni was released. Anni imagined her marching up to Gestapo headquarters and demanding that her daughter be freed, followed by the deferential bowing and scraping of the senior administrators as they realized their mistake. She would be out by tomorrow afternoon at the latest.

And yet her hands were shaking. She looked down at them, frightened by the way in which they seemed to have taken on a life of their own. Her breath seemed all wrong. It wasn’t that she couldn’t breathe, it was more that she couldn’t remember how to breathe, as if the whole apparatus of breathing were a piece of machinery so complicated that she had forgotten how to use it.

She paced up and down the cell, her eyes burning from the disinfectant of the shower, and her brain on fire. The pictures she had taken with the little spy camera couldn’t be important enough for the SS to arrest her for them. There must have been others on the roll that her father had taken before he left for the front, but what had they been of?

Anni lay down and tried to fall asleep. Other prisoners had drawn graffiti on the walls, and she examined the counts of passing days, the names of soldiers who had died at the front, the graphic depictions of sex acts with Slavic women. The palimpsest went back to 1935, when the detention center had probably been built. She stared at the drawings until her mind began to make connections between them — an eagle carrying a swastika in its talons – a map of Prussia – the Kaiser with a prancing rat. She picked a piece of plaster off the wall and started to scratch a drawing into the paint — her initials, AvE, and the date, August 21, 1943.

What had happened to the other prisoners? Had they given the secret police what they wanted and gone home? Or had they suffered some other fate? Now she admitted to herself that she was afraid. She wanted to get away from the fear by going to sleep, but the sound of sheer nothingness bore into her like a recording being piped into the cell. Her mind began to project meaning onto the very absence of noise. She could hear her mother calling to Marta – the music of a film she had seen a couple of weeks ago – the soft cooing of a mourning dove – and, coming from nowhere, the Horst Wessel Song. Eventually, the familiar sounds gave way to a high-pitched ringing in her ears that she could not get rid of.

She got up and banged on the door, but there was no response. Then, very distinctly, she heard the old woman in the cell down the hall soothing her and telling her to be calm. In a high-pitched, reedy voice, the woman began to sing a Ukrainian lullaby that Marta had sung to Anni when she was little:

THEY may jeer and call me 'Likho'

I am Vasilyka

In the fields I've long been toiling, Rest I now must seek O

In the fields I've long been toiling, Rest I now must seek O

Anni sunk back onto the cot and lay there, the blanket wrapped around her head to block out the light. Gradually, her breath began to slow. This time, she fell asleep with the old woman still crooning to her as if she were a child.

She was woken up by the clanging of the key as it was inserted into the lock. The junior officer stood at the cell door. Anni lay still on the bed, hunched up under her blanket, her limbs so stiff from cold that she couldn’t move. She stared at the officer.

“Get up,” he said, prodding her with his truncheon.

“Are you letting me go?”

Her mind racing with all the possibilities, she turned and vomited into the toilet. The officer snapped a pair of handcuffs around her wrists, and she shuffled down the corridor. She wanted to wipe the taste of vomit off on her sleeve, but her elbows were pinned behind her by the cuffs. The old woman was still standing at her cell door.

“Have courage, little one,” Anni heard her murmur as she passed.

The officer nudged Anni into the stairwell and directed her down several flights of stairs. She thought of the light in the forest as she descended further into darkness, imagining the summer rain creating pinpricks on the smooth surface of the lake – her mother playing the piano, smiling as her father leaned down to turn over a sheet of music – Marta baking an apple cake in the kitchen, stirring the batter with her strong arms, pouring it out into a pan and scraping the sides of the bowl with a spatula before she laid the slices of fruit out in a ring around the top. She could smell the apples as they baked in the oven, remember how her mother had smoothed the blankets down when she had pneumonia and had been sick in bed for weeks. Her mother always made her drink a cup of ginger tea when she was sick. She remembered the smell of it and the peppery heat on her tongue.

In the interrogation room, the officer took off her handcuffs, then sat down at a little table with a string of lamps behind it. He switched on the intercom by his side and folded his hands one on top of the other. He wasn’t old, maybe thirty-five, but his very blandness, the lack of anything remarkable about him made him seem older.

The room was rotating. Anni rested her hands on the table to steady herself. When she lifted them up, there was a damp mark on the rubber.

“Would your family have allowed you to read forbidden books? To have tea with an Englishman? To consort with Jews? These photographs are no less repugnant.”

For a moment, Anni considered telling him that the camera belonged to her father, declaring her innocence and throwing herself on his mercy. But she knew that the SS had no mercy. “I regret any dishonor I’ve brought on my family,” she said instead.

“Not just on your family. You’ve dishonored the Fatherland.”

Opening the folder by Anni’s side, the officer took out three photographs and laid them down on the table in front of her. She peered down at them, curiously at first, then with growing horror. The first one showed a very pretty blonde girl of sixteen or seventeen wearing a silk negligee and looking into the camera with a suggestive smile playing around the corners of her lips. In the second photo, the negligee had fallen off the girl’s shoulders, exposing her small round breasts. In the third, she was fully naked, her legs open wide enough to reveal the curve of her buttocks and the soft, curly hair between her legs.

It was Traute Jensen, the most popular girl at school. Anni had hardly spoken to her. Traute was in the class above her and went to lots of parties and wore nice clothes and had one boyfriend after another. A bit wild, they said, but Traute’s father was an SS officer, and everyone knew that made her untouchable.

“I’ve no idea who that is,” said Anni reflexively, her brain not yet ready to absorb what she knew.

The officer stood up from the table and thumped his fists, his face growing the color of purple beets. He stared at Anni with his intense eyes. “That is false, young woman. I will not tolerate the impertinence. You know perfectly well who it is, and I’m asking you to account for how you came to take such offensive photographs of the daughter of a senior SS officer.”

“You must understand, sir,” said Anni, “I don’t know who it is.” Her voice had taken on a pleading tone.

“I understand nothing. It is you, Fräulein von Ebbing, who apparently fail to grasp the seriousness of your situation. How dare you take such photographs of the daughter of a high-ranking member of the security services? Your father would be ashamed of you. I’m ashamed of you. I no longer consider you a German. You are vermin, taking these photographs of such a fine young woman, no better than the decadent filth we have been clearing from the streets of Berlin.”

Could this man really believe she had taken these pictures? Anni didn’t even want to look at them again. No matter how pretty Traute was, no matter how soft the filter or how delicate her negligee, the photographs were repulsive, like cheap pornographic postcards. She refused to even think about the last one, with its view of parts of Traute she should never have been able to see. What had her father usually taken pictures of? Landscapes, mostly. And portraits of her mother, he had taken a lot of those. Beautiful, elegant portraits, not like this cheap trash. And even if he had taken them, what had Traute been doing seducing a well-respected man like Anni’s father? A fine young woman? She was trash!

The officer’s questions came at her like the whine of artillery across the table. Anni struggled to answer them, some so outlandish that they left her searching for a reply, any reply, not necessarily one that was true, but one that might in some way fit the facts she was gleaning about the photographs. What she most wanted was to put her head down on the table and close her eyes, but the questions kept coming. The SS officer wanted to know how she had tricked the virtuous Traute into posing for such appalling photographs. What had Anni blackmailed her with? Had she circulated the photos, sold them on the black market? Who had helped her? The questions went on and on.

Finally, it occurred to her that this must be some kind of elaborate game, a little piece of theatre with herself as both star actress and bewildered audience. Perhaps it didn’t matter who had taken the pictures. Someone had to pay for them, and if the perpetrator was dead, then a scapegoat would be found.

She was as afraid to lie as she was to tell the truth. She just had to say something, anything, to accept the blame so she could be punished in her father’s place. She had been chosen as the guilty one, and she was to be punished no matter what, because there was no greater punishment for her dead father than for his still-living daughter to take the blame for his transgression. Her father had offended against the SS by taking advantage of a senior officer’s daughter, and so he, too, would have to suffer an offense against his own child. It was a devilish exchange, an eye for an eye, one daughter for another.

The lies, when they came, felt like the path of least resistance. “Traute’s boyfriend, he wanted pictures to take with him to the front. It was only later that I thought of selling them...” Anni held her breath at each new invention, unsure whether it would be refuted, but increasingly certain that it didn’t matter. She needed the interrogation to end, to get out of this room, out of the detention center. She was hungry, a sudden, intense hunger that made her feel frustrated and impatient.

She heard a rap on the door. The officer paused in the middle of a question, then went to open it. Hans was standing outside with a sheaf of papers under his arm. Anni strained to make out the exchange through the glass window. Hans was showing the officer the sheaf of papers. The officer took them and read through them, then gave them back to Hans. A moment later, he came back to the room and, to Anni’s dismay, the questions started all over again. When had she decided to sell the photos? Did she have accomplices? How much money had she made?

Gradually, however, she noticed a slackening in the way in which the man seemed to content himself with ever-longer speeches about the moral integrity of the Reich. It was as if she was a hunted bird that had slipped out of his grasp – he kept on firing clay bullets at it, but he knew that it was gone, slipping into the trees and disappearing in the tangle of branches.

The officer shut off the tape recorder and ordered Anni to get up, then ushered her back upstairs. She paused at the door of the women’s unit, expecting to be sent back to her cell, but he kept going upwards.

Back above ground, the secretary was still sitting at her desk, dressed in a freshly pressed black skirt with a black armband around her starched sleeve, typing out a form in triplicate. Pulling it off the typewriter and filing two of three copies in the cabinet behind her, she turned to Anni and nodded, then stood up and led her back to the room with the tripod, where she left her with a bag of the clothes Anni had originally handed in along with her watch and papers. “Your car is outside,” was all she said, handing Anni the top copy of the form.

Anni made herself walk down a corridor that seemed as if it could not lead anywhere, feeling the woman’s eyes following her, expecting at any moment to be pulled back and told that it was all a joke at her expense. Opening the door, she found herself in the lobby, the walls painted pink, with a brown marble bust of the Führer mounted on a plinth.

Outside, the Daimler was waiting in the middle of the road, Edwin leaning against it with a cigarette dangling from his lips. Clicking his heels together, he gave Anni a salute as he opened the door.

“Miss Anni,” he said. She felt euphoric.

Her mother was sitting in the passenger seat, her forehead furrowed and her mouth turned down in an unhappy frown. Anni barely noticed the streets as they drove home. Her mother was folding and unfolding an official document in her hand, creasing it into ever smaller pieces like she had the telegram from the East. Anni wanted her mother to say something, to tell her what was going on, but she didn’t say a word. Anni reached out and touched her shoulder, and her mother reached back and took Anni’s hand. Anni wished Edwin wasn’t driving them so they could speak freely.

When they reached the base, Edwin turned down the road that ran alongside the parade ground and drove out to the back gates. They stopped at the gates, flanked on either side by barbed wire. Edwin showed his badge as the sentry pushed back the blockade.

The road to the big house led through fields shrouded in darkness. They drove around the edge of the garrison, then Edwin pulled up the brake.

“You’re to stay here tonight, Anni,” her mother said quietly.

“Here?” said Anni, glancing around with alarm. It was the women’s barracks.

“Tomorrow they’ll prepare your papers. You’re to be enlisted. Anti-aircraft defense. They’ll send you West, to Hannover or Magdeburg. I have assurances.”

Barely visible in the darkness, her mother’s face seemed caught between resignation and rage, as if she had known all along that this sacrifice would be expected of her, but had continued to believe she might be spared it. She gave Anni a hug, then turned away, still grasping the official document in her hand.


The female NCO at the door gave Anni the Hitler greeting. “New recruit,” she commented to no one in particular as she checked her list. Anni wanted to insist that there must have been a mistake, but Edwin had already turned the car around, and her mother was looking down, illuminated in the cabin light from the car as she folded and unfolded the piece of paper in her lap. Edwin gave Anni an encouraging nod and drove back up the road towards the big house. She watched as the rear lights of the Daimler disappeared around the bend.

The NCO took her into the shed. As the door flapped closed, Anni could see rows of cots along the walls and girls huddled under the blankets. A cigarette was quickly extinguished. The NCO pointed towards an empty bed, then took up her position at her field desk, her stout figure outlined in the light of a lantern as she reviewed Anni’s papers.

There were two blankets on the cot, green military issue thicker than the ones in the prison cell. Still, it was cold. Anni took off her skirt and sweater and laid them down at the end of the bed, lying down in her bra and underwear and smelling the sickly smell of nausea on her skin. She heard snoring coming from the girl next to her, and the sound of someone turning in a cot at the other end of the room. A girl tossed in her sleep, muttering to herself.

In the darkness, she stared up at the moon through a hole in the corrugated tin roof. As she lay there, her past few days became shrouded in blankness – her mind refused to go back to them, not to the first drive through the dark streets that had brought her to the interrogation center, not to the newly built estate of semidetached houses, nor to the face of the junior officer or to the secretary with her black armband or even to Hans in his fine uniform. An image of the half-naked Traute flashed up in front of her, the silk negligee slipping off her shoulder as she turned towards Anni, laughing. Then that, too, was gone. When she tried to recall the photos, it was as if they had pieces cut out of them, blank white spaces where something shameful had been. The past two days became like a piece of overexposed film, reduced to a ghostly shimmer as the memories faded to black.

Startled out of sleep by the sound of the reveille the next morning, Anni sat up and looked around. The girl next to her was already up, digging in her knapsack for a toothbrush and a piece of soap. The others grumbled as they got up, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes and stumbling towards the door. The NCO was prodding a few stragglers, cursing at them as she pulled them out of their beds. Anni pulled her shoes on as she followed the girl in front of her out to the yard.

The girl ahead of her broke into a trot, and Anni followed her. Inside a low concrete barracks, the girl recruits were scrubbing themselves down under the showerheads. Their nakedness ran the whole spectrum of the national physiognomy, from large and well-developed to childishly thin and bony. Anni’s body seemed frail and insubstantial as she stood shivering in the cold, her teeth chattering as she wrapped her arms around her chest. When a shower came free, she stepped under the ice-cold water. She rubbed herself down with her hands until the girl next to her offered her a sliver of soap.

At the other end of the shed was a pile of towels, hardly more than little squares of rough cotton. She picked two of them up and started drying herself off. She was embarrassed to be naked in front of so many other girls, the goosebumps rising on her skin and her nipples pale and stiff from the cold, but the towels weren’t big enough to cover herself with them.

Suddenly, she was being pushed from behind. “What are you doing?” someone yelled. “One towel each!” The girl was standing in the middle of the shower stalls stark naked except for a pair of army boots, the large breasts and round gut of a middle-aged woman hanging from her stocky frame. From her accent, she must be from Silesia. Anni tried offering her one of the towels, but the girl just laughed and tossed it on the ground, picking up a dry one and gesturing to the waif behind her to take the one Anni had used. The smaller girl gave Anni a hard stare before the two of them dashed out the door, running whooping through the mud back towards the barracks.

Anni glanced at herself in a sliver of mirror so dirty she could barely make out her own features. Her wet hair was pulled back from her face, her eyes wary. Her face showed fear, which only made her feel more afraid. She tried to force a smile, but her face fell back into a frown. She pulled on her bra and slip and hurried back to the barracks, where the NCO had set an army uniform out on her cot. As she put it on, she heard a whistle, and the barracks emptied.

The first drill was hygiene. The recruits held their hands out for their nails to be inspected as the NCO strode past, pointing out uniforms that were not up to standards. She paused in front of Anni, straightening her jacket and pulling down her collar.

Next came an exercise drill. Marching with boots high in the air, the girls ran in circles as the NCO yelled for them to run faster. Then they broke into jumping jacks, followed by a round of push-ups, and ended with a round of crunches and squats. Anni had watched other recruits go through their paces many times before, and had always known who was new because they had trouble keeping up, getting out of sync in the high-step and stumbling awkwardly at the squats. Now it was her turn to feel out of place.

When the drill was over, she stood in the cold morning air, leaning over to catch her breath before she joined the line for the mess hall. She had been in the mess many times before, sitting and playing cards with the soldiers, but she felt uncomfortable there now. The two girls who had been behind her in the shower were sitting at the next table, staring at her. The big one muttered something as her sidekick snickered.

Walking back to the tin shed after breakfast, she glanced at the big house across the field. Its lights glimmered through the trees. The house seemed as far away as if she were already at the front. Reluctantly, she walked towards the education building, where she took up her seat for her first lecture on the identification of incoming Allied aircraft. The eyes of the two Silesian girls were boring into her.

“That one’s a general’s daughter,” whispered the larger girl. Her sidekick snorted. Anni buried her head in the training manual. “What are you doing here, little general’s daughter?” they taunted. “Shouldn’t you be in the officer corps? They’ll be shipping us out to fight the partisans soon. Have you heard what the Croatians do to little German generals’ daughters? They rape them, then they string up their corpses, the juice of a whole unit dripping down their legs.”

Anni’s parents had been planning for her to go to university, to study languages and serve in the diplomatic corps. She had not yet admitted it to anyone, but what she wanted was to be a photographer. Now she would be leaving school early, to be sent to Magdeburg or maybe Hannover. God knew if she would even survive – she might be dead by the end of the year. She was too young to have ever really considered dying.

Anni only received permission to eat at home once that week. As she opened the front door, a rush of sadness came over her. The rug still had the same holes, but the vase was filled with fresh lilies. Marta had set the table with the good china and had put out two wine glasses on the sideboard along with a decanter of Riesling. She had made a soup with vegetables from the garden followed by a roast duck with red currant sauce, a meal she only cooked on special occasions.

Anni’s mother bent over her food with her hair flaming red against the white tablecloth. Dressed in her mourning suit, with a pearl broach at her lapel, she looked unwell, her skin dull, her face still swollen from crying. She asked how Anni’s training was going. Anni said that she had already met several fine young women who were a credit to the nation. She did not mention the Silesian girl or her sidekick, who followed her around in the half hour before lights out, sitting on the cot next to her and staring at her.

“Why was I enlisted, Mother?”

“It was the only way, Anni. Otherwise, it would have been handled by the security services. You would have gone soon anyway. They’re starting to take girls as young as fifteen.”

Did her mother know about the photos of Traute? Anni thought maybe she did, but it seemed to be more than she was willing to do to acknowledge them.

When they were done with the meal, her mother stood up and went to the lounge, calling for Marta to bring in the dessert. They sat listening to her mother’s favorite records, the ones Anni’s father had given her. Anni forced herself to listen to them.

THIS IS NOT the end of the world, sang Zarah Leander:

The world won't collapse because of this

Even if it looks grey

One day it will be bright again

One day there will be blue skies again.

But it was the end of a world, of the world Anni had believed herself to be living in, the end of the family she had thought she had, to be replaced by something much uglier and more uncertain.

By the third record, she couldn’t stand it anymore. She stood up, telling her mother that she needed something from her room, then went upstairs to the attic, where she searched under the rafters until she found one of the boxes she had hidden. She rummaged through it until she found the first camera her father had given her. She picked it up, then put it back in the box. She wanted very much to bring it with her, but caution told her she should leave it behind, that nothing good could come of having it.

Still, the urge was strong. She picked it up again and slipped it into her pocket, then went back to her room, taking two little packages of film covered in bright orange foil from their hiding place in the cupboard. She had been given them for her sixteenth birthday and had been waiting for the right moment to use them.

At the end of the evening, her mother held her tight, kissing her on the cheeks. She stroked Anni’s hair and pushed it behind her ears like she used to when she sent her off to school in the morning. “You have to go now,” she said, speaking to herself as much as to Anni.

Back in the barracks, Anni undressed in the darkness, taking the camera and the two rolls of film out of her pocket and slipping them into the pouch at the bottom of her knapsack. She lay down on her cot, listening to the rain tapping out its Morse code on the tin roof. She could hear the hooting of an owl in the trees. She sighed and turned over on the lumpy cot, pulling the blankets up around her.

Three days later, they received the orders to ship out.

About the Author

Sarah Roff

I am a former assistant professor of German literature at Princeton and now a psychiatrist specializing in PTSD and borderline personality disorder. I have a long-standing interest in the relationship between personal and historical trauma and have a deep knowledge of the period in which the story is set. I am currently also a student in The Book Project at Lighthouse Writers Workshop.

Read more work by Sarah Roff.