In Martin Fletcher's new novel, Jacob and Sarah, two Holocaust survivors at the end of World War II, find each other in a changing Europe, but Jacob is torn between building a new life with Sarah and seeking vengeance for the past. Here's an excerpt from "Jacob's Oath."
Berlin, April 29, 1945
Sarah sensed it first in her bare feet, the faintest quivering of the ground. She looked up and cocked her head, her right hand rising to pull her shirt tight at the throat. Her left hand held a squashed tin bucket. She had been about to leave her shelter to see if the water pump on Dorfstrasse was working. It had been dry for two days.
The tremor grew and her body trembled with it. That’s strange, she thought, observing her own body. Is it the ground moving? Is it the cold?
It sounded like a cat’s purr.
It became louder. The cracked window-frame rattled and cement flakes shook loose and fluttered to the floor. Larger bits dislodged and fell with a thud. The rumble became a growl and then a continuous roar and the basement walls shook so much Sarah cowered in a corner in case more of the ceiling crashed down on her.
The mirror fell to the floor, shattering into a dozen shards.
Sarah flinched and thought, seven years bad luck. But: how much worse can it get?
She looked at the trembling door-frame and knew it could get much worse, quickly. She knew now what it was.
It was the rumble of tanks and armored cars. The Germans pulling out or the Russians moving in. Either way, thousands of marching men. She knew, if they’re German, they’ll kill me, if they’re Russian, they’ll rape me. She had to stay hidden. She was safe underground. But for how long?
Her shelter was already a pile of rubble from the bombs. Inside the basement room she had built four low walls from loose bricks and smashed wooden rafters and for two weeks had slept and hid in the dusty space between them. A sheet of tin on top kept in some warmth.
Sarah looked down at the empty bucket and her tongue flickered across her dry lips. No drop of water had passed them for two days.
By afternoon it was clear. She could hear loud voices with those strangled long vowels and hissing sounds, the shouted orders, the revving of engines, the dragging of equipment outside, and from upstairs, barely, the hushed voices and fearful tiptoeing of Herr and Frau Eberhardt.
Sarah thought, I should feel happy. The Russians are here which means the war must be over, or will be soon. And she did feel a kind of relief that washed through her body and made her blood feel heavy. It weighed her down. So tired! Now what? Still she did not emerge from her hiding place.
Sarah lay behind her low wall of debris, dusty, thirsty, exhausted, too scared to move, every nerve on edge. Looking at the door, listening to the street, she was thinking of Hoppi, and the little one, who she had never had the joy of knowing. How hard it had been. And all she had done to survive. That had led her here, to now. Sarah closed her eyes and flopped against the wall, legs straight out, her head to one side, arms hanging to the floor. I’ll get up in a moment, she thought. Go outside and ask for water. Hope they don’t rape me. Maybe it’s safer in a crowd after all, they won’t touch me there. It’s more dangerous here, if someone finds me alone. Yes, it’s safer outside.
Sarah made to move, but couldn’t. A few moments more, she thought, close your eyes, think of Hoppi. Her lips moved with her thoughts. She was used to talking to herself.
Their first year or two on the run hadn’t been too bad, thanks to their friends. Gunther. Sasha. Elinora. The old lady who they hadn’t even known, who had just offered, what was her name, with white hair? Can’t remember. Peter and his wife. The ones who listened to the BBC on the wireless. They’d all risked their lives to help her and Hoppi, given them shelter.
In the early days they could even take off the yellow stars, walk across town, go to a café. It was strange, it didn’t weigh anything, that little bit of yellow cloth, but they both felt lighter without it. They didn’t have ration cards so their hosts shared their food and helped them find ways to earn money. They had risked their lives for two terrified Jews. There were enough good Germans, in the beginning at least. They went from safe-house to safe-house, leaving each before Nazi neighbors could become suspicious; a week here, if they were lucky a month there. Not that it was easy. Creeping in their apartments like mice, only using the toilet when their friends did, never running water from the tap, always terrified of the nosy concierge, of a rap on the door at four in the morning. Still. A little smile of thanks played on Sarah’s lips. She licked them with her dry tongue. She’d have to get up in a minute though, find some water.
‘U-boots’. Submarines. That’s what we are, she was thinking, as she lay in the dust, there were thousands of us. Once. Jews, submerged. Living underground, out of sight. Others too: gypsies, communists. So-called enemies of the Reich, a subterranean sub-culture, hunted by the Gestapo, with no papers, no homes, where one false step, one miscalculation, one nasty neighbor, meant torture and death. It was worst in the winter, it was so cold. By day they rode the subway, the S-bahn or U-bahn, changing all the time so that inspectors wouldn’t notice them and ask for their ID card which had J for Jew stamped on it. By night they slept in the station toilets, locking the door, and had to wake early to leave before the cleaners came. In the summer it wasn’t so bad. They could sleep under bushes in the woods or the parks.
Hoppi, remember in the Tierpark? Jews weren’t allowed but we sat on a bench without our yellow stars. And then we walked along the flower-bed and your shoe-lace was untied and you kept treading on it and tripping up but you didn’t dare stop and bend down to tie it up in case people looked at us. And then, remember the new rule that the warden had to take the names of everybody in the bomb shelters, that was in Holzstrasse, with Peter and his wife, remember?
So during the air raids we had to stay in the apartment, and we prayed. Oh, and remember that time we made love during the raid? Oh, it was so beautiful. As if it was our last time. We were mad. But what else was there to do? We could have been dead at any moment. And I know that was the time. As you finished, oh how you shouted in my ear, I said quiet! they’ll hear us. And you said don’t worry, there are too many bombs. We were on the floor, under the bed, I said to you, right then and there, we just made a baby.
Our baby. Tears rolled down Sarah’s cheeks. Oh, our baby. So long ago, so very long ago. Hoppi, we were so young then, you and I.
We were twenty-three and I loved you so.
Sarah talked to Hoppi every day. Could he hear? Who was she to say no?
She heard footsteps above. The lighter ones of Frau Eberhardt, who was the only neighbor to ever ask how she was; the heavier, more plodding steps of her older, frail husband. They aren’t so scared any more, she thought. They’ve stopped tiptoeing. With so much of the ceiling missing, Sarah could make out their tiniest movement. She hoped they wouldn’t fall through the floor. Sarah wondered: did they hang white flags? The Russians are right outside. Will they come in? They’ll have to. They’ll check the buildings for fighters, for guns.
But she was too tired to move. She had survived. But what for? What’s left? Who else?
From JACOB'S OATH by Martin Fletcher. Reprinted by arrangement with Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St. Martin's Press. Copyright © Martin Fletcher, 2013.