Everyone but Helmut was anxious. He sat by himself, as usual, at a small table in a corner of Café Stammtisch, calmly reading a newspaper. Germany Invades Rhineland! The headline took up half a page. He yawned.
Pearl set a tall Hefeweisen and a wurst before him.
He looked up at her and smiled. “How are you, Doktor Haus?”
She shrugged. She might never be a doctor. She might be serving beer and wurst forever, just like her mother.
She used to see Helmut careening across campus on his bicycle, and he’d wave and stop for a chat, shaking her hand vigorously. It was flattering to be singled out by this tall, blond man with a chiseled face, piercing green eyes and courtly manners.
Now she told him she would not be able to graduate and why. It wasn’t exactly news, yet he seemed surprised.
He lowered his voice. “The politics are unfortunate.”
“Politics,” she scoffed. “It is brutish human nature that’s unfortunate.”
“They are closely allied,” he observed, and they smiled wryly at each other.
Helmut had been a regular at her family’s café for years, and now that he was an attorney for the city, he still stopped by every evening after work. It embarrassed her now to recall the crush she’d had on him in adolescence. Even then she understood nothing could come of her infatuation. They were worlds apart. The von Fröhlichs were minor nobility. His father had been a minister in the Hapsburg court. He was slumming.
Pearl didn’t remember her own father, who died in the early days of the Great War when she was a baby. Her stepfather Karl had been too old to be conscripted. He joked that Pearl’s mother Berta conscripted him instead.
Papa Karl hated to see Pearl, normally so vibrant, moping around the café the summer she learned Jews could not complete medical school in Vienna or anywhere in Europe. So he decided she needed a boyfriend. He all but picked her up and deposited her at Max Deutsch’s table.
Like Helmut, Max had been a customer in the café for years, but Pearl had scarcely noticed him. He was a short, skinny guy with a cherubic face and his beaky nose always in a book.
“What are you reading now, Max?”
He looked up, confused and blinking. Seeing Pearl, he smiled so radiantly it was her turn to be confused.
“Rilke,” he said.
“Ah, I love Rilke.”
Max beamed, as if she had said, ah, I love you, too.
Not interested, she glared across the room at Karl who cheerily ignored her.
Karl was especially fond of Max because he was a liquor broker, having taken over the family business after his father’s untimely death. He supplied Café Stammtisch with cordials at a favorable rate, and he traveled around the provinces by train taking orders from innkeepers in remote villages.
Occasionally, when business was slow, Pearl sat at Helmut’s table and they talked about poetry they liked or a book one of them was reading. When Max was in town, he joined them. Helmut was courteous and precise; Max, eager and excited. He was reading Civilization and Its Discontents, he told them.
Helmut was not a fan. “Freud’s books were burned in Berlin,” he pointed out.
“Frankfurt awarded him the Goethe prize,” Max countered.
Helmut nodded. “Of course I don’t approve of burning books,” he said, gravely.
Pearl thought she might have served the great man coffee once. Was that all she would ever do in her life? What will become of me now, she fretted.
Distracted, she looked out the window. A gaunt beggar was making his way on crutches along the other side of the street, a war veteran most likely. It was autumn now, cold and wet outside, and the beggar turned his head and seemed to look directly at her, though most likely he was ogling the warm and fragrant-smelling café. He hitched his body awkwardly around, raggedy sleeves flapping, and began to cross the street.
He wouldn’t be the first beggar Berta gave a stale cruller to, yet Pearl shrank back inside herself. Something about the man disturbed her. His bony face perhaps, like a death’s head or a horrible omen. Stay away, she pleaded silently.
Two leather-jacketed, drunken rowdies on motorcycles roared down the street just then. Brakes squealed. Mud splashed on the beggar and he tottered and collapsed. The bikers shouted obscenities and roared away. None of the passersby so much as looked at him. Pearl’s uneasiness peaked. Get up, she implored.
Max jumped up first. He hurried into the street with Helmut behind him. Together they helped the man off the ground and brought him into the warm café. Somehow they cleaned and calmed him, and Berta came out of the kitchen with a bowl of goulash.
“This man could have served with your father on the front,” she told her daughter.
Pearl forced herself to look at the beggar. He was ill and hungry. He spooned in the stew with a shaky hand. What kind of doctor would she have made if her first instinct was revulsion?
Max had wanted to be a doctor, too, she was surprised to learn. He was more suited to the practice than was she, Pearl realized, watching him clean and bandage a bloody knee. And Helmut? He seemed to have followed Max’s lead.
What she will remember all her life is how these two men who were so unalike bonded in a moment of spontaneous compassion. Helmut even went home to fetch some old, clean clothes for the wretched fellow.
Berta couldn’t stop talking about it afterward, which was one reason she didn’t believe those actresses who a few months later warned her that Helmut was a Nazi. The other reason was she considered actresses no better than prostitutes. Lying was second nature to them.
The Leopoldstadt theater district provided a majority of Café Stammtisch’s customers, and Berta was ever cordial. But she had been appalled when the actress who taught little Pearl to play the piano in the café and sing a few popular songs told everyone that the dimpled, blonde child could be an Austrian Shirley Temple.
Little Pearl had been thrilled. Until she enrolled in the gymnasium in her early teens, she fancied herself a movie star in training. She was certainly the star of Café Stammtisch. Her parents adored her. She had no siblings or rivals. Berta could be stern, but if Pearl pouted, Karl would relent and do anything she asked. After she decided to become a medical doctor rather than an icon of the silver screen, her mother also relented.
“Doctor Haus, imagine that.” Berta beamed. “See how much better brains are than beauty.”
Pearl thought both might prove useful.
“Those trashy women do nothing but gossip,” Berta huffed when the café had closed and Pearl was helping her clean the kitchen. About a dozen rowdy actresses had congregated for someone’s birthday.
“It’s not true, is it?” she asked her daughter.
“Is what not true?”
“You know, what they said about Helmut.” Her nose wrinkled as if there were a bad smell.
Pearl shrugged. “I don’t discuss politics with him.”
Berta seemed worried.
“He might be a friend worth keeping,” she said quietly. “Just try to be careful.”
Till now Pearl had not imagined the elegant Helmut could be a Nazi. Weren’t they all ruffians? She asked Max if he thought it possible, and he frowned.
“It’s conceivable, I suppose,” he said slowly. “The old aristocracy supports the Austrofascists. But Helmut really is a decent fellow.”
“As are you,” she said impulsively, and his face lit up.
She didn’t really want to think about what Helmut might or might not be. She simply wanted them all to be friends. Of course she relished the attention of two men.
“I’m convinced politics is the root of all evil,” she added. “It’s nasty and frightening at both extremes.”
Max told her he was staying out of politics. His father had been killed by a fascist militia in the February ’34 uprising at Karl Marx-Hof, the public housing where his mother and younger siblings still lived. He was troubled by his father’s sacrifice. Nothing had come of it. He wasn’t going down that road, he assured her. One martyred hero per family was one too many.
Pearl approved. They were seated close to each other on the café’s sidewalk terrace, whispering. It really wasn’t warm enough yet to sit outside but she’d wanted a private conversation. When she shivered, Max removed his jacket and draped it over her shoulders.
How sweet, she thought, and an unexpected heat stirred her.
One balmy spring night Max took her to the Prater where they rode the giant Ferris wheel, and when it braked at the top with its giddy view of fairytale lights on Danube Island, he cleared his throat and said dryly, “I think we should get married, don’t you?”
“Get married?” she repeated, astonished. They hadn’t even kissed each other.
The car lurched forward and down. She looked at the fairground below where dark figures swarmed like rodents, their squeals muted by distance. A siren wailed faintly.
Her skin prickled. Suddenly she didn’t want to get off the giant wheel. She didn’t like the look of reality down below. She glanced at Max. He was watching her patiently; calm, solid, dependable.
As if waking from a dream, she realized the world was no longer safe, not here in Vienna, maybe not anywhere. Possibly it never had been. Max was safe. Even high above the ground in a swaying gondola she felt grounded when he was with her.
Karl and Berta were elated to learn Pearl had agreed to marry Max Deutsch.
“Max is a Mensch,” Berta told her daughter.
Pearl still did not feel the world was safe, but at least her prospects for survival in it were improving.
Her fiancé traveled frequently on business. In his absence, she was restless and uneasy. The conversations she overheard in the café were gloomy, customers sparse. People were losing their jobs or leaving the country.
Only after learning Pearl was engaged to Max did Helmut invite her to accompany him to openings at the Vienna Künsthaus where well-to-do patrons of art sipped wine and nibbled pastries. He would take her where she could not go herself, places forbidden to Jews. Golden-haired, blue-eyed Pearl could pass.
She hesitated. “I know very little about art.”
“You’re a quick learner,” he smiled. “I’ve noticed that about you.”
Helmut explained he wanted to attend cultural events with an attractive and intelligent woman minus the “bother” of a girlfriend. She understood, without putting it in words, why this terribly handsome and well-groomed man needed to be seen with her in public and yet was not in the slightest interested in her as a woman. He was likely more interested in Max.
Pearl applied makeup and donned her one silk dress, hoping mended rips in the pale lavender fabric wouldn’t show.
“You look like a movie star,” Karl told her with a sly sideways glance at his wife.
Berta glared at him. “Where are you off to in that dress?” she demanded.
She explained. Berta gave her a sharp look. “Does Max know you are going out with another man?”
“He won’t mind. Helmut is our friend and a gentleman. I’m lucky he asked me to go with him.”
She was excited, her color high. Berta did not attempt to dissuade her but Pearl could see her mother was perturbed.
“It’s an international exhibit,” she informed her parents loftily. “The cream of society is attending, and so am I.”
Helmut arrived in a taxi, wearing an evening suit and wool fedora. Pearl’s cap was a home-made knit wrap-around, as was her jacket. Later Helmut would buy her a better coat and matching cloche for their “expeditions” to the opera and theater.
At the exhibit, Pearl sipped champagne and listened. Helmut introduced her to an elegant couple and she discussed surrealism with them, having just worked out what this meant. She told them she admired the small, linocut prints of Wilhelm Traeger but couldn’t bear to look for long at Otto Dix’s paintings, because the ghastly figures made her queasy. They smiled approvingly. I’m quite the actress, after all, Pearl told herself. She was almost giddy with excitement.
She and Helmut paused a long while before a large canvas by Richard Oelze called “Expectation.” In it, a crowd of people, mostly men, are watching a gloomy forest and menacing greenish sky, their backs to the viewer. A feeling of dread came over her.
“What are they expecting?” she wondered aloud.
Helmut whispered, “I find this painting a disturbing mirror of the times.”
“What do you mean?”
“We don’t really know what to expect, do we.”
She was alarmed to hear him talk like that.
But on their next outing, a stroll through the forest along the Danube and lunch in a Gasthaus overlooking the river, Helmut was cheerful and optimistic. He pointed at some long freighters steaming in from Bratislava. Men were raising winches, scrubbing the deck, moving boxes around.
“Aren’t you from Bratislava, Pearl? Here come your former compatriots.”
She didn’t recall telling him that, though it was true. The widowed Berta had moved with baby Pearl from Bratislava to Vienna, where she found a job waitressing in the café owned by Karl Haus.
Helmut lifted a stein of beer. “Let’s drink to business as usual on the river.”
Pearl untied the bright scarf around her neck and waved it at the boatmen. They waved back with their caps, and Helmut laughed. He raised an arm to salute what he called the “Imperial Bratislavan Navy.” Pearl laughed, too, though she suspected he was disdainful of Slovaks.
At the Hotel Metropole where they stopped for a cocktail one evening after the theater, Helmut introduced her to a friend who was seated alone at the bar. Ossi was a slender, dapper fellow with a well-trimmed mustache. He looked remarkably like Pearl’s father in the only photo she had of him. She sipped her wine and chatted merrily with him. After a while, she noticed Ossi was no longer paying attention to her. She saw the two men look intently into each other’s eyes, and then away.
“I’ll ring you up,” Helmut said as they were leaving.
“You do that,” Ossi murmured. “It’s a pleasure to have met you, Pearl.”
Max returned to Vienna early in the summer of ’37 after weeks on trains and buses, weary and discouraged. Out in the countryside, it wasn’t business as usual, Pearl learned. Taverns and inns his family had serviced for years were cutting him off or refusing to pay for wine already delivered. In Vienna he could barely make a living.
“It’s a dead end here,” he said. “We should emigrate to Palestine, soon.”
He already had family there, cousins and aunts and uncles, all of them orthodox. Max had been slowly and tenaciously arranging exit visas for his mother and siblings and himself.
“Not to Palestine,” she shuddered. She wasn’t about to live in a desert with a tribe of zealots.
“Where would you like to go?” he asked gently.
“Then that’s where we’ll go.”
“How do we manage that?”
“I don’t know, but your friend Helmut might.”
She stared at him. She hadn’t had a chance to tell Max anything. Was all of Leopoldstadt gossiping? Of course he knew those busy-body actresses.
“I will ask him,” she said at last.
Max watched her carefully, hands jammed into his pockets. He hadn’t touched her yet.
She went over to him and linked her arm in his. “I missed you,” she said. His face glowed and the hands slipped around her waist and pulled her close. He felt solid and earthy. She really was glad he’d come home. Helmut was fun, but also a cold fish. Max was steady and reliable, never vain or disdainful.
And it was good to be desired.
They made love for the first time on Max’s narrow bed. They were awake half the night. Later Pearl swore she knew the egg had dropped.
She assured Max she was not physically attracted to Helmut. “It’s you I feel that for,” she said, and toyed with the hair on his chest. “I believe Helmut prefers the company of men to women.”
“It’s best not to mention that to anyone else,” he advised.
Pearl missed her period. She waited two more weeks before consulting a doctor.
“We’re having a baby, Max,” she announced. Despite her medical training, she hadn’t anticipated a pregnancy.
He looked a tad anxious.
“We’ll get married right away,” he said and hugged her carefully. “Let’s look for an apartment.”
Pearl studied her reflection. The girl in the hand mirror was still pretty, but seemed bewildered. A frown line on the forehead, that was new.
It isn’t fair, she whimpered inside herself where no one could hear. It isn’t supposed to happen like this.
But it has, so get on with it, her better self remonstrated.
All the same, it isn’t fair.
The marriage took place in a rabbi’s office, followed by a celebration at Café Stammtisch. Pearl was lovely in her lavender silk, for this occasion mended and draped with an off-white shawl. She wore a crown of Edelweiss.
A sign posted on the front door of the café read: Closed for private party. But the door was left unlocked so guests could come and go.
Helmut was among the well-wishers at the party. He brought a 1921 Moet to toast the newlyweds and kissed the bride on one cheek. It was early evening and everyone was elated, their spirits elevated by alcohol and the intoxication of hope.
Pearl and Max were about to slice into their gloriously tiered wedding cake when a noise erupted in the street outside the café. Three motorcycles with sidecars had screeched to a stop. Six men wearing brown uniforms loomed up at the café’s windows and peered inside. They pounded on the door.
“Aufmachen, Jüdische Schweine!” they screamed. The door swung open.
The room was abruptly quiet. Pearl trembled. She had never in her life been so afraid. Max put an arm around her. She looked for Helmut. He was already stepping into the street. He shut the door behind him, his voice a reassuring murmur, and waved a card at the hooligans. They slowly backed off and Helmut turned on his heels and strode jauntily inside. The cycles roared away.
“I told them never to come back,” he said calmly. “I know who they are and I’ll report them to the police if they bother you again.”
Berta wept, she was so grateful.
A long-time customer got out his fiddle, and now the chastened guests released their tension dancing. Kurt danced with the bride and Max with Berta. Helmut danced with Pearl, too. The top of her head barely came to his shoulders. She tilted her face upward to look into eyes that gleamed like emeralds.
“I can’t thank you enough,” she began, but he cut her off.
“No, don’t say anything. Put it out of your mind.”
He returned her to her husband and said, “Max, I hope you will not object if I take your beautiful bride for a hike in the country. She will need to stay healthy.”
Of course he couldn’t object.
Pearl was out of breath when she arrived at the trail’s peak. She wasn’t accustomed to traipsing uphill through the woods with a hiking club. The women wore dirndl skirts and peasant blouses; the men, lederhosen. She was surprised to learn about a third were Jews or mixed blood, the other half a motley crew of trades people and intelligentsia, all long-time devotees of wandering in the mountains south of Vienna.
“The mountains are egalitarian,” Helmut told her afterward. He regarded her thoughtfully from those cool green eyes. “The Alps do not distinguish between Jews and Aryans.”
This was a moment out of time when anything seemed possible. The world was as wonderful again as it had been when she was a child.
She was invited to join this Alpenverein, which had expeditions every other weekend. Pearl was pleased.
She came home to find Max listening to news on the radio, his brow furrowed.
“War is inevitable,” he said.
“How can that be? Wasn’t that the war to end all wars that killed my father?”
“Have you talked to Helmut yet?”
She hadn’t. She didn’t really want to leave. She wanted to join the hiking club.
Until she began to show, Helmut invited her to accompany him to cultural events, and even when she was big with child, took her out for coffee and cake or a promenade along the river. “How beautiful you are,” he’d murmur and look around to see who was watching them.
Her pregnancy was actually of no interest to him, she concluded. His chief concern was himself and his status in society. They never once discussed his sexual preferences but she suspected this must be a source of ongoing angst for him. She had read newspaper accounts about the Röhm purge and the Night of the Long Knives. It was no secret that many of the murdered SA men were homosexuals.
The baby was born the day Hitler rode into Vienna in an open car past wildly cheering crowds. Of course she knew what Anschlüss meant, but on March 12, 1938, her attention was directed inward, as it had been for several months. She had been focusing on the life growing inside her, chiefly from the perspective of a would-be physician. How fantastic that her body was creating another being, cells dividing, tiny organs and blood vessels forming.
Helmut visited her in the hospital wearing an SS uniform. He was handsome and grim and was carrying a gun. The staff was especially attentive after that.
Pearl was nursing baby Ava when he arrived, and she pulled the blanket up so he wouldn’t be embarrassed.
He came to tell her she and her family must leave Austria as soon as possible. He suggested she take the train to Bratislava to get her husband and child added to her Slovak passport. He could arrange transit visas. Their only viable option was to go to Palestine with that passport and once there, apply for an American visa.
Scheiss, she fretted. I’ve got to go to bloody Palestine.
“Do you have any family in America?” he asked. “That will expedite matters.”
“Max has an uncle in New York.”
Helmut nodded. “The situation is graver than I’d anticipated,” he said. “I can protect your family and the café for now, but I don’t know how long I can manage that.”
The first night she was home with Max and the baby, they were awakened by a pounding at the door of the apartment. It was an SS unit authorized to search the building, which meant ransack it for money and anything of value. They took what money they found and the Slovak passport and disappeared into the night. Pearl burst into tears.
“What can we do now?” she moaned.
Max held her close. “Talk to Helmut,” he said, and she did the next morning.
Within hours of her visiting him, Helmut retrieved that vital document. She will never know how. Berta had been right; he was a friend worth keeping.
Pearl hurried through eerily deserted streets with the passport in the pocket of her coat closest to her heart. She double-locked the apartment door, very frightened now, but also determined.
She and Max bought round-trip tickets to Bratislava. They left their two-week-old infant with Berta, who could keep her in the café and feed her bottled milk. Pearl had never been to the city of her birth since moving to Vienna. One of Berta’s cousins put them up for what became an extended visit. The bureaucracy was nightmarish. Even worse were the border crossings where they were threatened with detention. Somehow Pearl, in her good new coat with the fur collar, her golden curls under the fashionable hat, both courtesy of Helmut, charmed surly and suspicious officials everywhere.
Max tried to find work on the docks loading cargo onto boats that sailed to Vienna but no one would hire him. They lived frugally and after a month returned with a new passport to a city in chaos and her parents unwilling to give up the baby.
“You can’t take this tiny creature away to god knows where,” Berta protested. “It’s crazy.”
“What’s crazy,” Pearl said, “is the actresses who gossiped about us are scrubbing sidewalks now and people are spitting on them. I don’t want my daughter to grow up here.”
“We’ve been through worse,” Berta and Karl said almost at once.
“We cannot leave without her, Mama. She is on our passport.”
“Then don’t leave.”
Pearl was angry but restrained herself. She hadn’t had a chance to bond with her baby yet and, if she had to be brutally honest, would confess she didn’t care if Berta raised her. But it wasn’t possible to get out unless all three of them left together. And they had to get out, she understood all too clearly now.
She urged Berta and Karl to close the café, sell it if they could and leave. They were shocked.
“My family has lived in Vienna four generations,” Karl told her and put an arm around his wife. “We are Austrian citizens.”
For how long, Pearl wondered.
After Anschlüss, the Hotel Metropole was converted into Gestapo headquarters. This was where Helmut was working now, rather than city hall. She didn’t have a problem getting in to see him. He was sitting behind an enormous desk and he had two secretaries in the ante-room.
“This transit visa is the last favor I’ll ask,” she said. “I hope it poses no danger for you.”
“None whatsoever,” he assured her.
Their eyes locked for a long moment.
“Be careful,” Pearl told him, aware she sounded like her own mother.
“I am very careful,” he assured her.
“Why don’t you leave, too?” she whispered.
He regarded her with disbelief.
“My family has lived here for centuries. And this,” he waved his arm to indicate the spacious office, “is a very good job, isn’t it?”
No it’s not, she thought. It’s a shitty job.
“So why would I leave?”
“Because,” she hesitated. “Because it’s a dead end here.”
“Not for me,” he said and smiled slyly. “I’m not the wandering Jew, Pearl. You are.”
Eventually Pearl and Max and baby Ava settled in Brooklyn just before war broke out in Europe. She and Max had another daughter. She raised their children and worked part-time in a deli. Max found a job in a liquor store. Later she went back to school and got certified as a phlebotomist.
Pearl didn’t like to think or talk about Berta and Karl after the war, after everyone had been murdered. But often she wondered about Helmut. Did he survive? Or was he killed because his secret life was exposed? Did he perish in battle or a bomb raid? Did he flee with his colleagues to South America? If he were still alive, did he ever think about her? She would like to tell him she thinks of his intervention on her behalf as a kind of transit visa to redemption. What would he say to that?
When she was an old woman and long-since widowed, she told her favorite grandson about the “good Nazi” who had been her friend.
“That is an oxymoron, Nana,” he scoffed.
“You wouldn’t be alive if not for him,” she said. “It’s more complicated than you can imagine.”