Authors: Daniel Kalla
Tags: #General Fiction
A NOVEL OF LOVE
AND DEATH IN SHANGHAI
Dedicated to the memory of my father,
Dr. Frank Kalla, who inspired this story.
9, 1938, V
The shadow still swayed over the pavement. Franz Adler tried to blink away the memory of his brother’s dangling corpse and the silhouette it cast across the sidewalk, but the image looped over and over in his head.
A pane of glass erupted at street level, startling Franz. His hand slipped and he pierced her skin at the wrong angle.
Franz swore under his breath as he yanked back the needle’s tip.
Three more windows shattered. The mob was so close. Its drunken cheers and raucous laughter infected the room. Franz could almost smell the stench of stale beer and body odour that must have wafted after it.
Concentrate, Adler! Finish suturing and go collect your daughter!
Eyes open or closed, the mental image persisted. As a surgeon, he had witnessed numerous deaths, but none compared with his own brother’s.
A damp November chill permeated the apartment. Fearing a fire or worse, the caretaker had shut off the boiler. The windows were draped and the lights off, save for the flickering flame of three candles that projected long writhing shadows against the walls. Franz had to squint through the weak light to study the blood-caked arm before him.
Another pane shattered three storeys below, drawing a fresh wave of cheers as though it were some kind of feat to deface a city. But the voices grew more distant as the bulk of the mob stomped farther down Liechtenstein Strasse.
Esther Adler huddled for warmth under the blanket that Franz had wrapped around her shoulders. His sister-in-law’s complexion was ashen. Abrasions criss-crossed her face. But her grey eyes possessed their usual calm. “Your hands, Franz,” Esther said in a hushed voice.
Franz glanced down at his trembling fingers. “Not enough light,” he muttered.
“We will manage.” A tremulous smile flitted across Esther’s lips. “With God’s help.”
“God?” Franz nodded to the curtains, which glowed red from the fires consuming Vienna. “Essie, could it be any clearer that there is no God?”
She closed her eyes for a moment. “I can’t believe that. I won’t.”
Franz took a slow breath and mentally aligned the edges of Esther’s jagged wound, estimating the number of stitches it would require. Twenty, possibly more. He hoped he had enough catgut to close the laceration, which snaked almost the entire length of Esther’s forearm but, remarkably, spared the largest nerves and blood vessels.
Hannah needs you,
he reminded himself as he ran a fourth stitch through Esther’s flesh. She barely flinched, despite the lack of local anaesthetic. Franz always carried his suture kit in his medical bag, but he silently cursed himself for not having brought the rest of his supplies upstairs sooner. From the moment he first heard the wireless broadcasts—Goebbels’s shrill shrieks of
that—Franz had expected the worst. But he had not foreseen just how bloodthirsty the backlash would become.
Who could have predicted this?
Earlier, Franz had tried to rush downstairs to get local anaesthetic and bandages, but Esther grabbed his arm and, dripping blood onto his sleeve, begged him to proceed without freezing. She claimed to be more afraid of the injection than the stitches, but they both knew what she really feared: if the Brownshirts or other thugs caught Franz rummaging through his
ground-floor surgery, he would never return. And his daughter, Hannah, was waiting.
“It’s fine, Franz,” Esther whispered. “Just continue. Please.”
Franz looked into her kind eyes. Narrow-faced with sharp features, Esther had deep-set grey eyes that made her look older than her thirty-two years. Though not conventionally pretty, she radiated intelligence, humour and, especially, compassion. Her empathy was boundless. Even now, with her arm splayed open in the wake of her husband’s lynching little more than an hour earlier, she was more concerned for her niece’s welfare than her own.
“All right, Essie,” he said as he looped another stitch through her arm, bringing the ragged edges a little closer together.
“We must get Hannah away from here, Franz.” Esther motioned toward the silhouettes of flames dancing against the curtains. “Our time has run out,
Franz nodded, ashamed of having resisted for so long. Until the Nazis set Vienna ablaze, he had clung to his naive belief that their reign of terror was a dark but passing phase in history. That his countrymen would come to their collective senses. But his brother, Karl, had been right from the outset. Nothing, not even blood, would appease these crazed animals.
Franz gazed into Esther’s glistening eyes. Even though Karl was his only sibling and the best friend he had ever known, his loss paled compared with hers. Esther had no brothers or sisters, her parents were long dead, and Karl and she had been unable to conceive a child. Esther and Karl had only each other, but that had always been enough. Franz had never known a couple more deeply in love. He racked his brain for some consoling words, but none came to mind. His brother, the lawyer, had been the verbally gifted one. So Franz finished stitching in torturous silence. He was reaching for strips of a torn shirt to use as a bandage when he heard a plaintive scream. He froze, then rushed to the window.
Esther cautioned. “Be careful! Don’t let them see you!”
Franz gently peeled back the edge of the drape, exposing only enough of a gap to peek out to the street below.
A group of stragglers—some were dressed in civilian clothing, others wore the brown shirts, matching caps and blood-red swastika armbands of the storm troopers—milled about on the road like wolves circling their kill. In the centre of them, an older woman lay sprawled on her back, flailing wildly. A blonde woman in a long leather coat stood over her, pinning the fallen woman down with a foot to the chest.
Franz spotted a balding old man lying ten or so feet away. His torso was twisted unnaturally, with his knees facing in almost the opposite direction to his scrawny chest. A fat storm trooper hovered over him, holding a thick wooden club in his pudgy fingers. The trooper raised the club high over his head and let it hang suspended in the air for a long moment.
“No, no, no
…” Franz muttered.
The storm trooper swung the bat down like an axe into the victim’s midsection. Unconscious, possibly dead, the man didn’t respond. The woman shrieked again and was rewarded with a heavy kick.
The hair on Franz’s neck stood as he recognized the victims. “It’s the Yacobsens!”
Hannah loved visiting the Yacobsens’ bakery, at the end of their block. The kind old couple—”Tante Frieda” and “Onkel Moshe,” as his daughter called them—would shower the girl with delicious treats of strudel,
and linzer cake.
“Gott in Himmel!”
Esther said with a low breath from across the room. “What have they done?”
The fat storm trooper motioned to the blonde woman. She grabbed Frieda by the wrist. The older woman resisted as best she could, but a second storm trooper sauntered over and jerked Frieda’s other arm back. She howled as though her shoulder had been dislocated. The two Nazis dragged the thrashing woman toward the fat storm trooper, who stood over her motionless husband, tapping his club against his open palm.
“How can they?” Franz croaked. “To an old woman? It’s madness!” He watched the fat storm trooper cock his arm again. He pictured Karl’s swollen face and helpless eyes imploring him to act. Franz had
never felt as impotent. Unable to stomach another moment, he spun from the window.
I must get Hannah!
Earlier, Franz had left his daughter at the neighbouring apartment with the widowed Frau Lieberman before rushing out to retrieve Esther. After ushering his sister-in-law home through minefield-like streets, Franz had no choice but to suture her arm before she bled out. Now that he had closed the wound, he could not bear another minute apart from his daughter, who, though less than a hundred feet from him, felt worlds away.
Franz bolted for the door.
“No, Franz!” Esther cried after him. “Don’t go out now!”
“I can’t leave Hannah next door while the city burns.”
“Hannah is safe with Frau Lieberman!” Esther whispered. “We must not move right now. What if they are already inside the building? What if they hear you?”
“I will be quiet.”
“Franz, it’s too dangerous. Hannah is safer where she is.” “I have to get her, Essie.”
“Just a little longer, Franz.” Her voice cracked. “For God’s sake, not now, of all times!”
Ignoring her protests, he opened the door. The dark hallway beyond was empty and silent. Holding his breath, Franz took a tentative step out the door. He glanced to either side and then took another.
“Papa?” a little voice mewed.
His heart almost stopped as he spied Hannah tiptoeing down the hall toward him.
Behind his daughter, Franz saw a faint light emanating from a crack beneath the doorway to the neighbouring apartment, and he sensed Frau Lieberman’s terrified presence. Franz padded toward Hannah, swept her up in his arms and darted back into his flat. He pushed the door shut and gently clicked the deadbolt behind him.
Franz leaned over and smothered Hannah’s head in kisses. “Oh,
Esther threw her uninjured arm around Hannah as well.
Wriggling free of both of them, Hannah glimpsed her aunt’s bloodied arm. She stared at it wide-eyed. “Tante Essie, what happened?”
Esther tucked her arm in like a wing and turned that side of her body away from her niece. “Your clumsy aunt.” She forced a smile. “This is my idea of how to clean up broken glass.”
The eight-year-old viewed Esther skeptically but did not comment. Earlier, Franz had told Hannah about the rioting, downplaying the violence and the intended targets. But Hannah had immediately seen through his explanation. In the six months since Nazi Germany had swallowed Austria, in the so-called
Hannah had already suffered more than her share of state-mandated anti-Semitism. Though only half Jewish by birth, she had been expelled from school and teased, bullied or shunned by most of her Gentile friends.