Moritz Kamiński, a former Bundist, was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. He had joined the partisans and arrived in Berlin with the Red Army. In May 1945, however, when he was offered the opportunity to return to Warsaw, where he had lived before the war, he only shook his head. He could immediately have taken one of the military trains in safety and relative comfort but the commander of the unit nodded his head in agreement when Moritz decided not to return to his homeland. Moritz made no secret of his intention of crossing over to the American Zone.
Max Rosenthal was liberated from the Buchenwald concentration camp and then transported to the refugee camp established on the Landsberg Military Base in Bavaria, where he spent the first months of his freedom. He put on 25 kilos, was cured of typhus and from the complications of walking pneumonia. Others there, mostly younger ones, were leading an easy life on the Joint aid packages or by trading supplies stolen from food and clothing warehouses that had been taken over and broken into. Those who were more politically active participated in demonstrations for the establishment of a Jewish state, and wrote petitions to the British Military Headquarters. Max, on the other hand, was just trying to figure out how to restart his life. He came from a small town on the former German-Polish border where he used to work in his father’s general store. There he was at the age of 30, a widower and an orphan, he had lost his father, mother, wife, and his 5-year-old son who was sent into the gas chamber with his mother. He was doing his best to wipe out his former life along with everything that connected him to it. Moreover, he had absolutely no intention of becoming a Polish citizen now that the border was being moved west. He needed money to make a fresh start somewhere else. With the help of a lawyer who had opened an office in the camp, he sold his empty house and the store in the small town and so got his hands on some money. Again with the help of the lawyer, he invested this money by buying some space for a store in the American Zone of Berlin.
He moved to Berlin in 1947. He first rented a room and soon after a small apartment. He opened a shop, but in the neighborhood of Fasanenstrasse there were many new businesses and Max’s was doing poorly. After a time Max would even complain to customers about the business. He met Moritz in the shop. Moritz was buying and selling on the black market, whenever and whatever he could, but mostly women’s clothing and penicillin. He knew that Max had also lost his family and, although he considered him a schlemiel and a hopeless bungler, he still felt a certain sympathy for him, if for no other reason than because he was reminded of his younger brother who had been shot by the Germans during the ghetto uprising.
Max did not speak much Yiddish. Moritz, however, spoke German well and because of his knowledge of Polish had managed to learn Russian without much trouble. He had spoken German even before the war although with a limited vocabulary and a strong Yiddish accent. Around the end of the war he had lots of opportunity to practice it when the Russians relied on him for help during the interrogations of captured Germans. Later, when he was already in Berlin, he felt he had no choice but to buy a dictionary and a grammar book and to start working as he had as a child studying the Talmud in the Yeshiva. By the time he met Max his German was nearly flawless.
Moritz moved in with Max to cut down on their costs. They made an agreement that if either of them brought a woman to the place they would let the other know in advance and that the woman would not be allowed to stay the night. Every now and then Max thought it would be a good idea to get married but he only had short-term relationships; he could not tolerate someone else’s child and did not want his own to replace the son who had been killed. The childless women or those who had lost a child, in spite of everything, or perhaps because of what they had been through, all wanted to have a child again. Max would report sadly to Moritz whenever a new relationship came to an end. Moritz would only shake his head: “You should either change your principles or give up your efforts. Women always want the same thing.”
Moritz was not interested in having a family; he had occasional partners and if he felt the need he would even resort to prostitutes. He would pick up German women and because of the Nazi miscegenation law he felt a sense of revenge as he mounted them. German women, many of whom were widows and lived in even more miserable circumstances than Moritz, were grateful for the canned goods, chocolates, whisky, and stockings he procured from American canteens.
Moritz was an elegant, handsome fellow who brilliantined his hair and wore a Borsalino hat. He liked to change his wardrobe and wore suits of English cloth. That is why it was especially hard on him when his business was doing badly. Max had absolutely no desire to have a suit made for him. Ever since the liberation he dressed himself in clothes from the Joint aid packages. He did not like spending money on himself; he wore the same worn out brown suit every day, and only changed his shirts and underwear. The only luxury he allowed himself was a cleaning woman who would come once a week to clean, do the laundry, and iron.
When the Russians started the Berlin Blockade to prevent supplies from getting into the Western zones, Moritz tried to reestablish his connection with the Russian commander with whom he had come to Berlin. The colonel was still working in the city headquarters and Moritz managed an exemption that allowed him to obtain merchandise from the Soviet Zone. By that time he and Max were partners in the store. At first he was hopeful that with the Russian goods the business could be built up, but later he was only trying to recoup his investment.
Max was grateful for the help. Apart from the self-assured Moritz, who was willing to take risks, he knew no one in Berlin except the few DP acquaintances from the Landsberg camp who had ended up there and were stuck. They were just loafing around. They sat in cafés all day long and survived on the aid they got from Joint and other Jewish aid organizations, and on goods given to them by the Americans. The store was doing badly. On one occasion Moritz got caught trying to smuggle in Russian merchandise through the city sewers. He and his helper missed the sewer exit and climbed out to the street in the British Zone. A British patrol captured him and he was only released much later after repeated interrogations during which he explained what connection he had with the Russians. He spent quite a few days under arrest and to his misfortune he was assigned to an officer who had been transferred to Germany from Palestine after the declaration of the independent Jewish state. The officer was not fond of Jews; he regarded them as Zionists, the mortal enemy of the Brits. He considered them an ungrateful lot who instead of rejoicing about surviving Nazism and keeping a low profile in Europe kept killing their liberators in the Middle East to get their own state. When Moritz was finally released, they let him know in no uncertain terms that he was not to conduct illegal trading. “The rules apply to everyone. The situation is precarious and the Western authorities cannot condone the black market, especially not across zones because the Russians could provoke violence at any time.”
At that point Moritz could see that the store was kaput. It was time to look for a new source of income.
He did not want to start a new business; the market was ruled by seasoned operators who would ruthlessly stamp out any competition. At first Moritz tried to find out if there were some substantial properties left empty that had belonged to families without heirs. But the Jewish community put claims on them and only those working for it could get a foothold in the real estate market. It was rumored that many leaders of the community got rich because of these apartments. Moritz only shrugged his shoulders. He found nothing wrong with that; he was only interested in having those properties owned by Jews rather than letting Germans profit from the people they had killed. Max was disturbed by the rumors. Back home he always paid his dues to the synagogue and in Berlin he also felt the need to belong somewhere even though he only went to the temple on High Holidays. Moritz had not set foot in one since the war.
Around that time in Nuremberg several second-tier Nazis were being prosecuted: lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and former military officers and, in addition, people who had committed violent crimes against the allied forces. There were other lesser trials going on but with not much success. The newspapers kept publishing photos of the defendants as they were leaving their houses trying to hide their faces from the photographers. With the exception of the most severe cases the sentences were often more lenient than expected because the prosecutors could not convince the judges of the direct responsibility of the accused. Rumor had it that the Western Allies had let up pressure on Germany. Under the new circumstances, Germany, the old enemy, had become a possible new ally against the new opponent, the Russians. In any case the reputation of the former Nazis who had become heads of well-known companies was already in tatters because of public denigration. Moritz bought all the papers that reported on the prosecutions. He cut out selected articles and collected the clippings in a special file.
One evening when Max got home he found Moritz sitting in the kitchen with a magnifying glass in hand: He was studying photographs. Max took a pair of kosher wieners out of the refrigerator. Moritz did not understand why Max insisted on following the dietary rules when he did not observe the Sabbath, only the High Holidays, but after a while he had stopped harping on it. Max cut a thick slice of bread for himself, with a spoon he slapped some mustard on his plate and took a bite of a raw, cold wiener.
“Why don’t you at least cook it?” asked Moritz, who enjoyed good tasting food; during the day he ate in restaurants if he could.
“It’s fine like this,” Max said resignedly. “What are these?” he asked pointing to the dozens of photos lying on the table.
“Not what but who,” Moritz said. “You can see, Nazis.”
“I can see that. I just don’t know what is so interesting about them,” Max retorted.
“We are going to live off them,” Moritz said firmly.
“I don’t understand.” Max moved over to the table.
“Look at these pictures.” Moritz opened a file on the table and pointed at the clippings. “What do you see in them?”
“Nothing,” Max frowned, “they all cover their faces.”
“That’s just it,” Moritz shouted. “They fear nothing more than to be reminded of their pasts and to be found out; they are serious businessmen, good husbands, fathers … sons of good families in successful enterprises. The only thing that might bother them is the tiny detail that they were once in the habit of killing Jews.”
“How about these?” Max asked pointing at the photos again.
“Those have not yet appeared in front of a judge.”
“And how did you get hold of their pictures?”
“There are those who are not fond of Nazis and are willing to do all sorts of things for a little money. I got my hands on a few names. Then I checked the business register and with the names I got the pictures from a news agency on the Polish side. By the way, anyone can walk in there and buy photos; all you need to tell them is who or what you are looking for.”
“What exactly is a news agency?” Max was ashamed of his ignorance.
For a second Moritz looked as if he did not understand and then just waved it off. “It doesn’t matter. I am going to tell you how we are going to do this. Stop standing there stuffing yourself with that damned wiener. Just sit down.”
Max sat down obediently and pushed the plate aside; he had lost his appetite.
“In Ruhe Leben that’s what we will call our organization.”
“What organization? We don’t have any organization, just a miserable shop on the brink of bankruptcy,” Max said bitterly.
“Can you let me finish?” Moritz snapped.
“That’s exactly why we need to start something new; so, In Ruhe Leben, what do you think of it? We are going to convince the Nazis to pay. Pay so that we don’t starve to death. So that we live in peace. And that we will leave them in peace. So that we don’t watch their every step. So that they won’t be threatened by having to testify in a public trial about what they did. If they can’t be sentenced to a prison term, at least they should pay restitution for their crimes. For the dead, for the ruined lives, for the children, for our families, for making it impossible for you to move back to your village, or—”
“Town,” Max said, “a small town, but still a town.”
“OK, town, what do I care,” Moritz sniffed. “What’s important is that they pay. Do you think we are the only ones who cannot get back on our feet? Do you think it so easy to make something out of nothing? Only God managed to do that—and I don’t believe in him—and even in his case it’s only according to the rabbis. Do you know how many are not able to start a new life? How many are incapable of starting a new family? How many are sick or have committed suicide because they lost their loved ones and no one can replace them? How many are still in camps because they have no one to return to yet they can’t bring themselves to go to Eretz? No one talks about those who never show up in shul or in the cafés, only about those who are successful and made it rich.”
Moritz disdained somewhat the German Jews who did not speak Yiddish. These in return disdained the Polish Jews, especially the Hasidim. Most of these German speakers would only practice their religion when they attended synagogue on High Holidays. They valued social prestige more than religious observance, and their religion was only to keep up appearances. Moritz considered Judaism a closed system that only made sense when practiced in its entirety as he saw it at home in his grandfather’s house in a village near Radom. Before the war he used to live in a self-contradictory way, because as a modern man he did not retain much of the religious way of life but he could not completely break away from it. However, when during the war in the Warsaw Ghetto, the famous rabbis and their disciples kept dying of starvation something snapped in Moritz and from then on he completely stopped practicing and, even later, never went back to any of the traditional ways.
Moritz was silently examining Max’s pale sunken face and bleary eyes; he noted how his hair was receding at the temples and how the remaining hair formed a wedge. He found him pitiable there with the remains of the cold wieners on his plate, and got angry with him.
“Who is going to give back your wife, child and parents? Who is going to give back your will to live? It’s not only about the store … The whole thing can go to rot! Now’s the time to beat some life back into you. Show a little anger!”
“What do you want from me, Moritz? Wasn’t your family also wiped out? Why are you only talking about mine?” Max’s whining voice broke off. “I don’t want to fight anyone. I just want to live in peace, just as you were saying. Why do you think anyone would be willing to pay? Look around you, the whole country is in ruins!”
Moritz got up and went into the other room. He returned with two lit cigarettes, put one in Max’s mouth and squeezed his shoulder. “Do you think that my family is not on my mind every day? It is not possible always to dwell on the past. You cannot stay a victim all your life … while these”—he pointed at the photos—“get rich and have happy lives.” He plunked himself down at the table and stopped talking.
Max had the impression that this time it was Moritz who was overcome with despair.
Moritz spoke up suddenly, “I cannot carry this out alone. This job needs you, too!”
Max blew out the smoke from a first deep drag at the cigarette and rubbed his eyes. He looked at Moritz who was running his fingers through his thick black hair. Moritz left time for Max to think it over and did not say a word. Max had always envied him for his manliness, the way he could enter a bar, throw his hat on the stand, the way he would order, look around, wink at or nod to the women. He envied him for how he negotiated with the American soldiers and authorities because Moritz had also picked up some English after the war. Although Max understood a bit of English and of Yiddish, and could even say a few words, German was the only language he could really speak. He was timid with women and with the American soldiers; he only felt at ease talking with his regular German customers from the neighborhood who did not keep going on about what they had been through. They were respectful and polite with him as if not wanting to stir up his emotions. At times he even forgot how a few years before, in the small town where he and his family had lived, his shop windows had been shattered and Stars of David painted on his door, and how they were mocked as they were marched through the street with their bundles.
He did not feel comfortable in the company of survivors either, who often brought up stories from the concentration camps. He did his best to avoid the worst memories of his own past so he knew that the others were also incapable of talking about their most horrible experiences and hence would stray from the truth. Moritz’s outburst surprised him because up to that point he had not talked about his family and although his tirade was directed at him, he must have been thinking about his own relatives. To tell the truth Max had no idea whom Moritz had lost apart from his brother. When it came to personal matters, Moritz was taciturn and Max discrete. They never discussed anything about the ghetto or the lagers, but they complemented each other well in the practical things. Max’s reliability was a counterpart to Moritz’s gutsiness. Max always felt that he got the better of the deal and was grateful that providence had brought him Moritz. But suddenly he sensed that Moritz really needed him this time and that it was Max whom he needed. He had never felt that before. He sighed. “Well, fine, let’s give it a try. How do we go about this?”
Heinrich Krummer, the director of Krummer Metal Works, with its headquarters in Berlin, was the head of one of the few companies that were allowed to operate in spite of the punitive laws enacted by the Allies after the war. He was turning around in his hand a strange calling card. The front of the card contained the name of the organization and on the reverse side there were a few handwritten lines and the names of the representatives. His secretary had just brought him a sealed envelope with the notation “Confidential, for the addressee only” under the name of the director. He had taken the envelope and opened it with a paper knife, which had the company’s name engraved on it; in addition to the calling card he found a photograph.
He saw a group photo with German officers in uniform standing around. He noticed that he was also present in this picture taken a few years earlier. He did not remember the location or the exact date. He had served in the Wehrmacht for years. He became head of the company after the war when his father stepped away from everyday operations keeping only the position of chairman of the board and turned the presidency over to him.
Krummer took out a magnifying glass from a desk drawer and carefully examined the faces, including his own, enlarged and sometime elongated by the lens as he moved his hand. He could not see any signs behind the men that could have given a hint of the exact location. All he saw was a tall brick wall and a wooden staircase with blurry human figures between the wall and building beyond it.
He put down the photo and picked up the calling card. On one side was the name of an unknown organization, In Ruhe Leben, German-Jewish Reconciliation Fund, with a phone number. On the other there were the names and titles of two unknown people, Moritz Kamiński, Managing Director, and Max Rosenthal, Secretary. Under the names were a few handwritten lines requesting a personal meeting concerning a rather delicate matter.
“What could they want?” he asked himself, “and why me? I wonder if they sought out others as well?” Krummer started to think about who would be able to give him information. But first it might be better to find out what they wanted. Since the end of the war many aid organizations had been operating in the country, he himself had donated money to war orphans but so far no Jews had looked him up. Come to think of it, he had not met any Jews since the war. There were very few of them left, and even fewer in the iron and machine industries.
After all what does he risk with a meeting. He frowned. On the other hand if he does not agree to see them, they will shout it from the rooftops.
He rang for his secretary and asked her to set up an appointment for them. When she left, Krummer had to make a phone call. He was supposed to return the call of the commercial attaché at the American Embassy. The phone was already ringing when something occurred to him and which kept going through his mind during the conversation. After he put down the receiver, he picked up the magnifying glass again to look at the photo and focused on the top of the wall behind the officers with its barbed wire, as well as the wooden staircase which was indistinct but seemed to be leading up to a bridge. Suddenly he remembered; the picture was taken in Warsaw on a street where the rows of buildings on both sides were in the ghetto. Walls separated them from the street which was outside the ghetto and the bridge connected the two sides of the street.
The next morning at 10 o’clock a man in a worn-out suit with his cap gripped in his hand was standing in front of the director’s office of the Krummer Metal Works while the secretary, glancing at the clock on the wall, invited him to sit down.
The secretary informed him with a smile that he had arrived a bit early and the director was still in a meeting and asked him to be patient.
Max tried to return the smile but he sensed how forced it was. “Coffee? Tea?” the woman asked.
Max was unsure: Is it all right to accept a coffee? Would that influence the negotiations one way or another? No, that would not risk anything but his nervousness would. “Yes, thank you,” he nodded.
The secretary smiled again: “But which one?”
“I will get you one right away. Milk, cream, sugar?”
“Cream and sugar,” he said eagerly. He was unsure once more. He felt ashamed that he could not resist the temptation. Since his liberation he only had coffee with cream in a coffee house. He remembered the weekend breakfasts at home with Bundt cake and jam. Apart from fear he was overcome by weakness and had to lean on the arm of the chair beside him. He sat down with his legs trembling. He got angry with himself. He was behaving like an old man.
In a little while the secretary served the coffee on a silver tray in a cup encased in silver and with a silver saucer. There was also a sugar bowl that belonged to the set and some cream in a small pitcher.
Max poured almost all the cream into his cup with a trembling hand and managed to spill some of the coffee. He mopped up the spill with a napkin. He lifted the hot drink to his mouth with two hands and was slurping it when the elaborate double doors to the inner office opened and a man with a receding hairline just like his but very erect in a dove gray suit and gold framed glasses accompanied another man out. Max carefully put down the cup but it still made a clinking sound in the saucer.
“Helga, could you please show the gentleman in. I will be back in a minute,” Krummer said as he looked at them.
Max got up and the secretary led him into the office. There were rust-colored armchairs and a leather sofa around a coffee table with an intarsia wood top. Across from the latter there was a desk in the same style with carved wooden legs ending in lion’s claws. “I will bring you your coffee,” the secretary said while offering him a seat.
Max did not have time to say “no.” By the time the secretary turned around Krummer was back. Max jumped up automatically almost standing at attention.
“Excuse me for making you wait.” The director stood opposite Max and held out his hand. “Heinrich Krummer,” he said.
“Max Rosenthal, perhaps you know already … ”
“Please have a seat.”
The director sat down in the armchair across from Max.
Max swallowed nervously. He tried to recall exactly what Moritz had told him. He could not remember how to start the conversation and he did not have time to think. Krummer noticed his hesitation: “Please, feel free to go ahead, I am listening. I think your time is also valuable. Time is money as the English say. It is a wise old saying, is it not?”
“Yes, this is indeed about money, Mr. Krummer,” Max clutched at the word.
“What kind of money, Mr. Rosenthal; would you let me in on the details?”
Max felt that he had rushed into the topic but he was extremely tense. The only person he feared more than Krummer was Moritz if he returned home empty-handed. Krummer’s barely concealed impatience seemed to make the allotted time precariously short and pushed Max to attack like a cornered beast. “The money, Mr. Krummer, that we will get you and people like you … ”—he hesitated—“companies like yours to pay us.”
“For what purpose, if I may ask?” Krummer said with narrowed eyes, surprised by the candidness. “And on what basis?”
“To provide for survivors, for Jewish survivors who had been persecuted during the war, or rather for their support.” Max swallowed hard. “For those who couldn’t return to their work for health or other reasons—and to life,” he added suddenly. He stopped talking and waited for the reaction. He had said this almost exactly as Moritz had instructed him.
Krummer studied his visitor, trying to figure out if he had ever seen him before. He scrutinized Max’s gaunt face and his prominent turned-down thick lower lip which his visitor was often wetting with his tongue. He looked at his crooked nose, thick eyebrows, and thinning hair. A typical Jewish face, he thought. He had seen enough of them. How could he possibly determine if he had already seen him somewhere. “And why are you singling me out?” he asked.
Max was not prepared for this question. He could almost feel how his brain cells were working as he desperately searched for an answer. What could he say? That they saw a picture where Mr. Krummer was wearing a uniform? Or that they know that he was present at the siege of the Warsaw Ghetto? Why did Moritz think that would move a Nazi? And why did he agree to come here? He could feel the sweat running down his back. He wiped his forehead.
“So, would you be kind enough to enlighten me why you chose me?” The politeness of the repeated question was humiliating to Max.
Max was familiar with this tone. Obersturmbannfuehrer Ritter was in the habit of using this deceptive sugary voice when he walked up to the Häftlingen during Appel and addressed them the way one would speak to equals. Depending on the answer he would ask again but most of the time he would lash out using a short dog whip straight in the face of the one nearest him. Sometimes it happened that the victim lost his sight but at the minimum his face would be covered in blood. Their faces were full of scars. Max felt how fear was growing in him but he conjured up the image of Ritter and that gave him strength. “We will be seeking out others as well,” he said with determination. He was improvising but he felt that he had given the right answer.
“I understand,” said Krummer and stayed silent.
Max did not know if he should go on. Then he quickly remembered Moritz’s instructions. “We would like to reach a peaceful settlement …”
“Having to do with what?”
“Some sort of restitution.”
“And if it does not work out?” asked Krummer.
Max found the tone menacing even though it was only a question. He was gripping the arm of the chair. He knew that this was not the time to show weakness. “We trust that it will work out, although within our organization there are those who would prefer taking things to court,” Max was trembling but he managed to retort.
Krummer took a deep breath before he answered, “Should I take this as a threat, Mr. Rosenthal?”
“I was not threatening you, Mr. Krummer, but was just indicating what you could expect. If you want to think over our offer, naturally we have no objection.”
“Thank you for your visit, Mr. Rosenthal.” Krummer got up.
“Please think it over and do not refuse our suggestion,” Max said. He got up clumsily. “Next time it could be that another colleague of mine will come to see you who perhaps…”
“Goodbye!” The director walked to the door and opened it. He did not offer his hand and only looked piercingly at Max who left the office on unsteady legs. Max nodded to the secretary who could sense the tension between the men and she muttered a goodbye.
Max took the steps two at a time and left the headquarters of the company almost running. Even on the street he rushed like someone being pursued. He glanced behind to see if he was followed. He pursed his lips and held his hand in front of his mouth. At the next corner on Bismarkstrasse he turned into a side street and bending over he vomited into a garbage bin, hanging on to its sides. He was shaking the way he used to during Appel before the selections.
“I can’t do this!” Max shouted when he got home and gave an account of what had happened. “You have no idea what I was going through when I was sitting there. And he threw me out.”
“Calm down, sit down and have a drink.” Moritz poured a shot of schnapps. He pushed Max down into a chair in the kitchen. They had almost always had their conversations here rather than in the sitting room.
“I don’t want it. Leave me alone!” Max pushed the glass aside. Some of the drink ended up on the table and he buried his face in his hands. “You cannot understand this …”
“What can’t I understand, Max? That you are scared shitless in front of a Nazi?”
“And what if I am? Do you know what it was like in the lager?”
“Do you think it was any better in the ghetto? We were also living for years among corpses. In the midst of roundups and deportations. But we fought. In that sense it was, indeed, easier. We weren’t sitting around twiddling our thumbs waiting for death.”
“I don’t know how to fight and don’t want to fight.”
“Then you are going to die like a dog, Max. You are going to be trampled on. Just like several million of us were trampled on and incinerated. Is that what you want?”
Max did not answer; he was shaking with sobs.
“Stop it, Max! Think about your family and behave like a man!”
Max jumped up, grabbed the glass from the table and threw it against the wall. The shards of the glass were scattered all around and the splattered contents were dripping down the whitewashed wall.
“Don’t keep telling me how to behave,” Max shouted and pointed his index finger at Moritz as if it were a pistol. “I’ve had enough of you always patronizing me. I don’t need you or your help.”
“But of course you do,” Moritz said sadly. “Just like I need you. Calm down. Next time I will go.”
The next day Moritz phoned the American military headquarters and he managed to arrange a new meeting with Krummer with the help of one of his acquaintances. The request made the American somewhat ill at ease but since he and Moritz had known each other for some time and Moritz had done him a few favors he finally acquiesced.
Krummer was angry when he got the phone call but he did not want to get in the Americans’ bad books.
Moritz was not offered coffee when he arrived. The secretary made him sit down in the outer office and he had to wait there until the director briskly opened the doors and ordered the secretary to send in the visitor. When Moritz entered Krummer was seated by his desk and did not get up to shake hands. This time he did not direct him toward the coffee table where they could have conversed tête-à-tête but pointed him to an uncomfortable chair across from him.
Moritz said hello and introduced himself. Krummer only nodded curtly. “What do you want from me?” he asked haughtily.
“I think my colleague has already outlined to you the goals of our organization.”
“You weren’t very understanding with him.”
“Understanding?” Krummer said with a forced laugh, “I do not like being blackmailed.”
“And we do not like being exterminated.”
Krummer’s face twitched. He was not accustomed to such a tone and did not know how to react to it. The last time anyone talked to him in that way was in the summer of ’45 during several interrogations by the Americans, one of whom was a Jewish officer. He took a deep breath.
“It will never happen again,” Moritz continued. “You can rest assured, Krummer, neither you nor anyone else will be able to do it. We will not let it happen. Do you understand me?”
“Hold on there.” Krummer’s voice was pained and indignant.
Moritz was not fazed. He seemed to be enjoying that he could tighten the screws on this person. “I doubt that you are unaware of what the whole world knows now.”
“Of course, I know what went on in recent years,” Krummer snapped, “there is no need for you to give me a history lesson or to sermonize!”
“Really?” Moritz asked scornfully. “Not even about your responsibility as an officer in the army?”
A moment of silence followed. Moritz was staring into Krummer’s blue eyes with cold contempt and would not let him avert his gaze for a second.
“Personally I had nothing to do with …” Krummer started a sentence but Moritz interrupted him:
“You were in the Warsaw Ghetto, that’s where this photo was taken.” He pulled out a picture from his jacket pocket; it was a copy of the same one he had sent earlier. “You better have a good look!”
“So what? I was a soldier in the Wehrmacht. You can see that in the photo. I had nothing to do with anything for which …”
“Save that for the judges, Krummer.”
“You are mistaken. I haven’t done anything for which I could be held accountable. I was only following the orders of my superiors.”
“But what type of orders?” Moritz almost shouted, “what type of orders?” he repeated more calmly. “Besides, did not your company supply weapons to the SS?”
“At that time, not yet …” Krummer stopped the sentence halfway and got up. “I do not think there is any point continuing this conversation.”
“Are you sure you do not want to consider our offer?”
“I will let you know if I change my mind.”
“Would you rather answer for your deeds in public?”
“I have already told you that I will not give in to any blackmail. Now leave!”
“We will meet again!” Moritz put on his hat and left the room angrily slamming the door behind him.
Krummer reached for his tie and kept pulling it as if he were suffocating. He went over to the window and pushed it wide open to let the fresh air in or to let the rancid air out. He was trying to open the top button of his shirt but in his agitation just tore it off. He cursed and shut the window and called out “Helga!” The secretary appeared in the open door in a second. Having caught a glimpse of his disheveled appearance her eyes grew wide.
“Is there a problem, Herr Direktor?”
Krummer laughed hysterically but then he pulled himself together. “Please give a call to attorney Runge.”
“Mr. Runge is on vacation in Wannsee. He is sailing. Mr. Müntz is sitting in for him.”
“Mr. Müntz? That might be even better. Runge is too … Give a call to Mr. Müntz. It is urgent.”
Max was at home waiting for Moritz. He was worried. He knew that his friend was capable of behaving recklessly. During the two years when they were more or less inseparable Moritz had almost become part of him, or perhaps the other way around. Aside from Moritz’s remarks during their fight, Max had already concluded that Moritz stuck with him for more reasons than just the business otherwise he would have turned his back on him long ago. A few of the ex-inmates of the Landsberg camp whom Max met for coffee kept teasing him that he should have also worn a pink triangle along with the yellow Star of David. Max just brushed aside their crude jokes. They were made a subject for their jibes because the two of them had not gotten married and they shared an apartment. The others remarried: Some women found husbands even back in the refugee camp. They quickly had children as if intent on replacing the ones they had lost. The majority left for Israel as soon as they could. The rest had to endure the scorn of the representatives of Sochnut who were still actively recruiting in the refugee camps and who considered anyone who would stay in the land of their murderers to be pariahs. The ex-inmates tried to stick together as much as they could but that only worked for a short while. Once one of them would get ahead financially he would become more distant with the others who envied him and were pestering him for loans. Those who did not make it were jealous of the successful ones. They would soon look for other friends. The majority settled in Munich or in Frankfurt, and only a few in Berlin. But this is where Max had met some of the people from the Landsberg camp in the city’s American Zone. Those who stayed did not have families; they flitted from one relationship to another; they would keep company with German women or manage by themselves. For Max, Moritz became his family, father and sibling in one. Although he did not know why, he felt that his friend was attached to him in the same way, and during the past weeks while they were laying siege to Krummer their relationship got stronger.
It got dark. Moritz was supposed to meet Krummer at 5 o’clock and it was past 10. Max was sitting in the kitchen wringing his hands. He kept lighting one cigarette after the other. He got up and walked up and down, turning on the radio switching from one station to the next and then turned it off. When he heard Moritz’s key in the lock he jumped up and rushed to the entrance.
“So what happened?”
Moritz reeked of alcohol.
“Did you have a drink with him?” Max asked in a shocked tone.
“Of course” Moritz shrugged, “we were having cognac and Champagne. He invited me to have dinner with him. He served goose liver as appetizer followed by cholent and flódni.”
“Quit joking! Tell me what you managed to do.”
“He threw me out, but the guy is softening. It is going to work.”
Max sensed that the self-assured tone was forced. “And what is the next step?” he asked suspiciously.
“Next time you will have to go.”
“Me, why me?” Max screeched.
“Because this time we have to offer the possibility of a compromise, and for that we need a mild mannered fellow like you.” Moritz tried to smile yet his face gave the impression of someone gritting his teeth. “And also if I go again I will wring his neck,” he added.
Max knew he was not joking. “On the other hand if I go, he will wring my neck.” Max looked at Moritz in despair but he only shrugged his shoulders.
“Then I will wring his. In any case we will have to finish this bout. We should also prepare some paper for him to sign.”
“And what is it we are asking exactly?”
“Payouts of 100 DM per month per person over 30 years. How much is that altogether?”
“Annuities for the two of us? But he will figure out that In Ruhe Leben was just a sham, that we are the whole of it and there is no one else behind it.”
“You are right. We must ask for more money and we will tell him that we are asking others to pay us as well. And that is how it will be. We will get others to join us. They will not get away with it. Even if we can’t get them behind bars, at least they will pay.”
“You’re drunk, Moritz. Go to bed and sleep it off. You will have to come up with another idea or we won’t see a pfennig from him.”
Moritz stepped right up to Max who was trying to back away from his breath that reeked of schnapps but his back was against the wall. Moritz grabbed him by the shirt and almost lifted him and snarled at him. “Don’t you understand, I am not interested in their money. I piss on their money, but they will have to acknowledge what they did, they will have to. That’s why we have to go through with it. Do you understand now?”
“I understand, I understand! Just let go of me.” Max tried to grab his wrist but even then Moritz was pushing him against the wall with such force that Max’s toes barely touched the floor.
In a few moments Moritz’s anger subsided on its own. “I’m going to write that letter tomorrow. You will see that he will answer.”
Heinrich Krummer replied immediately, which surprised Moritz. He did not expect such a resounding success.
Their letter that requested another meeting was signed by both of them. They had apologized at length for Moritz’s quick temper and indicated that the organization delegated the task of the next meeting to Max Rosenthal. However, they did not forget to add that one of them had survived the persecutions in a lager and the other in the Warsaw Ghetto. For that reason Krummer should attribute the incident to frayed nerves and also the mental states of the other members whom they represented. His behavior was proof that he and the others were in need of help that would compensate for their reduced employability and compromised health.
Max thought that Krummer must have recognized the conciliatory tone and accepted the apology, while Moritz was of the opinion that it was his self-assured manner and Krummer’s guilty conscience which resulted in the breakthrough. Krummer gave Max an appointment for the next meeting.
“Mr. Rosenthal, please come in. Herr Direktor is already expecting you,” Helga motioned to him. Max was a bit disappointed. He would have welcomed another cup of hot coffee with real cream to settle his churning stomach. However, this time he was not offered anything. There was a man sitting beside the secretary’s desk who only nodded at him after Max greeted him respectfully. It must have been because of him that the secretary was too busy to offer him coffee and Max resigned himself to the situation.
Max entered the inner office and gave a quiet greeting. Krummer was sitting behind the desk and offered Max a seat in the chair opposite him. Max nodded and sat down. “So, Mr. Rosenthal, I am listening. I understood your … aspirations. I gave your request some thought and, as you can see, am willing to meet you again. I would like you to tell me again exactly what it is that you want and why, and also to give it to me in writing that once we settle you will not make any further demands. I will have to present the case to the board of directors, it is therefore important that all the details be spelled out. I hope you do not mind that my secretary will record our conversation in shorthand.”
Max was surprised that everything seemed to be going so smoothly. His admiration for Moritz increased because he had figured this all out including the strategy of taking turns in these meetings. He also looked at Krummer in a new light. It was hard to imagine that this was the same person who had thrown him out, and then Moritz, just a few days before. Perhaps there is hope that they had understood what they had done. After all they are only human, even if they were blinded and hoodwinked by Nazism. Although he was still anxious, his turbulent emotions were mixed with something softer.
“Of course,” he cleared his throat. “I will happily repeat everything for the record.”
“Would you then …,” Krummer reached ahead on the table as if to shake his hand. Max leaned forward but pulled back his hand when he realized that Krummer was only touching something between the pens and his calendar. “Would you go ahead and tell me everything the way you did the first time we met, why you sought me out, what is it exactly that you want and why. Or, rather, just for the sake of documentation, could you please repeat what steps you are intending to take in case we do not come to an agreement. You know, the legal proceedings you mentioned during our earlier meeting. … Do not hesitate to tell everything. This way it may be easier to convince the board of directors.”
“Of course,” Max straightened himself proudly. Moritz is right, he underestimates his own abilities. His part also contributed to the success. Who would have thought that he would be here negotiating when just four years ago he was skin and bones, plagued by typhoid and dressed in prisoner’s clothes.
“Helga,” the director called, and to Max’s great surprise the secretary was there in an instant even though the door was closed. “May we start?” the director asked as soon as Helga sat down. Max nodded and started off.
He recounted everything in detail and, at the director’s prompting, he mentioned the photograph that served as the basis for selecting the Krummer Metal Works as the first company to approach with their demands. The director questioned the word “demands” and Max confirmed the usage, but timidly, even though Krummer was surprisingly calm and reserved. He also mentioned the legal proceedings that their organization would pursue with the others as well if they did not comply.
Once all the details were clarified, Krummer thanked Max for having come to see him once again and promised that the company lawyers would soon contact their organization. Max got up, satisfied. He felt that even Moritz could not have done a better job.
He thought it strange that the director would not shake his hand as he was leaving; Krummer simply got up and motioned him toward the door. It was the secretary who accompanied him out. The stranger was still sitting in the outer office. After Max left, Krummer called: “Müntz.”
“Yes, sir.” The attorney entered the office.
“Could you hear it clearly?”
“And did you record it?”
“Every word” and he showed him the tape.
“Will it be enough?”
“More than enough; there are grounds for indictments that will put them away. Rest assured, Herr Direktor, they will never bother you again. We will take care of that.”
“Then, please take this with you.” Krummer reached in between the pens and the calendar and, as if touching something contaminated, took out a small microphone with its wires and pushed it into the attorney’s hands.
Max and Moritz received a letter two weeks later not, however, from the lawyers of the Krummer Metal Works, but from the Allied Control Council which in those months was dealing with German legal matters. They were summoned to court on charges of blackmail, and although still free while defending themselves, they were sentenced after a few weeks. They were handed a suspended prison term.
Their friendship came to an end after the proceedings because Max broke during the interrogations and he confessed the truth, namely that it was Moritz who initiated the scheme and was the driving force. Moritz considered Max’s confession a betrayal and blamed Max for the failure by being so naive and trusting that he did not realize that Krummer had set a trap for him.
In 1949, a few months after the trial of Max and Moritz, Konrad Adenauer was elected as chancellor of the newly established German Federal Republic. It was then that new organizations were set up to represent Jewish survivors; they and the State of Israel initiated negotiations with the Federal Republic to obtain reparations for the victims which came to a successful conclusion.
However, Max Rosenthal did not live to see the day. Soon after the trial he hanged himself. Moritz Kamiński, who was left by himself, fled to the Soviet Zone before the agreement about reparations and became a citizen of the German Democratic Republic, which was also founded in 1949. He settled in Dresden and did not receive any compensation. As the years passed by he realized that he had made the wrong decision and he kept applying for emigration to Israel but never received permission. He did not start a family in the GDR either and after the refusal of his requests he attempted an illegal crossing of the border. He wanted to flee to the West but he was arrested by the border guards on two occasions and, on the second, as a recidivist, he was sentenced to a prison term much longer than the first time. He died of a heart attack in a Dresden prison in 1962.
Translated from the Hungarian by Walter Burgess and Marietta Morry. This short story was originally published in Hungarian in: 1945 és más történetek, 2017. English rights reserved © Walter Burgess and Marietta Morry. Read more Tablet Original Fiction here.