Friday, December 27, 2013

A U-Boat Captain and a Jewish Assassin Discuss the Future over Coffee

The waiter brought their coffee and left. Ziggy stared into his cup and the small white ceramic jars of sugar and milk. The war wasn’t over yet and even a rundown French cafe like this one had coffee, and milk and sugar to go with it.

"I’m sure it’s all been stolen from the Americans,” said Sebastian. For a moment Ziggy wondered whether his brother had read his mind.

"I didn’t have to read your mind for that. It’s all pretty obvious,” said Sebastian.

Ziggy glared at Sebastian. Sebastian looked back exasperated. “Look, Ziggy, I’m on a job and I don’t have the time or energy to turn it on or off just to be polite.”

"On a job?”

"I’m with the Blood of Israel. We have to get Franzi out.” Sebastian leaned forward. “Let me ask you this, Ziggy. Have you thought about what’s going to happen to us now that the war is over and the Nazis are beaten?""Us as in the Loerber Brothers?” asked Ziggy.

"Sebastian gripped the table with both hands. “No goddammit! Us as in the Jews!

"Yes, we’re the ones who’ve suffered the most in this war and now we’re about to be conveniently forgotten. The West should be standing up for us, but let’s face it, they’ll be the first ones to act like the whole thing never happened. And where is that going to leave us? With nothing.”

Ziggy nodded impassively. He particularly dreaded Sebastian’s didactic discussions where the point was waiting, hidden somewhere among a minefield of polemics.

"Ziggy, the Jewish people need a homeland. The West owes it to us, for sitting on their thumbs while millions of us got butchered. But do you think they feel any obligation toward us? Hah! They’re too busy cutting cozy deals with the SS to help fight their war against the Russians. It’s not in their interest to acknowledge what we’ve been through.”

Ziggy tried hard to imagine Bedell Smith cutting a deal with the SS, but he guessed the point would be lost on Sebastian. “What does this have to do with Franzi?” he asked.

"I’m coming to that, Ziggy. My point is that they’re not going to give us our homeland out of niceness or guilt. The only way they’ll do it is if we have a dagger at their throats. And with all the dirt Franzi has on everybody, they’ll give us anything we ask for just to keep it from getting out.”

Sebastian brought the coffee cup to his lips, but once there he put it back on its saucer without tasting it. “Listen to me, Ziggy. I can’t do this alone. I’m going to need your help.”

"Have you thought about using Manni for this? He seems like a better bet than me.”

"No,” said Sebastian, with surprising vehemence. “I can’t work with Manni.”

"Not even for Franzi?”


Neither said anything for a while. They drank their coffee and looked around the room. Outside the sun was starting to get low. Ziggy hoped von Friedeburg hadn’t woken up yet.

Then Sebastian looked at Ziggy. “You think I like getting dragged back into all that Loerber crap? Believe me, I was a lot more eager to get away from it than you were. And magic? I only started doing the stuff with the dreams a couple months ago. I hate doing it, but you know something? This is war and in a war you use the weapons you have. Dreams sow terror in goyim hearts and that is priceless.”

"I take it you don’t care much for goyim,” said Ziggy.

"I don’t hate them per se, but I’m not going to pretend to be one just to save my lousy skin.”

Ziggy felt the barb strike him. “I didn’t do it to save my skin,” he shot back.

Sebastian arched an eyebrow. “Oh? So then why did you go into the Navy?”

Ziggy looked away. He thought about Luth and Cremer. He thought about poor old von Friedeburg having his fitful sleep on that bed and what Doenitz had said to him on the bridge and all the men who’d kept his secret, all dead now, except for Cremer. I’d joined to prove I could be a good German, he thought to himself, and no one could say I wasn’t. And he thought about all the photographs and all the bodies. He looked back at Sebastian and thought, at least he’ll never need to justify his sanctimoniousness.

"Sebastian, what do you want me to say? I made that choice ten years ago. You can’t change the past.”

"But don’t you see, that’s where you’re wrong,” cried Sebastian. “You can join us. Put your past behind you and be what you always were; a Jew.”

Be a Jew. Ziggy felt overwhelmed by the sheer simplicity of the idea. It felt right, the way it had echoed in his heart, sitting in temple when he was young, like waves on the ocean. It was also perfectly absurd. “Sebastian, I’m a Nazi U-Boat captain.” He pulled open the neck of his trench coat so his brother could see his Iron Cross. “Brilliants, swords and oak leaves, Sebastian. There’s no wiping that slate clean.”

Sebastian shook his head. “Come on Ziggy. You think you’re the only one who did things they’re ashamed of? Almost anyone who survived the camps did terrible things, Ziggy, things that make you look like a saint. You know what we tell them? We say, stop blaming yourself for what you had to do. Quit torturing yourself for the things that were outside your control. All that we demand is that you be a Jew among Jews.”

"In Palestine?”

"Yes, of course, it’s the only place we can ever be safe.”

Sebastian sounded so convincing that even though Ziggy knew what he was saying had to be full of holes, he couldn’t think of any arguments to the contrary. “So I take it you have a plan,” he said.

"Well yes, but it’s not completely worked out.”

"Explain what is worked out.”

"Well,” began Sebastian, “we know Himmler has set up his headquarters in a chateau a few miles outside Flensburg. The time to go in is now, while there are enough people that it’ll still be easy to confuse them. By tomorrow they may have moved on somewhere else. We’ve got a plane waiting, we could be there before midnight. We both put on SS uniforms, distract, confuse, act as decoys for each other. Get in close, grab him, get him out, like that!”

"It sounds harebrained,” said Ziggy.

"We’ve pulled off more with less.”

Ziggy nodded. It was true.

"It won’t be without problems,” said Sebastian. “Himmler’s got a guy working for him named Macher. He’s a particularly tough nut.”

"I know, I’ve met him,” said Ziggy.

Palestine. It sounded like it might be a good idea. Certainly there wouldn’t be much point in staying in Germany. He didn’t see why the Allies would be interested in rebuilding it. For all he knew, they’d let it revert to cow pasture. In Palestine, he’d be just another pioneer refugee, not a Magical Loerber Brother, not Hitler’s Jewish U-Boat ace. He could live with that.

Wipe the slate clean. Everything that had happened in the last ten years didn’t happen at all or it happened to someone else, someone who lies dead on the bottom of the Atlantic in his iron coffin, or something very nearly like it.

They talked about it some more, the logistics, the weapons they had, the size of Himmler’s force. Sebastian seemed to have a lot of backup manpower at his disposal. Some were already in the area disguised as Wehrmacht, others as British.

He watched Sebastian holding the coffee cup to his lips as he spoke. The sophistication he exuded was so natural, Ziggy could hardly reconcile it with the fumbling affectations which had defined his memory of him. But then, we’ve all become something else, made by the times and circumstances we intersected with. Even the ships I sank, the ones I watched burn and break up, and making myself stand there on the bridge listening to the cries for help which I could not render, knowing myself at my most cruel and predatory, none of it will matter once it’s put behind me. A memory is inherently false, frozen in time, yet endlessly buffeted by shifting context.

"If we’re going to do it, we need to get going now,” Sebastian said quietly.

"Right,” said Ziggy. His throat felt constricted. He pushed the chair back and got to his feet, suddenly feeling like he was slipping off a trapeze. “I have to go back now.”

Sebastian looked at him, but didn’t say anything.

Thanks for saving my life,” said Ziggy and quickly went out the door.
(Excerpt from Germania, first published in 2008 by Simon & Schuster, now also available on Kindle here).

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