Harz Mountains, Germany, November 1943
They arrived on a cold November afternoon in 1943, when the trees were already heavy with snow. There were five children escorted by a young nurse from the home. Huddled in blankets, they sat on wooden benches fitted inside the rear section of the truck. The nurse was holding one of the children on her lap – a pale, shivering little boy, not yet three years old, with a persistent, rasping cough. She wished she could say something to bring him comfort, but she knew he understood nothing but his native Danish. During her time at the home she had seen many children come and go, but somehow this one had touched her, affected her in a special way – perhaps it was his physical fragility combined with something in his face, a spark, a kind of inner strength. Touching his forehead she realised that he had a fever and wondered with dread whether he was suffering from whooping cough. If he was, then she knew, they would not let him stay in the home. They’d send him to the nearby hospital, where he would end up in the department for “special treatment” – a cold euphemism for murder by over-sedation. She hoped fervently that his cough would have subsided by the time they reached the house.
The road wound uphill between massed pine woods, and the truck laboured as it took the steep bends, its winter tyres digging into the snowy ground. Perhaps shaken loose by the vibration of the engine, a heavy clump of snow slid abruptly from a pine branch and fell to earth by the roadside with a sound like the thud of a distant field gun. As twilight turned into nightfall the headlights of the truck made the tree trunks stand out in the darkness like prison bars. They passed a milestone, and the nurse knew that they were close now. The boy had stopped coughing and seemed to have fallen asleep in her arms. With luck, no one would notice that he was ill, and perhaps by morning, after a warm supper and a good sleep, his fever would be gone.
The truck slowed, turned off the road to the left and halted, the headlights shining on a massive double door with diagonal boarding and the name “Lenzfeld” written in black Gothic letters on a white enamelled plaque. Another plaque said: “Property of the Lebensborn Foundation. Entry by unauthorised persons strictly forbidden.” Someone opened the doors from within, and the truck moved forward with a jerk that woke the boy. As the doors closed behind them, the nurse stifled a scream of horror. The boy was coughing again.
Berlin, summer 1990
When Erdmann heard that a woman had called him on the telephone his first thought was that there had been a mistake. No one had called him at work for years – it was out of his normal routine, and routine was what held his life together. Every morning he took the underground railway from the bleak East Berlin suburb where he lived and clocked in on the dot of eight at the Jupiter restaurant for the morning shift. In the cramped staff cloakroom behind the kitchen he put on his black suit, adjusted his bow tie in the mirror and combed his receding grey hair. Then he helped to lay the tables, putting out the menus, the knives and forks and the napkins with swift, practised movements. He had plainly been doing the job for a long time but still seemed to be a man out of his element, although resigned to it.
Deeply etched lines on his face suggested some past ordeal that had marked him permanently. But there were still traces of earlier good looks, and his eyes conveyed a quick intelligence as well as world-weariness. Other signs suggested he had not always been a waiter: crisp movements and a precise manner hinted that he might once have been a soldier. Yet there was also a touch of the intellectual about him. To his colleagues he was something of a mystery. They found him reliable, even-tempered and polite, but always reserved – a loner. Between shifts he enjoyed a cup of coffee and a piece of cake – Black Forest gâteau, when available, being his favourite.
The Jupiter was in a street close to Unter den Linden. It was one of those genteel, old-fashioned restaurants that the Communists had preserved almost intact, as places where the privileged could dine out or entertain foreign visitors. But, lacking the impetus and the resources to maintain it properly, they had allowed it to go to seed. The red velvet curtains in the tall windows had become threadbare, the ornate plasterwork in the ceiling had fallen away in places, and the wood panelling was chipped and cracked. Still, throughout the Communist years it had somehow clung to some lingering semblance of elegance. Now, with the Wall gone, West Germans and foreign tourists were beginning to come to the Jupiter, finding it quaint and nostalgic, and enjoying the absence of background music, so pervasive where they came from. But things were about to change. A new, young manager, Herr Meyer had taken over and had plans to smarten it up, install loudspeakers for music, hang paintings by modern artists and introduce a whole new range of dishes with French, Spanish and Italian names. It was Meyer who had taken the call.
“Yes,” he told Erdmann “a woman with an English name – Warrington.”
The waiter was puzzled. “Are you sure? I know no English people.”
“Quite sure. She asked for you by name. Said she’d call back. Only don’t spend too much time talking to her. Time is money.”
Yet again, the older man was struck by how quickly the jargon of capitalism was invading East Germany, along with the advertisements and the people hawking party insignia and GDR flags in the street. Hard to believe it was only a few months since the Wall had fallen. It was all very confusing. Often he felt that he had sacrificed half his life for nothing.
Warrington? Surely a mistake, he told himself as the restaurant started to fill up with lunchtime customers. Even so, he found that he felt disappointed when she didn’t call again. He actually waited half an hour beyond his usual clocking-off time of four o’clock, then gave up and left for home.
As he came down Unter den Linden towards the bridge over the river Spree, he saw a man in the uniform of the People’s Police looking on bemused as a group of teenagers jerked and twitched to a ghetto blaster thudding out a heavy, percussive rhythm. They wore torn jeans and strident tee-shirts, and the girls’ hair was dyed bright, luminous colours. The road was full of cars with western number plates – Mercedes, Audis and BMWs – making the little East German Trabants look like quaint relics of another era. Now that the period of euphoria following the demolition of the Wall had simmered down, he felt rather like an unwanted guest at a party that didn’t know where it was going.
Warrington, Warrington … his footsteps beat out the name as he crossed the Alexanderplatz on his way home. The mystery nagged at him. Could the woman perhaps be an English friend of the family in Denmark? He rejected the thought immediately. They had surely done their best to forget him.
In the Alexanderplatz a couple of souvenir vendors had set up their makeshift stalls. These days everyone seemed seized by a desire to sell their GDR memorabilia – flags, Free German Youth badges, People’s Army caps, framed photographs of Erich Honecker. Officially the GDR still existed, but everyone knew that it was only a matter of time before the two Germanies were reunited.
At the entrance to the Suburban Railway station Erdmann lingered by the newspaper kiosk and browsed through the western papers on display – the Frankfurter Allgemeine, the Herald Tribune, the Times of London. He settled for a West Berlin paper and read it on the train. It was full of the debate about what should be done with the millions of Stasi files that had been assembled over the past four decades with the help of “unofficial collaborators” who had spied on colleagues, friends and even family members. These informers now feared exposure and some were being blackmailed by people who claimed inside knowledge of the files. Rumours were rife about who had collaborated. The new democratic government of the GDR had debated the possibility of destroying the files, but that would only have increased the potential for rumour. Now it looked as though the files that had survived the Stasi’s orgy of shredding when the Wall fell would be preserved and made publicly available. Somewhere, if it had not been destroyed, there would be his file. Had someone managed to get hold of it and now meant to blackmail him? But why an Englishwoman?
He emerged from the suburban railway station at Marzahn into a landscape of bleak high-rise housing blocks, one of which he lived in. He opened his mailbox in the entrance hall and found it empty, then he took the lift up five floors to the spartan one-room flat that he called home. As he was opening the door he heard someone behind him and turned to see the bulky figure of his neighbour from across the hallway, Frau Kowsky.
“Sorry to disturb you, Herr Erdmann. But a woman’s been round here, asking for you.” There was a look of sly amusement on her plump, middle-aged face. “Quite a young woman.” She was obviously titillated by thoughts of the mysterious female visitor.
“When was this?”
“The day before yesterday … in the evening. I found her hanging about the entrance to the house, and she asked if I knew you.”
He remembered that evening, because he had gone to a film and not come back until nearly midnight. “Did she say who she was or anything else?”
“Only that it was a private matter. She asked for your telephone number, but I didn’t know it, so I told her where you worked.” She fingered her apron nervously. “I hope I didn’t do wrong.”
He touched her arm reassuringly. “No, not at all, Frau Kowsky. You did the right thing. Many thanks.”
She wanted to linger on the landing, probing for more information about who the woman might have been, but he said goodnight and closed the door.
Next day at the restaurant he started every time the telephone rang, but the morning passed and there was no call for him. Then, when the place was filling up for lunch he heard the telephone ring again and this time saw Meyer signalling to him from the bar, holding up the receiver. “This is a bad time. So make it quick. Time is money.”
He took the receiver, still not quite believing that the call was for him.
“Who is this?” He spoke loudly against the babble of conversation.
“You don’t know me,” said a bright woman’s voice. The accent was foreign, but not an English one, more Scandinavian. “My name is Sonia Warrington. I tried to find you at your flat, and one of your neighbours told me that you work here.”
“I see …” but he didn’t see at all. “What can I do for you?”
There was a pause, then the woman said hesitantly. “It’s a delicate matter … too delicate to talk about over the phone. Could we meet?”
Meyer was looking at him impatiently and tapping his wristwatch.
“I …don’t know.” Should he refuse? If it was blackmail, she would find some other way to confront him. From her tone of voice she didn’t sound like a blackmailer, but still he hesitated.
“Please, trust me,” the woman pleaded. “It’s important. It’s about the past.”
The past. The word set off alarm bells. There were too many traumas in his past.
Better put down the phone, he told himself. Perhaps she’ll back off. He wanted to hang up, but something stopped him. “All right. But I can’t get away until four o’clock.”
“That’s fine. I’ll meet you at five on the Lion Bridge in the Tiergarten. Do you know it?”
“No, but I can find it.”
“Then see you there. I’m in my early twenties, dark haired. I’ll be carrying a red umbrella.”
As he replaced the receiver Meyer said. “Thanks for keeping it brief. Time is money.”
At the end of his shift he clocked off and changed into his everyday clothes. As he set off for the rendezvous he grew increasingly apprehensive, gripped by the old dread of being “found out”. What could she have found out? And how? Desperately he searched his mind, stirring memories that had long been deliberately buried. As he approached Unter den Linden, his memories transported him back twenty-four years to that fateful journey. He was back on the bus travelling down this same street, a young man of twenty-five setting off on what promised to be a great enterprise.