THE SECOND SWAP (July 20, 1944)
[ From Gareth Schmeling, Hitler’s valet at his country estate, the Berghov, but in reality a spy for the Dove Society, Gretchen/Eva learns that with the war now going against him, Hitler plans to move to the bunker in Berlin. The plans are for Rudi Varloren to help Gretchen escape by spiriting her away while she is at a dress shop in the town of Berchtesgaden, an ironic location in that the real Eva had some years back been kidnapped while trying on dresses in the back room of a dress shop in Munich. But thing go afoul when Rudi, just as he is about to rescue Gretchen, is killed in a tragic accident in the street at the rear of the shop. Hitler’s Adjutant, Willi Johannmeier, who is responsible for accompanying Gretchen when she goes into town, drives her back to the Berghov. On the way to the Berghov, however, Willi and Gretchen become closer when Willi shares a story of his own younger brother’s death under similar ironic circumstances. That bond will, in subsequent chapter, grow into love, with further complications for both of them.]
Major Willi Johannmeier waited in the glistening black Mercedes outside the fashionable dress shop in Berchtesgaden, cursing his bad fortune. He had not been asked to accompany Hitler to Rastenburg, losing his place as Army Adjutant to one of Göring’s nephews. A clear case of that nepotism rife in the Nazi government. Instead, he was told to stay on at the Berghof, just in case Hitler decided to return. These days Willi’s time was filled, but only partially so, with clerical duties for such Army staff as remained. Among his other responsibilities, artificial ones to keep him from “being bored” as his immediate superior had snidely remarked, was serving as bodyguard and chauffeur for Eva Braun.
The only bright spot in his now very dull existence was accompanying Eva around Berchtesgaden, or taking her for drive in the countryside, for she was an attractive woman, and a pleasant conversationalist. Willi liked to imagine that she was attracted to him, though this romantic dream was always doused by the reality of the situation. After all, the Führer got her first. And in his company Eva had never been anything but proper.
He saw her inside the shop with the salesgirl, who had just handed Eva two dresses, which she folded over her arm as she made her way to the changing room in back. She’ll be there forever trying them on, Willi muttered to himself as he slumped in the seat, pulling his officer’s cap over his head in a most unmilitary-like fashion. The novel he had been reading fell to the floor of the car, making a light thump. Almost immediately he began to doze off.
Gretchen had just closed the door to the dressing room when she heard a car in the street behind the store. Rudi! Her instructions were to unlock the back door, then wait for him. He would leave the motor running.
She heard the sound of the car pulling up to the curb, a light squeak of brakes. A door opened, but did not close. Everything was going according to plan.
Suddenly she heard a scream and seconds later a crash. Something was wrong! Gretchen raced out the back door.
Rudi was slumped on the sidewalk. Steam hissed from a punctured radiator in a car that had hit a lamppost ten feet down the street, its elderly driver staggering from the vehicle, screaming to no one in particular, “What did I do? What?” The moment Gretchen knelt down she realized Rudi was dead. His eyes stared straight ahead, immobile, blood gushing from his mouth. Instinctively, she reached inside his coat pocket, pulled out his identification papers, and a letter which he had brought from her mother, and shoved both down the front of her dress. The elderly man, now delirious, approached her.
“I didn’t mean to. Lost control for a second. An accident!”
Hands thrashing the air, the driver staggered down the street, not to escape, but as if making his way to some invisible audience gathered at the corner whom he now addressed. “Dead. But what’s the difference these days? We’re all dead anyway.”
Seconds later Willi arrived.
“He’s dead!” Gretchen cried.
“What happened?” he asked.
A young woman came up. “I saw it from my apartment. That old man was driving fast. Crazy. He swerved to the wrong side just as that man there got out of his car. Hit him straight on. Then he cried out something about “We’re all dead,” and disappeared around that corner. He won’t be hard to catch. Not at his age.”
Minutes later when the police arrived, they searched the body but found no identification. Gretchen and Willi shook their heads when asked if they knew the dead man.
Rudi had been the victim of a freak accident taking less than a few seconds. It was all Gretchen could do to conceal her panic. Rudi! The man who had come to rescue her. Who, with the Dove Society, had given her a chance to serve her country. Rudi. Her friend. Her lover. She struggled to control her outward appearance and behavior, what the police saw, what Willi saw, within the range of any normal person who had come upon such a gruesome accident. Inwardly, she felt a great, empty cavity form around her heart, then press upward toward her lungs, as if she were imploding.
Once, when she was very young, burning with a raging fever that threatened her life, her dear mother had crawled in the bed and lay beside her, almost smothering her with her arms and body. Later, she told Gretchen that, in her desperation, her fear that her daughter would die, she had resorted to doing what her grandmother did to fight pain. A peasant remedy, an old wives’ tale: that a parent, a friend, lying next to someone in pain, could draw illness out of the victim’s body, assuming the fate of the loved one. Gretchen wished her mother were with her now, doing just that. For, drawn even closer to him by their common cause, by the role they had created together, by their love of Germany, their desire to serve their country even at the cost of their lives, she felt a love for Rudi that was more than words can witness.
But without her mother’s solace, without Rudi, she labored to hide her true feelings, and at length was able to do so only by forcing her mind to consider more practical, immediate matters. Would the police make a connection between Rudi and her? Would she be exposed? Panic mixed with incredible grief. Somehow Gretchen remembered to take the two dresses with her as she and Willi left the store. A nice touch, she thought ruefully, an actor’s trick for concealing the overwhelming pain she felt in her heart.
Gretchen and Willi were silent as they drove back. Not knowing the true cause of her emotions, he assumed she was still in shock from the incident. She could feel Rudi’s papers and the letter lodged under her dress. Relieved she had thought to take them from the dead body, still Gretchen was appalled at how she could be so practical in the midst of tragedy. But we are complex creatures, she reasoned as a way of resolving her shame.
Then she noticed that a tear had formed just under the Major’s right eye. She was curious.
“Are you OK, Major Johannmeier?”
“Yes … yes,” he replied, trying his best to look straight ahead. Then, as more tears started to form, he took his right hand from the wheel to brush them back.
Gretchen decided to engage this man who, up to this point, had been the perfectly disciplined young officer, Prussian, no show of emotions, cordial, prompt and efficient–but nothing beyond that.
“You’re crying. Because of what happened just now in town?” she said, offering him her handkerchief.
“Not so much what happened today, but some sad memories it called up.”
“Sad memories? Tell me.”
Her question was so earnest, and innocent. He had wanted for years to talk about the incident, to tell someone else, instead of keeping it bottled up inside. For the moment, he forgot that it was Eva Braun sitting next to him. He saw her only as a woman reaching out to him, concerned, a woman who had seen him cry. Maybe his experience could help Eva put her in perspective.
Willi began speaking in measured phrases. “It was years ago. When I was ten. I left my brother–he was eight–standing outside a store while I went in to pick up an order for my mother. I told him to stay right there. Not to move. He did just what I told him. But while I was in the store, I heard a scream, then a car crash. Just like today. When I ran out, there was my brother, right where I had told him to stay. A car driven by some drunk had crashed over the sidewalk and killed him. He never moved. Stood right there.”
“I am so sorry, so very sorry. It must have been devastating. So painful. I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to lose someone that close to you.”
“I blamed myself, still blame myself. After all these years. I mean, my brother did just what I told him to do. Obeyed me. Stayed there in front of the store. And because he did, that’s why he died.”
“Major Johannmeier, you know you weren’t to blame. You know that. Don’t you? You told your brother to do just what I would have done if it were my sister Gretl. You were concerned about his safety. You knew kids sometimes dash into the street. But he didn’t do that. Like you, he had nothing to do with what happened. It was an accident, a cruel act of fate, chance. Like what happened today. With that man just getting out of his car.”
Willi’s simple “Thank you” touched her deeply.
“Still, I’m sorry to have bothered you with my story.”
“It was no bother. I’m glad you told me. I’m grateful you took me into your confidence.”
With that, he rested his right hand lightly on hers, and then, embarrassed at such intimacy, even under the circumstances, quickly withdrew it. But if Gretchen had been shocked earlier at her practicality in removing Rudi’s papers, now she blushed at the Major’s physical contact, however brief. Here they were taking about, reacting to death, and she had felt a rush of pleasure when his hand touched hers. This was not the pale, palsied left hand of Hitler, as he violated her body, but that of a handsome young soldier who had shown her his own vulnerability in telling about his brother. But how could she entertain such thoughts less than an hour after Rudi had died? How could “we are complex creatures,” the rationalization she had used earlier as an excuse, begin to justify the conflicting emotions she was now experiencing? Despite her shame, even disgust with herself, her fantasy would not go away.
What would it be like to be held by him, she imagined, both hands grasping her tightly, their lips pressed together? She had just lost Rudi, her first real love, a man who had come to rescue her. And here she was conjuring up romantic pictures with a Nazi soldier who, as her chauffer, had been nothing but the perfect gentleman, the obedient officer loyal to his Führer. Death, grief, sensuality combined with fantasies of romance, betrayal, the mistress of the Führer having an affair with one of Hitler’s own men–the elements for one of those sensational roles she was forced to take early in her career to pay the bills.
After dinner Gretchen went straight to her room. Schmeling thoughtfully brought her a bottle of wine. He had heard about Rudi.
“I will miss that brave young man dearly, Gretchen.”
“So will I.”
“I am sorry the plan didn’t work out. Neither plan.”
“I am too, Gareth.”
“We will try again. I don’t think they’ll figure out why Rudi was there. And you were wise to remove his papers. By the way, they were fake. Still, you acted on instinct and did the right thing. The police were already searching for Rudi. Just give the papers to me and I’ll dispose of them. No need for you to worry about such details.”
“Thank you, Gareth.”
“We will try again to get you out. But it will be difficult. Still, we’ll try.”
When Schmeling left, Gretchen poured another glass of wine and walked over to her window. The night was calm. In the distance she could just make out the few lights of Berchtesgaden. There was little nightlife in the town. Two bars, a theatre. The town was certainly not Berlin, although these days Berlin itself was mostly dark at night. She thought of Rudi Valoren dead on the sidewalk, the blood gushing from his head. And she thought of the tears of Major Johannmeier, and of the story he had shared with her.
“What if I just killed him, Gareth,” she said the next day as they were driving into Obersalzburg.
“Because I suspect you can’t”
“Can’t? How do you know I can’t?”
“Gretchen, this bold step you’ve taken, playing Eva, this is a leap only one in a million could make, and make successfully. And you have been successful, haven’t you?
“I think so,” she replied, blushing.
“You have. But from role-playing, however dangerous, however much you risk your life doing it, from there to murder, that’s something I don’t think you can do, very few of us could do.”
“But I despise him. I despise him, Gareth. I wish he was dead!”
“To despise, to wish is one thing. To kill is another. You know that. And, besides, there are two practical considerations why you shouldn’t attempt it, under the present conditions.”
“Yes, one is that if you were caught, and you would be caught, they’d torture you, forcing you to reveal the names of, information about the Dove Society. They’d know you weren’t acting just on your own.”
“You forget,” she said, fingering the locket around her neck with the vial of strychnine inside.
“Alright. Yes, I remember your vow to the society. But then there is another reason, beyond your control. Beyond any of our control.”
“And what’s that?”
“The fact is the Hitler is not just one person any longer, but a hydra-headed monster. Someone else–Himmler, or Göring, or Goebbels, or Bormann–would take his place.”
As she mulled over Schmeling’s advice, Macbeth’s frantic lines came to her mind, when he realizes that killing Banquo still leaves Macduff, and others to assume the throne. “We have scorched the snake. Not killed it.”
“I cannot kill him,” she said as a benediction to the gristly conversation.