Publish the Word
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Angelus -- Chapter 18

 

 The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those that published it. Psalms 68:11

                              Chapter 18

 

   

They walked under the nightsky which opened above them with its endless stars, more numerous, she imagined, than all the millions of sleeping men and women and children whose dreams were now rising from their souls toward the moon in its indigo cloak.  She took in the expanse from horizon to horizon, and Udo, too, was silent and filled, she thought, with the same ineffable awe which rose inside her. 

I have never seen the heavens more brilliant, she said.

They walked beyond the spill of yardlights toward the river which purled softy invisible and immense just past a stand of acacia trees they had been forbidden to enter as children -- the boundary of their play realm. 

Udo said, if the air is too cool--

No, she replied.  The breeze is refreshing after the heat of the Chaco.

They slowed their pace and did not speak for several minutes.  The house behind them dimmed, like a Japanese lantern hung in tree branches.  Shifting patterns of light and shade fell onto the lawn, the moon washed by clouds of surf.  As night scents drifted to them -- wild hibiscus and hyacinth, fish and rotting vegetation and oil left by the barges -- she had once thought of the river as an enormous gleaming serpent and how in her second story bedroom she had stifled her night terrors of being swallowed whole, inch by inch, as the river consumed everything except the bones and animal carcasses it eventually abandoned along the shore. While everyone slept, only she could see the river slither from out of its bed and glisten through the trees and onto her lawn in search of nocturnal prey.  The river still made her uneasy, so she kept Udo between her and the shape-shifting river.

When they came to the end of the lawn, patches of savanna grass and marsh turned them back toward the distant house.  When we were young, Ava said, it seemed like a magical castle  we would live in forever.  But one morning I woke into a new life, without you or father or any of this and so far away I couldn't do anything to bring it back.  The night began to fog in her eyes.  I felt so helpless, she said.  I was only seven.  What could I do?  You don't know how often I wished I could come home, but she wouldn't tell me why, just that America was our home, a civilized country, mother said, you and father would come someday, perhaps, but you didn't.

She took a deep, tattered breath and wiped her eyes with her palms.  I guess I had been saving that up for a long time, she said.

Udo crossed his arms and inhaled as he surveyed the sky.  We both suffered loss, he said.  How does a nine-year old boy understand his mother leaving while his heart is burning inside him.  And my longing for a sister who vanishes for almost fifty years?  Yes, I have also lived with absence.

You could have come, she said.

And you?  You could have come back years ago.

I know.  It was not reproach in his voice, she thought, nor anger or bitterness or the quivering emotion she felt in her throat.  It was sadness with its small hand touching her even as Udo began to turn away, drawn to the guttural thrum of a boat idling past on the river.  As the sound moved off, the slap of waves from the boat's wake continued, then gradually faded.  Neither spoke.  It seemed to her that everything had fallen silent:  the river, wind, sky, insects, nothing but her own soft breathing and Udo's occasional exhalation.

I did think of coming, he said at last.  Many times.  Even at age eleven or twelve I had saved enough money for a plane ticket, but father forbid it.  I thought he was punishing me for some reason by not letting me go to my mother.  The desire went away, but months later it would return, though over time with not as much intensity.  In my mind, I reasoned, you and mother had done something horrible and were banished.  I didn't know it would be for a lifetime.

He paused and sighed, his shadow merging on the ground with hers.  But there is more you don't know -- reasons I hesitate to tell you.

What reasons? she asked.

Long ago reasons, which if I tell you, will sound too fantastical.

She thought of the past year, of her illness, her crumbling marriage, the angel, which now seemed more dreamlike than real.  She said, nothing would be too fantastic.

Very well, he said.  Let me begin at the end, for you must understand that Emil Herman, our father, was a man beset by demons.   For most of his life he prided himself on being gesund -- robust.  Not given to excess, he did enjoy good food, his Mosel wines and dark Munchener beer.  He eventually accepted the cuisine of this wretched country, as he would say.  But he developed stomach problems in the 1960s.  He would writhe in pain and curse loudly until the pain subsided and he slept and fasted for a day or two on fruit juice.  We knew he was sick, but he refused to visit a doctor.  This continued for several years.  He might go weeks without an attack. 

One day Isabel, the cleaning girl, told me she found blood on his toilet and the shower.  It is nothing to concern you, he told me.  But secretly I learned  he had seen a specialist in internal medicine.  Yes, cancer --  far beyond the stage of repair.  He refused to discuss any treatment, however.  He was a stubborn man.


They had begun strolling back toward the house.  She never knew about her father's illness and wondered if her mother had known, so infrequent was her parents' contact, she thought -- a letter once or twice a year in his precise German script, more often a check in an envelope, nothing more.  She had saved the tropical stamps for a time, clipping them from the envelopes and pasting them inside the spiral-bound diaries she wrote in periodically.

As his cancer grew and his health failed, Udo continued, I began to assume more of his business dealings.  Reluctantly, very reluctantly, he allowed me to see his ledgers and bank books.  His accounts were of modest wealth, a few farms, a lumber mill, plywood and furniture factory in Encarnacion, construction equipment he imported to sell, some exports of finer woods to Europe, a few properties he rented out.  I had left music school by this time and was preparing myself, I thought, for a career as a conductor -- the national symphony was my aspiration.  I didn't want the burden of maintaining father's business.  I find business dull. 

A nightwing whistled by them, diving low to the ground, then looping back into the trees.  It startled me, Ava said.  I thought it was a bat.  All my life I've been traumatized by bats because of the stories you told me when I was small.  Remember the bats?  Swooping out of the jungle, blind and ravenous bats, how they wanted to tangle themselves in my hair with their devils' wings?  Remember?

Yes, he said.  I apologize for having frightened you.  I had a fevered imagination and you were so willing to listen to my fancies.  I am sorry.

I didn't mean to interrupt you, she said.

That bird, Udo went on, was like an apparition.  So Carmela would say.  When you talk about a dead person, their spirit might assume the shape of an animal, like a bird, and reveal itself to you -- a peasant superstition.  Forgive me again -- I am not trying to frighten you.  Just a thought.  In some of father's business records, I noticed disbursements to the La Arana Trust, an Argentinean company with a Buenos Aires address.  He made regular payments.  I asked him about it and I could tell by his reaction -- did you ever see his eyes puff out and his face grow red, like a swollen beet, as if all the blood were rushing to his head? Well, he murmured a weak protest.  Ignore that account, he said.  I would be wise to leave it untouched. 

And? she asked, reacting to his prolonged pause.  They mounted the steps to the patio.  Carmela was visible through the kitchen window.  Julie and Evita had apparently not returned from the city.

Of course, I became even more curious.  Wouldn't you?  A secret account.  I thought it was payment to some mistress or perhaps an illegitimate child.  Who knew?  La Arana means the web, as in a spider web.  Hmmm.  Criminal activity, I thought, but really, does one think seriously about one's parent involved in such matters?  No.  We might have the occasional visitor of father's German uncle-type who would stay for a day to play cards and get drunk, eat some gehirnwurst.  But these were not drug smugglers.

What was the account?

One day under the pretext of going to hear a famed European opera singer perform in Buenos Aires, I went to the address.  It was a business holding company with a roomful of numbers people, with their adding machines and account books, long before computers.  They simply administered the account, you understand.  Transactions.  Process receivables and disburse money to those authorized to receive payments.  All quite respectable.

What did you do? she asked.


One moment, please, he said.  She sat down on a wrought iron chair and watched him go to the kitchen door and say something to Carmela in Spanish.  He returned and sat across from her, his hands folded on the table in front of him.  I asked Carmela to prepare us some coffee, he said.  Now, what did I do? to answer your question.  I gave them father's name and told them I had misplaced the record of my last payment.  I then asked if they would let me look at the file to see the date and number of the check I had sent.  It seemed a mundane request, nothing irregular.  Well, they did not bring the file, only the last check.  I pretended to take note of the date and number and then examined the backside where I found a name, the endorsement signature.  Ricardo Bauer.

Ricardo Bauer?  Who was he?

I had never heard the name, Udo said.  Nor had I seen the name in any of father's papers.  Only later did I discover he kept a secret address book and Ricardo Bauer's name was all through it with addresses in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay -- along with other names, some German, others Latino.

Did you ever find out who this man was?

Yes, I am coming to that part of our tale.  One day when father was suffering in bed, I went to his room.  The shades were always drawn against the light, and he was moaning softly, rubbing at his stomach -- this was maybe six months before he died -- a tragic sight, and I am glad you were spared seeing him waste away to a mere skeleton, such an evil illness.  So I asked him, Who is Ricardo Bauer?  He quit moaning and looked up at me.  His arm still covered one eye, but the eye which beheld me was red, red-veined.  Why do you ask? he said.  Is he here?  I saw his name on some of your papers, I answered.  A business associate, he said.  Why?  His eye fixed on me without blinking.  I could see my face upon his pupil, bending over him. The checks to the La Arana, what are they for?  He was still for a long time.  His lips were cracked and his skin seemed like parchment, almost like the liquids were slowly evaporating from his body.

I am unwell this morning, he finally said.  Come after dinner.  Bring me some warm tea with milk and I will tell you about Senor Ricardo Bauer.


Did he tell you?

Yes, later that day.  He was calm, sitting up in bed.  He sipped his tea.  It couldn't be too warm or it would cause spasms, very painful.  Yes, he told me about Ricardo Bauer.  I had met Senor Bauer before, a couple times, perhaps even you too, though you would have been very small.  Senor Bauer was a squat man, with a thick neck, muscular like a gorilla.  He had a diagonal scar across his forehead.  I vaguely remembered him.  He spoke Castilian with a German accent.  No one memorable.  Ricardo Bauer, father said in his firm voice of old, helped us relocate from Germany to here, Paraguay.  He loaned us money to begin my business.  My checks are repayments.  All of that is true, I swear to God.  When I die, my son, you cannot be in the dark about these matters.  Electricity shivered through me because he had never used such language before.   My son -- something he had never said.  But I could tell he was unburdening himself.  I know I embellish, but it was as if in the stillness of late afternoon, with a pale beam of sun penetrating the cool room, that we were surrounded by spirits just waiting for father's words.  The quick and the dead.

I really don't remember any of our parents' friends, Ava said.

Udo held up his index finger and shook it, as if to correct her.  He was not a friend.  No, no, not at all a friend.  Here is where we leave reality and enter something altogether different.  Let me ask you, what do you know of our coming here?  What did mother tell you?

Not much.  It was a taboo subject.  We escaped the holocaust.  We were the fortunate Jews who lived.  We were Austrian.  The rest of our families perished.  Father made the arrangements.  That's all I know.  The war was too painful to speak about. 


Yes, their explanations were in agreement, Udo said.  I raised the issue only once with father.  At music school I met a Jewish youth, a pianist with slender hands, a very feminine boy.  I don't know how it came up, but I found out he was Jewish and at lunch one day, as he was across the table from me, I casually mentioned I also was Jewish.  He seemed surprised.  Why have I never seen you at temple? he asked me.  We do not practice, I said.  The war drove all Jewishness out of us.  But this puzzled me, so I told father of our conversation.  I may have even expressed interest in attending the synagogue service.  He erupted in fury.  Mein Gott.  One would have thought I had announced my desire to worship Lucifer -- such was his reaction.   I will never forget. 

What did he say? Ava asked.

Carmela brought out their coffee at that moment, so he hesitated, then said to Carmela, please join us, will you not?  The kitchen is so warm.  Please sit and have coffee.  Yes, we insist, added Ava.  So Carmela sat quietly, her hands clasped on her lap, her head tilted to listen to Udo as he continued.

He said we were no longer Jewish, we were no longer Austrian or German or anything.  We had erased our past -- there was only today and the future.  And he said if I ever mentioned Jews again he would disinherit me.  The thought occurred to me, perhaps that was what had happened to you and mother, that she had wanted to be Jewish and he didn't, so she went to America and that was all the reason she needed.  For years this incident stayed in my mind.  He was not anti-Semitic.  No.  I never heard him disparage the Jews.  I rationalized that if being Jewish meant losing millions of your brethren to the furnaces, then he made a conscious choice to divest himself of this ancestry.  One had no control over our family of origin, but as an adult who had come here as a war refugee, he decided, I thought, to avoid persecution by becoming an entirely new person, like a chameleon to blend in with his surroundings.  Ah, but my conjecture was entirely wrong.


What do you mean?

Udo stroked his cheek, then lightly patted Carmela on the shoulder.  Do we have any of those sweet cakes?

No, she said.  Mañana, I make.

He blew the steam across the lip of his coffee cup before he drank, then replaced the cup on its saucer and resumed his story.  Neither mother nor father were born Jewish.  They were as Aryan as Carmela is Latina.  They fled Europe with Jewish passports, true -- which were easy to obtain in the confusion of so many displaced peoples.

Why would they lie? Ava asked.

Udo shrugged.  For many reasons.  Father had grown up in Linz.  When the Reich invaded Austria in 1939, he was conscripted at twenty-two, just out of university with business courses.  So he was assigned to the equipment and finance division of the RSHA -- the Reich Security Main Office, which dispersed funds to the SS, the Nazi security service, the Gestapo, the Foreign Intelligence Service.  His job was so unimportant, he said, the janitor had a higher rank..  Menial.  But for him, being an accountant was safer than being an infantry soldier.  A year later, on temporary assignment in Munich, he met Monika, our mother, a 16-year old school girl.  In her plaid uniform and hair braids, he said, she was like a young madonna -- snowy skin, slim, athletic, her firm breasts like ripe persimmons -- forgive my crudeness, but those were his words, etched in memory.  They fell in love, despite he being re-stationed to Berlin.

After a year of letter writing and despite objections from her mother, they went to Salzburg and married.  Her father was a tank engineer, soon to be killed on the Russian front.  A year later she became pregnant and I was born.  She continued her job in a munitions factory and father arranged a transfer to Munich.  Like so many other families, father explained, life was arduous, money scarce, but they were committed to the glory of the fatherland.  You see, in the minds of the people, Deutschland was fighting for its existence, so effective was the propaganda.  Father said he knew nothing of the war crimes until years later when he read about them in the newspapers, though of course, he had heard the rumors.

I didn't know any of this, Ava said.

Mother told you nothing?

Ava shook her head.  As a teenager she had asked, but in response to questions about her parents' courtship and wedding, her mother had been curt.  To remember is like walking over broken glass barefoot, her mother had said.  Don't ask again because I have vowed to never speak of these times.   I always assumed she was reticence because she lost her family, Ava said.

Her mother did die, accidentally, father told me, in an auto accident a year after the war ended.  Father's parents lived into their eighties and are buried in Austria.  He has a younger sister still living in Zurich, at least I think she is.  They corresponded infrequently.  I never met any of them, but family ties for father were inconsequential.  He was a strangely cold man.

Why did they come to Paraguay? Ava wondered aloud.

For several reasons.  As the war collapsed in Germany, panic and chaos swept through the RSHA.  If one fell into the Allies' hands, well, survival was more possible than with the Russians, but father felt he was in the path of the Russian Army . All operations, including his own, had been consolidated to Berlin in the waning days of 1944.  Stories of what the Russians did to German women alarmed him, so one morning he didn't report to work but instead packed two bags, conveniently lost his identity papers and took mother, myself and you, who were just three months old, south, crossing the Italian border at Merano and then on to a Red Cross camp at Rimini. 


After a month we went to Rome, purchased new passports with the help of Bishop Alois Hudal, a German high up in the Vatican sympathetic to the Reich.  The goodly bishop was a kind of Father Christmas to the fleeing Nazis.  He created an efficient network which produced false papers, passports, supplied funds, arranged hideouts for people much more important than our father.  Consider the irony of Nazis escaping as Jews while the real ones perished by the millions, a fact, I think, which troubled father over time.  But, nevertheless, we sailed from the harbor in Naples and arrived in Buenos Aires a couple weeks before Germany's surrender.   Udo's eyes gazed off as he sipped his coffee.

At this point in our story, he said, we encounter Senor Ricardo Bauer.  He paused to drink again before continuing.  I asked father, well then, who is this Ricardo Bauer, the man we owe our gratitude to?  He is, father said without equivocation, the son of Satan himself.  Udo burst out laughing.  Overly-dramatic, yes.   I see your reaction was the same as mine.

Ava leaned forward, the coffee steaming from her cup into her face.  What do you mean? she asked.

Bauer, was of course, not Bauer.  He was someone else.  If father was a low functionary, this man was a high luminary, also a Nazi, or as you Americans say, a big fish.  But we shall arrive at his true identity in a moment.  First, let me tell you about Argentina in 1945.


Father rather liked the quaint, Spanish colonialism of the country, and the alpine parks and blue-green lakes of the southern cordillera, reminiscent of the Schwarzwald -- the Black Forest, he said.  But mother loathed Buenos Aires with its sprawling barrios.  She was coping with two young children, a new language she found difficult, Peron was coming to power, and the country was in social upheaval.  They tried Montevideo for a couple months, then were invited to Asuncion by a doctor they had met at Mar Del Plata, a beach resort on the Atlantic.     Dr. Andres Barbero, who lived just a kilometer to the south of us, helped them purchase this estate.  It was in great disrepair, but father by then was tapped into the Arana, and so could borrow money more easily than through a bank, especially since he had no work, other than a few contacts made through Dr. Barbero.  Mother found life here more agreeable, unlike the crush of Buenos Aires.  I think they were happy at first.

More coffee? Carmela asked, rising slightly to refill Ava's cup.  She had not said a word since coming to join them on the patio.

Gracias, Ava said.

De nada, she replied.

I hope this is not disturbing, Udo said.  When I heard this story from father's lips, I was numb afterwards, only half-believing.  To discover one's parents have hidden this secret history and are not who they  -- well, I will stop if you desire.

No, please, she said.  We're adults.  Even if the truth is unpleasant,  I must know.

I shall continue, he said.  Father mastered enough language to conduct business.  He often gave the illusion he spoke little Spanish, but he knew business and took advantage of the tropicales, an insulting term, really.  He soon prospered.  Behind his investments, at first, were the men who founded the web, all former SS who referred to themselves as die Spinne, which means "the Spider."  The spider built its web, first as a rescue organization to transfer Nazis into safe territory, but it gradually became a financial empire, presided over by the relocated men who had looted Europe of vast quantities of gold, currencies and art treasures.


Father said on the few occasions when members of the web would meet in Asuncion, he began to grasp how elaborate, and even brilliant, yes, it sounds terrible to say, was this grand thievery.  They would joke among themselves, no one quite sure, he thought, how much wealth they had amassed.  He heard figures of millions of gold marks, Swiss francs, Dutch florins, hundreds of kilograms of platinum, diamonds, precious stones, and more gold, much of it extracted from the mouths of dead concentration camp victims.  One spider-man described how they crated up gold fillings and shipped them off to be melted into fifty kilo bars, those sent to Zurich or Geneva, but much to South America.  And now at last, Udo said, we meet Ricardo Bauer, our benefactor.

Born in the province of Magdeburg, Germany, and christened in 1900, our man rose in the Nazi Party to become right-hand man to the Fuhrer, himself, and was considered, as the war ended, a possible successor to Hitler.  But he had other plans, our Ricardo Bauer.  He was a dead man to remain in Germany -- as Martin Bormann.

Bormann?  I thought he died.

Most of the world did, Udo said.  He was said to have been killed leaving Berlin.  Then stories circulated the Russians had captured him and he perished in a Gulag.  At Nurnberg, the tribunal sentenced him to death in absentia, and then, the West Berlin court ruled him dead in 1954 to settle his estate.  But  I can verify to having seen him with my own eyes.  For many years he was father's silent partner, and in a perverse way, our godfather, you and I.

Ava sat back in her chair, the cold metal hard against her.  I'm stunned, she said.  All of this -- she made a circular gesture with her hands to encompass the house about them -- bought with money stolen by the Nazis.

We were always more German, than Jewish,  he said, leaning toward her.

Not in America.

But here?  he asked.  Before you left?  The German restaurants?  Mother's Strauss waltzes?  What we ate and drank, how we tried so much to preserve what fragments remained of the old country, good old Deutchland uber alles?  You must recall father singing "Lasst UnsErfreuen" in the mornings?  But maybe you are right.  In Wisconsin you could shed your old skin and become a brand-new American, with your American saddle shoes and cashmere sweaters.

He shifted his eyes away from her, pausing, as if startled by the unexpected sarcasm in his voice.  I do not mean to be cruel, and I am sorry if--

We were children and did not know these things, Udo.  Her voice sounded, to her, conciliatory, and she felt a fierceness gathering inside her, and a rush of emotion for her brother and her lost parents, exiled by their loneliness.  She laid her hand on his, then withdrew it.

We entered Paraguay as the Goldstein family, he said.  I found our old passports.  Father was Mordecai Goldstein, so of course our entry would be expedited.  Perhaps 30 or 40 thousand Nazis immigrated to South America after the war, most of them like us, simply wishing a new life in a new land.  But the big fish, such as Bormann, Eichmann, Dr. Mengle, Stangl, they controlled the geld, which controlled those who partook of Reichsleiter Bormann's supposed  generosity.  Can you imagine Mephistopheles inside this fat, bald-headed body?  If you took the money, which father did, you never escaped his shadow.  You had to provide "favors," at any time, day or night.  Your fate was tied to his fate -- a life-sentence which father did not realize at the time, but which, he told me, began to haunt him.  He was a man out of Dostoyevsky, possessed with guilt.

Is that why mother and I left?  She watched her brother shift to an interior landscape, his eyes de-focusing, his right hand rising to gently probe his cheek.  Carmela stared down at her hands which rested upon her skirt.


A simple question, he said at last, but a complex answer.  Yes, he told me on this occasion that he and mother fought bitterly over the money.  Her intuition proved correct, that father would not be content with just starting-up money.  He would want more, and he did.  The money was never a gift.  It was a loan.  It was from the bank of Martin Bormann.  She despised Bormann.  He was arrogant and vulgar -- after he left she would try to disinfect his odor away.  Father also dreaded his visits.  But one could not refuse him.  He lived in elegant villas of wealthy friends in Vicente Lopez and Florida outside Buenos Aires, and in Bariloche at the resorts, then La Paz for a few months, then he would move to secluded estancias in Cordoba Province, always travelling about in disguise.  Yes, father's ties to Bormann and Arana were a constant irritation and mother urged him to break off entirely and leave for North America; they discussed it -- he was nearly persuaded.  But he lacked her courage.

Was it dangerous for him to leave?

Oh yes, he said.  Bormann left a legacy of violence for those who opposed or betrayed him.  Father could recite at least 20 names of people who fell out of grace and were murdered, unsolved murders, deaths which appeared to be suicides, debts which would be paid in full.

Even if they went to America?

I asked him that question.  A feverish expression came upon father's face, and though I think the cancer was having its toll on his mind as well, he pleaded with me not to judge him harshly.  I did what I thought was best, he said.  I was not a war criminal.  I was an accountant.  You must believe me, he said.

Udo crossed his arms over his chest thoughtfully, his voice softening.  My sense was that he grew to hate himself and his life, as much as mother hated the climate here and her isolation.  Of course, he admitted he had given her a sexual disease.  Yes.  This is distasteful to speak of, but he frequented the prostitutes.  He was a man of unexpected passions.  Once she caught him in bed with a cleaning girl.  We knew nothing of this at the time,  -- we were children, as you say.  The marriage was doomed.  She did love him enough to leave me, though, that's what he said.  I was left behind, perhaps more out of pity for him, than love.

She wanted to take both of us, but I was a father's son and she knew he needed me more than you or mother if he were to survive their departure.  I don't blame her for that final act of charity.  Only -- he paused, as if to select the proper words,  I have wondered over the years if either of them calculated my  feelings.   Yours too.  I did love father and we did grow closer after you left.  But it was so sudden, as if you had died.  The soul of a child is fragile, like a delicate crystal glass.  And once shattered -- well, our lives went on.              

Mother, I'm certain, agonized over leaving you behind, Ava said.  I really believed our separation was temporary.  She did, too.  I remember her telling me on the airplane we would be reunited in a couple months, as soon as father liquidated his business.  I remember that.  I didn't know what liquidated meant, and I asked her, and she explained, and I was so excited by the plane flight, and at seven what does going away really mean, but she cried the entire trip, though in her quiet dignity she tried to be discrete -- that's how she was, Udo.  She loved you and I don't think she could have left without some hope of you joining us once we were settled in America.   I didn't know, either, like you, what went on between them.

What went on between them, he said, echoing her words.  Yes.  What forces bring a man and woman together and then drive them apart?


This Nazi heritage, she thought as they sat in silence, this revelation , now that she turned the idea about in her consciousness had an inner logic which occurred to her, yes, considering  her mother's reticence about any mention of Jewishness, the war or Germany or even Paraguay, as if she could blot out her life once she stepped off the TWA plane at O'Hare in 1952 and begin anew.  Yes.  As if cataracts had dissolved from Ava's eyes, she saw her past now unspool like a loop of film: hugging Udo goodbye at the airport, he wailing in agony despite father's sharp rebukes and Ava, only seven, puzzled by her brother's outburst -- it came into focus, and also the men who came in their sleek, black cars with tinted windows, how they always smelled of tobacco, father whisking them into the parlor where she could hear their muffled German, dreamlike now, her mother illusionary, her father wavering chiaroscuro, these images at the periphery of what she could recall like a full-length cheval glass, tilted -- glimpsed shadows, voices, scents lingering forever inside the network of synapses.  Sadness swept through her, its million blue tentacles sucking at her spirit, emptying her, Udo's eyes hazel in the dim light, Carmela quiet and implacable, the air about them alive with nightbugs, the tale now told, she thought.

I don't know what to say.

Had you not come back, Udo said, your life would have gone on without this knowledge.

I'm glad you told me, she said. 

For the next hour Udo told her more, detailing their father's complicity with Arana, how he was encouraged to do business exclusively with other ex-Nazis, how Bormann, who had begun in 1943 transferring the wealth stolen from the Jews and Poles and everyone else in Europe established a conduit to Argentina through a second-rate actress named Maria Eva de Duarte, soon to become wife of the military dictator, Juan Domingo Peron.  The Perons eventually released less than half of the money from Argentinean banks to Bormann, claiming that Eva needed the treasure for her extensive charity work, perhaps billions of pesos.  And when Peron was himself deposed, the Junta stole the money from him. 

So the governments knew, Ava said.


Of course.  Peron, Stroessner, politicians, generals, bishops -- all were corrupt, especially Eva Peron, called with great affection the Little Madonna, who is almost canonized in Latin America. But I can tell you she terrorized any opposition with her mazorca, a ruthless political police.  She courted the fascists, long before Bormann and the rest built their empire.  I suspect even your American government knew of this unholy cabal -- how could they not?

And father was caught in this web?

Udo shrugged.  He traced the lip of his coffee cup with his thumb.  Temptation was placed before him.  What does the good book say?  Even Satan masquerades as an angel of light?  Father was bedazzled, yes, he would admit this lust which seduced him.  Perhaps mother was not so tempted.

As Ava sought to make sense of what Udo said, Julie and Evita returned, their arms full of shopping bags, their entrance a burst of freshness into the spectral dark.

You won't believe what I bought, Julie said impetuously.  We found you a handknit shawl you are going to love.  Evita jewed down the sales lady to almost nothing.  As Julie held up the oyster-white shawl, then wrapped it about her mother's shoulders with self-satisfaction, Ava glanced from face to face for approval.  Well? Julie asked. You like it?

Thank you, Ava said.  It's lovely.

Most attractive, Udo said.  In Spanish manton or capa de misterio -- a cape of mystery, as befitting a contessa from Madrid -- ha!  He reached over to examine the material, then nodded his endorsement.

With the girls' arrival, Udo and Ava discontinued their exhumation of the past.  Julie demonstrated a samba step which Evita was teaching her, with the promise they were going "clubbing," the next evening, the term she and her college friends used, Julie told Evita.  We don't say disco, anymore, she said.  Disco died ten years ago.


Carmela spoke to her daughter in Spanish, then Evita said to Ava, Mama wants to know would you like to go shopping with her tomorrow if you don't have plans?

Yes, thank you, gracias, Ava said to Carmela, who nodded, pleased at Ava's acceptance.  The language impasse, Ava thought, had kept the women distant, confirming her intuition that Carmela felt shy with English, nothing more.  Not that shopping was her favored mode of female bonding, but they would overcome the language somehow.

When Ava went up to her room, she seemed oddly detached from her body.  Her senses felt anesthetized, her feet cold, and her head staticy with a slight buzzing at her ears.  Was she suffering some psychosomatic reaction to Udo's disclosures?  Her health was still precarious from the cancer treatments and easily assaulted from almost anything.

She eased back onto the bed against two pillows propped behind her head.  A slight tremolo of breeze brushed over her.  She was emotionally numb.  Her parents' involvement with the Nazi Party was a long time ago.  She and Udo had been children, protected by the natural immunity of their joyous ignorance.  Her mother had been an unquestionably devoted mother, an anchor for Ava.  She loved her mother.  Never had she felt anything but love, and now, knowing the wrenching choices her mother had made, she was even more certain of her mother's love.  But why  could she not feel any emotion, no sadness, nothing?

Maybe, she thought, she might clarify how she felt if she wrote down her thoughts.

Sometimes it was a wellspring to her subconscious, once the words began to flow.  She retrieved her daybook from the flight bag on the floor beside the bed.  She wasn't certain of the date -- was it her third or fourth full day in Paraguay?  She decided it was August 29.

 

Daybook

The dead arrive like suitors in their jackboots and clerical robes.

Their skin is cadmium blue.

They have polished their ivory teeth, slicked back their hair.

Red boutonnieres fill the space their hearts were when they lived among us.

They hover in the dark with their rosary of sorrows.

They touch us lightly, so lightly, again and again.

The language of loneliness surrounds them, an aura of syllables and decasyllables.

They whisper into our ears when we sleep.

They sit at the foot of the bed and watch us.

The dead husbands long for their wives.

The dead mothers long for their children.

The dead children long for more years among the living.

The dead lie down beside us, hipbone to hipbone, cold and bruised.

If they could rise out of themselves and possess us, they would, so great is their longing.

We love the dead in family photos, reflected in the mirror, how we become them.

They follow us from room to room, a lingering odor of cologne and meerschaums.

They bare their chests for us to see the bullet holes.

They offer up their severed hands and feet for our inspection.

When they leave us they immolate, packed inside their furnaces.

They settle back into their ditches, silent and solemn. .

They let go and rise like blue smoke, incandescing.

In the ghost-light of the stars they become visible. 


She heard Udo's music, faint but unmistakable in the night.  She rose and went through the French doors to the balcony.  She had left the shawl on her bed.  A parabola of light from the kitchen window fell onto the patio which was otherwise dark.  Julie had gone to Evita's room to watch television, so they might be up past midnight.  She fought off a shiver, wrapped her arms around herself.  Udo's music struck her as melancholic, unlike what he had played for her previously.  She stared up at the sky.  The stars had diminished, except for a few patches, but clouds rolling from across the river obscured the moon and the constellations which would have been  unfamiliar to her anyhow in the southern hemisphere.

Compelled by the music, she followed the balcony to the back of the house and to the door of Udo's studio.  She knocked firmly, but received no reply, so let herself in.  Udo sat in his overstuffed chair slumped back comfortably dozing, headphones over his ears.  She tapped his foot and he opened one eye to appraise her.  I'm sorry, he said, lurching upright.  My music is keeping you awake?

No, she said.  I like the melody -- it's soothing, I think.  I'm undecided.  What do you call this piece?

This is a concerto entitled "The Sorrows of Santa Maria," a liturgical composition.  I,  too, am undecided.  I wrote it several years ago, but I am still recording it, instrument by instrument, you see, replacing a cello with the cry of a loon, if I can match the tonal quality, hopefully tweaking -- I think that is the English term.  I might bring up the violas to suit my mood today, but tomorrow?  I don't know.

You told me earlier you studied to be a conductor.  Will you ever conduct your own music?  Have you ever sent your work to a symphony orchestra anywhere?

No one outside this house has ever heard my music, Udo said.

Why not?  I think it's magnificent.  It seems so innovative to me.

He scowled and turned away to the control console.

Udo?

After a moment's hesitation he said over his shoulder, I have no interest.

But why?  You might be the next Villa Lobos of South America?  Even more famous. Who knows if you never share your music with the world?  And the fact that all of the instruments are played by one person.  This is not your sister talking now, but a serious music lover with an appreciation for the classics, and in my opinion, your music could play on any stage in the world.  I'm serious.

I am grateful for your sentiments, he said.  But my music is for my amusement and until I change my mind, I have no desire for popular adulation.  Because I am a perfectionist, I doubt my music will ever be finished -- a lifelong work-in-progress.  But thank you for your kind words.  My music salutes you.  He depressed a key at his computer console and the wall speakers emitted the sound of a foghorn, identical to the ones which floated up occasionally from the river.

I did have another reason for disturbing you, she said.  As I was laying in bed thinking of everything you told me, I was curious why, if father was such a low-level party member he would  have any contact with Martin Bormann?  That seems unusual to me.  Doesn't it to you?

You are perceptive, Udo said.  Everything I have told you is true.  But, I have not told you everything.  And even now, I hesitate.

Why?  What more could there be?

Please, I have agonized over what I have already said.  This Nazi business is like unearthing a corpse.  We should leave it buried.  Udo turned back to his audio console.


Ava squeezed Udo's shoulder with her right hand and said, you should remember how stubborn I was as a girl.  I won't go to bed, nor will I sleep until you tell me.

He swiveled around again to face her.  His eyes seemed like liquid crystals, two pools of light in which she saw her own convex reflection.  He stared at her a long time.  She studied the lines of his face, its contours and coloration as if she were about to sketch him.   She would paint him in the next day or so, she told herself, out by the colonnade of cypress trees.  They would have more days of leisure together, and conversation, but now she felt seized by an urgency.  She leaned back against a long table of electronic equipment.

All right, he said.  But first I must get something.  He stood without another word and left the studio.  Ava closed her eyes and let the music splash over her in long, harmonic waves of cello and violin and muted French horns.  The evening was late, perhaps midnight and her body was  fatigued, but she felt a vague disquiet filling her.  She lolled her head from side to side to relieve the tension in her neck and shoulders.

When Udo returned he handed her a green, leather-bound volume.  This diary, he said, belonged to your mother.  It was sent to father many years ago by a woman named Liesl Ostertag.  Father had kept it hidden with other papers, but before he died he asked me to destroy it, to burn it to be exact.  As you can see, I did not obey him.  As Ava flipped through the book and skimmed the faded German script, Udo paused, as if reluctant to continue.

When did mother write this? she asked.


The year of your birth, he said.  Until the close of the war.  Quite honestly, I laid the diary away for these past twenty-five years.  At first, shortly after father's funeral, I almost sent it to you, but I persuaded myself no, what it contained would be best left in silence.  Even now I am ambivalent about your having this, although it rightfully belongs to you.  Your mother intended you to know about her.

Why did she never give it to me?

That was the dilemma, he said.  Your actual mother, your birth mother, perished at the close of the war.  Father and mother, our parents, adopted you.  I realize this must be disturbing, if our mother never told you the truth.  The diary explains your parentage and much more.  I'm sorry you have lived these many years without knowing.

I'm adopted? she said, incredulous.  Are you serious?

This is an even harder truth than what I have already told you.

Neither of our parents are my  biological parents?

No, he said.  But for me that does not change how I feel about you.  You are and will always be my sister.  Why they decided to conceal this from you will be clear as you read the diary.  You will have many insights into this woman's heart.  It took great courage for her to give you up.  She chose our parents to raise you far from the evil and darkness of war.

Ava shook her head, still perplexed.  If my mother who raised me my entire life was not the woman who conceived and bore me, then who was?

Her name was Eva Braun.

Eva Braun?  The Eva Braun?  Then--

Yes, Udo said simultaneously.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

     

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