Home > The World That We Knew

The World That We Knew
Author: Alice Hoffman

PART ONE

 


1941–42

 

 

CHAPTER ONE


EAST OF THE SUN

 


BERLIN, SPRING 1941

IF YOU DO NOT BELIEVE in evil, you are doomed to live in a world you will never understand. But if you do believe, you may see it everywhere, in every cellar, in every tree, along streets you know and streets you’ve never been on before. In the world that we knew, Hanni Kohn saw what was before her. She would do whatever she must to save those she loved, whether it was right or wrong, permitted or forbidden. Her husband, Simon, was murdered on a winter afternoon during a riot outside the Jewish Hospital on Iranische Strasse, which was miraculously still functioning despite the laws against the Jews. He had spent the afternoon saving two patients’ lives by correcting the flow of blood to their hearts, then at a little past four, as a light snow was falling, he was killed by a gang of thugs. They stole the wedding ring from his finger and the boots from his feet. His wife was not allowed to go to the cemetery and bury him, instead his remains were used for animal feed. Hanni tore at her clothes, as tradition dictated; she covered the mirrors in their apartment and sat in mourning with her mother and daughter for seven days. During his time as a doctor Simon Kohn had saved 720 souls. Perhaps on the day that he left Olam HaZeh, the world that we walk through each living day, those who had been saved were waiting for him in Olam HaBa, the World to Come. Perhaps his treatment there, under the eyes of God, was that which he truly deserved. As for Hanni, there was not enough room in the world for the grief that she felt.

In Berlin evil came to them slowly and then all at once. The rules changed by the hour, the punishments grew worse, and the angel in the black coat wrote down so many names in his Book of Death there was no room for the newly departed. Each morning people needed to check the ever-changing list of procedures to see what they were allowed to do. Jews were not allowed to have pets or own radios or telephones. Representatives from the Jewish community center had recently gone through the neighborhood asking people to fill out forms with their names and addresses, along with a list of all of their belongings, including their underwear, their pots and pans, their silverware, the paintings on the walls, the nightgowns in their bureau drawers, their pillows, the rings on their fingers. The government said they must do so in order for proper records of valuables to be made during a time of reorganization under the Nazi regime, but this was not the reason. It was easy to lie to people who still believed in the truth. Only days afterward, each person who had filled out this list was deported to a death camp.

As the months passed, the world became smaller, no larger than one’s own home. If you were lucky, a couch, a chair, a room became the world. Now, as spring approached, Jewish women were no longer allowed on the street except for the hour between four and five in the afternoon. They filed out of their houses all at once, stars sewn to their coats, searching for food in a world where there was no food, with no money to buy anything, and yet they lingered in the blue air, startled by the new leaves on the trees, stunned to discover that in this dark world spring had come again.

On this day, Hanni was among them. But she was not looking to buy anything. That was not where fate had led her. In a matter of months, Hanni had become a thief. She was fairly certain that her crimes wouldn’t stop there, and if people wished to judge her, let them. She had a mother who was unable to leave her bed due to paralysis and a twelve-year-old daughter named Lea, who was too smart for her age, as many children now were. She looked out the window and saw there were demons in the trees. The stories Hanni’s mother had told her as a child had now been told to Lea. They were tales to tell when children needed to know not all stories ended with happiness. Girls were buried in the earth by evil men and their teeth rose up through the mud and became white roses on branches of thorns. Children were lost and could never find their way home and their souls wandered through the forest, crying for their mothers.

Grandmother was called Bobeshi. She had been born in Russia and in her stories wolves ruled the snowy forests, they knew how to escape from the men on horseback who carried rifles and shot at anything that moved, even the angels. Lea was a shy, intelligent girl, always at the top of her class when school had been in session and Jews were allowed to attend. She sat close to Bobeshi while the old woman told how as a girl she had walked alone to a great, rushing river to get water each morning. Once a black wolf had approached her, coming so close she could feel his breath. They had stared at each other, and in that moment she’d felt that she knew him and that he knew her in return. In stories a wolf might have torn her to shreds, but this one ran back through the trees, a beautiful black shadow with a beating heart. A wolf will seldom attack, Bobeshi always said, only when it is wounded or starving. Only when it must survive.

 

Hanni Kohn was not the sort of person to give in to demons, although she knew they now roamed the streets. Everywhere there were ruach ra’ah, evil spirits, and malache habbala, angels of destruction. Her husband had saved so many people she refused to believe his life had meant nothing. It would mean, she had decided, that no matter what, their daughter would live. Lea would live and she would save more souls, and so it would go, on and on, until there was more good in the world than there was evil. They could not let it end this way. Hanni had no choice but to survive until their daughter was safe. She found ruined gardens and dug in the earth for young onions and shallots, from which she fashioned a family recipe called Hardship Soup, made from cabbage and water, a food that sustained them while others were starving, She went out after curfew to cut branches from bushes in the park so they might have wood to burn in their stove even though the smoke was bitter. Dressed all in black so that she would be nearly invisible, she ventured into the muck of the river Spree, where she caught fish with her bare hands, even though doing so was a serious offense punishable by lashings and prison and deportation. The fish sighed in her hands, and she apologized for taking their lives, but she had no choice, and she fried them for dinner. She was a wolf, from a family of wolves, and they were starving.

Her plan was to steal from the tailor’s shop where she had once worked. In the last years of her husband’s life, Jewish doctors had been paid nothing, and she had become a seamstress to support the family. It was a talent that came to her naturally. She had always sewn clothes for her mother and daughter, all made with tiny miraculous stitches that were barely visible to the naked eye. But now the Jewish shops had all been destroyed or given over to Aryan owners. The only work for Jews was forced labor in factories or camps; one had to hide from the roundups when the soldiers came in search of able-bodied people, for this kind of work was meant to grind workers into dust. In a time such as this it wasn’t difficult to become a thief, all you needed was hunger and nerve. Hanni had decided to bring her daughter along. Lea was tall and looked older than her age; she would be a good student when it came to thievery. She understood her grandmother’s stories. Demons were on the streets. They wore brown uniforms, they took whatever they wanted, they were cold-blooded, even though they looked like young men. This is why Lea must learn how to survive. She was to remain in the alleyway while Hanni went to search for anything left behind by looters. If anyone came near she was to call out so that her mother could flee the shop and avoid arrest. She held her mother’s hand, and then she let go. Lea was only a girl, but that didn’t matter anymore. She knew that. Be a wolf, her grandmother had told her.

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