One extraordinary woman will come of age--and come into her own-- in this haunting, elegiac portrait of an ever-changing America during the tumult and uncertainty of World War II. After the death of her mother, Elise Braun is sent to live with a new family in the United States and to start a new life. Her father only wants to save his daughter from the impending war in her native Germany--and the horrors of the new Nazi regime. But Elise can only feel a sense of abandonment and resentment toward the one man who is supposed to protect her. An accomplished pianist, music has become her only solace from the loneliness and loss that makes it so difficult for her to love or trust anyone. . . Devastated by his wife's death, Herman Braun knows that he's incapable of caring for the daughter he loves so deeply. He also knows that Germany is becoming a treacherous country in the hands of a tyrant, one he must defy at any price--even the price of sending his daughter away to a strange new land. It's a choice that may cost him his family--and his life. Now, with the war over, Elise has grown into the beautiful and brave young woman her father always hoped she would be. But underneath the polished façade, she remains torn between her love for her adoptive home and the heartbreak caused by her homeland. As she struggles to find her place in a harrowing new world, she must also learn to acknowledge her love for her father, the man who traded his happiness for her own. . .
Release date: April 23, 2010
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 368
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Captain Wilhelm Canaris, whom I always called Uncle, was my nominal godfather. Father had served under him on his first posting, as a midshipman aboard a U-boat. Like Father, Uncle Wilhelm came from a distinguished German family, and though Father was then only a young officer in training, just sixteen years old, Captain Canaris had taken a liking to him. Over the years, they had become good friends. In 1935 Uncle Wilhelm would become Admiral Canaris and head of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence office. He made Father part of his staff.
Though Uncle Wilhelm came to our home only rarely, I looked forward to his visits. He was very prompt and always arrived for my birthday dinner at precisely the appointed hour; yet I came downstairs fifteen minutes early to wait for him just the same. I sat dressed in my very best on the bottom step of the staircase, hugging my knees in close as I rested my chin on them and stared at the face of the old grandfather clock, willing it to strike seven.
When at long last the magical hour arrived, the heavy brass knocker sounded waltz time, one-two-three, on the front door. I rushed forward to open it, only to be impatiently pushed aside by the uniformed housemaid who had been hired to serve for the evening. Uncle came in the door smiling, murmuring inconsequential complaints about the cold to the housemaid, and bearing a simply enormous and extravagantly wrapped gift in his hands. Though I knew I wouldn’t be permitted to open it until after dessert, it was difficult to keep my eyes off the beribboned box. Guessing what was hidden inside gave me a way to occupy my mind during the long, dull meal and grown-up conversation that I was expected to endure as the silent guest of honor. Uncle always insisted on bringing my present into the dining room and placing it on the sideboard, directly across from my place at the table. I think he knew how gazing at it helped me to pass the time.
Upon handing his coat and hat to the maid, who hung them up and then went to announce the arrival of Captain Canaris to my parents, Uncle pretended to suddenly notice me perched on the stair where I had retreated after being pushed aside by the maid.
“Well, well, well!” he said cheerfully, drawing his considerable eyebrows together into a single, bristly bunch, like a well-used scrub brush. “What do we have here? A mouse hiding on the stair? Come here, little mouse, and let me see how you have grown.” I stood up, and he kneeled down, so we were eye to eye as he looked me carefully up and down, declaring, as he did every year, that I must have grown a meter since he last saw me.
I smiled timidly in response, but before I could say anything, Father emerged from his study, wearing his full dress uniform, complete with highly polished shoes and rows of shining medals. Mother followed slowly behind, using a cane to steady her uncertain steps. She was beautiful, dressed in one of the dozens of elegant evening gowns that hung in her dressing room, a glittering reminder of the gay life she had led before I was born, before she first became ill.
Uncle rose from his knees to clasp Father’s outstretched hand. The room always seemed smaller when Father entered it, and, not for the first time, I reflected that it was a good thing Mother and I were so petite or there wouldn’t have been room in the house for us.
“Lale, my darling,” Uncle purred as he leaned down to kiss Mother on the cheek, “You are looking radiant, my dear.” It was true. Mother’s face was always radiant. Her cheeks were twin flames in her thin face, feverish reminders of the specter that haunted us all.
The welcoming rituals having been observed, we filed into the dining room and sat down at the table, Father at the head, with Uncle at his right hand and Mother at his left. I sat next to Uncle. This left an empty place next to Mother where Cousin Peter was meant to sit, but he was late. The grownups talked quietly of things that did not interest me. From time to time, Father looked impatiently at his watch. Finally he said, “I don’t know what is keeping Peter. He is always late.”
“I am sure he is not always late,” Mother disagreed gently, but I knew she was wrong.
Whenever Cousin Peter came to dinner he was at least ten minutes late and would enter the dining room breathless and beaming, full of good cheer and complicated explanations. Unlike Uncle Wilhelm, Cousin Peter was an actual relative, descended from our common ancestor, General Yorck, hero of the Napoleonic wars. Father was very proud of our connection to the great General Yorck. When expounding on the shameful state of the German military, as he did tonight to Uncle, he often quoted Yorck’s 1813 speech to the troops in which he declared that the chief virtues of a Prussian soldier were courage, endurance, and discipline.
“And then,” Father said, fixing his eyes skyward and stabbing the empty air with his index finger to emphasize his point, “the Great Yorck said, ‘but the Fatherland expects something more sublime from us who are going into battle for the sacred cause—noble, humane conduct even towards the enemy.’ ”
Finishing the quote, his hand dropped to the table and his lip curled in disgust as he complained to Uncle, “These Allied generals know nothing of the honor that should exist between warriors, both victor and vanquished.” Uncle nodded in agreement as he sipped wine from his glass. “But, neither do we anymore,” Father continued. “We have forgotten our tradition and honor. That is our shame.”
Father put a great store on honor and tradition. Although Cousin Peter was an actual count, titled, and more closely related to the great Yorck than we were, he was far less Prussian than Father, lacking the stiff formality that was the mark of a German military aristocrat. They were nearly the same age, but Peter seemed much younger than Father. Peter was handsome and fun-loving, and I was a little in love with him. I suspected that Father disapproved of his cousin taking up the law, just as he disapproved of his habitual lateness, but he still liked Cousin Peter. However, Peter’s lack of punctuality rankled.
“Whatever can be keeping Peter?” Father growled as he pulled out his pocket watch to confirm that his cousin was now late by a full quarter-hour.
“I am sure he has good reason for his tardiness,” Mother said gently. “You know what the traffic is like this time of night, Herman.”
Father grunted. “Captain Canaris had to deal with the same traffic, and he is not late. I don’t think it is fair to keep everyone waiting for their dinner just because—”
But before Father could finish his sentence, the door to the dining room burst open and Uncle Peter was in the room, pushing past the housemaid, who looked irritated that he had not given her a chance to announce him properly, kissing Mother on the cheek, shaking hands with Father and Uncle, winking at me as he put his birthday gift on the sideboard next to Uncle’s, all the while offering his profound apologies, saying it simply couldn’t be helped, the shop assistant who had wrapped his gift had taken forever and ...
“Well,” Father said gruffly but not unkindly, “you are here now, and that is what is important. Please, sit down.” He got to his feet and motioned toward the empty place next to Mother. Turning to the maid, he inclined his head slightly to indicate that she could begin to serve.
The meal consisted of three courses and two wines and one birthday cake. I ate my slice of cake with relish and thought with pleasure about what was to come next.
When the plates were cleared I would finally be allowed to open my gifts. What would I find in those boxes? A bright-eyed Steiff bear? An elegantly dressed doll? One year I received a hand-painted miniature tea set imported from England. What about this year? Uncle Wilhelm and Cousin Peter never failed to give me the perfect gift, and I never needed parental prompting to bestow sincere kisses of thanks on their cheeks. Afterward we would retire to the music room, and the grownups would sip sherry from tiny crystal glasses while I played the piano for the prescribed half-hour, always opening the concert with my favorite, “Für Elise,” and closing with Uncle’s favorite, “The Blue Danube” waltz. When the clock struck nine, Mother would suggest that it was time for me to go to bed. With my bedroom door left slightly ajar, I would fall asleep to the sounds of pleasant, rumbling male voices punctuated by Mother’s tinkling laughter and occasional cough.
Certainly, my birthday celebrations were quite subdued and predictable compared to many other children’s, yet I liked them just the way they were. Growing up in the shadow of my mother’s illness made me cherish the tradition and regularity of the occasion, as though observing our little rituals with exactness and precision would keep anything from changing. But it didn’t work that year, my eighth. I didn’t realize it yet, but that was the year when everything began to change—for me, for my family, for Germany, for the entire world.
As I scraped the last bite of icing off the plate and onto my fork, I heard a faint murmur of voices outside that grew in strength and volume as the moments passed, like a distant sound of rushing water that grows and swells when a current carries you to the edge of the falls. I saw a flicker of candlelight that became a glow through the darkness, illuminating the white lace curtains of the windows, bathing them in heat and yellow light. I looked around at the faces of the grownups to see if they’d heard it too. They had. The stiff, uncomfortable set of Father’s jaw and the studied indifference of Uncle’s expression told me that they were as aware that something was happening outside as I was. Mother started making aimless small talk with Cousin Peter about the cake, commenting that she didn’t think it was as moist as it should have been. They were all working so hard to ignore the noises outside that I somehow sensed I should do the same, but when the swelling voices began to sing, I couldn’t help myself. I jumped out of my chair, pushed open the French doors, and ran out onto the dining room balcony. The grownups followed me, slowly, and stood framed in the door behind me.
The street below was crowded with young people, singing and carrying torches, marching in the direction of the Brandenburg Gate. There were so many of them that the sky glowed orange-red with the light of the torches they carried. The air was electric with their excitement, and, for one silly moment, I was excited too, thinking that the parade was somehow connected with my birthday. The marchers finished singing, and a handsome young boy dressed in a brown shirt with military-looking braid, no more than fifteen or sixteen years old, saw me leaning over the balcony railing and grinned at me. Raising his arm at a stiff, sharp angle, he shouted, “Heil Hitler!” and, as if in answer to his call, the other marchers shouted lustily, “Heil Hitler!” They began singing again, even more loudly and enthusiastically than before. The sound was so powerful and the atmosphere so thick with their expectation that I could feel the hair standing up on my neck.
I spun around to face the grownups, too excited to take much note of their serious expressions. “Mother! Father! Look how many people there are!” I exclaimed breathlessly. “There’s no end to them!” I pointed down the street in the direction that the marchers had come from. It was true; the crowds of people stretched down Wilhelmstrasse as far as the eye could see, as though the parade stretched to the horizon and the marchers had been mysteriously summoned from the bowels of the earth.
“What are they so excited about?” I asked. I was young and knew nothing of the political turmoil of recent days. “Who is Hitler?”
“He is the new chancellor,” Mother answered without offering further explanation.
Father snorted derisively at her simple description. “He is a thug with delusions of grandeur. He is a former wallpaper hanger and a former corporal.” He spoke this last word with a sneer. Worldly I was not, but I was an officer’s daughter, and even at the age of eight, I knew that corporals ranked very low on the list of persons one must concern oneself with. Corporals were not people who merited parades.
Father’s eyes narrowed as he scanned the columns of torches advancing past him. “Stupid sheep,” he commented to no one in particular. He shook himself as if in response to a sudden chill. “Come, Lale,” he said. “Elise. Come inside. It’s cold. Come inside before you catch a chill.”
Mother and I did as we were bid. Father and Uncle followed behind, and I heard Uncle say, “Flash in the pan, Herman. Nothing to worry about. He may be chancellor, but the strength of Germany still lies with the military. He needs us more than we need him. He can be managed. You’ll see.”
“I am not so sure about that,” interjected Cousin Peter. “He becomes stronger every day. Two years ago, or even one, could anyone have imagined that this would have happened? He may only be a former corporal, Cousin Herman, but now he is chancellor of Germany. He is powerful, cunning, and ambitious. A year ago you might have been able to manage him.” He turned his head and scanned the crowds of chanting young people streaming by, their eyes unnaturally bright and fixed, as if they were gripped by some feverish delirium. A cloud of concern passed over Peter’s normally cheerful face. “He doesn’t need you anymore. He has them.”
For a moment the adults were silent. I could feel the tension among them, and I drew close to Mother, leaning my head against her hip. She looked down at me and smiled. “Peter! Herman!” she remonstrated cheerily. “Have we forgotten? It’s Elise’s birthday! This is no time to discuss politics. Not when we have a gifts to open and a lovely evening of music planned!”
At Mother’s prompting, we all adjourned to the music room. I was finally allowed to open my presents—a charming Victorian dollhouse complete with five rooms of furniture and a family of tiny dolls from Uncle, and from Cousin Peter, a truly exquisite book, The Children’s Encyclopedia of Animals, filled with lifelike illustrations and information on animals from all over the world. I was delighted.
“Now, my little mouse,” Uncle said, pinching my cheek playfully, “you must give us something in return. A song. Yes?”
I sat down on the piano bench and began, but I had to strike the keys more firmly than usual to be heard over the singing outside. It threw off my timing. For the first time in my life, my fingers stumbled across the keyboard and I had to begin again.
I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but this day was the beginning of the end of my childhood. In a few short years my town, and my nation would be transformed. The map of my world ended a few hundred meters from our house on Alexander Platz, and my country was Mother’s bedroom. However, even that private land was soon to change.
Her cough got worse. There were no more parties, not even small ones. She almost never left her room. She liked to hear me play, said the music eased the pain and the fits of coughing more than all the doctor’s pills and powders, so Father had the piano moved to her room. I spent my afternoons playing to her. If she was awake she would applaud weakly after each piece, her hands delicate and so pale they might have been carved from ivory, fluttering like the wings of a dove. When she fell asleep, I continued to play, never lifting my foot from the soft pedal, the notes a quiet accompaniment to her dreams. In those early days, when Mother would go through a particularly bad spell, I would play longer and more intensely. Time and time again, she rallied in response, and I came to believe that the music healed her and that as long as I kept playing, Mother would live. For a long time it was true, but one winter she was worse, and nothing I played seemed to help.
Each morning, when I would pull aside the heavy drapes that covered the bedroom windows, she seemed a fraction smaller, her skin a shade paler. She was quietly disappearing, and as the months passed, I grew more and more afraid that one day I would tiptoe into the thick blackness of her darkened bedroom, pull back the curtains to let in the morning sun, and find that she was simply gone.
I convinced Father to allow me to leave school and study at home. In our hearts we both knew the end was coming, and we both tried to deny it. For Father that meant removing himself from the hurt by working longer and longer hours, staying as far away as possible from Mother’s little room, a room that smelled like camphor and secrets. For me it meant staying as close to Mother as possible, knowing that while my music urged her not to leave me, she would fight to live as long as she could.
How well I remember those years, sitting on the floor near Mother’s bed, studying quietly when she was asleep, reading to her from my textbooks when she was awake, playing music to distract her when the pain was worse. It was a private play in which Mother and I acted out the only important parts, with occasional cameo appearances by Father, doctors, nurses, and housemaids.
Father spoke to me about Mother’s illness only once. He called me into his study to say he’d heard of the Schatzalp sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland. It had a wonderful reputation. Many of its patients came home completely cured after months of exposure to the resin-scented pine forests and healthful climate. Mother was awfully sick. She could not sleep at night because the coughing never stopped. Father explained that after Uncle had pulled some strings with a Swiss cousin who knew one of the doctors at Schatzalp, he had been able to secure a bed for Mother.
“She will be leaving for the sanatorium tomorrow,” Father said. “I will take her there myself.”
“No!” I cried, surprising both him and myself with this outburst of protest. I had never contradicted him before. “You can’t send her away! Those places never do any good, anyway.”
In the past, Mother had gone to various sanatoriums for short periods of time and always came home improved, but not cured.
“Elise,” Father began gently, “you must understand—”
“She will get better,” I insisted. “You’ll see. She always gets better. I am the only one who knows how to take care of her. Mother says that no one but me knows how to make her tea properly. There won’t be any pianos there, and no one to play them if there are! You’ll kill her!” I shouted. Father stared at me hard, as if he didn’t quite recognize me. I took a deep breath and forced myself to speak more calmly.
“Please, Father. Don’t send her away. She needs me,” I said pleadingly. “I can make her better. I know I can! I’ve been working on a new sonata. Mozart’s C Minor. Her favorite. It is very difficult, but I’m practicing as hard as I can. Soon I’ll have it, and then ...” Father’s eyebrows drew together, and he studied me with a mixture of concern and confusion.
I stopped in midsentence, knowing I wouldn’t be able to make him understand. As Mother’s illness progressed I had forced myself to learn more and more difficult pieces, believing that somehow only the sacrifice of my time and effort would satisfy the greedy god of tuberculosis. So far it had worked. Each time I stretched myself and mastered a more difficult piece, Mother rallied just as she had the day I’d first played for her. Well, not quite like that. She was never as well as that again, but she was still alive. The Mozart was the hardest composition I’d ever attempted, not because of its technical difficulty, though it certainly was a challenge, but because it required an emotional depth that seemed beyond me. Mother loved it for just that reason. “It is so impulsive! So personal!” she would say. “As if he is finally daring to reveal the complexity of his own nature.”
Maybe that was why I didn’t care for the piece despite my love of Mozart. My favorite was the third movement of the Sonata in A Major, the “Alla Turca,” which I loved to play as fast as I could, which is to say much too fast. But I didn’t care for this piece. The structure was unlike anything else Mozart had written, with unpredictable pauses, and sections that seemed almost improvisational in nature. Try as I might, the notes sounded pedantic and planned when I played them. This was a piece that required drama and intensity and, most of all, maturity. That was something no amount of practice could give me.
In my frustration I felt like tearing the sheet music into a hundred pieces. But I forced myself to keep going, convinced that if I could learn it, Mother would live. I practiced every spare moment and had taken to getting up in the middle of the night to practice silently, my hands suspended over the keyboard but not actually touching it, my fingers stretching silently over an impossibly complex landscape of sharps and flats, in a race against death. I was making progress, but not quickly enough.
“Father, you don’t understand. I’ve almost got it,” I explained urgently. “I just need more time!”
For the first time in my life, I saw tears in Father’s eyes. He swallowed hard. “Come here, Elise.” I walked across the carpet to the wing chair where he was seated. He pulled me onto his lap, a thing he had never done before. “You have done a wonderful job caring for your mother. A wonderful job,” he repeated. “But she is very sick, and she is getting worse. You must be brave. This isn’t like the other times, Elise. It is much worse. There is nothing more you can do. Schatzalp is the only chance we have. If she doesn’t go, she will certainly die.”
I sat on Father’s lap, blinking back my tears just as he had. I knew he was telling me the truth. I couldn’t save her. I was not good enough. I had not practiced hard enough, and the race was lost. It was my fault. Everything in me wanted to lean into Father’s broad chest and sob, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want Father to know how I had failed us. I had to be brave so no one would ever know. Like Father. “All right,” I whispered my reluctant assent.
“There’s a good girl,” Father said, patting me awkwardly on the back. “Run upstairs now, and help Mother to get ready. You will know exactly what she needs. If you leave it to the maid, who knows what she will pack?”
I slid off Father’s lap and walked to the door. Turning back to inquire what time the train was to leave, I saw him sitting with his head buried in his hands, his shoulders jerking silently as he fought to suppress his grief. I wanted to run to him, to climb back into his lap and cry with him, to call him Vati—Daddy—the way other little girls addressed their fathers, to share our fears and find solace in bearing the unbearable together, but I couldn’t bring myself to do these things. I did not know him well enough. I swallowed my questions and climbed the stairs alone to Mother’s room. Our moment of intimacy passed.
The next day I stood on the railway platform and waved good-bye to Mother and Father as the train pulled out of the station. I could see Mother’s pale hand waving farewell, but her face was obscured by steam from the locomotive.
Children weren’t allowed to go to Schatzalp. Father went to see her occasionally, but his visits were short. He never said much about them except that he was sure she was getting better, or at least no worse. Mother wrote me letters weekly, at first in her own hand, describing the lovely mountain scenery, or the funny doctor whose eyebrows were so thick they grew into one straight line that raised up and down like a curtain when he was confused or irritated; or the way the nurses would wheel all the patients out into the afternoon sun, wrapping them so tightly in layers of blankets that they couldn’t move their arms but just lay there like rows of pink and white sausages baking in the sun. Later she began dictating her letters to a nurse. They still came as regularly as before, but they weren’t as personal. She always asked how I was, assured me that the alpine air was doing her a world of good and she was growing stronger every day. It wasn’t true. She died at the Schatzalp sanatorium in the spring—May 14th, 1938.
Father went to Switzerland alone to “see to the arrangements.” The night he returned, he drank too much at dinner and told me about his trip.
“The director met me at the door with a sad face and a bill. He said he had taken the liberty of contacting a minister who would meet me later that afternoon so we could discuss the funeral arrangements. Sanctimonious little priss,” Papa mumbled before draining his glass and pouring himself another.
“I told him that wouldn’t be necessary. No ambassadors of God were wanted—thank you just the same. If there is a God—which I think, given our recent experiences, there is much reason to doubt—” Father said in a voice slurred by wine and sarcasm, “if there is a God, He certainly didn’t help me when Lale was alive. I have no intention of praying to Him now that she is dead. There will be no funeral. A simple burial will do. There is no point in doing more.”
He picked up the glass and took another drink, drawing the liquor into himself with greedy gulps like a man desperate to quench an unquenchable thirst. The man sitting in front of me was nothing like my fastidious, tight-buttoned father, and yet there he was, sitting in Father’s chair, wearing his clothes, speaking in Father’s voice. I asked permission to be excused and go to bed. He looked up at me with a surprised expression, as though he suddenly realized that I was in the room and how this all must look to me. His eyes softened, and for a moment I thought he was about to apologize. Instead he nodded his head once, granting my request. I placed my napkin next to my nearly untouched plate and pushed my chair back from the table.
“She was very beautiful,” Papa said as I was leaving. “She was everything to me, Elise, but I never knew how to tell her so. You are very like her. Very like her.”
I waited for him to say more. To cry. To hold me close, but he didn’t. He couldn’t, and neither could I.
“Good night, Father.”
At breakfast the next morning, Father sat in his usual chair, wearing his uniform with the knife-edged crease in the trousers and drinking strong black coffee while he read a report. I ate my breakfast rolls in silence, every now and then tearing a piece off a roll and dipping it into my cup of hot chocolate. Everything was exactly as it had been before. It was easy to imagine that nothing had changed at all—that Mother was upstairs in her room still asleep and Father and I were eating breakfast alone in the silent dining room just as we had for so many months before. But we knew the truth. Mother was gone, and she would never come back. We didn’t speak of her, but there was nothing unusual in that. There were so many things we did not speak of. It had been that way for such a long time.
The clock on the hall struck half past seven. Father gathered together the loose papers and stacked them neatly before taking a last sip of his coffee. “The car will be waiting. I must go. Frau Finkel is coming later to help you with your lessons.” He paused and wrinkled his brow. “I suppose we must enroll you in a proper school again next term. There’s no reason for you to stay home anymore. Don’t wait for me at dinner, Elise. There is so much I must catch up on. So much time lost.”
He bent over to kiss the top of my head and left. I sat alone at the long table and finished my bread and chocolate.
A year later I waved good-bye to Father and to the shores of Germany from the gangway of the SS Deutschland as she prepared to weigh anchor and sail to America. Actually, that isn’t true. I didn’t wave good-bye.
New political developments in Germany meant that Father was busier than ever, but Uncle Wilhelm had insisted that Father borrow his car and personal driver to take me and Frau Finkel, who was to be my chaperone, to the dock in Hamburg. Our conversation during the drive was uncomfortable and confined to questions regarding what I had and had not remembered to pack.
When we reached the port, he e. . .
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