He’d seen her. The one they’d called “Blonde Poison.” It was early 1944, in a café on Kurfurstendamm. He’d taken a table in back, near the rear exit. Through the closed door came the sound of rain in the alley, the smell of rotting vegetables. He had little appetite for coffee, even less for public spaces, but if he didn’t leave his furnished room on Wielander Strasse for at least a few hours a day, his landlady would grow suspicious. He always faced the door to the street and kept his feet flat on the floor, ready to spring and run. Most nights he dreamed of shots fired at his back.
This afternoon he’d hardly touched his coffee when the young woman entered. Tall and shapely, with striking eyes and a dimpled chin, a scarf covering her head. Ella Goldschmidt. He was sure of it. By then she was legendary among the community of so-called U-boats: Jews living illegally around Berlin, most carrying forged papers and blessed with Aryan features. A photograph had circulated, though Bruno hadn’t seen it, only heard a description of the blue-eyed beauty who’d once been one of them. Ella, too, had lived underground, using a false name, until a friend betrayed her, turned her over to Dobberke, head of the collection camp on Grosse Hamburger Strasse, who threatened to deport her parents unless she cooperated. Now she’d been working for him almost a year. According to rumors, she’d turned over hundreds, many her former schoolmates, sent them all to the trains heading east. And after Dobberke deported her parents anyway, she kept at it, even more ferociously. Maybe to save herself, maybe for her own enjoyment. She made men go wild for her and in the throes of passion got them to divulge the hiding places of cousins, ex-girlfriends, co-workers. She’d report them all, including the lovers, as if it gave her extra pleasure to wield such power over them.
So at least Bruno imagined. Thus far he had been both careful and fortunate not to cross her path. Fortunate in other ways, too. He’d lost contact with his family three years earlier, but they’d left him enough to live on for the remainder of the war. He was a good-looking boy, as German as any of his peers. His entire childhood, no one in his house had spoken a word of Yiddish. They’d celebrated Passover with four glasses of wine as prelude to an elaborate Easter brunch with neighbors. By nature he was reserved but intrepid, willing to take risks when he recognized the possibility of reward. These past five years he’d frequently depended on women, often homely ones, too surprised and grateful for his affection to question his motives. They’d take him into their beds, they’d feed him, they’d help him find new accommodations. He told them he was hiding to avoid military service, he didn’t want to be sent to the front, he was too much of a coward. And they took pity on him, these brave girls with long faces and blemished skin. They forgave his cowardice. They would have taken his place at the front if they could. He wished one were with him now, to deflect the attention of the woman entering the café, who untied her scarf, shook out thick blonde curls, and scanned the room for a table for too long, with too much deliberation. He lowered his face to his cup, as if to make sure no coffee would spill over the edge when he sipped. He felt her eyes pass over him, or imagined they did, lingering a moment and perhaps taking in the worn collar of his shirt, the unpolished toes of his shoes, any hint that he’d been in hiding and unable to attend to daily upkeep. She would know the signs. She’d once lived them, and since being recruited by Dobberke, had studied and exploited them. Yes, he was sure she could see he hadn’t shaved this morning, though he was mostly smooth-cheeked, only a few light hairs sprouting along his jaw and on his chin. He was caught, after all this time. How fitting and absurd that it would end with a beautiful woman, after he’d been around ones he would not call so, for so long.
His feet already pressed against the floor, backside just lifting from the seat. Before standing, he forced himself to look up. If Ella’s gaze had touched him, it had since passed on, now focused on a couple across the room. A girl in a black raincoat, a man still wearing a hat. Too obvious, Bruno thought, too nervous. With such poor skills, how had they stayed free so long? Ella spoke to the waiter, who raised eyebrows in alarm. He deposited his tray on a counter and disappeared into the kitchen. Bruno stood slowly. He knew he had only a few minutes before Dobberke and his men arrived. He wanted to warn the girl in the raincoat—pretty but too thin, big eyes swimming in their sockets—and her companion in the gray tweed hat, but to do so would risk too much. He took his time putting on his coat. The key, he knew, was to show no fear. A man expecting arrest would be arrested. Now Ella did glance at him as he fed buttons through buttonholes. For a moment she held his eye and smiled. A smile, he thought, of recognition. There was no doubt, she saw in him one of her own, one who’d get away with escape today only because she let him, because she had easier prey. Next time, who knew?
He turned to the back door. If he ran, he might trigger her instinct to chase, like a dog’s. He forced his feet to move slowly, even when they crossed the threshold into the alley, the cold rain blown by a sharp breeze into his eyes and over his cheeks. He kept a casual pace down Kurfurstendamm until reaching the intersection of Joachimsthaler Strasse, where he slipped into a movie house. A picture was already playing. He watched without seeing, keeping an eye on the entrance. When it ended, he stayed and watched through again. Only when the screen went dark a second time did he leave, heading straight to the apartment of a girl whose face had been scalded in infancy, a red mark, smoother than the dull skin around it, crossing from left temple to lower right jaw. He told her he’d had a run-in with a recruiter for the Wehrmacht, described a close call and his cunning dodge. She held him for a few hours before finding him a new place to live. He switched rooms. He bought new papers. He survived.
More than a decade after the war’s end, he attended Ella Goldschmidt’s trial. It was in the old courthouse on Turmstrasse, built like a medieval fortress with turrets on each corner, high vaulted ceiling in the lobby. But Room 500 was small, drab, devoid of character. He crammed in with three, four dozen others. Families of her victims, survivors of the camps, people who’d read about her in gaudy headlines in Nacht Depesche and other tabloids. The bloodthirsty, the curious, the bored. They jeered and whistled as she entered in a new maroon dress and matching shoes, with ramrod posture, hair recently styled and loose to the shoulders. She looked hardly older than the last time he’d seen her, though thirteen years had passed, ten of which she’d spent in a Soviet labor camp, convicted already by a military tribunal on the other side of now-divided Berlin. That would make her thirty-seven, while Bruno was thirty-five. The number still surprised him, he who’d once believed with certainty that he wouldn’t live to see twenty-five. Even if he somehow managed to hide day after day, year after year, he’d thought, surely the world couldn’t withstand so much chaos and horror, couldn’t possibly continue turning for so long.
And yet here they both were. If not age, then imprisonment should have worn her down, and manual labor, and illness. In the camp, she’d contracted tuberculosis. So he’d read in one of those tabloids he’d tried to resist, finally picking it up from a newsstand despite knowing it made light of her victims’ deaths with its pretense of shock and outrage. “Jewess Sent All Her Friends to the Gas Chamber!” read one of the headlines. Perhaps if he stood closer he might have seen how the disease affected her pallor, hollowed her cheeks, but from the back of the gallery he could make out only the color from the blush she’d applied, the dark lipstick that seemed to harden her indifference to the angry glare of the prosecutor, the somber demeanor of the judge. She didn’t turn toward those who shouted and whistled at her, didn’t face the first witness to take the stand, a former schoolmate whom she’d trapped in early 1943. This was soon after she’d first become a catcher for Dobberke, who’d reported to Hoss, who’d reported to Eichmann. She stared straight ahead, at the wood-paneled wall between judge and gallery, a pair of white gloves pinched lightly in one hand.
The witness described how she’d come to him asking for help, claiming she needed new papers, that her false identity had been compromised. Moments after he brought her to the forger, soldiers appeared. Even then she feigned innocence, the witness went on, weeping as all three were arrested. But when they arrived at Grosse Hamburger Strasse, she dropped the act, walked free through the prison halls, laughed with Dobberke, taunted those locked in tiny cells, deciding on the spot which would be deported to Theresienstadt, which to Auschwitz. He was sent to the latter, he said, though he escaped by breaking through rotten boards on the transport car and throwing himself from the train. As he spoke, the courtroom quieted, and by the time he ceased, it was silent. Ella’s fist crumpled the gloves, but otherwise she showed no hint of emotion.
Bruno remembered this forger, the one who’d provided his first papers, on them a name he could no longer recall since afterward he’d changed it so many times. Now that he’d reclaimed the original—Bruno Gelbert, Bruno Gelbert, he’d recited often in the first years after the war ended, in disbelief, still prepared to give it up at any moment—he felt, with unease, that the young man who’d carried those other names was a different person altogether from the one in the courtroom. This Bruno Gelbert had taken a degree in biology, one of the first to graduate from the Free University, and now worked in a laboratory testing drinking water. He’d married a woman ten years his junior—with clear skin and bright eyes and a coy smile—who’d been a child in Tubingen during the war, daughter of a soldier killed at Stalingrad. Yes, a different person, wilier and less fragile than the one who cried at the birth of his daughter, who flushed with shame when his supervisor suggested ways he might work more efficiently.
That other young man, who’d moved from room to room, who’d gone to bed with girls he cared nothing for in exchange for their protection, who’d snuck out of a café knowing that soldiers would soon swarm an oblivious couple several tables to his left, had thought highly of himself for his daring and evasion, had believed it was his acumen and effort alone that kept him alive, while the Bruno in the courtroom now knew it was simply chance, out of his control. The same fickle, indifferent chance that had sent the forger to his death and allowed the first witness to escape.
When the latter returned to the gallery, Ella spoke only one word: “Lies.” She said the same after the next witness described her chasing a man down a crowded street, shouting, “Criminal! Jew! Stop him!” to bystanders who tackled and held him until Gestapo police arrived. She said it without anger, without passion of any kind, the only inflection a glib arrogance not so different from that of the prosecutor who strutted in front of each witness, a dark-haired Bavarian with a drink-reddened face and double chin. How had he survived the war? What dubious acts had he committed to come through unscathed? Not so different, either, from the derisive laughter of those in the gallery, one of whom quoted another tabloid headline, “The Catcher Caught!” It was an arrogance Bruno knew well, that of people who believed they were responsible for walking free while others were in chains, convinced they’d worked for their good fortune, that their unique qualities had merited it.
His thoughts had been similar as he’d left the café. The couple had been less savvy and therefore deserved their fate, while he’d earned his. Such convictions were necessary then. They helped him get through each day. It was an illusion of course, to think that all he needed to survive were his natural abilities and enough will. But without it he would have given up the first year.
And he guessed now, watching Ella Goldschmidt sitting stiffly before the stout judge, that she’d nurtured the same illusion, continued to hold onto it still, unaware how desperately she clung. Fear might have driven her to send hundreds to their deaths, fear of her parents’ deportation and her own, but fear alone wouldn’t allow her to live with what she’d done, to deny it with such half-hearted gestures, as if the accusations were nothing more than mildly insulting. Those people she’d caught were merely weaker than she was, less ingenious, less resourceful. When she’d smiled at him in the café, she was acknowledging the instincts they shared, which set them apart from the girl in the raincoat and the man in the hat.
Bruno had hoped to spot those two in the courtroom, though he realized it only now. Why else would he have come? It was his opportunity to see that they’d survived despite their bad luck in the café, despite his having turned his back on them. He scanned the faces around him, trying in his imagination to scrape away ten years from these pitted cheeks, or those sunken eyes, or that sneering mouth. Who knew if he’d recognize them even if they stood right beside him? Yet this was all he wanted, not revenge or even justice, just a glimpse of good fortune having landed, a nearly weightless bird, on someone else’s shoulders with the same caprice or happenstance as it had on his.
“All lies,” Ella said after a third witness described the outfit she’d worn while out searching for U-boats, a tailored green suit and matching cap, which she’d boasted was her “hunting outfit.” And again after the fourth, a middle-aged man who’d lost wife and three sons to the ovens, told how she’d spied his family with opera glasses during a children’s play and had them arrested as they left the theater. Not smarter, Bruno wanted to tell her, not savvier, just luckier. Luckier to be heartless and cruel and selfish when compassion and dignity would have gotten her killed. And the couple in the café, unlucky and dead, but fortunate never to wonder as Bruno did if they’d been just like Ella Goldschmidt, willing to do anything to survive.
But then he was luckier than Ella, too. He’d never been forced—never been given the chance—to doom others in order to save his parents or himself. If he had, he wanted to believe he would have acted differently. Of course he would have. But because he could never know for sure, he almost pitied her as the first day of her trial ended and she strode out of the courtroom with the same rigid posture, the white gloves now pulled to the elbows. He almost tried to forgive her as someone in the gallery spit in her direction, a bit of white froth landing several inches short of her shoes. He didn’t return to Turmstrasse the next day, or any other day. He’d seen enough, more than he needed. But a part of him remained in the courtroom, heard the testimony against her many times on sleepless nights, when his wife and daughter were lost in dreams. He didn’t know if he’d ever fully leave it.
The trial, on the other hand, lasted less than two weeks. The tabloids announced Ella’s conviction and sentence: ten years imprisonment. Then they forgot about her. Some months later he read in a legitimate newspaper that her lawyers appealed the sentence, which was remitted for the time she’d already served. She was freed to live the rest of her life.
Scott Nadelson is the author of six books, most recently a novel, Between You and Me, and a story collection, The Fourth Corner of the World. He teaches at Willamette University and in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.