The Fortunate Ones
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ "This was a wonderful story about romance, life, and survival. I could not put it down… heartbreaking."Crossroad Reviews
A story to break your heart – if you read only one book this year, make it The Fortunate Ones.
Germany, 1941. When Inge – all blonde curls and good manners – first locks eyes with Felix, she knows instinctively that he’s off limits. Her staunchly proper parents will never approve of a working-class Jewish boy for their precious only daughter. But that doesn’t make their first, shy kiss less significant, or the moment they’re torn apart less shocking.
The next time they see each other, it will be across the packed courtyard of a Nazi concentration camp – Felix in the prisoners’ ranks and Inge on the arm of her new, Nazi husband.
Inge never knew that her father’s ‘party loyalty’ would extend to marrying her off to a cruel Nazi officer twice her age, who sees his new wife as just another thing to control. She has always been a good girl – a silent wife – but when Inge sees Felix that day – beaten, bloody and brave – she knows she can’t stay silent any longer.
She must save him, whatever the cost, whatever her husband or even her country might do to her later…
What readers are saying about The Fortunate Ones:
"What an amazing read, well written emotional and very compelling… I was totally absorbed in the story and I would love to give it 10 stars. One of my best reads this year. I can't begin to say how much I loved this book, I couldn't put it down, absolutely brilliant." Goodreads reviewer
"Heartbreaking... I cried many, many times…This story showed just how important hope can be.... The historical detail Hokin poured into this book through her research was simply phenomenal. The Fortunate Ones is a must-read." Goodreads reviewer
"This was a wonderful story about romance, life, and survival. I could not put it down… heartbreaking." Crossroad Reviews
" This story just swept me away… I was left speechless… just wow!!... I do recommend a box of tissues… This book will have you turning the pages." Red Headed Book Lady blog
" I stayed up all hours to finish this book. There were moments I could barely breathe. A fantastic and compelling read if you like suspense, WWII, and stories that aren’t always tied neatly with a bow." Goodreads reviewer
"Contained within a richly detailed narrative was a story that spoke of prevalence of the human spirit, both resilient and beatific, bowed but never broken by the unfathomable horrors of war. Captivating. Sobering. Unflinching. 5+ stars." Goodreads reviewer
⭐⭐⭐⭐" The writing is deeply moving, so much detail is cleverly woven throughout to make this a vivid and entrancing read. Strong characters make this such a gripping read." NetGalley reviewer
"What an extraordinary, engaging story. It moved me to undiscovered heights of understanding and compassion. A novel that will stay in my mind forever." Goodreads reviewer
Release date: January 20, 2020
Print pages: 346
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The Fortunate Ones
Hardenbergplatz was packed with people pouring in and out of Zoo Station, jostling for their little bit of space. It was too early yet for the cinema and theatregoers with their overloud, look how daring we still are voices. These bodies were hunched, their faces too set for anything as frivolous as make-believe.
Felix leaned against a wall pasted with rules and reminders and watched the crowds come and go. Everyone was preoccupied, part of the bustle and separate from it. Rushing to shifts, stumbling from shifts, minds on queues that grew too long and shops that grew too empty. Running through the Party meetings still to fit in, the donations to scrape together, the right people in their housing block to smile at and slip a cigarette to. Looking loyal and staying safe. Felix knew the drill: he lived it.
He shivered and wished he’d brought a scarf. Barely halfway through October and snow was already nipping in the wind. Last month, everyone was obsessed with milk and where all the cows had gone; this month it was coal, or rather the lack of it.
‘Maybe we should move, Arno. Find somewhere smaller and easier to heat.’ A sensible suggestion – his mother’s always were. He should have added his voice, propped up her idea with neighbourhoods they might like, or might at least be able to afford, but his father’s hands shook like leaves and the moment to step up was gone.
‘Hush, my love. I’m sure there’s no need to go. We won’t talk of it again.’ A kiss for Arno, a smile for Felix. A whisper that was half apology, half excuse. ‘It’s understandable. He does so love the garden here.’
Neither of them prepared to voice the truth: that Arno never went to the garden anymore.
There was still no sign of her. Felix blew on his fingers and stamped his chilled feet; the soles of his boots were wearing thin as slippers. Maybe there would be coal in the shops tonight; there had been rumours all day of new supplies. Even half a bucket would make a world of difference. Felix imagined his mother’s face if he could promise her enough hot water to cook and to bathe and resolved to make time to queue before his air-raid duties began. Taking one burden off her would make him as happy as finding the coal.
The station disgorged another wave into the silvery afternoon. Most people streamed past without looking up, but some glanced at Felix and glanced again. Who had the time to loiter these days? Or the business? He could hear the questions ticking. Stand here much longer and somebody would nudge somebody else, would catch an eye, would draw attention in that oh-so-subtle good-citizen way that let the informant walk on with conscience clear.
Felix scanned the crowd for his mother’s green hat and checked his watch again. Half past three. He was a little early, she was a little late; their usual pattern, but it always unnerved him. Meeting to share the walk home on the couple of occasions a week their shifts lined up gave him a sense of normality he needed more than any eighteen-year-old should.
Another look his way. Time to find a new waiting spot. Felix turned his collar up against the cold and dodged across the sprawling square, patting his pockets to check his papers were safely in place. Everyone did the pat-down now, the action grown as involuntary as sneezing. He pulled at his collar again so that the Hitlerjugend pin sat a little higher on the lapel. Whatever else the red and white diamond might be, it was some protection against prying eyes.
‘Felix! I’m late: forgive me. Frau Clasen surprised us all with twins and her husband cried more than the babies.’
She was finally here, in a breathless rush, the wind tugging at a hat which was already losing its battle against her mass of frizzy curls. His shoulders relaxed as she stretched up to hug him.
‘Two little boys. Such a chubby pair, no doubting who their daddy is. Still, he was nothing if not grateful. Look.’ She showed him her bulging string bag. ‘Sausages, potatoes, onions. No queuing tonight – for dinner at least.’ Another generous patient padding out their larder.
Although she shrugged away any claim to it, Felix knew Kerstin Thalberg was one of the best-loved midwives at Berlin’s Charité hospital and her family ate better because of it.
‘Good.’ He looped her arm and steered her towards the broader streets fanning out from the station. ‘Let’s take the longer way home, walk along the Kurfürstendamm and admire the wonderful windows.’ A joke even the turned-down heads would find a smile for. The state of the Kurfürstendamm’s great department stores was Berlin’s worst-kept secret: towering displays packed with goods and every packet empty. Good for morale was the official line; propaganda for the foreign newspapers more truthful.
‘If you like, if you don’t freeze to death first. Eighteen years old and you still can’t remember a scarf.’
He grimaced as Kerstin reached up to ruffle his hair and sent a gaggle of chain-smoking factory girls into a fit of giggles and winks. When Kerstin’s smile faded just as quickly as it had come, the girls’ amusement was instantly forgotten.
‘Not too long though, Felix. I don’t like your father to be alone once the blackout starts. If there was to be a raid…’
Another unspoken worry, one more in a growing list. If there was a raid, would Arno venture to the communal shelter in the apartment block’s cellar? Without Felix or his mother to claim their three spaces, would Blockwart Fischer check to see that he came?
‘It’s not likely there will be. There’s been barely any bombing since the summer.’ She chewed her lip; he hated when she did that. ‘But we’ll go quickly, I promise.’
He patted her hand, awkward at this role reversal, and led her towards the brightly lit windows whose lights would soon disappear beneath chink-proof blinds.
Kerstin tried hard to play the familiar game. She pointed out the perfume bottles filled with neon-bright water and the cleverly painted cardboard handbags, but it wasn’t long before she was tugging on his arm and chewing her lip again.
‘We should hurry; we’ve still a way to go.’
Before he could answer, a shout cut through the rumble of people and trams and a gap opened up in the crowds.
Kerstin’s voice dropped. ‘Felix, come on now. Please.’
Another shout, this one guttural and harsh. The gap widened. Felix stepped forward, craning for a clearer view. Two green-shirted Ordnungspolizei, batons raised, rearing over a crumple of dusty rags. Not rags: a man, tumbled half into the road, his patched black coat bunched round him. An old man judging from the thatch of grey hair beside the policemen’s boots. Felix winced as the batons crashed. The heap shuddered at the impact but made no sound.
‘What did he do?’ Felix wriggled forward, pushing against the tide.
Kerstin’s hand shot out, grabbing his elbow with a ferocity that made him jump. ‘What does it matter? Do like everyone else: keep walking.’ Her pace picked up and, because she held him so tight, so did his.
‘But they’ll kill him. He’s an old man. What can he possibly have done to deserve such a beating?’
One of the policemen pushed at the body with his boot, turning it beetle-like onto its back. And there it was, the answer, stamped onto the coat’s stained front: a star, its yellow points cutting across the limp body.
‘Is that it? Really? Is that all it takes now to make everyone blind?’
He spoke too loud: heads turned, including the two green-shirted thugs, bored of their easily squashed quarry.
‘Move.’ Kerstin’s nails dug through his sleeve. She wrenched him into the press of people, wrenched him harder when he tried to look back. A ripple behind them suggested he had roused the attention she feared.
‘In here, quick. Straighten your tie. Don’t speak.’ A push of heavy glass and the street disappeared, its clamour deadened in the plush of thick carpets and a piano’s soft playing. Café Kranzler. The domain of the wealthy – wartime or not. Felix had often looked through the windows but never dreamed of entering.
‘What are you doing?’ Felix stared open-mouthed at Kerstin as the maître d’ approached, all draped white linen and oily hair. ‘People like us don’t come in here.’
‘Exactly. We don’t need to be people like us right now; we need to be people like them.’ Kerstin frowned away his protest and took the situation so calmly under control, Felix understood exactly why frightened mothers-to-be always asked for Frau Thalberg. Kerstin smiled; Felix copied her.
The maître d’ bowed a fraction of a bow, keeping at a pointed distance. Kerstin set her shoulders, smiled wider and ignored his supercilious look. She kept smiling as the excessively curling hand shooed them through silver-laden tables, past swastikas pinned to fur, not fraying wool. Not a flicker as he seated them at a table so close to the kitchens it would be nobody’s choice and dropped menus onto the spotless cloth as if he offered Bibles to the heathens. Not a waver until the rigid back spun away. Then the mask cracked so quick, Felix grabbed Kerstin’s hands across the table to stop her sliding beneath it.
‘Pour me some water.’ She drained the glass, waved for another. ‘I knew he couldn’t refuse to let us in: even if we are a little worn, we’re clearly respectable, but those brutes outside? They wouldn’t dare try. Thank God it wasn’t the SS or the Gestapo you decided to rattle; they’d be welcomed in here with open arms.’ She tugged at her hat, began digging in her bag. ‘What were you thinking of? Why did you make a fuss? It’s simple: whatever happens, don’t stop, don’t look, don’t ask. You’ve been told it often enough.’
‘He looked like Father.’ Felix didn’t mean to say it. He hated that tears sprang at once into his mother’s eyes. He hated that he’d dragged them into this place they had neither the clothes, the money, nor the ration coupons for. A place that was filled with people he despised and feared in equal measure. He hated more that he had done nothing to help the old man, and everyone else had behaved the same. ‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’
Kerstin nodded, rising as she finally located the faded cosmetic purse he knew held nothing more than a gap-toothed comb and a lipstick stub. ‘I know. It’s all right. Find something on the menu that won’t cost us a ransom while I tidy up.’ She tucked her purse into her pocket and clamped her smile back on as a waitress hovered.
Felix opened the menu, closed it again. Two cups of ersatz coffee: whatever the menu offered, what else could they afford? He watched his mother moving confidently through the room. She always fits in, wherever she is.
‘There’s a path through everything, Felix. You just need to find it.’ Sitting by his bed, stroking his hair. Six years ago, when his world was reshaped with words he didn’t understand. Three years ago, when his father came home from the university white-faced and jobless and wouldn’t get out of bed for a week. ‘Things might feel confusing, or frightening, but, whatever comes, we’ll meet it together, as a family. Nothing is ever hopeless.’ He wondered if she still believed that.
The waitress came closer. She had the swanlike neck and light step of a dancer. Felix picked at the napkin by his plate: it was folded so tight the cloth had stretched into cardboard. Without thinking, he pulled out the nub of pencil he always carried. A few strokes and he had the almond-slant of her eyes, the slash of her cheekbones. A few more and he caught the long curve of her neck and the swoop of her loosely tied bun. A smudge here and there and the mouth softened, the eyelashes fanned.
‘What are you doing?’ Kerstin was back before he could cover the damage. ‘Now I must pay for the linens as well?’
But the waitress was smiling. She swept up the drawing with the menus, shaking her head as Felix tried to apologise and order the cheapest thing she could bring. A moment later she was back, balancing a loaded tray, ignoring their protests as cups and cakes slid onto the table.
‘A thank you, for the drawing. My husband will love it. He’s always writing, asking for a photograph, and who has the time? There are people here with so much money they’ll never notice a little extra on their bill. Enjoy.’
Scents rose up so rich and thick, Felix’s arguments dissolved. Coffee. Real roasted coffee, not the bitter dried-out tang of barley or acorn. And vanilla, fragrant with the memory of hot days and funfairs, cut through with the fruity bite of cinnamon as if Christmas had dropped into the middle of summer. He cut a small piece of the torte, took a tentative bite. It slipped into his mouth silken and creamy. No sand, no sawdust, no money-saving tricks. Icing kissed his lips with sticky sweetness, crumbs melted into butter on his tongue. Jellies soother than the creamy curd, and lucent syrups. A line taught long ago, some English poet he doubted any school permitted nowadays. The memory caught in his throat, flew back a childhood when cakes were everyday pleasures and summers all tasted of ice cream.
‘It’s hard, Felix, I know. When you remember.’ It was his turn to well up with tears as Kerstin continued. ‘You are so good: you never complain; you always do what is needed.’
He blinked furiously and buried his face in his coffee cup, unable to trust his voice. What was there to say, or do, different than he did? What would be gained by complaining? He was luckier than some – he tried every day to remember that. This redrawn world he’d been consigned to had closed the doors of university and art school, but Kerstin had called in favours and got him work at a newspaper office. It was on the bottom rung of the print workshop, barely an apprenticeship, but it was a skill; it was money. He was good at it, a fast learner with an eye for detail; everyone said so. There could be a future in that, if there was a future in anything. He might have to fight, of course: the blood rules were hazy when it came to battlefields. He tried not to think about that, and he couldn’t ask Kerstin, or anyone else, for fear of drawing attention. Still, it was three years until his call-up; with a bit of luck the war would be done by then.
The cup rattled, dark spots splashing the tablecloth. He let his mother take it and wrap her fingers round his until they stilled, the way she did with his father.
‘I know what it costs you. The way I push you to fit in.’
No, you don’t; no one does. Felix swallowed hard. How could she know when he never said? And how could he say? Everything Kerstin did, she did out of love: if she knew how much he struggled, she would never forgive herself. So he hid it. He hid it so well, there were days when he felt as if he was nothing but a bundle of unspoken words. Whatever Kerstin told him to do to blend in, he did it. He put on his Hitlerjugend uniform and sat in lectures where people labelled the same as his father were classed as inhuman. He went to his Flakhelfer training sessions and studied his aircraft charts, next to boys who would beat up Arno without a second thought, who would expect praise for it. Who would expect Felix to join in and beat him up too if he refused.
In his outside world, he said as little as he could and then he came home, and he said what she needed. His life had turned into a tightrope, balanced between the fear of speaking and the fear of staying silent with every word measured. What good would it do Kerstin to know that? It was six years since the race laws had become Germany’s new bible and assigned categories to Felix and Arno that he still couldn’t fathom, despite all the diagrams the National Socialist Party produced. The Party had set out their ideology as clearly as a maths problem: this plus that equals good, this plus that equals bad. Felix looked at the bloodline numbers and the pictures beside them – monster-shaped drawings of old men with hooked noses and bulging eyes – and felt as much connection as he would to a spaceship full of Martians. He had a label; he knew that. What he didn’t know was how visible it was. Which teachers could see it; which of his gradually shrinking circle of friends. He didn’t know who checked; he didn’t know how much it mattered. He didn’t know anything at all and yet he had to walk through his days as if everything made sense.
He looked up into his mother’s warm eyes and six years of confusion spilled. ‘How can Father be Jewish now when he never was before? He keeps Christmas; he loves it. He goes to church when Grandmother and Grandfather Müller visit – or he did. He became a Lutheran, I remember that, even though he said all religion is pointless. How can he be Jewish and a Lutheran? And even if he is a Jew, what does that have to do with us, with me? And why does it even matter?’
His mother lowered her fork, glanced round. No one appeared to be listening. She answered in a whisper anyway. ‘Why does it matter? Because the Party says it does. What other answer is there? As for who is Jewish and who is not: that is at their choosing. It has nothing to do with which church you attend or which holidays you keep. Your father’s father was Jewish and so were three of his grandparents and that, under the Führer’s new laws, makes him a Jew. Whatever he really is, whatever he really feels or does, makes no difference to anything.’
Felix knew the formula; he’d heard it time and again, seen it on the posters plastered across the city and around his classrooms. The magic number three. In fairy tales that number granted wishes, now it brought a change in race that had somehow bled down to him. Arno had three Jewish grandparents; that made him a Jew. Felix had only one but that was enough to fix him with the Party’s new label: Mischling. Mixed blood.
Kerstin had given up trying to eat. He should stop talking, he always had before, but there was a different air about this place, so cushioned from his everyday world, which loosened his tongue.
‘Why didn’t you leave him? When the laws changed, when the university didn’t want him anymore and he lost his job, why didn’t you leave him? Plenty of women like you, who married Jews before the law forbade it, did; the group leaders crow about it. Or why don’t you leave him now, when he hides all day and is afraid of his own shadow? The rules are tightening – you must have seen that. Soon you won’t be entitled to anything but Jewish ration cards, won’t be able to shop until everyone else is done. How will we manage then?’
Her face collapsed so quick, he might as well have hit her. ‘Mutti, I’m sorry. Forgive me. I shouldn’t have said that about leaving him. I shouldn’t have asked. It was wrong.’
If she was angry, she covered it well. ‘No. It wasn’t. You’re not a child; you have the right to ask whatever you want. But I don’t have answers that will make sense of it, and I can’t make it all better anymore.’ Her face was so worn, her voice so tired. He wanted to stop her, but a dam had broken in Kerstin too.
‘I’ve tried so hard, Felix. Pushing on as if everything was normal, turning you out every day like a good German boy; trying to protect you. I didn’t know what else to do and yet I’m scared that I’ve failed. To them, you’re a Mischling. What if, despite all I’ve done, nothing but that ever counts?’
How he hated that word, especially on her lips. Mischling. Did it even exist before 1935? Before the Party cooked up their new laws and decided to run the world by manufactured rules of race that made sense to no one but them? Before they began looking for Jewish blood everywhere? One Jewish grandparent, or two, or three; full-blood or mixed blood, in the first degree, or the second, which was the way they categorised him. No matter what you were before, you were Jewish now, and whatever flavour they stuck you with, it meant the same: you were different, you were subject. Too much of the wrong blood and you might be dispensable.
Kerstin was still talking, tears thick in her voice. That his unflappable mother was on the edge of crying in public was enough to make Felix wish he’d never started this.
‘… Joining the Jungvolk and the Hitlerjugend, becoming a Flakhelfer. Whatever you had to join, to stay in school, to find a job, to melt in with the masses and keep you safe, I thought it was for the best. Finding the path, remember?’
He nodded, took her hand and prayed she wouldn’t let the tears flow and tip his world further off balance.
‘Please God, the path I’ve pushed you down is a safe one. As for me: leaving your father isn’t just wrong, it’s impossible. I love him. Whatever else changes, that does not.’ Finally, a smile, although it was a weak one. ‘Even Herr Hitler cannot break that.’
Oh but he can. He squeezed her hand, grateful she was looking down for he had no smile to offer in return. Kerstin could tell herself she had the strength to hold their world steady, but Felix knew how easily it could fall. Every Hitlerjugend meeting started with a list of the latest neighbourhoods targeted. He had seen the mounting suicide reports and the rising list of ‘relocations’, a term he didn’t understand but sensed meant nothing good. Every one of those resettled removed people was loved by someone and they were still snapped from their lives as easily as a child breaking a twig. He looked at her white face and retreated back into silence.
‘We need to go, Felix; this has to wait.’ Kerstin tore a square of paper off one of Herr Clasen’s gifts and wrapped the last sliver of cake up as carefully as if it was one of her newborns. She got slowly to her feet. She looked lost.
‘I love him too, Mutti.’ He didn’t know what else to say. Nothing would take his words away or bring the café’s magic back.
‘I know you do, and now he needs us to go home and take care of him. Whatever the rights or wrongs of this, Felix, remember that: your father needs us both.’
It was as close to a rebuke as Kerstin would get and it set his skin smarting.
‘The nonsense they feed us at meetings, I don’t believe it. I’d never say or do anything to hurt him, I promise.’
She linked her arm through his as they emerged from the now heavily curtained café into an eerily darkened street and rested her head on his shoulder.
‘You’re a good boy, Felix. Whatever else wobbles, I’ve never doubted that.’
Berlin in the blackout. A different city entirely from its daytime face. Street lamps turned off or filtering a watery blue. Darkness so thick it sat on the skin, hobbled feet to a snail’s pace, muffled any thought of speaking. They waited a moment in the doorway, eyes narrowing as they adjusted to their new navigation tools. Bodies and buildings had disappeared. The flare of a cigarette swapping between mouth and fingers had to do for a man. Here was a car reduced to a tiny yellow rectangle; there was a woman reduced to the reflective gleam of a blackout-badge. Dots and dashes picked out in a phosphorescent Morse Code warned where the pavement ended and the road began. Light dipped and darted in points and patches, red and yellow and blue and white. Everything solid was stripped back to a silhouette. Everyone complained about the blackout, but not Felix: there was a strange beauty to be found in its simplicity.
Progress was slower now, paced out in stumbles and wrong turns. The twenty-minute stride from the café to their apartment in Wilmersdorf shortened to a shuffle, stretched to an hour. By the time they reached the block, Kerstin’s hands were shaking, her key fumbling in the lock.
‘Frau Thalberg and young Felix. Good evening. You’re out late tonight.’ Herr Fischer, the building’s designated Blockwart, lurking in the stairwell, ears alert as a Doberman’s. His notebook was at the ready, his chest thrust out so the swastika pin on his lapel was unmistakable even in the gloom.
‘We were caught out by the blackout, Herr Fischer. It slowed us. Nothing to concern yourself with.’ His mother’s tone was politer than Felix could have managed, but it didn’t stop the hand barring their way.
‘But that is my job, Frau Thalberg. To concern myself.’
No, it isn’t. It’s your state-sanctioned pleasure. A rubber stamp on your snooping. But Felix caught his mother’s eye and kept his mouth shut.
‘And, dear lady, I regret to inform you, but there is a problem. Your blinds have not been drawn. As I’m sure I don’t need to remind you: that is an offence.’
It was too much: Fischer’s smirking face and forgive-me-if-it-pains-you tone, his greasy head tipped just so. Felix stood straighter, unfolded his new inches.
‘It is an offence if there is light showing. Which there is not. Our apartment is easily visible from the street and it’s in darkness. As you will see if you care to step out with me this time and check?’
Herr Fischer’s answering smile was as polite as Kerstin’s. ‘What a lawyer you would make, young man, if any school would admit you. Then let us not say offence; let us call it an oversight. Which I tried to remedy, as is my duty. I knocked, Frau Thalberg, a number of times. Is your husband away? I confess, I find that hard to imagine – I so rarely hear him go out. To be honest, I have been wondering if there was something amiss.’
Kerstin’s hand curled round Felix’s again, this time to hold back his fist. ‘Have you? How kind. No, Herr Fischer, he is not away; he does not go out. As you well know. Since you and your kind started stamping people like cattle, any pleasure to be had in strolling the streets has rather vanished. Now, it is, as you said, late. You have had your fun. There is no offence – we are all agreed on that – so let us pass. Please.’
Felix laughed; he couldn’t help himself. At his mother’s elegantly measured rudeness, at the Blockwart’s dropped jaw.
‘He will make me pay for answering back.’ Kerstin’s hands trembled as they swept up the stairs.
‘So what if he does? You’re more than a match for him. You were wonderful. Father will be…’ Felix stopped. What will Father be? Not proud, not now. Terrified? Silent?
‘Waiting, Felix. He will be waiting.’
He nodded. The third possibility, the more soothing choice. And the right one.
Arno was sitting, as he always was, hands in his lap, staring into space. Felix hung back in the chilly corridor, watching as Kerstin flitted round, pulling the blinds, lighting the soft lamp placed at Arno’s side, opening his book at the page he had been stuck on for a week. There was love in every movement. It shone from Kerstin and reflected back from Arno as he watched her, as he closed his eyes at her kiss.
How could I have questioned this? Felix hovered beside the Führer’s portrait they kept on display in the hallway in case of visitors, not wanting to intrude. This was all so wrong. His witty, clever father chipped away, bit by bit. His job gone, his friends disappeared, even his name altered to fit this twisted new reality. Arno Israel Thalberg: Jew.
When Felix had seen Arno’s papers and asked about the addition, Kerstin had batted his question away. ‘It’s the law: Sarah for Jewish women, Israel for Jewish men. It’s a name, nothing more. Not worth the upset.’
If it’s not worth the upset, why did Father cry? Felix had kept quiet, added her non-answer to his growing pile of uncertainties.
Now, as if he was a child again trying to hide, he buried his face in the coats hanging on the rack. Arno’s smelled musty, as if it hadn’t been worn in ages. Felix rubbed the heavy tweed between his fingertips. Arno didn’t go pottering in the gardens anymore – did he ever leave the house? Had Kerstin got him as far as the park at the weekend, or had he refused? Felix couldn’t remember. He ran back over the last few weeks, his stomach sinking. Never mind the apartment – Arno barely left his chair.
Felix pulled the coat off its hook, desperate to do something to make amends for upsetting his mother. He would persuade Arno to go for a walk. A short stroll round the silent streets, nothing more difficult. That would pull him out of whatever this darkening mood was. They would talk, like they used to. Nothing serious: books, that was easy, and Felix would describe the café and the cakes and his drawing. He would make his father laugh – he used to be good at that. A bit of a prod, that was all Arno needed; it wasn’t as if he was ill. Felix shook the dust from the heavy material, the plan so clear in his head, its success was a certainty.
‘Vati, I have an idea. You’ll like it, I promise.’ He was half in the sitting room, the coat outstretched, before he stopped. He was a fool. The tightly drawn stitches puckering the thick cloth were proof of that. How could he have failed to realise what the last law the Party brought in actually meant? A sudden memory hit him: Kerstin, six weeks ago, sitting with her sewing box and weeping, blaming her tears on a badly pricked finger. Another explanation he hadn’t questioned, although he knew it was nonsense. Six weeks. Plenty of time for him to notice the rash of yellow patches blooming across the city, but not enough apparently to make the connection with his father’s blank stare.
Felix looked at the coat that swung from his fingers, its star twisting like a scrap of forgotten bunting. He looked like Father. He retreated.
Too late. His father’s face crumpled.
‘Put it away, Felix. There’s a good boy. Go to your room now. Leave him to
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